Friday, August 23, 2013

Reflections on Mere Christianity

            Mere Christianity is the best-known apologetic work by Anglo-Irish author Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963).  It was based on a series of radio lectures Lewis did for the British Broadcasting Company during World War II.  Lewis was the ideal choice for the program on religion.  He had spent time as an atheist, he was a layman, and he was an academic.  Seeking to provide a broad defense of the Christian faith, Lewis consulted clergymen from several denominations in preparing his manuscript.[1]  Doing so allowed him to make as broad an appeal as possible.  He was trying to explain what beliefs united all Christians to a hostile or curious world.  He was searching for the basic tenets of the faith—mere Christianity.
            Lewis begins by exploring the moral law of the universe.  The existence of good and evil are proven by ubiquity; there really isn’t anyone in creation who denies right and wrong.  He calls this a natural law.  Natural law is different from the laws of nature in science; those laws are universally followed.  The moral law, however, is simply the law of how men ought to behave, not necessarily how they do behave.  In other words, moral law is the only thing in nature which can’t be established by naked observation.  It’s the only law which can be broken.  “The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave.”[2]
            I believe that this is the strongest basis upon which to start talking about God.  Human indignation about the actions of others makes no sense in any other framework.  We are reviled by evil.  We behold what we perceive to be injustice—especially injustice against ourselves—and we react with outrage.  There is no reason why we should act as if something so metaphysical as justice existed unless there really was something behind it.  “Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple.  If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.”[3]
            I was left with more nuanced thoughts in book two chapter 3, “The Shocking Alternative.”  Here Lewis gives the free will defense of evil.  If God is all-good and all-powerful, how can evil exist?  Lewis replies by saying that man has been given free will.  God created beings with the ability to accept or to reject evil.  By creating beings with the ability to choose freely, he also created the possibility of evil.  Love is not truly love, Lewis says, if it is forced.[4]  This defense is difficult to fit into traditional Reformed thinking.  After all, isn’t the real answer to the problem of evil God’s sovereign rule over the earth?  Isn’t evil a thing he uses, without being guilty of it, to bring about his plan?  A lost friend I have once said that the free will defense didn’t offer much solace to him.  He wasn’t sure that free will was worth the agony and abundance of suffering in the world.  Maybe it would be better if people didn’t have freedom or love at all.  For Lewis, God’s telling us free will is worth it means it must be.[5]  That isn’t true for my friend.
            I think the free will defense is adequate to explain the origins of evil.  I am not sure it explains the persistence of evil.  After all, sin had entered the world.  Evil existed.  God could have send Christ at the moment he sent Adam and Eve out of the garden and accomplished the salvation of humanity at that moment.  Unlike some Reformed thinkers, I am uncomfortable dwelling too frequently or deeply on God’s purposes in evil.  I would rather explain evil—especially to those in the midst of suffering—as something which had to exist because Adam had free will and because God intended to reveal himself as redeemer.  Because of the Fall, we know God as redeemer; this greater knowledge of God is somehow worth it.  Like Elihu in Job, man may never know why God allows evil to persist.  What we do know is that he made sin possible, can’t be held guilty of committing it, and will triumph over it.
            Book three chapter 5, “Sexual Morality”, makes an interesting point in relation to sexual ethics.  Lewis notes that many sexual liberationists believe that the sexual drive is a natural appetite just like hunger, thirst, or fatigue.  Lewis disagrees, claiming that the sexual appetite goes beyond its intended purpose.  He believes that this is good evidence for the continuing effects of the Fall.  He uses another humorous example: “Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”[6]  Why then, Lewis asks, do we not think something quite wrong with our sexuality?  And would not a foreign observer think something was wrong with our view of sexuality?
            Most people in Lewis’s day (and ours) thought that this was a reaction to sexual starvation in the country.  That hypothesis would be bolstered if people really were sexually repressed.  In reality, we see more sexuality than ever in culture, society, and individual lives.  Lewis is right that sexuality is not like our other appetites, just as the Bible distinguishes sexual sin as distinct from others.[7]  Something really is different about sex.  When taken out of its context, it perverts and distorts all things to its consumption.  Like greed it uses people to satisfy a desire.  Unlike greed, lust is internal rather than external and causes one to sin against his own body.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper-Collins, 2001), xi.
[2] Ibid., 20.
[3] Ibid., 39.
[4] Ibid., 48.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 96.
[7] 1 Cor. 6:18.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Hill To Die On

Napoleon's Russia Campaign was over months before he left a limb-littered red trail in the Muscovite winter.  While the popular anecdote tells us that the Tsar's climate bested France, the truth is that imperial troops had overextended their supply lines the summer prior.  Alexander had adopted a brilliant strategy; the Russians adopted a scorched-earth tactical retreat.  They torched their own peasants' farms in their retreat.  The Battle of Borodino was the only major engagement of the invasion.  The French advanced with shocking speed through Russian territory.  Of course, that was the point.  When Napoleon came to quarter in the smoldering ruins of Moscow, his support lines were running through hundreds of miles of hostile territory.  His reach had exceeded his grasp.  There were too many hills to hold between Germany and western Russia.  Moscow would be remembered the high-water mark of the First French Empire.  To call the withdrawal of the Grande Armée back to Paris "inglorious" would be an understatement.  Henceforth Napoleon would not be expanding his empire but managing his decline, whether or not he knew it.  Between antagonizing the British, the Prussians, and the Russians, France had unfurled too many war flags on too much soil.  To this day the emperor's name is a byword for megalomania.

