Tuesday, December 30, 2008

what we have left undone

"Episcopal priest makes a name for himself in New York City nightclubs"

What... the hell?

Initially this article left me totally at a loss.

When interviewed, the priest said that "I work hard. I make good money. How I spend it - that is my business." He went on to add "I haven't done anything inappropriate."
The news article itself seems to agree with him on the latter: "There's no suggestion that [he]... has done anything wrong on his visits to the city."

I assume that, as an Episcopal priest, this man has led parishioners in the confession before the Eucharist: Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone...

I spent the week before Christmas this year working at a homeless shelter in New York City--perhaps this priest was in the city some nights while we were--where hundreds of meals are served a day, and where over a hundred people might be found sleeping at night... especially these nights, with the cold. These guys don't have to miss meals; there are enough places to get handouts in the city to avoid that. But they have no homes. Many of them need job training and opportunities, help with battling addiction, the gospel.
There are so many needs in that city, and this man decides to use his abundance to show his love of God and neighbor by giving $10,000 tips in clubs.
And that's just in New York, in America. What about other places where the needs are greater and the stakes are different and higher? Where food and medical attention are needed? Or Bibles?

And this man decides to use his abundance to show his love of God and neighbor by giving $10,000 tips in clubs.

John Chrysostom once preached: "It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing, and allow men who are created in God's image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with the cold so that they can hardly hold themselves upright." The saint said this because he understood the call of God on our lives. "Fool! This night your soul is required of you..."
This Episcopal priest isn't here 'laying up treasures' for himself--at least not the sort you can touch or see--and perhaps that makes us think better of him. Maybe that's why the NY Daily News seems to.
However the point is not simply that we not store up an abundance of possessions, but also that when we sell what we have, we give to the poor: that we love our neighbors as ourselves. This is something that the New Testament cannot stop bringing up--the gospels, Romans, Galatians, James, 1 John. How ever you want to understand "as yourself", I think it wholly precludes any gratuitous spending when there are people dying of hunger.

But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

1 John 3:17-18

So far I've really only been reflecting on the one story of the one man. His financial situation is privileged. His story seems more reprehensible for that privilege and, of course, for the fact that he has been ordained as a minister in the church of our Lord. What of the rest of us, though? We who have not those funds, who are not ourselves in the priesthood?

Well, Jesus' call on us is the same: "love your neighbor as yourself."
This idea of taking up our cross, of being crucified with Christ... did we really think it meant something other than death all along? As the people of God--ordained or otherwise--we have a calling to love and the Holy Spirit leading us to love. Let us then love.
When we ignore these commands and these urgings, when we 'die to things other than ourselves', we are disregarding the reality of the work of God in Christ. God has not fashioned new creations out of us so that we might continue in the 'futility of our minds', but that so we might reflect Christ in life--the man who emptied himself in Incarnation, emptied himself in loving service, and finally emptied himself in death; the man who through resurrection offers us victory over sin, death, and Sheol.

In his words, Christ has given us various reasons, in case we were skeptical of his command: we cannot serve God and mammon; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses; we are called to love our neighbors and to give help to the 'least of these.' Can we really ignore all of these different teachings of our Lord as they all ultimately call us to the same thing? And that thing is of course no more than to count others more significant than ourselves and to love.
The church must not, as Chesterton put it, assume "the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean," and instead we must offer to Him whom we call "Lord" obedient service.
In short, we must go about the business of being the Body of Christ.

We cannot all afford to build a school in some unschooled area, or sponsor a child through Compassion or World Vision, or even help every needy man we see on the street, any more than we can all afford a $35,000 drink... but we can all do something. And where we can do something, we must do something. This is the life and reality of the church.
If we look to come after the man who laid down his own life, then the commitment is clear: "he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me."

... we have not loved You with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us, that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name. Amen.

Monday, December 29, 2008


"Human depravity, then, has broken into fragments that which is by nature one and simple; men try to grasp part of a thing which has no parts and so get neither the part, which does not exist, nor the whole, which they do not seek."

"How is this?" I asked.

". . . the man who seeks only power wastes his money, scorns pleasures and honors that carry with them no power, and thinks nothing of fame. But see how much he is missing: sometimes he is without the necessities of life, he is plagued by anxieties, and when he cannot overcome them he loses that which he wants most--he ceases to be powerful. Honors, fame, and pleasure can be shown to be equally defective; for each is connected with the others, and whoever seeks one without the others cannot get even the one he wants."

"What happens when someone tries to get them all at the same time?" I asked. 

"He, indeed, reaches for the height of happiness, but can he find it in these things which, as I have shown, cannot deliver what they promise?" 

"Of course not," I said.

"Happiness, then, is by no means to be sought in these things which are commonly thought to offer the parts of what is sought for."

Boethius was a Christian theologian and philosopher in the late 5th, early 6th century. His works, including some translations of Aristotle into Latin, are thought by many to mark the end of the Classical Age and the beginning of the Medieval period. Among his theological works are a treatise on the Trinity and polemics against Arian thought--the latter may have been one impetus for his execution under an Arian emperor.

While in prison, Boethius composed his most enduring work, The Consolation of Philosophy, wherein Boethius is visited in prison by Lady Philosophy, with whom he discusses various topics, from material 'goods' to free will. Interestingly, this is accomplished without the use of Christian language, but instead uses only the diction of Classical philosophy. This trend (which by no means begins with Boethius) will prove abiding in Christian discourse--consider the Catholic doctrine of  transubstantiation or the discussions of God and determinism which exclusively use extra-Biblical terminology like 'omnipotent.' This may be a troublesome tendency, but still, as Charles Williams said of the Consolation itself, "though it is not formally Christian, it is Christ." Ultimately, this book fits well into the tradition of great Christian works coming from prison, from Paul to Ignatius to St. Thomas More to Bonhoeffer. 

Lady Philosophy's teachings on different 'goods' that people seek (the quote above is just a fraction of that discussion) was on the one hand meant to console the saint awaiting his execution, but on the other hand it is a wonderful transposition of some of the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount into the cant of Hellenistic philosophy. In place of Christ's characteristic "do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal", Boethius delineates for his readers how goodness is but one thing, why exactly other things that are called good cannot truly be so. 

The last quarter of the Consolation deals with the issue of free will and with God's omniscience. This discussion by itself makes the text worth reading. Here again the issue of translating Christian realities into Greek philosophical jargon is raised, though here it is raised in the text by Lady Philosophy herself. Boethius recognized the inherit dilemma of applying this philosophical diction to revealed truths--the necessary limits of this sort of language--and this recognition for him offers a clear answer to the disturbing question of determinism.  

I've frequently sold the Consolation of Philosophy as the second greatest book in existence, after the anthology that is the Bible. That being said... go read it. Go encounter Boethius. He was able to--just as Christ urged John the Baptist to--perceive the realities of God and His work, which prison and impending death can obscure if they are allowed to found our judgment in those dark times. 

And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Matthew 6:27-33

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God..."

