Archive for October, 2009

Book Review: The Four Loves

October 31, 2009

My anticipated involvement with my church polity’s effort to reach young adults is at this point focused on providing book reviews.  On a monthly basis they’ll publish a book review for some book that should or is supposed to be appealing to young adults, as determined hopefully by the young adults themselves, but probably with some input from market research as well. 

The stated goal of the web site where these reviews and other sorts of tidbits will be published is twofold – to encourage young adults to participate actively in congregational life, and to prepare and equip congregations in regards to how to integrate this missing demographic into active congregational life.  Those are pretty big goals for a denomination that, like others, is greying and shrinking.  But it’s a good goal.  Perhaps part of the reason that young adults are noticeably absent from our congregations is that they haven’t been shown how they can – or should – participate in them. 

So I’ll be tweaking my book reviews a little bit, with these intended goals in mind.  This is a fair approach, since the idea that a book exists in a vacuum without some sort of practical application – particularly books with theological topics or approaches – is rather unrealistic.  The point of writing – and reading – is impact, and impact has repercussions, so to speak.  Impact can change someone’s trajectory. 

It’s with these particular filters that I review C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves.

It’s refreshing to read a theological book that doesn’t make our experience of reality and emotion and life the baseline for reality and actuality.  C.S. Lewis firmly belongs to another age of thought that still expected that our perceptions and experiences ought to be conformed and shaped by God, rather than assuming that our perceptions and experiences are first of all accurate, and second of all proper.  Lewis assumes neither, and in fact assumes that left to our own devices, our experiences and perceptions cannot possibly be either accurate or proper. 

Lewis discusses the four classical forms of friendship, which are somewhat referred to scripturally through four different Greek words alternately used to describe love.  While I’m not convinced that in all instances, the word chosen in the New Testament is meant to imply some far deeper division of love, that’s a matter that Lewis is unconcerned with.  He simply seeks to discuss our four experiences of love – affection, friendship, romantic love, and charity.  These are roughly and occasionally correlated to the Greek terms storge, philia, eros, and agape

Since culturally there is very little emphasis or attention paid to the loves of affection and friendship, I found these very helpful.  Not that I haven’t experienced them, but it gave me a good way of describing them and understanding the sometimes subtle distinctions between the two.  Likewise, agape has no real cultural focus or attention.  But because our culture is so obsessed with eros, this discussion is also helpful.  Useful is Lewis’ careful distinction between the physical aspect of eros (which is what our culture tends to focus on) and the emotional state as a whole. 

I was rather perturbed by Lewis’ reliance on pagan mythology in his treatment of eros, emphasizing the re-enactment of pagan ideas such as the Sky-Father and the Earth-Mother.  I can understand how these would come so readily to his mind based on his education and focus as a professor, but they seem very incongruous within the general Christian context.  The assertion that intimacy is a subconscious re-enactment of this deep myths is very strange.  I would have thought a discussion of the New Testament description of the Church as the bride of Christ would be more helpful, or Paul’s linking of marriage itself to a representation of this more profound relationship between Christ and his Church.

Equally important is Lewis’ consistent emphasis on the distinction between the emotions themselves and their proper experience and expression in submission to the Lord that created and enabled them in the first place.  Lewis firmly places the emotions in the role of tools which are intended by our creator for very specific things – and when we elevate the tools to the position of the tool master, we inevitably run into disaster (hey, that rhymes!).  For Lewis, the loves are not experienced against or in lieu of  God’s love, but are intended to be enjoyed as tools guided and wielded in the wisdom and grace of our creator.

Lewis’ observations and insights are much needed in our day and age.  In a culture obsessed with sexuality and not with the emotional commitments that it was designed to be enjoyed within, all of our love relationships become skewed and twisted.  Why is it that we’re drawn to certain people inexplicably or perhaps even counter-intuitively (affection), and others seem to leap into our lives in sudden and amazing ways (friendship)?  What is the difference between these two forms of love, and why is it that when we attempt to transmute their qualities, things often go awry?  For that matter, why is it that sexuality is discovered to be so empty by some who have attempted to enjoy it without the proper eros love or relationship?  And what is the nature of our instinct to help and be helped by those around us? 

In congregational life (and any other environment where people are around each other in some sort of intense form) these various loves can become confused.  What begins appropriately as friendship can be mistaken for eros.  What one assumes to be affection can be interpreted by another as friendship or even charity.  Feelings are easily hurt whenever we are interacting with someone else. 

Congregational life is often obsessed with the proper experience and enjoyment of eros as within the marital relationship.  And this is certainly a valid concern.  However in my experience, far more attention could be paid to the proper experience and understanding of friendship.  How people conduct themselves when they discover someone else in the congregation that shares some mutual appreciation or understanding.  The importance of avoiding the negative aspects of friendship that turn a common interest or experience into an exclusionary and condescending barrier to others.  The understanding that certain relationships of affection simply arise, and are not calculated efforts to exclude others, or a form of favoritism.  We need to understand that our need to give and to receive are equally valid and healthy and need to find suitable expression within congregational life, or congregational life should provide the background and education for people to utilize this love in their life as a whole.  All manner of hurts and injuries are easily given and received because of misunderstandings of these various forms of love, and particularly in bitterness as people become jealous or feel excluded or neglected.  Cliques can be deadly in congregations, and they seem to run rampant. 

