Friday, October 19, 2018

Like Me!

Imagine a table on which I have laid out a number of items: a hammer, an ax, a chainsaw, a brick, a container of Oral B-Glide-Pro-health dental floss, a rifle, and an atom bomb.  Up until that last item, you might have thought the list rather innocuous.  That last item probably surprised you and made you reevaluate the items on the table.  The begin to take on a more sinister cast as you think about that weapon on the end.  The table becomes a collection of weapons merely with the inclusion of the final indisputable killer of men.

Here's the thing about the list, each item has an intended use, and ancillary uses.  Hammer's drive nails.  Axes fell trees.  Bricks build houses.  Even the rifle can provide venison.  All these tools have an innocuous use, but have, in the hands of wicked men, been used to cause harm.  Here's the point.  Most things men invent have an innocuous intended use, some means of helping humanity.  That does not prevent them from being used for nefarious purposes.  Some things men invent only have a deadly purpose, which we pray will never be needed.

So, what about the internet?  Is it a tool or a weapon?  In the past, I have described the internet and social media as being inventions of the devil.  I have said this both jocularly and seriously.  I would put myself more in the jocular category today.  The internet, and within its protocols, social media, are tools akin to the telephone.  They are merely means of communication.  As such, they are rather morally neutral.  They have made communication easier.  That is not a morally bad thing.  There is no Biblical prohibition or principle this method of communication violates.

But, just like a chainsaw in the hands of Leatherface differs from that chainsaw in the hands of a lumberjack, the internet, like any communicative media has its dangers and temptations.  How people use it and have learned habits of use matters to us.  How we use the internet and social media matters.

The first principle arises from the modern concern that has arisen about society's use of social media.  The internet, for those who don't know, was not invented by Al Gore.  It was the product of the US Defense department, specifically, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  Originally devised in the 1960s, the network was not declared "operational" until 1975.  Computer scientists will talk about the changes in the network addressing protocols ending in the TCP/IP standards used today.  Most people today would not recognize the "internet" of the 80s and early 90s.  The familiar "WWW" was not invented until 1989.  The first popular web browser was not developed until 1993.  The modern thing we call the internet is a mongrel conglomeration of protocols, programs, and scripts used to communicate information.  It is hard to consider the intent of the designer of the internet, since so many hands had a part in putting it together.  It would be much simpler to blame Al Gore, but we can't.

Worryingly, as we consider the intent of designers, recent admissions cast dark shadows on the intents of the designers of some part of the social media suite.  Although social media efforts were made from the early days of AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy in the 90s, the precursors for the modern concept of social media only appeared in the mid-2000s with the creation of MySpace and especially the juggernaut, Facebook.  In 2017, former Facebook developer, Sean Parker admitted that the developers of Facebook knew that their program would, "vulnerability in human psychology." (https://nypost.com/2017/11/09/sean-parker-on-facebook-we-created-a-monster/, retrieved, October 19, 2018)  He admitted that "Facebook uses likes and shares to create a 'social-validation feedback loop' that keeps users coming back." (Ibid.)

Similar concerns have led other developers to take action to restoration our addictive tendencies.  In 2018, Apple announced and released its latest iOS tool that reported on how much "screen time" the user has consumed.  In an interview discussing this new feature, Tim Cook, Apple's CEO said, "I think it has become clear to all of us that some of us are spending too much time on our devices." (https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/26/apple-ceo-tim-cook-monitoring-his-own-iphone-usage-with-screen-time.html, retrieved October 19, 2018)

The concern about "screen time" and social media psychology demonstrate that these tools have a danger of addiction.  The  Bible warns us about addicting elements. "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." (I Cor. 6:12)  Paul reminds us that we are to submit to the Lord Jesus and no other element, much less a means of communication.  Using the internet for the proclamation of the gospel or other legitimate use is not wrong, but if we find ourselves in bondage to anything, we defy the very point of the gospel, that Jesus came to set us free.

What is the cause of this addictive quality that people are talking about?  Sean Parker and others talk about the way in which social media changes the fundamental way we view relationships and friendships.  They refer to the dopamine response to a like or share.  They may have the psychology right, but their conclusions seem to be overstated.  I don't think our basic ideas of friendship and relationships are necessarily changing.  There may be mounting pressures in that direction, but I think the temptation is more insidious.  I think the temptation is to exchange virtual presence for physical presence.  This seems to be the temptation that these new methods of communication open to us.  I think we still know the importance of physical presence and relationships, but we more and more exchange that connection with virtual connection.  It is a seductive exchange because we don't often think about the distinction.  With a virtual relationship, the pesky issues of faults and inconvenience are eliminated.  Virtual friends make little demand of us, and if they become too cumbersome, the "unfriend" button is right there, and if that seems to draconian, we can now always "unfollow."

The Bible tells us how we are to relate to one another. "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. 30 And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you." (Eph. 4:29-32)  The instruction to be kind implies a necessity to deal with the faults, sins, and idiosyncrasies of others.  In the church and in our homes, we don't have the luxury of "unfriending" or "unfollowing."  We have to deal with one another.  Let us not let our online persona make us unkind persons.

Peter tells us, "God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.  Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time." (I Peter 5:5-6)  When we consider the use of social media, we can immediately sense a lack of humility in many examples of popular use.  Just consider the choice of usernames.  One of the most discussed Twitter accounts is that used by the United States President elected in 2016.  His account name begins with the word "real."  This is not limited to this account.  Many popular figures use this description to separate themselves from other people of the same name.  But consider the implied hubris.  Are others who share the same name "unreal"?  Are they less people because a popular individual shares their name?

If we can find hubris in the very construction of account names, we can certainly find them in the way people communicate on social media.  Consider the criminally under appreciated television program starring John Cho and Karen Gillan called "Selfie."  Gillan plays a social media obsessed woman whose value is totally tied up in her online persona.  This program died a quick death despite its pointed humor, and I propose that it is due to it cutting too close to the truth.  This program used in its pilot episode the song "#Selfie" written and "performed" by the band "The Chainsmokers".  In it, they record a woman in a club discussing her self-obsessed life.

Narcissism never left the human condition.  Since the garden of Eden, we have all been self-obsessed.  Some elements of culture assist our self-obsession.  If we have a stage, some of us will stand on it and tell the world to look at me, value me, approve me.  That is a dangerous place to be.  The relentless pursuit of likes, shares, and comments to reinforce our preconception that we are the center of all reality finds fertile soil in social media.

One final warning, as with any communicative media, the danger exists to violate the Ninth Commandment.  This comes from spreading mistruth and gossip.  "A froward man soweth strife: and a whisperer separateth chief friends."  (Prov.16:26)  "For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults," (II Cor.12:20) "Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses." (I Tim. 5:19)

The Bible is clear that we are to protect the reputation of ourselves and others, to be those known for the truth.  Repeating information often appears in social media and the internet.  When this information is disparaging to others, we must ensure that we are speaking the truth.  Too often, we rejoice in the downfall of men we don't like.  We are fascinated with the downfall of heroes and even people in the church.  Spiritual failure should not give us a sense of superiority, but a fear lest it should befall us.  A person with a true sense of his own sin does not feel elated at moral failure, but sorrow.  John Bradford, a sixteenth century english reformer gave us the true sense of the Christian compassion, "There but for the grace of God go I."

In sum, Jesus' words remind us how we ought to deal with any communicative media.  "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." (Matt. 7:12)  This we simplify to "do unto others what you would have them do to you."  As Jesus says, this is how we live Christian in an unchristian world.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Power of Beauty

John Keats finished his poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" with the memorable these words.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Since 1820, people have been arguing over the question of truth and beauty.  Basically the debate distills into two questions.  Are truth and beauty necessarily linked?  Is the link between truth and beauty the sum of all necessary knowledge?  For the second question, not much need be said.  Few have attempted to take this hyperbolic statement and make it normative.  It would be simplistic in the extreme to assume that the putative link between truth and beauty are so determinative.  If this link be proved, it would indicate an important part of human knowledge.

The more important question is the first.  Are truth and beauty linked and if so, how so.  This assertion contradicts the proposition that, "beauty is in the eyes of the beholder."  Keats seems to aware of something our subjective society has yet to grasp.  Beauty has an objective quality.  The Christian worldview appreciates the objective and the certain.  We hold to the reality of the Bible and its absolute truth claims.  We dislike the purely subjective and uncertain.

