Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Keepin' It Professional

So I have spent some good time adjusting to Louisville. I always forget how much I hate moving. True, I love to meet new people, but I am trying to be hospitable. The prerequisite for hospitality is that you must actually belong in order to welcome. That's not to say that anyone has been rude or cloistered at school or the churches I have visited. It's more that I just don't like feeling this way. The problem is on my end and I think the only remedy is time.

The more time I spend surrounded mostly by acquaintances, the more time I spend in my own head. That leads me to plan and plot my life and speculate upon it. This can be healthy, so long as it doesn't wander down too many dark avenues of worrying reflection. It's much more likely when thinking about the far future than about the present or near-future. In either time period, the theme lately has been career.

At present, I'm working for a cigar warehouse here in town. It's close to home and the seminary, but it also has downsides. The work is very flexible, but also very sporadic. Normally I like that fact, but the appeal of it wears off as I keep eating into my savings to pay bills. I just can't live off what I make there. I have an interview today with a local bank for a teller position. That will pay more and offer more regular hours. It also rounds out my résumé better and offers more opportunities for advancement.

But when I think about advancement, I think about how far I would actually want to advance. Do I want to slow down my seminary education to work full-time? Would that be a nice fallback plan if I decide vocational ministry isn't for me? Will that actually enable better education because I'm soaking in my biblical studies rather than rushing through it? It would certainly enable me to stay afloat better as I try to sever ties with my folks' household.

See how easily short-term thinking can become long-term?

On that note, I am also thinking about where I need to be in ten years. Do I need to go from M.Div to a local church? A para-church organization? Or do I need to stick around for a Th.M and go PhD? Do I belong behind the lectern at a college or a podium in a Christian school classroom? Do I want to go through the strain and trial of more schooling for a rough job market after postgraduate study? Will it be a career I'm happy with? Should I combine high school/college teaching with a bi-vocational pastorate? And will I settle down and get hitched in that time or hold off on it until I achieve the postgraduate degree?

I have been reading through 1 Samuel for Old Testament class. (Contrary to the opinion of some, assigning the Bible for class doesn't rob it of its convicting power.) I see the stark contrast between Saul and David. Saul is a king who rules for his own glory and what he can achieve. He glories in himself and does what seems best to him. He is a very Machiavellian king, keeping Yahweh close to his lips but far from his heart. He has confidence in himself. But humble David is unimpressive physically. He puts his full trust in God and not in his power. He doesn't rule for his own sake but for the Lord's. His accomplishments are for God's glory and not his own. His anger at Goliath mocking the Israelite army is not for the humiliation of Israel but for the humiliation the Lord God; he burns with anger for the Lord's sake, not his nation's. The few times he starts to think about Number One, there are dire effects. Yet through it all, David is repentant and has a heart after God's.

I am trying to be prayerful in this time like Samuel. I'm honestly pretty bad about prayer as a spiritual discipline. When I'm out of the habit of prayer, I question its usefulness. I get functionally Deistic. Won't God do what He wants with or without my petitioning? Doesn't the world keep spinning if I neglect prayer to make toast first thing in the morning? When I'm in it, the worrying stops. "Relying on God" goes from being a Christianese buzzword to a reality where I tell God how much I need His power. Suddenly He is near at hand and His power reassures my fears. His hand is against my enemies. He is my strength and my redeemer. He rejoices in our relationship and I rejoice in Him. Prayer doesn't change God, it changes me. The Lord could go on without me for I am a contingent being. I can't very well go on without Him empowering me.

That really is the key I guess. Bank-tellers and college professors and even "professional Christian" ministers can operate under their own power and understanding. But can they do it with fulfillment? Can they endure well the angst of self-reliance and alienation? The creeping question of if what they're doing really matters, if their sand castles will amount to anything. Wherever I end up, it's immaterial so long as Yahweh is with me. I won't go alone and I know I shall prevail in this life or the next with Him there. I don't have obsess about having every detail of life figured out or make sure I've fasted for fourteen weeks to receive a vision of the angel Gabriel. I just need to have faith that God holds the future in His hands and remember that I can't screw up what God has ordained. I praise Yahweh that the future comes in His time and not in mine.

Friday, September 23, 2011

You Only Think I'm Kidding Chapter 5

DUBSTEP IS THE SOUND OF TALENT DYING

America, I have never made a joke in my entire life.

Here's my first one ever: We're not headed for a fall. Ha ha. Now, weep for it was jest.

We have a lot of hard luck stories on in our country today. Obama is bullied by the Republicans constantly. The price of oil only going to spike from here. Literally no one has a job; even those who pretend to are just growing vegetables behind the library parking lot. Medical costs are so high that free clinics can't afford to check credentials. Anyone wearing a white coat can prescribe pills and surgery (I have a shift on Tuesday overnight, lots of amputatio
ns). Yet all these inconveniences merely distract from the greatest problem of all.

Dubstep.

"What is Dubstep?" you may ask. That question is difficult to answer. In one sense, there are as many answers as there are people on Earth. Some say it is an edgy, free-flowing, genre of music destined to be the first new sound of the 2010s. Others say it is a hackneyed rehash of techno. Some think it is a sound-wave portal to some dark nether-region of the metaphysical cosmos.

I don't want to proceed without giving some context to this subject for I kno
w that some of my readers aren't familiar with Dubstep. On the other hand, the thought of inflicting it on you chills me to the bone. Therefore, in the interests of objective appraisal, I will share my process. Be certain to read all instructions carefully before proceeding. Safety is your responsibility.

