Sunday, July 30, 2006

Mel Gibson

Seems as if Gibson was stopped for (alleged) DUI in the last few days. While driving while drunk is clearly a bad thing and a very bad choice made by Gibson, what allegedly followed is also deeply concerning. According to the police report, Gibson launched into an anti-semitic tirade that the officer documented pretty meticulously. In Gibson's public apology, he does not seem to deny this, and tacitly confirms that he said some terrible things as a result of being drunk.

This, of course, will rekindle the feelings of some regarding Gibson's attitudes toward the Jews. A number of Jewish organizations and prominent Jewish leaders (though certainly not all) alleged that Gibson's Passion of the Christ was anti-semitic, or at the very least, would incite anti-semitic sentiment among members of the viewing public. Evangelicals, of course, rallied to Gibson's defense and strongly endorsed Gibson's movie and helped whip up the exact kind of public relations momentum among the public that the studios who want to turn a big profit dream of. Evangelicals like Dobson and many megachurch pastors claimed Gibson as one of their own and (uncritically) made common cause with him.

I don't know Mel Gibson. He said in his public apology that he has struggled with alcoholism for years, and that this most recent event represented a very unfortunate slip in this ongoing struggle. Despite the severity of the bad choice he made to get behind the wheel of a car drunk, I can sympathize with the struggle itself and the need to persevere with someone who is struggling with an addiction. That doesn't mean there shouldn't be legal consequences for what he did. It just means that on a personal level, I believe in redemptive sanctification, but with the understanding that sanctification is often a very difficult, hard-fought thing that has plenty of failures mixed in with the successes. On this level, I can, without apology, pray for Mr. Gibson's recovery and can sincerely celebrate the successes he will hopefully have at the hands of God's grace.

Having said that, however, Gibson's apparently anti-semitic drunken tirade, and the predictable fallout from it, should serve as a warning to all those evangelicals who uncritically embraced him 2 years ago. Gibson does not believe many of the things evangelicals believe on matters of theology. His movie was a decidedly Catholic influenced portrayal of the Passion, with the evangelical stress on resurrection and Atonement being mostly downplayed. I don't fault evangelicals for endorsing Gibson's movie, since it was certainly a better than average portrayal of Christ by Hollywood standards. But the fact remains that Gibson's version of Catholicism, and the questionable beliefs that arise from this, should have made us as evangelicals far more wary than we were to lock arms with him. And now that this latest incident will no doubt provoke people to think that the drunken Gibson showed us his true colors that night (whether this is true or not), evangelicals would be wise to try and learn something from this for future reference. The lesson is simple - we need to choose our friends far more carefully than we do; we need to be far more discerning than we are; and we need to draw carefully thought-out lines that draw appropriate degrees of separation from those who are not in our camp. Gibson was never one of us. He needed us to promote his movie (which we did in spades), and we felt we needed someone to provide a Christian-informed witness for Christ in Hollywood (which he did). But instead of seeing the relationship as a temporary intersecting of mutually compatible momentary goals that had the potential of yielding common fruit down the road subject to testing, we gleefully considered him one of our own and very publicly adopted him despite severe theological divergence in a number of important areas. And now the fallout that should have been reserved for Gibson alone will spread indirectly to us. We need to be smarter than this going forward; we need to pick our friends better and do what Scripture commands us regarding those who bring a false teaching (in this case, regarding the Jews) into the camp. This is one area where the reliable caution of the Presbyterians was spot on. Presbyterians, by and large, were not sharing hugs with Gibson or promoting his movie 2 years ago. Instead, they were mostly able to take the good from the movie, while being very discerning about what wasn't so good. While Presbyterians, in my view, too often turn caution and deliberation into idols that stifle the work of Christ, the Presbyterians succeeded in showing us that caution still has a valuable place in preserving and increasing the purity of Christ's Bride. The gung-ho evangelicalism of the megachurch movement needs to learn from their Presbyterian brethren just as much as the Presbyterians need to learn from megachurchism.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


If anyone wants to deliver a sermon on the subject of pride, one good way to do it is to picture a human being as a beautiful flower garden, and pride as a weed in that garden. From this, 3 basic points about pride can be expounded:

First, pride, like a weed, cuts off and eventually consumes all that is beautiful. If a weed is allowed to take root, and is then left unchecked, it will grow and spread. Eventually, it will choke off all the flowers in the garden. Pride is the same way. If you live in a very nice neighborhood that is run by a homeowner's association, you know that having a manicured lawn is part and parcel of being in good standing with the homeowner's association and with your neighbors. There's a reason for this. Yards/gardens that are not well maintained and are overrun with weeds are unattractive. It drives down property values, and gives the owners a bad reputation in the neighborhood because nobody wants to look at an unattractive garden. So it is with pride. Psalm 10:4 talks about unchecked pride not allowing room for anything associated with God. Like a weed, pride crowds out, chokes out, and eventually consumes what is good, attractive, and desirable. So the next time you pass a house that has a weed-infested garden on display for all the world to see, think of it is as a vivid picture of what a prideful person looks like, and then think about how your own pride taints the way people see you.