Dong Yun Yoon lost his wife, two children and mother-in-law Monday when a Marine Corps jet crashed into his home in San Diego. He told the reporters, of the plane's pilot who survived: "Please pray for him not to suffer from this accident."
I cried reading the article. This man is the church. 

Posting it here, it feels almost like a sequel to the news story from Black Friday
A friend of mine was telling me last week how he was struck by the contrast between this man's death at Wal-Mart and the lectionary text for the first Wednesday of Advent. The reading came from Isaiah, and is a prophecy concerning the Messiah.

The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord , to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law,  and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Isaiah 2:1-5

As we are entering into a season that remembers and celebrates the birth of the Prince of Peace, in whose Kingdom justice is established, there is news of injuries and deaths at a Wal-Mart because people want a discount on electronics... for Christmas. 

But then I read this news, and I'm reminded of that Kingdom and its reality. 

I was listening to The First Noel while I first read this article, and the Advent season seemed almost tangible. 'Born is the King of Israel!' and here, in the news(!), is the Kingdom that he established, at work fulfilling that great commandment given to us to love our neighbors. Even here in the midst of a horrible evil, this man has been able to proclaim to a nation the Truth of the gospel, and this is the season when that Truth is most appropriately proclaimed and, sadly, most easily forgotten. 

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.

1 John 4:7-9

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

truth from Pascal

To make a man a saint, grace is certainly needed, and anyone who doubts this does not know what a saint, or a man, really is.

- Pascal, Pensées

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Psalm 100

A Psalm for Giving Thanks

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth!
Serve the LORD with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!

Know that the LORD, he is God!
It is he who made us, and not we ourselves;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!

For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

Monday, November 10, 2008

And this is your opinion of me!

As I was driving away, I realized what the barrage of falsehoods written on slick signboards reminded me of. It was the telescreens in “1984.”

The New York Times journalist George Packer wrote this after a visit to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. If you've read 1984, this impression ought to disturb you.

I've spelled out before my thoughts on how Genesis's creation account should be read; no reason to revisit that.
What has been on my mind for the last few weeks hasn't been a question of interpretation, but rather a sickness over what the world is left to think of the church. Voltaire made a mockery of Leibniz's claim to the "best of all possible worlds"... thankfully his wit was oblivious to the findings of modern science. The attacks today may be less ardently crafted, but they're no less well-founded on the sciences than Voltaire's were on experience, and the Church--even those parts which would have nothing to do with young-Earth creationism--is left defenseless on the receiving end.

Don't suppose that this is just the stance of the 'new atheists'. Matt Damon recently brought up this very issue concerning Sarah Palin "because she's gonna have the nuclear codes, you know." Isaac Asimov famously called believers "ignorant people, the most uneducated, the most unimaginative, the most unthinking among us", at least those who "are not ashamed to ignore, totally, all the patient findings of thinking minds through all the centuries since the Bible was written." I understand that my own home state of Louisiana is the laughing stock of the scientific community, as we passed the Louisiana Science Education Act, which many view as a backdoor for creationism to come into the classroom by. This attitude isn't uncommon.

And this is exactly what St. Augustine was talking about when he warned of "people outside of the household of the faith" beginning to
think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

This issue is a blight on evangelism. Just as Augustine warned, many people are now content to think "the writers of our Scripture. . . unlearned men." We, the believers of the 21st century, are but those "unthinking" enough to follow texts written thousands of years ago... by "unlearned men."
How indeed can we share the truths about the resurrection, the hope of eternal life, and the Kingdom of Heaven when the world is convinced that Christians are so uneducated, unthinking?
I'm convinced that Evangelicalism's vehement attachment to 'Creation-as-science' is eroding all of our hopes of 'making disciples of all the nations.' When the minds of those outside the household of the faith begin to associate the Church with Orwell's Party, we've been totally divorced from truth in those minds.

Now I will be the last person to suggest that we simply forego any scriptural teachings which the world finds distasteful: I'd much rather see the true nature of the faith perfectly evident to all.

... but unnecessary and irrational interpretations of scripture are another issue.

What I'm suggesting is simply that we seek a wisdom from above that is "open to reason" (James 3:17), and that we never allow a questionable interpretation of scripture, one which is totally adverse to the findings of scientific inquiry, hinder our mission in the world, all because we are unwilling to hear alternatives.
After all, scripture is our most perfect revelation of God: let a man be repelled if he dislikes the true character of God that it presents, but don't repel him by man-made interpretations of that perfect revelation. 
It is precisely when we begin to force God's Word to speak in a particular way on this issue that many begin to reject our faith and, along with it, the eternal grace and love of Christ. 

This must not be.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

St. John of the Cross

From what has been said, it is clear that God grants the soul in this state the favor of purging it and healing it with this strong lye of bitter purgation, according to its spiritual and its sensual part, of all the imperfect habits and affections which it had within itself with respect to temporal things and to natural, sensual and spiritual things, its inward faculties being darkened, and voided of all these, its spiritual and sensual affections being constrained and dried up, and its natural energies being attenuated and weakened with respect to all this (a condition which it could never attain of itself). In this way God makes it to die to all that is not naturally God, so that, once it is stripped and denuded of its former skin, He may begin to clothe it anew. And thus its youth is renewed like the eagle's and it is clothed with the new man, which, as the Apostle says, is created according to God. This is naught else but His illumination of the understanding with supernatural light, so that it is no more a human understanding but becomes Divine through union with the Divine. In the same way the will is informed with Divine love, so that it is a will that is now no less than Divine, nor does it love otherwise than divinely, for it is made and united in one with the Divine will and love. So, too, it is with the memory; and likewise the affection and desires are all changed and converted divinely, according to God. And thus this soul will now be a soul of heaven, heavenly, and more Divine than human. All this, as we have been saying, and because of what we have said, God continues to do and to work in the soul by means of this night, illumining and enkindling it divinely with yearnings for God alone and for naught else whatsoever.

- St. John of the CrossDark Night of the Soul, Book II, Chapter XIII 

"This state"  is, of course, the dark night of the soul. The Saint's famous work, Dark Night of the Soul, consists of a poem and its drawn-out explication; these two together speak about the night (or, rather, nights--he understands the soul as having two aspects, the sense and the spirit, both of which go through their own dark nights) through which the soul most endure if it is to be purged and conveyed along to the "union of love with God." The dark night comes about as the Lord shines on his people his "supernatural light", which hits our perception as sunlight strikes an owl's, darkening everything. Eventually--and this is one of my favorite images in the whole work--the purging fire in which God refines His people transforms the fuel into a thing like the fire itself: "material fire, acting upon wood, first of all begins to dry it. . . then it begins to make it black. . . and, finally, it begins to kindle it externally and give it heat, and at last transforms it into itself and makes it as beautiful as fire." 
This purgation spoken of is actually, according to St. John, one and the same as that which a soul undergoes in Purgatory; for this reason, he explains, the soul which has, in life, reached the highest possible 'step on the ladder to God' will spend no time at all in Purgatory upon death, but will go directly to God. 