The nature of these loves is to focus on ourselves, or on ourselves and the other person(s) involved to the exclusion or blindness of everyone else.  However, Biblically we’re called to be an inclusive bunch, always welcoming, always open to others.  Not that we won’t have some people that we’re closer to than others.  But we need to be aware that people watch how we conduct ourselves every bit as much as we watch how they conduct themselves.  And Satan is always looking for any excuse to drive a wedge between a group of people, to break off one or two or
twenty from the whole, to drive them in what they think is righteous indignation and disgust from one congregation to another – never committing anywhere, and always finding human nature in all it’s sinful glory regardless of where they go.  If we are wiser about the fact that we will love in different ways, and what the blessings and pitfalls of each of those ways are, we will hopefully be better about guarding the boundaries of our relationships against inappropriate expressions, and better about genuinely welcoming people into our lives and our communities just as our Lord did.  Not because we’re so good on our own, but because our Lord can be good through us. 

What Is a Young Adult?

October 31, 2009

I’m in the process of beginning to help out my Synod (the hierarchical structure of my church body, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) with a new venture of theirs to attempt to connect with the disconnected young adult demographic.  In my church polity, as in most other traditional mainstream denominations, this demographic is noticeably missing from active congregational life.  It isn’t necessarily that this demographic doesn’t believe in God, researchers assure us, it’s just that they don’t see much point in the Church. 

I spoke with the woman responsible for this new outreach effort.  She indicated that the target demographic basically runs from post-high school to 40.  That’s a pretty big spread for a group called young adults.  I’m 40, and I don’t consider myself a young adult, even though I prefer to think of myself as young still.  It’s getting harder to maintain this illusion, but it’s mostly an internal illusion.  But for someone to claim that as a 40-ish person I could still be considered a young adult is a bit of a slap in the face. 

It gets me to wondering what is the rite of passage from youth to adulthood now?  How does one graduate from being a young adult, a modified version of adult that seems (to me) to imply some sort of development still to come?  Is the young an effort to reassure these folks that they’re young?  Some of them don’t need that reassurance.  So is it just a reassurance to those on the upper end of the spectrum?  Am I supposed to feel better for the fact that I’m considered young still?  It’s not very convincing.  Any interaction with the culture around me makes it very clear that I am not considered young, regardless of what I tell myself. 

So why the young modifier?  What is it that those in this demographic have yet to accomplish?  It doesn’t make sense to me that it’s simply an age thing.

It’s apparently not a stage of life  thing, either.  Demographically, it’s assumed that young adults range from single college students to single 20’s & 30’s folks, to married folks in their 20’s & 30’s, to young families in their 20’s & 30’s.  I’m assuming it isn’t an issue of employment – though I’m frightened to think that it may be! 

Is this a self-designated nomenclature?  Do people at 38 or 39 prefer to still be known as a young adult?  I sure don’t.  So who is it that’s making this designation?  It would make sense that it’s somebody older.  In which case, it seems a pretty pejorative title, possibly even an effort to maintain some sort of position of implied dominance or power by a group that considers itself simply adult instead of young adult

I’m not going to quibble with my polity at this point.  But I think it’s a worthwhile discussion to have.  If we desire people in their 20’s and 30’s to be actively involved in Church life, we need to get rid of terminology that leads them to believe or accept that they are not, in fact, a desired demographic of active congregational life.  We need to emphasize to these people that they are adults, and we need to be clear in our heads about what the dividing factors are between adults and young adults.  It isn’t a matter of sexuality, since activity in that regard is happening younger and younger – among people who a few hundred years ago would have been considered responsible adults, but are now considered children still.  It isn’t a matter of employment, since the vast majority of the age spectrum considered young adult is expected to have been working for some time – particularly if they have a marriage or family to support.

So what is it?  Why is 40 the magic number for becoming an adult?  Why not 30?  Why not 25?  At what point do we expect people to take responsibility?  At what point do we quit qualifying their maturity?  At what point will they stop qualifying it themselves?

Final 7 Quick Takes Friday!

October 30, 2009

Click the graphic above for the lady who started this all.  However, this will be my last week participating in this activity.

After almost three months of participation, I’m thinking that I need to differentiate a bit.  So I’m going to be creating my own ongoing blog feature, where every Friday I review the news tidbits that caught my eye in the previous week.  There will be some commentary as well, but less than a full-blown blog post would normally entail (this is my theory at least!).  My friend J.P. is already a blessing in terms of forwarding me links to news items that he thinks might make good blog bits, and everyone else is free to do the same.  Or, if you’re so inclined, start copying my idea at your own blog site.  The goal is to help people think a little further about issues being reported in the news. 

Towards that end, and sort of in a preview of coming attractions….here’s my last 7 Quick Takes Friday.

Thanks to J.P. for the link to an article regarding the Church of Sweden’s decision this past week to permit gay weddings.  Sweden was one of the European countries where the Church and the State are linked together – however that official link was broken in 2000 when the Church of Sweden left the control of the government.  However it seems clear that the long association of the two (the Church first was established as separate from the Roman Catholic Church in 1536, affiliated itself with the Lutheran strain of the Protestant Reformation in 1593) is not quickly undone.  The Swedish government – with the support of much of the Church of Sweden – established legal gay marriages and associated rights in May of this year.  According to Wikipedia, the Church of Sweden claims almost 7 million members, with an average weekly worship attendance of less than 2% of those members.  Sweden is the fifth European country to legalize gay marriage.  The church’s official web site is here, but the information is extremely generic, and hasn’t been updated in light of the recent decision on marriage (the site still refers to marriage as involving a bride and a groom).

The supporting quote in the article is from the Swedish gay rights group RSFL simply indicates that this move will help them feel “a little more welcome within society”.  It makes me wonder what would make them feel fully welcome.  I think it’s a telling (perhaps unintentionally so) quote, as it makes it clear that this is not the end.  Simply having the legal ability to marry is not the final goal for the homosexual community.  It is merely one of a long series of calculated moves intended to eliminate any objection to or criticism of the homosexual and/or transgendered lifestyle. 

