Thursday, January 27, 2011

Vice Attracts Virtue

Throughout our lives, we have all been exposed to stories about hidden gems of human beings who have been serendipitously discovered by those with the power to better their lives. Usually, they have a rare but prodigious gift that is presented as having the potential to make the world a better place. I'm thinking here of Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, Shaquille O'Neal in Blue Chips, Jamie Foxx in The Soloist, and the list goes on and on.

These stories always warm the heart at first, but then a realization sets in. I am not a mathematics prodigy. What about Ben Affleck? I am not an athletic 7-footer who weighs 300 pounds. What about the nameless guy he dunks over? I wouldn't even know how to correctly hold a cello. What about the schizophrenic homeless man with no talent other than finding the next heroin fix? What inherent virtue do they have that will attract the halls of power?

This is not a reflection on doing more social justice. Frankly, I find sermonizing on that to be a little bit nauseating these days. This is a reflection on justice itself. More specifically, the benefits of virtue and what is attracted to virtue (virtue being a catch-all term for gifts, right living, etc.). The way the world works is the way the world has always worked. It is ingrained in you and in me. A specific quality, gift, or trait that enables survival, fame, power, money, companionship, love, etc. The inherent good attracts the good. Conversely but consistently, the inherent bad attracts the bad: alienation, abandonment, punishment, aloneness, imprisonment, execution, and death. This is shorthand for justice.

It is the basis for all human activity. Justice. Virtue. Traits. Reward for obedience. It is the basis for all relationships and all religions except for the true meaning of Jesus Christ (which only re-asserts itself about once every few centuries, it seems).

This all occurred to me in a new way during the Susan Boyle to-do. If you have been lost at sea these past couple of months, she is a middle-aged Scots woman of nondescript appearance who has a lovely singing voice. She rocked the world with her tremendous performance that can be seen here. A "diamond-in-the-rough", she was called by all the elites who deigned recognize her. The halls of power took notice and her trip to fame began.

Instead of dwelling on the problems that took place in her rise to fame, I began to think about another character. She is actually a fictional character but she produces real-life reaction in the viewer. Breaking Bad is a show I watch (and would recommend only for those with strong stomachs... especially this season). This character is a woman who is addicted to crystal meth. She has a lover who is addicted to meth as well and a little boy who is neglected and malnourished. This woman is fairly grisly in appearance and kills her lover in a quite gruesome way. The slightest memory of this character never fails to repulse me. And yet...

Romans 5:6-10 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

What is this? Justice and virtue turned on its ear to be replaced with grace, mercy, and alien righteousness? This does not compute. God through Jesus Christ came for His lost sheep who have no virtuous lever by which reward can be expected? In fact, love sought out evil like a heat-seeking missle and embraced the unembraceable. Vice, in other words, attracts the only One with any true virtue.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Do You Have A Zombie Plan?

And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:5-10)

I hope you (like me) are really getting into the new AMC series The Walking Dead. Great story, great acting, and great cinematography. You see the zombies walking around people's middle-class homes or around a downtown area and it just looks believable (and terrifying). In the midst of this, there is the drama of realistic human interaction with this post-apocalyptic (zomb-pocalyptic) scape and it just rings true. Much like the fight over racial tensions that we looked at in the previous post.

There is something other-worldly, though, that happens in both Episode 1 and 2. And it is as surprising as it is touching. Rick Grimes is the sheriff's deputy who awakes from a coma only to find this terrible new world and reality have replaced that which was familiar. He cannot find his family and there are precious few survivors. In addition, he keeps running into zombies who want to eat him alive.

The first zombie he sees in Episode 1 is a really pathetic one. She is quite disfigured (picture included in the poster) and everything below her torso is unusable. Still, she wants to kill Rick just as much as any of the others do. After Rick later gets his bearings, regains his strength, and arms himself, he returns to the place where he first sees this particular zombie. She has crawled away so, at great risk to himself, he tracks her down. He then does something very un-Woody Harrellson-like. He looks at her with great compassion and says, "I am so sorry that this happened to you." He then painlessly puts her out of her misery.

In Episode 2, a group of survivors kill an exceptionally motivated and virulent zombie. After finding out that they are trapped and zombies identify potential victims primarily by smell, they decide to use the dead one as a source of "zombie grime" that will help them slip past unnoticed (gross, I know). Before they "harvest" the grime (which is not a scene for the kiddies, by the way... as if any of this is), Rick takes out the zombie's wallet and finds his name. There is some money and a photograph or two of his family. In a way, he eulogizes what was once a very real and motivated threat to life and limb. A sense of compassion enters the scene.

