Archive for April, 2011

The Red Sea Parted

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Modernism
 Arising out of heady optimism in the early 1900s, modernism was a radical approach thattried to recreate the way modern civilization viewed culture, politics, and science. This new thinking engendered a sort of rebellion that merged in full force by the 1920s.
  There were certain assumptions that moderns made: Western culture was old-fashioned and dysfunctional. Society was bound by the facileness of a society that was too preoccupied with image and too recalcitrant or reticent to embrace needed change. This disillusionment with everything status quo  led writers and artists to cross cultural boundaries heretofore ignored.  The Puritans embraced neo-classicism.  The romantics were nature lovers.  The modernists examined and replicated the lifestyle of Amazon prehistoric culture. 
 This of course was impossible and laughable.  Modernist subjects included primitive people groups who looked like they had just descended the steps of Macys. In short, the emerging culture would undermine tradition and authority in the hopes of transforming contemporary society. They would fail abysmally.  They could not have their epistemological cake and eat their pneumatic icing in the same meal.  It was like mixing oil and water.   So, perhaps the best way to describe modernism is “nihilism.”
 Nihilism was the questioning of all religious and moral enculturation principles as the only means of obtaining social progress. Ironically, a sort of modernist religion replaced the old orthodox religion and no progress was made at all.  As one social critic explained, “Like poor Elmer Fudd and his futile quest to bag Bugs Bunny, there arrived a moment when Elmer exclaimed ‘West and wewaxation at wast!’”  But poor Elmer and the modernists had neither bagged their prey nor knew how to rest!

  At the same time that modernists embraced pastoral themes, they also embraced science.  In the wake of the discovery of the Theory of Relativity, modernist were sure that they had arrived at Nirvana. Science, now, where religion had failed, would solve all the problems of society.
 Science, being the cold and sterile thing that it is, invited modernists to  repudiate the moral codes of the society in which they were living. In other words, the modernists ran from Victorian morality as quickly as they could! The reason that they did so was not necessarily because they did not believe in God, although there was a great majority of them who were atheists, or agnostics. Rather, their rejection of conventional morality was based on its  boring predictability, and its exertion of control over human feelings. In other words, limited the human spirit or, to use later vernacular, traditional morality “cramped” one’s style.
          Conformity and tradition were anathema. And so, in the arts, for instance, at the beginning of the 20th-century, artists flirted with so many different styles: cubism, futurism, constructivism, dadaism, and surrealism. They broke new ground, so to speak.
 Yet, is it really that new?  Xerxes and Pharoah saw themselves as gods–now that is a metaphysical coup d’é·tat.  Pretty modern too.  The builders of the Tower of Babel believed in science too.  Fervently too.  And we know what happened. But a few people got it right.  Moses put his rod into the Red Sea and it parted.  Hum . . . Not very “modern”–there is nothing cool about an old rod and old fashioned faith.  The Sea parted too. And we know what happened to old Pharoah!

A Prophetic Imagination

Monday, April 11th, 2011

            Walter Brueggemann in his book A Prophetic Imagination traces the lines from the radical of Moses to the solidification of royal power in Solomon to the prophetic critique of that power with a new vision of freedom in the prophets. Here he traces the broad sweep from Exodus to Kings to Jeremiah to Jesus. He highlights that the prophetic vision not only embraces the ordinary world of the people but creates an energy and amazement (which he calls “imagination”) based on the new thing that God is doing. Bruggemann’s position is that the Kingship in Israel is a step backwards from the Mosaic “revolution” and that the Prophets and then later Jesus called Israel away from Kingship back to the original vision of Moses, the prophetic imagination. Bruggemann writes“to address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. . . By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae… By poetry I mean language that moves, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion and pace. Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism.” Bruggemann has his faults, but I think he says a few things that the 21st century evangelical community –especially my own community, the home school community–should incorporate into their vision. For one thing, we must maintain a prophetic, hopeful vision in a world that is embracing materialism and hopelessness. We must, at the same time, affirm objective truth in a postmodern world that is preaching subjectivity. We must not be post-modern hippies, wandering around spreading alternative communities, subversive narratives, and anti-secular sermons. Rather, as one social critic explains, “the Old Testament prophets came to announce to Israel their sin before God by going after other gods, playing the harlot to God-their-husband, revealing their liturgical and corruptions, and laying before them their sins. They were God’s covenantal lawyers bringing to bear upon Israel the lawsuit of the covenant.” Our social criticism must be purposeful and constructive, not destructive. For example, we disagree with post-modern morality that argues that morality should be based in one’s own subjective belief system, as long as that belief structure is sincerely held and harms no one. Our biblical, prophetic message must be that that is hog wash. Our feelings, our notions, of what is right is irrelevant unless it lines up with the Word of God. Finally, basking in the bright light of biblical truth, we must show post-modern culture that, in Christ, and in Christ alone, there is hope and joy and a prophetic imagination.