Second, pride, like a weed, is very difficult to uproot and contain once it has taken hold. I like to tell the story of the house my wife and I first lived in after we were married. This was my grandmother's house before she died, and she just loved English ivy. She loved it so much that she allowed it to grow over most of the backyard, consuming everything in its path. The ivy field went unchecked, so that when my wife and I moved in, the best we could often do was merely to stop it from growing any more than it already had. I hated that English ivy and wanted nothing more than to get rid of all of it. But because it had grown to such a degree and had taken such a hold over the yard, it quickly became apparent that the only way I was ever going to get rid of the ivy was to thoroughly poison the backyard to kill it, which also would have killed everything else. So it is with pride. Proverbs 8:13 says that God hates pride, and of course, Pr. 16:18 says that pride goes before destruction. The message is clear; if pride is allowed to take hold, not only will it choke off all that is good, but it itself becomes difficult to choke off once it has taken hold. Pride that is allowed to fester can easily become ingrained. Like cancer and other diseases, pride is much easier to treat if detected early. Once it has permeated your soul, pride, like my grandmother's ivy, is almost impossible to dislodge.

Third and finally, pride, like a weed, will provoke laborious pruning. If we are the garden, and pride is the weed, then the owner of the garden, God, is not going to sit back and allow his garden to be made ugly. Proverbs 29:23 says that a man's pride brings him low, because pride will provoke divine pruning to reintroduce one of the beautiful flowers in the garden - humility. Humility is a virtue in God's eyes, and should be in ours as well. But pride and humility cannot coexist peacefully. By its very nature, a weed is an aggressive and invading growth that sets out to take over the area it occupies. It is a threat to everything else that grows there. So it is with pride. Pride is not interested in compromising with humility, because humility is a natural check against the growth of pride. Just like an aggressive weed will not leave the flowers in the garden alone, but will consume them if left unchecked, so it is with pride and humility. The owner of the garden who is pleased with the beauty of humility but is disgusted with the ugliness of pride will not merely look away. Instead, he will perform surgery on the garden to contain and destroy the weed. This isn't pleasant either to God or to the garden. Soil needs to be dug up. Chemicals may need to be applied. Sharp tools will be used. But if this is what it takes to beautify the garden and return the flowers to their rightful place of prominence and glory, we had better believe that this is what God will do. All one has to do is look at Yahweh's reaction to the pride of Edom in the prophecy of Obadiah. Sanctification is all about beautification.

We don't like weeds, and God doesn't like pride. The message is clear. Ask God to give you the eyes he has when he looks out over the whole garden, in order to identify those areas of the garden where weeds might be taking hold. It is better and much more painless to deal with a weed before it spreads. Don't allow your beauty to be consumed by the ugliness of pride.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Presuppositional Response to the previous post

In reading the previous post, one might quickly notice that the two streams of critical thought are distinct from each other, but also share a basic underlying commitment. The underlying commitment of both of these streams that must be challenged is the anti-supernatural commitment. In both streams, the miraculous elements of the account have to be explained away in order to conform with a purely naturalistic (anti-supernaturalistic) commitment that is being brought to the exegesis of the passage. So in stream #1, the underlying naturalistic commitment shows itself in the introduction of the sandbar as the unmentioned prop of the story that makes the literal event possible. In stream #2, the naturalistic commitment is more subtle, in that it doesn't attempt to 'fill in the blanks' in the story with literal naturalistic solutions to the supernatural problem. Instead, the naturalistic commitment is here employed to take the entire intact story and punt it to the realm of fiction. This is how Von Rad and his spiritual children came to the idea that there was a difference between actual literal history, and what they called 'faith history', which is the faith tradition of the Church throughout the ages that is based upon (allegedly) fictional faith stories like the Mt. 14 account. The idea is simple - Christians and the church alike must never confuse literal documentable history (which the Bible was not particularly interested in giving us) with the great faith history handed to us by Jesus and the apostles (which the Bible is very interested in giving us). This bifurcation, of course, is thoroughly naturalistic, because it attempt to wall off the supernatural events of the Bible and confine them to a 'faith history' that we can draw inspiration from, but doesn't at all interfere with actual historiography. Very clever.

As a presuppositionalist, my first line of response to the above would be to question the validity of the naturalistic commitment that under girds these critical streams. While this is admittedly a more philosophical approach to take than many might be comfortable undertaking themselves, it is nonetheless quite valuable. Who says that a rigid naturalism is a valid worldview commitment? In a cosmos where what hasn't been explained completely dwarfs what has been allegedly explained, why should we sign onto a (faith) commitment that says that everything is explainable through natural, measurable processes? We know this isn't true. Love exists, but it can't be exhaustively measured; and to the extent that it is measurable, one common universal criteria of measurement can't be developed that will apply to all expressions of love. Ironically, naturalism as a worldview commitment cannot be naturalistically proven valid, since naturalism's very insistence that the universe is self-contained with no intrusions from 'outside the box' (ie: the miraculous) negates the reality of the very kind of human reasoning function that is necessary to prove the rational validity of naturalism (in other words, human reasoning itself requires something that exceeds the bounds of nature since acts of reasoning derive in part from thoroughly non-naturalistic influences such as insight and intuition, not to mention emotion). So in regards to the 'naturalist' question, a presuppositional response might be to first demonstrate that the two critical streams of thought are not neutral, sophisticated by-products of a dispassionate examination of the evidence, but rather are heavily shaped by a more basic commitment to naturalism that skews everything from the outset. Secondly, the internal inconsistency of naturalism can be brought forth to show that the presupposition itself is heavily problematic and is in need of major adjustment. We have no good reason to believe that the two critical streams reflect reality if the naturalistic commitment that fuels them is itself invalid compared to reality.

