Tuesday, December 18, 2012

More Than "The Hobbit"

Gandalf the Grey: “Those are goblin Wargs! They will outrun you!
Radagast the Brown: “These are rhosgobel rabbits! I’d like to see them try.”
What kind of movie combines the epic music, breathtaking vistas, and heart-pounding fight scenes of a Hollywood blockbuster with the silly songs and antics of a children’s book?
This movie. And it works (Mostly. Almost entirely. Seriously, it’s reeeeaaaaally close, and I can’t think of a way they could have done it better).
But let’s get down to business. Netting a measly 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s evident that many reviewers have a beef (or mutton, if you’re a troll) with the film. Whether it’s the high frame rate (admittedly a horrible, horrible decision that does nothing to enhance the film and much to distract from it), or the slow, deliberate pacing, it’s evident that many reviewers were expecting something different, and were disappointed with the actual product.
And I will admit that the first 15 minutes filled me with a terrible sense that the reviewers might be right. The high frame rate (48 FPS as opposed to the standard 24) makes the opening minutes of the film seem amateurish and jerky, more like an extremely well-done fan video rather than something coming out of Hollywood. Some points in the “Fall of Erebor” sequence in the beginning reminded me most of the old Narnia movies (the good ones, not the new ones), while other points made me think more of what the video game is sure to be like, wondering when the “cut-scene graphics” would fade into the in-game graphics, and I would pick up the controller to cut my way free of the wreckage.
It was disconcerting and disheartening, to say the least. Nothing about the opening sequence captured the same realism and drama as the storming of Helm’s Deep, or even the many smaller battles of the LOTR trilogy. The high FPS practically screamed “fake” to my poor, indoctrinated eyes and brain. But just as the dwarves–consumed though they were by rage and sorrow at their lost homeland–shouldered their burdens and soldiered on, I, too, decided then and there that I was going to enjoy this film, darn it, and nothing could stop me.
And I have to say from that point on, the film did get progressively better. Although Frodo’s exchange with Bilbo struck me as slightly unnatural, there were some extremely nice touches connecting the story of the Hobbit to the events of the later trilogy: The remembrance/story-telling takes place early on the day of The Party with which the Fellowship opens, and after Frodo’s unnecessary (but thankfully brief) interlude, we witness him heading off “to wait for Gandalf,” holding his book. Bilbo, watching him go, blows a single smoke-ring… and with that, the “real” movie begins.
The dwarves? Brilliant. The dinner scene? Fantastic. The first song, in which the dwarves taunt Bilbo with threats of grievous crockery harm? The intro is a little forced, but the song itself is well-executed but verysilly (as, indeed, any adaptation seeking to preserve the spirit of the book must be). The second song, in which the dwarves lament their lost homeland? Haunting and breathtaking. Rivendell was wonderful, as usual, but Goblin-Town caused me to utter a quite audible “whoa-haha! Look at that!”, much to the amusement of my wife and the irritation of the other moviegoers.
To my surprise and joy, the movie retains many of The Hobbit’s particular quirks: A paragraph detailing the exploits of the rock giants, never again to be seen or mentioned, is transformed into a tense 10-minute interlude of mountains fighting other mountains, with the dwarves caught, quite literally, in between. The trolls are delightful (a term never before used about trolls, but certainly applicable here), and there are many chunks of dialogue lifted whole from the book itself and inserted, quite successfully, into the film.
But of course, no book gets transformed into a movie without somechanges, and a book that’s rather short to begin with  can expect even more transformation when turned into three movies. As someone who really, really hates the two latest Narnia movies for the many [too many negative adjectives to list] changes made to the story, this had me worried as I sat in the theater.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself not only accepting but actually nodding in approval at the vast majority of the changes. The book itself is isolated, and only a concerted effort after the fact can bring it into the larger Middle-Earth narrative. The movie attempts to eliminate that sense of isolation: this is, from the very first scene, a tale of Middle-Earth’s larger battle against the darkness.
Almost all of the changes and embellishments in the film can be traced back to this single motivating idea.  Thorin’s distrust and even hatred of the elves (even the elves of Rivendell) finds its roots not in The Hobbititself, but in the larger narrative that the movie reveals–and in that context, it fits extremely well. The same applies to the discovery of the Ring itself: The audience is never under the illusion that the ring Bilbo finds is anything less than the world-breaking Ring of the trilogy, whereas the book treats it as nothing more than an interesting and useful trinket. The re-taking of Erebor is important as a personal quest of the dwarves, but the quest is much more important as a means of defeating the great power of Smaug before it can be joined to the even greater power of the mysterious Necromancer.
The Necromancer! Discovered by Radagast, believed in by Gandalf and Galadriel (and maybe Elrond), scoffed at by Saruman… even though we only get a brief glimpse of this shadowy figure, accompanied by the characteristic scream of the Nazgul, we are appropriately terrified of him (as is Radagast). Although he merits but a handful of sentences in the book, we already know that he will play a much larger role in the next two films.
This first installment left me happy with the decision to expand the story. The movie (as I had hoped) is fantastic. The project is, thus far, a resounding success. The Hobbit is being transformed from an isolated and amusing tale into one more amazing and epic battle in the yet more amazing and epic war against the greater darkness of Middle-Earth.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The End of the Great Depression

“What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth. Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”? It was already done long ago, before our time… I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I decided to carefully and thoroughly examine all that has been accomplished on earth. I concluded: God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied. I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile—like chasing the wind! What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10, 12-15

The world of Ecclesiastes is old, stale, and hopeless. Solomon, husband of many wives, victor of many battles, possessor of great wealth, wonders if any of it is worth it. If the wise die in the same way as the foolish, if the rich suffer the same fate as the poor, if the good man fares the same as the evil man, why even make an effort? Even his last words carry the same sense of melancholy and hopelessness. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Fear God and obey him, because it is your duty: it will not help you in life, it may not help you in death, you will still die the same as an evil man… but it is your duty nonetheless.