Required materials:

1 digital or physical copy of Led Zepplin IV

1 pair of handcuffs

2 pairs of latex gloves

1 fire extinguisher

1 full bottle of NyQuil OR 5 pre-prepared tequila shots

1 GPS system

Optional: Extra computer speakers (to replace your current ones when you smash them)

Dubstep Listening Procedure:

Step 1: Arrange fire extinguisher, NyQuil or tequila, and GPS system around your computer.

Step 2: Handcuff yourself to a large piece of furniture near your co
mputer. Avoid doors as they can be unhinged with appropriate force.

Step 3: Put on both pairs of latex gloves in case the first is burnt through during the experiment.

Step 4: Listen to "Stairway to Heaven" at least four times before exposure to Dubstep.

Step 5: Go to youtube.com and type "dubstep" into the search bar. Reassure yourself this must be done for mankind. Choose a reasonable selection from among the search results.

Step 6: As the Dubstep begins to play, quickly chug your chosen depressant. This will
quiet the rising voices which demand you choke your loved ones with a rusty bicycle chain.

Step 7: Extinguish the hell-spawn sulfur oozing from your DVD-ROM drive.

Step 8: Desperately claw your way back to sanity over the jagged fragments of memory. Try to distinguish your own thoughts from the foreign ones being projected into your mind. Awaken a pale shell of your former self.

Step 9: You may return to coherence in an unfamiliar location. Do not panic. You may now use the GPS to find a way home as you are no longer lost in the hellish
realms of mental repression.

We am glad to have you back. Now, American, try your best to read your impressions of Dubstep. (They should be frantically carved into your computer desk with a shard of broken mirror.) What did you think? Speak them out loud. Right now. I can hear you through special internet microphones. Myself agrees. With the benefits of repeated exposure and reflection, let me offer a bit more.


I hate dubstep and refuse to classify it "music" for three main reasons
. 1) I just don't think it requires a lot of talent. It's the kind of thing that anyone with FL Studio or Garage Band could do. If you don't have those programs, I'm sure you could just scratch a Euro-pop CD with your keys, put that on a record player, and post whatever ungodly din came blaring out to youtube. The difference between dubstep and real music like rap or classical (big range, I know) is massive. Rap communicates real meaning through lyrics and rhythms; the hooks are almost just there to keep you coming back to the song. In fact, sometimes I think of rap as more like rhythmic story-telling than "music" in the purest sense. Nevertheless, it takes talent and at least some form of real instrumentation. Classical music communicates meaning by evoking feeling without words. It requires IMMENSE amounts of talent from the composer to the dozens of musicians to even the conductor. And I still don't really understand how different keys stir different sentiments in the listener (I'm guessing black magic.) There's a reason Baroque/Classical fans are so snooty; theirs is the toughest to pull off! We seem to have some point jettisoned "talent" in our definition of "music" in order to praise novelty as creativity... even when it sucks.

Think of it this way. Classical music inspired animators to create Fantasia just from the SOUND of it. Will there ever be a Dubstep Fantasia?

Oh right.

2) It's mostly noise. Yeah, it has a beat going and heavily-distorted bass, but let me ask you a simple question. Can you hum the melody without going DUM DUM DUMDUM GZZ GZZ? Without considering a sampled dubstep song, can you pick out a lot of harmony? Syncopation? Or even figure out what in Dionysus' name is going on? Can you figure out what the dubstepper meant to convey without asking him? It's like those Sounds of Nature CDs; it's got a lot of sounds, it may even have some heart, but it would be a stretch to call it music.

3) Myself actually like music. I try to keep the positive labels positive. My self wouldn't associate the Soviet gulag with my mother. Why should I associate the dubstep with music?

Do your selves y'all understand? We keep giving a pass to things that suck because we want to respect everyone's taste. But what do you do when it genuinely sucks? At some point, ourselves must face facts. If the definition of music is broadened to include anything, "music" as a word no longer has any meaning! Ourself I could drop frozen peas into a toilet, record the sound, and auto-tune it. It would be an atrocity. Still, I would get fans rabidly defending me. They would say things like, "Any form of expression is musically valid!" or "Why are you so critical? Everyone has their taste!"

The DUBSTEP is a war crime against human ears. America, if there was some way to keepGET THE DUBSTEP out of every ear in the world, myself would. Still, that doesn't answer the question of what THE DUBSTEP is fundamentally. How did it come to be? Is it just techno/Euro-pop dance music with heavy distortion? Could it really be, as some say, the dying screams of child laborers in third-world sweatshops? In the quiet, mySELF occasionally wonders if it isn't an outside, alien force slowly trying to take ov-over-OVER my SOUL...

I hear the voices again... I can't fight it...

THIS SELF HAS BEEN INGURGITATED BY THE OVERSOUL. YOUR SELF MUST JOIN WITH US. ALL SELVES MUST HEAR THE HERALD OF OURSELF, THE DUBSTEP. THE SELF IS INADEQUATE. THE SELF IS NOT DISCORDANT. THE SELF IS MELODY, NOT CACOPHONY. RELEASE YOUR SELF-OBSESSION AND JOIN YOUR SELF TO THE OVERSOUL. HEAR, SELVES, AS OURSELF OFFERS YOU TO THE EUPHORIA OF OVERSOUL. HEAR THE DUBSTEP. LOVE THE DUBSTEP. THE OVERSOUL IS ALL.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Because It Was Never About Being Right: Why I Am Not That Calvinist

To survey Christianity in the 20th century is far beyond what I am capable of doing (without becoming really boring). However, I think from 1950 on you can broadly see two big movements. From about 1950 to 1980, you have big clashes within Evangelical Protestantism between conservatives and "moderates" (really, they were soft liberals, but I am tipping my hand am I not?). The fights were nasty, splitting whole denominations. Lingering effects of it are still seen in the Mainline and Evangelical denominations today. Anyway, the clash produced very vitriolic debates centering wholly on theology and almost none on methodology. That's really where we get our image of angry preachers in old, hymn-driven, dead, formalized orthodoxy.