This reminds me very much of a section of Paul Zahl's book Grace in Practice called "The Relation of the Un-Free Will to Compassion". Here is a portion of that section:

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A New, Street-wise Daniel 7

Daniel 7:13-14 "I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. "And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations, and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion Which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed.

One aspect of American pop-culture that has always interested me is our fascination with rap music. A fascination that I share. In fact, I've recently gone through a personal renaissance with rap, primarily mid-to-late 80’s hip-hop. I am speaking of artists like Eric B. & Rakim, KRS-One, EPMD, Public Enemy, Kool Moe Dee, etc. In elementary school, my musical world centered on these guys, so much so that it's a miracle no photos ever emerged of me with my fake gold chain, gesturing and rapping along with Rakim in my bedroom mirror.

What makes rap so intoxicating? What about it captures the imaginations of (particularly) young boys so powerfully, whether they be black or white, urban or suburban or anywhere in between? In reading the above portion of Daniel 7 through the lens of the anthropological insight of the Reformation, I believe that I have come to an understanding.

Rap (particularly the form of rap I am familiar with) projects (or imputes in the mind of the listener) a form of definite mastery over one’s domain. It asserts utter dominion. There is an ease with which opponents are dispatched and uncomplicated (libidinous) relationships with women are initiated. What nervous and insecure young boy (or man) can’t identify with that felt need? It would seem that rap functions as a form of popular mysticism, taking the young man into a world of total domination, if only for four minutes.

I once watched a documentary on the Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie Smalls). He came after my time but he was definitely a part of the same tradition of rappers that I grew up with. In 1997, a vehicle pulled up next to his at a red light and began firing. Smalls was dead before his bodyguard reached the hospital. When the hearse carrying his body drove through his native section of Brooklyn, throngs of fans were there to greet it. As it passed by, someone played Smalls’ song “Hypnotize” at full blast. It was a final and futile protest to death. It was a tragic irony.

Biggie biggie biggie cant you see
Sometimes your words just hypnotize me
And I just love your flashy ways
Guess that’s why they broke, and you’re so paid

The people eventually dispersed and went back to their lives. Some got married and settled down, some moved to other neighborhoods, and some changed musical interest. Other rappers rose and took his place. All eventually relegated Biggie Smalls to the back of their minds, if they even think of him at all these days.

The insight here is that a mystic fantasy of dominion is just that. A mystic fantasy. Our opponents are the world, the flesh, and the devil, and they actually dispatch us with ease. Relationships are not uncomplicated offerings to the altars of ourselves but impermeable and imperceptible mosh pits with the unknown other. We have no dominion, and we do not play master to our circumstances.

Someone does have dominion, however. We are not author-less conglomerations of cells bumping around in a vapid void. The One with dominion is the Son of Man and His love was completely poured out for us even while we tried to master Him. Mastery for us, then, becomes blissfully unnecessary.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Michael Horton on Christ-less Christianity

Shakespeare on Mercy

From The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Goodness Kills Love

At all events when, after many hours, the door was opened and people thronged in, they found the murderer unconscious and in a raging fever. The prince was sitting by him, motionless, and each time that the sick man gave a laugh, or a shout, he hastened to pass his own trembling hand over his companion's hair and cheeks, as though trying to soothe and quiet him. But alas he understood nothing of what was said to him, and recognized none of those who surrounded him.

If Schneider himself had arrived then and seen his former pupil and patient, remembering the prince's condition during the first year in Switzerland, he would have flung up his hands, despairingly, and cried, as he did then: "An idiot!"
- From Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

Jacob Smith's wonderful entry about a theology of the cross vs. a theology about the cross last week inspired some fresh thinking about what is (to me) a familiar subject. Familiarity does not exactly mean exhaustive knowledge, however. Indeed, it is sufficiently counter-intuitive so as to demand a lifetime of contemplation and living to connect with its meaning. So if only for my own benefit, I would like to explore this idea of the "theology of the cross" once more.

You have heard it said here that "judgment kills love and love births goodness". I would like to add this sub-header to that maxim: Goodness Kills Love. You may ask, “How can what is good in this world kill love?” I would, in turn, point you to Thesis 4 of Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation: “Although the works of man always appear attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.

