Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Gospel According to Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus (part 1)

Next week, I begin our Gospel According to Shakespeare class with Titus Andronicus. The concept behind the class is to show that good art reflects Biblical truth. Shakespeare opereated in a world dominated by a Christian worldview (albeit a medieval, transitioning to Renaissance, worldview -- a reformation-era-conflict worldview, but a Christian worldview nonetheless).

I'm following along the season of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, and therefore, the play was basically chosen for me. Which presents a difficulty, for Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's most violent play -- dealing with murder, rape, mutilation, and cannibalism. There's a reason the Shakespeare Festival chose to put on play at Halloween! Given the gore, is it possible to find biblical themes? (readers of the book of Judges already know the answer)

If we hold that all truth is God's truth, then we'll find, even submerged beneath the gore, some redemptive themes. (as an aside, realize that the gore was not that unfamiliar to the residents of London at the time. Greenblatt's Will in the World shows us that public executions were common; indeed, one of the bridges over the Thames river was adorned with the mutilated bodies of traitors to the crown. Death and gore were thrust in the faces of people of that era in a way we cannot fully appreciate.

But concomitant with such gore comes questions of justice and mercy -- lack of which drives the conflict in the play. We begin with Titus, a Roman general, victoriously returning from wars in Gaul. He brings in tow the captured Tamora, queen of the Goths, and her three sons, and the bodies of his slain sons. His surviving sons demand the life of one Tamora's sons in exchange for their brothers who died in battle. Andronicus, despite Tamora's pleading and tears, grants their request

"TAMORA: Andronicus...Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods? Draw near them then in being merciful. Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge. Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son.
TITUS: Patient yourself, madam, and pardon me. These are their bretheren whom your Goths beheld alive and dead, and for their bretheren slain, religiously they ask a sacrifice. To this your son is marked, adn die he must, t'appease their groaning shadows that are gone."

Tamora's appeal immediately takes us to the realm of the eternal -- divine justice is tempered by mercy. Perhaps the laws of war do permit the taking of a hostage -- but mercy is the higher virtue. Titus' religious claims strike us as hollow. He's simply saying "there's nothing I can do" when in reality Tamora has hit the nail on the head -- mercy is the mark of divinity.

Surely this longing for mercy puts us squarely on gospel grounds. God in his mercy graciously grants us new birth (see John Piper's exposition on this theme). Ephesians 2:1-10 is all about this mercy "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions." (v4 -- see my sermon from Sunday for more on this passage). We have an inner need for mercy -- God graciously grants it not because He has to, but because He delights in showing mercy.

However, Titus does not take such delight. Tamora's son is executed and she vows revenge. And her revenge is awful. With her sons and the villanous Aaron the Moor, Tamora arranges for Titus daughter, Lavinia, to be raped, her hands cut off and her tongue cut off. As Lavinia begs for mercy, Tamora says to her sons "Remember, boys, I poured forth tears in vain To save your brother from the sacrifice, But fierce Andronicus would not relent, Therefore away with her; and use her as you will; The worse for her, the better loved of me." Again, we see mercy begged for, and mercy denied.

The revenge doesn't stop there -- Lavinia's husband, Bassianus is murdered, and Andronicus' two sons are framed for the murder. They are executed for the crime. But before the execution, Aaron the Moor brings a message that they will be spared if someone in Andronicus' family cuts off their hand as a peace offering to the emperor -- Andronicus in desperation to save his sons' lives, cuts his own off and sends it. The hand is returned to him along with the severed heads of his sons -- Aaron has pulled a wickedly cruel joke.

Now Andronicus is the one begging for mercy. His pleas for mercy for his son's lives were unheard by the government -- and with bitterness he says to his one remaining son "...Rome is but a wilderness of tigers...Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey but me and mine." Titus articulates an insight on depravity. Mercy is not intrinsic to the human heart. We may have a natural longing for it, but not an intrinsic desire to grant it. We see demonstrated once again the desperate need for spiritual rebirth to stop the cycle of revenge and violence.

Andronicus finally loses grip a bit -- we see a heartbreaking scene where he gathers his near relatives, equips them with bows and arrows. Tied to each arrow is a note to one of the pagan gods -- a request for their divine intervention for justice. He has had immense wrong done him, and he longs for things to be set right. "...sith there's no justice in earth nor hell, We will solicit heaven and move the gods To send down Justice for to wreak our wrongs." This scene is almost Job like -- Titus sending his complaints for divine justice.