Dad always used to tell me that you have to choose your battles.  He always had a penchant for military metaphors and history, despite never serving himself.  He also saw that I was often stirred by mighty passions on the basis of my opinions.  When others--even adults--weren't swayed by my arguments or reached my conclusions, I resented them and anger would simmer in my heart.  He recognized that I was often carried away by half-truth and spiritedness more than by pure reason, so instead of addressing my poor logic at the height of my agitation he offered advice.  He would say, "Son, maybe you're right, but you have to choose your battles."

"But Dad...!" I would blurt indignantly.

"You have to decide if it's a hill worth dying on."

To an adolescent abrim with youthful fire, these sounded like the flaccid excuses of a feeble old man.  (Though he wasn't yet forty when he said this, I figured anyone who'd spout platitudes like that must be half-senile and more than half dead.)  But of course he was right.  I will spare you any trite reflections on the ignorance of youth or the wisdom of fathers.  It is enough to say that he was right.

In my time at the Baptist Geneva, I have found the culture to be at once warm and alienating.  Sometimes this warmth is genuine Christian charity beckoning the lost to repent, sometimes it is a subversive veneer for earning converts.  The nuances of this distinction can be hard to discern and I won't address them here except to say that loving the lost well that they may know Jesus is virtuous and obedient.  There is a darkness in conditional, agenda-driven love, however, if the goal is to win more adherents to your party or cause.

But the real alienation doesn't come from true and false civility; it comes from entrenched conviction.  The air of the place is thick with pathos, both on-campus and in the church bodies within the orbit of the school.  And should it not be so?  After all, we are talking about a concentration of aspiring preachers who have heeded a Divine call to proclaim (literally, "to cry forth" ) the Truth of judgment and salvation.  Such men ought not to waiver in their heed to the declaration of the Cosmic King.  Judgment shall come, salvation is available, but only for a time.  I don't object in the slightest; may the Word of the Lord fill every corner of the earth.  It becomes a problem when the sermon never ends.

Christians disagree charitably about things.  None dispute the authority of the Bible and the Apostle's Creed.  All dispute everything else (even the Catholics, as monolithic as they pretend to be).  There are instances in the Scriptures were people are clearly placed outside the faith and some where people are free to disagree.  Dr. Albert Mohler of Southern Serminary has argued for a  "theological triage" in which there are "three different levels of theological urgency, each corresponding to a set of issues and theological priorities found in current doctrinal debates."  First-order issues are those essential to Christianity, second-order issues involve organizing ourselves into denominational and church bodies, third-order issues as ones of personal preference that can arise between individuals.  First- and third-order issues are pretty obvious to most; Jesus's literal bodily resurrection is pretty clearly a first-order issue, the color of the carpet in the sanctuary a third.

On second-order issues, however, Mohler says that these "resist easy settlement by those who would prefer an either/or approach."  A hasty decision on these issues can rend the soul in knots as it can divide brother from brother.  Nevertheless, Mohler believes that heated discussions can exist on this level.

But should they?  Must they?

For example: Was Paul talking his pre- or post-conversion life in Romans 7?  Should communion be closed to un-immersed believers?  Is the penal substitutionary model of the atonement the only model?  The best?  Are those who deny it nonbelievers?  Are those who deny a forensic view of justification outside the faith, woefully misguided, or simply favoring another perspective?  Premil, postmil, amil, or premil dispensational?  How important is a "born again" experience?  Do some people become Christians by process rather than dramatic conversion?  Can Reformed epistemology or presuppositional apologists have any ground for conversing with the lost world?  How depraved is the intellect in Romans 1?  These are all important issues that get discussed at seminaries the world over and especially at my mine.  I don't deny their significance.  I must deny the obviousness of any one conclusion on these complex issues over others.  Maybe just because a debate is settled for you doesn't mean that the debate is settled for the catholic Church.

Taking a stand is one thing.  What I have grown to revile is how uncharitable many of my peers are on these second-tier issues.  They speak with the prejudice of scientists.  "The facts are plain for any who would see.  Those who don't either fail to understand or deny it to indulge their power and selfishness."  Is this not the great straw man Reformed theology builds?  (I speak here as the cranky insider or the gadfly.)  Is their no room in our doctrine of the perspicuity (for laymen: "clarity" or "obviousness") of Scripture to say that it's not all equally clear?

