Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Our Ancient Happy Family

The most striking thing to me in my first serious read-through of Aristotle's Politics comes at the very beginning where Aristotle claims the origin of civil government is the family.  For Aristotle, families are comprised of the rulers and the ruled (just as each individual has within himself an element of ruling and being ruled or sovereignty and submission).  Husbands rule the household and wives obey them (here there may be a fair amount of misogyny in his description of women and wives).  Children are subject to the parents, especially the father.  Slaves are subject to the household manager (whichever parent happens to be holding that role).  He then notes how recognizable governments came to be.  Families grew in the number of children and those children grew into adults and started families of their own.  These families stayed within a fairly close distance, forming a village.  As space came to a premium, villages continued to grow in size until they became a collection of villages--towns and then cities.  Cities achieved what Aristotle considered full political statehood: the polis.  When cities connect themselves together under greater rulers, they became full-fledged nations.  Everything Aristotle writes in books 2-9 of Politics is based on that foundation.  The family is a microcosm of the state, whether we are considering villages, local communities, city-states, or grand empires.

The Old Testament/Hebrew Bible offers a similar account.  As we are reminded at weddings, God's first institution is not the church or the state or the charity or the bridge club but the marriage.  Adam and Eve constitute a divinely-ordained covenant.  Dysfunction going forward in the biblical narrative is often traced back to "sins of the father".  Jacob, Isaac and Rebekkah, Abraham, Noah, and most ultimately Adam are directly or indirectly responsible for contention in the narrative of Genesis (and arguably the rest of the biblical narrative).  So the problems between men both personally and in society are in some fashion a fault of the father.  Aaron's failure to properly train his sons Nadab and Abihu as priests lead to their deaths in one of the few narrative sections of Leviticus.  Another very dramatic example is the story of David.  In the wake of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, God curses him with strife in his family.  And while much ink has been spilled on the lust of David, much less has followed his shocking passivity as Amnon and Absalom commit atrocious sins.  This culminates in an Israelite civil war as Absalom cultivates latent resentment against the king into a war of usurpation.  David's famous lament for his son in 2 Samuel 18 is the culmination of his failures as a general and king, but at least as importantly his failures as a husband and father:

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

The New Testament carries this theme forward.  One of the most scandalous things Jesus does in the Gospels is refer to Yahweh as "Father" and himself as the Son of God.  In some ways this can be seen as a political statement as well as a statement of love, since in Genesis the notion of sovereignty begins with Yahweh's sovereignty over the creation he spoke into being from nothing.  Jesus is often called "lord" or "master" in the Gospels, translated in English Bibles from the Greek κύριος.  In Greek, this word can be used as a polite term for a teacher or social superior.  However, it is also the word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) for the Hebrew יהוה ("Yahweh", usually rendered in English Bibles as "the LORD").  As Christian writers continue forward, they describe Jesus as "Lord" and attribute to him both the traditional Greek political connotations and the Hebrew divine sense of the term.  Jesus is also identified as the "Christ" or "Messiah", Greek and Hebrew words meaning "anointed one" and used exclusively in reference to reigning kings (thus David and Solomon are rightly understood as lesser "messiahs").  The reign of Jesus as "king of kings" is a political image... and a familial one.

The Apostles are no exception to entwining the family and the community.  Paul instructs families in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians.  Paul also considers government officials as executors of God's will and ruling with divinely-delegated authority in Romans 13.  Peter gives similar instructions in 1 Peter as a part of his general instructions to submit to all authority.  The author of Hebrews compares a Christian's relationship to God as one of a father disciplining his children (just as Jesus does in the Gospels).  The authors of the epistles (particularly John) do not favor the term "Christian" for one another; they (gender-inclusively) use "brothers" or "brethren".  This is a clear and over-ridding use of family language for the much larger institution that is the Church.  In light of this evidence, Jews and Christians alike ought to see something quite familiar and even agreeable in Aristotle's depiction of politics.

In contrast, some of the American Founders, particularly those taking their cues from John Locke like as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, see the state as a necessary evil above all else.  After all, Locke's account for political origins in his Second Treatise seems a bit less cuddly.  Rational, free individuals lived in a state of nature perfect harmony and respect.  Everyone only ever used what they could enjoy.  Resources were limited enough that a free individual's reach could rarely exceed their grasp.  It was only with the introduction of money that things started to get chaotic, developing into a state of war where strife for scarce resources threatened the life, liberty, and property of all.  So the most intelligent and hardworking individuals arranged a contractual system by which all people would surrender some of their individual sovereignty to an authority figure.  They must obey this figure so long as he asked reasonably of them and defended their life, liberty, and property.  So really, government is something we had to invent because "if men were angels, no government would be necessary."  We are not governed nor governors by nature, only by necessity.

Modern attitudes towards politics tend to be informed by this mentality whether or not anyone is cognizant of Locke's myth.  Most Americans are fairly negative in their appraisal of the political process and politicians, more so with each passing year.  We "just know" that every politician is corrupt even if we have zero evidence to substantiate that belief.  Government solutions are either inadequate or too modest in scope.  We don't trust our representatives to tell us the truth.  And while we recognize the necessity of making some individuals unequal in their authority, we also refuse to surrender to their assurances that they know what's best for us.  No one knows what's best for us better than we free individuals!

I am by no means suggesting that politicians need less accountability or that we need more government programs.  I am instead saying that maybe our outright negativity toward politics and government is wrong and destructive, especially if we view our fellow citizens and countrymen as brothers and sisters in a temporary and ever-uncertain life.  Maybe we could learn to appreciate the political process and return to a civic virtue that takes our role as citizens seriously.  Libertarians (who buy Locke almost wholesale) would have us believe that the best bulwark against tyranny is less government.  But I rather agree with Aristotle who said, in light of our family-city, "Man is a political animal."  Politics isn't a nasty thing like excreting or bathing that we do because we have to.  Man is the only animal to arrange himself in a group, to rule and be ruled.  Maybe politics is part of what makes us human.

In fourth-grade I was given a citizenship award by my teacher.  I had no idea what this meant then.  Reflecting back, it's sad that I didn't.  Aristotle's point about genuine concern for our fellowmen--both body and soul--through political action is the very basis of any free republic.  Ignore the economist, the pundit, the cynic who would have you believe that some abstract state always expands into tyranny.  The liberals are right to note that the state only expands where free citizens fail.  Now I understand and am honored by that flimsy piece of paper I lost a long time ago.  The best bulwark against tyranny isn't less government, it's better citizens.  Citizens who care about other citizens, citizens who use what they have to help out others whether through tax dollars or moral oversight or bodies in the army or even out of their own pockets, citizens who are truly "other-centric" are the worst enemy of any potential tyrant.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The South and Selfhood

Last night, I partook in an inadvertently tense conversation.  Somehow, as our community group meandered through the serious and the hysterical, the topic of conversation turned to the display of Dixie flags and Southern identity in general.  One friend from Indiana was somewhat taken aback to discover that she was a "Yankee".  This was not a label she applied to herself, nor was it something derisive where she was from.  Yet upon moving to Kentucky and being surrounded by transplanted Southerners, she found that she was a damn Yankee "who just couldn't understand."  She seemed confounded and almost taken aback by the casual attitude many Southerners (mostly from Alabama, Georgia, [panhandle] Florida, or Virginia) took toward the display of the Confederate flag--to say nothing of the nostalgia for the Confederacy or the exclusivity of being Southern.  The room seemed divided quickly between the vocal Southerners and mostly silent (and presumably Yankee).  Explanations fell on deaf ears going both directions and the tension cooled only when I explained the history of the flag and when it moved from a symbol of a region to carrying racist connotations (Southern protests against the Brown v. Board decision in 1956).

My friend never thought of herself as a Yankee.  She is first and foremost herself, no more tied a unique historical or geographic identity than any one in most states north of the Mason-Dixon.  There's not as much of a tribal--even adversarial--concept among the many Northerners I've met in Louisville.  They don't even much consider themselves "Northerners" (with the exception of a friend from New Hampshire, though is identity is more "New England" than "New Hampshire" and that only because he is in a quasi-Southern setting now).