And that was the end of the matter. There was nothing more to said, nothing more to be heard, because even the words of the wise were vain and meaningless.

And then something happened that had never happened before. A new star appeared in the heavens and a company of angels sang to the shepherds of Bethlehem, because God had been wrapped in swaddling clothes and was lying in a manger. A living child had been born into a world of skeletons. Here, finally, was something new, something that that was not vanity and a chasing after the wind.

God was a child. He had friends, he played games with them, he skinned his knees, he was hungry and thirsty and tired. And then God grew up and was a man. He was sarcastic and biting towards some people and utterly kind and gentle towards others. He was enraged at the misuse of the temple and driven to tears by the death of a friend. He had friends and ate and drank and slept under the stars when he could have had an angelic canopy.

And as we think about these things we must remember one simple truth: God does not do meaningless things.

And this does not just apply to his “kingdom work.” The ultimate proof of this is his very first miracle in John 2, unplanned and spontaneous. This is evident from his response to Mary: “What does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Such a response indicates that the forthcoming miracle has nothing to do with “his hour,” his primary purpose. But he does it anyway. He has the jars filled with water and by the time the first cup reached the master of the feast, it is no longer water but the finest wine that had yet been served.

God does not do meaningless things. There were any number of ways to make his disciples believe in him, if that was his only goal. There were many ways to demonstrate his power, his authority, his deity. He could have made the water disappear: he could have turned it into grape juice (as some Christians fervently wish he had). But instead he chose to turn it into wine, and not  just any wine; he turned it into the finest wine of the feast, wine so good that it made all the other wine pale in comparison. We must acknowledge this amazing truth: that God did something not just to further his mission, not just to make his disciples believe in him, but to help people celebrate a wedding with the best wine of the feast, the ultimate example of extravagance.

God does not do meaningless things. And that means that the world of Ecclesiastes is gone forever.

Because of Christmas, everything is no longer vanity and meaningless: instead, everything assumes a colossal importance. Even “neutral” things like eating or sleeping become full of meaning when we consider that God himself has done these things as well. When we eat, even a snack, we are reminded that God has done the same. When we sleep, we are reminded that God did too. When we attend a wedding, we remember that in doing so we walk in the footsteps of Christ.

Life is full of meaning: I might even say full to bursting. Serving God is no longer a mere duty; it is instead a privilege, an honor, a gift, as we walk this new world and think of Christ taking his first steps in Bethlehem.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Great Depression

The Old Testament tells a lot of stories. Sad, heartbreaking stories; miraculous, uplifting stories; and stories of life, love, friendship, and epic heroism.  But behind all of the stories, behind the travels of Abraham, the trials of the Israelites, behind even the victories of David and the temple of Solomon lies what Blindside calls the Great Depression, what T.S. Eliot describes as the land of the hollow men. Behind all of the stories lie the sin of Adam, the wail of Ecclesiastes, and the Valley of Dry Bones.

The sin of Adam haunts everything. Every birth, every field, every death is a reminder that mankind and even the very ground itself is cursed: All men die eventually, and what then? Dust, mere motes of earth floating for a while in the breeze, waiting to be dispersed. The kingdoms of man, built with blood and sweat, will last but a little longer than those that built it. Everything fades.

And worst of all, nothing can be done about it. It’s possible to forget about it, for a time. It’s possible to lose sight of it in battle, in worship, in life. But it is always there, waiting to be remembered again. And that’s what Ecclesiastes is: Ecclesiastes is the book that the wisest man in the world wrote when he ran out of distractions. Ecclesiastes is what happens when war, women, and wine lose their novelty, and the greatest intellect in the world is forced to look, really look at the world, and ask what good it all is.

And  he comes up empty. He searches all the world–wisdom and folly, indulgent pleasure and productive work, righteousness and sinfulness–and finds nothing but a huge, terrifying void. Mankind throws everything it has into life and fails to make a single dent in the ever-looming Nothingness. The sun rises on hopeless humanity toiling away at their meaningless existence and by the time it sets, there has been no change. Well, no change save one: everyone is now one day closer to death, to Sheol, to the place where good and evil alike must inevitably go, never to be seen again. Almost all of Ecclesiastes can be summed up in one verse: “What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied.”

The wisest man in the world sets out to find meaning, and he comes to the conclusion that there is none. Existence is a dull, bleak thing, not to be thought of because the thinking of it is too terrible.  And Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of Israel offers a similarly bleak diagnosis. “The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and placed me in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones. He made me walk all around among them. I realized there were a great many bones in the valley and they were very dry… Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are all the house of Israel. Look, they are saying, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope has perished; we are cut off.’”  Israel, the Chosen People of God, the singularly blessed nation, is no more than dusty bones. Their hope has perished, and they are utterly cut off.

