Friday, July 25, 2008

Dignity and the stories of little people

I made reference yesterday to the dignity of humanity....Chirstianity teaches that each human being bears the dignity of the image of God...and that each human being suffers under the depravity of the curse of sin.

That said, we can emphasize a redeemed humanism. Not a humanism that puts man as the measure of all things, but a humanism that sees each individual's story as a mini-epic drama/comedy authored by the Creator. Our stories are significant because they're His stories (that is, after all, a part of believing in a sovereign God.)

There are any number of websites that strive to help people tell their reach behind the public facades that we put on to ease the social obligations to those around us. In the past I've profiled such interesting sites as:

* PostSecret -- the site where individuals make postcard artworks sharing a deep secret they hold within themselves. Some are touching, many are disturbing, and a few are just bust a gut funny. New postcards are posted online each week. (see my original 2005 post)
* Look at Me -- this site is a collection of "found photos"....vintage family photos that were either lost, stolen, or thrown away. They are nameless and we have no idea of knowing who the subjects are. Yet strangely there is great power in the pictures. (see my 2006 post)

Here's a new one for you. I saw this video of artist Jonathan Harris talking about several of his projects. It's an interesting 18 minutes or so.

His most interesting project is one called We Feel Fine, a web project that seearches all weblogs for the phrase "I feel" then it copies the whole sentence and any photo that might go with the post. The website allows the end user to creatively browse through these snippets of feelings. One can click on the montage feature and see photos, or one can organize by age, feeling type, location, even weather.

Again, we see stories of both dignity and depravity .... and they teach us of the deeper heart cries to which the healing balm of Jesus can be applied.



Thursday, July 24, 2008

Joel Osteen ... can we move beyond the critiques

When I saw this link Tullian Tchvidjian's weblog, I was intrigued. Conde Nast Portfolio, the dreambook magazine of the wealthy and powerful, profiles one of the richest and most influential motivational speakers of our time: Joel Osteen.

I've held off of Joel for quite some time. Frankly, it's just too easy to satirize the carnival that his schtick has become. His Guy Smiley looks and featherweight message simply beg for some jester's lampooning. I've not read any of his books to date because of my refusal to read any book that features a toothy photo of the author dominating the front cover .... it's just a recipie for disaster. His routine isn't original; we can trace the lineage back through Robert Schuller, Norman Vincent Peale, and even to Henry Ward Beecher (see my review of last year's Beecher Bio for more on that lively character).

There is, however, another reason I've held off. Reformed Christians have become too good at whining for Jesus. We excel at adroitly skewering [insert popular religious figure] for his/her heresy/error/comedic value. Quite simply we've moved beyond being curmudgeonly to simply being cranks.

Yes, we must be discerning; yes we must call error what it is. Please don't take me for one who is advocating a watery blurring of doctrinal distinctions. Doctrinal conviction should inspire us to robust discussion and proclamation. We are dealing with truth here. Permit me to suggest however, that Reformed Christians are not in danger of going light on doctrinal error ....the danger we face is in failing to articulate the compelling truths that we hold. I don't want my writing to be focused on Joel Osteen....I want my writing to turn eyes to Christ.

For instance, let's look at the opening of the article:

Who will save us? Who will lift us up from crushing credit-card debt and resetting mortgage payments and impending foreclosure, from increasing gas prices and decreasing health-insurance coverage? We are a nation stumbling through our worst financial crisis in a generation and our worst housing market in a lifetime. And so we come, seeking gentle salvation, inspiring prayers, steadying words, soothing notions, and calming thoughts that will allow us to become, in Joel Osteen’s words, “victors, not victims.”

We are in Greensboro, North Carolina, making our way into the downtown arena through the hot, buggy air, to worship with the pastor who will save us, the man anointed, by one of his congregants, as “Reverend Feelgood.” Sixteen thousand will file in this evening, as have millions more to coliseums, concert venues, and baseball
stadiums around the country—all, in a way, his churches. We are a diverse, representative swath of troubled America: families struggling under debt, husbands and wives seeking reconciliation, young couples on first dates, children dragged by pious grandparents who promise them popcorn and BibleMan action figures. It is
religion as escapism, criticized throughout the Bible Belt as “Christianity lite” or “prosperity gospel.” But this murmuring crowd, slouching toward a kinder, gentler salvation, is a more telling indicator of the state of our union than consumer durables purchased or capital goods ordered. Unemployment they know; they don’t need to wait for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to publish a monthly number. O, but come to Joel, lift your hands to Jesus, banish your negative thoughts, and you can find in these dark times a beacon.