But let's take a less philosophical route too. While our discussion of naturalistic commitments will be pertinent, let's change the focus to Scripture. I know people who claim to be Christians but have serious problems with Biblical portrayals of the miraculous. The mainline in particular is full of folks like this, who desperately try to develop a 'reasonable' and 'responsible' Christianity that is heavily informed by the supposed brute facts of science. So if we're dealing with a person like this, and we don't want to emphasize the whole naturalism issue, what can we do? One presuppositionalist approach to this problem is to bring the issue directly back to the Person of Christ. To this person, I would simply say, "Do you believe that Jesus Christ is God-Incarnate? I'm not asking you whether the Scriptures teach this, because we both know they do. I'm asking you what your own understanding of the person of Christ is. Is he God-Incarnate?" Now if this person agrees with this, we now have a powerful argument. If someone consents to the basic faith commitment that Jesus is God-Incarnate, then a reluctance to embrace the peculiarly supernatural works of his ministry is inconsistent with the previous commitment. If the Person of Christ includes divinity, why should we have a problem with the works of Christ that clearly demonstrate the divinity we've already affirmed in His Person? In this case, the person's commitments are at odds with each other in ways that must be pointed out, but can be easily corrected. A presuppositional approach to apologetics is uniquely positioned to address this phenomenon, expose it to examination, and insist on its correction. Incidentally, one should also be aware that the person's assent to the existence of the God-Man is itself contradictory to an underlying naturalistic commitment. After all, isn't the Incarnation itself a miraculous act that defies naturalistic explanation? So someone who signs off on this is already at odds with the naturalistic commitment that causes him to doubt other supernatural activities of the supernatural Christ. He's being dangerously inconsistent.

Beyond this, we also have basic issues of hermeneutics and exegesis to draw from. Stream #1's insistence of a 'naturalism of the gaps' to explain away the miraculous elements draws absolutely zero support from the text itself. It must be read into the text in order to make the text say what we want it to say. This is a flawed hermeneutical approach from top to bottom. The text is supposed to shape us. But in addition, v33 is very problematic if we adopt the sandbar view. If Jesus and Peter were really just walking on rocks or a sandbar, what in the world would possess Peter to forcefully proclaim that Jesus truly is the Son of God, since nothing miraculous took place? If one wants to suggest that Peter thought everyone really was walking on water and he wasn't aware that they were really standing on a sandbar, what would that say about Jesus since he refused to correct Peter? Was Jesus also unaware that he was walking on a sandbar? You can see where this leads - completely away from what the text actually says. It should be rather obvious that these kinds of issues piled one on top of the other demonstrate a rather desperate loyalty to an underlying naturalistic commitment that can't be squared with the text without abandoning the text.

Lastly, I certainly have no problem at all with the suggestion that the Mt. 14 account is indeed a great moral story that is designed to teach eternal truths about our faith relationship with Christ. But is that all there is to the story, as Crossan insists? Hardly. First, to suggest that the story is really just a fictional parable is to ignore completely the literary genre being employed by the author. Put simply, this account is not written in any kind of parabolic literary style. Rather, this account is quite clearly written in historical narrative/prose. While this does not automatically make the story historical or historically accurate, it does tell us that the author's intention was to have his audience regard this account as historical. We don't read poetry the way we read the business section of the Wall Street Journal. Likewise, our first inclination should not be to read a historical narrative as if it were a parable. Matthew 14 is a skillful example of the author telling an accurate historical story that tells us things about Christ, his work, and our response that are normative far beyond this specific historical event. This story is indeed a teaching tool for us today, but it also really happened back then.

An example of presuppositional apologetics

While there are variations within what is known as the presuppositional school of Christian apologetics, one of the basic goals of this approach to defending the faith is to identify the root commitments a person has. The assumption here (and it's a very good one) is that our underlying predispositions, presuppositions, attitudes, or whatever you wish to name them shape a great deal of how we see the world and operate in it. In other words, nobody approaches anything from a position of complete neutrality; nobody is a clean slate. Therefore, the presuppositional school generally believes quite strongly that in order to make any real headway in apologetic evangelism, one has to get to the heart of the matter. And this cannot be done without a sustained focus on the presuppositions that each of us bring to the questions of life, including religious and faith questions. While Van Til's application of this approach was generally negative (prove the validity of the Christian faith by proving the invalidity of all presuppositions that oppose the Christian faith), Frame's approach strikes me as a more well-rounded presuppositionalism that values positive apologetics such as evidence and emotional transformations. But one of the issues people have often had with presuppositionalism is that it is heavily philosophical, and therefore, inaccessible to many average Christians who want to defend the faith in their everyday interactions with unbelievers. This is a legitimate charge, in my view. So what I will endeavor to do in what follows is to offer something of a concrete example of how a presuppositional approach to apologetics plays out in addressing a common objection to the faith.

Let's take the Walking on the Water story from Matthew 14:22-33. This passage, at least in academic circles, has been a very popular focus of critique and skepticism. In recent times, two main streams of critical thought have developed in response to the Biblical account. As we will see, while these two streams of skepticism are distinct from one another, they tend to emanate from the same underlying source.

The first stream is less popular today than it used to be, but it's still adopted, particularly by amateurs to the field. According to the first stream, this event really did happen in history. The text gives us no reason to think it's merely telling a moral fable, so if we take the literary genre of the passage seriously, we are obligated to conclude that the author felt this was an actual literal event. So far, so good. But then this critical stream turns critical. If we are obligated to take this event as historical, how, they say, are we supposed to square it against scientific realities (such as, people don't walk on water)? Their answer was to naturalize the event, and say that while the event really happened, Jesus must have been standing on a rock or a sandbar in the middle of the sea, rather than truly standing on the water. Likewise, when Peter stepped out of the boat, he stepped on the same sandbar and began walking on it to get to Jesus. But at some point, Peter took a wrong step and began to sink. What this critical stream attempts to do is to preserve the historical nature of the story, while providing what it believes are plausible naturalistic causes to explain the seemingly miraculous elements of the story.