A friend of mine recently noted that the Catholic concept of Purgatory is roughly analogous to the Protestant idea of sanctification, and in this light Dark Night of the Soul can be read to offer an entirely new meaning (and one admittedly different from the Saint's intended). In this light, the talk of 'human understanding that becomes Divine' may become less frightening to the Protestant reader--it's suddenly more like a Wesleyan idea of "Christian perfection", reached through the Spirit's sanctifying the people of God. Of course, Catholics may read St. John how they will.

I thought that Dark Night of the Soul was a beautiful work. It seems repetitive much of the time, but it's certainly more poetic than those things we deem 'straightforward'; it's also much easier to read than any of the other mystical texts that I've ever picked up. And however you choose to read it, this is, by St. John's own words, a picture of God's work of clothing us with the "new man". There's an idea to relish, to take hope in, and to mold your life around. 

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in the understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But this is not the way you learned Christ!--assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. 

Ephesians 4:17-24

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

from the folks of U2

I can't believe the news today
I can't close my eyes and make it go away.
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
'Cos tonight
We can be as one, tonight.

Broken bottles under children's feet
Bodies strewn across the dead-end street.
But I won't heed the battle call
It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall.

Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Oh, let's go.

And the battle's just begun
There's many lost, but tell me who has won?
The trenches dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters
Torn apart.

Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.

How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
'Cos tonight
We can be as one, tonight.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.

Wipe the tears from your eyes
Wipe your tears away.
I'll wipe your tears away.
I'll wipe your tears away.
I'll wipe your bloodshot eyes.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.

And it's true we are immune
When fact is fiction and TV reality.
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die.

The real battle just begun
To claim the victory Jesus won

Sunday, bloody Sunday
Sunday, bloody Sunday..

- U2, Sunday Bloody Sunday
Go listen to it.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

I am afraid for how we read the Bible.

"Sound byte culture" may very well have begun with the Protestant Reformation, with Martin Luther's solas: sola scriptura, sola fides, sola gratia. Another great Lutheran sound byte out there is his naming the Book of James an "epistle of straw".
Of course we all know that sound bytes tend to be terrible things. They divorce the information that you are receiving from the context in which is was first pronounced, and possibly, thus, from the information's meaning.

This summer I had a thorough discussion on the epistle of James with a seminary student from DTS who was interning at the time with a campus ministry at LSU. He had the unlucky task of preaching at a Sunday night meeting on James 2. His explanation of the faith/works passage that night was much like those I've heard for years in the Baptist church: 'works don't save you, but they're something you do because you are saved'. (It's very similar to the equally useless Baptist explanation of baptism.) Well, our discussion was driven by my noting the fact that James seems to disagree with this statement. James says "faith without works is dead." He clearly implies that such a faith won't save a man (:14). Regardless, the Baptist church, in my experience, has always said: "No, no; there's faith, and that saves. Then there works, and the person with faith is going to work. . . they're just going to."

This is a sound byte gone afoul. Martin Luther may have said "sola fides", but, whether we read him to find this or not, he absolutely qualifies "fides".

When the blessed James and the apostle [Paul, referring to Gal. 5:6 and Rom. 2:13] say that man is justified by works, they are disputing the false conception of those who contended that a faith without works would be sufficient. However, the apostle does not say that faith is without its characteristic works-for then there would be no faith at all since 'activity reveals the nature of a thing' according to philosophers-but that it justifies without the works of the Law. Therefore justification does not require the works of the Law; but it does require a living faith, which performs its works.

It's from a sermon of his.
A living faith. Is it just me, or isn't that exactly what James is talking about?
Yet we try to water down James's statement, to "read it through Paul", all the while missing what Paul means because we've already missed what Luther meant, and we're "reading" Paul through Luther.
As it turns out, Luther is in perfect agreement with me on James 2: James is contrasting two different concepts of faith; one is a dead pistis that won't save, and the other is a saving pistis-works combination. This combination is 'living faith'--James is forcing us to redefine "faith" here, or at least "faith" in our popular usage ("it's by grace you have been saved through faith..").

BUT, even if Luther and I disagreed, we still have a bigger, fundamental problem here: people are reading the scriptures through Luther. You could insert "Calvin", "Wright", or whomever you want right there.
We're reading through Luther (although in this case it's a bad conception of Luther), and then we're disregarding what the text actually says to fit the interpretation.

Please tell me you see the problem here.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Christ and "politics"

Jesus refused to concede that those in power represent an ideal or acceptable definition of what it means to be political. He did not say ‘You can have your politics and I shall do something else more important.’ He said, ‘Your definition of politics, and social existence, is wrong.’

- John Howard Yoder

Monday, September 22, 2008

Polkinghorne on evolution and 'creationism'

John Polkinghorne has a short article on Times Online. With 2009 offering both the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mr. Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his The Origin of Species, there has been a bit of buzz in the media lately on there favorite non-political (sort of) debate: that on evolution and creation. Polkinghorne, a particle physicist and Anglican theologian, weighs in here briefly on those very topics, as well as addressing the recent resignation of  Professor Michael Reiss from his position in the British Royal Society.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

G. K. Chesterton on Austen

From The Victorian Age in Literature:
[George Eliot's] originals and even her contemporaries had shown the feminine power in fiction as well or even better than she. Charlotte Bronte, understood along her own instincts, was as great; Jane Austen was greater. The latter comes into our present consideration only as that most exasperating thing, an ideal unachieved. It is like leaving an unconquered fortress in the rear. No woman later has captured the complete common sense of Jane Austen. She could keep her head, while all the after women went about looking for their brains. She could describe a man coolly; which neither George Eliot nor Charlotte Bronte could do. She knew what she knew, like a sound dogmatist: she did not know what she did not--like a sound agnostic. But she belongs to a vanished world before the great progressive age of which I write.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

this person will cast a vote in November

I encountered a bumper sticker (well technically it was in the back windshield) Friday that frightened me. Frankly, it also pissed me off, but it's still very scary.
This rather wordy bit read as such:
I am not Pro-Abortion... 
... I am Pro-Choice, Pro-Freedom, Pro-Women's Rights, Pro-Religious Freedom, Pro-Sex Education, Pro-Birth Control, Pro-Wanted Children, Pro-Adult Parents, Pro-Planned Parenthood, Pro-Women's Sexual Freedom, Pro-Constitutional Rights..
Pro-A Woman's ability to choose her own path based on her morals and not YOURS!

The colors of the text on the sticker as well as the font size served to tie the first and last statements (i.e. "I am not Pro-Abortion" and "Pro-A Woman's ability...") together visually and, therefore,  conceptually, as well. The alternative to the label "Pro-Abortion", an alternative that the whole sticker points to, is summed up in "Pro-A Woman's ability to choose her own path based on her morals and not YOURS!" 
This attitude, which I can only suppose to be a popular one--we are talking about a bumper sticker, after all--is ridiculous, and this whole statement is one of the most ignorant, intellectually-irresponsible things I have read in a long time. A society cannot stand on such principles.

Our law is by definition a codification of morality.