Yet even among young people from the South, I have observed a tendency away from Southern pride.  Many young, sophisticated professionals in Atlanta would even prefer to do public-relations damage control, going above and beyond to mock Southern ignorance on racial and social issues.  Finding a conservative "good ol' boy" under thirty in Atlanta is easier than finding one in many cities, but much harder than in small Southern cities like Montgomery, Chattanooga, or Columbus.  To their credit, these millennial cosmopolitans are doing much to raise awareness of latent racial and social injustices (though I think they overplay the problem; racism is no worse in Montgomery than it is in New York or Chicago these days).  Yet they too are struggling to identify themselves as individuals rather than as Southerners.

The movement of higher education, according to Peter Lawler in chapter 3 of Modern and American Dignity, is no longer toward teaching students to live in light of their natural condition.  Instead, college is now based on two premises: productivity and autonomy.  Productivity is the thrust of twentieth-century bourgeoisie values represented by practical majors like engineering, hard sciences, and business.  Autonomy is the 1960s bohemian response, usually embodied in majors like psychology, the "soft sciences" (sociology, anthropology, etc.), and anything ending in "-studies" (Native American studies, African American studies, women's studies, etc.)  These are, in the minds of modern sophisticates, the two venues for displaying real individual dignity and significance.

Let's break those two down some more.  The philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that people demonstrate their dignity through their productivity.  This means that traditional understandings of dignity--birth or pedigree, race, gender, religion, means--are false and useless.  The only adequate and legitimate measure of a man or woman is what results he or she can get.  So the hard sciences are what you wanna study.  Engineers build stuff and make money.  Managers lead big companies and make money.  Scientists invent stuff or save lives and make money.  Very pragmatic and useful definition, just like the stereotypical 1950s dad.

And autonomy?  This comes from the philosopher Immanuel Kant (among others).  He taught that your dignity can't come from what you can do.  It's crass!  So instead, your dignity comes from asserting your individuality against the principles of nature and behavior.  You are at your individual best when you are distinguishing your values and identity over and against whatever society prescribes to you.  You are not first and foremost a son, a wife, a student, a Christian, an employee, an American, even a Southerner.  You are an individual and the more you distinguish yourself from any natural limitations or societal roles, the more dignified you are.  That's why many social sciences (sometimes eschewing the earlier and more medieval term "humanities") are all about empowering yourself against the constraints of a society out to define you.  At my college, there was even a women's studies group called "Empower" for this very reason.   The thrust of this idea is very free-spirited and unique, just like the stereotypical 1960s hippie.

Today we have fused these two principles together.  Millionaires are no longer stuffy and WASPy like Cornelius Vanderbilt or John D. Rockefeller.  Now they are button-down, casual, even whimsical like Steve Jobs or the executives of the laid-back and fun Googleplex.  David Brooks called these nouveau riche "bobos"--bourgeoisie bohemians.  They display their individuality as much as they can... so long as it doesn't interfere with their productivity.  Even the funhouse that is Google headquarters will fire you if you spend too much time in the onsite swimming pools or volleyball courts.

And what has all this to do with Dixie?

As the family, the church, and the social state weaken, colleges ought to be filling in the gap.  My time in college ministry showed me that many students don't know who they are or what they should be doing.  They have been raised on 90s pop-psychology of self-esteem.  Since "everyone's a winner" and "you can be whatever you want to be", the immediate questions to arise in each student are: "Then who am I?"  "And what should I be?"  Parents, pastors, educators, and community leaders who drank deeply of the feel-good Kool Aid have no answer.  So many will distract them with money and material needs or will resort to empowering them against the ills of society.  But who are they?

Proud Southerners, with our tribal mentality and our sometimes-irrational devotion to our region and culture, find better grounding than the Atlanta-style sophisticates or the Yankees because Southern is part of the identity.  Our devotion to God, guns, and glory (or college football, fried chicken, and "Bless Your Heart"s if you prefer) is finally impossible to explain.  It is a part of being Southern and it something greater than any individual Southerner.  It's part of a larger realization of our natural roles given to us by the God of the Bible or the philosophers' God of nature.  It is a part we are given as a part of our tribe, just as we are all sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, citizens of our nation, servants of Jesus Christ.  Call them roles, call them labels, call them duties, whatever you want; they give us our identity.  As Walker Percy says in Lost in the Cosmos, we just don't have the words for ourselves.  We ultimately can't define ourselves because there's no words we can formulate to fully encapsulate who we are as individuals.  To do so is futile.  We must ground ourselves from the outside with the roles we have been given.

When we recognize the futility of self-definition, will we finally cry out for help from beyond?

Friday, June 29, 2012

Because I Didn't Do Anything To Earn It: Why I Am Reformed Part 4

You never want to be the kid picked last for dodgeball.

Dodgeball is even less-forgiving than its schoolyard cousin, kickball.  At least in kickball, there are slow kids stuck in the outfield.  But poor, poor fat kids have no hope in dodgeball.  They're big targets, slow dodgers, and typically warm the bench.  Their only hope of salvation comes in what my elementary gym teacher called "execution-style" dodgeball.  In that version, you could bring a player back from the being out if you caught a ball thrown at you before it hit the ground (it also rendered the thrower out, outing the other team a player while your team gained one).  Best of all was the redemption you could gain if you threw the ball into the basketball hoop on the other side of the court (indoor only).  Then your whole team was resurrected!

I had my work cut out for me.  I was a slow, "husky", and uncoordinated kid (I say winsomely as a slow, chubby, and only sorta coordinated adult).  My skills were honed in a gauntlet; changing schools and churches meant establishing a new reputation.  Otherwise, I'd be picked last every time.  It meant a lot of trips to the sidelines, a lot of caution, a lot of observation, and a lot of jammed fingers when the ball wasn't squarely at my chest.  It meant enduring the shame of the last pick time and again.  But performance is what counts in sports.  Finally, I proved my worth in fifth grade when I executed a power-slide/ankle-shot combo that not only avoided a blue foam ball aimed at my head but also rendered Kiley Sutton out.  (I doubt very much that she remembers it over a decade later, but for me it was the moment when I became one with the execution dodgeball spirits.)

So imagine the scandal of a choice without any merit at all.  Something totally unearned, something beyond all attainment; a choosing in spite of rather than for what the chosen deserves.

When a dodgeball captain chooses a terrible player, he may do so for two reasons.  First, he may just be pitying the player.  He may do so out of guilt; he chooses his little cousin for the team because Mom insisted that he include the awful tyke.  He may also do so out of goodwill compassion.  Maybe he genuinely wants to include the wimpy kid and his heart is stirred to the angelic goal of inclusion at the expense of team performance.  Second, he may choose the fat kid to make his victory all the more impressive.  He knows that if he can win even with such a severe handicap, his team looks that much better.  Some blend of these two motives probably explained why that red-headed fifth-grader picked me in a church game back when I was six or seven.  I remember he told me to stick close, then he deflected shots intended for me with the ball he held.  My throws barely reached half the distance to my target.  Still, by including me and sticking up for me, he was my hero for the night.  And we did win when it was down to just the two of us based solely on his skill, not mine.

This is unconditional election, the "U" of the Calvinist TULIP.  It's basically a way of explaining how anyone so stuck in total depravity can be saved from what they justly deserve.  After all, there's no reason why you would ever pick the wimpy fat kid in dodgeball based on his skill.  If that sounds harsh, it's because you haven't played enough dodgeball.  You don't pick that kid because of what he can do, not if you want to win.  Yet God does exactly that!  For the same reason that a mighty fifth-grader would choose a merit-less first-grader, Paul says that God chooses to save the chief of sinners.  Just as it brought glory to the fifth-grader to choose the weak one, so too God chooses the weak to humble the strong and wise.  So the story of my first-grade dodgeball game is not the story of how I saved the day, but how the older boy saved the day.  The story of a Christian's salvation is not the story of the great things he has done, but the story of the great things God as done.  So, Paul says, Jesus saves people so that everyone will know the glory of God--his love, his power, his grace--and will boast in His saving work, not in their own.

