Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lost Community

We have lost a good deal of our sense of community. If we think of changing the world at all, we think of doing it by ourselves and for ourselves. How much of our sense of "injustice in the world" is directly or indirectly related to the limitations this injustice places upon our own lives? How much of the injustice we see in the world is injustice that impinges upon our sense of freedom? Andrew Stephens-Rennie has something to say about this on the Empire Remixed blog-site:

We’re often taught, in our institutes of higher learning that we can change the world. That we should change the world. All too often, those unbridled ambitions are more about us, and our own fulfilment, than they are about the world.
Recreate the world in your own image. Find ways to change the world to your way of thinking, being, doing.
How often are we taught to live in the world with integrity? To seek the integrity of all of our relationships, with God, one another, and the world in which we live?1
Integrity, there is a concept worth living out. Yet, what does it mean to live in integrity with God, with one another, with our personal relationships, and with the people of the entire world? Hmm, that means having to think of others first. That might mean foregoing some of my ambitions for the sake of others in my family, in my community, in my country, and on this planet that we all share. Hmm, that doesn't sound nearly as exciting as living out my dreams and changing the world to fit my sense of justice. That sounds like giving up some of my self for the sake of others. That is not fun stuff; that is just pure, hard, sacrificial, life. Why on earth would I do that when most everything around me suggests that we are only here for a short while and then we cease to exist? Unless . . . ?


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cold Capitalism

It has once again become fashionable to quote Ayn Rand.1 United States presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently announced his running mate to be Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan is the United States Representative for Wisconsin's 1st congressional district who has his staff read this quote: "I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."2 It would seem that, in his mind, it is okay to ask someone else to live by his philosophy but not "for the sake of him." Other notable Rand statements include the statement that "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men;"3 and, in an aptly titled book of essays, collectively called, The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand says, "It only stands to reason that where there's sacrifice, there's someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there's service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master."4 All three of these quotes point in an individualistic and uncaring direction.

Rand, Ryan, and Romney believe in the "on your own" e
conomy. They believe that we are best served if everyone takes care of themselves and looks to no one else for help. In as far as this reminds us that the world does not owe us a living, it may be a good corrective; but as a philosophy of life it is cold, callous, and lonely. Leon Wieseltier puts it this way,

"I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." That is how John Galt concludes his testament, which Paul Ryan demands that his staffers in Congress read. What a frail sense of self it is that feels so imperiled by the existence of others! This monadic ideal is not heroic, it is cowardly. It is also dangerous, because it honors only itself. In his Roadmap, the intellectual on the Republican ticket lectures that "the Founders saw [Adam] Smith not only as an economic thinker, but as a moral philosopher whose other great work was The Theory of Moral Sentiments." . . . Has Ryan ever opened The Theory of Moral Sentiments? Has he ever read its very first sentence on its very first page? "How selfish soever man may be supposed," Smith begins, "there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it." That is the least Galt-like, least Rand-like, least Ryan-like sentence ever written. And from there the conservatives' deity launches into a profound analysis of "mutual sympathy." So much for Ryan’s fiction of the isolato with a platinum card! If there is anything that Adam Smith stands for, it is the reconcilability of capitalism with fellow feeling, of market economics with social decency. But Ryan is a dismal student of Smith, because he likes his capitalism cruel.

I am no student of democracy and I would not claim to understand American politics, but I have spent a good deal of time studying and promoting community. It is quite the opposite of what is being promoted by Ayn Rand and those who would follow her.

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:5-11 New American Standard Bible

2 Atlas Shrugged, published 1957.
3 The Fountainhead, published 1943.
4 “The Ethics of Emergencies,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 44.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Habits of the Soul

A couple of days ago I quoted C.S. Lewis regarding "wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you." As a follow-up to that allow me to direct our attention to another quote from the same book. In this section Lewis is speaking very specifically about sexual morality.
We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity - like perfect charity - will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God's help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.1
This section of the book contains a Lewis sentence that is often quoted out of context: "The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection." When taken by itself it has the potential for inducing guilt; but, understood in its context it is about training us in the habits of our souls. It is about wanting to act a certain way because Jesus, who died for our sins, is the one we choose to obey. Thus, we seek nothing less than perfection recognizing that when we fail, and we will fail, we have forgiveness.

1. Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Glasgow: William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd., 1978, p. 91.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A First Faint Gleam of Heaven

One of the things I love so much about the writings of C.S. Lewis is his ability to write succinct, clear sentences. He has the ability to say things that I already believe yet he says them in a way I could never have said them. I read his words and think, "Yes, that is so obviously what I believe and that is the right way to explain it." A case in point would be these words from Mere Christianity.