Barak Obama said that, and I am in perfect agreement.
The fact that the car on which this sticker resides was not stolen or vandalized Friday is perfect evidence of what law does: law forces morality onto people. 
Certainly most people would not have an urge to steal or vandalize said vehicle, but these things do happen, and some such cases are indicative of a personal morality (or we might say lack thereof) which runs counter to that behind the law of the land. Nevertheless, persons adhering to this counter-morality, simply by virtue of their having an opposing view, are not allowed to act as they would. The law forbids it and punishment buttresses that law. They are having their own moral code overridden by that of the land and of whatever people defined the latter. The sort of unbridled freedom that this sticker describes may sound favorable without any consideration, but the least bit of consideration reveals this to be little more than a formula for anarchy. 
If this is your reasoning for opposing laws on abortion, then you cannot with coherence support laws against murder, theft, rape, drug use, etc. There is simply no basis in your philosophy for any laws.

There are really only two options with abortion laws. 
One, we can form some sort of philosophical basis for a law or against a law and force all people in the land to abide by this decision. The bases for the laws already mentioned, I think, are rooted in common sense and articulated in the American Declaration of Independence as "certain inalienable rights." Because of a lack of definitions to terms pertinent to the abortion discussion, we have thus far been unable to even begin the conversation necessary to this end, and, unfortunately, as pluralism and democracy have somehow come to reign together in our society, this basis would ultimately be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to establish. 
Two, we can ignore the issue. We would have to make a conscious decision to not decide anything about abortion, and allow to each his own. However, given that our social order survives by making and amending laws when the situations arise, and that a majority of the people in the nation would refer to at least some form of abortion ('forms' distinguished by the age of the baby, their mental state, the method of the procedure, or whatever else) as murder--which we already have laws against--this seems unlikely to pass.

These are the only choices, and neither really sounds viable. Regardless of the realities before us, though, people will continue to cling to superficial opinions, and they will vote with them. These people who think anarchy will act democracy in November, totally unaware of the contradiction, and everyone's lives will be affected by the determined opinions of the ignorant. That is frightening.

Monday, August 18, 2008

a conversation with artist Jim Lamb

While there are newer editions of Charles Williams's novels around today, every time I purchase one myself, it is one of the Eerdmans editions from the early 80s. Why? One simple reason: the cover art. Despite the difficulty of these books--that the action in them is largely psychological, spiritual, ontological--I've long felt that the cover designs for these editions really well capture the spirit of the works (at least with those that I've read). This is really impressive to me, and these cover images have really added to the reading experience for me. Recently, because of the wonders of the internet, I was able to track down the artist behind these works, Jim Lamb, and Mr. Lamb was gracious enough to share with me a bit on his experience creating these images.
(In case you're unfamiliar with everything that I'm talking about, I've tacked a few of these book covers onto the end of the post.)

Thanks for the nice compliments about my work.

I am, indeed, the artist for those covers. It was a long time ago, but nice to know some people out there have noticed them and appreciate them. 

They were created through commission by Eerdmans Publishing in 1980 when I was working as a young free-lance illustrator in Southern California.
Each book was a great challenge, because, as you know, the metaphysical nature of Williams' writings leave a lot of room for interpretation and certainly, creative imagination for the artist.

I did not completely read every one of the novels, but I did read large portions of all, and all of several of them. There were key areas in each novel that seemed to summarize the overall intent and direction of each, and I tried to tap into those themes and interpret them as best as I could visually. Since there were verbal montages presented, I decided that visual montages would best suggest each work.

I posed as the central figure model for the image on Shadows of Ecstasy, and my future wife's face was the model for the image on Many Dimensions. It wasn't for ego reasons, but in those days I couldn't afford models, so I often found the cheapest models around, and that sometimes ended up being me or friends and family who would cooperate with the process. I did the same thing when I designed several US Postal Stamps as well, but changed the faces enough so they weren't likenesses of the people.

The Williams novels were a fun and challenging project, and I still take pride in those images. I felt they very adequately represented Williams' written creations.

If you'd like to see any more of Jim Lamb's work, though of a different nature, check out Jim Lamb Studio.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Augustine, science, and truth

It seems that "St. Augustine" has been a popular name to drop lately in the never-ending discussions of religion and science--particularly of Genesis and Darwin. 
Francis S. Collins dropped this name in his The Language of God, using Augustine as a voice of reason to call the American church back from this idea that we must interpret Genesis's creation account a certain way (that way being of course the completely literal interpretation).
Kenneth R. Miller does the same in his new book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. I've not read the whole of this book, but I did recently sit down and read the brief section that Miller devotes to his manner of reconciling Genesis's account to the dominant scientific speculation of today. (The rest of this work seems to have two aims: 1) to debunk the I.D. movement; 2) to examine the decline in scientific reasoning that the masses in America seem to be undergoing, and that the popularity of I.D. represents.) Miller, a devout Catholic, turns to Augustine for much the same reason as Collins: 'wait, wait, wait, there could be another way.' Miller went so far as to mention Augustine in a recent interview concerning his book on The Colbert Report. Huh.

It's unusual to me to see St. Augustine's name popping up again and again in these more popular works. It's also especially interesting to me that Augustine is used, and to great effect, I think, against the conservative-Evangelical arguments on the issue. I can almost hear the Fundamentalist reacting to this: "You're only quoting Augustine here because you saw Miller and Collins do it. You were looking for something to support your ridiculous, liberal stance and now you think you've found it." Well, I am quoting Augustine now thanks to Collins and Miller, but that doesn't weaken the Saint's points at all; rather it only shows our own particular weakness in not having read enough of him. 

And who, reading Augustine, would have stumbled onto this? Collins does reference City of God at one point, but most of the quotes from Augustine these men are using come from a text that I'd never even heard of before two months ago: On the Literal Meaning of Genesis. Origen's decrying of the literal reading of Genesis's early accounts I have been familiar with for some time, but that Augustine said anything on the topic at all was news to me. 
So just what is it that Augustine said?

In his On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, St. Augustine wrote: 
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.

Later, when discussing the creation of light in Genesis 1:3 and what exactly the author meant there by "light", he continued:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scriptures, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.  
(The italicized portion is from 1 Tm 1:7.) His point is clear enough. Augustine actually supports the literal reading of Genesis in this work, but his warning to anyone who would expound on scripture seems prophetic today, and undoubtedly the Saint would be wise enough to take his own advise.
As I alluded to above, Origen has much to say on this topic while discussing the interpretation of scripture in his On Principle Things, though his mind is much more set than Augustine's would be some 200 years later: "I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally."  
Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish thinker contemporary with the Apostle Paul, addresses the matter a bit as well, intimating that the "days" of creation could not possibly be actual 24-hour periods. This was in the first century. Here the irony begins to shine through the conservative complaints of all of the "liberal" interpretations that are "acquiescing" to modern scientific suggestions. Allegorical interpretations of the creation account in Genesis has been around for millennia--it is actually the strict literal reading of today which seems to be the response to Darwin.

So what are the ramifications of Augustine's suggestion? Well, let's consider another question first.