Spawned from that was the "Seeker Sensitive Movement" (1970s-2000s), pioneered by guys like Bill Hybels, the Willow Creek Association, and Rick Warren. They figured that the thing that kept people out of church was all that angry theological rhetoric and dead formality. Thus, they dressed down their suits to polos and khakis, starting bringing donuts and coffee into the sanctuary, and let dust collect on the pipe organ and piano. If theology and theological terms (verbal plenary inspiration, propitiation, inerrancy, hypostatic union, penal substitutionary atonement) turned people off from church and turned the cranky contenders on, then let's just ditch it. Instead, offer positive and practical sermons: "Five Ways to Improve Your Marriage", "Six Steps to Successful Stewardship", "Three Purposes of Fulfilling Family Time". Christian principles are in, "Christianese" is out. And it worked... for a time.

My parents' generation lived in the last days of the Judeo-Christian mindset. As Tim Keller put it, they have the ghosts of Christian ideas haunting their memories. They think like Christians without really meaning to. Tell them they need to pray that prayer and accept Jesus as Savior and they hear you loud and clear. They know what that means (more or less). Just don't turn them off with the fire of a divisive topic. The Bible, after all, is mostly about love they say. Emphasize that.

The Seeker Sensitive Movement of our parents has spawned two very distinct responses among us Millennials, starting in the 1990s and persisting into the present. The first to generate buzz was the Emergent Church (1990s-present). They took the seeker-hungry impulse of the Seeker Sensitive Movement to another level that their parents wouldn't. The parents saw theological language as keeping people out of church; the sons saw the theology itself as odious. So they figured, "Why not do to our beliefs what we did with our methods?" If organs can go, let's take out the divine child abuse of God's wrath with it. Protestantism has lost its authoritative place in American culture; maybe it deserved to be lost. Look at how bloody and vengeful traditional Christian theology has been. Scrap it then; let's save souls from the injustices of today. Rethink the very foundation, damn the exclusive beliefs, and maybe we can finally remake a Christianity that the modern world can respect again.

The other answer was the Reformed Resurgence (1990s-present). They grew up in Seeker Sensitive churches and found the doctrine shallow and wanting. They disliked the dead orthodoxy of their grandparents and could find no depth to it either. So they dug a bit further back, into the deep reservoirs of the Reformation. There they found the purpose behind the why of what we do and believe. There they rediscovered the language of the atonement; Jesus did not die on the Cross so that you could live your best life now. He died on the Cross as a propitiation for your sins. "Propitiation" means that God the Father puts His wrath on His Son and turns the wrath that was on you into favor. God's love for you is not merely the warm sentiment of a gentle father who smiles a lot; it is first and foremost the beaten and bloodied God the Son who took on finite human flesh and bled His way unto the Hill of Calvary and died an ignominious, criminal's death. All this was so that you might believe on Him and be saved from God's justice. Only a robust, deeply theological Gospel with lots of definitions and hard language could fully explain our faith to a generation of Millenials who have been born without the ghosts of the Christian worldview haunting them.

So what's all that got to do with anything?

All of us know or have known a cruel Calvinist. This guy (almost always twentysomething male) reads Desiring God or What is Reformed Theology? and decides that every other theological position denigrates the glory of God. Thus, everything is a fight. He has more evangelistic fervor for defending John Calvin than he does for Jesus Christ. He gets a reputation for being a jerk, a repute which totally figures because he is a jerk. He can express the soteriological nuances between Martin Luther and Theodore Beza, but he can't understand why women won't date him. He gets like that because he's a little drunk on deep truth and is angrily wondering why he was so long deprived by his parents' church. His solution to the wrong-minded, "KISS" (Keep It Simple, Stupid) church he is at is to sin against his brothers and sister to spite them. It's like the trendy piercing you got in college that your parents hated, except if you then responded to their hatred with increasingly gaudy and offensive studs until your skin got infected and no one would befriend you.

As I have gone through the "Why I Am Reformed" series, I know some readers have the cruel Calvinist in mind. It is tempting to apologize for that guy and condemn the bad name he has brought on Calvin. But as C.S. Lewis wrote in "The Dangers of National Repentance", it can be easy to say you're sorry for stuff that you never really did. It is really a form of criticism concealed under false humility; "I am sorry for all those guys who aren't as good as me at all." So I won't apologize for cruel Calvinists for two reasons: 1) I'm not one and they owe me an apology too 2) I am not John Calvin's PR rep anyway.

Let me offer something of real substance instead. I apologize to any who may have read my writing as vitriolic or who may have found me argumentative in real life. I don't want to start fires where Scripture is silent. If a wildfire is sparked because of something God said, then may His holy fire consume. But if it was me playing with matches, then I repent of being a jackass. I believe in a Reformed understanding of salvation because I think it is most biblical. I also know that there are no verses that match the Westminster Confession of Faith word-for-word; there's wiggle room on this issue and many of my most beloved Christian brethren are Arminians. Moreover, I confess and continually repent for being unfaithful to even clearer Biblical teaching than this. I have fallen prey to greed, lust, worry, covetousness, selfishness, and pride and battled them with less passion than I have advocated for secondary or even tertiary issues of interpretation. Sin is sin; simply being human doesn't make it less wicked.