Perhaps the more serious failure is the Reformed anxiety toward mystery and paradox.  Holding two things in tension is easy for the poet, the artist, the child.  It is nigh-impossible for the empiricist, the activist, the adult.  Physicists have come to agree that light exists as a wave and as a particle.  Do you think experimental physicists will ever live comfortably in that tension?  Yet even they seem to know that light primarily as wave or primarily as particle is no basis for partisanship.

And ultimately isn't this the luxury of men whose world extends scarcely beyond the walls of a seminary library in seminary-churches in a seminary city?  Perhaps the arrows we fire marked "Natural Theology" or "Regulative Principle" fly so true because no enemy bashes at the gates with the troubles of real people in real trouble.  Warlike men may mistake a friend for a foe if their blood lust cannot be directed again a true Enemy.  Woe to the men who choose too many hills to die on.  They may find Moscow aflame and the walk home cold indeed.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Decade of Digital Ink

On May 8, 2003 at 5:38 PM I published my first blog (originally titled "The Inner Machinations").  I had been writing for some time before that and a handful of earlier stories still exist as backups of backups.  However, as far as personal writing goes, that survives only in an obscure corner of the internet I rarely retread.  I was in high school when I started blogging.  This was in a period before most people used blogs for anything more substantive than journaling and mine was no different.  What was unique about my writing was how verbose I was.  Some might fairly criticize Artery Bloggage for squeezing a paragraph's worth of content into twelve or awkwardly hanging between popular and intellectual audiences.  Okay, I'm the only person to make that critique.  Rereading my early 2000s writing encouraged me; I have come a very long way.  I recently archived that ten-year-old online journal; it is 297 pages in Microsoft Word with standard formatting

But it wouldn't be fair to throw "The Machinations" into a single category.  It began as teenage angst with a vocabulary.  It was pretentious and self-important.  It was never insincere though; I was so vulnerable in many of those entries that I lived in dread that someone I knew would find it.  (In this regard it is quite unlike Artery Bloggage which is shamelessly self-promoted.)  It eventually moved into other genres though, like fiction, parable, poetry, and even polemic.  The center of gravity was always existential though; I needed to write.

I can remember on many occasions being impelled to write.  When I studied the classical Muses in college, I was sympathetic because I had lived it.  I wrote from the overflow of my soul, riding on hormone-induced waves of rage, angst, grief, and joy.  Even when the entries topped the ten-page mark (when word-processed, and single-spaced no less), I always finished feeling cathartic.  It was an experience I had a difficult time recapturing; I wish writing papers had felt that good in college.

I started another blog on Xanga later in high school which had no title.  It served three purposes.  The first was to throw people of the scent of "The Machinations" (I doubt it did that).  The second was to be a place where I could put pithy, shallow, even humorous writing.  That aspect was later integrated into Artery Bloggage with the "You Only Think I'm Kidding" series penned by "the Prophet" (a character who may or may not be an outlet for my real opinions).  The third was to be a part of the community of friend I'd made who used Xanga for their high school writing.  It was a bit more self-aggrandizing like Artery Bloggage is now. As time went on, the Xanga began to resemble "The Machinations" a little bit more in length and sobriety.  Both were updated less frequently as college went on, and I eventually dropped both sometime in 2008.  Ironically, the silence in my writing between 2008 and 2011 marked some of the toughest years of my life and greatest periods of personal growth.  Looking back, I wish I had written more then.  The only big project I have from that time is a chronicle of a road trip I took with two college buddies out West (to be concluded this summer for the fourth anniversary of the trip).

As much as I sometimes dislike modernity, it really is a treasure to have these writings preserved.  I wrote entries when my father died, when I dealt with my first broken heart, and when I was learning about God's work in my life.  I will always have those pieces on hand (even if hard copies are a little cost-prohibitive).  Even though my writing has a different focus now, the core of the endeavor is still the same.  We all must grapple with our lives as they are, with our triumphs and tragedies, with our souls' yearnings, with man and God, and with our heart disease collectively and individually.

I will conclude with an excerpt from a piece I wrote on February 3, 2005 (I always made sure things were date-stamped).  The entry was titled "Soap Box of the Whenever: In Defense of Writing."  It was meant to address writing as a sufficiently manly activity.  I wrote:

    It isn't my intention to sound like a self-proclaimed martyr here. I wish only to defend my passion. Writers and thinkers are valuable. We matter too. It isn't he who runs fastest or scores most or plays best that is remembered and studied for years to come. It's those who've stopped and have something to say about life, about love, about logic, and about spirit. [...]
    I want to understand life. A great way for me to do that is to stop and consider it. That's all that writing is, really. Defining life in words. And a good writer knows how to define life so well that he not only comprehends it himself, but makes others see it through his writing. He has life so well-described that the reader cannot help but be swept up in his musings as well. He takes us to places we've been before, but deeper and further than we journeyed on our own. That's the kind of writer I want to be. The one that captures his readers and entices them with an adventure they can't help but join in. A beautiful slavery.