Skeletons, going through life hoping to one day not be skeletons… but knowing, at the bottom of where their hearts should be, that such a thing is entirely impossible. Skeletons chasing the wind, clutching at it with bony fingers, collapsing into the dust into which, with a little patience, they will soon dissolve. This is the state of the entire world before the first Christmas. This is the state of every man, woman, and child before Something New came into the dead, never-changing world and changed it forever.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

“Mystical, Profound, and Truly Wonderful”

“The mystery of Christ runs the risk of being disbelieved precisely because it is so incredibly wonderful. For God was in humanity. He who was above all creation was in our human condition; the invisible one was made visible in the flesh; he who is from the heavens and from on high was in the likeness of earthly things; the immaterial one could be touched; he who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave; he who blesses all creation became accursed; he who is all righteousness was numbered among transgressors; life itself came in the appearance of death.”
-St. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ
Cyril calls the Incarnation many things: “Mysterious,” “truly wonderful,” “incomprehensible,” “profound,” a “strange and rare paradox.” Turn to almost any page in his treatise and you will find him extolling the many and varied virtues of Christ’s “holy, wonderful, and truly amazing birth and life.”  And the reason for this rampant rejoicing, this extravagant ecstasy, this passionate, persistent, poetic praise? Simply this: “he who is and exists from all eternity, as he is God, underwent birth from a woman according to the flesh;” in the Incarnation, “God was in humanity.”
To Cyril, the Christian faith hangs on the fact that the being named Jesus, who was born into a dirty stable from a human mother, who walked with dusty feet along the paths of Judea, who was hungry, and thirsty, and tired, was and is utterly and completely God and utterly and completely man. In the being named Jesus of Nazareth we see God and man in one person
And the picture of God painted by the Old Testament demonstrates how stunning, how incomprehensible, how graceful and marvelous such a union is.  God laid the foundations of the world. He determined its measurements. He has commanded the morning since there was a morning to command. He has created marvelous things, including man from the dust of the ground. He speaks out of the whirlwind, out of the storm, out of a blinding, radiant cloud.
His arm is strong, his voice is thunderous, his place is on high. He is a pillar of fire that lights up the dark. He is waited on by seraphim who eternally sing his praise. He is All-Sufficient, Lord of Hosts, the Holy One of Israel. His very name is so holy that it cannot even be spoken. He is God, and not a man.
And then the Most High God is born in a cave, below even the ground. The God that spoke out of the whirlwind cries out from an empty feeding trough. The Shepherd of Israel is chided by his parents. The creator of heaven and earth learns to help his father craft chairs and tables. The All-Sufficient One hungers and thirsts, and falls from weariness. The Lord of Hosts is a wanderer, with nowhere to lay his head. One of his names is spoken with scornful familiarity by those who dare not utter the other.
“God was in humanity.” Every word here is vitally important to the Christian faith. God, in the full sense of the term, in all majesty, power, and divinity, fully entered into humanity in a way that had never happened before. God was born of a woman. God was truly human.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Lifetime of Memories

“For Mackenzie, Christmas 1996,
May you always be as brave as Aragorn, as wise as Gandalf, as compassionate as Frodo, and as loyal as Sam.
Love, The Fruguglieties
God Bless you!”
I don’t remember the first time I read The Hobbit, but I do know that I read it from an ancient, yellowing copy given to me by my father, and several pages had fallen out and been hastily stuffed (approximately) back into place by the time I had finished, to be lost and regained upon each subsequent reading. I remember many of those later readings, but alas! The first was too early, and has been replaced by memories of (doubtlessly) lesser importance. But I do remember the first time I readThe Lord of the Rings. I read it from a red leather-bound book given to me as  a Christmas present by my Auntie Anne (a fellow Tolkien fanatic) when I was eight years old. I read it (I believe) in 14 days, and I remember because my parents had told me that I would receive a certain sum of money upon completion, a portion of which would be taken away for each day the book remained unfinished (it wasn’t a bribe: I think it was more of an experiment to see how fast I could finish it).
In any case, it was utterly unnecessary. I don’t remember how much money I eventually earned. But oh, do I remember the reading…
I remember sleepily marking my place not just with a bookmark but with a hastily-pencilled-in star to mark the precise paragraph at which to resume reading, and then turning off the light and lying down for bed… only to finally re-don my glasses just a few minutes later, turning the light back on and continuing far into the night. I remember anxiously awaiting further news of Merry and Pippin, and being confused at reading of the same event from different perspectives (Wait, but the Uruk-hai were just destroyed… did Merry and Pippin get captured by another maurauding Orc band?).  I remember walking into my dad’s office, massive tome in hand, begging him to tell me if Frodo was really dead.
I was eight years old, and I remember much of it like it was yesterday. The book, of course, has not made it through this journey unscathed. Looking over it now, many of the pencil-stars remain. The pages are stained not with blood or tears, but with the food and drink which were not nearly important enough to warrant putting the book down to consume. Certain pages are marked with not one, but two or even three distinct dog-eared creases from multiple readings. The spine hangs off of it, completely detached from the front cover. Yet the golden inscription on the front, the inscription of the doors of Moria, remains as brilliant as the day I unwrapped it… as do my memories.
And I remember the silly Hobbit animated movie, in which the elves of Mirkwood are strange, blue creatures and death is symbolized by the spinning, spiraling spectacles of someone discovering the “rotate” function for the first time. I remember the somewhat more seriousFellowship animated movie, which extended into The Two Towers, complete with a preview of The Return of the King which was never to be fulfilled (to my knowledge).
And then, exiting the theater for a movie I don’t even remember, I saw a face and a hand holding a golden ring. Running up to the poster, uttering frantic  disbelieving  half-sentences, then reading the text below and exclaiming that Yes, it is, it’s happening in December Mom we HAVE to see it we HAVE to tell Dad. And we did tell Dad, and we saw it together. I don’t remember who else saw it with us (logic would dictate we were accompanied by my younger brother Oliver), but I remember seeing it with my dad, that first time and then again and again in theaters and at home, as (mostly) everything we had imagined impossibly came to life in front of us. And then anxiously awaiting The Two Towers and The Return of the King, and buying the movies at least twice because in a house with eight children, movies just don’t last very long.
And now it’s happening again. Sweet folksy metaphor,  it’s happening again.  A month ago, when my dad came to visit me and Anna, I showed him the trailer for The Hobbit on YouTube, and he was as excited as I was. In another month, we will see it together; my dad, my wife and I (and whoever else wants in). The memories will continue.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