In terms of marriage in general – which still means heterosexual marriage, despite what a vocal homosexual minority would have us believe – here are a series of interesting news summaries on marriage and happiness.  The first article was from the BBC, reporting that marriages in which the wife was younger were more successful than when the age situation was reversed. Of course, this information was used to provide riveting commentary on the future success of Beyonce’s marriage to rapper Jay-Z.   Call me skeptical, but I tend to think that age differences are going to end up being far less of an issue in their relationship than a myriad of other pressures and problems they’ll have to face!

The next related article dealt with studies that purport to refute 1970’s era research, and assert that marriage benefits both men and women, not just men as was reported 30 years or more ago.   I found the end of the article rather curious, as a researcher attempted to explain the change in findings as related to the role of greater equality between men and women.  But, as I read his quote, he seems to be applying (perhaps inadvertently?) that greater equality in terms of sexual liberation.  Whereas in the 1970’s, men felt at liberty to have affairs and women didn’t, now somehow that has equalized.  So women feel happier because they know that they have an equal right to an extramarital affair?  Hmmm.  I’m no scientist, but that logic doesn’t seem to make much sense.  I’d also be curious to find out how many women feel that life is less stressful now than it was 30 years ago!

The final BBC article covered a German study of 15,000 people measuring happiness levels of married people.  The study found that people were most happy in their first year of marriage, and that this declined over time until they were less happy at 10 years of marriage than they were when they first were married.  Updrafts in happiness levels are generally reported in years four and five and again in year seven.  Researchers tend to explain the falling happiness levels with misperceptions about the nature (and hard work) of a marriage relationship, and attitudes of husband and wife gradually ‘maturing’ and resulting in a more steady, but less intense, level of happiness over time.  No figures were cited for happiness levels beyond year ten.

Which sounds to me as though, if we were more realistic in our depictions of love and marriage to young people, there might not be the same downward trend in reported happiness levels.  I guess the real issue is more in the depiction of love, rather than marriage.  I’m not aware of portrayals of strong, healthy, happy marriage relationships.  But culturally we spend a lot of time idealizing and romanticizing (not to mention sexualizing) the idea of love, leaving the depiction to the giddiness of early love without providing any sort of idea that love takes work, and love is not simply that goofy, 15-year old experience of it.  Portraying a more mature and realistic love isn’t very exciting, I suppose, and would require a heck of a lot more work.  But apparently, it might pay some dividends in better preparing young people for the joys and work of marriage when they get a little older.

It seems that there are a lot of people out there who feel that Darwinism and natural selection should not be viewed as the airtight, scientific slam-dunk that adherents would prefer it be received as.  Recent studies (another BBC report) indicate that this attitude varies significantly on a country by country basis.  Out of ten countries included in the report, and average of 53% of respondents felt that Darwinism/natural selection should be presented alongside other theories and perspectives.  I thought it was interesting that 60% of British respondents felt this way – I would have expected a much lower number in a country that seems so doggedly secular at times.  It’s very encouraging that, despite people’s reactions to the church, they haven’t necessarily been sold on the most aggressively marketed alternative – blind chance. 

The European Council will be making a few decisions in their coming Council meeting beyond electing a new president.  One of those decisions will be on a directive (law) which could make disagreement with homosexual lifestyles or other religions a criminal offense.  This summary (I was unable to
locate any form of the actual legislation on the European Council’s web site) focuses on the vague definitions of key terms in the directive, as well as on the idea that it is the victim who defines what constitutes harassment or an “offensive environment”, and then the burden of proof is on the accused to prove that this was not the case.  Failure to prove your innocence would result in an unspecified penalty payment. 

Christian congregations are worried that the loosely worded language would open them up to charges of harassment for taking stances against other religions (notably Islam) or homosexual practices.  There was great outcry when the initial form of the Directive was adopted back in April of this year.  This is just another example of the twisted concept of tolerance being used to eliminate tolerance.

On a lighter note, let it never be said that advertising and marketing geniuses are ever prone to missing out on an opportunity to spin current events.  Kellogg’s has been advertising that certain cereals (such as Cocoa Krispies) are an important immunity boosting tool for children. 

Never fear, however.  The champions of justice and the protectors of the vulnerable are not asleep either.  The City Attorney for San Francisco is demanding evidence from Kellogg’s to substantiate its claims.  Kelloggs’s response is that by including 25% of the daily requirement for a child’s vitamin A, B, C and E intake (all of which are cited for their roles in improving immune functions), it’s claim is not misleading or false. 

It is, however, probably pretty tacky.  I hope that parents don’t seriously think that a good weapon in their arsenal of defense of their children’s health is Cocoa Krispies.  Even if they are way yummy.

The news is true – Walmart is now selling caskets.

Prices range from about $900 to around $3000, including an option for larger folks that is 4″ wider than a normal casket. 

How do these costs compare?  Walmart’s Sienna Bronze casket retails for $2899, their most expensive casket listed.  A casket of the same name and appearance comes up on Google’s Product Search listed for $3499.  When I checked the listings for a local funeral home, they had a line of caskets that started at $900, but the vast majority of their products were over $3000.  I like the idea of a major retailer bringing to bear some much needed pricing pressure on funeral homes that all too easily can pressure families into a very expensive casket during their time of grief.

I’ve written in the past about the curious problem that is posed regarding how a deceased person’s online identities are dealt with.   The newest wrinkle in the story comes from Facebook, which is dealing with this particular aspect of life (and death) through memorialized pages.  Users who are deceased will have their Facebook pages modified.  Existing friends and family will be fixed, updates from the account (such as the new, annoying notices to reconnect with various Facebook friends) will be eliminated.  Existing friends and family will be the only ones that can find the profile in a search, and will be the only ones who can leave notes and messages on the deceased’s wall.  “Sensitive information” about the deceased will also be removed to help protect their privacy.