I would no longer describe good writing as "defining life in words", but I do think it gets at something real.  Socrates has since taught me that we shouldn't be too confident in having God, life, and our hearts contained in pithy, inadequate words.  I maintain that there is something real and true to it even if there can be no real end to our words.  Should there be?  Writing was and remains "a beautiful slavery" to the muse.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

To Grow in Wisdom: Jesus as a Model of Liberal Arts (Part 2)

            Perhaps he could, some may argue.  “Of course he knew how to refute them; he was God and God knows everything.  Jesus didn’t need to learn the Bible because he wrote it!”  Yet this ignores what Luke told us earlier in his gospel.  “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).  This means that the four-year-old Jesus did not have a supernatural knowledge of reality.  He was not discoursing in Christian metaphysics while his kindergarten playmates ate mud pies.  He had to learn things just as we all must.  He knew the Bible not because he had a supernatural, divine memory of it but because he applied himself to it.  He learned it.  The Book of Hebrews tells us that he lived just as we did and felt the full human experience.  He cannot be held to be fully human if he didn’t live the human experience—including long days of note-taking and memorization.
            However, Jesus not only demonstrates intellectual knowledge but also earthy, tangible service, though always to serve the greater purpose of his ministry.  His sermons were not designed for academic audiences but popular ones.  His audiences were primarily farmers and fishermen.  His parables frequently use blue-collar metaphors familiar to them.  One of the most explicit stories of Jesus’s concern for the practical comes in his healing of the paralytic.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that a crippled man is brought to Jesus.  He is lowered through the roof of the house in which Jesus is teaching.  When the man is lowered to him, he announces that the man’s sins are forgiven.  The Pharisees balk, murmuring to themselves that this is blasphemy.  Jesus knows their hearts and announces that he will prove his authority to forgive sin by healing the man.  We see in this that Jesus’s tangible ministry is spurred by a spiritual imperative.  Time would fail me to explore other examples like the feeding of the multitudes, his social discourse in the Sermon on the Mount, his affirmation of paying taxes to Caesar, even raising the dead.  Nevertheless, it is clear that Jesus believes that a bodily life must be grounded in a spiritual foundation.
            Most striking for our purposes, however, is how Jesus is passionately concerned with the hearts of his hearers over the particularities of how they make a living.  We read in Matthew, Mark, and Luke that a rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked how he may inherit eternal life.  He appeared to have all the correct practices, was obviously wealthy, had a promising political career ahead, and showed a real desire to follow Jesus.  To use Berry College language, his “head” and his “hands” appeared to be in order.  Then Jesus, loving him, drops a dramatic challenge upon the young man.  “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  Rather than follow, this pious, intelligent, practical young man goes away sad.  In saying this, Jesus was not saying that all who follow him must be poor and destitute.  We see numerous people in the Bible who are wealthy Christians.  Yet Jesus knows something about this man; Mammon is his god and he will never be truly fulfilled until he casts his idol into the dust.  He must drop everything and follow this itinerant preacher for as long as he has left on Earth.  This man must leave his doubtlessly promising political career, all the financial gain he has achieved through his job, and follow the Master, an unwise career move in any century.  In saying this, Jesus illustrates what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money.”  For Jesus, the heart of what we do cannot be devoted to profit.  It must be devoted to God.
            The greatest challenge to the mechanical/employability view of education is the very core of Jesus’s life and teaching.  Bill Gates told the National Governors Association in February 2011 that “everybody should have a sense of which of the colleges—both community and four-year institutions—are doing very well.  You can even break that down by the departments. […] The amount of subsidation is not that well-correlated to the areas that actually create jobs in the state—that create income in the state.”  And surely this is common sense, right?  Pour taxpayer resources into departments which create jobs, take the humanities off of life support, and you will maximize state investment in education.  Let the English majors be baristas and let the hard sciences do the real work in the economy.  Isn’t that what China and Japan do?  But the very premise of the Gospel Jesus preaches, the very premise of the entire Bible, is that truth must be revealed from the outside.  It is not enough that students graduate, make money, create jobs, and figure out who they are on their own.  The Bible says that truth must be revealed from without, not from within.  Jesus tells us that he came that we might have life and have it more abundantly.  He tells us that the Scriptures have been fulfilled within our hearing.  He tells us that we are in far more trouble than we ever realized in the Sermon on the Mount.  Most importantly of all, he tells us that greater love than we can possibly imagine has come in the body of the modest carpenter calling us home.
            This is why Christianity cannot affirm a libertarian view of education.  Education cannot consist solely in acquiring skills for a marketplace.  Christians throughout the centuries have followed Christ in affirming that education must be holistic.  We cannot be only concerned with right belief, lest we become like the teachers of the law who believed many of the right things yet were “whitewashed tombs”, clean on the outside yet full of death.  Nor may we be concerned only with the pragmatics and measurable outcomes (or incomes) of education lest we become like the rich young ruler who was successful and affluent, yet in the end worshiped money and comfort.  Christian education must be fully embodied, recognizing that Jesus Christ, the Truth, is concerned with the whole person.  Jesus’s final charge to the newly-formed Church is to “Go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, even until the end of the age.”  Disciples cannot make themselves no matter how much money or job fulfillment they find.  They must be taught, head, heart, and hands.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