When Doubts Arise: Vulnerability, Transparency, and Correction

A commenter on one of Rachel Held Evan’s posts about her love for the Bible,  bemoaning the (apparent) legalism of a recent review of Ms. Evan’s new book, says, “it breaks my heart that the BiblioGod of ‘innerancy’ will not permit such transparent vulnerability as Rachel’s.” Going to the review, the author does not attack Ms. Evans personally: On the contrary, she remarks how she enjoyed her brief personal correspondence with Ms. Evans. What the author does is attempt to critique not only the book itself, but where the book and its message comes from;  the author then explains why she believes it is not only wrong, but harmful.  So the question is this: Does disagreement, even forceful disagreement, necessarily mean exploiting vulnerability?
Continuing down the comments, there are more attacks on the review itself, its author, and the entire organization, while others questioned the reviewer’s motives, going so far as to suggest she had written the review only to curry favor with the higher-ups at Desiring God.
This is apparently the well-deserved backlash when someone dares to publicly disagree with someone who is being so “transparent[ly] vulnerable.”
But where, exactly, is the offense? If someone is “vulnerable,” are we not allowed to disagree with them?
Let’s investigate this a little more. Being “vulnerable” is desirous because it reflects a fundamental honesty, right? When you’re being vulnerable, you’re being honest about doubts you have, uncertainty you feel. And I agree: It’s good to be honest about doubts and uncertainties you have concerning your faith.
But where I get a little fuzzy is when we start saying that doubting and uncertainty is a kind of virtue in and of itself. When we begin implying that being honest about doubts somehow “validates” them and makes them good, makes them off-limits to rebuke or correction, we have a problem. Let’s go to scripture: In fact, let’s go straight to Jesus.
John 6:60. The day after the famous feeding of the 5,000. Jesus has just finished explaining some absolutely crazy theology using incredibly vivid imagery: whoever eats of my flesh, Jesus says, will live forever. Hearing this, many of his disciples turn to each other, dismayed and puzzled. “This is a hard saying,” they say. “Who can listen to it?”
These people, these disciples of Christ, are being incredibly vulnerable here. They are being completely honest about their doubts and their uncertainty. If this isn’t the very epitome of vulnerability, I don’t know what is.
And what’s Jesus’ response to this honest, uncertain vulnerability? He shuts it down hard. “Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?'” There is no apology. There is no hedging, no supporting words for those who are struggling to take it all in. From the very incarnation of Love Himself, there comes a very straight, very hard line. He continues, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.”
And the result? “After this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” His words and teachings, spoken in direct opposition to honest, vulnerable disciples, actually caused them to turn away.
The original commenter uses the derisive term “BiblioGod of ‘innerancy,'” implying a stubborn unwillingness to bend on certain issues. This implication is, I think, extremely accurate of the God the reviewer believes in. We’ll just use shorthand and call that God, that stubborn God who proclaims hard truths and demand that we follow them even if we don’t understand them, by his name: We’ll call Him Jesus.
So then, back to the original question: What is the correct response to “vulnerability” and doubts? It seems that the “biblical” answer, the answer Jesus would give, is to set them aright, because there is nothing good in doubting in and of itself.
In those times where belief is paired with unbelief, where we allow our doubts to be rebuked, corrected, and set right, where we cry with sheer panic, “I believe: Help my unbelief!”,… there, Jesus is ready and willing to save us from our doubts, to take our unbelief and turn it into faith. But there we must realize that it is not our “vulnerability” or our doubts that are virtuous: How could doubting Jesus and his truth ever be virtuous? Jesus isn’t looking for doubt, although that is a nearly permanent facet of our faith: He’s looking for an eagerness to be put right.
But where we merely doubt because it is too hard, too strange, too foreign to us, where we doubt and are unwilling to be reconciled to faith, where we will only say, “This is a hard teaching: who can follow it?”…  That road leads away from Jesus, and He will not follow you down it. Our eagerness to proclaim our doubts mean nothing without a striving for security in faith.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Strange Prayer