If beauty has an objective quality, we then question structures and qualities make up beauty.  Often we find ourselves left to a near subjective rationale akin to Justice Potter Stewart's famous test for the obscene, "I know it when I see it." (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 US 184,197 (1964))  What Justice Stewart groped toward was a way to take an objective test and apply it in a way that would make sense.  For us, for an objective view of beauty, we seem to fail to identify the qualities of beauty.  Instead, we often rely upon intuition and sense perception to inform our conclusions.  This does not disprove the objective.  Instead, it requires us to remember that our intuition of beauty may arise from the image of God in which He made us.

In C.S. Lewis' book, The Abolition of Man, he records the difference between the concept of the "sublime" and "sublime feelings."  In this case, the feelings arising from the observance of beauty are considered inconsequential to the actual character of a thing.  Lewis righty calls out this abominable casuistry for the pernicious doctrine that it is.  He ends the first chapter by describing how it produces "Men without Chests," men without feelings.  An intellect devoid of passions.  Not for the last time, will we observe the twin temptations of passion without thought and thought without feeling.  Lewis well defines the dilemma. "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise." (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, HarperSanFrancisco, 1944 pp.1-26, 26)

Lewis reminds us of the critical role the appreciation of beauty plays in the lives of men.  Men generally face the temptation to ignore feeling for the sake of thought.  For Christian men, this is often seen as our sacred duty.  Yet, the place of beauty and its attendant emotional response plays a role, as Lewis comments, on our moral and vocational life.  Beauty has a motivational impact on us.  It causes us to aspire to greatness and virtue.  This applies to both genders.  Lewis lived in an earlier generation, but as we have watched the degradation of society, this temptation of thought without feeling has crept into fashion with male and female alike.

There is a Christian theory of beauty, derived from the Bible that goes beyond the mere formal theory of beauty.  Perhaps the most telling passage appears in Psalm 29. "Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty, give unto the Lord glory and strength.  Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness." (Ps.29:1-2)  This attaches the concept of beauty to one of the most significant attributes of God, holiness.  Sinclair Ferguson aptly defines holiness as it applies to God in this way.  "God's holiness is His God-ness.  It is His being God in all that it means for Him to be God."  (A Heart for God, Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, 82)  If we take Ferguson's concept of holiness married to the text of Psalm 29, we arrive at the conclusion that beauty is part of God's attributes.  We then conclude that beauty comes from God, that beauty is a part of the image of God in which He made man, that beauty, in some form, appears in all that God created, and that beauty is often hidden by sin.

So, why all this talk about beauty?  The concept of beauty and how we view it plays a role in how we look at the non-story arts.  There is art and beauty in many things, but when we begin to look at static visual art and music, we enter the domain of the aesthetic and beauty.  As such, we must strive to develop a Christian approach to beauty especially in these arenas.

When my parents lived in Northern Virginia, one of my favorite activities when I visited them was touring the National Gallery of Art.  I cannot recommend a visit more highly.  The entire experience is sublime.  Allow me to describe a visit.  When I would go, I would take the Metro, the DC subway system.  I would begin at the Wiehle-Reston station on the silver line.  At that time, they were still constructing the silver line that would eventually reach to Loudoun One.  Because of the newness and upper income of that region, the trains were sparsely populated by business professionals and clean-cut students.  As you traveled into the city, the silver line merged with the orange and blue lines.  The trains sped through older stations and tunnels where the dim lights and dirt, along with the increasing clouds, brought a dimness of soul as well.  I usually departed the Metro at the L'Enfant Plaza station.  There is a sense as you ascend out of the subway, riding the escalators back to ground level, that you are coming back to life from the grave of the subway.  I experienced a lifting of soul, especially if you decide to use the Smithsonian station and exit upon the National Mall.

There is something evocative about the National Mall, with its tree-lined avenues and the open space that welcome as diverse activities as tourists, picnickers, Soccer players, and football fans.  If you visit, skip the protesters, it spoils the beauty of the vision of unity.  Lining the streets of the mall are numerous museums open to the public.  Many are operated by the Smithsonian.  One of which is the National Gallery of Art.

All the buildings surrounding the mall are magnificent and stately, but there is something weighty about the National Gallery.  All the building use stone, but the Gallery's use of that stone seems calculated to provoke the visitor to some sense of awe.  Perhaps it may be misleading to refer to it as a gallery.  The architect may have attempted to build at temple to art.  Everything about the building is meant to dwarf you, from the oversized doors, to the excessively tall ceilings of the main rotunda and the winged corridors.  The black marble ionic columns and matching floor with the center fountain mute the conversation as you begin your visit.  The halls branching east and west from the rotunda are lit from skylights.  From these halls, you pass into the rooms containing the paintings, and the atmosphere transitions from imposing to occasionally intimate.  The ceilings are lower, the rooms grow smaller, and your attention is drawn from the grandeur of the building to the beauty on the walls.

Now, not every painting will trigger your sense of the sublime.  If you follow the self-guided map, you begin with the earliest art, mostly religious icons.  However, if you persist, you will find art that may make the grandeur of the building seem unworthy of the riches of beauty within.

You see, here is the thing that I learned about beauty in my repeated trips to the gallery.  Sin operates on beauty in two ways.  First, sin mars the beauty that God created, and instilled in man.  You cannot look at a painting without seeing some effect of sin, if only the degradation that entropy plays in damaging works of art.  This effect of sin we probably know full well.  It is the other that we may not truly appreciate.

Sin not only mars the beauty that exists, but is also interferes with our ability to recognize the beauty there is.  There is a need for us to use our sanctified minds to observe the world and see its beauty.  As art developed over time, so also did people's ability to reflect beauty.  You see, there is a reason, a connection that lies at the intersection of the idea that truth is beauty and beauty truth, that God is the source of all beauty, and that He created the world with beauty.  This means that art is beautiful when it represents truth of holiness in the world.  It means that art is not beautiful when it does not represent the truth of holiness.  When art represents the effects of sin, we cannot expect it to be beautiful.  When art fails to represent reality, we cannot call it beautiful.  This does not exclude abstract are or impressionistic art.  There is reality in the expression of real impressions and feelings.

Jackson Pollock, on the other hand, breaks the rules of beauty we have so for extracted.  When I visited, the east wing of the Gallery, where the modern painting are exhibited, one wall is almost fully given over to a Pollack.  It was the typical paint cans on strings painting.  It meant nothing.  It has no representation.  It had no meaning.  Any beauty that may have appeared was smothered by a sinful philosophy.  That is another lesson of beauty.  With all human art, there will be a mixture of beauty and sin.  When the sin overcomes the beauty, we ought to question whether it should be considered art.

There remains one final aspect to visual beauty that we must remember as Christians.  You don't have to go to the National Gallery of Art to develop an appreciation for beauty.  Really, all you need to do is look outside.  I have written elsewhere, "This beauty does not appear in mere isolated areas.  Rather, God has filled the world with beauty.  You cannot look anywhere within God’s creation and not see His artistry.  The presence of beauty is inescapable, but we often don’t see it.  Our inability says more about us than about the world.  Perhaps we can’t see beauty because we have stopped looking for it." (http://ichthus153.blogspot.com/p/roses-are-red-grass-is-green-and-sky-is.html)

If we have stopped looking for beauty, we have also stopped listening for it.  I was instructed growing up to listen with discernment especially for the lyrics, to think critically about the music, looking not for its beauty, but for its dangers.  I remember a pastor repeatedly drilling this phrase as if it clinched an argument. "Music is not neutral."  By this, he was warning us against a certain genre of music.  He emphasized that the lyrics were not the sole criteria of a song, but that the genre could be so corrupted that the music itself was tainted.

This brings up an issue with which we must deal in both art and music.  Theologians call it "common grace."  The Westminster Confession of Faith indicates these works in this way. "Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others." (WCF 16:7)  The Confession goes on to point out how these work do not earn God's approbation, but are wholly sinful, and yet we cannot escape those words, "of good use."  Wicked people do good things.  The Scripture proofs for this section refer to the repentance of Ahab (I Kings 21:27,29), and the rebellion of Jehu (II Kings 10:30-31).  This means that even an unregenerate artist can produce beauty in art and music.