In a way, this becomes the virtual form of visiting a friend’s grave site.  Rather than going to physically remember and leave flowers or notes, it can be done virtually.  This is appropriate, given the virtual nature of our online existence, even the most  true-to-life virtual natures.  And it allows friends to pay their respects regardless of where they are in the world. 

On another level though, it can be misleading.  It can facilitate the feeling that the deceased is still alive in a way that a grave site does not.  There is a physical difference between visiting a grave site and visiting a memorialized Facebook page.  The Facebook page – while somewhat modified – remains much as it was when the person was alive.  Though they aren’t actually posting or interacting through it any longer, the medium through which they did looks remarkably unchanged.  A grave site is fundamentally different.  There is no doubt that even in talking with our departed loved one, that they aren’t’ still alive.  They are buried, or cremated, or whatever the case may be.  Our interface to them is substantially different than what it was when they were alive, whether that interface was primarily by phone or letter or physical interaction.

I think this is a touching way of remembering those we have loved and lost.  But I also wonder how it might complicate or delay the natural progression of mourning and grief, ultimately resulting in a kind of mental game wherein the departed is kept alive unnaturally through continued interaction with their memorialized Facebook page.  Time will tell, I suppose.

Halloween Redux

October 27, 2009

I related a few weeks ago how I had responded to an acquaintance’s worry over Halloween and the appropriate Christian response to it.   In light of this, I found this short article interesting as an indication of how other Christians might view Halloween festivities. 

Based on the article, I’m not sure what the real emphasis ought to be.  Is it the fact that people are indulging in Halloween activities, or the fact that they aren’t indulging in All Saints Day activities?  Is the emphasis on unhealthy or macabre elements in Halloween customs, or Halloween itself?  If people were dressing up as less macabre or unsavory creatures, would Halloween be more acceptable? 

I think it rather ironic that Father Canals is unhappy on the celebration of death rather than life (an appropriate attitude), yet the practice of All Saints Day/All Souls Day is also a celebration of the dead – though certainly not simply as the dead, but as saints in Christ.  Both Halloween and All Saints Day focus on death – Halloween at times in a glorification or spookification of death-bringing entities and bogeymen, All Saints Day in remembering friends and family and all those who have died in the faith.  Both Halloween and All Saints Day also provide an emphasis on the afterlife – Halloween through the opportunity to emulate various forms of the undead, and All Saints Day with the very Biblical and Christian call to remember that the dead in Christ are not dead.  Death is not the end.  The Bible and Christianity make it clear that our fate after death is not to be an animated pile of bones, or a meandering zombie or other undead creature.  We have a destination, a life, that will follow at some point after our death. 

Why are we praying for the dead, and how does “Christian piety” recommend this?  Do the dead need our prayers?  I guess that depends on  your ideas about how the afterlife works.  If loved ones are passing time in Purgatory, then prayers are very appropriate to speed their time there.  But if they aren’t, then prayers seem to be misdirected.  I agree completely that we ought to pray for families everywhere who deal with the grief of losing a loved one.  But more importantly, the Church needs to be providing some solid leadership and examples of how to celebrate that those who have died in the faith are now at peace. 

Ultimately, I have a problem with the Roman Catholic tradition of praying to and for the saints and the dead in general.  I also have trouble with generalizing the issues of a particular holiday.  The Christian celebration of Easter owes a great deal in terms of traditions (and even the name) to pagan influences – yet I don’t hear too many people decrying these elements of Easter (not that they shouldn’t mind you – just that they aren’t).  I think that people might be quick to argue that nobody really associates Easter bunnies and other frivolities and peripherals of Easter (or the name itself, even), with the pagan traditions they are rooted in.  I believe Christmas has some of the same issues.

I just think that the same argument *can* apply to Halloween as well.  I think it’s just the fact that the pagan roots of Halloween deal specifically with the dead that people are so skittish.

Granted – there are those who focus on the macabre elements of Halloween – revel in them perhaps.  And there are certainly those who see this as a holiday of import because of satanic and pagan associations.  These are bad things, obviously.  But – particularly for children – they are also far and away NOT the norm.  This article is a good reminder to me that parents need to stress to their children the reality of the Biblical perspective on life and death.  This needs to be done throughout the year, not just on liturgical dates dedicated to that purpose precisely because of their proximity to pagan celebrations and observances related to death. 

The Buck Should Not Stop Here?

October 27, 2009

I’ll begin by saying that I have neither love nor respect for the Church of Scientology and what it claims to teach or preach.  I believe it’s a load of hooey.  Tragically, it’s difficult to legislate against hooey – or we’d have a lot less hooey, and a lot fewer legislators as well, probably.

All that being said, I think an ominous note has been struck with the recent ruling in France against the Church of Scientology.  The charge is  “preying financially on followers”.  Although prosecutors had hoped to completely ban the Church of Scientology from France, that apparently was not deemed legal (or at least realistic), and so a $900,000 fine was levied against the French branch of the church instead.  Six leaders of the organization were convicted as well.  Two former ‘members’ brought the suit, complaining that they had been pressured into spending roughly  $60,000 on various church materials and programs.  Prosecutors cited an “obsession” with financial gain by the organization, as well as an emphasis on placing members in a position of “subjection”. 

There are several problems with this.  First off, how is ‘pressured’ being defined?  Is it the Church’s policy that all members have to purchase these products and spend this kind of money?  What sort of pressure is brought to bear in order to ensure compliance?  What are the ramifications of non-compliance?   What is the relationship between the State and citizens of the State, in terms of protecting citizens from poor decisions? 

All of these are important questions, and I’m not seeing a lot of answers just yet.  I understand that other people feel the same way that I do about Scientology.  I’m glad for that, frankly.  But when a State begins leveling fines against a religious organization simply because a few people were unhappy about their experience in it, I have very, very grave reservations. 