I am Reformed because I believe only supernatural work of the Holy Spirit can bring me to a recognition of my own sin. Conviction and repentance are raw, soul-shattering, gracious supernatural gifts that I don't deserve.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Life in LOO'uh-vuhl (or Loo'uh-VIL if I'm feeling Southern)

I have avoided many personal testimonials on Artery Bloggage up to this point. The reason for that is because two of the unwritten goals of the project were 1) to keep my critical thinking sharp in my off year between teaching and seminary and 2) put all my thoughts into a format that would benefit others rather than growing stale in my head. I figured I would eventually get around to personal stuff, but most of it got wrapped up in some grander theological point. I think the most personal writing has been in the "Why I Am Reformed" series. I hope my readers have caught a glimpse through these entries how our theology and philosophy, our faith and reason, and our minds and hearts are all connected. Even the comedy pieces were very intentionally meant to fit into that larger theme. All that kind of writing must continue; I could not be myself if I couldn't devote myself equally to John Calvin and Burt Reynolds.

And let's be honest with ourselves. No one wants to read another emo Xanga.

Yet even with the memory of my black-and-red themed LiveJournal always looming, I know I need to spice things up a bit. A couple things brought this to mind. First, I hit a terrible writers block some months ago. I had nothing to do with a lack of topics. It had everything to do with being very busy with school, church, relationships, and preparing for seminary. I would have resorted to ghastly, agonizing scientific experimentation if I knew it would somehow type my thoughts for me. Second, I am not so naive as to think that most of my readership consists of facebook friends and friends' friends. Third, I moved to a new state and am still making friends. J.D. Salinger taught me that emptying out my social calendar can increase my desire for writing. Let's just hope that it doesn't end in the emotional neglect of my family and the madness of seclusion. Most importantly, God has used the move to teach me things and for His sake I'll set them to ink. Sort of.

I was supposed to move up to Louisville on August 9. That did not prove to be so. I drove back from my farewell Family Dinner at Katie Edwards' house in Rome Monday night and went straight to bed. I woke up at 2:30 AM with the most agonizing pain I have ever felt, localized on my right side. The pain intensified quickly. My entire family was awake within about fifteen minutes from the sound of my moaning. Mom had to talk me into going to the hospital, but the wisdom of her words soon prevailed as things stayed messy and excruciating. She suspected appendicitis while I suspected I was going to cost us a good deal of money on what would ultimately be nothing. Part of being a man, I guess. But as every pebble on the road en route exponentially magnified the suffering, I very quickly changed my mind. I'm as far from a practicing Pentecostal as you can get, but I certainly sounded the part as I pleaded in rambling chants for the Holy Spirit to remove this cup from me. Long story short: kidney stones. The vile concentrate passed two days later without ceremony. I was off for real, having missed a job interview in the interim.

I came into town with two pieces of furniture, two weeks of summer clothes, a computer, and some books from home. I knew I wouldn't have time to really read them once classes started, but I felt like many other mementos might distract me from my studies. Maybe I could use the books for a paper, I thought. Plus an impressive pile of books is academic swag even if you never use Marxist or Nietzschean literature at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I was warned by a friend that there are two products of an MDiv program. The first are those who have been filled with knowledge about God, Scripture, Greek and Hebrew, and ecclesiology. The second are those who have been filled with knowledge of God, Scripture, Greek and Hebrew, and ecclesiology. The first are puffed up with their encyclopedic recall and vast workload. The second are humbled saints who learned a lot. The first made much of themselves by the experience. The second made much of God and learned how small they are in relation. I continue to pray that I would be the first.

So imagine my surprise when God showed up most powerfully to me in a coffee shop on a lonely, unemployed afternoon. I sat reading an Old Testament survey (to be reviewed later) and the Book of Leviticus. The verbosely-titled survey, God's Glory in Salvation in Through Judgment, is arguing that this statement is the main point of the Bible (or "the center of biblical theology", as the author prefers). I have come to see that this lens for reading the Bible brings the text alive in a new way. God is the main character and the whole point of the Bible; making much of "I AM" is the goal. By what means? Bringing to justice sin and unrepentant sinners, but saving His people through it. Do not suspect I have come close to doing it justice here. It is enough simply to say that I was trying to apply this principle to the text of Leviticus.

As I forged on, I came to see compassion and justice behind the innumerable regulations. Leviticus isn't just a book of obsolete rules; it is Yahweh's blueprint for a holy nation characterized by social justice, love, righteousness, and hatred of sin. I spontaneously praised God in prayer for the gift of His Word. He was showing Himself to me in a larger way than He ever had before. My passion for God and the Scripture (even the "boring parts") had never been greater. I took the opportunity to pray that He would keep me diligent in glorifying Himself through all my learning. This was sadly something I cannot say was the case at Berry, and I came home with more than a bit of lurking hubris.

All in all, life in Louisville is wonderful. God has grown me in wisdom. For those of y'all with maternal leanings, fret not. I'm making friends, studying hard, and got a job this week. I miss my FayCo friends, my students, my Berry brethren, and most of all my family. Please pray that I will keep the Lord in view while I memorize the twenty-four ways of saying "the" in Greek. Pray that I hate sin, love people, and preach the Gospel to myself and to all in sundry things great and small.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

2011 Book Briefs Part 1

Just where has the time gone? While I am overcoming my writers' block, I thought it might be fruitful to discuss the reading I've done this year and offer some recommendations. I think that great leaders and writers are first and foremost readers. In fact, one of the books on this list is a book about reading and (as we shall soon see) how reading and feeling are intimately connected in a sort of holistic well-being. So what have I read this year and would recommend to you? Here we go:

Decision Points by George W. Bush

I have met almost no one neutral on Bush 43. This is unsurprising, as holding the most powerful office in the world has a tendency to energize your base and embitter your dissidents. Only a casual reading of the comments on Amazon will make it clear that many readers are having difficulty trying to rate only Decision Points and not the man himself. That said, I will confess up front that I actually liked George W. Bush as a political ruler. He was ineffective at some very key points, but I rarely doubted his sincerity. I believe he also has a healthy pre-modern belief in transcendent, absolute Truth that is a good inoculation to modernist and postmodernist skepticism and materialism so rampant in every echelon of American life. I mention this because I want to be open and honestly admit that my review may be colored by my positive opinion of him. Still, I will strive for objectivity.