Christmas in April

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Ho! Ho! Ho!
 
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

 ’Twas the day before the opening of Santa Claus season, and on the way to his first holiday gig, Santa’s helper Walter Roach made a very important stop – to say good-bye to his reindeer—No!—to  see his hair colorist. After all, if Santa’s beard isn’t as white was the snow, then he can’t be the real Santa. And Roach is about as real as a Santa Claus can be.
 No, he isn’t the jolly fellow who lives at the North Pole. He’s a sixth grade teacher at Norwood Creek Elementary School, where the little kids reverentially believe that he’s the real deal.
 
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.
And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.
   For Roach, 63, the Santa persona isn’t just something he puts on seasonally for parties and festive yuletide functions.  No, his red suit, beard, morbid obesity, and jingle bells ae for real. Since entering the Santa Claus business eight years ago, Roach has embraced the look and character of the Claus year round. Scorning the role of a nifty elf, Roach morphed into the Big Guy himself.

 It wasn’t that difficult. At 6-foot-3 and 287 pounds, with his ample teacher voice, snow white hair, he doesn’t exactly blend into the crowd. Add the twinkly grin and striking white beard, and it’s no wonder wide-eyed post-modern munckins stare at him wherever he goes.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes–how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
and I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
 And he goes a lot of places. Roach is quite the entrepreneur. This year Roach has 64 gigs lined up between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, ranging from corporate galas and parades to school visits and small private parties. He also books jobs  from $125 for a 20-minute “fly-by” to $225 an hour if he brings along an elf and Mrs. Claus. Mrs. Claus isn’t Mrs. Roach.  There is no way Mrs. Roach is going to look like Mrs. Claus.
 But she willing to enjoy the fame. And money. This summer Santa Claus is taking his comparitively, petite, svelte wife, Debbie, the real Mrs. Claus, sort of,  to Tuscany on his Santa earnings.
 Ho! Ho! Ho! Way to go, Santa!
 Oh I like this.  Very American wouldn’t you say? Business and idealism, mixed together. As American as apple pie.
 Ho! Ho! Ho!  Like oil and water, brother.
 But who cares?  It is the delusion that counts, the delusion.  Like free health insurance. And spending our way out of a recession. Ooops!
 Let’s not let reality get in the way of our delusion.  After all, it is easier to print more money than spend less. On the way to reality we can always go to the hair stylist an get our beards colored white—again!
 Ho! Ho! Ho!
 Ho! Ho! Ho! Scientists know that absolute objectivity has yet to be attained.   So why not believe in Santa Claus?
 Because Sants is not real. He is not poetic either.
 Theologian Walter Bruggemann, in The Poetic Imagination writes, “to address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. . .  By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae… By poetry I mean language that moves, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion and pace. Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism.”  I am all for poetry. But I am not for Santa.
 Santa is anything but objective. Nothing is objective or impartial about the Big Guy.
 Are people better at making observations, discoveries, and decisions if they remain neutral and impartial?  No.  As Alice in the rabbit hole looked for truth learns, as the poet eloquently probes into the cosmos understands, truth is not dependent upon objectivity.
 The problem with Santa, really, is that he requires no imagination at all.  Nothing really is poetical about him. Jolly and fat and delusional as all git out, Santa is the perfect mascot for post-modern America.
 Knowledge will be pursued and it will be found, but only by those who love and who find truth.  Objectivity, as Alice found in her crisis, as the poet understands in his craft, is impossible.  And undesirable.  Are people better at making observations, discoveries, and decisions if they remain neutral and impartial?  Absolutely not.  And, by the way, Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life!
 Santa is the way of delusion, narcissism, and subjectivity.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
and filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

 Whatever.