For a long time now, a close friend of mine has been content to call himself agnostic. We don’t talk about it often, but we did a couple weeks ago. I had a long conversation with him via Facebook, going back and forth on various things. Nothing seemed to sink in: It seemed as though we ended the conversation in roughly the exact same place we had started it: firmly planted in agnosticism.
“That’s a dangerous valley you’re in, dude,” I told him.
“Well, that depends on who’s right,” he said. “But I understand what you mean.”
Then he said he had to go and thanked me for the talk. I told him I’d pray for him, and he said he appreciated it.
But I’m not so sure he would still appreciate it, if he knew what I had prayed for.
Later that day, I found myself  hunched over my steering wheel in a Bank of America parking lot, praying that God would give my friend notpeace, but an unsettling, uneasy, frantic desire for truth. I’d never prayed for something like that before (except for myself). I’d never prayed for someone to become less calm, to be more unsure about things.
I’d never thought about it before, but I think the prayer stuck me as so unusual because we tend to see “comfort” as something that’s always good, and nervousness and anxiety as something that’s always bad. “Don’t worry, be happy,” says the secular world, and Paul tells us, “Don’t be anxious about anything, but with prayer and thanksgiving bring your requests to God.”
The world tells us not to worry because worrying doesn’t really help much. It reflects a certain Ecclesiastical fatalism: Everything might not work out alright, but worrying won’t help it, so we might as well be happy. This may well be the best answer the world has, but it’s still not a good answer. But the Church tells us not to worry because of who and where we are, as Christians.
As Christians, worry over our outward circumstances betrays a fundamental misunderstanding concerning who and where we are.  We are Christians; we are, in a very real sense, in Christ, and our position in Christ is so completely and utterly secure that Paul can go on at length over the many and various things that can never separate us from the love of God, including all of creation visible and invisible, natural and supernatural.
The same cannot be said for the non-Christian. The same cannot be said for the one hedging towards agnosticism. And indeed, it seems to me that agnosticism is infinitely more dangerous for the subject that even outright atheism.
This is because an outright atheist is, in many important ways, closer to Christianity than an agnostic. Atheism is, at least, an active position. It requires an active affirmation of certain beliefs, a certain intellectual engagement with those beliefs. The atheist at least believes that the existence or non-existence of God is an important subject, one worth thinking about and arguing over.
Not so for the agnostic. The agnostic (at least, this particular agnostic) simply doesn’t care all that much. Atheism has points in its favor, as does Christianity: Further research into the matter may yield more information, but who has the time? The agnostic simply doesn’t care enough about the matter, can’t be bothered to think seriously about it. He is settled and at peace.
And so I prayed in the bank parking lot. I prayed not for peace on earth, but for unrest and discord in the mind and soul of my friend. I prayed for God to make him restless, uncertain, even frightened of his position. I prayed that he would care so much that it would drive all other concerns out of his mind. Only then, I think, will he be able to once again seek God and find Him.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Owning Our Faults

A few days ago, this post showed up in my email (I subscribe to the blog). In it, the author, Joshua, (who is a non-religious Jewish atheist) makes a strange assertion that took me a while to come to grips with: That the Christian Church has a history of antisemitism, that this antisemitism persists even today in many Christian circles, and that the Church refuses to acknowledge this past and present antisemitism. Finally, Josh asserts that because of this, and because of a continued reluctance on the part of individual Christians (and the Church as a whole) to consciously and deliberately take steps to rectify the past and current wrongs, he finds it very difficult to take the Church seriously as a moral authority. I dialogued briefly with him on his post and felt convicted to write about it.
There are times, I think, to argue about unjust accusations and unfair generalizations. There are times to point out that the Church is, after all, composed of fallen human beings who do their best but often stumble: There are also times to point out that the earthly church has often been hijacked by those who use it for power and to further their own selfish, hateful ends.
But this isn’t one of those times. Antisemitism was not a brief moment in the life of the Church, quickly corrected. It was not a heresy that was recognized and cast out. It was not some kind of splinter movement, or the beliefs of a few radical “Christians.” It started early, around 400 a.d., as influential writers and thinkers began to condemn the Jews and claim that their sufferings were a result of their part in the death of Christ… and then it quickly became “and they wouldn’t hesitate to kill youeither!” They were sub-human, mere beasts.  Although some popes did, indeed, speak out against the prevalent anti-semitism, many did not. The Jews were villainous beyond belief, and depending on who you asked, they were destined for perpetual slaverypracticed ritual murderate Christian children and drank their blood… Jews were railed against in churches and public places, driven from their homes and expelled from countries where they sought refuge, and killed by the hundreds and thousands.  And this was done by the general body of the Christian Church, sometimes with the explicit support of church leadership. And this went on, off-and-on again under various popes and in varying degrees of persecution, for over a thousand years.
We don’t like to talk about the mis-steps of the Church. We don’t like to talk about the people the church hurt and killed, the lives the church ruined, the terror and wreckage we let loose on the world when the church went bad. And perhaps that’s the reason that I never knew any of this before I got to Biola. I was never told, not at my private Christian k-8th school, not at my Sunday school, not at my church. There’s this huge, enormous, chunk of church history that we like to pretend never existed, so we don’t talk about it, we don’t acknowledge it in the slightest.
But it did exist. It happened. And while we’ve left the bloody pogroms and accusations of child-sacrifice behind, there remain the blanket-condemnations of the Jews of Jesus’ time as stupid, or greedy, or power-hungry, the ugly stereotypes of the Jewish lawyer, and a general and offensive ignorance of all things Jewish (which we nonetheless like to talk about with authority because hey, Christianity, right?).
I was lucky enough to be raised in an intelligent Christian household where antisemitism held no sway (to the best of my knowledge). I have never driven a Jew from his country, or accused him of eating a child, or blamed him for the death of Christ. I suspect most of you can say the same. The question then becomes, “Why do we need to apologize for something we had no part in? Why do we need to speak out against something that we aren’t doing wrong?”
Because Scripture tells us that we are one body, but many members. And because history, and the personal experience of Jews, tells us that the earthly, visible body of Christ has done great harm in Christ’s name. Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 12 that “if one member suffers, everyone suffers with it.” What happens to one member of the body of Christ happens to all members… and by the same reasoning, what one member of the body commits, all members are responsible for.
We cannot deny responsibility for the harm we have caused and are causing currently to the Jewish people as a whole and individual Jewish people in particular, merely because we did not personally take part. Neither can we deny responsibility to set things right, as much as it is in our power. We are not all pastors, and there is no central evangelical authority that can declare some official stance. But we all have spheres of influence in our lives (mine happens to be this small space right here). Each of us, individually, can take responsibility for the Church’s wrongs, and more importantly, we can take responsibility for setting them right.
That’s the point of this post. If we are to claim that the Church is, in fact, one body, and that the Church means something, then we must claim responsibility. As ambassadors of Christ, we must own our faults and right them: Otherwise, why should the world take us seriously?