The second critical stream is more popular than the first. According to this stream, popularized by Crossan and many others, the Mt. 14 account was not an actual event that literally took place in history. Rather, the story is something of a parable, in which a fictional story is told to deliver a very truthful and timeless moral to the audience. This stream of criticism really latches onto v31, and identifies Peter's lack of faith as the main point of the story. For Crossan and others, this story is designed to provide a vivid (but historically fictional) illustration of what happens when we take our eyes off Jesus in the midst of the storms of life. The moral of the story is simple - when our focus is on Jesus, we can do amazing things even in the midst of chaos and turmoil, and he leads us on the path of righteousness that overcomes fear and doubt. Yet, even when we do stumble like the Peter character does in this fictional story, we can still cry out to Jesus and he will take our hand and rescue us from the consuming storm. Sounds like a great sermon doesn't it? Like the first critical stream, this critical stream also attempts to preserve the story and its value. But unlike the first stream, this stream fictionalizes the entire account, and renders the passage as exclusively a fictional moral tale that is designed to teach timeless truths about faith, rather than providing us with actual history.

What is a presuppositional response to these critical streams? See the next post (which I guess will actually be above this post on the blog order)...

Monday, July 24, 2006

Bumper Sticker Blues

I was driving to work this morning, and approached one of those cars that has bumper stickers all over it, making it look like a cheap NASCAR immitation. Folks who turn their cars into one big billboard come from all across the spectrum. But this one was a bit unusual. See, this car had religious bumper stickers all over it. Now this, in and of itself, is not terribly unusual. What was unusual about this particular car was that it had bumper stickers representing a variety of religions on it simultaneously. There were a couple of general pagan stickers, a couple of specifically Wiccan stickers, and a Buddhist sticker. But in addition, there was also a Christian fish sticker, and a sticker showing the ECUSA shield. As I passed the car, I also noticed that there was a necklace with a cross on it hanging from the rear-view mirror.

If anyone needs to know the state of things within ECUSA, this car will tell them all they need to know. While conservatives within and outside ECUSA lament the state of the denomination and predict mass fallout and defection over what has been happening, the sad truth is that they are in the minority. Most folks within ECUSA are much closer to the bumper sticker sentiments displayed on this car; all religions are equally valid, religion is at its best when we tolerate anything and everything as equally legitimate, there really isn't much difference between the religions of the world, the hardened and rigid dogmas of Christianity in particular need to go in order to make way for a supposedly more loving and accepting religion, etc.

Conservatives will likely shake their heads in disbelief at the notion of someone embracing both the cross and the pagan star at the same time as equally valid and complementary religious symbols. But folks, it ain't that hard to get there. All you have to do is make everything you don't like optional by appointing yourself as the final arbiter of what's true. And for every proud syncretist who does this, there are evangelicals who do it too. Scripture has more to say about loving and caring for the poor than it does about becoming born-again. Both are true; both are essential. But does our preaching reflect this? Do our lives reflect this? Only rarely. While all-out syncretism has been, is, and always will be a problem that the church must fight against, the much more subtle (and therefore, sinister) syncretism of picking and choosing which Christian doctrines and instructions to emphasize is not only common today, but accepted with little fanfare.

We can gasp and shake our heads at the bumper sticker syncretism of ECUSA all we want. The fact is that we aren't nearly as better than them as we think, and the full-orbed NT Christianity of radical personal conversion, unity in the Body, and tangible Biblical concern for the less fortunate all grounded in the Person of Christ is as rare a combination in our churches today as it was in the first century. We need to face the hard truth that one reason why syncretism is a real problem even within evangelical churches is because we have normalized a more subtle form of it in spades. When we do this, taking such syncretism to the level of formal incorporation of pagan ideas, symbols, practices, and beliefs is not a particularly big step. That's part of why it's such a problem; we (the people of the Book) are greasing the skids without even being aware of it. What's worse, we don't seem particularly worried about how God feels about the adulteration of His bride at our hands. In truth, there is very little that should concern us more.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

War against Christianity?

In partial response to the hysteria that was whipped up at the end of last year about an alleged 'War on Christmas' in America, the Washington Post asked its online readers if they saw any evidence of a War against Christianity. The Post tends to have a monthly religion-related question in which readers are encouraged to give their thoughts. This particular question was their April question. I wrote my response, which was published by the Post on May 5, along with many other responses. My response to this question:

The answer to this question probably has a lot to do with the circles a person chooses to run in. We all have blind spots, and they are often made bigger when we choose to associate almost exclusively with those who basically see the world as we do. Too many Christians think the world in its totality is completely against Christianity, while too many non-Christians wrongly insist that society does not harbor an anti-Christian bias. The truth is in the middle.

Much of society is ambivalent about Christianity and the legitimate role it plays in society.
Some portions of society welcome Christianity's contributions. Other portions actively fight against Christianity (particularly the "conservative" kind), all the while insisting that they're not playing favorites. The Post's Editorial page is a particularly egregious example of this. So yes, there is a war against Christianity, but it is a war that is being prosecuted by a minority section of society against a particular type of Christianity, the "conservative" kind.