What is truth?
It was a good question then, it's a good one now. We use the words "true" and "truth" to describe a number of things.
If my roommate were to tell his fiance' "I love you", we would affirm this statement as true, even though it is communicating such a subjective idea, without any sort of material, empirical evidence to support it.
On the other hand we could talk about the process beyond the phenomenon of fossilization, a process whose description is based on observation and scientific evidence acquired through hypothesizing and testing. This we would also call true.
There are sort of necessary truths, made so by rules that govern their existences, like the rules of mathematics--as they say, we did not invent "2 + 2 = 4", we discovered it there. 
Simple facts we call true. My name is William Nance Hixon; true. It's not necessary, or subjective, or scientifically verifiable really, it's just a fact.
We describe people and call the descriptions "true". My co-worker Nick is weird. True... but still different, and perhaps not universally agreed upon, given different definitions of "weird". 
"God is love" is a good example of two other kinds of truths--ontological truths, insofar as we are saying something about God's being or even love's being in this statement; also it is a truth that is affirmed without the use of reason--it is a tenant of faith, read in the scriptures and trusted to be true.
Another odd kind of truth to think about is that which would lead us to watch a fictional movie (read a fictional book) and say "that's so true." In Jurassic Park we get some interesting truths about human ambition and responsibility, but it's still Jurassic Park. Allegory seems to be really similar to this kind of truth, and hyperbole may even be related to all this. After all, when we exaggerate, we are purposefully putting forth false accounts of a thing to express some truth about it.

And after all of this we even affirm that Jesus is Truth. We don't associate all of these truths with Jesus, but we do say that somehow He is truth.

Truth is just a hairy concept, and I hesitate to try and define it. I'm tempted to say "truth is that which reflects reality", but, while Dallas Willard complained that "agreeable" was not a worthy standard for truth,  I don't believe that reality is quite fixed enough to be the standard either. If, as St. Athanasius suggested, movement away from God and away from the nature He endowed creation with is movement away from existence. . . truth must be rooted in something other. Perhaps all we can say is that truth is that which reflects God. . .  whatever exactly that means. St. Augustine, I think, understood this all much better than I do.

So: do I believe that the creation account in Genesis is true? Absolutely. It is God-breathed, true. Do I believe that the creation account in Genesis is factual? No, though I will not discount the possibility. I believe that the creation narrative tells us much that is invaluable about God and about the nature and purpose of all Creation. I believe that it reflects God. I don't believe that it is an accurate account of something that happened approximately 6000 years ago, or at any other time. That's an interpretation that strikes me as unnecessary and as a fine example of a position 'justly undermined by the further progress in the search for truth.'
Our God is certainly the Creator. "Without Him nothing was made that was made." "In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth." True, true, true.
He is still creating: His reconciling of fallen Creation back to Himself is a new act of creation, giving goodness and being back to things that have drifted from Him in Whom we 'live and move and have our being'. 
But, and especially in a world where science and religion are so often somehow pitted against each other, we shouldn't feel as though we must equate fact with truth, truth with fact, or as though we must force the truths of God to be certain kinds of truths. While actual history is critical to Christianity--as Johannes Climacus said it, "the historical fact that God has existed in human form is the essence of the matter"--I don't have to affirm any "historical" or "scientific" ideas to affirm Creation, or the narrative's truths about God and about existence. . . which may ultimately be the only truths from Genesis 1-2 that matter anyways. We must remember that "In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Review: The Dark Knight

Three years ago Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale re-invented Batman movies for the world, and this was a good thing. No more Hockey player henchmen and bad jokes, no more molded Bat-nipples. They offered us a Batman universe that was as dark as anything Tim Burton had ever imagined, and was much more complex. We had a hero who struggled not only with villains, but also with how we understand justice. Our hero had to save a corrupt city from destroying itself, all the while facing who he was and was not. Batman Begins is a great movie.

This past weekend Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale brought us The Dark Knight. This movie has been the center of more expectation and hype than anything in recent memory with the possible except of the awful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There's been hype because Begins was so good. There's been hype because of the audacity of revisiting a character that Jack Nicholson masterfully realized and Heath Ledger's lauded, final performance in it. I went into this film right off of viewing its predecessor, I went in without eschewing the hype, and on the other side of that unprecedentedly crowded midnight showing, I can confidently say that The Dark Knight is the best superhero film ever made.

As an ambitious an undertaking as this film was, the cast carries it through. Maggie Gyllenhaal made Rachel Dawes fit into this Bat-verse in a way the Katie Holmes, I'm afraid, simply couldn't have ever done. Gary Oldman received much more screen time than in the first film, and showed that he was up to the challenge--his and Bale's relationship in TDK is easily the best Gordon-Batman relationship outside of Batman the Animated Series. Aaron Eckhart was a pleasant surprise to me. I appreciated him in Thank You for Smoking, but he really just nailed Harvey Dent. Heath Ledger is going to get an Oscar nomination--and maybe a win.
The only disappointment to me was Bale, though this isn't entirely his fault. Though Batman is really well done in this movie--we see him on international quests, playing the detective, and just really reflecting the Batman of the comics--I'm still not sold on Bale as Batman. His Wayne is fine, but his Bat-voice kills me. (I think the Animated Series spoiled me there, and now any man who doesn't sound like Kevin Conroy is paying the price.) But more than that, Batman simply doesn't get the development in this film that you expect. Batman Begins spent so much time on Bruce's internal struggles that once you arrive at TDK, with Gordon, Dent, and Joker receiving so much attention, you feel short-changed. Christian Bale can do so much if he's given the chance. The foundation for exploration is definitely laid, as Batman is forced to become darker and darker with the Joker's chaos spreading so quickly, but I think this conflict ultimately plays out better in Harvey Dent than in Batman, and the film-makers simply give themselves no time to do it any other way.
Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman both do well, though Caine's Alfred sees less screen time the second time around, and much of Freeman's seems forced. The former I can't complain about, as there's only so much Alfred can do while Batman devotes himself to stopping the Joker, but I could have done for less of Lucius Fox. We don't need more of him just because it's Morgan Freeman. Let him be Lucius Fox, not Alfred, or Robin even.

I could go on for some time about the production of the film. It's well-made. But what about the story? the message we are left with? I've been asking myself about this since the credits finished rolling and that impressive film score came to an end.
This is a dark film. The darkness brings Scorsese to mind, except that Scorsese's work relies not only on violence, but on graphic violence; he takes advantage of his R ratings. Also, Scorsese is dealing with men, and, as Batman Begins belabored, Nolan with Batman is not dealing with a man, but a symbol. Batman Begins closed with the sad acknowledgement that 'Bruce Wayne' is only a mask, that Batman is who he is. In Dark Knight the Joker is no man either, but is something like sheer chaotic desire. He's just the bandit in Alfred's story or, as Dent put it, a mad dog. He doesn't even have a real history like Batman--every time he tells you about his scars it's another tale.
So what does Nolan do with these two powerful symbols?
He pits them against each other, and offers them both to the people of Gotham and to us.
We're offered on the right the darkness of Batman, darkness that precedes the dawn, and on the left the Joker's dark 'plans', where we won't panic, but we have to act without consideration to survive. Batman's tempted by Joker's darkness, so is Dent, so are all of the citizens of Gotham. Batman's alternative is offered to all as well--the citizens, the police, Dent, Joker even, though he's oblivious to such offers. As we make our choice, we're reminded that it is a social decision. We can't 'make our own luck', life's not fair, and every choice we make will affect others somehow. We must decide whether we'll be the person the Joker expects us to be, or the person that Batman determined to be in the first film.
Not everyone decides the same way, and the film's end shows you how affected everyone is, how unfair the results can be.