The Glass Menagerie

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

In his book Mist the great religious Spanish writer

Unamuno creates a character, Augusto Perez, who,

through omniscient narration, turns to his maker (e.g.,

Unamuno) and cries: “Am I to die as a creature of fiction?”

Such is the cry of the characters in The Glass

Menagerie. The Christian author and Harvard Professor

Robert Coles laments that “we have the right to think

of ourselves, so rich in today’s America, as in jeopardy

sub specie aeternitatis, no matter the size and diversification

of his [sic] stock portfolio.” It seems, at times that

we are lost. “The sense of being lost, displaced, and

homeless is pervasive in contemporary culture,” Walter

Brueggemann writes. “The yearning to belong somewhere,

to have a home, to be in a safe place, is a deep

and moving pursuit.” This world does not provide what

the characters in these plays need. Harvard Divinity

School’s Dr. Forrest Church, now pastor in a Unitarian

Church in New York City, writes, “In our faith God is

not a given; God is a question . . . God is defined by us.

Our views are shaped and changed by our experiences.

We create a faith in which we can live and struggle to

live up to it . . . compared to lov[ing] a distant God

[who] has no allure.” From a Christian perspective,

Forrest captures the devastating essence of our modern

dilemma.

Tennessee Williams, among others, ushered in the

post-Christian age, which had its roots in the 1920s but

really rose to the forefront in the 1990s. The post-

Christian age is dominated by anxiety, irrationality, and

helplessness. In such a world, consciousness is adrift,

unable to anchor itself to any universal ground of justice,

truth or reason. Consciousness itself is thus

“decentered”: no longer agent of action in the world,

but a function through which impersonal forces pass

and intersect. (Patricia Waugh in Gene Edward Veith,

Jr., Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary

Thought and Culture)

Enter now the post-Christian era of tentativeness,

of glass-fragile-figures—that glass menagerie which is

so much a part of modern America . . .

Of all Broadway plays, the remarkable The Glass

Menagerie, has some of the most powerful insights into

the human heart. It was Tennessee Williams’ first successful

play; it won the New York Critics’ Circle Award

as the best play of the 1944-45 Broadway season. Less

than three years later, A Streetcar Named Desire opened,

and it, too, captured the Critics’ Circle Award, also winning

the Pulitzer Prize.

Moral Man, Immoral Society

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

         

      Moral Man and Immoral Society, by Reinhold Neibhur, was written during the period of the Great Depression (1929-1940). In Moral Man, Reinhold insists on the necessity of politics in the struggle for social justice because of the sinfulness of human nature, that is, the egotism of individuals and groups. He fervent hopes–and that is all it can be–that a person can experience redemption, and redeem his socidety, by a Hegelian, reductionist struggle with sinfulness. Niebuhr advanced the thesis that what the individual is able to achieve singly, cannot be simply regarded as a possibility for social groups. He marked a clear distinction between the individual and the group; lowering significantly the moral capacity of the group in relation to that of the individual.
       He sees the limitations of reason to solve social injustice by moral and rational means, “since reason is always the servant of interest in a social situation” (xiv-xv). This is his critique of liberal Christian theology, which strongly believes in the rational capacity of humans to make themselves be moral, and he accepts this vulnerability as our reality. In other words, Neibhur correctly saw the immorality of systems in society (e.g., social welfare) and its futile attempts to ameliorate individuals and their needs through systemic interventions.
                    Neibhur cautions us about embracing “herd mentalities.” According to him, individuals are morally capable of considering the interests of others and acting. That is, individuals can be unselfish. Societies, however,  cannot. “In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others, therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships” (xi-xii).
                  My point is, some politicians may be sincere in their understanding about several issues.  In fact, they may be right about some issues.  But when that group gains political hegemony, it can lose focus and direction.

