Thursday, December 29, 2005

The "happy holidays" story that everyone missed

Glad to be back from a Christmas hiatus -- Life gets kind of busy for a pastor this time of year, especially when Christmas falls on a Sunday (and I wasn't about to cancel Christmas worship services).

We cleaned up a bit and got the children in bed, and then settled down for our Christmas night routines. I take great joy in putting together my commemorative stamp set for the year. Every year since 1979, my mother has bought me the US commemorative stamp set (my brother has been getting it since 1976). She asked if she could stop getting it for us about 15 years ago, thinking we had outgrown such things. My brother and I protested loudly, and mom has diligenlty given us our coveted stamp sets each year since then. And so it is that every Chirstmas night, I assemble the set and enjoy the year's offerings from the hard working people at the US Postal service.

The Postal Service puts a lot of thought and care into the designs of their stamps. Postage stamps reveal what we like to believe is best and most important about America -- through these small pieces of art that we affix to documents that we entrust to the postal service, we celebrate the American experience every day (as is the case for each nation's stamps -- a way of celebrating their own unique heritage). The custom of issuing special commemorative stamps began in 1893. If you've never taken the time to browse through the heritage of US stamps, peruse this index of commemorative stamps from 1847-1970 and explore for yourself.

As an example to help you understand my enthusiasm, consider the stamps from 1948, which feature one of my favorites -- a commemorative of the 4 military chaplains who gave their lives so that others might escape the sinking of the USS Dorchester. This stamp commemorated faith, heroism, courage, self-sacrifice, and a value for life.

As I put together the 2005 set, I noticed something missing. Every year, the postal service at Christmas time has issued a "traditional" christmas stamp featuring Mary and baby Jesus (usually a miniature of some great work of art) and a "contemporary christmas stamp" featuring santa, reindeer, and other holiday themes. From time to time they'll celebrate other holidays, such as Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Eid.

What was missing for 2005 was the traditional Holiday stamp -- no Madonna and child. The holiday set was a block of four christmas cookies, one of which was an angel. But this seemed a bit of a letdown after seeing years of Madonna and child stamps. Given this year's flap over "Merry Christmas" vs "Happy Holidays" I was surprised that no-one had brought attention to this omission. I started going back through my collection. I found that in 2003, there was also no Madonna and Child at Christmas, while in 2000 there were no holiday stamps at all! Before that you have to go all the way back to 1974 when there was not a Madonna and child, but a classic Christmas angel.

I did some further research, and to my knowledge, there is no history of issuing holiday stamps of any kind until 1962. Sacred holiday stamps don't appear until 1965 (though there are stamps with sacred themes -- consider the 4 chaplains stamps that I mentioned earlier). There is a lapse in 1969, and then an unbroken string of sacred holiday stamps (mostly Madonna and child, though there are 1 or two Christmas Angels) until 2000, when no holiday stamps, traditional or contemporary, were produced. They were back in 2001, but then in 2003 no traditional and again this year in 2005.

Now this is not really a big deal -- the Postal Service doesn't owe Christians anything -- it's a nicety to have a sacred Christmas stamp. It makes us feel good to see. However, as I said before, postage stamps reflect how a country sees itself, and these recent omissions are ominous: a 30 year unbroken stretch now broken 3 times in the past 6 years simply goes hand in glove with the rapid secularization of our culture. I mean, this is really big news! And all we heard about was "happy holidays" vs. "merry Christmas"?

There are glad tidings for next year: the Postal Service has unveiled their 2006 commemorative stamps, which includes a very attractive sacred stamp (see below)

God bless us, every one!

Soli Deo Gloria

PS follow-up to interesting links that relate to this story:
From 2004 -- a customer who wanted to buy Madonna and Child stamps.
A link to the Bible Stamp Club -- who knew?
From this November -- Hear what Darleen Click experienced
And see a summary of the discussion on the internet about these stamps. Once again, this made big waves on the blogosphere, but the conventional media missed the story.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Off the Shelf: Good to Great for the Social Service Sectors

Many of you have read Jim Collins' teriffic book Good to Great. Following on the heels of his success Built to Last, it showed the qualities and disciplines that companies needed to transcend being good at what they do to achieve enduring greatness.