Monday, September 17, 2012

His Name Is Alex

On my way to youth group on Wednesday night, I stopped at Rite Aid for a soda. As I walked across the parking lot, I noticed a young woman talking to a man leaning against the side of the building. I guess that I noticed his clothing had a certain rumpled quality to it, but I didn’t really think anything more of it.
I went inside, bought a Cherry Coke, and at the register, I made sure to get cash back, $20 in fives. There is a huge amount of homeless people in the Fresno area, and I like having something to give them. I exited the building and began walking through the parking lot back to my car. I looked to my right to see if the man I had noticed before was still there at the side of the building.
He was. Our eyes met for maybe two seconds, and I gave him a nod. Neither of us said anything: It was just a nod, a wordless, “Hey, man.” Then I looked away. I took a drink of my soda and walked a couple more steps, before he shouted out to me across the maybe 25 ft. which separated us.
“Thank you!”
I stopped, turned, and began to walk back towards him. He expanded: “I saw you nod. You saw me, and you nodded, like…” He trailed off, seemingly not sure how to finish it. “Thanks,” he said again.
I walked up to him, introduced myself, and asked him his name.
“Alex,” he said. We talked a bit. He had a large cut on his lip, and he rolled up his arm to show me bruises: Some “youngsters” had tried to steal his backpack (with nothing but toilet paper and toothpaste in it) the other day.  He apologized (twice!) for his raggedy appearance: I told him that nobody worth caring about cared about stuff like that (not the best thoughts on the subject ever, granted). He agreed enthusiastically, saying that there’s only one person who can judge us: Our Creator.
We only talked for a few minutes. I asked him if I could give him five bucks (although I now greatly regret not inviting him into the Rite Aid to load up on granola bars and the like). He didn’t say anything, at first. He looked shocked; he almost looked  like he was about to cry. I told him I would really like to help him out a little bit. Finally he said that he would really appreciate that.
So I gave Alex $5 and told him that I would keep him in my prayers. He thanked me, and I walked away.  And as I finished the drive to youth group, and for the rest of the night, I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
All I had done was nod to him. I hadn’t even spoken to him at first. I had looked at him, met his gaze, and nodded. And yet that one thing, that gesture, that bare acknowledgement of his existence and his humanity, was enough to cause him to literally call out and verbally and explicitly thank me.
That blew my mind. How terrible is our culture  that the obvious, commonplace thing to do is to simply ignore the poor and suffering among us? Yes, it’s always been  easier to do that, even for Christians, and it’s possible that it’s always been like this and I merely hadn’t noticed… but when what should be the bare minimum of an interaction between two people fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God becomes something rare and worthy of thanks, we have a problem.
I don’t want to end this with a “Therefore, we should…”, because that makes it sound like I have it all together and am basing my call to action on my own incredible performance. That is so not the case. It is, instead, a recognition of how far short I have fallen each and every time I have avoided the gaze of someone on the street, merely because I didn’t have any money, or because I was in a hurry, because it’s just easier not to look at them than to look at them and be uncomfortable. 
I need to do better. We need to do better. I asked him his name, which I think is important: He isn’t “some homeless guy I met at a Rite Aid.” His name is Alex, and he was made in the image of God.