[To have faith in Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.1

I am struck by the words, "He has begun to save you already," and "a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you." His words rightly put the emphasis upon the process of being saved. He does not leave room for the past tense of "saved." We are not saved; we are being saved. We are not doing things in order to be saved; we are not hoping to get to heaven as a reward. We want to act a certain way because we see the first faint gleam of heaven growing in us. We are indeed trying to obey this Jesus, whom we call Lord; and we do so because we want to.

1. Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Glasgow: William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd., 1978, p. 127.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

We Started Turning Feral

Tana French opens chapter six of Broken Harbour with two paragraphs of philosophical musing by her protagonist, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy. He reminisces about the way things were and then he states that something has changed. Somewhere along the line "we started turning feral."

I remember this country back when I was growing up. We went to church, we ate family suppers around the table, and it would never even have crossed a kid's mind to tell an adult to f[***] off. There was plenty of bad there, I don't forget that, but we all knew exactly where we stood and we didn't break the rules lightly. If that sounds like small stuff to you, if it sounds boring or old-fashioned or uncool, think about this: people smiled at strangers, people said hello to neighbours, people left their doors unlocked and helped old women with their shopping bags, and the murder rate was scraping zero.

Sometime since then, we started turning feral. Wild got into the air like a virus, and it's spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the business-men shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train, using their 4x4s to force smaller cars out of their way, purple-faced and outraged when the world dares to contradict them. Watch the teenagers throw screaming stamping tantrums when, for once, they can't have it the second they want it. Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.1

Tana French is writing about Ireland but could easily be writing about Canada or the United States. We recognize a truth in Scorcher's words. There is a sense in which the broadly accepted cultural philosophies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have led us to a more feral, survival of the fittest, mentality - with little hope. We are losing the ability to see past the immediate fulfillment of desires. We are losing the long view of a humanity which desires to improve civilization. We are losing hope.

I recently saw the movie The Shawshank Redemption on television and was struck by what this film has to say about hope. At one point, the character named "Red," played by Morgan Freeman, has this to say about hope, "Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane." Yet, at the end of the movie, we are given a very different picture of hope.

Andy: [in a letter to Red] "Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." . . . Red: [narrating] I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope."2

The final scene of the movie plays like a metaphor of life and death and the border between this world and heaven. Might it be this kind of hope that is missing in Ireland, Canada, and the United States? Without hope of something more than just this world and all its joys, pains, sufferings, and triumphs, might we slowly become more and more feral? Maybe for just a moment, those who have no hope in a life beyond this world could try having that hope. Put your faith in a life beyond this world and see how it changes the view.

1 French, Tana. Broken Harbour. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012, p. 101.
2 The Shawshank Redemption. Directed by Frank Darabont. Performed by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. 1994.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Women in Leadership

A young and godly woman in our church recently asked if I could direct her to some resources related to the roles of men and women in the church. She admitted to being confused by how people in the church speak of the issues. On the one hand we say that Jesus and Paul were quite revolutionary in their approach toward women. On the other hand we have Bible passages that suggest cultural constraints regarding women ought to be followed. I did my best to answer her question and I have written it up in the form of a blog that I am posting here today.

Cultural equivalency is an extremely challenging topic. Let me give you a few principles, a few of my conclusions, and then a book or two to follow-up.

The first struggle we have is where in the Bible we should start. If we start with 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 or 1 Timothy 2:12 and then look at other passages in light of these, we will likely have one mind-set as we come to the answers to our questions. If we start with Galatians 3:26-29 or Colossians 3:10, 11 (this passage does not explicitly mention women but taken together with what Paul says in Galatians we can see that the principles are the same) and then look at other passages in light of these, we will likely have another mind-set as we come to the answers to our questions. If we start with how Jesus spoke to the woman at the well (the very first person Jesus clearly tells that he is the Messiah), the woman caught in adultery (look at how he stoops down with her and writes in the earth - this would have been shocking for a Rabbi to get down to the level of a woman and the level of a sinner), or Mary, Martha, and other women whom he regularly discipled (women were the first to receive news of the resurrection - does this book-end the first part of Genesis where Eve is the first to sin?), what conclusions do we make? To me, these latter places (Galatians 3 in particular) are a better place to start rather than with the words of the Bible that deal with problem people in problem churches (such as 1 Corinthians 11 or 1 Timothy 2).