A quick recap of the book -- to achieve greatness, companies need:
1) Level 5 leadership (a humble tenacity to do what it takes to make the organization -- rather than the individual -- great)
2) First Who...Then What (get the right people -- ie dedicated and disciplined and self motivated people -- on the bus, THEN figure out where to drive the bus)
3) Confront the Brutal Facts - But Never Lose Faith (Be honest about the current conditions, but have dogged belief that you will find a way to persevere!)
4) The Hedgehog Concept (what is the intersection of the three questions: What are you best in the world at? What drives your economic engine? What are you passionate about?)
5) A culture of discipline (a culture of freedom and accountability filled with self disciplined people -- the key to greatness is more perseverance than brilliance)
6) Technology Accelerators (don't invest in technology for its own sake -- carefully select technologies to advance the hedgehog concept)

He closes the with the image of they flywheel or the doom loop. Companies in the doom loop spiral slowly from disorganization to chaos until they spin out of control. The flywheel, on the other hand, is the picture of success -- it isn't turned by one big push, but by an accumulation of consistent pushing over time. Once it gets going, the pushing becomes easier, but you don't stop.

One of the challenges of the book was applying it to Non-profit sectors (like the church). Many of the concepts resonated deeply with nonprofit leaders, but they centered around economic metaphors and a business structure that doesn't necessarily apply in the nonprofit realm. Now, Collins has released a 36 page monograph that applies his concepts to the social service sectors.

Here's the main points:
1) Measuring greatness -- non-profits can't measure greatness in purely economic terms. You have to define your inputs and your outputs -- then measure greatness in whatever your outputs are, even if those outputs cannot be quantitatively measured. For instance, the Cleveland Orchestra aimed at artistic greatness (not necessarily measured by ticket sales) -- they did this by asking "are we getting standing ovations" "are we booking tours in other cities and around the world" "are we being copied by other orchestras" "do composers seek to have their work debuted in Cleveland" etc.

Applying to the church is another challenge -- are our people growing in love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control? (Galatians 6:22) Are our people sharing stories of God at work? (one measurement we use -- are our people reporting prayer needs and praises in worship on Sunday) Are we recognized in the community for how we bring the gospel out of our walls and into the streets? You can come up with many more.

2) Level 5 Leadership -- getting things done in a diffuse structure. Collins rightly recognizes that working with volunteers in nonprofits requires more tact, care, and caution than is the case in the corporate realm where executives weild raw executive power. He distinguishes between the executive leadership of corporations and the legislative leadership of nonprofits -- exemplified in a quote from Frances Hesselbein of the Girl Scouts " always have power if you know where to find it. There is the power of inclusion, and the power of language, and the power of shared interests, and the power of coalition. Power is all around you to draw upon, but it is rarely raw, rarely visible." (10)

And so it is in the church. We rightly see ourselves as a body, with each member belonging to all the others (Romans 12:5). We are not mere appendages of some power broker leader, functionaries executing his will. Rather we are an organism. Presbyterian churches exemplify this with a plurality of elders and a system of checks and balances among congregations and higher governing bodies.

3) Getting the right people on the bus -- this is a challenge in the highly volunteer driven social sector -- Collins suggests getting around it by having high standards for new people coming on the bus. Don't fire the tenured folks (because you can't), but raise your standards for bringing new people on -- build a coalition of highly competent people and let the change organically develop.

This is challenging, for quite honestly in the presbyterian church, our nominating process encourages satisfaction of constituencies, rather than assessment of character and theological commitment (sure, we charge churches with providing officer training, but in many churches, that training is a mere formality, rather than a true process of discernment of calling). San Diego Presbytery has done some interesting work with their "essential tenets" documents for officer training, and yet there is still so much more that congregations could do. Let this one percolate in your brain for a while, for I have no easy answers.