If, in this country, there is great hurting, then Osteen is here to soothe that suffering.

In this well crafted opening (I love the WB Yeats allusion in the "slouching toward a kinder, gentler salvation"), the author points us to some of the criticism about the hope that Joel extends. Rightly so. It's not so simple as "banish your negative thoughts" and all will be well. It's not so simple as God wanting us all to be fat and happy.

But let's frankly acknowledge that there is indeed a great craving for hope in our land. So let's speak frankly about that hope. Our hope in Christ is a hope that carries us through tears, pain and suffering. Our hope lies in the truth that we can honestly belt out the raw throated cry "My God My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?" (Ps 22:1). Far from banishing such negative thoughts, our God gives us a scriptural example of actually bringing them to Him. We worship a living God who loves us so radically that we can bring to him our doubts, fears, anguish, bafflement, confusion, disappointment, dysfunction, and general messiness. We can cry out with the father of the demon posessed child "I believe, help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). We can run to Jesus and say with Martha "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!" (John 11:21). We don't have to banish our negative thoughts .... we bring them to the Living God.

But then he doesn't leave us that way. By the end of Psalm 22, David is crying out "The ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord!) (v 17). Our hope lies in the truth that "All things work to the good for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:28) .... all things includes our pain, our cancer, our divorce, our unemployment, our mess. Jesus doesn't merely soothe our pain, he redeems it. He doesn't just make all the bad stuff go away, he transforms it into something greater and more glorious than we imagined. That is our hope. Not that everything will be painless, but that our pain will be transformed into something glorious for Christ!

Our hope lies in the truth that we're not abandoned in the midst of our pain...."Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words." (Romans 8:26). The Holy Spirit never abandons us, even when we feel most alone.

Shifting from hope, let's move to the "prosperity" part of the critique of Joel. Rightly, we raise an eyebrow at the concept that God wants you to be wealthy. God has a great plan for your life and he's waiting on you to realize it. Again, the critique centers on the sunshine and promise of bliss.

However, we believe so much more, don't we? We believe that every human being bears the imago dei. Psalm 8 asks "what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor." The bible clearly teaches both human depravity but also human dignity. Our dignity is not rooted in wealth, accomplishment, titles, position, power, accolades or recognition. Our dignity is rooted in the bearing of the image of God. No amount of poverty, sickness, degradation or dehumanization can take that dignity away. No tyrant, potentate, huckster, mountebank, or con artist can coercie it from you. Even the dirtiest, toothless, withered crone on the street corner carries that dignity. It's not a dignity that is from our nobility at is bestowed by the one whose image we bear. We believe God loves little people ... and He is glorified greatly through them.

Then there is the issue of preaching the god of Love vs the god of Wrath. Again, we Calvinists tend to cringe at such language. We rightly dismantle the arguments that draw a sharp distinction between the two. But can we truly articulate why it is good to believe in a God of wrath.

Can we not articulate that God's wrath is what upholds, protects, and defends his love. That love must be defended by his wrath against injustice, cruelty, manipulation, agendas, and the human propensity to consume all into the self. Miroslav Volf, in his Exclusion and Embrace, lays out this very idea that it is God's justice that ultimately gives us hope to live lives of love in the present: "Without entrusting oneself to the God who judges justly, it will hardly be possible to follow the crucified Messiah and refuse to retaliate when abused. The certainty of God's just judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence in the middle of it. The divine system of judgment is not the flip side of the human reign of terror, but a necessary correlate of human nonviolence."(p.302)

Let's actually believe our theology ... that it is the Holy Spirit operating through the proclaimed word that changes lives. Let's vigorously advocate for the truths we hold ... and may God be glorified through it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Forget the 9/11 conspiracy --- this is the death star conspiracy

Remember the conspiracy theories about 9/11 -- the idea that the Bush administration was behind the whole thing so they could justify invasion of Iraq for oil?

Now, an even more shocking conspiracy .... 9/11 was a bit farfetched, but this one must be true. The evidence is too well presented .... Emperor Palpatine blew up the death star!

see the evidence for yourself ... and be convinced:


Monday, July 21, 2008

Vintage Church .... are old and tangible things making a comeback?

Now this was an interesting kick. I found this article on PSFK Trendwatching, a weblog that tracks the hottest trends in fashon, lifestyle, music, and art.
"We’re usually looking forward to find innovation. What’s the next big thing? What’s coming next? Future! At times though, looking backwards might provide a richer source of inspiration. Overlooked ideas lay in wait to be revived. Simple practices long forgotten may be the answer to a present problem. There’s also the cyclically recurring retrofitting of culture, most obvious in the fashion world. Iconography of an earlier age is appropriated and remixed into a hybrid form using past style values to make a statement."