To Grow in Wisdom: Jesus as a Model of Liberal Arts (Part 1)

When it comes to educational philosophy, the liberal arts are falling out of vogue.  Organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Casey Research Institute issue dire warnings about the future if America does not devote more resources to mathematics and engineering.  Alex Daley with the Casey Institute even went so far as to write a piece entitled, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Major in the Liberal Arts”, an unsubtle title to say the least.  There he argued that American students are “graduating less prepared for the technological future than their peers from around the world – a trend that is already having serious economic effects as jobs like biotech research now head overseas as quickly as manufacturing once did.”  No doubt Mr. Daley has in mind countries like Japan, Germany, or China, nations which excel in engineering and research.  Or perhaps he has in mind numerous media reports about fledgling American science and math scores or the dire predictions of our economic future if we don’t shed our obsession with the arts.  As any reasonable libertarian like Doug Casey, founder of the Casey Research Institute, will tell you, history, literature, dead languages, and theology are really nothing but diversion or a hobby at best.  Maybe as well the ironically unscientific anecdote of freeloading Occupy protesters with loads of debt and useless Medieval Literature degrees still rings true in the ears of many hearers.  So off to war march the pragmatists and the artists, engineers citing the indisputability of common sense.
            As a Christian, however, I am left wondering how Jesus informs this discussion.  While I no longer sport a knit bracelet advertising it, I still have to ask “What Would Jesus Do?”  (My Sunday School teacher said so.)  More aptly in this discussion, what can we learn from Jesus’s pedagogy here in 2013?  What can we glean from the famous teacher Jesus Christ, the most influential man who ever lived?  I believe that we can see from Jesus a holistic view of education, one which engages the mind with the arts, values the practical life of work and career, and transforms the human heart.  Thus, Jesus the liberal artist sees and educates the whole person.
Jesus demonstrates a holistic liberal education in his knowledge not of only of the Scriptures (a decidedly unscientific book, despite our loudest fundamentalists’ yelling).  In Luke 4:16-22, Jesus attends the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.  In this passage, we read that Jesus opens the scroll of Isaiah and announces the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in the presence of the assembly—namely, that the Messiah had come and was now standing before them.  We may note two very significant facts here which may not be apparent to the reader.  The first is that Jesus is familiar with the Hebrew Bible.  This story takes place in a time before the conventional chapter and verse designations with which we are familiar.  This was also in a time before the codex, meaning that the entire text of Isaiah was on a single scroll.  Jesus would have studied the synagogue’s copy of the book; it was too expensive to produce individual copies.  Further, Jesus was familiar with Hebrew, a language which was essentially dead at the time.  Modern Hebrew spoken in Israel today is the only example in history of a revived language.  Jesus probably spoke Aramaic as his native language; spoken Hebrew was almost dead by this time.  In fact, most young Jews would not have begun any kind of practical job training before learning Hebrew from the local rabbi.  Jesus was well-versed enough in the Hebrew faith that he was even able to astound the rabbis in Jerusalem… at the age of twelve!
            However, beyond simply knowing the Bible, Jesus the blue-collar carpenter was also familiar with the theological ideas in vogue at the time.  In Luke 20, we read an account of Jesus’s time in Jerusalem during Holy Week.  The Sadducees approach Jesus and pose a hypothetical example concerning the resurrection of the dead.  “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”  The Bible tells us that the Sadducees denied resurrection and they also held only the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—as canonical Scripture.  The most explicit references to the resurrection of the dead in the Old Testament come in the writings of the Prophets (such as Isaiah and Ezekiel), books denied by the Sadducees.
            Jesus is familiar with their theological opinions and meets them on their own terms.  He answers their question by refuting their silly example (there is no marriage in the resurrection) and then citing Exodus.  He says that God is the god of the living, not the dead.  How can he be (present tense) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob if they are dead?  While modern-day Jews may dispute Jesus’s interpretation of this verse, we are told by Luke that this completely dumbfounded the Sadducees.  Jesus the carpenter quoted passages his opponents considered authoritative, something he could not have done if he hadn’t studied their theology.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Well-Intentioned Accident

Lately, the tubes of the interwebs have been packed by criticism of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J.  I have been surprised how suddenly everyone is an expert not only in race relations but also Civil War history, country music, Confederate symbolism, and urban poverty.  Here at Artery Bloggage, I try to avoid the topical in favor of the timeless.  The reason is that every controversy that sails across the internet passes and I know better than to "feed the trolls."  Yet I can't help but tackle this one head-on.  After all, I find it somehow heartening that discussing Southern identity will still ignite a firestorm 150 years later.

Above: A previous firestorm of Mason-Dixon controversy.

For those not in the know, country music star Brad Paisley released a song called "Accidental Racist" last Monday, featuring rap by LL Cool J.  The song is a plea for reconciliation and understanding between rural Southerners and urban blacks (and potentially Yankees given some of LL Cool J's lyrics).  The song has sent shock waves across the cultural scene, making headlines across the internet and even getting discussion among the talking heads on CNN, among them my favorite NYT columnist Ross Douthat.  This should probably be taken as evidence not of the song's offensiveness or impact, instead only that North Korea hasn't been rattling their sabers for at least forty-eight hours.