Friday, September 7, 2012

On the Merits of Naming Your Main Character After a Day of the Week

The Man Who was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton, is one of the greatest books many people will never read.
After posting my thoughts on Job, I revisited Thursday. I often do this: I have it on my computer, on my kindle, and a physical copy (although that never gets used anymore). I’ve read it more times than I can count, whether from the first page to the last, or just random bits and pieces here and there. And I wanted to talk about it, because I think you should read it: Yes, you. I don’t care who you are, I don’t even care if you’ve read it before. You should read it.
He wrote it in 1908. Years later, writing The Everlasting Man in 1925, Chesterton would say, “It is impossible, I hope, for any Catholic to write any book on any subject… without showing that he is a Catholic.” Although he wrote Thursday long before this statement–indeed, long before even his official conversion to Catholicism–it is clear that this sentiment was already alive and well in Chesterton in 1908. In Chesterton’s own words, the book was “a protest against the pessimism of the ‘nineties. And though I didn’t know much about God, I was ready to stick up for Him against the jury of Cockney poets who had brought Him in guilty.”
It was the second of Chesterton’s books that I had the pleasure of reading: Manalive was the first, coming into my freshman year at Biola, and for more than a year I failed to appreciate its brilliance. Then I read it again, and immediately I knew that I had to find more of Chesterton.
We found Thursday on Amazon.com, my mother and I. “That one!” I said, and *click*, *click*, *click* and “It’ll be here in two days,” my mom said (Amazon Prime is truly a marvelous thing). And then it was there, and I read it all in one afternoon.
I still remember the first time I read it, now about four years ago.  I was sitting on the couch upstairs at my parent’s house (although back then it was also my house). It started out as a poetical dual between two poets, quickly becoming a tale of the Last Crusade, the last heroes of the world and their fight against anarchy.
And suddenly it wasn’t that, anymore.
I distinctly remember the exact moment it ceased to be a suspenseful detective story about the end of the world and became… something else. I remember the thrill — even now, chills are running down my spine as I remember it. I had been leaning–no, lounging–back against the couch, but at some point I found I had arched forward, hunched over the book, eyes racing over words and pages towards I-knew-not-what.
And then the moment… that amazing, incredible moment when everything comes together and even if you don’t understand, you knowthat there is something absolutely marvelous there, something beautiful and amazing and terrible… the book slipped from my fingers, falling to the floor, and I likewise fell backwards into the cushions, head tilting back to stare at the ceiling, breathing “holy crap” to the empty room.
And then, after a minute, I picked it back up and read the ending again. Then I turned a few pages back and finished it a third time. This is burned into my memory. I remember it clear as day: I relive it, to a lesser degree, when I re-read the book now.
You see, I can’t just tell you what’s so marvellous about it. That would be to rob you of that moment, when the book punches you right in the heart, soul, and mind. But I did want tell you to read it. I’m not going to say you need to read The Man Who was Thursday. But I think you should. I think you will greatly enjoy it. I think you will profit from it immensely. And as you read it, think of Job.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Making Christianity Delicious

Recently, our pastor spent a few minutes talking about Colossians 4:6, specifically the lines, “Let your speech be always gracious, seasoned with salt.” He brought in a box of waffle fries from Chick-Fil-A, telling us that he had ordered them without salt, just to see what they would taste like.
They were terrible.
Salt is what makes fries (and many, many other things) delicious–which is, of course, Paul’s point. Apparently, Paul felt that there was a danger of Christianity being served without salt. And it’s just as applicable today, at a time when many Christians seem content to present Christianity without any sort of flavoring at all.
Presentation. Preparation. That’s what we’re bad at. We fail to make Christianity taste good.  And this is why you’ll rarely see a non-Christian listening to Christian music, or reading Christian fiction: for the most part, it’s just not very good. The same goes for most of our public discourse, our preaching and our evangelizing. Our words lack salt and flavor, anything that would make Christianity appealing to someone who doesn’t already accept it as truth.  We have forgotten to season our words with salt, to make them (as the pastor said) “tasty morsels.”
To expand the metaphor, we throw everything together on the plate; the Trinity, Christ, creation, sin, love, heaven and hell, just kind of piled on top of each other. Then, having precariously arranged it on a dish too small for it, ill-prepared, bits of doctrine slopping off the plate, we throw it at the world and yell, “It’s good for you, darn it! Eat!”. And we don’t understand why the world sends it back and orders something else, wiping bits of undercooked theology off its face.
Colorful metaphor aside, a lot of the time, we don’t even bother trying to make Christianity appealing, and some even revel in saying things they know will offend people (the hateful entity known as Westboro Baptist “Church” is an extreme example of this mindset). I myself had to struggle with this idea for a bit. After all, isn’t it very similar to  what I’veaccused Progressive Christianity of doing: “watering down” Christianity, making it other than it is, taking away altogether that which offends, leaving only that which easily delights?
But I realized that while this is indeed a danger of which we must be mindful, there is a key difference.
I’m reminded of the cooking shows my wife’s family loves to watch, especially the ones that focus on desserts (last metaphor, I promise). The contestants, expert chefs all, are given directives and restrictions, then set loose in the kitchen. But before they’ve made much progress on their chosen recipe, a buzzer rings and a new restriction is imposed: the recipe must now include an unexpected ingredient, something not immediately suited for inclusion in a dessert (in one episode, one of the ingredients was green tomatoes).
I, not being an expert dessert chef, am often flabbergasted at how anyone could possibly make some of the ingredients appealing. I’m trying to make a delicious cupcake: how the heck can I incorporate green tomatoes into that? If I’m going to make a cupcake that people want to eat, the tomato has to go.
And yet the chefs prevail. They incorporate the strange ingredients flawlessly (more or less). They make it look good and even, if the judge is to be believed, taste good as well.
So some people simply discard that which seems to be unappealing. Some discard the doctrine of hell, and others disown the God of the Old Testament, and many liberal Christians see the exclusivity of Christ as nothing more than a barrier to the tastiness of Christianity. They cannot see how to make it taste good, so out it goes. And I would argue that the result of such a recipe is something less than Christianity.
So we must turn to the master chefs of Christianity. We must turn to those who know and love the unique taste each ingredient of Christianity brings to the table, those who refuse to part with a single doctrine in serving Christianity to people. We must turn to people like G. K. Chesterton, who demonstrated that the properly Christian life must almost certainly be a properly happy life. We must turn to C. S. Lewis, whose books are loved by children and adults, Christian and non-Christian alike. And more recently, we would do well in imitating  many of the current Christian hip-hop artists as they convey Christianity unadulterated and unapologetically to all lovers of music.
Finally, I want to deal with the immediate objection that might be raised: “Why even bother trying to make it appealing, when Paul seems to say that’s impossible?” This objection comes from 2 Corinthians 2:15-16, where Paul says that the gospel is an odor of death to those who are perishing. This is true: Christianity holds no attraction to those who resist it. But as Paul’s words and actions in other places demonstrate, words matter. Presentation matters. It is our responsibility, in so far as we are able, to make Christianity a sweet aroma to those who smell it, a delicious dish to those who taste it.
Paul, Chesterton, Lewis, and many others realize that Christianity is beautiful as well as true. Any presentation of Christianity that is not beautiful and graceful is not the full truth of Christianity– and even though Christianity will always be an abomination to those who are unreceptive, we must still demonstrate its beauty to those who are seeking it.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Dangerous Ideas: Complementarian Marriage