I can’t even begin to calculate how much money I’ve tithed to the various Christian churches I’ve been a part of during my income-producing portion of my life.  I used to get a kick out of the end-of-year giving statements my former congregation would send out.  After saying how much I had tithed, the bottom of the statement indicated that no goods or services were received for this donation, only an “intangible” religious benefit.  What if I changed my mind about it all next week?  What if I went back to these congregations and asked for my money back?  What if I felt cheated?  What if I felt lied to?  Could I sue them?  If I did, could the State side with me to say that these congregations had been obsessed with wealth (some of them have been!)?  Could the State determine that my role within the church was one of “subjection” (it should be – depending on how the word is defined!)? 

Many Christians and their churches are preoccupied with the financial stability and survival of their congregation.  Tragically, this all-too often drives focus inwards, stunts growth, and completely short-circuits one or both of the goals of a Christian congregation – sharing the Gospel so that the Holy Spirit will work faith in the hearts of people, and then helping those converts become disciples and followers of Christ.  But a dangerous precedent is set when a State determines whether or not a member of a church is getting the appropriate bang for their buck. 

I don’t think this conviction is going to stand, for these very reasons.  But it’s a trend to watch, because it could ultimately (and I think will ultimately) be a trend that affects Christians, and not just crazy cults. 

7 Quick Takes Friday #11

October 23, 2009

Check out the site above to see who started it all.  You can blame her for whatever follows.  On second thought, scratch that.  I’m sure she’s a nice lady, and she definitely has nothing to do with what follows.

This is just an incredible work of art.  The woman won Ukraine’s Got Talent, and after watching this, you’ll understand why.

In case blogging is no longer an adequate outlet for documenting your existence or keeping track of stuff that happens to you, you have another option.  A small camera that you can wear, and which will take pictures as often as once every 30 seconds.  You can store about 10 days worth of photos on the camera. 

I wonder about the legalities of something like this.  Do you need everyone in your life to sign release forms allowing you to use their images as you go about your daily routine?  I predict it here – this is gonna cause trouble.  Eventually. 

A very articulate article by someone explaining their rationale for wanting to take their own life at some point in the future.  The author is a doctor who is suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).  It’s certainly a heartbreaking situation to be in – or to know someone who is in. 

But I still disagree with him.

I find it interesting that early in the article, he notes that he proudly wears an ALS bracelet with the words Never Give Up written on it.  And then in the very next paragraph, the very next sentence, he states that “That said, there will come a limit.”   No, actually.  Never implies that there is not a limit.  Never implies that you continue to fight – until death if necessary.  Never refuses to acknowledge a limit.  The irony is painful to read.

He talks a great deal about “quality of life”, and he has a way of defining this.  For him, it’s linked to a list of 100 things that he does in a typical day.  And as – one by one – he becomes unable to do these things, he has a way of quantifying his declining quality of life.  At a certain point, he will cross a line, and there will no longer be enough things on that list that he’s still able to do, and he’ll know that it’s time to take off the bracelet, essentially, and to give up.  On his terms.

But quality of life is somewhat arbitrary.  There were many years when he was unable to do any of the things on that 100 List.  As he was a baby, and a child, and a growing youth.  In those days there were undoubtedly far more things he couldn’t do than he could do – and yet we wouldn’t say that a child has a poor quality of life, would we?  Would we argue that the infant’s life isn’t worth living because they can’t do very many things?

Of course not.  But what’s the difference?  The difference is that as we gain self-awareness, we recognize that by and large we’re on a growth curve.  We gain and gain in abilities and knowledge and skills and all sorts of things.  Our life becomes characterized by the things that we are learning, have learned, know how to do, and be.  We assume that we are in charge, that we get to call the shots.  That we are the god of our life.  But at some point in every person’s life, that curve changes direction.  But just as we were not the ones to determine when and how we would enter this life, or what our parents would be like our how healthy our childhood would be, we don’t have the right to assume that we get to call the shots on how we leave.  We are forced to come to grips with the fact, finally in some instances, that we were never the god of our life.  Not the god who brought ourselves into being.  Not the god who coordinated all the details of our life.  Not the god who gets to decide on what terms we leave. 

A fascinating presentation about the Vatican.  Always good to get an insider’s view of things. 

I don’t have a problem agreeing that the earth appears to be getting warmer.  I’m not inclined to say there’s a global scientific conspiracy to lie about melting ice caps or rising ocean levels.  I do, however, think that this warming trend could be attributable to any number of other causes besides human pollution or industrial activities.

It would seem that, at least according to this poll, more folks are inclined to agree with me than would have a few years ago.
I think it’s a brilliant assessment at the end of the article.  People are changing their minds about global warming because of the economy.  Orrrrrr…how about they’re changing their minds on the likely cause of global warming because they’re tired of looking at news reports that talk about periods of intense warming in the earth’s past, when clearly mankind was not polluting  – or even in existence yet.  Perhaps people are connecting the intellectual dots to say that if the earth is getting warmer, it does not necessarily follow that we are the sole or primary cause for said warming. 

Kinda crazy, I know. 

Another fine example of government forcing social and moral change down the throats of the constituency.  I’m not sure there’s much else to be said about this.

I’ll leave you with a link to Advent Conspiracy – a Christian effort to direct people’s attention to the amount of money spent every Christmas season in the US ($450 billion), and to ask questions about whether or not this is really necessary. 

I don’t think that I’ll use this with my church this year.  First of all, I wouldn’t be able to swallow the irony that comes from telling people not to spend money on gifts, but rather spend money on this program, study guide, and DVDs.  If this group really wanted to be counter-cultural, they’d give their stuff away as an example of how to do what it is they’re asking others to do.