Nevertheless, real issues are at play simmering underneath the veneer of yet another country song.  So is the song a defense of white Southerners, the Confederate battle flag, redneck culture, or under-dressing for pretentious baristas?  Let's have a look:

To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the South
And I just walked him right in the room
Just a proud rebel son with an 'ol can of worms
Lookin' like I got a lot to learn but from my point of view
Now this is a bit jumbled and doesn't make our analysis any easier.  All of these themes seem to be on display.  Still, the key line "the elephant in the corner of the South" indicates that yes, the Confederate battle flag is the main issue (bringing worms into a Starbucks notwithstanding).  Yet I feel it necessary to parse these issues out which have been lumped together.  After all, I lost family fighting for the Confederacy.  I actually like the Confederate flag and own several.  Unlike Mr. Paisley, I am not an avid fisherman (the only thing which revolts me more than worms are fish), I am a Skynyrd fan but don't think Skynyrd paraphernalia requires wearing a rebel flag, and don't display the flag in public.  I could write a book on the history of the symbolism of the Confederate flag, but someone already has.  

Paisley goes to great lengths to argue that no modern-day Southerner is responsible for the flag's offensiveness.  He believes that is primarily the result of slavery and secession.

Our generation didn't start this nation
And we're still paying for the mistakes
That a bunch of folks made long before we came
And caught between southern pride and southern blame
Corski argues in his book that the Confederate flag became a symbol of the South more broadly during and after World War II.  I would argue that World War II and not the War Between the States is the most transformative event in Southern history.  For many poor white and black Southerners, this was their first time traveling abroad, interacting with men from other states, and serving toward a common goal with Yanks and Westerners.  The flag emerged as a symbol of Southern units.  And while the use of the flag as a symbol of the South certain did not begin with the war, World War II cemented its place in the popular consciousness of the nation generally.

It was not until Brown v. Board in 1956 that its symbolism became sinister.  Unbeknownst to nearly ever commentator on the display of the flag, the KKK did not use the flag in their rallies until segregation was challenged.  There were two simple reasons for this: 1) they considered the flag sacred (they are all supposed to be Confederate ghosts, remember?) and 2) they wanted national, not just regional, appeal.  The Klan made strident gains in New England and the West at its re-founding in the 1920s by broadening their "hate-appeal" to Catholics, Jews, Communists, and evolutionists instead of merely "uppity" blacks.

So what?  Well, Paisley is flat-out wrong when he asserts that we are simply living with the consequences of our ancestors.  Like they did with cheap ghost costumes, the Klan has also fairly well ruined the rebel flag.  While no one was alive to have owed slaves or have been a slave before the Thirteenth Amendment, many people are still alive who opposed segregation and used the flag to threaten and intimidate young black Southerners who wanted equal access to education.  So the worst aspect of "Unintentional Racist"--even worse than the musical aesthetics--is that it introduces big topics without really understanding or seeking to resolve them.  For Paisley and LL Cool J to issue a mutual "judge not" on doo rags and rebel flags glosses over the visceral issues afflicting race relations even today.

It is ironic to consider because in many ways rural whites and urban blacks are more similar than they are divided.  Both are cultures which struggle with educational access.  Both have been known to ostracize those who leave the community for education opportunities.  Both communities deal with poverty and discrimination; "Cletus" and "Rondell" may find their résumés in the trash can or judged ignorant by virtue of their accents.  They are both geographically-isolated from a more affluent bourgeois culture.  I don't mean to say that one has life any worse than the other, though both would probably dislike being at all compared with the other.

Yet in spite of all this, I really won't join the din of self-important online pontiffs decrying the latent racism of the song.  They tried.  It was woefully inadequate, sure, but did we really expect a pop country-rap collaboration to complete the work of Martin Luther King Jr.?  And should we really expect a bunch of WASPy NPR Yanks to understand race relations on cotton soil?  The most vocal critics of the song seem to be those farthest outside the intended audience.  So let's leave the Ivy League to complain and moan while we Southerners deal with an American problem on the ground.  How can we preserve Southern pride while also acknowledging Southern sins?  And is there some way to create a symbol and a culture with black Southerners--a pan-racial Southern identity--without devolving into feel-good sentimentality?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Natural Self

(With regards to Walker Percy.)

Why the Self feels Synthetic and finds Food Erotic

Thought Experiment: The Sexy Chef and the Organic Store

Imagine you have chosen to visit a popular organic supermarket.  You are trying to avoid chemical processes, refinements, and additives for their unhealthy and overall negative influence on your nutrition.  This particular location is the only one in town which carries corn chips for your all-natural Southwestern salsa accentuated with homegrown black beans and pico de gallo (confident as you are that each ingredient has been shipped directly from their respective soils with no preservatives).  You have brought your reusable burlap grocery bag, stylishly embroidered with verdant leaves on a khaki background.  Looking at it reminds you of the quaint, simple days on a farm you wish you'd grown up on.  You wander the aisles with an intentional aimlessness, drifting through each as you snatch a head of all-natural lettuce and a cut of grass-fed beef.