4) The Hedgehog concept without a profit motive -- Rather than asking what drives your economic engine, ask what drives your resource engine -- what gets volunteers out of bed in the morning, what brings grant dollars, what compelling stories motivate people to voluntarily give of their time and talent? Sounds like Stewardship to me, and not just an annual fundraising drive, but real whole life stewardship. This is the kind of stuff we ought to excel at.

5) The flywheel -- building your brand. Every organization has a brand, like it or not. It is built in every interaction, every deed, every day. Congregations (and denominations) have to be aware of this.

So, now that I've summarized the main points of the book, why go out and buy it? Because Collins gives real life illustrations that breathe vitality into the concepts -- he makes it possible to say "We can do that" -- his writing crackles in the imagination and inspires us to dream greater dreams for our congregations.

One thing he skipped, that I think is a spot of hope: the concept of "Face the Brutal Facts -- but never lose hope" has special application to churches. This is our great gift as Presbyterians -- we believe in the soveriegnty of the Living God. In the face of adversity, we can have hope and confidence that our trials and challenges will not completely crush us -- the kingdom will endure. It's Psalm 121; it's Heidelberg Catechism question 1 "What is your only comfort, in life and in death? That I belong -- body and soul, in life and in death -- not to myself but to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ...." And that's a comforting thought indeed.

For your edification, here's more Christian Commentary on the monograph:
Tony Morgan
Bill Kinnon

Soli Deo Gloria

Feedback Please

The time has come to check in with Ye ever faithful readers of the Eagle and Child -- I'm wondering which posts have been most useful or most interesting to you. Bloggers from time to time host carnivals -- events when bloggers submit their best posts to a "host blog" who will then have a compendium (a carnival, if you will) of all the different bloggers. Readers can go and find new blogs that are of interest. That said -- what posts would you submit?

Secondly, I have a friend, Jonathan Phillips (also a friend of Scott Atkinson's) who is interested in doing a "God-cast" (from podcasting, basically an audio blog) -- he wants to discuss spiritual themes with me -- just kind of letting me explain where traditional Christianity is coming from. He's envisioning a series of quick 4-5 minute audio clips. Sooo, the question is -- what topics would you cover (remember, this has to be interesting)- what would you listen to.

Finally -- check out the new Squidoo index on my links list -- it indexes all my Squidoo lenses -- please go visit these lenses and give feedback on if they're actually helpful or not.

More to come later today -- I'm processing Jim Collins' monograph on Good to Great for the social service sector -- have some thoughts I need to get down.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Christians engaging Web 2.0

As I mentioned in my previous post Great Library Experiment and A Story that proves a point, I believe that Christians should engage in the instututions of our culture to make sure that we are fairly represented. In these prior posts, it was simply about requesting that the library stock Christian titles that are of interest to us (and then actually checking them out) -- Note, this does not entail asking the library to REMOVE objectionable titles. That's counterproductive and just ticks everyone off.

Now, the Web 2.0 offers a great opportunity for Christians to further present a Christian worldview in a positive and winsome way. Web 2.0 is the next generation of web design that is based on "social computing". Old websites were monodirectional -- companies/individuals put up their websites and fed you content and you the good consumer devoured said content. Much like Television or Radio.

Web 2.0 stresses interactivity and social networking. (see Joshua Porter's fine overview of the concepts) Blogging is a fine example -- blogs represent individual opinions, but they allow for comments, trackbacks, and opportunities for ongoing discussion. Now there are dozens of interactive tools out there that allow uses to share data and information -- here are a few of the most exciting opportunities I've found:

Wikipedia The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Here's how it works -- you go online and read the article -- you find something that's a little off, you simply log right on and edit it. It's that simple. What about abuse, you say? Someone going on to deface content or spread false information -- quickly corrected by the next person who comes along and edits. The Time Magazine article from early 2005 indicates that obscenities placed in articles are removed in roughly 1.7 minutes. It already has hundreds of thousands of more articles than the Encyclopedia Britannica. For an example, see my article on Wikipedia about Thomas Watson -- it has generated a few links back to The Eagle and Child.