                     Individuals can be moral in purpose and in actions.  But, combine a bunch of individuals into a coercive group can cause the group to become immoral.  For example, Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was initially a good thing for Germany.  He brought jobs and prosperity to his people.  However, as he gained power, the moral imperative became the despotic immoral coercion.
 The answer to this apparent contradiction is, of course the Gospel.  Neibhur stresses the role of the Holy Spirit (what he calls the “religious imagination”).   In a sense groups, political parties, remain moral because the individuals in that societyanswer to a “higher power,” not to the coercion of the group or to the agenda of the group.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German World War II martyr, for example, was perhaps the most patriotic of Germans because he loved his God and his country enough to obey God and His Word above all persons.  This was the only way, Bonhoeffer understood, that his nation could be moral and right before the God he served.  Unfortunately he was a lone voice in the wilderness!
             Today, young people, as you look ahead of you, do the right thing.  All the time.  Every time.  Do not seek to overcome evil with evil, even if your society tells you it is all right.  Make the Word of God central to your life and, as you do, and as thousands do, society will change too.

Bokonism

Monday, April 4th, 2011

        The late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s  Cat’s Cradle  creates a new religion, Bokononism. The bible of Bokononism is the “Books of Bokonon”, written by Bokonon — a British Episcopalian black  from the Carribean island of Tobago whose real name was Lionel Boyd Johnson– as a way to distract the people of San Lorenzo from their unhappy lives.
        What is important to Bokononists? Not God; just one thing: man.  Bokononism is a strange, Post-modern subjective faith that combines nihilistic, and cynical observations about life and God’s will.  The supreme act of worship is an intimate act consisting of prolonged physical contact between the naked soles of the feet of two persons, supposed to result in peace and joy between the two communicants.
        Hummmm . . .
        I know a lot of Bokononists these days.  Post-Modern, Post-Christian Bokononist American leadership are asking us to suspend belief.  Pastor Clinton C. Gardner, in his book Beyond Belief: Discovering Christianity’s New Paradigm, “raised on Christian fundamentalism, he felt liberated by the grand picture of evolution and the empirical science of the Enlightenment.”  Ok Brother Clinton!  Imagine,  there are people who believe that God really loved us enough that He sent His only Begotten Son to die for our sins!  How uncool!  And, get this, some of those  remnant fundamentalist Christians—who have not yet bowed down and worshiped at the altar of Bokononism—actually believe that Jesus Christ is the only way, the only truth, the only life.  How old fashioned can you get!
       The last line of Cat’s Cradle includes a warning that I offer here: Pow Tee Weet. At one time song birds were lowered into coal mines to ascertain if methane gas was of dangerous high density.  Everything was fine as along as the miners heard “Pow Tee Weet.”  However, quite literally, if the bird stopped singing, everyone is in trouble.
 I wonder how much longer the song bird will sing.

                   Pastor  Gardner quotes Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.   Wilson’s grand conclusion is that “all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.” He envisions the unification of the natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities. As he puts it, “The human condition is the most important frontier of the natural sciences,” and “the material world exposed by the natural sciences is the most important frontier of the social sciences and humanities. The consilience argument can be distilled as follows: the two frontiers are the same.”
                    The bird is being lowered into the mines .  . .
                    Can you imagine how much fun it must be to sit through a sermon with Brother Clinton?  Wow—Consilience—nice word.  What biblical text would he use?  Existentialism and nascent naturalism can be pretty cold bedfellows.  Ain’t gonna mend many broken hearts though!
 Seriously, though, these peckerwoods are arguing quite eloquently that 1. My fundamentalism is not only irrelevant, it is uncool and rude (what a low blow!).  2. My belief that that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God is, well, old fashioned.  3. Finally, my belief in a 24 hour creation is likewise dumb.
                What can I say?  I believe all these things and more.  The God I serve is amazing, far more amazing than the God of Brothers Clinton and Edward. 
               Pow  tee weet.

No Books to Ban

Friday, April 1st, 2011

       I was reading an essay by Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves To Death.  He reminds us that 1984 came and went and Orwell’s nightmare did not occur.  The roots of liberal democracy had held.

            But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another equally chilling apocalyptic vision : Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression–Big Brother. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

            What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of neglect. Orwell feared we would become a captive to ubiquitous culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. As Huxley remarked in his sequel Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In Orwell’s 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.