Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Rage of Virtue

This article popped up in the L.A. Times this morning, much to my surprise. That exploding ethnic tensions in China are just now hitting the news is testament to that particular government's ability to (at least mostly) control the message coming out of the country. How amazing (tragic?)!

Anyway, the politics of the free society is not what I am interested in right now. What interests me are the ideas of virtue, ethnicity, culture, and what Christianity has to say about it.

Human beings are always trying to claim some sort of inherent virtue for purposes of self-justification. It doesn't matter what country, society, or culture they are from. This, the Bible calls "sin" and it is universal. It transcends ethnicity, culture, skin pigment, social class, economic class, gender, position, and any criteria you care to mention. It includes both Western jingoism and Western self-loathing. African tribalism and Asian shame. Shiite Islamism and Shiite secular environmentalism. Everything is based on inherent virtue. I have it and you don't. Therefore, you deserve justice and I deserve my reward. Aristotle is indeed the theologian of the natural man.

Take a second to read Romans 3:10-18 and see what St. Paul has to say about inherent virtue. Or Romans 7 (if you might be led to believe that a Christian is inherently better than a non-believer).

Listen to this excerpt from the article: "A giggling teenage girl carried a board with a rusty nail protruding from it." How chilling. This could be a character from Dostoevsky. Or, even better, the character Vengeance from the Charles Dickens work A Tale of Two Cities. The wrath of human virtue mixed with the grievance and confusion of a little girl.

Just remember how that book ended, though. A man forgotten in the pages of the epic; a man of very little consequence in the eyes of the world; a man rejected... substituted himself for a condemned man (the one we most identify with in the book) and submitted himself to that wrath. A sublime picture of God's denial of inherent human virtue and His purchase of us, regardless of our condition of needing self-justification at every moment.

· In another (but related) note, take a look at Mark Galli's terrific opinion piece in Christianity Today. It is true fresh air in a cloudy era of Evangelical confusion over the Gospel. Read the comments, too, if you dare. It will give you an idea of where things stand right now.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Young Man Blues

"...much of what teenage boys talk about is wild-eyed or unrealistic. A father has difficulty hearing a teenager's exaggerations for what they are - an experiment in thinking or a necessary calibration of an unfolding identity. When a father hears foolishness, he sees a fool. He fears a collapse of character and intelligence, or an unacceptably cavalier attitude about the future, and he's quick to try to set his son straight."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Who: Live in Houston, Texas 1975, Song Six

This is a really amazing song Pete Townshend wrote about his alcohol problem.  It doesn't get much play and it has a little bit of a different sound from the rest of their tunes.  Almost a Calypso/Paul Simon flavor.  Very upbeat music to go along with fairly dark lyrics.  Of course, addiction is of great interest to me as a pastor and a friend of addicts.  I hope you like the song.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Wire, Breaking Bad and the Search for a Gracious God

There are not many television shows as good as the HBO series The Wire. Some, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad, are in the same league. Others would probably argue for Friday Night Lights and Dexter (this is a great dispensation for television!... someone must have found a way to cast off some sitcom shackles!). Whatever your poison might be, The Wire and I (for a synopsis, go here) have spent a great deal of time together.

Detective Jimmy McNulty is one of the heroes/anti-heroes of the series whose deft investigatory skills and genuine sincerity about his work are tempered by a high-functioning alcoholism, arrogance, deviousness, and a long line of broken relationships. He is the perfect real-life protagonist who is a jumble of mixed motives and not an impossible paragon of Aristotelian virtue from a Bill Bennett book.

The purpose of this little reflection is not to give the theological ramifications of the entire series but to share one poignant moment that I see as a representative of the common thread in all human longing. This particular moment occurs in Season 5 during McNulty's dramatic fall from grace following a brief stint in a healthy, happy relationship. He falls off the wagon and becomes the chief instigator of a very serious deception in the Baltimore Police Department. A man at low ebb with no friends and an alienated love-interest.

The scene unfolds as his girlfriend, played by the peerless Amy Ryan, returns home with her children after "going home to stay with mother awhile" (a euphemism... but you know what I mean) and they meet on her front porch. She is clearly upset as they speak (and rightly so... she has been hurt by him immeasurably). In a moment of unforgettable humility and vulnerability, he comes clean to her about the city-wide deception he has been perpetrating. "You know," he says, "you begin something like this thinking you are some kind of hero and then you realize..." SLAM! She slams the door in his face in incredulous rage and righteousness. The camera pans back to McNulty as he stands there silently, absorbing the justice that he has seen so many times.

You see the same question and answer in Breaking Bad when Walt White (a high school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking crystal meth for money to finance his cancer treatment and take care of his family) is locked in a trunk by a drug dealer. The New Mexico heat makes him delusional and he imagines (as the vicious drug dealer opens the trunk) that he sees his estranged wife trying to embrace him, saying, "I understand." The vision quickly dissipates and he is thrown to the ground by a monster of a man.