I can already hear a few loud objections at this point (yes, even through the series of tubes that is the internet).  First, isn't it vainglorious to want to make a big deal of yourself?  Isn't God being a huge show-off?  Why does He need glory and glorification anyway?  Isn't He complete in Himself?  Well, consider this: Idolatry can be defined in the Bible as putting anything in the supreme place rightfully occupied by Yahweh.  So if you put anything above the Lord, be it your money, yourself, your partner, or Dionysus, you're an idolater.  There's a good chance that our fifth-grader in the second story was wanting to make a big deal of himself to show how great at dodgeball he was.  If that's the case (it's been so long, who can know?), it would be awfully vainglorious.  But consider this: is it vain for God to make much of Himself?  If He held anything above Himself, wouldn't that be idolatry?  If He is really as majestic and satisfying as He makes Himself out to be, would it be right to put anyone or anything above Himself?  Not even we can be a bigger deal than God.  He can't think of any one of us or even all our doomed race above or even equal with himself.  Then we'd be bigger gods than He is.  And you thought you had ego problems before...

Second (and related), couldn't He just have done so out of love?  Maybe He was moved by compassion, not by glory.  Think back to the motives of our team captain.  Noble compassion can move the captain too.  That's very true.  But does that preclude glory?  Think as if you were really God (shouldn't be too hard, we all do so pretty often).  Imagine you were the most satisfying, beautiful, enthralling, intelligent, benevolent being in the universe... wisdom embodied even!  You know that finite creatures spin their wheels trying to satisfy themselves apart from you.  You're all they need; you know it, but they don't.  Wouldn't it be the most loving thing in the world to reveal yourself to them?  I remember planning to pay a visit to a girl I was (sorta) courting.  She called me to say that she was having an awful weekend.  Her heart was burdened with her dad's recent health scare.  She said she was wiped out from crying and felt like she looked awful.  Maybe this wasn't the smartest move, but I begged to see her anyway.  To me, it didn't matter if she looked like a million bucks or half-drowned.  I just wanted to spend time with her!  To her credit, she did the selfless thing and deigned to see me anyway.  We had a wonderful date after all and I was blessed to have seen her.  Her care for me led her to do something that some might read as selfish and condescending, but was really a sacrifice for her.  It was the sacrifice of her very presence when she didn't feel up to it.  That's not to say this is a perfect image of God's love and glory; this gal, divine as she is, isn't God.  Still, she let me enjoy her company and make much of her.  And I was thrilled to do so!  Even though things didn't ultimately work out, we both had a great time together.

Third, couldn't God choose us based on respecting our choice?  Back to dodgeball, wouldn't it be cruel for a captain to choose a kid who didn't want to play?  Wouldn't that be bullying?  We'll address this a bit more when we delve a little further into the TULIP, but I will briefly note something here.  One could consider the willingness to play as a merit in a player.  After all, the fact that some wimpy fat kid showed up at all indicates that he has some drive to do well.  A shrewd captain will recognize this; coaches and teachers will tell you that determination counts for far more than raw talent in the long run.  So in a lot of ways this is a weakness of the human analogy I've chosen.  For this to really fit, we would have to assume a terrible player who had absolutely no inclination to play.  Thomas Aquinas said that all our language for God was analogical; our imperfect and finite human words can't contain a perfect and infinite God.  But notice something important we've already seen: the willingness to play is a merit.  So, to make the analogy work, the choice to be saved is a merit!  If you desire good things--things of God that have eternal significance--then you have something worthwhile in yourself apart from grace and faith.  You merit some justification because you at least wanted to be good.  But the Bible says that we were dead in our transgressions and that apart from faith--which is itself a gift from God--it is impossible to please God.  We weren't chosen for salvation because we did any good...we didn't even desire good apart from God!

Keep in mind what I said last time I talked about this.  I don't want to start a fight.  I don't want to be mean and nasty.  I know I haven't addressed the finer points of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Wesleyan, or Semi-Pelagian theological interpretations of election and reprobation in biblical soteriology.  If you even know what those words mean, you probably aren't my audience anyway.  And yes, it's incomplete.  This series isn't finished yet though (in spite of a lengthy hiatus), and no words I or anyone can use will ever fully capture an infinite and mysterious God.  Gotta try though, even if I haven't a shred of dodgeball merit.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Briefs: Awakening

Since the second book in this series is due any day now, I want to give a long-overdue review and analysis of Awakening, the first book in the Emblem and the Lantern series.  I have to confess that this is going to be a bit difficult on two unrelated grounds.  Firstly, this is the introductory novel of a four-book series.  The first book in any series (or most media, for that matter) is difficult to evaluate since it has to devote a good deal of time expounding the geography, culture, zeitgeist, and history of the setting AND flesh out the characters the reader will follow for the rest of the series.  In a sense the first book must be left unfinished--for there will be nowhere for the story to go if things are too-tightly resolved at its conclusion.  Many locals and characters and questions must go unexplored and left dangling for a later date.  (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a tight narrative, but its not clear that Lewis intended to write a Narnia series until completion... though Lewis wrote Prince Caspian almost immediately after it.)  Thus, the first in a series has to juggle a lot of things subsequent stories or standalone works don't.  Secondly, this series is written by Dylan Higgins, a personal friend of many years.  A reviewer may praise or scathe a stranger's work with impunity because an unknown exists as an abstract.  I can ascribe godlike insight or demonic laze to J.K. Rowling or T.S. Elliot because I don't know either.  I don't plan on meeting the former, and the latter is immune in death to all reproach.  But a work of fiction is a necessarily personal work in a way even nonfiction isn't, so there's a personal dimension to any thoughts.  The author may regard scorn of the book as personal attack (akin to denouncing his child); disinterested third parties will regard praise of the book as affinity for the author and blind to its flaws.  So I will try to be as honest as I can, confessing upfront the difficulty of my charge.  Dylan didn't ask me for this and didn't know it was coming.  My thoughts are mine, colored though they are by friendship and discussions of history, theology, philosophy, religion, politics, the writing process, and beard-grooming techniques.

Awakening was first self-published in 2010 by Dylan Higgins, an author from Griffin, Georgia.  A second and third edition followed, finally published by Hill Harrow Publishers of Peachtree City, GA.  It tells the story of Ethan and Eisley Lambent, two twins living in a village called Luminae in a country called Glaem, a land of eternal light.  The twins are on the eve of their Awakening ceremony, a local rite of passage in which every thirteen-year-old child spends a night camping on their own.  The ceremony recalls the story of Riley, the Boy of Legend who ventured to a far-off land called Gloam with only a magic lantern.  He journeyed all the way to this land of perpetual darkness before returning with several Gloamers.  The twins discover that Riley is their ancestor and are stirred to follow his journey into Gloam to deliver its denizens from darkness.


Most of the story is told from the perspective of Ethan, giving his thoughts and impressions most often.  Ethan is a reflective student, often drawn into study and books.  He seems destined (or doomed) to the life of a scholar.  He is typically more cautious than impulsive, so the reader is automatically impressed that he is the character first drawn to travel into the unknown.  He is also duty-bound and considerate, first planning to travel to Gloam without Eisley and demonstrating time and  again his devotion to her safety above his own.  He tends to abstract situations, often disembodying himself from a situation and analyzing it from every possible angle.  He shows no aversion to contrary ideas, entertaining the alternative cosmology of the Maridians (maybe more than he ought).  Like another Gloam-bound ancestor Earnest Lambent, he suffers from a serious poisoning.  We can assume that this poisoning is more insidious than the literal poison which killed Earnest because it sickens his soul, not his body.  (It is ambiguous as to whether or not Earnest also had his soul poisoned while in Mardia).  Ethan shows the natural strength and weakness of the curious; he is open to new experiences and ideas, yet the more he considers them, the more he loses his connections to what his true.  This is again a symptom of his abstracting.  The real danger Ethan faces here is not that he will be seduced by riches (for he is far too idealistic) or wearied by the journey (for he is far too driven) but that he will abstract himself from the narrative in which he finds his identity (the omnibenevolent Light which created and sustains all things).  I identify much with Ethan and his flaws; in the end he is saved and embraces the Light because of his family "embodies" him, tethering him to the reality of good and evil, love and hate, family and enemy, truth and falsehood.  Whether because he is the main actor in the story or because the narrator more often notes his thoughts and impressions, he is the most nuanced and developed character in the story.