I agree that there are a lot of unnecessary gifts given at Christmas.  In part, that’s because the nature of a gift is often that it’s not necessary. If it were a necessary gift, it might be seen as less of a gift, and more of just filling a need.  It’s not inherently wrong to want to give gifts to your kids or family.  So how do we arrive at a way of determining when we’re giving excessively or not?  These are all good questions.  I encourage everyone to wrestle with them NOW, before we’re caught up in the mad holiday season. 

…And His Fate is Still Unlearned…

October 21, 2009

Thanks to J.P. for this story on an atheistic advertising effort on the New York City Subway system. 

There are a couple of minor details that struck me as I read this article.

First off, the claim of “A million New Yorkers are good without God”.  It’s a fuzzy number.  To be fair, most of our numbers are fuzzy these days.  This one is based on the American Religious Identification Survey, which noted a rise from 8% who marked “no religion” in 1990, to 15% in 2008.  Fifteen percent of 8 million people – the population of New York City – gives you roughly one million, give or take a few hundred thousand. 

I’ll note that this is an example of a logical fallacy – an appeal to majority or an appeal to numbers.  If x number of people think, believe, or do something, then it must either be right or acceptable.  Are you smarter than a million other people combined?  Then maybe you ought to reconsider your position.  This isn’t a valid argument.  It sounds impressive, but it doesn’t in and of itself give any evidence as to why those million people believe the way they do.  It doesn’t advance an argument, it at best shocks the reader with a big number.

The other thing that stuck out for me as interesting was the common argument made by Michael De Dora in this article, when he states that people “don’t need religion to be good people and productive members of society“. 

At the surface level, this is true.  Christians claim that even the ability or inclination to do something good is ultimately a gift from God, however an atheist isn’t likely to recognize the source of this gift, and will instead simply claim that the work or initiative was their own.  Fair enough.  We have a fundamentally different view on the nature of the universe, and at the end of the day, to the objective outside observer, a good work generally doesn’t look any different when done by a Christian or an atheist or a Muslim or a Hindu. 

The deeper question would be how that good work is defined.  Despite an impressive acceleration of reversals on core moral issues in our nation (sexual expression, homosexuality, abortion, etc.), the core moral precepts that undergird our society are courtesy of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  In other words, they have a basis that extends back to the dawn of creation, if you take the Bible seriously.  They aren’t arbitrary.  They aren’t supposed to be open for discussion.  They’re simply how things and people function best.

Now take away that foundation.  How do we decide what is good or what is bad?  How do we determine the meaning of justice, or liberty, or peace, or freedom, or anything else?  How do we determine that anything can be labeled bad or good?  And if everything is up for grabs in terms of being considered good, then who are we to hold anyone else to any sort of moral definition?  How do we berate Iran for hiding a nuclear weapons program if we’ve determined here at home that honesty is optional so long as nobody is getting hurt and no contracts are being broken?  How do we chastise the child sex trade in Thailand and other places around the world, when we’ve essentially unfettered sexual expression here at home from any sort of moral grounding?  How do we say to someone that they can’t marry their cat?  On what basis is good to be determined?  Where do we establish our moral baseline? 

We can’t.  Not that we won’t try, but our hypocrisy will be flagrant. 

Atheists and others tend to take great offense at this line of reasoning, but they don’t have a good defense, either.   What are possible sources of morality?  Traditionally, the three sources are God/divinity, philosophers/wise people, or law/courts.  It’s not hard to see where our morality is being driven from today – and in case you’re wondering, it’s not the first two options.  But there’s a massive difference between the three.  The latter two are simply human decisions.  Wise people – whether unofficially so or sanctioned as such by the State – are limited in their ability to define goodness in any form that offers stability.  Good will naturally change with philosophical or judicial trends.  There will be no point in assuming that past decisions on such matters ought to be binding, because truth and goodness become open to whatever we claim they are  for the time being. 

De Dora sounds convincing.  Atheists act like good people, therefore God must be irrelevant in the equation.  Biblical Christianity teaches that God is essential for the will and ability to do good, and that good is defined by God.  Does belief nullify these assertions?  If an atheist refuses to admit that God didn’t define morality or equip them to carry it out, does that mean that they are truly acting good without God?  Or does the Bible promise us that God will pour certain of His blessings generally – on those who follow Him as well as those who don’t? 

I’m grateful for atheists who act like good neighbors.  I want everyone around me to be a good neighbor, regardless of their religion or lack thereof.  But I also realize that our ability to agree on what constitutes a good neighbor is going to come into conflict eventually if goodness is something that some segment of humanity invents and enforces for the rest of humanity.  Because no matter how well intentioned or nice someone is, they’re still a far cry from the goodness of God. 

Not So Strange Bedfellows

October 21, 2009

One of the larger bits of news breaking this week is that the Roman Catholic Church is providing a means  for conservatively minded Anglican priests and congregations to become part of the Roman Catholic Church, while retaining their worship traditions and – in the case of the priests – their wives.

The full-text of the Vatican statement can be read here  or here.  For a more pro-Anglican response, you can read here.  If you’d like to read a less than intellectual and deeply disturbing Anglican voice against this move, you can read here.  But be warned, it isn’t pretty.   

It would be good to note (since I didn’t know this myself until my colleague Mike pointed it out to me) that this is not the first time that the Roman Catholic Church created a way for members of another church body to enter into the Roman Catholic fold without having their liturgical traditions destroyed in the process.  The Eastern Rite allows for Eastern Orthodox congregations to enter into the Roman Catholic fold. 

But this situation with the Anglicans could be much, much bigger.

In light of the factionalization of the Anglican/Episcopal denominations in recent years, there are a lot of disaffected, conservative, Biblically-centered Anglicans out there who are deeply hurt by and angry at the liberal elite of their denominations.  In particular, the African branch of the Anglican Communion has been particularly vocal about their abhorrence at the decisions that have been made by Western leaders – decisions such as ordaining women as clergy and ordaining practicing homosexuals as clergy.  While conversations have undoubtedly been going on for a long time between Rome and conservative Anglicans, these recent issues have definitely cut the fuse a lot shorter for folks who are inclined to walk away from the Anglican Communion. 