Where can I find a gracious God? That is the question asked here. And it is a question asked by people in the face of the immutability of the givens of life which Ecclesiastes 1:15 says are "crooked and cannot be straightened". It is a question sneeringly derided by a lot of current New Testament scholarship which finds itself unable (and, frankly, unwilling) to place itself within the experience of the people they study to minister to. It is the question that people consciously or unconsciously ask in their ultimately futile attempts to seduce justice with virtue. It is a question asked by St. Paul and Martin Luther.

It is answered by the Lamb of God on the cross. "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45 ESV) Thankfully, Mockingbird is a place you can go to hear this answer again and again.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Who: Live in Houston, Texas 1975, Song Five

While this is a more obscure number, the sound is more synonymous with that of The Who.  Keith Moon kills it in this song; "Drowned" from the Quadrophenia album.  Some nice licks by Pete Townshend, too.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Fathers, Sons, and the Reformation, Part II

"...Go forth into the world, there thou wilt learn what poverty is. But as thou hast not a bad heart, and as I mean well by thee, there is one thing I will grant thee; if thou fallest into any difficulty, come to the forest and cry, "Iron John," and then I will come and help thee. My power is great, greater than thou thinkest, and I have gold and silver in abundance."
- From the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Iron John

If there is one thing I have noticed over the years about the male gender, it is the need. There is an interesting contradiction in the masculine. On one hand, he will run up the stairs of a burning World Trade Center tower to rescue survivors, cover a live grenade with his body in order to save his friends, endure unspeakable torture in order to keep faith to his country, and defend his family's home to the death. On the other hand, a negative word from a father or respected elder will fold him like a house of cards. There is a deep, deep need in the inside of a man.

The industrial and technological revolutions of the past couple of centuries have done a lot of good in terms of material prosperity and quality of life. The ill it has done, however, is to take fathers away from their sons at critical junctures. Gone are the days of the father teaching the son about seasons of planting and harvest, the habits of the whitetail deer, and the various uses of particular timber stands. Of course, these skills are not the important thing. What is important is the amount of time spent with the son... that the son is worthy of time and effort and vitally important to the family.

The industrial and technological revolutions have placed a premium on a high level of expertise. They have also created a workplace away from the home and that leads to the father's absence for most of the day. Boys are placed in schools which are often geared toward feminine ways of learning (a good documentary to watch on this subject is Raising Cain). Frustration sets in and self-worth deteriorates. The essence of who he is seems to be obsolete and even frowned upon. He then grows up and the same pattern is repeated with his son. The need of the boy to be affirmed by an older male is acute and underestimated by society.

Sadly, the male reticence about expressing emotions is frequently assumed to be indicative of emotional hardness. Nothing could be further from the truth. A denial of blessing often leads to a quite desperate young man.

In Rod Rosenbladt's presentation on the theology of the Reformation as it relates to fathers and sons (which, along with the amazing t-shirt below, can be purchased at New Reformation Press), he places his finger squarely on the problem and the solution. The problem is described above: there are precious few (if any) ways for a young man in our society to receive the blessing of an older male (particularly a father). A lack of initiation rites, if you will.

The solution comes in the form of an analogy to the insights of the Reformation. The Reformers found that Scripture teaches an imputed righteousness, i.e. the blessing of God given to sinful men and women, acquired only by grace and only through faith. The essence of this righteousness belongs to Jesus Christ only. But it is given freely. In this way, there is a sense of reality for the person who is justified. It is called simul iustus et peccator in the Latin. This means simultaneously right before God and yet conflicted.

It is not a "school marmish" idea of superficial improvement. Nuns are not rapping your knuckles with a ruler. There is no program of a progressive increase in virtue. There is no self-deception about inherent righteousness. It is the deep magic that is not magic. It is a free one-way blessing that positively re-orients you to your Maker. It is a real righteousness that covers a real, and continuing, flailing about. It is becoming a grown-up. It is the blessing of God the Father which in itself, affirms, creates purpose, and breaks the curse.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Who: Live in Houston, Texas 1975, Song Four

I have a like/hate relationship with this song.  Mostly hate.  But, kind of like a movie like Night of the Living Dead, I can't keep my eyes (or ears in this case) off it.  Anyway, this is the fourth song in the set.  You might like it!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fathers, Sons, and the Reformation, Part I

In November of 2003, I was attending the Cathedral of the Advent in Birmingham, AL and just beginning to understand the Gospel and its implications. During one service, it was announced that the Rev. Dr. Rod Rosenbladt (LCMS) was flying in from California to give a seminar on how the theology of the Protestant Reformation interacts with father-son relationships. My decision to attend was a benchmark in my understanding of Jesus Christ and who He is. I could probably even trace my call to the ministry to Professor Rosenbladt’s presentation (to listen/obtain, visit New Reformation Press - the indispensible online center for all things Rosenbladt- and Reformation-related).

In this post, I wish to discuss the Reformers’ (particularly Martin Luther’s) insight into justification as it relates to masculinity and identity. Later this week, I will discuss the Reformation’s doctrine of justification as it relates to imputation and blessing. Big words that will hopefully make more sense when I'm done.