--Jason Foster, Arlington, Va.

One of the results of conservative Christians becoming vocally engaged in the political process is that they have become juicy targets of those who genuinely believe that religion has no place in public life. Many of the responses to this question viscerally reflect this sentiment, along with a great disdain toward Christians generally, and politically active Christians particularly. The proper role of religion in public life, using the same logic I employ in my response above, tends to be based on who's doing the evaluating and what their own presuppositions are that they are bringing to the question. Nobody approaches this question neutrally; nobody is objective about this. True, there are degrees of partisanship in the predispositions that we hold on any topic. But nobody is completely non-partisan. The responses to this question that the Post published, including mine, reflect the biases everyone brought to the question. A failure to see this results in the kind of fictional objectivity that is still all too common among the punditry and the citizenry alike, where we pretend to analyze something objectively, only to arrive at a conclusion that, lo and behold, resembles what we were already predisposed to believe. This doesn't mean that we are incapable of changing our minds about something, since this, too, happens all the time. Not every predisposition we harbor has to be inviolable. The problem is that too many of us are willing to die on every hill, rather than subjecting our predispositions to the kind of honest examination that holds out the possibility that they may be in need of adjustment. Particularly when it comes to religion, folks on both sides of the spectrum tend to be unwilling to listen to the other side well enough for their predispositions to be affected. This is why public discourse on matters such as this is becoming increasingly frivolous, and just another part of the pointless rhetorical game that Congress in particular has unfortunately perfected; all show, no substance.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Oh to be Italian...

As my increasing waste line will testify, I have been trying for some time to eat my way into being Italian. I love Italian culture and have always been fond of the flair, artistry, and identity of Italians. And, of course, I love Italian food. If I was the POTUS, I'd have some really important person in the Italian government over to the White House every week, just because of the food I'd get to eat. My wife and I went to an Italian restaurant years ago, and our server was a true-blue Italian, and I loved him. At the end of the meal, as we were walking out, this server shook my hand firmly and thanked me for coming. I've never felt so important in my life! Since then, my wife and I have had the privilege of going to NYC a few times and have eaten in Manhattan's Little Italy each time. Each experience has been wonderful, with outstanding food, great service, and authentic atmosphere. All this to say that I despite my Scot-English heritage, I have wanted to be considered an honorary Italian.

Well, last night I took a stab at cooking some Fettucine Alfredo. Now I know that those of you who have refined tastes and superior culinary skills will scoff at such a meager attempt to cook Italian. But my culinary skills are basically zero. I cook a few things pretty well, but my repertoire is quite limited. So for someone with my skill set, Fettucine Alfredo is a big deal. Besides, it's the effort and desire that counts, right? Well not exactly, but anyway, the meal turned out to be pretty daggum good. My Fettucine can't really compete with authentic Fettucine that's made from scratch at your better Italian joints. But I bought some of the ingredients from an authentic Italian bakery/grocer, and I think it made a difference. I liked it, my wife liked it, and our guests said they liked it. Considering that Domino's was Plan B, my Fettucine can be chalked up as a mild success. Hopefully, I can tweak the recipe and make it even better (or more probably worse) in the future. In my world of limited successes and frequent failures, my adventure in the kitchen yesterday goes down as a W.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Devil Wears...What?

My wife and I went to see The Devil Wears Prada yesterday. I do know what prada is, though I confess that like many, I don't think it's all that. Neither was the flick. Meryl Streep was good, and Ann Hathaway was adequate. But it ain't all that.

When I go to the movies, I try to keep my eyes open as to what Hollywood considers normal or acceptable. Now while Hollywood obviously gins up reality for dramatic effect, they try very hard to portray a sense of realism in what they do, because, after all, getting real is where it's at. So what is the normal, routine, accepted reality according TDWP? A number of things:

1) It is normal and routine for people to give up their lives in order to possibly gain a good vocational reference after a year or two of slavery. It seems that unlike the evil of antebellum slavery in the United States, the kind of bondage presented to us in this flick, while not great, is normal and expected. The goal, apparently, is not to fight against such things, but make the most of it, survive as best you can, and enjoy a couple of perks here and there along the way.

2) It is normal and routine for people to obsess indefinitely about body image. Women in this country are getting a raw deal, and increasingly, the raw deal being handed to them comes courtesy of fellow women. The whole reason the body modification craze has exploded in the last 2 decades (tattoos, piercings, implants, etc) is the result of body image obsession. Many women choose to try and keep up with the Jones' in regards to their appearance. Eating disorders and depression lead to plastic surgery in order to keep up with the unrealistic image that pop culture is giving women. Tattoos and piercings are the predictable rebellion against the kind of body image/fashion tyranny that is the understood given of this movie. In some movies, the obsession with body image is shown to be the dead end that it is. But in this movie, the obsession with looking good and 'not eating for weeks' in order to fit into clothes that others tell us are chique is neither praised or particularly condemned. It's simply presented as a reality that just is, with no commentary on the belief systems that fuel it. In other words, according to the movie, it is simply an accepted way of life, like brushing your teeth.