The Scorsese films that I've seen never have a "happy ending". You might be content--maybe your favorite character survives (-gasp!-). But you're never happy, things are never settled. That's because the films are brutally honest. The Dark Knight is no different. It doesn't pull punches, and it sacrifices some potential to make the point. The Joker's funny until you come to yourself and realize what it is that you're laughing at. His violence is repulsive, but he'll scare you until you buy into it. Batman doesn't have an attractive alternative, but it is decent, good. And really, no matter what you choose, you lose. That's The Dark Knight.

Last summer Spider-Man 3 hit theaters; it had been heralded by the greatest film trailer I've ever seen. Unfortunately the film itself was terrible--I nearly walked out, and can honestly say now that I wouldn't have reason to regret it had I. I saw the trailer again after seeing the movie, and was captivated. "This looks like the greatest movie ever made!" I thought. Then I recalled that I had seen it... and it wasn't. The Dark Knight is the super-hero film that Spidey 3 ought to have been. We have to look long and hard into the darkness--a darkness which hides no emos--and then we must make our choice: who are we? 'Why hide who I am?' Dent asks Gordon at one point in the film. How will we let the darkness of life shape who we are?
It's true that any number of films can show you the true, frightening nature of evil, but that doesn't automatically put this on the same level as some slasher flick. People going to see Saw 18 get what they pay for... and what they pay for it disgusting. People going to see The Dark Knight may be disgusted, but that's what well-portayed evil ought to do. Go watch Silence of the Lambs again.
If you love superheroes, see this film. If you love Batman, though I don't need to say it at this point, you must see this film. If you love good movies, see it. The Dark Knight is what it is, and we just have to trust Dent that "the dawn is coming."

Brant at Kamp Krusty didn't like the movie much.
Jeffery Overstreet did, and he defended it from some criticism.
Christianity Today's review

Thursday, July 10, 2008

a quote

Evangelicals have connected discipleship and buying stuff in a way that is completely alien to the New Testament.

Michael Spencer (the Internet Monk), in a discussion on Bible translations

Friday, July 04, 2008

a quick lesson in Constitutional law

This silly editorial from the New York Times has inspired my 4th of July American post-extravaganza. 

The editorial, for all of it's whining, did not seem quite silly until this came up:
The Barack Obama of the primary season used to brag that he would stand before special interest groups and tell them tough truths. The new Mr. Obama tells evangelical Christians that he wants to expand President Bush's policy of funneling public money for social spending to religious-based organizations - a policy that violates the separation of church and state and turns a government function into a charitable donation. 

Several thoughts come to mind on reading this lamentation. These religious-based organizations aren't receiving funds because they are religious-based, they're receiving funds because they are social organizations; AA is a good example of a religious based social organization which primarily serves an important secular purpose. The last comment about "charitable donation" leaves me a little perplexed. Would not the purely secular social organizations given government funding also be relying on "charitable donation"?

The part that gets me the most is of course the use of the phrase "separation of church and state". 
SO, here's a quick lesson in the United States' Constitution for everyone; the following are the whole of the references to 'religion' in our nation's Constitution and Bill of Rights:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support his Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

from Article VI of the Constitution

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

Amendment I of the Bill of Rights

That's it. 
Note the lack of "separation of church and state". The concept, or something roughly equivalent to it, is there, but this phrase cannot be violated as it is not in the law. Instead this phrase originates in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. There he writes:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.

Jefferson's concern is apparently with a government's influencing religious observances; "none other" than "man & his god" ought to be responsible for a man's faith and worship. A government in this role would be forcing "opinions" on its citizenry, which is outside of its proper jurisdiction to do. You can read the entire letter here, if you like.

Before you start accusing politicians of 'violating' this or that, know what you're talking about. I'm fairly sure that the Founding Fathers would find many of the issues of debate concerning church and state today ridiculous--they were concerned with separation on a much larger scale. However the documents are what they are, and as ideologies change, interpretations will as well, and here we are.

Also on the patriotic blog-post front, here's an interesting quote from G. K. Chesterton on our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Happy ID4

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

don't forget fiction

This post on the buildingchurchleaders.com blog was refreshing: Fiction for Formation.

The author briefly laments of the apparent dearth of fiction literature in the average pastor's book-diet, and then proceeds to recommend of few 'must-reads'. His recommendations include two works by the American Jew Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev and The Chosen, Japanese Catholic Shushaku Endo's Silence, and, the surprise pick, to me at least, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray
I'd never heard of Endo or Potok before this list; Gray I was familiar with, but it is surprisingly the only 'acknowledged classic' (whatever exactly that means) in the four. I guess a name like Walker Percy or Flannery O'Connor would have come as less of a surprise to round out the group than the irreligious Wilde--not that I'm disappointed.

I've long agreed with the blogger's encouragement of fiction reading; I think his claim that "good fiction (an entirely subjective category, I admit) can help a minister better understand the people to whom he or she is ministering" is absolutely true. Good fiction can also help you better understand yourself.

While these aren't books that I suppose 'everyone ought to read', they've certainly proved themselves illuminating and edifying to me; if I were going to recommend a few works of fiction, these three (or four) are the first things that come to mind:

The Screwtape Letters. I've read quite a bit of Lewis--much, much more than of any other author--and this may be his best work. The observations that Screwtape makes of humanity are astounding at times. He forces us to redefine temptation and sin as he illustrates for all of the real 'patients' of the world (no doubt a frustrating discovery for Screwtape, once he knew his letters to have been published) just how deep our self-serving agendas run and how stealthily they masquerade themselves.

Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams. I tried to review this novel on wardrobe after I finished it, but it really well defies description. Much of the action in the story is... ontological. Williams shows you what man becomes as he gives himself to himself and has he descends right out of existence into Hell. 
This is also a terribly difficult book to read; I did so only poorly and with much-appreciated tutelage from a seasoned Williams-reader. Another novel of his, All Hallows' Eve is much easier (though not easy), and also shows a great deal about reality and the unreality of sin. 

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. This novel will show you what we worship, and it's imagery is absolutely terrifying. Besides that, the story is just great fun and the allusions, while blatant, are delightful--especially if you're the sort of nerd that I am (i.e., a religious studies major who grew up reading Thor comics).

These are only the first few books that come to mind, and there are innumerable great reads out there. Milton, Shakespeare, Boethius (if the Consolatio could really be called fiction), and so many others are out there, just waiting for us to take the time and learn from them. 

Monday, June 16, 2008

interesting article from RELEVANT

Here's a neat article from RELEVANT magazine... or at least some of the article. RELEVANT gathered together eight "leading Christian voices to chime in on seven burning issues facing our generation." Those voices are Steve Brown, Shane Claiborne, Chuck Colson, Cindy Jacobs, Brian McLaren, Nancy Ortberg, Jim Wallis, and N. T. Wright. 
While the full article in the magazine poses this panel with seven topics, the website preview only offers one of the seven: homosexuality. 