And this points to a larger issue – that of ecumenism.  While there’s a lot of talk about this idea in evangelical or protestant circles, it generally remains just that – talk.  And it certainly remains talk that doesn’t mean to include the Roman Catholics at all.  After all, they have the Pope, and regardless of what other compulsions there might be towards reunification, the Pope is likely the single biggest issue that stands in the way of such reunification.  But Protestant arguments against the Pope are just that – arguments.  They aren’t Scripture, and therefore, they constantly need to be examined and re-examined to see if the issues at stake in the past are still issues today.

Are we one body of Christ, or are we not? 

We get caught up in the short term view of things – and I think this is particularly true in America, where our historical horizon is fairly truncated compared to most of the rest of the world.  All of our national history is rather a blip on the map compared to the much longer histories of Europe, or Asian, or the Christian Church.  So it’s easy to think that what is here today will always be here today, and how things are today is how they will always be.  Clearly, this isn’t a viewpoint that the Roman Catholics assume is necessary in terms of working for reconciliation – albeit reconciliation on Rome’s terms.   They see only one Body of Christ, and patiently work to reintegrate those who have strayed away from the Body.  Is this something that must be firmly resisted, or is it to actually be desired? 

Biblically, we’re told that there will be a showdown.  The faithful in Christ vs. the powers of darkness and those who are under their sway.  We don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s easy to feel as though, with the strident clamoring of the New Atheists and the inroads of Islam across the world, that the stage for this showdown is being assembled.  And at that point, the finer theological distinctions that we’ve had the privilege of making and maintaining for several hundred years are likely to appear rather inconsequential.  Maybe it’s time to take more seriously what we profess in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creed – that we believe in one universal church. 

Movie Review: Priceless/Hors de Prix

October 19, 2009

If one is tasked with writing a speech or some sort of formal presentation each week to the same group of people, one often finds oneself looking for ways of conveying things in a way that will keep people’s attention.  One also tends to drift into the third person voice, which more than one finds annoying.

And so it was that I found myself yesterday with my sermon done early.  As in early-afternoon early.  It wasn’t a great sermon, but these things happen.  As I try to reassure my peers, there are times when it just doesn’t seem great.  This doesn’t mean that it won’t be great to someone.  And it’s not something that we should ever take too lightly.  But sometimes it happens.  And for many, many, many, many reasons, that’s where I sat yesterday afternoon when I typed Amen and shut down the laptop.

Which led to an enjoyable unexpected afternoon with the family.  And it meant that I could spend the evening with my wife, rather than hunched over any number of commentaries and translation helps.  Since the movie we had intended to rent was out of stock, and we didn’t have any new Netflix selections yet, we rented a movie with little to go on.  We rented Priceless, a French film in English subtitles, which in France goes by the name Hors de Prix

I think we settled on this film because it stars Audrey Tatou, who we enjoyed in the quirky film Amelie a few years ago. 

Priceless is not a good movie.  It relies on a tired plot line and offers little to the mix.  Love across social and economic divides, mistaken identities…all these are pretty standard cinematic faire, and this film doesn’t do anything to spice it up.  Except for having Ms. Tatou parade around in a progression of eye-poppingly skimpy outfits.  Fortunately, she’s very easy on the eyes.  Tragically, it doesn’t compensate for an hour and a half of otherwise mediocre movie.  Gad Elmaleh is the initially hapless suitor in this film, and he’s far more believable early on as the naive young man than he is by the end of the film in a more confident role of manipulator and suitor. 

It’s a forgettable movie in most every respect.  Unless of course, there’s the possibility of scrapping a sermon that is already done and starting from scratch using a lame movie as the entry point.  Which is, for better or worse, what happened.  Because as bad as this film is, it’s a frighteningly stark retelling (in my opinion) of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man in Mark 10, which was the Gospel lesson for today.

Tatou is the beautiful young woman, as opposed to a rich young man.  But while she thrives in the jet-set and enjoys a life of leisure, all is not as picture-perfect as one might suspect.  She isn’t rich at all.  She accesses the wealth of older men who enjoy being seen with a beautiful younger woman, and are willing to shower her with expensive gifts to maintain her company.  She’s essentially a very pricey prostitute.  But her goal is to become legitimate – to marry one of these older men and be set for life.  She has access to money, but it was neither hers to begin with, nor will it be hers on her deathbed – at least not until she can convince one of these men to marry her.  Time is running out.

She meets Elmaleh’s character, who has nothing to offer her according to the standards of her world.  He has no money.  No influence, no power, no prospects, nothing.  But he has sincerity.  He has devotion.  And, in the manner of movies, he can fall totally, insanely in love with her in a single night.  She finds this devotion, this love compelling, and they begin to orbit one another.

But we all know that in these sorts of movies, there comes a moment of truth.  A moment where a decision has  to be made, and that decision will determine the future.  Tatou’s Irene must decide between the financial security she has been doggedly pursuing for years, or the authentic love and appreciation of Elmaleh’s hapless Jean.  I don’t think it’s possible to ruin a movie like this, because the ending is pretty much a foregone conclusion. 

As the viewer, even a discerning viewer, we want this moment of confrontation.  We want this wrestling of the soul.  We want to see the protagonist placed in the position of having to choose.  We may know it’s coming, and we may know what the outcome has to be.  But the act of watching how it plays out is very satisfying, emotionally cathartic, as it were.  We want them to make the right choice.  To give up money and security and all of that, and to choose love.  Wild, unpredictable, poorly screen written love.  Ride off into the sunset on a horse or a scooter or a sauropod – whatever.  Just make the predictable but nonetheless giddy choice for love.