Flickr This Photo sharing website allows you to browse millions of photos submitted by people all over the world. They can tag the photos by subject, so you can search by tag, you can see the portfolio of individuals, you can copy the photos and use them in your own search (many of the photos I've been using in my recent posts come from Flickr). As an example, look what photos have been submitted from all over the world that have been tagged with the label "Jesus".

Squidoo This is Seth Godin's latest attempt at social networking. Any user is allowed to create a lens to showcase his/her expertise on a particular area. The website provides the tools to build the lens. Again, there is tagging and the ability to look for lenses that are similar. The ranking system puts the lenses in the marketplace of ideas -- the better lenses rise to the top and are used more frequently (and thus generate more ad dollars). For an example, check out the Lenses I just built on Christian Worldview Thinking and C.S. Lewis - his life and writings

LibraryThing LibraryThing is Flickr for books. You can catalog your library, tag books with subject tags, and submit reviews. This has driven web traffic for the Eagle and Child, for every book review I do here gets a link on library thing -- interestingly, Farenheit 451 has brought more people here than anything! Check out my profile there -- please note that the library construction is still in process (perhaps the biggest drawback to this site -- the labor intensive early work).

Now, these may seem nice and all, but realize the power behind this communication revolution. You can present your thoughts from a Christian Worldview to anyone that shares your interests. I did a post a few weeks back about the Rankin Bass production of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and that has brought dozens of readers to the Eagle and Child -- here they get exposed to a Christian worldview in a way that a print magazine or bricks and mortar presence could not. Now magnify that by millions of people engaging in the social architecture of Web 2.0.

Go and make your voice be heard.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, December 12, 2005

A tale of two artists

Due to an interesting twist of providence, I found myself reading stories about two different contemporary artists within the past two days -- stories that illustrate vast differences in worldview thinking. The stories illustrate that ideas do indeed have consequences.

The first artist is Ray Beldner, who teaches a course at St. Mary's College on Pranking as a means of Culture Jamming (read article here). One of the assignments of the class is to create and submit false press releases in an attempt to get the news media to pick up on and publicize a false story -- essentially pranking to produce some sort of "social change":

"Beldner said he wanted to teach students how to bring issues to the public eye using creative methods. His course syllabus defines 'culture jamming' as 'a resistance movement to the perceived hegemony of popular culture.' 'These are serious-minded pranks,' he said. 'It's not just about people goofing around.'"

The concept of culture jamming is a broad one, far too broad to analyze here (see the wikipedia article for more info). However, an element that seems to creep into culture jamming, at least the strain propogated by Beldner in this class, is social revolution by destruction, or at least deconstruction, of institutions. Interestingly, Beldner does this in his art by taking objects and dramatically changing the context in which they are viewed. He created one series composed of paper money mutilated to produce other images -- often ironic images that lampoon consumerism and capitalistic interests. For instance, a portrait of Chairman Mao (copied after Andy Warhol's portrait) created from shredded dollar bills. (I must admit, I thought this piece to be both technically impressive and pretty darn funny)

The class on Pranking is but an extension of his other work -- subversive and deconstructing the target of the prank. Indeed, one could imagine that the very existence of the class is but another artistic subversion. Imagine the parent looking over his child's syllabus saying "I paid how many thousand dollars per credit hour for you to take a class in pranks?" That picture alone conveys the serious minded institutional subversion that Beldner seems to be after.

The second artist is Makoto Fujimura, (read the profile from World Magazine, or see his website). A Christian, Fujimura strives to portray the redemtive in his art. This doesn't mean that he only does naturalistic scenes -- quite the contrary, he is a celebrated abstract artist. He is also the founder of theInternational Arts Movement, an organization to help advance Christian worldview thinking in the arts.

His studio is located in the shadow of ground zero in New York. After the whirlwind of wrath that was 9/11, Fujimura was homeless, his apartment building shut down by the devastation. His children were out of school for months. The World Magazine story tells his response:

"He wrestled with the artistry of the terrorists, the penchant for destruction in his own heart, and the idols to modernism now fallen in his backyard. Then came the seed of an idea, and he wrote an e-mail to friends: 'Create we must, and respond to this dark hour. The world needs artists who dedicate themselves to communicate the images of Shalom. Jesus is the Shalom.'