3) Casual sex is treated as a casual given that is simply understood. The Hathaway character lives with, and has sex with, a boyfriend where neither one seems to even be thinking about marriage or a permanent commitment. The audience gets the impression that while boyfriend and girlfriend like each other and are committed to each other to some degree, it's more a Post-It relationship than one hinged by superglue. In addition, after they have a fight and she leaves for Paris for THE BIG fashion event of the century (which happens every year), she has sex with a good looking and influential man who seems ready to help her with her career. But after she discovers that his dashing looks can't overcome a questionable character, she leaves and doesn't see him again. The implication is that she feels she made a mistake, although that's never made clear. But even if we give the movie this benefit of the doubt, why exactly does she think it's a mistake. Apparently not because it was a betrayal of the relationship she's still in back in NYC. Even though they agreed to take a break, she offers her boyfriend as a token reason not to go to bed with this other man in Paris. But her resistance is feeble. When she comes back to NYC and meets up with the boyfriend, she never tells him about what happened in Paris, and doesn't seem to be affected by it at all. It's as if she's simply forgotten about it, like it meant nothing to her and shouldn't mean anything to him. The consequences of trysts like these are not part of the story the movie is trying to tell.

More could be said, but this is sufficient. As a Christian, I cannot reasonably expect most movies to promote the values I stand for. It's unrealistic to expect such things, and frankly, it's not really fair either. Hollywood is giving us their version of reality, and their reality is not really shaped by the things that hopefully frame my reality (and all of reality). Hollywood is free to promote what they want, denigrate what they want, and try to shape the culture the way they want. But so are we, as Christians. Just as many non-Christians look upon Christians and the church with deep suspicion, so we should subject the value system being promoted and forced upon us by Hollywood to the high level of discernment and critique that is certainly warranted. Yes, I did say 'force' when referring to the entertainment industry's agenda regarding their impact on the culture. Nietzche was correct enough when he said that every single person, group, industry, party, and nation is actively engaged in the Will to Power. We should never believe the facile reasoning of those who honestly think that only the Christians or the 'religious right' are in the business of imposing values on larger society. That is a lightweight and lightheaded charge that barely deserves to be treated seriously. Everybody is trying to impose themselves beyond themselves, even though the creed of this generation is an idealistic version of the Don't Tread on Me slogan. Everybody's treading on everyone else, one way or another. I don't think it should be this way. In saying that Nietzche was correct is merely to concede that what he said is indeed happening. It does not concede that what he's saying is the way it should be. We should be about proposing, not imposing. But this is not the way we operate, any of us.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

My Version of Tax Season

I am in my version of tax season, the mean season, or whatever other banal cliche is appropriate to describe my crunch time. At work, I'm within the window of having to prepare two Incurred Cost submissions that are due by 9/30 (those of you who know about government contract requirements will know what I'm talking about). Personally, my wife and I are entering a critical phase in our fertility process. In addition, GRE season has officially kicked off as well. I want to get accepted into a doctoral program next year, and I'm scheduled to take the required GRE at the end of October. I am scheduled to take a diagnostic test on Tuesday, which I'm sure I will stink up, and this will be followed by several months of preparation during my free time.

So basically, I'm under pressure and will be for the next 5 months or so. This may not have been the best time to start my blog. Then again, maybe it was the perfect time.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


I am a man, and grown men don't cry. We've all heard it, and as foolish as this is, most of us as men believe it enough to live much of our lives that way. To weep is to embarrass oneself. To weep as a man is to be interpreted by women as sensitive one moment, and weak the next. While it's a bit clicheish to say that crying in a man is a sign of weakness (which, of course, we can't express), the fact is that many men really buy into this. Add to that the cultural confusion which gives men very mixed signals about society's expectations. Today's man is supposed to be sensitive and more in touch with his feelings. But at the same time, there is also the constant drumbeat of women in particular and society in general wanting a strong man who takes responsibility and clear-headed initiative that isn't clouded by the erratic nature of emotion. Such binary messages can leave us confused not only about what society wants from us, but who we are and how much we can safely disclose to the world without being ridiculed or looked down upon.

I've been a Christian for over 9 years now. I was a non-Christian for the previous 26 years. I can say without a doubt that as far back as I can remember, I've wept 3 times as much during my time as a Christian than all the previous years put together. Is this a sign of weakness? Is this an indication that my faith is more trouble than it's worth, and that I was better off before? Isn't crying more worse than crying less? One would think so, at least I would. But then I began to seriously study Scripture.

Do you realize that there are over 100 references to people weeping in the Bible? More exactly, most of these reported cases of weeping were by godly people, from Joseph, to David, to Jesus. Beyond that, there are an additional 100+ references to people 'crying' in the Bible, many of which occur in the Psalms. Now it should be said that when Scripture refers to acts of crying, it may not always refer to the literal act of shedding tears. But almost uniformly, these references do refer to the response to anguish on the part of God's people, so that crying out is certainly in the same basic genre as weeping, if not two descriptions of the same act. What Scripture gives us is an unadulterated picture of Biblical grief made manifest through weeping and crying. Weeping and crying are part of the Christian life. And I would argue that they are also part and parcel of an authentic human experience. Those who refrain from weeping, as I did for so many years, may give the outward appearance of being happier. But I would submit that they are not living authentically. If the perfect man, Jesus, wept periodically (Luke 19, John 11, etc), then clearly authentic personhood includes this expression rather than excludes it.