But Titus is no Job -- he does not hear the voice of God in the whirlwind saying "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand...." (ch 38ff). Instead, Titus takes matters into his own hands -- he seizes an opportunity to take Tamora's remaining sons -- and then he out cruels her cruelty. He murders them, drains their blood, crushes their bones, bakes them into a pie, and serves the pie to Tamora at a banquet aimed at establishing peace between the warring houses (and for Rome) -- of course Tamora was planning her own betrayal, so any kind of mercy from either side was unexpected. In the end scene there is a bloodletting where Titus dies, Lavinia dies, and we wonder at the carnage left behind.

Yet we cannot forget the two figures longing for mercy, yet never granting. Longing for release from the cycle of violence, yet escalating it nonetheless. Locked in a struggle destined to consume both their lives and destroy their families. Full of the sound and the fury, signifying nothing -- to quote another play.

The redemptive element is to show that these are not mindless killers (ala a Jason or Michael Meyers or any of the other horror show villans of today). These are characters with an innate sense of mercy and longing for it. And they throw the deep human need for a new heart, birthed by grace, into unmistakable view.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, October 17, 2005

They've already lost....

Hyde Park Community Methodist Church is one of the most respected churches in Cincinnati. I've liked most of the people I've met who work or worship there.

But they're knee deep in the hoopla. And they don't know it, but they've already lost...

About a year ago, they announced an aggressive 9 million dollar building campaign -- with the money, they would flatten an old monastery that they own and build a slick new multi-use building that will serve as a vibrant community center, attracting people to their place to work, play, and rub up against Jesus -- at least that's the vision that the church hopes -- as articulated in their vision statement:

"The determined policy of this church is that it should be a seven-day-in-the-week community church. Just so far as physically possible it will be thrown open for the use of all community gatherings, community interests, community programs. We hope to make it a meeting place for everybody and everything that has the highest interests of the community at heart. Questions of faith, church membership, etc., will not be raised. All are welcome.

The program aimed at is of such breadth, purpose, and atmosphere that people will rather "be at church" than not. We want the youth and childhood to find their fun, their pleasure and enjoyment at the church and just as near to the altar of God as possible. We will be nearing our ideal when the children and young people of all the community will prefer to be "over at the church" than anywhere else. We repeat that we are not building to make Methodists. We will be glad to have folks join any church they desire.


I commend their missionary motive -- their desire to make everyone welcome, and then to introduce them to Jesus Christ. But the problem is that they're ticking off people surrounding the church. Now this is bound to happen when a building campaign begins -- neighbors worry about what will happen to their community. But I've never seen anything like the backlash. Driving around Hyde Park and the surrounding neighborhoods, you will see signs in hundreds of yards (not just a few yards, these signs are omnipresent). The signs say "Honor Your Promise", referring to a promise the church made years ago not to undertake massive new construction that would alter the character of the neighborhood. And the press that HPCM church has been getting has been awful. See yesterday's article in the Enquirer for a taste -- it seems to indicate that only half the congregation is on board with the aggressive building campaigns. And this has been stewing for some time -- see the article from March 9, Cin Magazine. and the May 11 Enquirer article. The protesters even have their own website.

Here's the rub, though. HPCM church is still operating from a mindset that has been phasing out since the 1950's. They still operate in the build it and they will come. Now I realize that I'm pastoring a church that also has a large building and we're trying to grow our ministry and reach out to new people -- but I'm also not involved in fights with the local community. Once the yard signs went up, I knew that the church had lost. The community was against the aggressive plans -- the people who will be attracted to the church for their nifty programs and neato facilities will be the very people who will move up the street to Crossroads church for the next big thing in a few years. In addition, George Barna identifies a whole new trend of "revolutionaries" who seem to be turning their backs on the large big box congregations (read the story here) -- that does not bode well for the churches engaging in these multi-million dollar expansions.

Commitment to a congregation isn't based on gee-whiz stuff, but upon relationships. Now to advance ministry, sometimes you have to tick some people off, and there will be relationships that will be broken. That happens when we're sinners dealing with sinners. But we're not talking about a few internal relationships that are being strained, we're talking about the relationship that the church has with the very community in which they find themselves placed. They need to do some pretty aggressive relationship maintenance there, and that means giving up some of the grandiose plans.