Because we can’t. 

In a thousand little ways each day and each week, we choose security, we choose comfort, we choose predictability over the wildly unpredictable possibilities of love.  What if we got to know our next door neighbor?  What if we stopped and offered to buy that woman on the corner with the sign lunch?  What if we were willing to serve in a soup kitchen?  What if we weren’t paranoid about whether or not are child is living up to their full potential – as defined by our neighbors or the television?  What if we weren’t so worried about paying next month’s bills, and could just give thanks for the roof over our head tonight? 

We can’t choose love and the wildly unpredictable life.  Jesus says so himself.  With man, this is impossible.  We’re too prone to being shaped by our environment, to prone to peer pressure and advertising and news that breeds fear.  We’re too anxious and fearful without giving up the little security and predictability we do have.  It’s not possible to choose the wild, unpredictable, giddiness of love. 

We like to chastise the rich young man in the Gospel lesson.  But every day, every week, over and over again, we make the exact same choice that he did.  We go away disappointed.  We turn aside from that prompting.  We convince ourselves that it isn’t practical, that we don’t have time, that we have other things that need to get done.  And that moment where the Spirit of God is tugging on our sleeve trying to get us to go this way, to do this, to choose that – we walk away.  We keep driving when the light turns green.  We can’t bring ourselves to do it. 

Jesus holds out hope, though.  With God, all things are possible.  What we could never do on our own, God can give us the strength to do.  The decision that fills us with too much fear, with the Spirit of God we can find a peace even in the midst of uncertainty, of unpredictability.

It was a really lousy film.  But it seemed to be a very real retelling of the mechanics in that account that Mark wrote about almost 2000 years ago.  That same struggle between comfort and predictability and security, and the willingness to follow where ever we are led.  This movie showed that the rich young man is not an anomaly.  He’s Everyman.  Everywoman.  You.  Me. 

So I give thanks to God, not because I’m good.  Because I’m not.  But I give thanks that in those rare moments when I’m able to be good, when I’m able to make the right decision, when I’m able to take that teetering step of faith, it’s because of my Creator’s Spirit at work inside of me.  Giving me the strength and t
he will that I’d never have on my own.  And I pray that each day, if nothing else, it takes me longer to turn away than it did the day before.  That someday, I might not turn away.  But I might smile back at my Savior’s offer.  That I might leave behind the security that I so often opt for, and walk into the sunset with Him. 

It would probably make a really cheesy movie.  And I don’t look anything near as good as Audrey Tatou.  But it’s still my goal, all the same.

Movie Review: Friends of God

October 17, 2009

Last night my wife and I watched Friends of God, an HBO show (documentary would suggest more substance than there really was).  It described itself as a road trip of sorts through the Evangelical, red-state heartland of America.  It’s essentially a video montage of that road trip.  It bills itself as a documentary, but I don’t consider a bunch of home movies to really qualify as a documentary.  There is no verbal commentary from the director, Alexandra Pelosi (yes, she’s the daughter of California Democratic Senator Nancy Pelosi), but rather the footage itself serves as her commentary.  A healthy heaping of can you really believe there are people like this out there?! 

Her repeated comment in the film of “You’d never see this in New York” seems a good insight as to her view of reality.  And I’m sure that her educated, wealthy friends in New York (and probably Los Angeles) got a good chuckle out of video clips of Christian wrestlers, or Ted Haggard pontificating on how even atheists hate for Godly leaders to turn out to be not-so-Godly – a rather painful foreshadowing of his own life.  A lot of time was spent focusing on the late Jerry Falwell and his emphasis on getting out the Evangelicals as a voting force to be reckoned with in American politics.  As such, the film ends up a simply a visual warning to those who don’t hold the same values or religious beliefs as Evangelical Americans – these folks are out there, and they’re voting.  It doesn’t actually say but they shouldn’t be allowed to, but the silent judgment remains. 

It’s not hard to make people look foolish.  It can be the most erudite or educated of people, and if you catch them with the right question at the right moment, they say or do something that doesn’t really give you a balanced perspective of their capabilities.  So I don’t find these sorts of films to be terribly helpful, other than for giving a few people a few laughs at what they assume is the ignorance or hillbilliness or simplistic attitudes of those included on the film.  But that sort of smug superiority is something that wears off quickly, and has to be constantly refueled.  Which perhaps explains why these sorts of films are becoming more common. 

The film sounds warning bells for the liberal constituency – Evangelicals are not going away.  Think they’re dying out?  Some of them are having huge families!  Think that your carefully constructed educational system will change the lil’ buggers’ minds?  Don’t bet on it – home schooling is a popular option for people who recognize the increasing bias in public classrooms.  Think that materialism and sex will deter them later in life?  Not necessarily – even good looking 20-something guys can get turned on to Jesus and spend their Saturday nights at a Christian worship service instead of trolling the bars.  Think that limiting Federal funding to religious groups will help dampen their power?  Don’t bet on it – a lot of them are willing to give deeply from their own pockets and in their own ways to help ensure that Christianity is not erased from the American landscape of discussion and politics.  Think that you might be able to out-legislate them?  Falwell’s Liberty University is busy educating conservative Christian lawyers and activists. 

This is undoubtedly a serious conundrum for liberally minded and non-Christian leaders in America.  And if it does nothing else, this film serves as a reminder to these people that conservative Christians are not going away, that they are becoming a more mobilized voting block, and that they are going to insist on being heard. 

I’m not an Evangelical, and much of this film made me uncomfortable because it differs so much from my experience of the faith and Church.  This doesn’t mean that these people are wrong (or that I am, for that matter), it simply demonstrates the room for a great deal of diversity in the Body of Christ.  But that’s to be expected, according to St. Paul, or else we wouldn’t be a very effective body.  Pelosi and others can mock all they want, but the Body lives.