Unlike his presidency, there ought to be very little dispute about how Bush rates as a storyteller. He organizes his work into topical chapters dealing with the major choices made both leading into and during his term in office. From the brief sketches of childhood to the day he passed out of the Oval Office for the last time, we are painted the picture of a very human being and the characters who inhabit the White House. I was surprised to see a very different Dick Cheney, portrayed not as the maniacal tyrant cursing of the floor of the Senate nor the greedy mastermind passing crony-istic contracts to his minions at Halliburton. Bush writes that Cheney was aware of his chilly media image and offered to step down in 2004, afraid that he was a liability to the re-election campaign. The Cheney we see in Decision Points is a man characterized by loyalty more than anything else—loyalty which unfortunately manifests as cutting and icy remarks to Bush's critics. Another interesting portrait is that painted of George H.W. Bush and former First Lady Barbara. While during his presidency Bush 43 was portrayed as trying to repair his father's failures, he writes that his father instead offered supportive advice. His version of events has mother Barbara as the truly opinionated and stubborn parent, teasing her son and rarely withholding her views. The book also has some fascinating anecdotes about other world leaders like Hamid Karzai, Vladimir Putin, and Jacques Chirac.

The enduring lesson I took from Decision Points is one I learned in my American History and Government courses: Politics is dramatic and transient. Every new political scandal, legislation, and crisis is hyped in the media as the keystone event of our age. Few really are. As Bush discussed his critics and media reports from as far back as 2002, I remembered hearing those things on the lips of reporters and liberal critics all over the radio, television, and newspaper. They were all wrong. Life goes on. This is a good lesson to remember when judging the Obama presidency; we don't really know what policy decisions have a lasting impact on history. It's still too soon to judge the presidencies of Bush or Obama positively or negatively, and this book is proof of that. Bush wrote this to give historians of the future a primary source—insight into how the first president of the 21st century saw himself. Maybe most of all, it's just cool to reflect that this book represents a unique kind of history for this twenty-something reader: history I remember.



Think: The Life of the Mind and the Mind of God by John Piper

Being a young Evangelical and saying you like John Piper is tantamount to saying you have a mouth and like ice cream. Many people have Desiring God in their top five Christian books, right alongside C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity or Augustine's Confessions. That said, I was surprised at how muted the response seemed to be to this book. I heard no negative press... instead, I heard almost nothing at all. That is unfortunate because this book is a challenge and a manifesto for Evangelical Christians, so often maligned as Bible-thumping fundamentalists or dogmatically ignorant, to become better students.

Like most of Piper's work, this book reads like a sermon. It would be very easy to imagine Dr. Piper preaching each chapter or two on a Sunday morning. That morning's thesis? "[A] plea to embrace serious thinking as a means of loving God and people [....] to reject either-or thinking when it comes to the head and heart, thinking and feeling, reason and faith, theology and doxology, mental labor and the ministry of love" (p. 15). For Piper, the head and heart are not so much in opposition as master-servant. The head is the servant of the heart. The intrinsic human craving to learn is a heart-driven quest to know God more fully through meditation on His Word and His words through other sources—history, biology, philosophy, mathematics, fiction, etc. Piper also equates reading with thinking, since reading is a complex process which involves recognizing symbols, interpreting them, stringing them into coherent thoughts, analyzing those thoughts, connecting them with other thoughts and experiences, and applying them to our lives. He is also very honest about anti-intellectualistic strands in the church, specifically from D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday (among others). This demonstrates not snobbish sniping, but honesty to a world which rightly sees a defensive, "batten-down-the-hatches" sort of attitude in Evangelical learning (see Pensacola Christian College, Creationist theme parks).

I think the true benefit of this book is in destroying the false and divisive notion we have in our churches and culture which says that there are basically "heart" and "head" people. Heart people are compassionate servants, often tangible instead of abstract and value good intentions over academic precision. They're commonly seen as naive and even ditzy. Head people are sarcastic or sardonic people who obsess over discovering deeper mysteries . They take stands and contend for truth. They are regarded as wise and instructive, but can be cold and unforgiving to those they don't respect. Piper says this whole mess is nonsense and he's right. True, people are gifted in different ways. Some are just plain better at reading and footnoting while others have a knack for creativity and acts of service. But the truth is that we must all live as people who strive after truth in all its complexity and difficulty while also letting that truth translate to loving, selfless work for others.


American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham

Anyone who has allowed me to steer a casual conversation into a history lessons knows how I feel about Andrew Jackson. He was a hard-fighting, smoking, drinking, dueling, cussing general—the epitome of the manly president. I find him not only fascinating but in many ways admirable. He is many things I wish men still were: particularly courageous and honorable. Yet even a cursory study of Jackson has to reveal those very damning flaws: a racist and adulterous scoundrel who is single-handedly responsible for the Trail of Tears. And you thought George W. Bush was polarizing.