Thursday, October 13, 2005

Now Playing: Love Actually

Andy Adams loaned me his DVD of Love Actually, the 2003 romantic comedy ensemble. Tammy and I were entertained by this clever tale of charming and sophisticated British urbanites searching for love in the midst of the confusion of 21st century life -- a running theme in director Richard Curtis' films (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral). The characters are mostly charming, endearing, and are presented in such a way that I found myself rooting for them. It's a sweet confection piece that warms the heart.

That said, many Chirstiain critics take exception to the use of the term "Love" (see the catalog of reviews on Christianity Today's website). Typical of Curtis' films, there's at least one randy character whose sole interest is sex. Many of the relationships seem mired in sexuality. And this leads to the question -- "What do they mean by love?" The film opens with Hugh Grant's voice over leading up to the climactic assertion that "Love actually is all around us" -- he says this in the face of the wrath and anger that is presented in popular media.

But what examples of love does this film give -- it tries to show a broad sampling, like a chineese buffet of love. Here are some of the situations:

* a heartbroken writer who falls for his portuguese housekeeper (and learns portuguese so he can propose to her)
* a woman infatuated with a co-worker, trying to work up the courage to proposition him.
* the woman above also sacrificially cares for her brother, who is institutionalized and has an unidentified mental/behavioral problem
* a charming British prime minister who falls for one of his housekeepers
* a sleazy us President who hits on aforementioned housekeeper (though he is married)
* a grieving widower who helps his step-son pursue his first case of puppy love
* a washed up rocker who realizes his best friend is the manager he's been dumping on for years
* two body doubles for a porn movie who fall for each other
* a hyper sexed guy named Colin who travels for a months vacation to the US to meet girls for sex (and improbably he meets four accomodating girls who are all roommates)
* a secretery who shamelessly hits on her married boss
* the aforementioned boss who buys expensive jewelry for this secretery and is discovered by his wife
* the aforementioned wife who continues to stay with her husband through this trial
* the best friend of a newlywed man, who is infatuated with the bride

What gives the film real charm is how all these lives are intertwined together. But can this truly be said to be an exposition of Love? This seems to be a case of verbicide -- killing a word by overuse. We have a whole wardrobe of words that could be used to describe these situations: infatuation, lust, pursuit, attraction, longing, desire, copulation, enchantment. Most of these stories (as in most romantic comedies) are about desire and pursuit -- not true love, but the search for someone. And therein lies the grave error. We have bought lock, stock, and barrel the idea that love is something that happens to is. Or perhaps that love is the overwhelming feeling in the heart that burns within and we have no control over it. But that isn't love -- it's desire.

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, itis not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." I Corinthians 13:4-7.

The value of romantic comedies is not in their teaching us how to love -- it is in reminding us of the longing to know someone who loves. Against the cynics who urge a transactional worldview (take what you can and give what you must) -- against the dullards who only appreciate the drive to consume other people like morsels, regardless of the damage inflicted on their hearts -- against the witty ironicists who undercut any sense of affection and commitment, romantic comedies demonstrate that we yearn to know and to be known. We yearn for that mutual giving and receiving that is demonstrated over the long term. This is true enough.

Where the romantic comedy gets it wrong is in believing that we just have to find the right person, and we'll know that person because they'll have a hint of magic about them. That hint of magic, they lead us to believe, is the suprme good for which we ought to throw caution to the wind, excuse all manner of personality flaws, and recklessly give our hearts over to an otherwise total stranger. And therein lies the flaw.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Off the Shelf: Farenheit 451

So, I've been on a bit of a dystopia kick in my literary reading (utopias are literary renderings of near perfect societies -- dystopias are literary renderings of nightmare societies). So a few months ago, I re-read one of my favorites -- Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451.

It's a fine work, often classified as science fiction. Set in a future world where most books are outlawed and the job of firemen is not putting out fires, but burning down houses where forbidden books are found. The hero is Guy Montag, a fireman who is going through a crisis of identity -- he develops a curiosity about these books he destroys and the people who read them. The curiosity blooms into a fascination and a yearning to change the system in which he's found. The book climaxes with a really terriffic chase scene and hopeful, yet frightening, conclusion (which, if you've not read the book I won't spoil by revealing it).