While we ought not argue for the irredeemability of all music created by unbelievers, we must agree that music matters along with the lyrics. Consider singing a song with a different tune or a different key.  Would you sing "Happy Birthday" in a minor key?  Even those who have negative conceptions of their birthday would object to that practice.  If major and minor keys impact our perception of the lyrics, might this not be true for different genres as well?  Humorists have used this to some effect, the playing of a well-known lyric to a different genre of music.

While detestable lyrics ought to place a piece of music outside the acceptable diet of the Christian, we must analyze more that mere words.  We can argue that music can range from the bad, to the mediocre, to the sublime.  Even within the uncertainties of music, we ought to understand basic realities that govern the importance of tunes.  Imagine a child sitting at a piano who has no musical training.  He will hit the keys at random and make noise,not music.  We might choose to call him the Jackson Pollack of music, or we might appropriately tell him that what he is doing is not music.  Music must abide by some order.  Even the loose experimentation of jazz follows charts and order.  This brings harmony instead of dissonance.  And yet, dissonance within a piece of music may have a role to play so long at it ends in resolution.  There has to be a reason for the music.

All of this aims at beauty in music.  Most common musical tastes rate a far step below beauty.  Popular music we would probably hesitate to call beautiful, and yet that does not make it bad.  We must always remember that there will usually be a difference between the music we like and regularly listen to and that which is beautiful.  How much we tolerate that difference requires discernment.  That we don't make our regular diet out of the beautiful reflects how hesitant we are to approach beauty, how redolent it is of holiness.  Nevertheless, we do need regular encounters with beauty.

It would be wrong to end this section without a comment about the music in the church.  As we discussed in previous lessons, I have no desire to enter into the fray of the worship wars.  Music plays a role in the worship of God and must abide by the regulative principle of worship.  Instead, I want to talk about congregational singing.

Consider these verses.  "let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy." (Psalm 5:11) "Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, ye righteous: and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart." (Psalm 32:11) "Let them shout for joy, and be glad." (Psalm 35:27) "O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph." (Psalm 47:1) "Let thy priests be clothed with righteousness; and let thy saints shout for joy." (Psalm 132:9)  "Sing, O ye heavens; for the LORD hath done it: shout, ye lower parts of the earth: break forth into singing, ye mountains."  (Isaiah 44:23)

I urge you to notice the connection between shouting and singing and worship.  Our singing is often too anemic because we do not think about what we are saying.  Consider this hymn.
Savior, if of Zion's city
I, through grace, a member am,
let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy name:
fading is the worldling's pleasure,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasure
none but Zion's children know.
These words written by John Newton shouted speak volumes about our confidence about our place and enjoyment of the blessings of God.  Let us not be people without chests, people without feeling, people without appreciation for the beauty of holiness.  Let us be those who before the beauty of holiness worship, not with empty volume, but from a true appreciation of all we have in Christ Jesus.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Power of Story

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."  "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." "Call me Ishmael."  "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."   "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."  "It was a pleasure to burn."  "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."  "The year Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette."  "It was a dark and stormy night..."  "Once upon a time..." "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."  "Space, the final frontier."  "Come sit right back and you'll hear a tale..."  "Here's a story of a lovely lady..."  "Everyone loves Raymond."

I hope at some point as you read the above, the words fired your imagination.  We have triggers in our brains the familiar words begin a cascade of memories.  These memories, these triggers are attached to stories.  Whether we remember them as books, plays, movies, or television shows, it is futile to argue the power stories have upon our minds, our emotions, or our perception of reality.  Because most of these works draw from a worldview that opposes the truth of God's word, Christians ought to learn to identify the negative and positive messages both patent and latent appearing in stories.

As we consider stories, we must begin with some element of general philosophy.  Since the advent of the post-modern mind, human thinking has largely rejected the presumption of what contemporary writers call the "metanarrative."  To understand this concept, we must return to the days of the medieval Christian consensus.  At that time, the consensus held that knowledge of the world could only be rightly understood through the lense of Christianity.  Theology was the queen of the sciences.  Without a right understanding of God, the universe would be incomprehensible.

With the destruction of the Christian consensus, human thought freed from the "limitations" of theology was thought capable of discovering independent truth.  New theories of the universe were proposed and critiqued.  Christianity was considered anti-intellectual and anti-science due to the history of Copernicus and Galileo.  Human reason without God endeavored to discover a new theory of the universe, a new creation story.  The enterprise endeavored to create a humanist consensus, a story without God that most people would accept.  The project failed.  The modernist age failed to produce an agreed upon story.

Post-moderns, disappointed by reason and science, left the rigid constructs of logic and physical exploration in the quest for a theory of life.  Instead, they returned to myth and story to reveal truth.  Knowing humanity's inability to form a consensus, they rejected any attempt to form a universal story, a metanarrative.  Each person wrote their own story, drawing from other stories they found personally informative or compelling.  They pick and choose what story they want to believe, even what parts of a story they like best, without dealing with the logical inconsistencies inherent in such a task.  We then end up with everyone writing their own story without any larger story into which their story fits.

When we examine this process from the perspective of the Bible, we see some points of connection.  The Bible is filled with stories.  Consider the stories that come to mind when we hear the names: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Ruth, Samuel, Saul, David, Bathsheba, Solomon, Jezebel, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Mary, Joseph, Paul, Peter, John.  All these people lived different stories.  However, we see that they all fit into the larger story, the metanarrative of the person and work of Jesus.  They all tell the story of creation, fall, redemption, and glory.  The Bible tells one story which explains all reality.  Previously, we looked at the Bible as one book, by one author, to one audience.  It is the "one book" assertion that leads to this truth that the story of redemption encompasses the entire Bible.  It is the story of what God is doing in the world into which all the other stories fit.

Here is the place where Christianity meets the philosophical need of the time.  The world has no reason for assuming that any of their individual stories matter.  At the end of the day, they will die and their story will be forgotten.  Thanks Ecclesiastes. (Ecclesiastes 2:17-23, 9:1-6)  Their story may matter to them, it may matter to someone else, but eventually, their story will matter to no one.  Consider the stories of the following individuals that we may consider great.  JFK, Lincoln, Washington, Edwards, the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Calvin, Luther, Huss, Anselm, Augustine, Athanasius.  Do you know their stories?  Do they matter to you?    Do people care about these stories?  What about other ancillary individuals whose names are lost to history?  Did they matter?

The Bible teaches us that our lives do matter.  Our stories matter because they are part of God's plan of redemption.  We matter because He matters.  Even our tears are recorded. "You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.  Are they not in your book?" (Psalm 56:8)

Because of the world's attention on personal individualistic stories, storytellers have risen in prominence.  Stories are often judged by how relevant they are to the present situation and how well they accord with people's own experience.  The best story is one that speaks to you, that you can add to your own story.  For this reason, we need to understand the message that these stories convey.

The first thing we ought to notice is patent depictions of Christians in stories.  How are Christians portrayed in these stories?  Are they commendable characters or objects of ridicule and scorn, images of hypocrisy?  For fans of Austen, consider the depictions of Philip Elton, William Collins, Edward Ferrars, Henry Tilney, and Edmund Bertam.  The least objectionable among them was Mr. Ferrars, and some could criticize his inability to confront his family.  A more modern example is MASH's depictions of Major Frank Burns and Father Mulcahy.  The former is depicted as reading the Bible while married and carrying on an affair.  In comedy, Christians are held up to scorn.  In drama, Christians are portrayed as out-of-touch and often flummoxed when they cannot reconcile their belief with the reality of modern life and thought.  Believers should be wary of how the gospel and Christians are portrayed in contemporary stories.

In early days of television, episodic series often were fairly blatant about the message that was intended.  Consider the Any Griffith Show.  It would be hard to miss the point of Opie killing the bird.  However, one cannot assume a message in the story of the goat who eats the dynamite.  Some shows were merely written to entertain while others had a more serious purpose.  More contemporary storytellers focus on entertainment rather than message. (with a few notable exceptions)  Thus, we must consider latent messages.

The vast majority of stories follow well traveled paths.  The normal dramatic arc recurs frequently in these stories.  They proceed from introduction, to escalation and tension, to confrontation, to denouement and conclusion.  Experimental writers try to adjust this formula to their own peril, and mostly fail.  There is a reason why this arc works so well.  It seems part of our humanity.