Eisley is the "heart" to Ethan's "head".  She is brave, impulsive, and gentle.  Her character is mainly revealed through reactions rather than original actions.  Upon discovering Ethan's plot to abscond from Glaem, she decides to follow without hesitation.  When Alaric Jukes shares Marida's cosmology--that the world was created by impersonal forces--she balks and rejects it as pure folly.  Her impressions of Deerborn as warm and compassionate despite his gruff demeanor prove accurate.  She makes friends easily wherever the duo travels, even in the wholly-alien village of By-Down in Gloam.  She accepts the Light much more easily and much more quickly than Ethan.  And far from being a mere damsel, she also learns swordplay alongside Ethan.  She empowers Ethan's resolve even when he is tempted to quit.  She is also a more embodied character than Ethan, running to clear her head rather than puzzling over dilemmas as Ethan would.  Her flaw is her naivete.  Though she is able to detect the good in others, she sometimes misses the ulterior motives.  Toward the story's conclusion, she rightly detects goodness in the heart of an apparent ally--sadly missing the shell of deceit encasing it.  Unfortunately, I do not think Eisley is as well-written as Ethan, often seeming derivative of him and best understood in light of him rather than a complete character in her own right.  Apparently, Book 3 of The Emblem and the Lantern will be entirely her story.  This ought to go a long way in explaining what drives her and what her ultimate goals are.  However, based solely on Awakening, she is a likable yet underdeveloped character.


Though not a primary protagonist, Deerborn is a fan-favorite and merits his own treatment.  He is the fearsome captain of the Maridian guard.  He has trained in aggressive forms of combat in a peaceful time.  He commands his men with full authority, yet he functions more as a police captain than a military general.  His stern demeanor is a front for (or maybe a product of) a fatherly disposition.  He apprehends the children for trespassing in Maridian territory without remorse.  He relents only when he realizes the twins are harmless and ignorant of their law.  He has the paranoia characteristic of a man who has had to defend his city before, though we are not explicitly told that he has ever done so.  He is dutiful like Ethan, though hardly stoical as we see his interaction with his wife and their pet.  As the most skilled warrior, he proves pivotal at the novel's climactic battle.  Given his popularity (and Higgins is totally aware of it), I expect to see much more of him as this tetralogy continues.  While he too isn't as developed as Ethan, he isn't a protagonist and we oughtn't expect it as we do of Eisley.

Light and Darkness

The themes of light and darkness pervade the novel and serve as the foundation of the narrative.  The imagery is unabashedly Johannine.  Even a cursory reading of the Gospel of John and John's epistles will give the reader a full blueprint of this story's workings.  The image of moving from darkness into light, living boldly in the light, and ministering to those lost in darkness dictate the course of the story.  It isn't the most nuanced story motif, but it works well.  In fact, it's so prominent in the New Testament that I am surprised that another author didn't write a story like this first!  Higgins translated the simplicity of the apostle's analogy into a  beautiful story about compassion, adventure, and love.  Given the target adolescent audience, this is great choice.  The imagery is admittedly simple, yet both expansive enough to provide for further exploration and well-established in Christian history as a way of envisioning Christian theological anthropology.

One result of this imagery is that the worlds of Marida and Gloam prove much more interesting than Glaem does.  Maridia exists (as one might expect) as a world in-between, seeing both light and darkness and understanding both.  In many ways this makes Maridia more relatable to our own world.  Ours is a world of both literal light and darkness, and in Christian cosmology created good yet marred by darkness and sin.  Gloam is most intriguing of all because Higgins must describe a culture of total darkness.  The Gloamers are a musical people, their history sung.  It is reminiscent of Homeric oral history and even the theory some historical linguists have that Ancient Greek was spoken not just with inflection but with musicality.  (A more historically-accurate version of The 300 might have been produced as a musical.)  The reaction of Gloamers to using their eyes for the first time is a fascinating read and bares more exploration in further novels.

But Glaem suffers the fate of many fictional paradises--it's perfect.  It is described idyllically, nostalgically, and warmly.  It evokes all our feelings of home when we're homesick.  Yet like most fond reminiscing, it glosses over or hides all flaws.  The religion of the Creator's Light is certainly true, but we know almost nothing about its doctrines or beliefs.  Hopefully future stories will elaborate on this a bit.  What's wrong with Glaem?  Is it really perfect?  Are there spectra of beliefs, a rainbow of denominations in the spectrum of Light?  We do get an implicit, subtle sense that Luminae is somewhat complacent and possibly ignorant.  The Glaemians (and the village Luminae in particular) all know the story of Riley Lambent.  So, beyond Earnest, Ethan, and Eisley (and maybe Grandpa Emmett), why has no one else sought to seek out Gloamers?  Their schools seem inferior to Maridia's, and while the twins have never heard of Maridia the Maridians know all about Luminae and Glaem.  Why is geographic education so lacking there?  I certainly hope some these questions are answered in future stories; Glaem needs fleshing.

Editing and Pacing

One flaw of the book is in its editing.  This is a tough critique to make; I am fairly sure that I am acquainted with the editors as much as with the author.  Plus, I know that more than a couple of editing mistakes and vague sentences have made it into my own work.  I have one go-to editor, and sometimes I don't have him read over things because I am always frustrated at the mistakes I make.  And to be fair each new edition of Awakening (now in its third printing) has improved not only spelling and grammar but also the pacing and clarity.  That said, even in the newest edition of Awakening published a year after the first still has some odd  mistakes.  The meaning is never lost and they are rarely jarring but they are present to be seen.  This critique may seem petty, especially since no meaning is lost, but it can serve to take the reader out of the flow of the story.  One oughtn't speak overmuch about professionalism and presentation in a fantastic story for children.  Still, I know that schools have used this book for their reading classes.  It can undermine the lessons teachers are trying to instill if their reading assignments make similar mistakes to their own.  Again, no one's perfect (least of all me), but I had hoped that after three editions nothing notable would have slipped through.

As compared with the rest of the story, the ending feels a bit rushed too.  The final confrontation with the main villain is introduced and finished within the span of a few precious pages.  Who he is and his motives are wisely left for later novels, but given his hold on this world and how the story had built to this point I feel a bit more could have been said.  Ethan reaches his endpoint as a character within the last three pages of the story.  The villain is vanquished very quickly too.  Again, this could be understood as merely introducing more conflict to be resolved later in the series.  However, I think I got a little whiplash from the abruptness of the ending.


Awakening is a solid book and an easy read.  Like many books introducing a series, the first few chapters move a little slowly but the story really picks up in the fifth or sixth chapter.  The characters are well-written and three-dimensional (though Eisley is lacking), and the narrative introduces many questions about the world the characters inhabit.  While this could be seen as a failing, I honestly see it as a strength (in spite of what I may have implied earlier).  I am very interested in seeing how this plays out, after all, and if all my wonderings will be answered.  I care about these characters and I want to see the further adventures of Ethan and Eisley.  I want to learn more about the world they live in.  I want to see more of Alaric, Canis, and especially Deerborn.  I want to know more about Riley and Earnest and the history of this wonderful world.  Just what is the deal with the Lantern and what's up with the Emblem anyway?  Is Poudis the potato-dog the key player in Smarr's evil plan?