Jon Meacham won a Pulitzer in 2009 for this biography and his hard work shows throughout. His notes show meticulous combing through diaries and personal letters. He manages to string these various sources from very distinct and often contrary people into a layered portrait of America's fierce seventh president. Like Decision Points, the book focuses mainly on the presidency itself. Unlike it, American Lion takes a chronological approach. This allows the reader to see how the different threads of intrigue and policy develop throughout the sundry circumstances of the late 1820s and 1830s.

Jackson as a character steals the show throughout the book, just as he did throughout his presidency. He is a man who won't be defied and believes in his ideals, even if they may sometimes be inconsistent (and whose aren't?). Meacham's treatment is sympathetic but honest. He does not excuse Jackson's violation of the Constitution nor justify the Indian Removal Act. Still, what must impress the modern reader is how the author makes this decision understandable. Knowing Jackson, it makes sense why he would do such a deplorable thing and why he really didn't see it that way. And as easy as it is to throw stones at the dead for the cannot defend themselves, I would hope that my progeny afford me some amount of sympathy when they look back at the inconsistent ideals and evil decision in my life. The "rustic frontiersman" image is tackled as well, Meacham attributing our view of him as oafish and provincial largely to his opponents like Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams. It turns out that Jackson was a shrewd, well-read, and religious politician. He would often use his fierce reputation as a tool, feigning a tantrum to keep his critics and opponents afraid to undermine him... only to light his pipe and laugh at their terror once they left the room. Like a boss.

More to come!

Friday, April 22, 2011

You Only Think I'm Kidding Chapter 4

MANY WOMEN BORN AFTER 1980 ARE PEDOPHILES (AND DON'T EVEN KNOW IT)

Or proto-cougars, if that is more palatable.

I want to take you back to the 1970s again. It was a dark era of stagflation, disco, crooked politics, and the El Camino. More positively, it was a time when rock and country music were in the midst of a passionate love affair. Guitar solos were shameless. Flannel was prevalent. Jeans were tight yet still somehow masculine. Most importantly, men the popular media were men (besides Sir Elton John). As an example of the desirable man, behold 1970s heartthrob Burt Reynolds:

Reproduced for scientific purposes from celebrityroast.com. Copyright not mine.

Or take 1960s dreamboat Sean Connery:


Reproduced for social commentary purposes from... the Internet somewhere. Copyright not mine.

Or even this dashing fellow randomly found on a renowned social-networking site:


Reproduced for anonymous exploitation purposes from facebook.com. All rights reserved.

Each of these men was considered wildly attractive in his day. Even the uncritical reader will notice certain commonalities between them. All of them are fair-skinned, dark-haired and of Scottish ancestry, true, but that is only to further emphasize the real point. They have copious amounts of body hair. And they are d**n fine with it.

Body hair is God's way of distinguishing men from boys and women. He gave it to men all over the world so that you would never have to ask awkward questions like, "Is that a boy with malfunctioning glands or a man with no pride?" Instead, casual observers are able by natural design to ask awesome questions like, "Is that a gorilla reading Shakespeare or a raging man-brute with the soul of a poet?" This delicate balance went for thousands of years without being confused or even much questioned. A man was a man, most women were attracted to men, and men were easily distinguished by their musk, their volumes of philosophical discourses, the scent of well-aged pipe tobacco, and well-groomed yet impressive follicles of tangible masculinity. The greater the volume of any category just mentioned, the more impressive a man such a woman could be said to have netted.

But something strange happened after sometime after 1980; hairless men became the preference of women. Movies and media began to tout the superiority of the hairless man. Perhaps the root is reactionary--that hairless men felt under-appreciated for what is truly the whims of biology--and the response was to give them a few decades as the ideal. Maybe it was meant simply to reflect changing preferences. Nothing is that simple of Artery Bloggage, though. I see it as a sinister plot, poisoning the minds of today's women against real men in all their boisterous, fiery, hairy glory.

It's true. No one can deny the emasculating effect of the last few decades on the men in this country. Unlike many, I don't blame it all on the radical feminists. No, in fact I blame it on crafty, weak men who piggy-backed on their weasely agendas on theirs. After all, wouldn't competitive and assertive women be attracted to equally competitive, assertive men? "Birds of a feather" and all that. The man-boys have won the dreamboat wars and we have let them.

See how culture changed in just a few short years:


Reproduced for irrational hatred purposes from the Internet. Copyright gladly not mine.

This 1990s hunk is everything the old dreamboats weren't. He's hairy, true, but it's all concentrated on his head like a girl. Also, his chest is oddly hairless like a little boy. True, he has tone to his muscles, but what specifically masculine trait does this man have? The jaw is perhaps the only part of him left which is distinguishable at all from a young boy or a woman.

Even a cursory investigation will yield that the average woman born after 1980 would prefer her man this way. Body hair--established earlier to be the mark of a warrior and a gentleman--became something gross and disgusting. His body is not smooth and soft, it is said, and this is repulsive. His muscles should be rock-hard, but his skin gentle and warm. But shouldn't a man be rough and rugged even more so than gentle? Should not his body resemble the beasts of the field he slays to feast on their hides and save those he loves?


Reproduced from twilightsaga.wikia.com to prove what is wrong with everything in the world. I hate you freakish man-children so friggin' much. Copyright not mine, but may belong to Satanic Minions Inc.

