Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Whole Duty of Man, Part I

“…his only reasonable transaction in that commodity would have been to buy it for as little as he could possibly give, and sell it for as much as he could possibly get; it having been clearly ascertained by philosophers that in this is comprised the whole duty of man — not a part of man's duty, but the whole.”
- Charles Dickens from Hard Times

As one who is sort of willingly/unwillingly lingering in the business arena, the recession and access to capital has been on my mind recently. The other day, a thought struck me as I wondered how my fellow man was coping. I did a Google search for "suicide in the recession" and found this article which was quite eye-opening. The following telling paragraph preceded some tips on how to stave off depression:

“In our world, we have come to a place where things like wealth and status become things that are intertwined with the self too much," says Steven Craig, a therapist in Birmingham, Mich. "When you have that loss of identity, and the shame and hopelessness they feel, the blow to themselves is so severe they don't feel like they can recover."

As we have discussed earlier, there is a all-encompassing compulsion to value ourselves based on the quality and quantity of our output. Craig says, "...we have come to a place..." but that is simply untrue. We have always been in this place. Our value is directly correlated to what we produce (we believe). This idea has provoked some insightful artistic backlash (such as Kafka) but this complaint of alienation and de-humanization has largely gone unheard.

Those in Christian theological circles who believe that justification is a secondary issue are simply not paying attention. "Justification by works" is not some bugaboo that a half-crazed 16th Century German monk imputed onto the human condition. Human society from its conception has been empirical proof that man seeks to justify himself by his output. Civilization is a colossal "will to power" (to borrow a philosophical term) and where there is failure there is abject poverty of personal value. To quote Jimmy Cox, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out".

And this leads to all of these things described in the Newsweek article: substance abuse and other forms of self-medication, isolation, and suicide. But this is the limit of an Ayn Rand who trumpets this system and a Franz Kafka who bemoans it. What is on the other side of one whose value has been perceived as forfeit? For Rand, it is irrelevance and for Kafka, it is death. And I say they are one in the same.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Living Bread not Living Dead

Romans 5:6-8 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.

One of the great moments of the television show The Walking Dead comes in Episode Two when a bunch of survivors are trapped in a building by what seems to be the entire zombie population of post-zompocalyptic Atlanta, GA. The zombies know they are in the building and it is just a matter of time before numbers and brute force overcome the locked doors and meager defenses.

Our hero, Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes, figures out that the zombies distinguish zombie from delicious non-zombie (plausibility awaits another day to make her debut) by their sense of smell. An escape vehicle is spotted a couple of blocks away but the zombie horde is between it and the survivors. How, then, is one to survive for the rest of Season 1 and make a go at Season 2? Easy. Chop up a zombie that has already been dispatched, smear the grime all over yourself, pretend like you are a zombie, and walk through the zombie foot traffic to the escape vehicle. And you thought your day was stressful.

The serious and genuinely moving part comes here. After procuring said dispatched zombie, Grimes is about to begin the “operation” and stops himself. He looks over the corpse and takes the zombie’s wallet out of its back pocket. “Wayne Dunlap… Georgia license… born 1979.  He had 28 dollars in his pocket when he died… and a picture of a pretty girl… ‘With love, Rachel.’  He used to be like us… worried about bills, or the rain, or the Superbowl… If I ever find my family, I’m going to tell them about Wayne.”

There is something profoundly Christian and humane about this scene. It is very different from the nihilistic Woody Harrelson-like approach of other zombie shows and movies that bludgeon without reflection on what might be the story of the bludgeoned. Grimes, in a more self-aware fashion, recognizes its inability to do anything contrary to the condition in which it finds itself.   He has compassion and gives Wayne Dunlap the eulogy he never had. All to a zombie that posed risk to life and limb a few hours earlier.

This is quite a good analogy for God’s “justification of the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5) in that it helps us understand God’s understanding of us. In my last post, we see that our wills are bound and not free. They are bound to tilt at God in an effort to establish our own deity and mastery over our domain. This works itself out in relational dysfunction and self-defeat as layered and complex as human psychology itself. You know it is true because this is what wakes you up at 3 o’clock in the morning.

But God does not wait for the embedded kinks and taint to be kicked out before loving the sinner and providing for her justification. God understands your bondage and self-destruction. And the love light is unfettered. This is an insight that does not need to delude itself or force compartmentalization. “… while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” For all of us zombies.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Do You Have A Zombie Plan? Part VII

We move in this installment from the fear of others to the fear of what is actually in our own hearts.

Oprah had her last show the other day and, while I didn’t see it, my wife told me about it.  She said she had to turn the show off because Oprah’s insistence that the answer to life’s problems lie within the human heart (or the “strength within”) was too grating and untrue to life to bear.

If you are taking a journey within yourself to find your strength, then you had better keep your eyes straight ahead and try not to poke around too much.  Even if there is a movement in the corner of your eye, it is probably best not to turn your head and look.  You might even want to put on a diver’s apparatus like Cartman did as he strolled through San Francisco in search of Stan in the “Smug” episode of South Park.

We took a look at Romans 3:10-18 the other day and were shocked by how direly it describes the human condition.  We must now take the biggest leap of all and say it applies to us.  Not just them, or those over there, but the beating heart in your chest and the thing located between your ears.  It is a terrifying leap but one that is necessary to begin your life again.  Movies about the living dead will help you.

One of the most poignant moments in the television series The Walking Dead is when Andrea’s sister (who we have grown to know) is bitten by a zombie and is reanimated (comes back as a zombie for all the lay people).  She begins as a sympathetic person who you can identify with and ends up as one of the living dead with only havoc on her mind.

It becomes the uncanny in the sense that you can see uncontrollable impulses begin to manifest in your own life.  The obvious place to start is addiction.  You know you are an alcoholic and you know the devastation that will take place but the glass makes its way to your lips anyway.  Perhaps there is something that just paralyzes you at work and the gap between the expectation of the employer and the quality of the work done reveals a consistently self-destructive streak.  Or, as singer/songwriter Chris Knight sings; “I know the words that’ll bring you back/ but I don’t say nuthin’ as I watch you pack,” your capacity to sabotage love and relationships has left you alone for the foreseeable future.  Workaholism, perhaps?  Does “Cat's in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin hit you where it hurts?

The key here is not to go into denial and pretend a little training from a life coach is going to help.  It is not to look inside as Oprah advises (as well-intentioned as she is) because you are not going to find much that will help you.  It is to come into accordance with our Romans passage and be crucified with Christ.

In our next (and final…. until reanimated….) entry we will find out what the Christian message is toward those of us who find ourselves with no other choice but to agree with St. Paul.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

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

The famous Pinball Wizard.  Seeing this performed in the film Tommy with Elton John is a real experience.  I imagine the original viewers saw it with pharmaceutical helps.