Simple yet compelling; this story is above all about adventure, the perilous journey we all longed for as children and still secretly hope we're in on as adults.  This is a book for everyone, childlike but never childish, which stirs the heart and excites the dormant adventurer in us all.

You can order Awakening here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Should Christians Vote? (Part 2)

Others, such as Cal Thomas[1] and John MacArthur[2], argue that Christians ought not to worry about politics and instead focus on evangelism.  Thomas states this position well:

No matter how hard they try to protect the gospel from corruption, ministers who focus on politics and politicians as a means of redemption must minimize their ultimate calling and message.  The road to redemption does not run through Washington, D.C.  Politicians can’t redeem themselves from the temptations of Washington.  What makes anyone think they can redeem the rest of us?[3]

Whether the law [concerning government restrictions on political statements from the pulpit] is repealed, or not, churches and ministers would do better to keep their attention focused on the things above, rather than the things below, because politics can be the ultimate temptation and pollute a far superior and life-changing message.[4]

For adherents to this position, while there is no active prohibition on Christians voting or participating in politics, the real focus of Christians should be on evangelism and gospel-preaching.  Ministers are not first and foremost political theorists, and Christians should not be first and foremost political advocates but preachers and servants of transformative gospel.  The world will not be changed by political rallies, they argue, but by the spread of Christianity to all the earth.

Grudem contends that this position is too disparaging of Christian political involvement because it demonstrates too narrow a view of the gospel and of Biblical teaching.  He argues that the gospel is not limited to salvation but is rather “God’s good news about all of life!”[5]  Since the whole Bible is part of God’s good news, it follows that the entire Bible must be considered as part of what Jesus charged the church to go forth and teach.  Thus, we must consider Christian political activism to be worthwhile “if it is part of what God teaches us in Scripture, then of course it does spiritual good, because it is something that pleases God.”[6]  Grudem also says that this “do evangelism, not politics” view is wrong because the gospel includes life transformation as a fundamental aspect of it.  If the gospel changes individual lives, it ought to change them throughout and entirely, including their social and political lives.  It is not as though God only cares about spiritual things, Grudem writes, but also their physical lives.  Christians ought to let the gospel inform their voting just at is it informs the way they do business, maintain friendships, and serve in their communities.

Scripture has powerful words on the subject of stewardship.  Perhaps the most relevant are 1 Peter 4:10-11 which read, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”  These verses tell us that God has given us all gifts—and not just in the context of money as stewardship is usually discussed—for edifying each other and glorifying God.  Peter says that those who speak should talk like God.  Those who serve should serve through God’s power and in God’s name.  All that man has God has given him and he should use it all to glorify God.  As people who live in a historically-unique situation, one in which the average person has at least some level of political choice and voice, shouldn’t Christians use the political gift they have been given to glorify God?  Can Christians who abstain from voting really be said to have “made the most of every opportunity because the days are evil”?[7]  Instead, those who take a hard-separation view seem to believe that Christians ought to abstain from some opportunities because the days are evil.  This kind of attitude reminds one of the ostrich that sticks its head in the ground, keeping its conscience unsullied while the world may be crumbling around it.  Christians should vote, keeping in mind the God they must account unto for their vote, while they still have a chance.  Universal suffrage is, as aforementioned, a historical anomaly which may not last forever.

The paper ended here but let me supplement some additional thoughts.

I do not intend to advocate for some sort of kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  In fact, the early Evangelicals of the 1950s and 1960s were very much against political involvement.  In their day the mainline denominations had wed themselves fully to the social gospel and progressivism.  Thus, men like Martin Lloyd-Jones or Karl Barth denounced political advocacy and political philosophy as aberrant distractions from preaching and teaching the Bible (though granted Barth had Nazism AND liberalism in mind).  It wasn't until Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 that Evangelicalism began its passionate love affair with the Republican Party.  Jimmy Carter still hasn't recovered from that bitter divorce, given that he announces his departure the Southern Baptist Convention every year.

Now we young Evangelicals can blog our hearts out about how cranky we are at our parents for engaging in culture wars that left us and all our gay friends jaded and disillusioned.  There's actually quite a lot to be said for this sentiment.  At some point the Reagan-Falwell wedding spawned a generation of dysfunction, some being the Ron-Paul-leaning Neo-Reformed, some obedient and stalwart Republicans, some compassionate-if-naive moderates, and more than a couple rebellious, "look-how-NOT-my-conservative-parents-I-am!" political liberals.  And of these simplistic yet all-too-common archetypes, all would seize upon the label "Evangelical", even if not always the heritage.  All these reactions are understandable, particularly as Christians became a bit too wed to the Republican platforms of the '90s and '00s.  I remember hearing more about welfare and terrorism in church than I did about predestination.  Regeneration and a solid doctrine of the Kingdom (both Here and Not-Here-Yet) were things I missed until college!  That's a damning thing to realize; all three of those have more biblical basis than civic marriage policy or national defense.  No really.

It would be easy at this point to conclude that we Christians should leave our religion out of voting.  After all, we don't want other people forcing their religion on us (like sharia law, a legal code universally bad if you believe in individual rights).  And yet I, being a reckless and self-important bloggerist, have chosen to navigate a rockier, nuance, and I believe ultimately truer course.

If we Christians truly believe what we say we do, namely that the Bible offers a true account of the universal human condition, then we cannot pretend it doesn't exist in civic life.  Our politics must be informed by the narrative we espouse.  It's for this reason that I openly reject John Locke and Thomas Jefferson's assertion that politics is a necessary evil.  I reject wholesale the notion that government is a contractual agreement between citizens.  I reject that a law is just simply because the parties under contractual obligation have assented to the terms of the agreement.  Instead, I affirm that our laws must match a natural standard, something which exists beyond all legislation and predates it.  All our laws are a reflection of this Natural Law, an unwritten, decidedly unscientific account of our souls.  The fulfillment of Natural Law is human flourishing, namely when man begins to live corporately in such a way that he finds his deepest longings and desires satisfied according to his individual and communal nature.  Is the Bible right when it teaches Imago Dei and the Fall?  Is that true even for people who don't believe it?  And--most importantly--can we construct our laws in such a way to counter or even roll back the Fall?  If the gospel of Jesus Christ brings life to all things it touches, why do we regard secular law as the exception?

Or I'll put it plainly: to leave religion out of our voting is to make relative the truest account of our mortal condition.  This is not to say that we should institute Levitical law or ban gay marriage.  It is to say that we oughtn't check our faith at the door just because we don't want to be perceived as fighting the culture war.  I agree with Aristotle that the end goal of all legislation is justice.  Further, the end goal of earthly justice is human flourishing, not fairness or equality (as though all men were the same in faculty or virtue).  So the question on a given issue--like gay marriage, to chose a timely example--is not "Is this fair to homosexuals as compared with heterosexuals?" but rather is "Which leads to greater human fulfillment?  What is best for men individually and corporately (aka 'the state')?  What best fits the purposes of man and the longings of his soul?"  The answer to the flourishing question may be the same as to the equality question, or it may be entirely different.  Such is the nature of particular justice.

[1] Cal Thomas, “Pulpit Bullies,” Tribute Media Services (October 2, 2008). www.calthomas.com/index/php?news-2381. Accessed May 7, 2012.
[2] John MacArthur, Why Government Can’t Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).
[3] Thomas, “Pulpit Bullies”.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 45, (italics original).
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ephesians 5:16.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Should Christians Vote? (Part 1)

The church and the state have had a convoluted relationship throughout Christian history.  Jesus himself was killed by the authority of a secular political governor.  This same Roman Empire which crucified him as a disruptive threat would eventually give his church official sanction.  In the medieval period, the head of this Roman church would intervene in political affairs both between nations and within their borders.  Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin entwined their reform movements with their local governments.  The Anabaptists took a radically different tack, preaching hard pacifism and eschewing any political involvement.  Even “Christian” governments persecuted other religions and denominations throughout this time, from the Jews in medieval Europe to the Baptists in colonial Massachusetts.  In the twenty-first century, many Christians live in liberal democracies which have universal suffrage.  They have the option to vote for Christian candidates and choose their own leaders from among the regular populace and not the ruling elite.  But is a Christian engaging in political life entwining the church and the state?  Worse still, is Christian political involvement distracting them from the Great Commission to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth?  Not at all; rather, Christians ought to engage in politics with no burden of conscience because they are stewards of the vote and political voice God has given them in modern democracies.