Within each genre, we may observe common messages throughout the genre.  This is not to suggest that the storytellers consciously intend to send these messages.  They are often so entrenched within the genre that one cannot think of that genre without the message.  Whether intentional or not, Christians should identify the message, for it will be there.

Perhaps the most easily observed is the romantic genre.  In romance, the most common message is, "love conquers all."  In romantic comedies, this is often seen in mystifying ways.  A ruins B's business, but they still end up together. (You've Got Mail, Hitch) A make B fall in love with him/her for some motive other than attraction, but they still end up together even after this horrible truth is revealed. (Sabrina, How to lose a guy in 10 days)  A and B are separated by years and death and only communicate through a mailbox at a lake house, but still end up together. (really?)  A calls B a horrible person, but they still end up together. (most Austen books)  People watch endless hours of television romance where the obvious pairs are often put together then ripped apart multiple times before they finally end up together. (The list is too long, but you can certainly think of many examples.)

This philosophy holds more sway in our society than we might think.  Consider the video the company Google put out for a review of the year 2016 entitled, "Google - Year In Search 2016". (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIViy7L_lo8)  One character from a long running television show summarized the philosophy of this love in this way. "[L]ove doesn't make sense! I mean, you can't logic your way in or out of it. Love is totally non-sensical. But we have to keep doing it, or else we're lost, and love is dead, and humanity should just pack it in. Because love is the best thing we do."  In a very powerful way, our society has made a god of love.  It confesses not the biblical statement that God is love, but the humanist confession that love is god.  This god, they believe will conquer all.

The Bible teaches us that God is love and that His love conquered all.  The facade of love that appears in romances cannot hold the weight that these stories require.  This is why they often face the ridicule of reason.  For a true all-conquering love, something more like God's love is required.

Action stories vary between question of morality and the journey of self-discovery.  Some stories question what can the hero do to defeat the bad guys and still be a good guy.  Others portray a person in a process of self actualization.  In these tales, the hero determines his destiny or morality.  This clashes with the Christian mindset that God determines what is right and who we are.

I can't say that I am in any way a devotee of the horror genre.  The frightening imagery and normal violence within the genre do not appeal to me.  However, there is something in that genre that connects to the Christian ethic.  Horror films often resemble medieval morality tales.  In these ancient stories, the actors placated to the church by telling stories aimed at promoting moral behavior.  Good people were rewarded and bad people suffered.  This also appears within the horror genre where those who do bad things are consumed while the morally upright survive.  Naturally, the world will use relative categories for "good" and "bad."  These definitions will probably not match those delineated by the Bible, but the underlying moral tone often persists, even if it does draw more from a karmic view of morality than a Christian view.

The mystery story has suffered much over the years.  The stories of Sherlock Holmes have not, perhaps, aged well, but the quality of their writing still stands above most of the genre today.  Mysteries and police procedurals have devolved into tasteless pulp, with few notable exceptions rising above the fray.  The quality of the mystery is in the inventiveness of the storyteller and the setting of the mystery.  Good mystery stories still surprise through their ingenuity or uniqueness of setting.  Often, these stories provide commentary on morality.  Take for instance this quote from "The German Woman" from the series Foyle's War, set in WWII.  Within the episode, the question of war, murder, and the death penalty swirl around.  Why investigate murder when the country is training its young men to kill?  Why execute "valuable" member of the military service in time of war for murdering a german woman?  At the end, the detective says, "Murder is murder. You stop believing that, and we might as well not be fighting the war. Because you end up like the Nazis."  Naturally, his foundation does not refer to scripture, but to basic notions of humanity and our relation to the law.  However, we can easily make biblical analogies to this same position.

Of all the genres mentioned, perhaps science fiction is the most flexible and susceptible to latent message signaling.  The Star Trek series repeatedly tackled the questions contemporary audiences were asking.  More recently, the revival of Battlestar Galactica addressed the topics of abortion and vicarious atonement.  The genre often finds itself attempting to answer the question, "What does it mean to be human?"  Most, if not the vast majority of the answers and reasoning that is propounded in these stories either ignore or contradict the Bible's construction and conclusion, but they regularly ask important question that the Bible often answers more simply that the world.

It remains for the Christian to understand how the method of telling the story influences our perception and reception of the narrative and its point.  We may generally categorize the means of transmission in three groups: oral, written, and visual.

The earliest form of storytelling involved oral communication.  We told stories.  Often, this method involved the ballad, a story told in song.  This lead to early narratives appearing in verse, even in print.  Poetry, rhyme, and rhythm aid the speaker in memory and performance.  As often, these stories were not reduced to writing, these verbal aids facilitated the transmission of these stories through the ages.  In addition, the use of song and music amplified the emotional component of these stories.

In the modern age, audiobooks have become the contemporary analog to the oral storyteller.  They allow our imagination to provide the images, and allow us to experience the story in our mind.  This has the positive impact that these stories exercise the imagination, but also, as our mind is engaged in experiencing the story, it also facilitates our ability to contemplate the meaning of the story.

With the invention of the printing press, books became more popular and convenient.  Stories began appearing in books, entertaining the people who read them.  With written stories, it is much easier to analyze the narrative.  If you are listening to the story, in some way, you are at the mercy of the reader.  You often can't tell him to stop an repeat an earlier passage.  Even with technology, this often proves a hassle.  With a book, you can flip back to a section you remember and see how it compares with another portion of the book.  You can put it down and think about the content in an analytical light.

Oral and written storytelling has waned in popularity in the modern west.  Visual storytelling has rocketed into popularity.  In truth, visual storytelling predates the printing press.  The play appears in virtually all ancient civilizations, african, european, and asian.  Because of the antiquity of the play, they often shared commonality to the individual storytellers, with the use of meter and music.

Technology has rapidly expanded the ability to create and consume visual storytelling.  The twentieth century saw the development of film and television.  The twenty-first has seen the emergence of streaming services and production.  It is altogether possible for a story to never appear on anything other than digital media.

With visual storytelling, we may consider three forms in modern use: the play, the movie, and the personal screen.  The play is the most subjectively influential of the three.  There is something powerful about sitting in a theatre witnessing actual people performing.  The actors also sense this and respond to the effect their performance may have on the audience.  The viewer cedes control to the players.  You enter into this place, take your seat, and stay there for the performance.  You experience what the players want you to experience.  You witness the story at their pace.  You cannot hit "pause" to reflect on the story.  The best you may do is reflect on the story afterward.  As a Christian, this ought to influence our choices and how needful it may be to spend time in reflection afterward.

The movie shares the many of the same experiences as the theater, with the exception of the personal presence.  This is not to be ignored, but with the advance of technology, the movie you see in the theater today will be available to stream often before a year has passed.  This allows the opportunity for review and critique.  It still bears noting how powerful the movie experience can be.  There is an intimate environment between you and the screen.  The players are larger than reality.  The dominate the vision.  The room is too dark to see anything but the screen.  Normally, the sound is amplified so that you can hear nothing else.  Environmentally, the theater is set to discourage any attention but that on the screen.

Environment changes our perception.  Consider the same movie shown in the theater as opposed to that movie see at home.  Even when the characters on the screen may appear larger than reality, you can often stand up and be higher than they.  You determine the lighting and volume.  You determine if you want to keep watching, pause, or take a break.  In most streaming services, you even get to vote of whether you liked the movie/show.  Control plays a large part in our perception of the story.

The ease of production has dramatically changed the way stories are told and their length.  One of the fascinating studies have been the analysis of the average length of a shot in movies and television.  In the early days of film and television, when the production was basically a play and a camera, (imagine a parent filming their child's school play) long shots were the norm.  Even when people started writing for television and thirty minute programs, (over twenty-fire even without commercials) the average shot lasted 20 seconds.  That may not seem a long time, but in comparison to the present average length of less than five, observers have noted how this change plays into people's present inability to pay attention, our shortened attention spans.

The length of the story has also changed.  We noted how commercial broadcast television in the early days often offered over twenty-five minutes of content per half hour.  In the present, some content has diminished to less than twenty minutes for a half hour.  Not only do we need rapidly changing images, but shorter stories.