Somewhere between the Fair Trade coffee beans and the sugarcane soft drinks, you spot a popular Youtube chef.  This particular man's channel is less about guiding the audience through follow-along steps and more about the audacity of the dishes.  On one episode, you watched him and his Canadian cohorts buy dozens of cheeseburgers from local fastfood restaurants and layer them as a giant dish of lasagna, separated by a sheet of bacon strips woven together.  A calorie, fat, and sodium counter ran on the bottom of the video; at the end of two minutes detailing the preparation, the calorie counter was over 16,000.  Each video concludes with the Canadians drizzling the concoction in Jack Daniels whiskey and tearing into each dish as hedonistic gluttons.  As they cook each dish (with names like "Bacon Fortress" or "Meat Salad"), triumphant orchestral music swells from the first slab of bacon-wrapped steak to the last sloppy bite oozing down the sides of the Canadians' mouths.  It is shameless in its recklessness to the point of absurdity.  Each episode you have watched has evoked laughter, disgust, and excitement with such mastery that you cannot rightly express your fascination with these epic meals.  You are riveted by each and every episode.

You are understandably surprised to see the Canadian chef in a socially- and health-conscious market like this one.  The Canadian politely asks a stock boy which are the strongest coffee beans.  The stock boy--his name tag reads "Scott"--answers, "Probably the Ethiopian dark roast.  It has rich body flavor and is guaranteed grown without pesticides."

The Canadian takes one look at the price and balks.  "I think I'll just go for Folgers.  Where's that?"

"Sir," Scott replies too pleasantly, "you won't find Folgers here.  Their product has not been guaranteed chemical-free or Fair Trade."

"Does that explain the pricetag?  I need four pounds."

"Four pounds?"

"Yes.  I need four pounds of coffee beans."

"Buying for the office, huh?"

"No.  We're making Atomic Slam Breakfast."

"Atomic Slam Breakfast?"

"That's right, sissy-pants!"  The Canadian suddenly adopts the swaggering intensity of a Pentecostal minister or a drill sergeant.  "First, we take three dozen eggs.  Throw those chicken fetuses in a bowl!  Then we beat them eggs... spatula's too small... better use the shovel!  Next we brew that coffee double-strong!  We gonna drink it?  No way, granola-munch.  We pour that **** in a pot for marination!  Next we add bacon strips.  And bacon strips.  And bacon strips!  Strippin dat bacon... for dat coffee meat we makin'!!!

"Next level: sausage drizzled in bacon grease!  Two pounds enough?  Better make it three.  Pancakes with bacon bits?  Smart!  Glaze it with whiskey, bread it all over!"  At this point, you can almost see the calorie counter running higher and higher.  "Deep-fry them pancakes.  Coat it with syrup and Mountain Dew!  Marinated pig is done... fry up that coffee-bacon!  Throw some scrambled eggs on that plate... add habanero peppers for complete morning energy!  Finish it off with a tall glass of orange-flavored energy drink!  Combat that scurvy!"

Scott's face is glistening with Canadian spittle as the chef concludes.  His shouts ring out like a Mongol warlord down a Serbian valley.  "Now we got all that coffee and Irish cream, we got them habanero eggs, we got that caffeine-bacon and those Mountain Dew, deep-fried pancakes!  We gonna eat that ******!  And then we stay awake for a three weeks."

The Canadian's eyes are wide with fire, his beard dripping sweat and saliva.  His face is flush with blood as he leers the stock boy in anticipation, waiting for Scott to respond to the apocalyptic meal the chef has prophesied.  Scott's face is twisted in equal parts bewilderment and indignation.  He finally stammers, "How can you be like this?!!"

"Like what?" asks the Canadian, his demeanor abruptly calm.

"How can you eat like that?  How can you be so indifferent to your health?  That kind of eating will kill you!"

"We're professional chefs.  We only eat like this once a week.  We exercise regularly.  Most of the time we eat normal meals.  We do this for our webshow, Epic M-"

"I know who you are now.  That doesn't excuse what you do!  You blow hundreds of dollars on a single meal while people the world over starve and you fuel the unjust systems which perpetrate the oppression of foreign workers by shopping at discount supermarkets!  You glorify unhealthy eating in an age where obesity in this country is epidemic!  You bring in attractive women and exploit their sexuality to increase your viewership!  Your only appeal is your oafishness, a caricature of a barbaric relic!"

You are uncomfortable in the silence which follows.  The Canadian has a confused expression on his face.  He finally manages, "Last year we cooked for a homeless shelter.  A whole episode devoted to feeding the poor."

"You fed them one of your characteristic dishes?"

"Well, yeah.  The guys at the homeless shelter loved it."