Christianity (or more accurately, the Holy Spirit working in me) has changed me from a man who didn't and wouldn't cry, to a man who weeps periodically. I don't cry everyday, or every week, or even every month. But my eyes are no longer dry when bad things happen, or when I see or hear things that upset me. Is this a sign of weakness or an indication that my faith doesn't deliver on its promises of a better life leading to eternal life? No. It's a sign that I'm more in touch with the holy discontent that comes with the knowledge that things should and will be better than they are. Only God can give us the eyes to see history moving toward a glorious conclusion. Many will no doubt say that if having such eyes results in more weeping today, then thanks, but no thanks. Fair enough. But to be authentically human is to truly understand one's place in the world, and to understand the world itself. The ravages of sin should be wept over, because sin is our enemy. The great people of the Bible understood this, and so did our Savior. And by God's grace, I'm beginning to get it too.

Men, don't cry because the culture is sort of telling you to. Cry because the perfect Man did. There's only strength in that.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


This is an abbreviated section of my version of Pensees. If nothing else, this might hopefully motivate people to appreciate the genuine article by Pascal all the more:

We have to be Christians in both creed and deed.

Don’t overestimate your goodness by underestimating your sin.

No monuments have ever been built to celebrate the contributions of cynics. That’s because their achievements are few.

Jesus Christ did not endure the crucifixion for fancy pews, elaborate worship sound systems, church bells, or stained glass windows. He did it for people.

An ideology that claims to be righteous must evoke righteousness from those who adhere to it.

It’s one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith that, having been placed in a creation full of abundant and excessive blessings, such blessings should prompt a spirit of self-denial and moderation, rather than excess and gluttony.

Why do we not love the poor the way Jesus does?

If you’re courageous enough to ask the deepest existential questions about meaning, life, loneliness, etc, you’re going to be in real trouble if such questions are asked without an acute awareness of the existence of an almighty God.

We don’t really believe that humans are made in the image of God. If we did, we wouldn’t treat people as badly as we do.

God doesn’t follow our formulas or jump through our hoops.

We are not mechanical, but relational. Why do we think mechanical solutions to human relational problems will work? We are not mechanical beings with something to fix; we’re relational beings with something to face.

We like bullet-points. We like bullet-point sermons and we like our lives that way as well. But life just ain’t that simple, nor are we.

In the Bible, people often missed and/or misunderstood the big things and their significance. Nothing has changed.

People have both radical dignity and radical depravity. We tend to see people as one or the other, but not both, and then we wonder why we can’t explain what we do or understand why things are the way they are.

A junior-high band playing Beethoven is a poignant image of great dignity and great depravity. Those who listen to good music being played badly should pay attention to what that says about the human condition. We are both dignified and depraved.

“Yes and no.” That’s the correct answer to almost every theological question.

The goal of parenting is to move children from foolishness (my way is the best way) to wisdom (God’s way is the best way). The problem is that the parents are often foolish too.

Make sure your heroes are very human.

God is not a non-descript blob in the sky. God is defined by propositional revelation, and definite in truth.

If our abstract theology does not inform our practical theology (and vice versa), it is next to useless.

Christianity is easy to fake from a distance, but not up close.

There’s a huge difference between a Christian who doesn’t always have the answers, and a non-Christian belief system that says there are no answers.

Liberals think they can get to a resurrection simply by rearranging the corpse. It doesn’t work that way. Their seminaries are dying, their churches are dying, and their publishing houses can’t sell anything. No resurrection is taking place on their side of the spectrum, nor will it.

Good preaching is comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable. ~ Spurgeon

Monday, July 03, 2006

Secrets, Responsibility and the Press

The roundtable discussion on MtP yesterday highlighted the basic problem when it comes to press conduct regarding state secrets/national security issues. On one side was Bill Bennett, who argued that the press is behaving irresponsibly in its coverage of the war on terror and needs to be held accountable legally. On the other side were 3 columnists, plus Andrea Mitchell the moderator, who insisted that freedom of the press has to mean a commitment to holding the powerful accountable, in part, by exposing certain newsworthy activities that the government deems secret but that the press feels the public has a right to know about.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I like Bennett more often than I don't. Further, on this issue, I tend to agree with him more than I disagree (though his insistence that Dana Priest should go to jail because of her CIA prisons story is going too far in my estimation). But having said that, this roundtable was not one of Bennett's better performances. He was clearly upset by the lack of balance in the panel, although a 3 and really 4-1 ratio has always been Andrea Mitchell's version of balance. Bennett was also upset by Priest's not-so-subtle jab at Bennett's gambling issues, which actually says more about her than anything else. But beyond the personality issues and the imbalanced panel, let's look at the major points the pro-press side is making regarding the NYT story:

1) The SWIFT program wasn't exactly a secret; therefore, the disclosure of it by the NYT didn't help the terrorists since the terrorists almost certainly knew about it already. This is the pro-press's weakest argument. If the program wasn't a secret, and if there were no serious questions about its legality, then why exactly did the NYT consider the story to be worthy of the front page? Clearly there was something about this allegedly not-so-secret program that the NYT felt was not only newsworthy, but prominently newsworthy. This completely belies the idea that the details of the program were well known, because if this was true, why the front page story now, years after the inception of the program? The entire NYT piece smelled like a news organization going to print with what it felt was a major scoop. How does this reconcile with the idea that there's no 'there there' with regards to the secrecy of the program's details? The answer, of course, is that it doesn't reconcile. The NYT was jumping on the anti-secrecy bandwagon that it helped create, and now that they're getting roasted, they're retreating to the 'it was never really a secret in the first place' mantra. It doesn't add up.