One of the main themes that grabs me that of Builders vs. Destroyers, a theme that I've explored in other literature. Montag is a destroyer in a world that glorifies destruction. He meets his bookish neighbor Clarisse, who describes the culture of destruction as she talks about her classmates at school: “I’m afraid of children my own age. They kill each other… Six of my friends have been shot this year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks. I’m afraid of them and they don’t like me because I’m afraid.” She talks about the "fun parks" where the kids go to smash things and wreck cars. In another scene, we see the firemen taking out the murderous mechanical hound and setting it on captured cats in the firehouse -- all for the fun of destroying things. And then there is the climactic chase scene, where Montag is on the run from the mechanical hound. But what almost ends his life are joyriding teenagers who try to run him down just for sport.

And we say that this is a little unrealistic -- but look at the jeering crowds on Jerry Springer who ruthlessly mock anyone who comes on the show. Look at the snide attitude of Howard Stern, who wants to undercut anyone who gets in his way. I look at the random destruction that happens at our local park in Pleasant Ridge -- it is a beautiful playground, built by the community as a whole co-operating together. But every year, I see new graphitti defacing the children's equipment with profanity. I see the handles for the outdoor musical equipment (attached with steel wire) ripped apart by determined destroyers. The forces of destruction are barely held at bay.

Lest I adopt a superior attitude, I must remember that these forces are within. This is wonderfully illustrated in a conversation between Montag and Faber, the underground college professor who is his mentor in the new world of books. Montag expresses his fear of a coming confrontation with the fire chief: "'I’m afraid he’ll talk me back the way I was. Only a week ago, pumping a kerosene hose, I thought: God, what fun!' The old man nodded 'Those who don’t build must burn. It’s as old as history and juvenile delinquents.' 'So that’s what I am' 'There’s some of it in all of us.'" Indeed there's some of it in all of us. This is as old as Adam and Eve.

Utopias celebrate the dignity of humanity, but dystopias remind us of our depravity.
Bradbury tries to end on a note of hope -- he articulates a philosophy of building from the voice of another underground book reader: “Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.” And this is where Bradbury fails -- for the destroyers leave behind something, and it is sometheing that is changed from the way it was before you touched it, and it is something like them when they're done -- it is changed in the image of their inner darkness.

No, the guiding principle is not simply self-expression, it is redemption. It is letting the Holy Spirit so guide our work that as we engage in it, our creation is a expression of "Halleluia!" We're not to be engaged in destruction simply because destruction is cool and fun. Sometimes, it is necessary to destroy in order to build -- but we don't then swing the sledgehammer at whatever is in our path. Our building must have an end, and that end is not our own.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Transformation and the faith community

Continuing the discussion that has arisen from the Jill Hudson seminar held by the Presbytery of Cincinnati.

For those of you just joining us, see the first post in this series for background on the context (who is Jill Hudson and why she was speaking to our presbytery) and see the second post for an overview of her presentation (and some crisp and insightful comments from readers of the Eagle and Child)

The comments to the last post have been interesting -- much of them centered, predictably, on the issue of worship -- particularly worship style. These commentors wrestle with an important issue that I think needs to be discussed, however it seems that the emotional charge of worship overshadows the another important issue. Michael Kruse hits it on the head in his comment: "Emergence has as one of its core questions, how do we become authentic community?"

This gets to the issue of how do we bring people into the community? How do we equip people for the work of the community? How do we engage in the "work" of the community?

First off, bringing people into the community. Hudson rightly emphasizes the need to be very proactive about evangelism. The second characteristic she highlights is "the ability to guide a transformational faith experience." Neighbor Aaron Klinefelter (who is living the postmodern church experience) made this comment "I'm not sure I can really 'guide a transformational faith experience'. I think I can be attentive.... present with... persons (and myself) in a season/process of transformation. If I 'guide' at all it is by wondering (and wandering) aloud (hopefully) in tune with the Spirit. I look ahead with expectation."