The idea....that old, tangible, solid, non-digital vintage things might be making a comeback. Could this signal hope for the traditional church...hope for organs, pews, stained glass, and buildings that look like they've been around for a century or more? More or less.

But remember the caveat in the quote above....vintage material coming back into mode is more than likely a "remix"...not a slavish imitation of the past but an appropriation of past images, styles, and concepts and presented in a way that honors the past, but is also cool in the present.

The article links to a piece from Harvard Business Review that plays with this concept from a corporation's perspective. What "old things" might very well come back into fashon again. Some examples from the article:
  • Non-working vacations
  • Re-regulation of industries (such as airlines and power)
  • Paternalistic Management practices (the idea that you get a good job and the company sticks with you for your life)
Interesting points....but I think they're woefully inadequate. My perception is that younger generations are yearning for authenticity and relationships. Therefore, my take is that the types of things that are on the way back in:
  • Neighborhoods (the kind where you spend time with your neighbors .... you linger in conversation in the front yard)
  • Home Cooked Meals (anything that takes more than three steps to prepare)
  • Home-made music/arts/crafts
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Community-building organizations (bowling leagues, supper clubs, civic organizations....but again, the organizations that will benefit will be the ones that learn how to remix their tradition rather than insisting on slavish continuity)

Theologically, I'm really into old things: the substitutionary atonement, the dual natures of the person of Christ, justification by faith alone (heck....let's just throw in the TULIP of Calvinism for grins and giggles).

What old things are we mixing into our lives....and where are we breathing new life into them? Looking forward to your thoughts.



Off the Shelf: Herodotus' Histories

So, for the past year or so I've been slowly working my way through Herodotus' massive Histories. It's a great snapshot of the ancient world leading up to and culminating in the Greek/Persian wars (5th c bc).

But why....why, in this pragmatic age, is this of any use? Especially when Herodotus is wildly inaccurate in some places? I suggest a few reasons why.

1) the world of the Bible is the ancient world. While we know that the main things of scripture are plain and clear, a fuller appreciation of scripture can only come through a fuller appreciation of the ancient world. We can particularly get a greater understanding of Esther, Ezra/Nehemiah, the prophets, and certain parts of the OT history books from Herodotus.

2) The challenges of the past help us grapple with the challenges of today: Herodotus shows us that globalization is not really anything new. Local cultures existed, but there was plenty of back and forth/ give and take. In some ways the struggle of militant Islam vs western liberalism is prefigured in the struggle of Persian expansionism vs Greek independence.

3) Ancient histories are not just descriptive, but didactic. The ancients were not simply concerned with relating what happened. They were concerned with fostering virtue. Herodotus tells us stories from history in order that we might learn and grow in virtue. Simply put, there are some really great stories in there (that can be looted for sermon illustrations, for instance).

4) I have a bias for primary sources. Many times I'll come across a commentary that will cite Herodotus.... When one sees a text cited enough times, it is well worth reading it to make decisions for oneself.

Case in point..... I'm preaching through Isaiah. I have to explain the role of the biblical prophet (whether the writing prophet, the court prophets, or the wandering band of prophets)... and how it differs from the oracles of the pagan nations. So I use Herodotus' stories about the most famous of them all -- the oracle at Delphi. He tells of how king Croseus of Lydia sent a message asking if he should attack the Persian army. The oracle replied "If you cross the Halys river, a mighty empire will fall"....Croseus assumed that the mighty empire was Persia....he invaded and was defeated, only to realize that the "mighty empire" was his own.

Simply put, the oracles of the ancient world dealt in ambiguity. You had to go to them to pay them for their utterings, and then you had to take what you got. In contrast, the biblical prophets sought you out...they went to the kings. They spoke painfully clearly (though they also used riddles, and jokes, and prophetic action -- but they always explained those things).

Just a tiny example. There's much more gold to be found in Herodotus for those who venture there.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Now Playing: The Dark Knight

Warning--- Spoilers ahead, if you've not seen the film, beware.

Believe the hype....The Dark Knight is quite possibly one of the best crafted films of the year. And Heath Ledger puts in an Oscar-Worthy performance that would posthumously mark him as one of the iconic greats, just like Giant did for James Dean.

You'll hear all about the violence....the depravity of the Joker character (a niezchiean figure who goes on the idea that all the "rules" are hypocrisy and he's called to be an agent of chaos).