It's nice to see some "heavy-weights" in contemporary Christianity presented point-blank with such issues. It's interesting how much of their responses (at least on the one issue online, of homosexuality) is spent dodging the issue. This is not unexpected, but I wonder if it is appropriate. It's also interesting to see what overtly political assertions some of these "heavy-weights" are willing to make here. 

Check out the article preview, and if you're hungry for more, see this month's issue of RELEVANT

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

a quote

The temptation for Christians in modernity is to equate the kingdom with ideals that we assume represent the best of human endeavor: freedom, equality, justice, respect for the dignity of each person. These are all worthy goals that Christians have every reason to support, but goals that are not in themselves the kingdom. To equate these ideals with the kingdom is to separate the kingdom from the one who proclaims the kingdom. "Jesus is Himself the established Kingdom of God" (Barth). Or in Origen's classical phrase, Jesus is the autobasileia--the kingdom in person.

Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dear Celsus,

An Amazon user posted this on the 'christianity forum' on amazon.com. Please take a look at Celsus's argument before going on. The title is "PROOF THAT BIBLE GOD DOES NOT EXIST".

Celsus's argument goes something like this: because the Christian God is traditionally held to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, to prove His lacking of one of these qualities is to destroy the Christian conception of God. I don't think I do any violence to his stance in wording it as such.
His argument proceeds thus: Let us see why the Christian God cannot be omniscient.

1. He allows "erroneous, contradictory, and foolish messages" to "infuse his inspired scriptures". Multiple examples follow.

2. He allows "his perfect Word to be corrupted by forgeries and interpolations." Examples follow.

3. He allows "messianic prophecies presented in the New Testament to be based on misquoted or non-existent Old Testament text." Examples.

4. Jesus makes "false prophecies concerning his second coming." (Lewis's take on this issue makes for irony here.)

5. He (God in general again, not Christ) steals "his main doctrines from pre-existing faiths." An elaboration follows.

Celsus also notes at one point that these arguments are against a literal, Fundamentalist reading of the texts--this is a demographic among which he was apparently once numbered.
Again, I hope you read Celsus's post before this. However, now I go on.

I'm not looking to refute Celsus's examples in the sense that he might think, but I will make a few comments on some of them.

First and with exasperation--at this line of thinking, not at Celsus himself: to look for scientific facts in Old Testament texts is simply to misunderstanding the nature of the text. More on this later.
Matthew 19 does not see Jesus 'recommending self-castration.' The line "let the one who is able to receive this receive it" is harkening back to verses 10 and 11. Please read context. Unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but I hate to see Jesus looking that kind of crazy. 
Target audience must be kept in mind with Mark 16.18. Besides, according to the tradition, the apostles suffer some ridiculous things; St. John is even supposed to have survived being boiled in oil, and that's a Hell of a lot more impressive than surviving some poison. The Emperor Claudius did that much (once). If you want to attack some claims, go for wilder ones that are purported as historical, I say.
I'll refrain from going on in this vein, though I could. That's not the sort of discussion I'd want to have.

The real issue I take with Celsus's thought is not overtly stated, but is underlying: there's a misunderstanding of the concept of inspiration. This does not mean that God himself typed the manuscripts (...levity...), but rather that His Spirit guided fallible men in the writing of the scriptures. This is essential.

This misunderstanding may of course be wholly the result of Celsus's conscious aim towards the fundamentalist reader with these arguments; I don't know. If it is not, then let me say this, though it may be too late in the game for Celsus to care much: there's another, larger Christian tradition out there that can answer these questions.  The fundamentalist tradition, I'm afraid you're right, simply cannot. When faced with contradictions, the fundamentalist will tell you frankly that they don't exist. When faced with science they will tell you that the Word of God knows better than some men in white coats. The ones really torn over this will immediately advocate ID or quietly lose their faith. All the while, the other traditions can simply look back through the centuries for wisdom: people like Origen (and appropriate name for this conversation) and Augustine were dealing with these issues from the earliest centuries of the church. 

Of course the real problem with the literalist's attempts to defend the scripture from this or that 'assailant' is that this is in fact not faith at all. Faith is the "assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Anything more concrete than that is simply the modern-empirical worldview parading itself as the proper way to read the Bible. 
These texts are supposed to be the Word of an all-knowing God, yes. (Once we've established this I wonder if we should even continue to speculate; as if we actually understand the term 'omniscient' and how to properly define it.) But they're a variegated bunch of texts--laws, poetry, epistles, apocalyptic literature, biographies, proverbs, and more. They were all written in different times for different purposes. Maybe some political propaganda; some songs... for singing! some maintaining of oral tradition when societies have been scattered or when the years still, unexpectedly, go by; some admonishments to young leaders. Regardless of what some people think or unconsciously take for granted, the end is not that the scriptures are all somehow the same kind of work, to be read in the same kind of way, that way being the proper, modern way of reading supposedly-objective texts. 
To judge them in this manner is to hold the texts to a false standard. To remove the human element from their composition is to ignore what they are. 

Celsus, in closing I just wanted to say that I'm sorry that you fell victim to a tradition which, for all of its good, reads the scriptures as it does, forcing anyone under its influence to read the scriptures as it does, and which seeks to buoy the claims of the Bible on science and history. These disciplines may be important when the texts make scientific and objective historical claims, but the former I'm not sure ever happens and the latter is done more seldom than most would think. This is all a fine example of why I find the fundamentalist reading so dangerous. Let the text be what it was meant to be; remember what Lewis said a few posts back.

I'm sorry to see that this is the sort of 'faith' that you had to adhere to, Celsus, and I understand why it wouldn't work out for you. I hope that one day you'll (as well as a great many others, non-Christian and Christian alike) be able to reconsider Christianity in a different way, and see that, as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it, "the Lordship of Jesus is not deduced but encountered". Christ, is ultimately and despite all of our demands to touch his wounds, not to be touched, but simply to be called "my Lord and my God!" in faith.

I also need to apologize to Celsus for my sloth in finishing this post. It's amazing how often 'more important' things, like Indiana Jones day or Seinfeld on DVD, will delay you from a task. Sorry about that.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


If you've yet to see this film and wouldn't like to know the particulars, then don't read on.

Wednesday May 21st I and a group of friends decided to bring in Indiana Jones Day (the 22nd, technically) the proper way: we sat down and watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade back to back and in that order (Temple of Doom first, we said, so that it wouldn't matter if you were late). These movies, well the latter two at least, are simply phenomenal, and they do not get old. This was a good decision and made for a wonderful day.