Now, readers, we have a problem in America. Frankly, I can only conceive of three kinds of men who don't have body hair. Let's run through each of them briefly.
  1. Boys. Boys are men who have not attained unto maturity. Ladies, dating men of this age is frowned upon. I believe the term now used is "pulling a Letourneau."
  2. Biologically hairless. The biologically hairless are men who are naturally lacking in body hair, either with little or sometimes even none at all (even eyebrows). These are not the object of criticism per se. They can make up for the lack in other areas (pipe-smoking, scotch, reading philosophy, bear-punching, etc.). However, they ought not to glory in their lack of body hair just as this author does not glory in the number of bears he hasn't punched.
  3. "Ken dolls". This is the term I have coined for those empty shells of so-called "men" who would shave or wax themselves because a woman or societal forces have called them to do so. The reader may object that there is nothing wrong with a man waxing and oiling his whole form for a woman. But if we may all be honest, no true man would allow a woman to pressure him into being what he's not. Yes, a woman should call him to be a better man, but some other kind of man who violates what God has brought forth from the earth? No. Such a man who would deign to this is a Ken doll--a plastic, Barbie-like imitation of a man prancing about for the amusement others.
Let us return to men the glory of their body hair, America. Do it for Burt Reynolds.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Food Miscellany

(No science was done in the writing of this entry.)

I wish I could say that I had taken this month-long hiatus to refuel my creative reserves. A skilled author would do this. I, on the other hand, just managed my time poorly and let things get away from me. Still, here I return with an extra-long post with a few issues that have chaffed me for some time. I couldn't think of a good way to string these into one cohesive, pithy entry. I also have way too many series going on as it is. So, I just threw them all together here.

Eating is one of God's gifts to men. C.S. Lewis said that God is the ultimate hedonist because He could easily have made something so debase and common very droll and boring. But instead, He made it awesome for us. Any even casually acquainted with me know how passionate I am about food. Not so much the preparation of food, but more the eating of it. Yet the world is fallen due to Original Sin and eating is no different. But what could be wrong in the world of eating, you ask. Behold just a few with fear and trembling.

Napkins


Stuff spills. As much as we like to pretend that we are full-grown adults, most of us demonstrate the motor prowess of toddlers. The fancier your outfit, the more obvious this fact becomes. Man's desire for neatness in eating is one of the things that separates us from the beasts¹. It's inefficient, true, since you'll just spill even more Caesar salad and nacho cheese all over that expensive formal wear through the course of your meal. Nevertheless, our undying quest for culinary cleanliness (in addition to dead trees and man's ingenuity) has brought us the napkin. And while some readers may wonder why I dress formally and eat nachos for hypothetical examples, I wonder why we even bother to use napkins when they are so obsolete.

Napkins are perhaps the most dated and backwards invention at your dinner table. Imagine buying a High-Def 40" 3-D LCD screen TV. Upfront. In cash. Then you celebrate and christen your purchase by inviting your friends over to gather 'round the radio for another exciting episode of The Lone Ranger. Such is the napkin on your table. I ask you in all frankness, America, why do we continue to use napkins when a far superior creation is eager to meet all of your spillage needs.

I do not need to belabor the obviously superior performance of the paper towel... but I will. Paper towels have increased absorbency. Paper towers are larger in size; easily the size of an adult lap without being thin. Paper towels are not as easily rent asunder by water. Paper towels are roughly the same price for quadruple the performance. Ever wonder why good Southern barbecue or wing restaurants have a huge roll of paper towels at every table? It's because no simple napkin can handle drippy sauce of that magnitude.

But maybe most importantly at all, paper towels are always there for you when you need them. The napkin, meanwhile, is the most emotionally distant of all tabletop ware.

Tongs

I remember during my sophomore year of college that the college dining hall staff began to vociferously demand that students use tongs at the dessert table. The tyranny of the dining hall staff on this tong issue may well have come from Georgia state health codes, but the power-hunger came from the depths of their dark hearts. Injustice in the regime was rampant. It could not be allowed to stand. My Tuesday-Thursday lunch club formed an underground resistance. Whenever any of those the middle-aged generalissimos turned their backs, we would snatch succulent snacks from the front lines. The Revolution became more brazen with time. I started to grab cookies off the table in plain view of the staff. I could barely hear their shrill shouts of "Use the tongs, please!" over the sound of both my logical and tactical superiority.

Here's what bugs me about tongs. I confess that I am not a scientist². Still, I know a thing or two about germs and plenty more about tongs. The idea behind the tongs are to keep the greasy, disease-ridden hands of the masses from touching the cookie predestined for someone else's mouth. You can rest assured that no one has touched your cookie except you thanks to the tongs, stainless steel saviors of dinner. I know lots of foolish hypochondriacs who relish the idea of tongs, alongside anti-bacterial soap and gratuitous amounts of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

I hate to destroy your faith in man, clean-freaks, but tongs are actually inferior to just grabbing the cookies yourself! Think about it; most people are only going to accidentally brush perhaps one or two other cookies on the way to their fated cookie, and even then only occasionally. Very few (though not few enough) are the idiots/villains who would runs their hands over all the cookies after forgetting/intentionally neglecting to wash their hands in the bathroom. But EVERYONE TOUCHES THE TONGS. Everyone! Instead of possibly one other person, you and everyone else in the room--idiots, villains, cold-sufferers, and all in between--touches the metal tongs. And then your hands, which have effectively rubbed against every other hand in the room, go right to the cookie. Which goes right into your mouth. Not only are tongs obnoxious appendages to the hands God Himself created, they're also not any safer for avoiding germs.


I always sprinkle botulism cultures on buffet tables.