Tribeca Temporary grew from that seed, a 'Ground Zero teahouse' and a community space for artists displaced by the attacks. With fellow painter Hiroshi Senju, Mr. Fujimura turned a studio into a place for restoration and healing from spiritual as well as artistic losses where, Mr. Fujimura said, 'beauty too is defined as a participant in the suffering of the world.'

Faced every day with the smells and sounds of Ground Zero, and at nightfall with its floodlights, Mr. Fujimura found more and more that the way to Shalom was through refining fires. In the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Dante he fixed on the line, 'The fire and the rose are one,' and launched into his own 'knot of fire' with imagery that, too, moved beyond destruction to redemption. Instead of the destruction in his neighborhood, he focused on what he calls the 'sacrificial art' of firefighters who protected his children. 'Rescue workers imagine saving lives, a beautiful and relevant use of imagination. The artist who tries to be vulnerable will intentionally suffer,' he said."

Now take note -- it seems the artists are superficially on the same page: "the way to Shalom was through refining fires" sounds like it could promote the kind of culture jamming Beldner advocates. However, herein lies the difference -- Beldner seeks to set fires whereas Fujimura seeks to redeem them after they've been set. Please don't get me wrong here -- I'm not making any kind of implicit link between Beldner's advocacy of pranking and the 9/11 terrorists -- their motivations and methodologies vary widely.

That said, we can contrast Beldner with Fujimura and see a chasm of difference -- one acting subversively, one acting to heal.

Fujimura sees us as living out Jeremiah 29 -- building houses, settling down, and praying and working for the welfare in the city in which we've found ourselves. Being a creative and positive presence in the middle of a hurting and broken world. And therein lies all the difference.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS -- a special thanks to Presbyweb and Blogs 4 God, which linked to the posts on Narnia -- they helped push the Eagle and Child into a record number of visits -- pushing us over 1000 for the month of December (and still climbing). Thanks to all who have visited -- come back soon!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe -- It's just a movie!

I saw it today! I finally saw the film I'd been waiting for for much of my life. Ever since the fifth grade when I first read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, I had a yearning for fantasy land of Narnia -- I felt a longing for face to face enjoyment of Aslan's presence. I ached when the children found they couldn't go back through the wardrobe again, and I mourned when I turned the last page of the last book, knowing there would be no further written adventures in Narnia.

Thus, for the past year, I've felt a blend of anticipation and dread while waiting for the film adaptation -- I feared that Disney would ruin it -- they migh strip out some of the parts I loved. But at 10am Saturday morning, I sat in the Springdale theatre(thanks to Tammy graciously letting me go so I could stop whining) and bathed in Narnia again.

A fine and faithful adaptation, for the most part. There were necessary scenes of expostion (like the London bombing scene -- needed for a generation that didn't live through WWII), there were some dialogue changes, mostly for the point of streamlining or for cutting out archaic turns of phrase that would be lost on 21st century American children. Unfortunately, one of my favorite scenes suffered because of this editing: Peter and Susan's conversation with Professor Kirke. The scene barely registers at all in the film, and it serves more to paint Kirke as a whimsical old fellow, whereas the book portrays him as stern, but attentive and wise.

Top honors go to Tilda Swinton who nails her portrayal of the White Witch. In her first scene with Edmund, she captures the seductive danger of evil right on. And her cold malevolence, especially in the battle scene, easily bests the other great villan from this film season: Ralph Finnes' Voldemort (from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

Another winner was Georgie Henley, who played Lucy. She lives the wide eyed wonder, the innocence and the delight that I had always associated with Lucy. And she looks almost exactly like what I had always imagined Lucy to be like. Another inspired casting choice.