Or do we.  Enter the streaming service and the advent of bingeing.  People began watching all the episodes of a series in a few sessions.  This phenomena fostered an approach to storytelling that was already appearing and growing in the industry, lower episode counts, better quality writing, and story arcs lasting the entire season.  Before the turn of the century, commercial broadcast television producers normally ordered a season run of over twenty episodes.  This covered the fall and spring schedule at approximately one episode a week.  This approach is still powerfully attached to broadcast television.  Cable channels began experimenting with alternative scheduling and production.  With less resources than their commercial cousins, this approach arose in some way out of necessity.  In 1999, HBO began airing the series, "The Sopranos".  In 2001, Fox began airing "24".  The commercial success of these experiments laid the groundwork for much of the storytelling of the modern streaming service.  It told storytellers that there was an audience for television to tell lengthy stories in episodic form.  Consider that where before, most long visual stories lasted for little more than two hours, now long-form storytelling can last in excess of 10 hours.

This longer form also poses a challenge to the Christian's duty of analysis.  We can lose the forrest for the trees in our tendency to binge.  This tendency to get caught up in the present without reflection, without considering the messages that lie behind the story, require a Christian to think critically about the stories of the world.  Some have value.  Others present ideas diametrically opposed to Christianity.  Knowing the means by which we experience stories guides us as we seek to live Christian in an unchristian world.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Who are you?

This generation may know the song from the hit television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.  Others know its artist and name. The song asks the question of its title, "Who are you?"  Ironically, its artist echoes its question, The Who.  The song dwells on the question of existence and a person's place in this world.  The song expresses the struggle that is a part of most people in the world.

Who are you?  The world has attempted to conjure up many answers to this incessant question.  They cannot escape the need to answer the question.  It is deceptively complex.  The question requires more than an answer of identity but of purpose.  Who are you also involves the consideration of the question why are you here.  Trying to answer these questions apart from God leads to problems.  There is no foundation to begin answering the personal question without a cosmological meaning.  How can you matter if the universe doesn't?

Evolution has taught many that all they are is matter in motion.  Who are you, what is your soul if all you are is atoms chasing one another through space?  Do you even have an identity?  Even if you are something unique, is that uniqueness a mere reflection of chance and genetics.  DNA coding may separate you from another human, but it does not provide identity.  It doesn't answer the question, "Who are you?"

We live in a society that fundamentally lacks identity.  Philosophy has failed to answer the big questions and has turned its attention to the little ones.  Nietzsche's superman does not ask, why am I here or Who am I, but who do I want to be.  Without the big answers, the little questions have no answers other than the ones each person chooses for themselves.  There may be some pride in those answers, but no certainty.  To live without identity is to live on a foundation of cotton candy.  It will melt to nothing in a moment.

This lack of certainty has not stopped the pursuit of meaning.  We live in a society where this question looms large.*
*We must stop to remember that these questions often arise in industrialized societies.  In agrarian cultures, one follows the course set for them by the necessities of life.  You live as your ancestors in an effort to maintain life.  It is only in a culture where the basic necessities of life are secure that the question of identity becomes a major issue.  While lesser affluent cultures may also struggle with this question, it is of less frequent than in affluent societies.*
How are people to conduct this search for identity?  Where is identity to emerge?  Without a solid foundation of identity, people are left to secondary sources of identity.  That is, if you decide for yourself who you are, you will do so by exteriors rather than interiors.  As introspective as you may be, you can never find who you are within, for you have no reason to assume there is a within to find.  Instead, you will define yourself with externals.  These usually devolve into activities you prefer.

Education offers endless options for the individual to select from.  Work, profession, or occupation has become a principle way people have decided to define themselves.  One networking exercise pierces the facade of this method.  We are asked to introduce ourselves without explaining what we do for a living.  If we cannot define ourselves by profession, who are we?

Hobbies and pastimes offer alternative communities from which identities can emerge.  If we cannot define ourselves by our work, we will define ourselves by how we spend our free time.  We live in a virtual buffet of alternative identities.  This attempt at definition suffers from an even worse problem than the former.  If how we spend the majority of our time does not define us, how can our pastimes do it?

Some define themselves by causes or passions.  Political special interest groups often benefit from the support of those who define life based upon their particular interest.  Others base their identity on charitable institutions and giving that they choose to support.  Nevertheless, those many of these groups bring a helpful influence to the general culture, they fail to answer the fundamental question.  Who am I?  Can these good things define me, or am I something apart from these activities?

The Bible has a simple counter to those who place these activities and externalities as the defining characteristics. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)  In Christ, all the external means of defining life vanish into the insignificance that they warrant.  Notice that here, three means of identity are rejected: race, work/wealth, and gender.

The church needs to deal with the issue of race.  The New Testament's teaching about Jew and Gentile is fundamentally a race question.  The Bible teaches that racial division, degradation, and disdain violate God's law  This is particularly sensitive in the United States, where, as Mark Noll writes in his book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, the slavery question could only be definitively answered by the theologians Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.  The Civil War proved to the United States that the church could not solve the most important social question of the time.  The reason for its failure arose from the casting of the question.  If the question is, "Is slavery wrong?"  The Bible says, "No."  If the question is, "Is racism or racial slavery wrong?"  The Bible answers, "Yes."  Ironically, it was Black pastors who got this question right.

Racism is anathema to the gospel.  All men are condemned by sin that the grace of God in Christ may be offered to all.  Throughout the New Testament, the gospel offered to all becomes the message of unity of all.  Christians cannot indulge in the hateful presumption that one race is deficient to another.

This ought to also affect our language and use of stereotypes.  Alan Jacobs comments that our minds, because of their need of categorization, use stereotypes to help categorize people. (Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, p. 114-115, basically all of chapter 5)   Accurate stereotypes are acceptable devices of our mind to understand things.  Inaccurate stereotypes often bear the taint of racist assumptions and ought to be eliminated.  All stereotypes must be acknowledged as only general rules and not applicable to all members of the group.  Consider the following groups of people and the stereotypes that arise in our minds when we thing of them: Christian, pastor, lawyer, doctor, surgeon, video gamer, redneck, urbanite, accountant, secretary, politician, President, scientist, IT guy, mother, father, student, college student, graduate student, actor, golfer, activist.  We immediately have images that may be more or less accurate.  If you identify with one or more of these groups, how do you feel about people thinking of you in terms of the most commonly accepted stereotype of that group?

Within these groups, we appreciate the community and friendships we form within them, but we understand the faults of the governing perception and the variants within the group.  Each group has usually at least two dominant perceptions or stereotypes: those inside the group and those outside.  We need to be considerate of the people within these groups.  Christians in their language and attitudes must hold to the stereotypes lightly.  We judge people as to who they are.  Stereotypes may help form a baseline of understanding others, but they must give way to the reality of the individual.  We need to be those who desire to understand others and not to rely upon stereotypical understanding.  Especially when it comes to dealing with questions of race.

Political and journalistic expressions have not helped in this area.  Race has become a political category.  News outlets pander to this stereotype in its depictions and assumptions.  Indeed, race no longer means ethnicity, but a culture attached to that race.  This again reveals the danger of stereotypes.

The emphasis on the importance of race in the United States has led to the rather unfortunate use of race to form identity.  In contrast to the instruction of scripture, people have used race to define themselves and place expectations on others.  This elevates racial distinction beyond stereotypes to division.  One race cannot understand another because the struggle and persecution is incomprehensible to the other.  One race cannot understand another because it does not require self-reliance and independence.  These crude stereotypes represent the way in which the majority and minority races rely upon differences to avoid the struggle to resolve differences and pursue understanding.  The races have divided culturally and often persist in this division because the individuals within these groups have let their race determine their identity.  They have let the past define who they are.

As I have talked about this racial struggle, an image has been brought to your mind.  I would guess that it is one of two alternatives.  Either you think I am describing your race and don't understand it, or you think I am describing another race and doing it accurately.  Let me challenge you to consider if I am describing your race and describing its struggles well.

I will admit that it is normally minority races and cultures who struggle with the temptation to find their identity within racial categories.  The majority race normally does not deal with cultural struggle involving race since that race normally defines the culture.  Even so, many in majority races arrogantly assume superiority of culture and adopt a condescending attitude toward minority races and cultures.  While this may not rise to identify, it reflects an identity assumption that has no place in Christianity.  All races are one in Christ and the church must labor to make its community reflective of this reality.