Since when are doctrines judged by when they go wrong, as opposed to when they go right?
There seems to be this really weird idea floating around the egalitarianparts of the internet that complementarians are just one step away (or maybe not even that) from outright abusing their wives. This was exposed by a recent post (now taken down) by Jared Wilson which sparked a truly enormous amount of controversy. Jared apologized for the words he used, which had caused pain to many victims of abuse, and his apology was accepted by many. However, it was also rejected by many as inadequate: these were offended not merely by the words, they say, but also by the (perceived) ideas behind them.
One blogger, in the comments section of Jared’s post, rejects the apology, saying, “The words used just exposed a deeply venomous truth about complementarianism… you are still causing hurt as long as you continue to “conquer” and “colonize” women.” That same commenter goes on to say that she is simply stating “the harm his words and the philosophies behind them do to women.” Look through the comments: there’s a lot more where that came from.  The complaint seems to be this: the belief that wives should submit to their husbands is, at best, a belief that merely allows abuse to happen. At worst, it encourages it.
And here, I really am lost. I mean, I can see where they’re coming from, a little bit. Does complementarianism have potential to be abused? Certainly. Does it open the door to more overt types of abuse than egalitarianism? Probably.
But it’s so much more than that! It’s so much more than what happens when it fails. Egalitarians read, “Wives, submit to your husbands” and assume that whatever complementarians say goes on in their marriage, behind closed doors it must be all forced, impersonal, dominating sex and (if the husband’s not too tired) some emotional and physical abuse of the wife afterwards. But the submission and authority is only half, and not even the most emphatic half, of what we believe to be important in marriage.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:25-28). That’s our responsibility. Everything we do in marriage, and I mean everything, is supposed to be motivated by self-sacrificing love. Yes, we will lead our wives, and we will, when necessary, exercise authority, but we will never approve of any instance of authority that is not motivated completely by a self-sacrificing love for the wife.
Of course, we will fail at times. We will make selfish decisions at times. But if we truly are concerned with loving our wives as Christ loved the church, we will never progress to the point that many egalitarians seem to believe is the inevitable result of complementarianism.
So the ultimate result of true complementarianism will be a husband whose guiding principle in marriage is self-sacrificing love. The wife can submit to her husband in the full knowledge that everything he does for her is motivated not by selfishness or arrogance, but by his love for her, just as the Church can submit to Christ with the same assurance. This is what we’re talking about when we defend complementarianism. This is what we think marriage should be like.
Now, I previously mentioned the possibility of abuse. And it’s true: This is a dangerous doctrine. But, then again, as Chesterton reminds us, the Church has always been full of dangerous doctrines, doctrines that have vast potential for abuse. He writes, “Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas: she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.”
So do we want to judge a doctrine merely by what happens when it fails, as many egalitarians seem to judge complementarians? Consider the Trinity, which has been the starting point for many heresies and false teachings, tri-theism the most obvious. It’s clearly a dangerous doctrine, with vast potential for abuse and misunderstanding. Shall we do away with it?
How about the divinity and humanity of Christ? That’s an extremely dangerous idea: Get one idea wrong and you have Arianism or Gnosticism, with enormous implications for the Atonement, prayer, and theology of the body. Shall we do away with it, merely because when it goes wrong, it can go very wrong?
Of course not. We cannot judge a doctrine by what happens when it goes wrong, because our entire faith is built on perfectly balanced doctrines that, if ever unbalanced, would shatter the Church into pieces. Every important doctrine is a dangerous doctrine.
This applies equally to marriage. The idea that a marriage relationship should consist of loving submission and respect by the wife and loving authority by the husband is a dangerous idea. Chesterton reminds us that “An inch is everything when you are balancing,” and anyone can see this very clearly in marriage. The respect wains, and the husband loses confidence. The authority wains, and the husband becomes weak. The love fades, and the marriage disintegrates into tyranny. Everything must be perfectly balanced, or all is lost.
So yes, the marriage I believe Paul describes in Ephesians 5 is a very dangerous idea of marriage. If it goes wrong, it can go very wrong. But that cannot be a reason for villainizing it, because the same could be said of every essential doctrine of the Christian faith. Instead, we should judge it by when it goes right. So talk about the necessity for “equality,” if you feel that’s being infringed upon. But stop insisting that every complementarian marriage is just abuse waiting to happen. It’s uncharitable and fundamentally dishonest (not to mention ignorant).