Some believe that Christians should have nothing at all to do with civil government—including voting—because government is evil and demonic.  They argue that Satan is the god of this world and governments are wicked, fallen manifestations of his power.  Therefore, Christians should have nothing to do with them.  Is he not after all the ruler of the powers and principalities of this world?  This is essentially the argument Greg Boyd makes in Myth of a Christian Nation.  There he argues from Luke 4:5-6[1] that Satan is the authority over the dark powers of the world.  In this verse, Satan is tempting Jesus to bow down and worship him.  He entices him by claiming that the kingdoms of the world have been given over to him; if Jesus will worship, Satan will give him authority over the world.  Thus, Boyd concludes that Satan is the ruler of the governments of the world.[2]  Christians should have nothing to do with government because it is fundamentally wicked and destructive.

Wayne Grudem addresses this argument in his book God and Politics.  He writes that the mistake of this proof-text is that Satan is probably lying to Jesus.  First, he notes that Jesus calls Satan “the father of lies”.  Christians are falling into Satan’s deception when they give him more credit than they actually should.  Second, he notes that there are specific verses which say that civil government is a gift from God and is subject to his authority, not Satan’s.  He gives the examples of Daniel 4:17, Romans 13:1-6, and 1 Peter 2:13-14 and notes that they all indicate that God is sovereign over all creation.  Even further, Grudem notes that these verses teach that worldly governments are tools of God to further his ends on earth.[3]

Daniel 4:17 teaches that God is the ultimate source of all political authority and therefore Christians should not be shy about political involvement.  The verse reads, “‘The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.’”  In context, the speaker is God in a vision to King Nebuchadnezzar.  Nebuchadnezzar saw a great tree which shaded the animals, provided nests for the birds, and fed all men on the earth.  Then a watchman from heaven orders that the tree be cut down and his mind reduced to madness.  The prophet Daniel interprets this dream to mean that the great Nebuchadnezzar will be brought low and driven to madness for a time by the King of Kings.  Thus, this verse clearly teaches that God is sovereign over all civil government.

Romans 13 is an even more explicit text on the relationship of Christians and political life.  Verses 1 through 5 read, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” 

From these verses it may be seen first that God establishes and grants authority to governments.  This means that all governments have their authority ultimately derived from God.  Therefore executive decisions are carried out using power delegated to them by God.  Governments cannot be fundamentally Satanic because they were created by God.  They act to execute his will.  Second, governments rule for the sake of punishing wrong behavior and promoting good behavior.  These verses indicate that it is not wrong for the government to punish its own citizens, even using violent means (“for he does not bear the sword in vain”) to do so.  In fact, since the governor is God’s servant and is avenging God’s wrath, it would be wrong for him not to do so.  Since he is bearing the sword for God and God has given it to him to execute judgment, a pacifist official who would refuse to punish lawbreakers would be a sinner himself!  Third, the government official is God’s servant for the good of the citizens.  Therefore, Christians should have minimal conflict with governors or government officials under normal circumstances.  Both Christians and governors, even if they are wicked governors, are servants of God and have more in common in their duties than distinct.  This concept also informs how Christians should view governing.  Good government exists to serve God and the citizens, not the stated ends of a superior or the self-interest of the governor himself or the interests of a particular faction within in the state.  The good governor must regard the good of all within the political community.

Peter agrees with Paul that government is not Satanic but divine.  1 Peter 2:13-14 reads, “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”  At the end of this paragraph Peter notes one thing which Paul already did in Romans—governors are sent by God to punish evil and praise good on his behalf.  The first part of this verse is instructive; Christians must submit to the government for the sake of the Lord.  Here obedience to governmental officials is commended as obedience to God.  If those who equate government with Satanic authority are correct, how can they explain this passage?  How can a Christian be obedient to God while also being obedient to Satan?

[1] These verses read, “And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will.”  This and all subsequent Scripture quotations are taken from The ESV Study Bible, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008).
[2] Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 21-22.
[3] Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 37-38.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Good Portion

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village.  And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching.  But Martha was distracted with much serving.  And she went up to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her then to help me."  But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her." -Luke 10:38-42 (ESV)

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.  But let him ask in faith, without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.  For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. -James 1:5-8 (ESV)

I bide my time far too much in worrying.

I admitted this fairly plainly a few weeks ago.  The gist there was that persistence in prayer is a discipline which demonstrates faith that God will act.  The source of it is a healthy knowledge of God's Providence.  This doctrine of Providence has two elements.  The first is sovereignty.  God must be able to provide or else imploring Him to do so is a waste of time.  Not only must He be able, He must be active to perform it.  Thus God cannot sit lackadaisically in Heaven, capable of ordaining and doing yet not.  The second is His benevolence.  We must believe that God is enthroned in Heaven contending on our behalf for our good.  If He is uninterested or malevolent, He oughtn't be sought out for help.  It wouldn't do any good.

So is that simple?  Is the cure to worry simply not to think?  That seems to be the opinion of our age.  The popular cures to anxiety involve distraction and mediation.  The modern democrat busies himself with material cares, earning money to survive.  When he makes enough money to survive, he turns his attention to entertainment and luxury.  Once he has no need of worry about life's immediate needs--once he has attained the bases of Maslow's hierarchy--he can go after the glitzy pleasures his wealth affords.  He can start saving for the next house, the next smart phone, the next car, the boat and the lake house.  And when he achieves these things, he can tarry away enjoying these luxuries.  Of course, once habituated to a productive work life he hasn't the inclination to truly enjoy these things.  But they do provide welcome relaxation from the bitter stress of his busy-ness.  And the noisier his life gets the more he drowns the gnawing moans of his soul.  He is too busy to confront the void inside, and when exhaustion threatens to amplify the dirge he has his pleasures to distract him.

The most severe cases necessitate the pills.  He who can't busy or distract himself enough may find the grip of anxiety paralyzing.  For him there are shrinks and meds aplenty to assuage the sore emptiness of his existence.  (Please note that I am not here making a commentary on legitimate chemical imbalances nor am I saying that anxiety and depression are not real psychosomatic issues.  I just don't think they are as prevalent as we seem to think them.)  There's always a Zoloft for fears and worries to return you to a healthy (read: productive), functioning life.  For what is life if not produce and function?

Yet the anxious and unproductive seem wrapped and rapt in their own musings, though typically to their detriment.  And while most modern democrats see the solution as filling the mind with sundry thoughts to drown it out (or the oddly inverse-yet-identical Buddhist/New Age solution of emptying the mind of all thought through meditation), Jesus and James seem to suggest another way: fill the mind with something else.

The vessel of the mind is easily filled with worry.  Meditation is the Christian answer, but does anyone really know what mediation is?  What is it to meditate on the Law of the Lord?  I had a mentor long ago give me the answer.

Meditation and worry are the same process.  They just have different foci.

Martha was much troubled by the work of hospitality.  Her motive wasn't bad, yet her distraction kept her from what Jesus calls "the good portion".  What is the one necessary thing?  In this story, that was to sit and listen to the Lord's teaching.  The cares and concerns of this life will be taken care of in due time, but in that moment she needed most of all to sit and listen to Jesus.  She needed to stop filling her mind with the troubles of today and start filling it with the words of Jesus.

James tells us that if we need wisdom or understanding, we need only to ask.  Yet we must not ask double-mindedly.  He who asks without faith in the Answerer is like a wave tossed to and fro; he cannot ground himself because he has no confidence that his prayer will do any good.  The confidence that our prayers will be answered is the confidence to persist, to move, even to produce without fear that things beyond our control--or even things within our control--will destroy us.  We rejoice because clarity will come if only we ask, expectant of an answer granted not from more obsession over the object of our concern but from more obsession with the Sovereign Lord who grants it.  Christian meditation and prayer are unlike Buddhist and New Age practice because the Christian must fill his mind, not empty it.