"I'm sure they did," Scott snaps.  "They had a month's worth of calories in a few minutes.  That's to say nothing of the preservatives and growth hormone in the beef you stuffed them with!"

"There's no growth hormone approved for beef cows."

"Don't pretend like you're a part of the solution!  You're a part of the problem."

"Is obesity really that big of a deal?  It seems like a problem most people throughout history would have liked to have."

"You mean in the Dark Ages?  When people didn't wash their hands or bathe?"

"Life expectancy has never been higher."

"So people live longer, more miserable, obesity-laden lives before they become bedridden and die from complications from that obesity!  Huge improvement there, buddy.  Heart disease is the top killer in this country and your meals revel in it."

"Healthy eaters die in bus crashes."

Scott is befuddled.  "Excuse me?"

"Yeah.  You can eat healthy or gross and still get hit by a bus or shot or stabbed or fall off a bridge..."

"Don't be ridiculous!  Heart disease is preventable..."

"Everybody dies sometime.  Something has to kill you," says the chef calmly.

Scott sighs as the teacher defeated by a defiant child.  He resignedly returns to stocking the shelf.  "You do so much to keep these big food companies afloat that you may as well be their spokesman.  You're a champion of regression.  Wal-Mart may have some discount coffee.  Good luck with your show."

Other shoppers have been casually eavesdropping on this rather heated exchange.  As the Canadian strides out of the supermarket, you cannot help but notice their reactions.  Some look back after him in shock and shake their heads in disapproval.  Some of the women seem drawn to his swagger and reckless allure.  Some of the men nod subtly to acknowledge his manly superiority.  All shoppers are awestruck and some stride proudly behind him like the disciples of an Old Testament prophet.  You too find that you cannot take your eyes off him until the automatic doors slide shut behind him.

Question I: Why do you have such a strong reaction to the Youtube chef?

(a)  The Youtube chef is a dangerous radical who encourages people to continue in uncritical and unhealthy eating at the expense of human suffering in America (in the form of obesity) and abroad (in the form of supporting unjustly-low wages.  His cavalier attitude toward the health and safety of his audience is indicative of the apathy endemic to the greatest accomplices of injustice.  "All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."

(b)  The Youtube chef is an entertainer.  While he eats poorly, he is fundamentally a businessman.  His livelihood comes from his show.  No one forces to anyone to watch his show, they do so by choice.  Just because someone watches his show about epically-sized meals does not mean they will eat that way.  The show is funny, well-edited, and the chefs are professionals.  No one in their right mind saw Evel Knievel jump the Grand Canyon and tried to replicated it.  People are free to get fat and die as they please.

(c)  The Youtube chef is a sinner under God's condemnation, glorying as he does in gluttony.  God's Word says, "(For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)" (Phil. 3:18-19, KJV).  Other passages condemn this man (Prov. 23:2, 20-21; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; Deut. 21:20; Jug. 3:19) as indulgent in the lusts of the flesh.

(d)  The Youtube chef is a man you can follow.  Men and women flock to his channel because he stares certain death in the face and does not blink.  His eating is edgy--sexy even--and the babes who attend reinforce this.  I mean, if he was just good with the ladies that would mean nothing (since he must practice safe sex).  But there are no condoms for the tummy and this man don't give a four-letter word! Given the chance, you would join his team and chow down along with them... provided you could quit your job, relocate to Canada, toss caution to the wind, exercise to keep the weight off...

Question II: Why are you at this organic supermarket anyway?

(a)  I have done extensive research into the health benefits of organic supermarkets.  I studied nutrition in college, designed several experiments, and gathered numerous data to indicate that the additives and preservatives endemic to the mainstream food industry are the direct causes of obesity, cancer, birth defects, and diminished quality of life in the West (especially America).

(b)  I have it on good authority that mainstream supermarkets are untrustworthy.  My friend passed me this article from a nutrition magazine that said that people who eat processed food are consistently fatter.  I read one facebook post which said that brominated vegetable oil is used in Mountain Dew and is also a flame retardant chemical used in plastic toys. Pesticides on fruits are specifically designed to kill bugs. How could they possibly be good for my baby?

(c)  I am here ironically.  This is so the opposite of who I am.  I usually stuff bacon down my gullet like the Jewish Devil.  Bumping into a fellow organic-hater slamming knowledge on that hippie twerp was the highlight of my week.

(d)  I came for the same reason I have a farm-themed tote.  I would never admit it, but I live rootless in a hyper-connected world.  I have lived in six different cities, never been back to my roots because I have none, never run in large enough social circles to be truly known by anyone.  I have a synthetic community through social media, synthetic friendships through workplace networking, synthetic identity through my ironic wardrobe and 90s pop culture references.  Even my love life is synthetic since the love and lovemaking in movies or pornography somehow seems so much more real and tangible than the mere pleasantries I get in real life.  So is it so much to ask that even the food on my plate--the one thing left that reminds me that I am more than just a disembodied consciousness--be something rooted and real and dirty from the ground and coated in the sweat of a real farmer with dirty hands and a place in the world?