When the Bible talks about the genders, it does not deny the reality of gender distinction any more that it denies the reality of racial distinction.  Rather, the Bible reminds both genders that there is something more defining than gender.  Something must define us more than the differences in our bodies.  Something must define us more than what we do with our bodies.

In the United States, is you use the words "gender identity," you will immediately find yourself in a conversation that includes a host of letters defining a host of ideas about so-called sexual orientation and gender confusion.  The passion excited about the use of these labels and the members of this community persuasively demonstrate that many in this community have made sexual activity the means of obtaining identity.  The push to have their activity normalized in society along with the pressure for culture to accept them as "born this way" all points to an identity built upon this type of activity.

This study is not the appropriate venue to attempt to describe the litany of letters and what they represent.  Since this is such a developing community, even within their own ranks they cannot agree on the meaning of all the labels or whether they deserve a place within the community.  While we refrain from entering into the problem of definition, we can lay down the biblical position regarding this means of finding identity.

Paul explicitly describes the issues of sexuality in three critical places.  In Romans 1, Paul uses sexual sin to describe the descent of sinful man.  "Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves." (Romans 1:24)  Here, it is likely that Paul is talking about sexual activity outside marriage.  He uses unrestrained lust, the flagrant violation of the seventh commandment ("Thou shalt not commit adultery.") as the sign that man is given up by God to freely express his sin.

Paul continues with another sin as a sign of just how far people will go to rebel against God.  "For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet." (Romans 1:26-27)  By this, we must conclude that homosexuality is a sin, reflecting the extent to which man will go in his rebellion against God.  There is an unnatural aspect to this sin that Paul notes.  The order of marriage between man and woman is now not only violated in acting married with non-spouses, but with people of the same gender.

Paul speaks in another place of the sin of what may be called incest. "It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife." (I Corinthians 5:1)  We cannot assume minority in either of the parties.  We could also assume that this is a step-parent, but Paul's condemnation is clear.  This relationship violates God's law.

At this point, we must answer the justification that is leveled against the scriptural perspective.  Can any sexual activity be justified by love?  We have seen how this justification has crept into the culture.  We accepted divorce, remarriage, and adultery on these terms.  Spouses divorce because they don't love each other anymore (or so they think).  People indulge in affairs both marital and pre-marital because they are in love (whatever they mean by that).  This excuse has been extended to what we will refer, for the sake of simplicity, as the homosexual sins.  All the letters of the subgroup use the same stock of excuses.  Their sin is justified because we cannot define love or restrict love to our heterosexual assumptions.  We must accept gender confusion and changes because they were not born their true selves.  This is a kind of self-love that culture requires us to accept.

We have already described love in a previous lesson.  As a reminder, love is not left to the definition of man, but comes from the character of God, Himself.  As such, whatever man may feel and call love is not love if it does not conform to God's law, another expression of God's character.  Law and love cannot conflict for both are part of God's character.

We ought to have compassion upon those who have trapped themselves into finding their identity in any of these groups.  Paul again reminds us why.
"Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God." (I Corinthians 6:9-11)
Paul reminds the church that we were once those who found our identities in all these sins.  We were those who found our identities in something other than Jesus.  Remember Galatians 3:28. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."  What is it that brings unity to the church?  We are one in Jesus.  We are united to Christ, and as we are all united to Him, we are united to one another.

Who are we?  In Christ, we are children of God.  All other parts of life (gender, race, work, recreation) emerge from this reality.  We cannot interpret these other aspects of who we are without this fundamental reality.  It is the gospel.  We who were sinners, God in Christ has made children.  We are part of His universal plan of redemption.  This defines how we are to live Christian in an unchristian world.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Christ and Culture

James writes this, "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." (James 4:4)  From the founding of the church, it has always existed in conflict with the surrounding culture.  Even in Jerusalem, the religious leaders condemned and imprisoned the apostles.  It was by this official and cultural persecution that the church expanded into Samaria, Antioch, and the rest of the Roman world.  Quickly, the center of the church left Jerusalem to become more diffused before settling in Rome.  Even in the Middle Ages, when Christendom became the norm for the western world, the faithful church remained in conflict with the remnant superstitions of the people.  The Reformation brought the faithful church into conflict with the Roman Catholic culture that surrounded it.  The early immigrants to the United States came to escape the cultural oppression of the church.  As the country formed, while there remained a majority of Judeo-Christian assumptions, many of the formative thinkers of the nation did not profess the true faith.

The church ever lives in conflict with the culture of the world.  Paul reminds us of our duty in his letter to the church at Rome. "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." (Romans 12:2)  The world, the culture, the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group, because this mass of humanity is broken by sin, their dispositions, attitudes, morals, and values all reflect their sinful origins.  For this reason, the Bible commands us to guard ourselves against allowing the world to influence us to think and act sinfully.  We face the temptation to conform our morals, values, and attitudes to what we see in society.

How ought the Christian to interact with culture?  This question formed the basis for H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book, Christ and Culture.  In it, he mapped in history five different approaches to the question.

1. Christ against Culture
The approach seems to have been the original view.  The world is evil.  The Bible warns the Christian against allowing it to inform our understanding.  Culture, as a product of the sinful world system has nothing to offer the believer.  The best option then is isolation from culture.

This idea still has its adherents in some form or fashion.  Monasticism is the most obvious and extreme version.  Others practice some form of protectionism, at least for their children, forbidding access to the obvious influencers of culture, music, movies, television, news, radio, art, and books.  A more refined and influential, at least in the reformed community, version of this appears in the so-called "Benedict Option," popularized by Rob Dreher in his book of the same name.  In it, he argues that the post-christian world has progressed to such a deplorable state, that engagement with the culture is no longer effective.  He compares our present to the final days of the Roman Empire and the need to protect Christianity through the use of monasteries.  While stopping short of total monasticism, he proposes isolating Christian enclaves in which a Christian culture can be nurtured in contrast to the world.

2. Christ of culture
Of this view, not much need be said.  It represents the viewpoint of liberal theology.  Had not Niebuhr been a member of this school, it would probably not have made the list as an acceptable Christian view.  This view posits that God made culture, therefor culture is good.  Providence directs culture as part of general revelation to show us how we ought to live.  Therefor, the church ought to assume the direction of culture to be a good one.  This may be behind the Roman Catholic use of syncretism.

3. Christ above culture - medieval Roman Catholicism
Of all the views, this mediating view appeared and thrived in the middle ages.  The Roman Catholic view of the two swords argued that one sword was given to the church and another was given to the state.  In practice, both swords came from the church as the pope considered his office above that of the king.  The most obvious event that proclaimed the churches power was the humiliation of Canossa, where the Holy Roman Emperor was forced to await an audience with the pope for three days and nights in the snow, in January 1077.

The church assumed not only superiority over the king, but over culture as well.  This led to so-called "power encounters" used in mission.  One well-known example of this superiority involved the felling of Jove's Oak/Donar's Oak/Thor's Oak somewhere in Hesse, Germany.  According to an 8th century work, Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldi, a Catholic missionary, St. Boniface, cut down the tree to prove the superiority of Catholic culture to the German.  Oddly, Catholic missionaries to Latin America would later prefer syncretism to this approach.

4. Christ and culture in paradox - Luther/Kierkegaard
The use of the term "paradox" informs us that this perspective can be rather confusing.  It ought not surprise us that its notable adherents Niebuhr credits to Martin Luther and Soren Kierkegaard.  These preferred paradox, leaving unresolved truths hostile to one another.  Like, law and grace, saint and sinner, Christ and culture function within the church simultaneously.  Don't try to make hard and fast decision.  Just live in the tension.

5. Christ the transformer of culture
This view is often credited to John Calvin and the Reformers.  There is a puritan air to this view.  As such, it became the default framework for the Presbyterian and Reformed interaction with culture.  Culture, as a product of the social function of humans, as part of our creation in the image of God, is a good thing.  As communities, we form societies and culture.  This is not wrong, but part of our creation.  The problem is that sin has corrupted the good thing God created.  Culture, like all other parts of humanity needs to be redeemed.  Christ, by redeeming people is redeeming culture.  This is not the primary goal of the church.  Rather, the organization of God's body works to make Christians.  Christians living in culture influence it in redemptive ways.  This indicates that Christians ought to participate in culture in meaningful ways to participate in this redemptive work.