So here I sit in my twenty-first-century, quarter-life crisis doing all I can to fixate upon the Lord in between schooling, jobs, careers, vocations, relationships, longings, doubts, and troubles.  May I learn to pray as one single-minded on the confident assurance that my heart's cries are heard and my troubled mind shall one day fall silent.  The key is to fill the mind with the things of God, the comfort of His character, the truth of His omnipotence, the warmth of His benevolent love which contends for me, not against me.  May the unbelief of distraction find cessation in the overwhelming awe of His presence to save, to heal, and to shelter.  God be here and swiftly so with all wisdom, amen.

Friday, April 20, 2012

You Only Think I'm Kidding Chapter 6


Guess what, America? I'm back with some knowledge.

But Prophet, you ask, how did you escape the clutches of the Oversoul and the wretched Dubstep? Hard work, my friends. Hard work and quality. You see, I realized that the Oversoul had suckered my unsuspecting psyche with its demonic electronica sorcery. So every time I tried to retrieve the fragments of my tortured individuality, I was drowned out by the raucous tyranny. My mind kept crawling for months over the crags of distorted sampling and disorientingly monotonous 4/4 bass lines. So when the time finally came to effect my escape, I knew I had to come up with something to distract the Oversoul. But how can you stifle what is designed to be stifling? With order, of course. I hummed the best song I could think of until I had escaped.

Eye of the Tiger!

One impressive montage later, I was back. And I have a new message for you fellow males out there:

Don't talk to women when they want you to.

"Wait a sec," you say, "we knew you were an opinionated, ignorant, carnivorous pontificate who calls women unwitting pedophiles and would inflame us with dangerous rhetoric whispered only in the deepest recesses of our souls. But a misogynist? That's a step too far." Well my dear ones, stop abusing verb phrases and listen close.

I love women. Too much even. The restraining orders are proof of that. I was born of woman, grew up in a house ruled by women, and will probably die under the care or knife of a woman. After all, my Y chromosome guarantees that cancer, heart disease, radiation, or bullets lower my male life expectancy below that of a woman. So understand the heart from which I say this: a cold, bitter one dead to all emotion but rage. (And hunger, if that counts as an emotion.)

But when a woman wants to talk, let us make no mistake: it is never good news. You see, there are several ways one may request a conversation. "Hey, let's grab coffee later and chat about the IPO report, Steven." "What time do you want to go over the economics project, Sandy?" "My lord, if we don't discuss the new dress code the royal guard might take to wearing Dave Barnes t-shirts in the imperial court. Then the rebellion will regard us as inglorious and bro-ish!" But there's one men never, ever, EVER want to hear from a woman.

"Can we talk?"

To say nothing of its even uglier sister and/or prom date: "We need to talk."

I remember getting these in the past way too often, usually right before the crippling cycle of depression and self-loathing completely unrelated to rejection. My favorite was one that worked something like this: I got a text asking if I was available around "4:50ish". My girlfriend Carly said we needed to talk. I considered this to be no big deal, figuring maybe she wanted to talk about how much fun she was having with me or how good I look in blue or what we should name our second child.

Since "Rattler Van Damme" is the obvious choice for a first-born.

So full of excitement for quality time with a beautiful woman, I told her I was available. This was, in fact, a half-truth since I needed to get a shift covered at work but I figured it would be no big deal. Carly replied, "Good. I have a pretty packed day and I have to work at 5."

What do you suppose was the content of this conversation? Duh, a rejection. So with another set of emotional baggage checked in at Heartsbreak International Airport, I gained a valuable example of this most basic truth.

You see, a woman never says y'all need to talk if it's something wonderful. It's never, "We need to talk... I just love you so much! That's all," or "Can we talk? I want you to watch more 'Battlestar Galactica' with your pasty friends" or "Can we talk? Why don't Catholic priests have beards? It's been bugging me all day, I thought you might know." It's always doom, fellow-males.... usually yours.

Now ladies, I know you are picking up stones to troll me in the comments, so let me make something clear: fellas do this too.  "Hey, babe, we need to talk or whatever," a man may say with his best James-Dean apathy.  Then he uses that to herald the announcement of his attraction to another woman with half the personality and twice the curves.  Yet a man doesn't do so exclusively to announce bad news.  His "need-to-talk" talk could mean that y'all "aren't working out but a floozier gal and I will", or it could just as easily mean, "Let's get married and stuff."  Or, "We need to talk... I'm bad at expressing my feelings so here goes...".  Or, "Can we talk later? ... Can I get out of your stupid friends' wedding to do something actually worthwhile or awesome?"  Note that there are a variety of things a man may mean by "We need to talk", typically as a segue into "Here's something I should say that involves my stupid feelings or sumthin'."  Could be bad, could be good.

But a woman never has good news when she just needs to talk.  Unless you count the perspective of the tight-trousered barista she met who "has a spark" with her. 

So how can we men respond to the omnipotent "Can-we-talk" talk? I have some suggestions:

1) Feign busy-ness, then never speak again. This may seem extreme at first, but the same effect is gained as if you'd had the talk. Just keep putting off the needful conversation and avoid it. Granted, the lack of communication will destroy your relationship. But isn't that what was coming anyway?

2) Counter with a talk of your own. This is a tricky strategy. However, if you can come up with an even bigger or more outlandish issue, that might distract her from the soul-crushing issue she wants to discuss. It's hard for a woman to break up with some guy for being emotionally distant when he's passionately convinced that she has a government microchip in her toe ring recording all his thoughts.

3) The jellyfish defense. This involves overdosing on apathy in the hours before the conversation. It can be tough to pull off, but substance abuse can help. Let me suggest a concoction of anti-depressants, ibuprofen, and a six-hour regiment of soccer matches. No heartbreak can penetrate that indifference!

4) The Chewbacca defense. Like option 2, this involves bringing in something of your own. However, unlike the counter-talk, the Chewbacca defense requires bringing in a completely-unrelated topic and obsessing over it until your time together is up. For instance, insist that it is total madness that Chewbacca, a Wookie, would dwell on Endor with the Ewoks. That Chewbacca doesn't really live with the Ewoks is irrelevant; either way, it's not about how she doesn't feel "the spark" anymore.

In the War of the Sexes, "Can we talk?" is the Big Bertha gun which has left many numerous casualties in its wake. Any flak-jacket we men can acquire will keep me from feeling lonely and rejected forever show the enemy who has the real power.

(Stay tuned, ladies.  Y'all're gonna get some useful knowledge 'bout the fellas next time.  Men are pigs... and I'ma fry up some bacon!)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lenten Reflections: Luke 11 & 18

"Nevertheless, when the the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?"

I was overwhelmed at the question. All at once my heart cried out, "Yes, Lord, find it in me!" Yet I knew that my practice was in no way an indicator of that faith. You see I falter in prayer more than I succeed. I'm not particularly diligent in prayer. I am usually too busy chasing the rabbit trails of my stream of consciousness. I tend not to focus and reflect upon what God would do and have done in the world. When you don't think about what God is doing, you tend to forget that He does anything at all.

I was sitting in the park reading Luke's gospel as a part of my church's challenge to read the four gospels for Lent when I came across this convicting passage. I had a lot on my heart that day, deep questions and frustrations on that Thursday morning. Fed up with my job, longing for a home not so alien as this Ohio River Valley; I very much knew some changes I needed to make and steps necessary to explore my dreams, but where was the time? Imagine being submerged in a shallow but fast-moving stream headed for dangerous rocks. All you need to escape your skewering fate would be to stand upright for even an instant; the water is too fast for even so simple an act of self-salvation! It takes all your energy just to stay afloat, and this delicate balance would be easily turned to tragedy with even a small additional burden. What I really needed was a rope thrown from the shore.