2) The pro-press's better argument is that whether SWIFT was a secret or not, the public has a right to know because the press plays the invaluable role of holding the powerful accountable and submitting the acts of the powerful to the public for open debate, or more. The press is on better ground here. I agree with the press that it has the responsibility and duty to hold the powerful accountable in as non-partisan, non-favoristic way as possible. The fact that the press at large regularly fails in this mission by showing favoritism through what it reports and doesn't report does not change the basic soundness of this virtue. It is indeed a very dangerous area to try and suppress the activities of the press under the guise of national security. This can indeed impair legitimate activities of the press in ways that are very harmful and can result in a dangerous consolidation of power by those in power. Speaking without regard to political party or the political persuasions of the press, this is a dangerous road to go down very far.

However, there is a problem here. If the press sees itself as something of a watchdog over the activities of the powerful, and sees itself as a needed antidote to abuses of power, what then happens when the abuses of power are committed by the press itself? Who's the watchdog holding them accountable? The press's answer is extremely unnerving, and we saw it on teh MtP panel yesterday. Bill Safire and Dana Priest in particular kept disagreeing with Bennett's basic premise that the press is not above the law. Now what they were probably disagreeing with was Bennett's notion that the press has in fact violated the law. But folks, that's a matter of opinion that somebody in authority eventually has to decide. And who does the press think is invested with this authority? Not surprisingly, they appoint themselves as such arbiters and bristle at the notion that anyone else has the right to police them. This, of course, directly contradicts what they believe their own mission is in the world. They uniformly believe that politicians and other people in power cannot and will not effectively police themselves. That's why we need a free press. But when those in power are the press, and when the press arguably abuses its power, the press suddenly sings a very different tune, and insists that they not only can effectively police themselves, but are the only ones who should police their activities.

This demonstrates a number of things. First, it clearly demonstrates that the press is a very long way away from the unbiased, dispassionate, neutral, and objective entity that it claims to be. When accused or attacked, they do what everyone else does - instead of engaging in thoughtful, non-groupthink reflection about their conduct, they circle the wagons and stick up for their own. When this reflects itself in editorial pages, beat columns, and the political talk shows, believing in the objectivity of our press can be seen to be the complete fantasy it clearly is. Second, the press's position raises very disturbing questions about how it sees itself and the world around it. The press, it seems, has so bought into its own mantra of objectivity that it is simply incapable of subjecting this fictional assumption to any rigorous examination. Instead, they merrily go along believing that everyone is motivated by agendas other than what they profess; except them. This is self-evidently absurd, and sadly demonstrates why the press is so completely out of touch with not only the American experience, but the human experience. The press genuinely believes it can and must police itself, because they genuinely believe they are objective and the most conscientious about challenging the accepted 'givens' that people work with. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth, since they are unwilling to subject their own predispositions to the same level of scrutiny to which they scrutinize other things. This reveals not only their favoritism, but also the level of their own self-deception.

Did the NYT act irresponsibly? I think so, but I'm not the final authority in deciding that question. The difference between me and the press is that I know I'm not the needed authority, while the press ASSUMES it is and refuses to submit or seriously consider any other viewpoint. Does this sound neutral and objective to you?

What frames what?

During an academic career, some of us (and hopefully most of us) have had those very brief moments where our teacher hits on the right thing at the right time with lasting consequences. Such a thing happened to me at the start of my final semester at seminary this past spring. Richard Horner, who studied under Rorty at UVA, came into our Church & the World class and wrote two questions on the board. He said that these two questions would dominate the rest of the class, and that it was his hope that these two questions would really guide all of us long after the class was over. The first of those questions was, "What frames what?" By this, Horner was essentially asking what our true starting points were for shaping our view of the world around us. Is it our faith? Most Christians would profess this, but as Horner regularly pointed out, not only does our faith tend not to frame our view of everything else, but other things actually tend to frame our faith.

As we approach July 4, I can't really think of a more relevant question for Christians to be asking and wrestling with than "what frames what?" Does Christianity frame our view of America, or does America frame our view of Christianity? To what degree is our Christianity a uniquely American Christianity, and to what degree is this good or problematic? Is Christianity driven by our politics, or are our politics driven by our Christianity? These are extraordinarily difficult questions to ask, because answers that are not superficial or reflexive in nature will often be unsettling.

It is often noted that a fish doesn't know he's wet, because he lives in the ocean and being wet is all he knows and is second nature to him. The same can be true of us as Christians in our relationship to America. We often assume that our expression of Christianity is universal and fairly pure, because we assume that American Christianity is the best thing going. But in doing this, we rarely ask to what degree our Christianity has been contextualized to fit the American experience, so that our Christianity becomes far more 'localized' in terms of its cultural influences than we'd like to think. To ponder the extent to which our expression of Christianity is tied to, and shaped by, the broader American experience is to ask "what frames what?" Are we bringing our Christianity to bear upon the culture, or are we bringing our American cultural expression to bear upon our Christianity? Could it be both?

I fear that the American church has allowed its expression of Christianity to be framed by the American experience far more than it would ever want to admit. With increasing numbers of evangelicals in particular unable to tell the difference between Christianity and America, or Christianity and a particular political party or leader, we have become blind to what is framing what. We must always remember that while it's good and right to love our country and fight for its improvement, our worship must be reserved for Jesus Christ alone. We don't go to church, even on July 4, to worship the United States, or our current president. We worship the risen Savior who is our only hope. There's a world of difference between the two, and asking 'what frames what' will help us to clearly see this. In our day, such self-examination is desperately needed, because it has become entirely too acceptable to allow our Christianity to be framed by our patriotism, political beliefs, sexuality, and a whole host of other idols that have become accepted idols in the church.