I could say a lot about the portrayal of Aslan (who gets far too little build up -- the book seemed to buzz with anticipation of Aslan, whereas the film mentions the anticipation only once). I also don't recall the children debating over whether to leave Narnia and not participate in the battle -- I seem to remember that they all have a sense of being up for the adventure. I could talk about the stunning special effects or the way they preserved the Christian imagery of Aslan's sacrifice to save the life of Edmund (and thus breaking the "old law" of the stone table).

Instead, I'll briefly mention one scene that stood out for me: the meeting with Father Christmas. That has always been a favorite scene in the book -- the Witch was able to shut down the celebration of Christ's Birth, and thus keep Father Christmas (that is, Santa Claus) out of Narnia. But as Aslan comes, he breaks the Witch's power to stop Christmas. Father Christmas gets through. And this Father Christmas is a thoroughly English version, manly and wise, without being saccharine. The inspired casting of James Cosmo (yes, he was Hamish's father in Braveheart) was perfect. He carried the part off without the usual sentimentality that is attached to Santa Claus -- even the costuming reflects that this Father Christmas is an untamed spirit in service to a Higher Power. Right On!

All told, I enjoyed the film. There were moments that I found myself tearing up --all the old emotions that I felt the first time kept coming back. It was like reuniting with an old friend and telling the old stories of which we never tire.

That said, permit a word of caution. This film is not the evangelistic opportunity of the decade. Remember the hype surrounding the Passion of the Christ? There is much the same hype going on in Christian circles. This film, we are told, will be an outreach opportunity like no other. Buy all the Narnia paraphanalia you can, we're urged, so you can effectively reach out to your neighbors.

I humbly remind what few parts of Christendom may come across this post -- it's just a movie. I believe that Lewis would say the same. The story is a story to be enjoyed and told to children -- but it does not take the place of the gospel nor does going to the film replace the work that we as Christians are called to do. It's a movie, an enjoyable and good movie that might spark some conversations. But it is just a movie. Don't get sucked into the marketing machine that sells this film as the sparkpoint of the next great awakening.

Remember that Lewis told the stories as a way of getting us to a greater deeper yearning -- My childlike yearning to go to Narnia was but a preparatory feeling to help me understand the longing for the Living God. Lewis would be shamed if we turned his tale into a false idol -- He'd look at us a little sternly and say "Didn't you actually READ what I had to say? It's not about Narnia, it's about what Narnia and Aslan point us to -- Christ!"

So go, enjoy, soak in the film -- and then let it push you to encounter the living God that is on the move in our midst.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Narnia under assault

Browsing yesterday's Presbyweb, I came across the startling headline "Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion." The link took me across the pond to the British Guardian Newspaper and their columnist Polly Toynbee (photo at right, click here to read the wikipedia article about her).

Toynbee zeroes in on Disney's marketing strategy for the film, raising innuendo about less than appropriate involvement with right wing politicians. She then reminds us that the Christian imagery and subtext of the film will likely be lost on most of the British children who see it (given the decline of church attendance in the UK). She recaps the story quite nicely, lingering on the resurrection of Aslan "It does not make any more sense in CS Lewis' tale than in the gospels," she writes. Teetering upon this precarious statement (for the resurrection makes sense to millions of people) she dives headlong into harsh invective:

"Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus's holy head every day that you don't eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told. So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion's breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged."

Wow -- can we be a little more clear here? The idea of the substitutionary atonement is repugnant. Well, Paul does tell us the gospel is foolishness and a scandal (I Corinthians 1 -- "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." continue reading the whole passage for greater context). Toynbee lingers on the sour taste of shrewish nuns ladling guilt -- and truth be told, evangelical Christians are quite good at ladling guilt (though that is not a province exclusive to Christianity -- pick your cause and you'll find people pouring out guilt like bathtub gin. Check out PETA's protests for a fine example of guilt mongering.)

Toynbee is an atheist, and in our open and free democracy she's allowed her opinion, though it is an opinion that saddens me. But then she steps onto my turf -- the turf of defining orthodox Christianity "Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman - he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials - has called Narnia 'one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read'." I'll discount the Pullman comment as another angry atheist spewing his opinion (Thank God there are actually some irenic atheists) -- again, he's entitled to it, but it hardly makes him authoritiative.