See, sometimes I live life more like a deist or a stoic. The deist lives life as if God were far off and uninterested in the lives of men. For the most part, God has left us to follow our own path and isn't much interested in us. In its philosophical and theological heyday, this belief was considered liberating. I have to admit that I can't think of much more dreadful. How callous for an uninterested God to create a beautiful world then leave it to its own devices. Yet don't I sometimes live as though that's the God I serve? The stoic believes that by focusing on the things he can control and simply enduring the things he can't, he can achieve happiness in life. He shuns himself from exterior pain because it would leave a weakness. Don't I live this way too? Don't I resist weeping at the genuine sorrows of life? Do the things which pain the heart of God pain mine even slightly, or am I--a mere man--of a stronger heart than God?

Thus prayer is a struggle because my go-to preference is simply to do without it. I don't cry out to God because I think I should just keep a stiff upper lip and deal with the hard things. God doesn't change circumstances, I reason without thought. So really, it doesn't much matter if He's in heaven and sees me. He does what He wants, I just live with His choices. No one is going to throw me a rope. Stand up in the water no matter how much it hurts.

This isn't the same God who told the disciples to pray. He asks them, "What kind of parent, when his kids are hungry, throws a rattler in their faces? Or, when the kids are thirsty, gives him a scorpion?" I can't help but find the scene He describes humorous (who says Jesus isn't funny?). You're not exactly on the fast track to parent of the year if you withhold meals from your kids, much less if you toss poisonous wild life at them. I'm not a frequent viewer of daytime talk trash, but I'm sure I would hear about a story in which Maury Povich confronts that careless mother.

"Please, Momma, I want s'more."

"More whut?"

"Dishwater soup please. Please? I can see all mah ribs."

"Gave it all to the goat, boy. But here's a bag of black widow spiders. Catch 'em with yer mouth!"

Jesus continues, "If you, who are evil, know how to give good gifts, how much more will your Father in Heaven who is good give you good gifts?" Just like there (normally) isn't a single parent on earth who, though all parents are fallen, would abuse their children in such (hilarious) ways, how much more will a good and perfect Father give good gifts! It is this statement which prompts Jesus to ask if there will be faith on the earth when he returns.

When we pray for blessing, and the ultimate blessing of God's kingdom to come, we are showing our faith in God! Elsewhere, Jesus says that God knows what we need before we ask. That normally would lead us to conclude that there is no point in prayer since God knows what we need. Yet Jesus says, "Pray because God knows what you need before you ask." This is because God, in his omniscience, is not angry or offended at our lack. Instead, He already knows! Don't try and fake like you have it together before you go to God. You don't! It also means that our prayer is an evidence of faith. For just as we trust in God's knowledge of all things past, present, and future, so too we also trust in His strength to deliver all those good and perfect things He has ordained for us. Prayer is for our benefit. And in the mystery of Divine Providence and human agency, our prayers bring about are the means by which God carries out His perfect plan.

I wept at the realization that weakness is something we can hide from men but not from God. So why pretend? Why live as though He designed life to suck? Moreover, why think that no rope is coming? Jesus says that God knows you need a rope. Even a wicked, unjust judge would give you a hand if you bugged him enough. How much more will a God who loves you! And I pray so double-mindedly, praying for the best but expecting the worst. Could this be why Jesus asks after his teaching on prayer in Luke 18, "Will I find faith when I return?" Our prayer stems from the confident expectation that we are heard and what we request will come to pass. Quit posing and posturing. Own up to who you are because God is big enough to handle your rawness, answer your impossible requests, and save your soul.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Bitter Much?

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? -Romans 8:28-31

I guess I haven't done a post about life recently, so I figure it's about time I write something personal again. It probably isn't very professional-blogger-ish of me to write these little updates about my personal life. Oh well. I recently saw that successful blogs have a set tone and audience in mind in order to succeed. Since mine is a blend of educational and lifestyle with erratic smatterings of comedy, I suspect it is doomed to failure. I am a proud contrarian and believe that an author's writings should reflect who he or she is personally. And since I pretty well fit the aforementioned categories, I am probably doomed to failure as a person as well.

"If only he'd planned out his blog better, he'd still be with us!"

The past couple of months I've been acclimating to my new job. I can't say that I'm crazy about it, frankly. I find that it has a lot of rather esoteric policies which, while I completely understand why they are in place, kinda rub me the wrong way. I have always held the opinion that procedures laid out by administration are there to do your thinking for you. They're usually written by someone far above who may or may not remember what it is to do your job. Whether they're effective or not, the principle remains that they exist to remove your individual judgment from a situation. I think this does bad things for individual employees, since it simultaneously expects more and less from them than it should. They require more in that an employee must defer to a boss who may or may not be right and remember all the steps in a process which may or may not be helpful (lest they be reprimanded for an ultimately inconsequential mistake). They require less in that they assume the individual worker isn't better off figuring things out for himself. Thus the policy may be more efficient, but that may not be better for the excellence of the employee in a holistic sense. Yeah, I know, "Companies exist to make money, not good people!" Hence, I won't be in this job forever.

I long ago added to my list of prayer requests the question of graduate school. I am more and more excited about what I see in catalogs. I am person always excited by possibilities and now sometimes I fear I'll never settle down. Whereas before I feared I'd never find anyone, now it's more because I may just chase after awesome things hither and yon until I get old and rot. Mom was right though; this is what your twenties are for. It's weird to think that I kinda used to obsess about getting married and starting a career right at 22. Must be a Southern thing.

Not long ago I was reminiscing with a friend about our college days. He noted that a few years back my self-deprecating sense of humor betrayed an underlying bitterness. I was honestly a bit surprised to find three years later that anyone had noticed. Granted, my immediate family knew my insecurities and that sometimes (okay, often) I masked them with jokes. I knew that about myself and hoped nobody else figured it out. Imagine my surprise upon discovering that it was a topic of discussion among some of my friends--a topic concerning my emotional well-being.

It has really only been in the past few months that this bitterness has been uprooted. Over the past year or so I was convicted that my attitude didn't really match my theology. I believe and publicly espouse a very strong view of God's Providence and oversight in all things. I also believe that God is good and is out for my benefit as His child--even that he is working all these sundry things for my good--no matter what happens. So why did I harbor this nasty self-pity, lurking deep within? More aptly, why did I take all of these failures (mainly relational and ministerial) so personally? I can no more control the actions of another than I can the weather. Sometimes things don't work out, even when you've done everything in your power to fix them. I realized that I was taking as my failure things that only God could control. Only God and other people can control how they made their decisions. Those people I would counsel are accountable for their choices, not me. And if God has already promised that all these confusing, frustrating things work together for my good, how could I blame myself?

For each will have to bear his own load. -Galatians 6:5

It was pride, plain and simple, to take on as mine what God had ordained. I saw how decisions I didn't like were being handed down to me from leaders I was under or from friends who rejected my counsel. I grew to hate the former because they pretended such wisdom when the solution seemed obvious to me. Seeing how those leaders in my organization handled controversies at that time, even now I still think they were wrong. Nevertheless it was God who appointed those people over me and indirectly their decisions came from him. It was mine to honor without begrudging and I failed miserably, if only in my heart. Some of my friends made choices which grieved me to see from afar. It hurt doubly so because I had been sought out for help and counsel. When I saw them do things that I warned against, I felt a foretaste of pain I feared would befall them. Praise God these fears were sometimes unfounded, but often enough they were not. I am still hurt to think about how some bashed their hearts against the craggy shoals of ill-advised solutions. Still, the Scriptures tell us that each must carry his own load. I am not responsible for the spiritual and emotional well-being of every person I meet. To think so is a short road to burnout, pride, and ultimately bitterness. The healing from all this is ongoing and I pray that the lessons I've learned will stick. I have faith now where I didn't before--that all this has somehow built me in Christ's likeness--and I thank him for the joyful and the tough lessons.

None of this to say that I won't stop making self-deprecating jokes. And what's a bigger joke than the quality of my written corpus? Ba-zinga!