While this fifth description become the assumption of the reformed church, some have questioned the taxonomy of Niebuhr.  D.A. Carson wrote the book Christ and Culture Revisited.  In it he questioned Niebuhr's assumptions.  The framework leaves unanswered questions.  What is Christ?  What is culture?  Are these the only five options?  He argued that a biblical theological approach that remains flexible ought to determine the Christian's engagement with the world.  The Bible, not a general rule, must govern the specific way in which we respond to culture.

There is no simplistic answer to the question of how we deal with culture.  While we may generally prefer the fifth, this preference has led some to inappropriate engagement with culture.  It has led to too much engagement that either ends up looking like the second option, carelessly accepting culture, or a form of the third, advocating a superior alternative culture.  These simple approaches forget the purpose for engaging with culture in the first place.

Why ought the Christian engage with culture?  If culture is stained with sin, broken by mankind's fallenness, or at worst totally corrupt, why should the Christian deal with it at all?  Are the Benedict Option and monastic advocates right?  Should we isolate ourselves from the brokenness?  This approach clashes with the Bible's command to engage with the world.  Matthew 28:18-20 "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.  Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world."  John 17:15-16 "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.  They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world."  The testimony of the Bible reminds us that Jesus left us here to testify to the world, not to retreat from it.

If we are to meaningfully witness to the world, we must be able to understand and speak to its culture.  Culture has a profound impact on the language the people speak, the stories they believe, the things they value, and the questions they ask.  Ignorance of these things leads us to speak without understanding, a futile message.  We will be speaking a different language, one our listeners will not understand.

In order to understand culture, we must first recognize that speaking of culture can often be misleading.  Remember, that problematic question for Niebuhr.  What is culture?  What is it we are engaging?  We often use words without asking if we know what we mean by them.  Do we understand what culture is?  Even the dictionary definition can be misleading.  Culture does not exist in a vacuum.  The word needs modification.  We never deal with culture in the abstract.  It may help to think of culture in concentric circles.  We can argue that there is a world culture.  We can then subdivide this into eastern and western cultures.  We can then subdivide this into English speaking culture and other languages.  We then can subdivide this into North American culture.  We can then subdivide this into the United States' culture.  We may then subdivide this by region, state, state region, county/parish, and city.  Each of these cultures informs the others.  Indeed, our job is not done, or even within these, niche cultures arise and begin to influence the general cultures and other special interest cultures.  Each of these communities come with their own attitudes, values, morals, and conceptions.

Within these subdivisions, you might have considered language a faulty division to make.  Twentieth century philosophy has revealed how language can impact culture.  One example that often arises is the Inuit/Eskimo words for "snow".  The native people of the frozen north have three root words for snow.  This is not inconsequential considering English generally has one.  We can understand why they have more.  This linguistic fact was shaped by culture, but that culture is then shaped by that language.  Language describes reality, and the ease or difficulty of that language to describe a certain part of reality molds the people's perception of reality.

Let's try an exercise in how language proves a challenge to interacting with culture.  Consider Romans 1:16-18.  There, Paul writes, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.  For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness."  Let us begin with vocabulary.  What does "gospel" mean?  Not merely denotatively, but in this context?  What does the "power of God" mean?  What does "the righteousness of God" mean?  What does it mean, "the just shall live by faith"?  What does the "wrath of God" mean?  What does the "unrighteousness of men" mean?  What does it mean to "hold the truth in unrighteousness"?

The Bible has its own language and vocabulary.  Even modern versions struggle with the problem of translation.  A literal translation to the common tongue, without a remedial education in Christian vocabulary cannot be done.  There is no single words anymore that accurately convey what the Bible means with one word.

One interesting anecdote from the history of Bible translations reveals this fact.  We often think of the King James Version, originally called the Authorized Version, as using the archaic English of its time.  In fact, the original public would have found its language foreign as well.  It was designed to be easy to memorize, lyric, and theological, a higher English. Instead of adapting to the language of the day, the translators created a translation higher than the common tongue.  Instead of following culture, their version actually influenced the language.

We come to understand Biblical phrases because through study, we have learned what they mean.  The world has not experienced our education.  It then fall to us to explain the gospel to the world, to tell them that the Bible says in ways that they can understand.  In order to do so, we need to understand how the world uses language.  This is a cultural engagement work.

Not only does the language of the world differ, but its stories differ as well.  Stories influence how a culture sees the world.  C.S. Lewis once called the Bible "true myth."  In a letter to Arthur Greeves, dated October 18, 1931, Lewis wrote, "Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened."  Lewis knew that cultures used stories/myths to explain reality.  The difference with the gospel was that is was more than a mere story.  It was not a fiction to created by the masses, but the truth, the true story that truly explained reality.

Twentieth century philosophy has encouraged this appreciation of the way in which narrative impacts culture.  Consider this example.  In the deserts of Egypt, the sun was worshipped as God, Ra.  In the icy wildness of Norway, the people understood the end of the world, not in burning heat, but in a never-ending winter.  The myths and legends follow the culture and environment in which they were born.

The present age, with all its technological and scientific prowess, is not devoid of its myths and stories.  During the era of modernism, science became the religion of the west.  People believed that scientific discovery would eventually answer all the question and solve all their problems.  People believed the story of the big bang and evolution as the origin story of the universe.

People also have a story of the United States.  Some tell the story of immigrants coming to find religious freedom.  Some tell the story of the fight for freedom, in two wars.  People believe these stories explain reality, at least in the United States.  Are these stories true?  Whose story ought to define the nation?  From these stories, culture in the United States has adopted freedom as a (if not the) core value for inhabitants of the nation.  It no longer remains confined to religious or political freedom.  It means personal freedom that is now pushing the limits of anti-drug laws and definitions of marriage.  This is but one example of how understanding the story of a culture can aid in understanding a people and enabling us to speak the message of the gospel in a clearer way.

Within every culture, you have people who possess the ability to influence the direction of culture.  Some work to obtain this ability, others have it fall upon them.  For many years, the shapers of western culture had some concept of the end or objective of their influence.  We often divide people politically between liberals and conservatives.  These categories may be used culturally as well.  There are some that want to preserve or return to a previous vision of culture (conservatives) and those who want to change to a better or progressive culture (liberals/progressives).  Within the last few years, we have reached a point where, in my observation, both sides have lost a vision of what they want the nation to look like.  What does the final product look like?  What is the vision of the idealized country?

For the progressive, the elements of their end have taken a beating in the recent past.  Philosophically, the dominance of modernism has eroded.  Economically, the dominance of communism has fallen, while socialism merely treads water.  Keynesianism still rules the day, but many are drifting toward Randian objectivism.  Culturally, the progressive is winning on many fronts, but what is the end, a world with no limits?

If the progressive has lost his vision, the conservative has forgotten it.  What nation does the conservative want?  The good ole days are so far behind us, do we even know what they are, when they were, or what they looked like?  What does the alternative nation look like?  What does either nation look like according to either of these approaches to culture?

As we analyze our culture, we have focused on the national influences.  Remember, there are regional, state, and local influences as well.  Some of these stand in contradiction the national trends.

The final question remains the most important.  How do we use our understanding of culture to speak the gospel to the world?  Ironically, those directions of culture most concerning to us, often provide the greatest openings for the gospel.  One of the greatest political concerns of the present day is the uncertainty.  We are so far off the normal course of events that all the accepted wisdom that worked in the past we may no longer rely upon.

If we feel this way, imagine how the world feels.  We have a foundation to stand upon.  We rest in the almighty sovereignty of God, who providentially governs everything that happens.  The world has no foundation.  All the stories that the world used to make sense of the world are proving unreliable.  The origin story of modernity, evolution, though still taught, defended, and professed, cannot stand its dehumanizing implications.  Before people tried to defend their immorality with science.  Now they defend it with love.  This demonstrates a paradigm shift in the underlying story.  There is no metanarrative that explains reality.  There is no end, even for the progressive.  There is merely the present and what must happen now.  There is no truth, merely "optics".

If we analyze culture aright, we see that the general trend shows that people in the United States are looking for some foundation, some story that will explain their humanness, something that will explain and defend love.