At the end of much study, I have concluded that, in the culture in which we live, Jesus wants women's voices to be heard in the church and in society. I believe that all leadership roles are open to men and women. I am prepared to stand before Jesus at the final judgement and say, "Lord, I have studied and tried to understand Your teaching and I have done my best to teach it to others. If I have erred, I have erred on the side of raising up all people."

For further reading, I would highly recommend the following books. Finally Feminist by John Stackhouse and Christian Perspectives on Gender, Sexuality, and Community by Maxine Hancock (editor).

I will also include a quote from Colossians Remixed (page 211) by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat. In this section of the book, Walsh and Keesmaat relate how a conversation might have happened at Colossae as people read the letter to the Colossians and wrestled with the role of women in the church.

"Phoebe is a deacon in Cenchreae, Junia is a prominent apostle, Priscilla is a woman who teaches and proclaims the gospel equally with (some even think better than) her husband, Aquila, and many other women work hard to proclaim the gospel in their respective places," [Tychicus] said.1

Apphia remained skeptical, remarking that while women in leadership might go over in the larger metropolitan centers such as Rome or Corinth, it's a different story here in the Lycus Valley. But she trailed off as she realized that she was speaking to Nympha, not only a successful textile merchant but the leader of a house church in Laodicea, just ten miles from Colossae.

Tychicus added that he had heard the formulation "There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free also include "There is no longer male and female."2

Nympha pursued the point. "It's clear that Paul is undermining the structure of the household in the empire, especially in relation to slaves. We need to listen clearly to his words, for when he suggests that slaves be freed, he does so in the context of the whole household system by also mentioning both women and children. My fellow believers, you know that when we became part of this Christian community, we gave up these allegiances. You know that we all became part of a new household, which does not support the hierarchical economic structures of the empire but in which all exist for the benefit and mutual service of others. You all experienced the coming of the Spirit, promised to both old and young, sons and daughters, slaves and free. You know how Paul's teachings have challenged the very basis of our society by contradicting the emperor's edicts on compulsory marriage, by urging widows to remain single, by urging us all to choose a life free of the encumbrances of marriage.3 It is no surprise then that Paul is also challenging the basis of the paterfamilias, which the empire regards as fundamental and which we have replaced with a new household in Christ Jesus our Lord."

As she paused, the older Jewish brother slowly got to his feet. "Our sister is right," he said. "We should not let our fear of the emperor keep us from following the call of our brother Paul to end these worldly structures. We have suffered for this gospel before. It may be that we will suffer again. But we are subject to Jesus, not Caesar. And we are citizens of the kingdom of the beloved Son, not the empire.

"We now need to spend some time in prayer, so that we may wisely discern . . .

I hope all of this is helpful. Please don't hesitate to ask me questions about it or challenge my thinking in this area. We are all learning together.

1 Romans 16:1-12; Acts 18:26; Philippians 4:3; Colossians 3:15.
2 Galatians 3:28.
3 In the Leges luliae "widowers and divorcees of both sexes were expected to remarry after a period of one month. Widows at first were expected to remarry after a one year period, but, following protests, that period was extended to three years" (Schussler Fiorenza, "Praxis of Coequal Discipleship," p. 233). Cr. 1 Corinthians 7; Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), p. 157.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Atheism is Too Simple

I am in the process of re-reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis with some men from The Bridge Church. I had forgotten what a great read it truly is. Every chapter has something quotable. Today, I read his perspective on "atheism being too simple." Often our explanations of things such as atheism or, for that matter, Christianity are far too simple. If we live in a universe in which light is both particle and wave, and very hard to explain, then surely we can expect the explanations for the God who created the universe to contain some mystery. Lewis says,

Atheism is too simple. And I will tell you another view that is also too simple. It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right -- leaving out all the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil, and the redemption. Both these are boys' philosophies.
It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple. They look simple, but they are not. The table I am sitting at looks simple1: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of--all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain--and, of course, you find that what we call 'seeing a table' lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of.2

If we are to understand our universe we had better get used to mystery. Indeed, it is that mystery which is the very thing pointing toward God and things beyond this or other universes.

1 For more on how "unsimple" things really are see Space.
2 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1952), Book 2, Chapter 2, "The Invasion"

Thursday, September 6, 2012

What Every Creative Person Needs to Hear

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dark Knight

I went to see The Dark Knight Rises1 a few nights ago. This, of course, is the most recent film adaptation of the Batman legend and although the movie has been in theatres for a while this was my first opportunity to see the picture. This blog will contain spoilers so if you have not yet seen it, and want to be surprised by plot twists, you should put off reading this blog until you have seen the movie.