I want to focus on the idea of storytelling and the hero. In many ways, this film is the anti-matter version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. John Ford's 1962 classic has two hero characters faced off against an amoral villan. The scrupulous lawman hero, played by Jimmy Stewart, runs afowl of the evil Liberty Valance and winds up stuck in a gunfight with him. Two shots ring out, Liberty dies, and the lawman is hailed as a hero because of his toughness. He rides his fame to Washington as a senator. However, he returns home at the death of an impoverished cowboy, and the newspaper editor corners him and gets him to tell the true story. That cowboy was the tough frontiersman hero, played by John Wayne. He was the only one who Liberty Valance feared, but he never did anything about him, until the lawman arrived and started talking about law and order. Then, on the night of the shootout, John Wayne's character hid out in an alley and he's the one who shot Liberty Valance. But he couldn't take credit for it because it would ruin the lawman's chances at bringing order to the west. He took his story with him to the grave so that the legend of the Man who Shot Liberty Valance could inspire the rest of the people.

Get it ... tough hero kills an amoral villan.... scrupulous law hero takes the credit .... the story is false, but the myth that is told is important for securing order in the community.

Contrast the Dark Knight....scrupulous lawman hero Harvey Dent is corrupted by the amoral villan Joker....he commits several murders for vengance. In this scenario, the scrupulous lawman hero dies without anyone knowing he has been corrupted, so the tough guy hero, Batman, takes the blame so that the scrupulous lawman can remain an inspiring figure for the community. Joker, the amoral villan, lives on.

So in the 1960s, mythmaking was around being tough and eliminating the amoral villan.
In the 2000s, mythmaking is around being a symbol of goodness to inspire the community to resist the amoral villan.

However, in both scenarios, lies are told to bolster the myth. Both stories acknowledge that we need heroes to inspire, we need good stories to help the community continue to fight the amoral villans. However, by their very nature, but stories undercut the nature of those heroes.

Id' be interested in your thoughts.....


Friday, July 18, 2008

BIg Talk

Easily one of the most profound apologetic moments on YouTube:

(clip from the british comedy sketch show "The Mitchell and Webb Look"

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Testimony worth reading

My friend Toby Brown over at the Classical Presbyterian put up a wonderful post yesterday. In it he speaks of his journey from "neoliberalism" to becoming a "fundamentalist". It's a lovely post, for it's a story I'm familiar with. It's the same story Steve Brown tells.... educated in all the shibboleths of fashonable cutting edge theology .... and then leaving it all behind to embrace the old verities of classical orthodoxy. Here's a snippet:

We had read radical feminists. We read Mujerista and medieval mysticism from Spanish and French convents. We grappled with Marxist Liberationists and Tillich as a side dish to our Barth. We played with some Calvin, but he was mostly an afterthought.

But now I started to read these wild and strange fellows that had been verboten in the seminary, they who must not named: I started reading J.I. Packer. I read Graeme Goldsworthy and D.A. Carson. I remember it so clearly--They were so rational and so clear! They were so confident and yet humble in their assuredness that the Bible really was without error and had a sweeping unity of narrative.

The scales fell from my eyes. Now, I began to understand why these writers had been hidden from us! They had just as much academic training and credentials as the people the seminary adored, but these theologians and biblical scholars had come to the opposite conclusion after studying the same data! They were utterly convincing.

It's not my story.... but it's a good story nonetheless. Thanks Toby for sharing your journey with us.

Soli Deo Gloria

A statue of responsibility

Viktor Frankl, the wise psychiatrist and Holocost survivor, once said that to complement the Statue of Liberty on the east coast, America should erect a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast.

I've thought about that vision, and believe it to be good, even great. I began to brainstorm how to make it happen. My thinking was to have a first stage that would involve a contest for design. The steering committee would raise an amount of seed money for an award, and then solicit submissions from American artists ... we could invite people across the country to comment upon designs via the web. If nothing else, such a contest would start the conversation about responsibility. If there were enough energy and interest, then the second phase could be explored ... site selection and raising the money for a full size statue.

However, a quick web search revealed that someone has beaten me to the idea. The Statue of Responsibility Foundation, based in Utah, has already taken the step of commissioning a design and starting to raise funds for the full sized statue. Their goal was to start construction this year (but they're still a ways behind on fundraising). This foundation is working as a private initiative, not seeking any public funding until the statue is completed and ready to be gifted to the US Park service.
The design they've chosen is interesting...two giant hands clasping on a vertical axis:

Honestly, I'm not wild about the design for this project. It's a neat concept piece....likely I'd enjoy it in a gallery or someone's home, but it doesn't carry for me the iconic impact of the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty is a full figure, an individual. You can peer into her eyes. She has an expression. I don't get that sense from the artist's rendering of the Statue of Responsibility.