This is where Hudson's language gets in the way -- she's speaking Presbyspeak to Presbyterians. Indeed that's why the Transformation committee chose her to come speak to the pastors. There are a number of folks who need hand holding and need to hear these concepts in Presbyspeak. However, for us to actually communicate with people outside our enclave of Presbydom, we need to translate. What Hudson means by her language is something much closer to Aaron's comment. In the seminar, she said that she basically means evangelism -- and that the churches that are doing best at this spend a 3-4 year committment living alongside folks, lovingly answering questions, and simply loving on them -- all the while gently pointing to Jesus Christ. That seems to fall right in line with Aaron's definition.

And before I have a bunch of folks jump down my throat that this is too "liberal" or that we need to impress upon our "targets" the propositional truth of the message about Jesus Christ, understand this: Just last night, I had dinner with John Daly of Cincy House church. John is about as conservative theologically as it gets, and his whole approach is just about the same as outlined above -- come along side people. Let them talk. Ask questions (don't be afraid to probe deeply). Love them, and after 3-4 years you might just see some fruit. John would aslo throw in there, don't be afraid to let them know what you really believe -- you're not being a slickster trying to sell Jesus. Just be authentically Christian and present what you authentically believe (John, I hope you visit and comment to clarify if I've misrepresented or underrepresented your thoughts here)

This is simply living out the truth of I Peter 3:15-16 "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect..." This is evangelism, and relational evangelism at that. Fundamentalists think evangelism is handout out bible tracts, mainliners think evangelism is about advertising. But what Hudson means, and what others on the postmodern cutting edge tell us is that evangelism is about purposeful relationships -- relationships that hope to bring our friends into THE relationship with The Living God. Relationships that earn us the trust to convey the eternal truths of the faith.

Then from there, comes the question of what do you do with people when they come into a faith relationship with Jesus. This leads to the issue of "equipping" -- which Hudson addresses in characteristics 8 "the ability to identify, develop, and support lay leaders" and 9
"the ability to build, inspire, and lead a ‘team’ of both staff and volunteers" Again, Michael Kruse provides a cautionary corrective: "I do take issue with 'the ability to identify, develop, and support lay leaders.' This begs a critical question: To what end? To the end of using the congregation as a farm team to develop institutional cogs in a machine or to equip people for service as parents, accountants, factory workers, nurses, dog catchers or whatever ministry God has called on them to provide? Also, there is no such thing as laity (laikos.) There is only the 'laos' to whom the term kleros (from which we get the term clergy) always applies. We are a body of ministers with elders and pastors set aside to equip us primarily for ministry in the world, not inside the four walls of a 'sacred building.' This gets back to her fourth point about being a missional outpost."

Kruse rightly discerns that all too often, language of equipping is a subterfuge for a pastor's extending his/her ego through the activities of the congregation. I realize that we're talking about a fine line, because a pastor is also called to be a visionary and to lead. But I've seen too many pastors fall into the subtle trap of thinking that their congregants are "their" people -- a kind of ecclesiastical serfdom. I can say this because I've seen that demon within me, and I fight to resist it. Therein lies the peril of leadership: thinking of people as property rather than as partners.

Hudson makes the point that pastors need to step out of the picture -- simply they need to back off. She believes that pastors should be the vision casters and values champions, but they need to then get out of the way. We need to learn to become encouragers (Interestingly Hudson says we need to give four positive encouragements for every "constructive" criticism. However, the book How Full is Your Bucket suggests that the ratio is actually more like seven positive encouragements for every criticism). We need to give people permission to fail, and to love them when they do. We need to be more comfortable with less control (perhaps that will show us that we don't really have control to begin with, and in turn will drive us to depend more on the Holy Spirit). Those are the concepts that are swirling around in Hudson's thought behind the veneer of Presbyspeak -- and I have to agree with her. Ephesians 4:12ff tells us that Christ gave us leadership in the church "....to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." This sounds wonderful until we realize that this is an end goal -- that the actual process is messy and hard and not always very pleasant -- which is why Paul moves on in Ephesians to talk about Christian living and spiritual warfare.

Well enough ranting for today. Again, these are "from the gut" thoughts, not finalized formulations -- what are your thoughts?

Soli Deo Gloria

My weekend

I'll come back to the Jill Hudson event tomorrow -- but for today, a question:

What do you get when you combine Nacho Cheese Doritos, spicy queso dip, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad?

A Festival of Cheese

And that is my idea of fun.... my poor wife.


PS I really liked both these movies.