The film represents the third in the Christopher Nolan trilogy which reinterprets the Batman legend. The tagline for this third instalment is "The Legend Ends" suggesting that Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan are wrapping up the story and giving us the final years of the Bruce Wayne, Batman. But, of course, as we are told throughout all three movies, the Batman is a symbol and anyone could be behind the mask. At more than one point in the movie we are convinced that Batman/Bruce Wayne has made the final sacrifice and is gone. Yet the Batman manages to "rise" from the ashes once again. The word "rise" and the concept of "rising" recurs several times in the movie. The juxtaposition of darkness and light, evil and good, and injustice and justice are other recurring themes carried along in all three of the trilogy movies.

Before the release of the movie the Nolans revealed that The Dark Knight Rises was inspired by A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Prior to seeing the show I had not heard this but I picked it up in the eulogy scene where Commissioner Gordon praises Bruce Wayne with words from the end of the novel. On further reflection the themes of revolution, the populist uprising (reminiscent of the French Revolution), the desire for social justice, the view of what that can actually look like in the hands of a mob, the puppet-like movements of the mob controlled by shadowy figures watching from the sidelines, and ultimate sacrifice, all owe their genesis and power to Dickens and his images in A Tale of Two Cities. There are further comparisons that could be made and for more reading on this I direct the reader to other blogs.2

My assessment of the film is that it truly succeeds in causing the viewer to ask good questions about the type of society we desire to achieve. I have been a huge fan of Jonathan Nolan's writing since I first discovered him in Memento3 (not a film I would recommend for everyone's viewing but a philosophical film dealing with pertinent issues of our time).

As I first settled into the 165 minute Dark Knight blockbuster I found myself very unsettled by the populace uprisings. The similarities to the "Occupy Movement" were too easy to connect and I felt like I was being pulled into sympathy for the movement and I wondered about the message and integrity of the film. The "Occupy Movement" contains elements of truth and a desire for greater social justice but few consistent solutions. (The Nolans have said that the film has little to do with the "Occupy Movement" and everything to do with the French Revolution of A Tale of Two Cities but of course the interpretations are there for us all to see.) I was afraid that the Nolans had jumped on a cultural band-wagon that would not provide adequate analysis of the present situation. But, my fears were soon relieved for I realized that they were being very intentional in convincing us to sympathize with "the people" so that they could reel us into the discussion. We soon see just where this populace uprising will lead as the mob is put "in charge" while Bane and another, not yet revealed, puppet-master manipulate the city. The dictators hold out just enough hope to convince the people that they will triumph while ultimately pulling the rug out from under the feet of the people and using them for the ends of the manipulators. We see that "social justice" in the hands of a mob is no justice at all.

The Dark Knight Rises is also a retelling of one of the oldest stories written into the very fabric of the universe. Many of the great novels, odes, epic poems, and movies of all time tell the story of sacrifice. There are many variations on the theme but the powerful message of the king who lays down his life for his people, the brother, husband, father, sister or mother, who substitutes his or her life for the loved one, is there in one form or another. Here it recurs in threes as the Batman, this great symbol of justice and right, repeatedly sacrifices himself for others who do not deserve the sacrifice.

Then, there is the other common theme of "the traitor from within." The one in whom we trust and see as the saviour who is later revealed to be evil incarnate. The "White Witch of Narnia" who gives us treats of Turkish Delight while planning our demise comes to mind. "Saruman the White" in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is another example. In this most recent Nolan movie it is Bane and the other mystery person who look like they will be the saviour but instead are the ultimate villain. We are even pulled into a sense of sympathy for why each of them became so evil but it is a sympathy which the villains do not share with us. Their worlds are absolutely devoid of care for anyone or anything beyond themselves and their self-centred goals. I love the way Christopher Nolan directed the movie and set up the scene that creates a fore-shadowing of the final twist of the plot in which we discover the real mastermind behind the events. The director and film editor are very precise in their foreshadowing as they zoom in on a tiny scar for only long enough for us to get a small sense of it in our sub-conscious (at least that is how it worked for me). When the plot twist was revealed I found myself thinking back to that scene and realizing that they had given me the hint I needed to work it out but I only saw it as I looked back over my shoulder. That is truly the very best kind of foreshadowing there can be. Bravo, Mr. Nolan; and bravo, Mr. Nolan!

1 The Dark Knight Rises. Directed by Christopher Nolan. 2012.
2 Most significantly, see