I love the concept of a Statue of Responsibility, but I'm not sure I'm on board with what this planning committee has put together. What think you?



Monday, July 14, 2008

Rotary World Peace Fellowship -- congratulations Dyah

Brimming with pride, I stepped to the microphone and introduced my friend Dyah. In just a few weeks, Dyah will be leaving Cincinnati to study at the Rotary Center for International Studies at Duke/UNC-Chapel Hill. Each year, Rotary International selects 60 scholars to study at one of six Centers set up in co-operation with major univiersities around the world. The selection process is rigorous. The brightest and the best are selected; and I'm proud to say that my friend Dyah made the cut. So, there I stood, before an assembled 200 Rotarians introducing her and briefly explaining the program (It bears noting that Rotary International is involved in so many projects, that most club members are not aware of even a fraction).

This was something of an odd spot. When theologians talk about "total depravity"...I'm right on board. I don't really believe in an innate goodness and reasonableness of humanity. King David got it right when he wrote of God's thoughts looking down upon the mass of humanity: "They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one." (Ps 14:3). Depravity doesn't mean that we're slobbering lunatics ... it means that we have a bent toward selfishness that taints all our faculties. It takes God's supernatural grace to break through that taint and enable us to long and desire for that which is truly good.

So why would I nominate a friend for a program steeped in Wilsonian idealism about the perfectability and reasonableness of humanity? Check out this PDF prepared by the Rotary Foundation that tells the story of the program and it's goals. You might also read this summary of the UNC/Duke program ... a key quote:

"Each conflict is a social construct. It is being created through a particular combination of factors and therefore could be resolved if we understand its causation correctly and address it through targeted policy intervention."

Respectfully, I disagree. I believe this worldview shows a confidence in human perfectability and our capacity to realize a utopian society. However, my disagreement is not without qualification. There is without a doubt a social dimension to each conflict. By understanding conflict's causation we can mitigate the deleterious effects of conflict. Please understand, I don't think this kind of idealism is addleheaded. I believe they claim a little too much.

In contrast, my belief is that the best hope for peace lies in revival .... a recalling of Christians to be salt and light to a dying world. It lies in a recognition that we can't achieve peace on our ow, but that it is Christ who is our peace and who works peace within us. Why would I subject a good solid Christian to a program that seems to have a differing worldview?

The long and short of it is this: Christians who are called to work on the international stage need to know how to work with people coming from an idealistic worldview. We have so much in common with utopian idealists. Indeed, we also have a pretty idealistic worldview. The aims of Christianity are not all that different. Jesus meant it when he said "blessed are the peacemakers". Isaiah is deadly serious when he writes "cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause." We have similar goals ... just a different understanding of how to meet those goals. We believe that understanding can alleviate symptoms, but only grace can cure the disease.

That different understanding doesn't mean we can't learn something from people with a different worldview. The doctrine of common grace shows that we stand to learn an awful lot from those with whom we disagree on some topics. It is a hallmark of maturity (and indeed a element of any kind of peacemaking) to be able to disagree and still work together and learn from each other.

For example: one of the great understandings that this program has is the complexity of each situation, and therefore the futility of "one size fits all" centralized solutions. As the vision for the Duke/UNC center says "Effective peacebuilding is based on coordinated efforts of various societal actors (governments, international organizations, NGOs, business community, civil
society and individuals) and has a complex, multidisciplinary and multidimensional character. Our task is to provide our fellows with theoretical approaches, analytical tools and knowledge of the best practices to prepare them to work efficiently in this field."

The program helps its students understand the vital role the private sector plays through business, philanthropists, nonprofits, and other non-governmental entities. There is a clear understanding that peace is not simply a by-product of governmental engineering .... there is an element of culture building that must come from the hearts and minds of individuals. This entrepreneurial mindset is spot on and much needed in the field of international development. Simply advocating for governmental change will not accomplish peace.

Dyah's desire is to work in a nonprofit international relief ministry such as World Vision. She's clear that she ultimately wants to work in relief ministry. However, her training through this fellowship and the connections she makes will position her to be exponentially more effective for the kingdom. Additionally, she'll be interacting with some hardened secularists....and I have no doubt that with her natural winsome spirit and charm (gifts from God themselves) as well as the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that God might use her to soften some hearts.

If we as Christians want to influence the world for Christ, we need to take steps out into where the world is working. That doesn't just mean the coffeehouses and the also means the institutions of higher learning. For that reason, I praise God for providing Dyah this great opportunity. I hope she'll be in your prayers.

Soli Deo Gloria