The gospel answers all the questions the world is asking.  It gives them the only true story that explains their humanness.  It explains what went wrong.  It explains what culture should be.  It is our duty to put it into words they use and should be able to understand.  We cannot understand it for them.  We cannot make them believe, but we can and should use their language.

I cannot, and should not give you a script.  Each conversation, each society, each culture will require a different approach.  I can give you categories, elements to think through, but the language, story, and assumptions will differ.  Begin thinking through these questions.  What language do others use, not merely english, but idioms that are national, regional, and local?  What stories do they believe?  Little children believe Disney stories.  What stories do adults believe?  How do they explain life?  What do the people value?  What matters to them?  What questions are they asking?  Understanding culture requires understanding people.  We understand people so that we may present the gospel to them.  This is how we live Christian in an unchristian world.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Wealth

Karl Marx was not the first to observe the conflict between economic classes, the war between the "haves" and the "have nots".  The struggle between men for what the other possessed appears in Genesis 4.  There we read, "And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell." (4:4b-5)  The subsequent murder of Abel arises out of this event, the jealousy of Cain over God's acceptance of Abel's sacrifice and not his own.  Abel had, and Cain had not.

Two qualifications ought be made.  First, one could argue that the original class struggle appeared in the garden when the serpent told Eve that God had something that she lacked.  We restricted our analogy to the struggle between men rather than the futile struggle with God.  There is something about ontological equality that makes inequality of possessions problematic to sinful minds.  Within our culture, we accept as proven the idea that all are equal.  That principle about our personal value causes us to question the rightness of economic differences.  Sin confuses the difference between our person and our possession to use this principle to cause envy.   Second, one could argue that the antagonism over sacrifices is a far cry from clashes over property and wealth.  While the substance of the dispute may be different, the underlying motives, thinking, worldview, and emotions remain the same.

We begin a discussion of wealth as we ought begin all discussions, with God.  God, as the sovereign creator, holds title to all that is.  There it no particle of the universe over which God cannot declare, "Mine."  No possession can be considered that does not have this reality behind it.  All things are God's, even if we call them ours.  This radically changes our perception of wealth as we consider that which is called the traditional class struggle.  Marx saw the struggle between economic classes as the moving force behind history.  While we may credit his observations, we cannot accept his assumption that this as the way things ought to be.  Why should men struggle and envy each other the property that almighty God has given to others?  If all is God's and He sovereignly distributes to each according to His will, have we any cause to envy, to murmur, to strive to rebalance the divine equation?

One caveat needs to be added.  This conception of God as creator and owner of all does not forbid the Christian from the principle of private property and pursuing justice.  The Eighth Commandment forbids stealing.  The law of Moses included punishments and restitution for those who stole.  God's concern for justice demands that those who rob from others give back what they stole.

It warrants noting that the biblical strictures deal only with actual theft, not theoretical theft.  Inequalities will always exist in human affairs.  If a worker makes widget A for his employer who can sell it for X dollars, he will likely not receive X dollars from his employer.  The employer will have to pay for what it will take to get X dollars for the widget, his own efforts to sell the widget, and the risk of not selling the widget for X.  With all these indefinite costs, the exact figure between employer and employee will always involve inequality.  The Bible does not give strict guidelines how these factors are to be resolved.  It does not call this inequality stealing.  It does command the employer to pay the employee promptly and fully the agreed upon wage.  To not do so is stealing.  The failure of the employer and employee to derive a perfect equality of wage, whatever that is, does not constitute stealing in scripture.

For the best example of the Bible's teaching on this, we should examine Matthew 20:1-16.
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.  And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.  Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.  And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?  They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.  So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.  But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.  (Matthew 20:1-16)
Jesus tells this parable for the purpose of explaining that there is no time limit to God's mercy.  The parable has a spiritual message, but it is built upon a physical reality that the audience and we should accept as true.  Just as it was right for the employer to make whatever deal was right for his need, to pay the later laborers what he thought right and pay the day laborers what they had agreed to, so the mere existence of inequality does not prove theft or demand equalization.  Indeed, in the divine economy, as the Lord is the one behind the metaphor of the vineyard owner, He dispenses according to His own designs.  It does bear remembering that the Jesus seems to accept the cultural accepted wage of a day laborer as just.

As we remain considering the divine component of wealth, we also remember the First Commandment.  As we are so able to do with all the good things that God gives us, we can make an idol out of wealth.  There is something condemnatory about Marx's observation that economic class struggle drives history.  Even if we conclude that the observation is overstated, we cannot but admit that there is some truth to the idea.  Envy and jealousy over property fuels part of human activity.  In some respects the tenth commandment particularized a variant of the First. (all sin is in some way attributable to a violation of the First)  When property or wealth matters more to us that God, we covet what others have.  Wealth ought not drive history nor the activities of man.  When it does so, it reveals the sin of idolatry.

Another parable of Jesus seems appropriate here.
And one of the company said unto him, Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me.  And he said unto him, Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?  And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.  And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: and he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?  And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.  But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?  So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.  (Luke 12:13-21)
In this parable, Jesus responds to a request to judge an inheritance.  In response, Jesus condemns both parties as placing a value on the property over each other and ultimately God.  This He demonstrates in the parable of the foolish rich man.  While his plans for expansion are not in themselves patently sinful, the Lord reveals their sinful motives in the response of God and His own explanation.  The expansion meant that the rich man valued wealth more than obedience to God, more that using that wealth to honor and glorify God.

One of the hardest applications of our relationship to wealth in consideration of God is the concept of contentment.  If God owns all and give to all according to His will, if God means more to us than what we possess, then we ought to be content with what He has given us.  Paul writes, "Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.  I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." (Philippians 4:11-13)  He writes to Timothy about contentment.
But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.  And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.  But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.  For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.  But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.  (I Timothy 6:6-11)
Here, it would be wrong of us to think that Paul criticizes the rich as such, but those who desire riches, who place wealth above their desire to glorify God.

This warning about the dangers of pursuing riches appears also in the Old Testament. "Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die:remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain." (Proverbs 30:7-9)  The word attributed to Agur here reflects the dangers of too much or not enough.  The wise man prays for enough.  Jesus repeats this prayer in the Lord's prayer, "give us this day our daily bread."

The daily bread reflects the manna in the wilderness, but unlike that supernatural provision, the Lord anticipates that we will work for that which He gives us.  Paul writes this to the church at Thessalonica.
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.  For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us.  For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.  For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.  Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.  (II Thessalonians 3:6-12)
In this passage, Paul deals with what is called an over-realized eschatology.  People expecting the second coming immediately, stopped work, "preparing" for the resurrection.  Paul corrects this practice using himself and his missionary team as an example.  He tells the church not to enable those who choose not to work to engage in idleness and the sin that accompanies idleness.  From this we learn that we ought to work and encourage work in the use of our wealth.

How this command intersects with our duty to give generously and show hospitality requires discernment and wisdom.  The author of Hebrews writes, "Let brotherly love continue.  Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." (Hebrews 13:1-2)  This verse reminds us how important it is for us to help travelers, especially those who are fellow believers.  Remember, this was in a day before hotels.  Perhaps we ought to be more cautious to request for help in this day, but the general rule still applies.  For ordinary requests for assistance, we must recall that we live in a day where entitlement and welfare have changed the attitude and expectation of many.  Jesus says, "But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil." (Luke 6:35)  Jesus speaks this in the context of the people of God.  It does not permit us to give suspecting that our charity will be used for sinful or prodigal purposes.  Jesus tells the disciples that they must, "be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." (Matthew 10:16b)

There is one final thing about wealth that must be recalled.  Everything that God gives us, we are to receive with thanks. Paul writes, "For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving." (I Timothy 4:4)  In this passage, Paul warns Timothy about the false teachers who forbid marriage and meats.  He responds that everything God created may be received well if accompanied with thanksgiving.  Thanks remembers that these things are good because God gives them.  It fixes our hierarchy that we not let the good things become our idols, remembering that our ultimate enjoyment is found in God alone.  Paul reminds us that it is those who deny the goodness of God's gifts that tempt us to ingratitude.

Wealth has become a dangerous and problematic topic in today's world.  The discussion is not new.  The Bible explains how the Christian should view possessions before God.  The world only sees wealth.  We see the giver of all good gifts, living Christian in an unchristian world.