However, we remember that the Lion is a Biblical image of Christ -- from the Old Testament (Genesis 49:9 "You are a lion's cub, O Judah; you return to the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness -- who dares to rouse him? The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet...") where we see the lion used as a figure for a messianic king. And from the New Testament (Revelation 5:5 "Then one of hte elders said to me, 'Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.... Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne.") where the image of lion and lamb are combined to represent the triumphant Christ.

Indeed the image of the lamb conveys the very concept of the substitutionary atonement. The very concept that disgusts Toynbee lies at the root of the image she identifies with. Christ does identify with the meek and the poor and the weak -- but he also fills the role of a righteous and conquering king. We do injustice to the Biblical portrait if we leave one or the other out. Toynbee has every right in to say she dislikes the biblical picture, but she practices intellectual dishonesty in re-defining it.

Then she reveals her biases with this absurd claim: "Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peel in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong. This appears to be CS Lewis's view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis's earth."

Did she read the same book I did? The "distorted neo-fascist strain" that she describes is the methodology of the White Witch, not that of Aslan! The Witch uses force to bend all minions to her will. Aslan frees the creatures to be what they were made to be (of course, Toynbee might counter with saying that this is emotional manipulation and the real subtext is that of power games). The picture of four school age children defeating an adult witch of enormous power does not seem to me teach that the strong will be rewarded. Lewis prefers to honor the meek rather than the great and powerful (see his work The Great Divorce where a prominent artist is forgotten in heaven but a humble no-name housewife is one of the great ones there). Meanwhile, quoting Norman Vincent Peale as a spokesman for orthodox Christianity is like quoting James Doohan as an expert on particle physics (hey, he did play Mr. Scott -- he made physics look really cool and attractive).

Then she ends with a flourish: "Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass. Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan."

I hate to argue, but Aslan is a character -- one may find Lewis' characterizaiton of him flawed, one may find his dialogue stilted or his motivations feeling artificial -- but these are all very subjective. Yet Aslan is a character -- not some abstract moral compass that in the end we define for ourselves. I suppose that's why atheists (or at least this particular atheist) object so violently -- for who wants to be in the unenviable position of objecting to a person who others find so very compelling. Mired in a worldview that refuses to recognize a living God, it is no wonder Toynbee spits so much poison toward Narnia and Aslan. And yet, it is so incredibly sad.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS -- the Blogosphere's been hopping about this one -- lots of people who think Toynbee's gone way overboard. Including one very thoughtful and articulate atheist -- indeed, he gives some of the best commentary I've read on the article.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Why I'm thankful for the DaVinci Code

Mention the DaVinci Code in evangelical circles and listen for the grinding of teeth and muttering of imprecations that inevitably follow. Christians may devour this fanciful page turning adventure, but they only do so in the dark of night with the shades drawn and behind closed doors.

I knew this book would make waves when I saw the push marketing at Barnes and Noble. Congregation members asked me about it. I read it and quickly developed a class that answered the claims of the book from a biblical historical perspective. See the notes here. I went back to the writings of the early church in the 1st-3rd centuries, before the Council of Nicea, before the faith was officially institutionalized by Constantine. To address the claims of the book, I had to look at what the early church writers were actually saying.

Please understand, Dr. Hill at RTS encouraged us to take study of patristics (that is, the study of the writings of the early church) seriously. After all the books are readily available on CD-ROM (I got mine from Galaxie Software's Theological Journal Library-- including the now public Domain Schaff edition of the Early Church Fathers, a classic work for any scholar). Truth be told, I didn't heed Dr. Hill's advice until the Da Vinci Code came out. Now with the film scheduled to come out next year, I read the early church fathers. Perhaps if more evangelical Christians would find their way back to these writings, they'd see that the shallow challenges of the New Age movement and contemporary syncretism were already addressed centuries ago -- clearly there is nothing new under the sun.