Indiana Jones Day arrived at midnight as all days do, except for the accompanying midnight movie premiere. This was a bad decision.
Not on my part, entirely: it makes perfect sense to close out an Indiana Jones movie marathon with the last Indiana Jones movie. It was more a bad decision on the parts of the trinity of all things Jones-related, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford. It was a dark, sad, two-hour bad decision.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull begins with an action sequence that does a marvelous job of destroying all of that unique, mysterious aura with which Raiders ended 28 years ago--the ending that secured so many fans for the franchise. We find ourselves beginning the new installment in the very warehouse where the Ark had been stowed (though we are looking for a different piece this time). The Ark, of course, makes an appearance, because George Lucas simply cannot restrain himself from  such 'allusions'--like the Millennium Falcon's cameo in Star Wars Episode III, except this is more obvious and correlatively less tasteful, especially when compared to the witty remarks about the Ark made in Last Crusade. This sequence, when it slows down a bit, seems to introduce extra-terrestrials to the plot, and after 'exciting' action ends with Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear explosion.

Does this beginning seem... forboding? It should. This is the appropriate start to what is one of the worst sequels ever made, and written by the writer of what I consider the best film sequel ever made: The Empire Strikes Back.

What went wrong?
Many, many things.

On a large scale, the filmmakers refuse to commit themselves to a genre with this movie. It's been suggested they were trying to reflect the popular science fiction stories of the 1950s with Crystal Skull, whereas the previous three films reflect the 1930s popular adventure-serial format. Even if this were the intention, there's no definite genre here. There's plenty of science fiction, but the movie's still proliferated with the adventure elements of the original trilogy, and what we're left with is not a very good sci-fi story and not a very good adventure tale. 
In fact, what we're left with is two hours of mindless action, as if some child wanted to play with his Lego Pirates, Knights, City folks, and Space Police all at the same time. A long, boring to the modern audience car chase ends and is immediately followed with an insect chase a la The Mummy which is followed immediately by a waterfall sequence which is followed immediately by a natives-with-primitive-weapons chase which is followed immediately by... you get the picture. And all of this, far from exciting, is simply tiring.

What exactly is this mindless action replacing that the original films had? A good story. You lose the sense that you're in an a quest that has occupied man for thousands of years, a quest that is worth that kind of effort. You lose the slow moments when the film is carried by Harrison Ford and John Williams alone. You also lose, as one commentator noted, the wonder. There's a sense of awe when you see the Ark of the Covenant first rise onto the scene. There's wonder when the camera first holds for that brief second on the 'cup of a carpenter'. There's nothing awe-striking about a room full of silly looking alien skeletons. Where there could have been wonder, when the flying saucer rises into the sky from beneath the ancient temple in the film's end, we're distracted by flying rubble and the roar of water rushing into the area--mindless action. This is what we were given in place of all that made Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade so powerful, so memorable. 

There's also an abundance of weak CG effects throughout the film. Lucas, based on interviews some months back, seemed disappointed with the lack of effects in the film, but I can't see why. Even Indy's whip is computerized at times, and not very well. Why? I really don't know. I suppose George Lucas just has more faith in pixels and lights than in reality. He needs to be tied to a chair and forced to watch movies like Braveheart or Gettysburg, so that he can recall what real people, props, and locations look like on film. 

There was only one scene in the whole film that I honestly, without reservation, liked: the first conversation between Indy and Mutt (Shia LaBeouf). I have to admit also that Mutt's character did not bother me at all; LaBeouf adds here to the list of movies that I was afraid he would ruin but did not. Thank you.

On the whole, this is the most disappointing movie that I've seen since Spider-Man 3 and one of the most disappointing films that I've ever seen. 
If I'm going to watch a movie about robots that turn into cars, based on an 80s toy line, then I'm perfectly content with the tried and true summer movie formula--that's what so much of modern Tinseltown is. But when I watch a movie with the name Indiana Jones in the title, from the creator of E. T., Saving Private Ryan, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and on down the list, I expect something a Hell of a lot better than this.

If only Revenge of the Sith had been as weak as its two predecessors, then perhaps I could have avoided this movie altogether. Instead I trusted Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas, and of course I trusted Harrison Ford, and that trust was very poorly placed. I honestly think that GL and company did more with this one film to hurt the Indiana Jones franchise than he has done in the last decade, with three films and endless tinkering with the originals, to hurt the Star Wars saga. More than I'm annoyed by all of this, I'm really just saddened. Indiana Jones should have retired after his last crusade.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Review: Iron Man

The summer blockbuster season has officially begun. Last night I sat through commercials for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, The Dark Knight, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Summer time.
And with summer time will come the return of the wardrobe summer movie reviews! So, without further ado, let's take a look at the film that has kicked off the summer: Iron Man.

Iron Man, being the first film on the character, is, like all of its predecessors, an origin story. As you can tell already from the commercials, we find the brilliant weapons developer Tony Stark(Robert Downey Jr.) kidnapped by terrorists and coerced into building a weapons system for them... only what he builds is not quite what they expect. Armored technological carnage follows throughout the movie. There are also lots of fine cars and beautiful women. Make no mistake: Iron Man is a superhero movie on steroids.
Does that mean that there's nothing behind the shallow facade of gold-titanium alloy and hotrod red paint? That's hard to say.
There is certainly a lot going on in Tony Stark's character. He begins the film as an incredibly vain, carefree Casanova; he ends a vain Casanova (?) with a "heart". After seeing what use the weapons that his company manufactures have been put to, Stark's conscience--and his familiar suit--appears for the first time. There's all sorts of talk at this point about Tony's heart, Tony's purpose, his mission. He's accused by one man, a family man, of 'having everything but having nothing.'
Now, with the first Spider-Man film, as fun and action-packed as it is, we are left with the impression that the tale is ultimately one of responsibility; "with great power comes great responsibility" is Spidey's mantra. When the credits rolled on Iron Man, however, I was left feeling that the story of Tony Stark finding himself, while certainly there and intentionally, was there out of convenience and propriety. It is, I think, ultimately not what the movie is about. The movie is about weapons manufacturing, explosions, and speed. The real story was there, but in the end I don't think it formed the heart of the movie that the film-makers perhaps hoped for it to.

As far as the movie as a production goes, it's really well done. The score by Hans Zimmer was surprisingly weak until the film's credits. Other than that, the movie has plenty of room to shine. The effects are handled by ILM, which means they're top-notch. The Iron Man armor itself, such a critical aspect of the film, was designed by Stan Winston Studios (Predator, Terminator, etc.), so rest easy there.
Last and most impressive to me was actually the performances. Not all of them are phenomenal: Gwyneth Paltrow has done better work and I'm certain that Terrance Howard has as well. Still, Jeff Bridges offered a very solid performance and Downey Jr. simply stole the show. I couldn't help comparing the drawn-out origins beginning of the movie to those in Spider-Man or Hulk, but Spider-Man and Hulk didn't have Robert Downey Jr. I've never been terribly impressed by him before, but the man made every scene in Iron Man enjoyable and really alleviated the humdrum of an origin story.

So, on the whole, Iron Man was just a lot of fun. We shouldn't expect much more from these movies anyways (I made that mistake with Spider-Man 3...). If you need a few hours off--especially you college students going into finals--go check it out. This is no Oscar winner (except perhaps for effects), but it'll be a good time.

And remember, true believers, this is a Marvel comic movie... so make sure you sit tight until after the credits.