The understanding of this actually lies in the 3rd chapter of Genesis: But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:4-5) The reality of mankind’s condition of self-justification and self-deification does not need biblical support to be proven empirically and finally. The Bible simply and truthfully says what exists. It is this condition of self-deification that takes whatever is available and distorts it as a means to justify oneself before some perceived jury of peers or some other concoction of the subconscious. Most commonly, it is a sense of victimhood that suggests an inherent goodness.

What triggered my renewed thinking about this is a woman I know in the Midwest whose husband had been unfaithful. Old story, I know, but it is not some common societal abstraction to the one who suffers through it. In any case, there was a divorce and now the woman hates her ex-husband. And it is a palpable hate that radiates and can physically be felt. It has infected the children of the marriage and the father has been utterly destroyed and exists today in an equally palpable despondency. The transgression has opened the floodgates of consequence and life has stripped bare the preposterous veneer of self-justification.

Ironically, the offender or violator is in the position of being the one for whom Christ came to save. A miserable offender. On the other hand, the victim (or the one who sees herself as justified) is the very one about whom Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken.” (Luke 13:34-35a)

In his earlier entry, Smith noted: “Therefore, a theology of the cross, as opposed to simply inoculating our conscience to sin and our own culpability in it, finds us guilty of the sin that we have committed, and states that we should be justly condemned for it, while at the same time stating our penalty has been paid for and we are 100% forgiven.”

For the one who is good or the one who is justified, the idea that WE should be forgiven is an affront! The victim who comforts and gently caresses a murderer is an idiot! With goodness aided by its worldly ally justice, love is killed and the world wastes away with a clenched fist and a finger on the button of the electric chair.

It can simply be said that one loves and shows compassion to the exact degree that he has been loved and has been shown compassion. Everyone on this planet is a candidate for unmerited favor or “grace”. Goodness is an obstacle to grace and the theology of the cross creates love.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Your Value: How Kafkaesque!

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes." - from The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

This sobering (and, frankly, nauseating) story tells the story of a normal working man who happens to wake up one morning as a dung beetle. He has been supporting his parents and sister but is obviously unable to go to work as long as he remains a beetle. At first, the family cares for him. Then, it's only his sister. Finally, they give up on him and he dies of starvation.

It is one of the most tragic stories I have ever read. Yet there is an important observation here. As long as we are productive, we are valuable. As soon as we are unable to produce, however, we lose our value. We die, so to speak. Kafka (in my interpretation) was lamenting this. I suspect this is true because, at the last of the story, he writes these lines:

"While they were thus conversing, it struck both Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, almost at the same moment, as they became aware of their daughter's increasing vivacity, that in spite of all the sorrow of recent times, which had made her cheeks pale, she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure. They grew quieter and half unconsciously exchanged glances of complete agreement, having come to the conclusion that it would soon be time to find a good husband for her. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body."

Brilliantly, Kafka moves from the male source of productive identity (profession) to the female source (physical beauty... certainly in 1915, when the story was published and, from my observations of popular advertising, it has not changed). She is now their source of production. She is now of utmost value whereas Gregor had lost his. And the cycle continues.

Some questions that may arise: Am I a machination in society (the free market or the collective) or am I the object of love apart from what I produce? Am I a replaceable cog or am I a person? Am I valuable? Really?

Speaking with a psychologist friend of mine, I learned that children of alcoholics have an uncanny ability to self-destruct throughout their lives. I guess I had seen it, but never made the connection. Addicts themselves lose the ability to function as they dig their well to the bottom. I have known divorced people who have slept for two years straight from grief. Have they lost their value? To the outside world, they have. And perhaps to their family. Make no mistake about it.

I personally remember a conversation with a past boss of mine that was along these lines. I had made a mistake and he came into my office. He said to me, "I want you to know that I totally support you..." (a wave of relief overtook me) "... as long as you produce." I felt like my chest was caving in. Then, it occurred to me. Life is quid pro quo. All the time. Your worth is directly correlated to the quality of your output.

But, for all the production and its costs and after the lights go off, come back on again, and then go off for good; we see, in the pages of the New Testament, a Man who is addressing Himself to those who have been ejected by the centrifuge of society and history. The otherwise anonymous, ignored, and reviled. The ones contributing very little, if anything, "of value". That Man happened to be God Himself. And that turns everything on its ear.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Shakespeare Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The very love of God. - DB