Just last night and this morning, I was working through the first apology of Justin Martyr (c 110-165). He wrote to emperor Antoninus Pius to ask that persecution of Christians be stopped. Contra the DaVinci Code, Justin makes clear that the early church thought that Jesus was the fully divine, pre-existent as the Logos of God. Justin makes clear that he believes in the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, and a final judgment.

What is so lovely about Justin's first apology is how he openly acknowledges the similarities between the Christian understanding of Jesus and the mythical stories of the sons of Zeus (Hercules, Bacchus, Aesculapius, Bellerophon, etc). He then goes to great length to show how Christ is a historical figure who really died and rose, rather than a mythical archetypal story.

Why is this lovely? Consider the work of Joseph Campbell, the famous scholar of myth and religion who posited that all the great religious traditions and myths pointed back to universal archetypes. Basically, the truth of the stories lay in the universal themes rather than the historicity of the events. This is the concept behind the Da Vinci code -- myth and symbolism and stories point us to deeper archetypal truths that have little to do with the historical reality of the stories. According to the DaVinci Code, Jesus himself taught this kind of archetypal understanding of spirituality. It wasn't until Constantine that there was a "takeover" of Christianity for the more orthodox understanding that we have today.

And then we read Justin, writing in the first half of the second century -- within 100 years of Christ's death and resurrection. Justin not only lays out a belief in Christ's actual divine nature, but he also makes very clear that Christians BEFORE Constantine were quite settled on the importance of the historicity of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. The comparison with the sons of Jupiter anticipates Joseph Campbell and the Da Vinci code by 1900 years and deflates it outright.

Even better -- the DaVinci code posits some kind of "sacred feminine" that is sweet and benevolent and life affirming. Interestingly, Justin mentions the "sacred feminine" as well -- not addressing it outright, but rather addressing the popular pagan custom of leaving infants exposed to the elements. Justin asserts that such infants are routinely taken up and raised to be temple prostitutes -- a quote from chapter 27 of the First Apology illustrates:

"...we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution. And as the ancients are said to have reared herds of oxen, or goats, or sheep, or grazing horses, so now we see you rear children only for this shameful use; and for this pollution a multitude of females and hermaphrodites, and those who commit unmentionable iniquities, are found in every nation. And you receive the hire of these, and duty and taxes from them, whom you ought to exterminate from your realm. And any one who uses such persons, besides the godless and infamous and impure intercourse, may possibly be having intercourse with
his own child, or relative, or brother. And there are some who prostitute even their own children and wives, and some are openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy; and they refer these mysteries to the mother of the gods, and along with each of those whom you esteem gods there is painted a serpent, a great symbol and mystery."

So the "sacred feminine" that is supposed to be so life affirming is actually associated with sexual abuse and a ritualized form of slavery. Of course, this account doesn't tell the whole story -- Justin may be exaggerating for his own purposes -- but remember, he's writing a defense of Christianity because Christians are being persecuted. He's not in the position of an oppressor trying to suppress some upstart faith. Also, he's writing to the emperor in Rome, who knows very well the religious practices of pagan faiths. So even though we must not take Justin for the final word on the actual practices of goddess religions, his testimony does carry weight.

And all that to say, we should be thankful for the DaVinci Code -- for it drives us to take a look at the real evidence of what's there. When we look at the evidence, the classical understanding of the Christian faith comes off looking pretty sound. (right on Dr. Hill!)

(as a partially related aside -- check out the article on Anne Rice in the Dec 3 issue of World -- it talks about how she returned to faith in Christ -- and as she did, she confronted all the scholarship that discounts the historical faith -- a quote "'The skeptical New Testament scholarship tries to prove to you that the Gospels don't hold up. It takes great fortitude to subject yourself to that kind of literature, to seriously take notes, to follow the arguments, to draw conclusions. You could come out destroyed.' But she came out concluding the skeptics were wrong, perpetrators and victims of some of the worst scholarship she'd ever seen, built with poor research and reasoning on a foundation that presumed the Gospels weren't true." WOW)

Soli Deo Gloria