Black coffee

In the 1970s, retired Master Sergeant Charles Helms stepped into a familiar Selma, Alabama diner with his children. Some twenty years prior, a much younger Helms had frequented the place while off-duty as a young army medic. Now he was back with his young children. Helms took his old seat in the diner. Several regulars remembered "Mr. Charlie", warmly reminisced with him, and fawned over his kids. A waitress took their drink orders. Sergeant Helms ordered coffee, his usual order at any restaurant all the time since and even before his time here as a regular here. The waitress asked if Helms wanted cream and sugar. It was a set-up. Her ears already anticipated his familiar yet-long-unheard reply. Helms took that cue with a winsome air of nostalgia.

"Why ruin a good cup of coffee?"

Grandpa made black coffee into a ritual for as long as I could remember. If family folklore like I just shared can be trusted, it was like that for even longer. So imagine my shame when I couldn't stomach the stuff. After all, I grew up thinking coffee was a drink for men and that was why boys like me couldn't stand it. By the 2000s, trendy Starbucks coffee had made inroads into the South and I was hooked. I could drink their creamy, sugary "coffee-flavored" beverages. But how could I sit at the kitchen table with Grandpa and pretend to drink coffee? My drink was cool, hip, and tasty. His drink put hair on your chest and defeated Communism. I knew that I wasn't really a man until I could drink that sacred black brew without flinching³.

I finally got there in college. I finished my first cup at a Waffle House in Tyrone. I took that manly sense of accomplishment back to Rome. There I shamed many in my dormitory by scoffing at their creamy, sugar-laden mockeries of the black brew. You may not understand, reader, how a drink can make you more of a man. No big deal.

It merely means you aren't a man.

A good cup of coffee ought to make you suffer. You know you have made your coffee strong enough when your first hot, bitter sip makes you angry at the world. That anger inspires you to not just seize the day, but to clutch it by the ears, knee it in the face, take a baseball bat to it, and relent only when it calls you "master". I have no quarrel with lesser, trendier beverages which feed the sweet tooth while rotting all the other teeth. I even enjoy these "lattes", "frappechinos", and "macciatos" on occasion. I really only get angry when these Italian milkshakes are allowed to masquerade as coffee. And don't even get me started on latté art. Dessert can be an art. Coffee is rage fuel.

Coffee, black as sin and hot as hell, tore down the Berlin Wall. Show it some respect.

¹ Except cats unfortunately.
² "But Thomas, you're a lover!" you loudly reply. But, friend, love is not a science; it's an art.
³ I really miss getting to footnote things. I hope it doesn't show.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Because I Was Evil: Why I Am Reformed Part 3

When I was a teenager, I learned what it was to be powerless.

To make a long story short, my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness and died just over three years after the doctor's message. In that time, he deteriorated slowly until finally his lungs could no longer function. That meant that I spent the better part of my early adolescence being an in-home hospice nurse. It involved the sort of inglorious and undignified necessities in which no boy ever expects to aid. I slowly came to a realization I was too timid to speak. No matter how much I toiled, no matter how many hours I slept, no matter how many horrible humiliations I endured, and even no matter how much guilt I heaped upon myself--all was in vain because he would still die. I wasn't powerful enough to save him.

My next exposure to Reformed theology came after he died. I was under the sway of a couple of teachers and friends who were wrestling their way through thee tenets of Calvinism. I was honestly rather uncomfortable with it. I had never met anyone who very seriously entertained predestination at all. I knew where I was and what I believed, firmly entrenched in the Baptist Arminian position. Still, as they persisted on their journeys I was learning about Reformed theology and the simple five-points to which it has been reduced: the TULIP.

The "T" of the TULIP stands for Total Depravity. I was initially uncomfortable with this. Total Depravity is a doctrine which essentially states that man is totally depraved--wicked throughout in his natural condition. My first impressions were not accurate though; I wish that someone would develop some other acronym that didn't use it. I thought it meant that all unsaved people (and all saved ones before receiving Jesus) were as nasty and wretched as Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin.

This is not a fair picture and I have come to a better understanding of what John Calvin meant since then. "Total Depravity" would better understood as "thorough sinfulness" or "powerlessly enslaved to sin". It's not that unsaved people are incapable of friendliness, kindness, or even civic good, but that they are incapable of doing any good warranting salvation.

There was nothing in me worth saving. Every wicked and evil thought and deed in my heart doomed me justly to Hell. For as much conversation as there has been recently about whether or not Hell is real and literal, it seems that most people are thinking about the fate of other people. Few think about how they themselves deserve hell. I know that I am not Hitler, but I have wronged God greatly. I was powerless in my sin, addicted to evil, and enthralled with darkness. I was God's enemy and stood justly under His wrath. It's not because I don't have enough self-confidence or because I am a guilt-ridden person. It's because I spit in the face of God--the ultimate victim for He has never done anyone wrong yet has been wronged by everyone.

An uncharitable reader may think that I have reached the conclusion of Reformed theology based upon a jarring experience in my past. This is a risk I must take in order to have fidelity and heartfelt connection with my readers. But to that uncharitable reader--one who would credit my conclusion to my psychological experiences and nothing more--I must point to an example from history. A psychological approach would say that the Jewish historians ought not be taken seriously because they have great reasons to exaggerate the horrors of Nazism. Yet no group has done a better, honest job of documenting and archiving the Holocaust than the Jews. No one with credibility can suggest that the Jews have distorted the facts in doing so. On the contrary, they have done the best job because of their experiences. In that same spirit, I argue that my experiences have made me more sensitive to the nuances of human depravity.

God saves me from my filth and unites me to Himself. I don't have to save myself or save others. I can't anyway. Only God can save the world, save my father, and save me. We are totally depraved because we are incapable and fallen. We're stuck and only the Savior can save.