One of the most striking things Professor Rosenbladt said in his presentation was; “Masculinity is not 12 gauge. It’s .410.” For all you New Yorkers whose idea of comparison is Gucci and Prada, a .410 is a much lighter and smaller bore shotgun than the 12 gauge. Usually, small-in-stature kids who are just beginning to hunt use a .410. I, personally, use a 12 gauge for ducks and turkeys. For the purposes of our conversation, the 12 gauge makes a considerably louder “boom” than a .410.

It’s this loud “boom” in perceived forms of masculinity that manifests itself when a true father is not present. As Professor Rosenbladt quipped, the lack of a father looks like the movie Heat, i.e. Al Pacino and a bunch of .223 AR-15’s. It is a desperate exercise of inventing what a man is perceived to be; the idea that masculinity means actively creating one’s own identity. Asserting itself to the detriment of others, often violently and certainly unethically (as we have seen in the recent economic crisis). It is a mindset of fatherless men that is driven by fear. Fear of accusation, condemnation, failure, and impotency.

What breaks the chain is a driving away of this fear. You cannot be left to create your own identity in a world this big and mean. It is pure futility. You need the arm of a father around your neck. In theological language, you must passively receive your identity rather than actively create it.

This is justification by faith alone. The One who has total control is completely in your corner. And He will never desert you. This is the truth that takes away the terror of one-whistling-in-the-dark and turns a 12 gauge into a .410. This sort of masculinity still has bite but it is a subtle yet confident bite that needs not make a lot of noise. It creates fathers that have a gentle, patient, and light touch with sons who are trying to find their way in this world. The desperation that leads to driving, forcing, and creating a "champion" is assuaged. The father-son relationship can then be enjoyed for the special relationship it is.

This is the Christian picture of fatherhood, and it is a chink in the passing of the curse from the father to the son.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Who: Live in Houston, Texas 1975, Song Two

"I Can't Explain" is one of the great early songs of The Who from their Mod years (see it played in the natural environment of the Mod here).  It's also quite short and inspired, in part, by The Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night" and "You Really Got Me" (both of which are classics in their own right).  Take a listen and you can hear the influence.  Also, "Thunder Fingers" John Entwistle is very distinct (and awesome) on the bass here as he is for the rest of the show.  If you like rhythm sections, this is your lucky day.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I Heart Wall Street

As one who has been historically affiliated with the Right of the political spectrum, it has been difficult for me to watch a chastened Republican intelligentsia take refuge in the Objectivism of Ayn Rand. At first, I thought it was mentioned by chance in the coverage of Jack Kemp’s death (the underprivileged never had a stronger advocate than Kemp, by the way). I then picked it up again in this article in National Review. It is an article about the CEO of BB&T, a bank out of North Carolina that I actually do business with in my day job. Here is a telling excerpt:

However, simply because Rand doesn’t endorse altruism for altruism’s sake, many people misconstrue her to be amorally selfish. Rand “doesn’t view ethics as self-sacrificial,” Allison says, “she views ethics as a rational means to success and happiness. If you described her in principle, she would say that you shouldn’t take advantage of other people because that is unethical behavior and self-defeating. But you also shouldn’t self-sacrifice. What you really need to do is run your life in relationship to other people in context to what she calls the trader principle. The trader principle is about what I call creating win-win relationships. We trade value for value and we get better together, and we find these common grounds where we can get better together.”

From my study and interest in the anthropology (doctrine of mankind) of the Reformation, it seems to me that the charge of selfishness is quite common and lacks insight. The wrong critique, in my opinion. The real problem with Rand’s Objectivism is her anthropology. It’s not that people (not just free-market capitalists) are selfish. Everyone knows that and it is a fact that does not change. The problem with Rand is that she believed that people are rationally self-interested. In other words, people have free will and the mind is totally in the driver’s seat with regard to moral disposition.

According to the Reformation (and Reformer Philip Melanchthon, in particular), “The will chooses what the heart desires and the mind justifies it.” In this formula, the mind (along with the will) is enslaved to the heart and is tertiary (at best) in importance. According to Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” Romans 3 might also give a clue.

The breakdown of Rand’s high anthropology became evident in this present recession that exposed a foundational rot in the reliance on the market to regulate itself. Even Alan Greenspan- a personal disciple of Rand’s- (in a statement of disarming humility) acknowledged this:

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.... The whole intellectual edifice [of risk-management in derivative markets]...collapsed last summer.” Asked whether his ideological bias led him to faulty judgments, he answered: “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”
- Alan Greenspan at a congressional hearing in October 2008

So, do we embark on a massive project of hyper-regulation in response? No, I don’t think so. There is also this cosmic power called “the Law”, but that is another post for another time. Let us simply take the anthropology of the Reformation from the conceptual and apply it as if it is actually true. The heart of man is in the driver’s seat and that makes our self-interest wholly irrational.