Archive by Author | Elijah

God & the Dentist

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Below is, as it is with all opinion posts, an outline of my opinion on a particular topic.  Please feel free to disagree or to challenge my views, but please also take the care to read all of what I have written.  It is my sincere intention to be a loving, gracious, humble and devout follower of Jesus.  Please forgive me when I fail at this.

Today a couple of minister friends of mine shared the same link on Facebook with the heading, ‘Dentist Says God Doesn’t Exist – Watch What His Patient Says…’  Normally I tend away from these sort of links (my criticisms in this post will probably reveal why that is the case), but for some reason today I decided to click.  Here’s the clip:

I’m not sure how long this ‘God & the Dentist’ idea has been circulating (after a limited amount of research I’ve discovered several videos presenting the same argument), but this one was produced by a group called ‘cvcnow’ who on their YouTube account give this description:

cvcnow produce creative short films, designed to entertain and challenge your thinking about real life.

In amongst all the negativity we face online, we want to be that much needed positive presence online and bring a fresh new perspective on real life struggles – from forgiveness to suicide; we don’t shy away from the big issues.

The’ve got this written in their ‘about’ section on the cvcnow.com website:

All we want is to help you explore those unavoidable questions about life, the universe and everything in it.

After a wee bit of research I’ve discovered that cvcnow is a ‘brand’ under the umbrella of Christian Vision, ‘a UK-based international charity founded by Lord Edmiston in 1988.’  I have yet to watch all of the videos that they’ve produced (and I don’t see myself doing that any time soon), but from viewing this dentist video alone, something tells me that none of their videos will sit right with me.  But why?

Before I explain why I see this sort of thinking as more of a foe than a friend, I want to say that this is no attack on any individuals who find this video inspirational.  Please know that I am in no way doubting the faith, goodness or sincerity of anyone involved in cvcnow or Christian Vision, or even anyone who has enjoyed the video above or has passed it on to friends.  I believe that the folk who produced this video are using their skills, passions and energies to do what they think is the most effective way to follow what they believe God wants for them.  But with that being said, I think that most people (even people who commit acts of great evil) do the same.  For example, I’m convinced that the Tories believe that society will best flourish under their policies whilst Labour politicians believe the same of their own policies (though, some might argue that New Labour’s policies are more Tory than Labour, but I digress…).  I also want to express that I believe that God can use any means to reveal theological truth and convey religious experience (my PhD thesis approaches a small facet of that very belief), as in the old story in the Torah of the diviner Balaam who was intent on cursing the God of the Jews, but this very God corrected him via the mouth of a donkey.  So yes, according to our mythology and tradition, God can speak through various means, but I’d rather be the prophet than the ass.

So what about this video do I find particularly offensive?  Aside from the poor writing, poor acting, poor music, poor production and implausibility of the conversation?  Let’s walk through the ‘script’:

Dentist [after working on a patient's teeth]: OK, we’re done.
Patient: Yes, thank God for that.
D: God?
P: What do you mean?
D: Who in this day and age still believes in God?

At this point it’s important to point out that I don’t know of any dentist, even a staunchly atheistic dentist, who would take issue with someone saying ‘Thank God’ in a situation like that.  Many of my atheist friends say ‘Thank God’ as often as they say ‘Thank fuck’.  The ‘God’ bit of ‘Thank God’ doesn’t necessarily carry much meaning.  ‘Thank God’ is simply a colloquialism.  But the writers of this piece needed to find a way to put God into a ‘real life’ situation, so we end up with a very rude dentist who decides to challenge his patient on a passing comment.  And to answer this elitist dentist’s silly question, Who in this day and age still believes in God?apparently some 5.8 billion of the 6.9 billion people in the world, or 84% of people.  That in no way proves the legitimacy or truthfulness of belief in God, but at least demonstrates that, even ‘in this day and age’, belief in God isn’t exactly uncommon.  So the patient decides to respond:

P: Well, I do.  Why’s that?
D: Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.
P: Well, I don’t believe in dentists.  If there are so many dentists in the world, then why do so many people have broken, infected and missing teeth?

Oh dear.  Now, despite his unpleasant personality, I’m starting to side with the dentist.  Whether or not a Christian will admit it, there is no simple answer to the problem of evil (expressed so eloquently by the dentist in his condescension: ‘Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.’).  I have some views on how I might approach the problem of evil, but I don’t want to go there with this post.  It’s also important to note that God has been used to justify a great many wars throughout history (even Bush and Blair claim to have prayed to God before the [misleading] war in Iraq).  But that at which I want to get is what the patient has used to argue against non-belief – she has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  There are two major problems I have with her decision.

1) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists That’s a very difficult position to maintain when you’re sitting in the chair of a dentist‘s office after your dentist appointment and a dentist is standing right in front of you, speaking with you.  If the Christian God was always so readily tangible the argument might stand up a wee bit better.  But dentists do exist and her assertion that the lack of dental care in the world proves that dentist’s don’t exist is somehow akin to this dentist’s argument against the existence of God by way of the problem of evil is complete and utter nonsense.  In the spirit of this unlikely exchange, this patient’s thanking of God after her dental procedure reveals that she believes that God was somehow present and responsible for the ending of the procedure.  This can be seen as implying that God is capable of being present in many places at one time (omnipresence) and that is powerful enough to bring her through this dental challenge (omnipotence).  The dentist argues that an ever present and all powerful God (who is also a good God [omnibenevolence]) cannot exist in light of the brokenness in the world.  And whilst there are many different conceptions of God, these three things—presence, power and goodness—form part of the general understanding of the concept of ‘God’ in Western society.  ‘Dentist’, on the other hand, does not carry the same weight.  No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipresent.  No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipotent.  Some people believe that dentists are actually evil.  So to argue that dentists, because of their lack of omnipresence and omnipotence (and to some people, their lack of omnibenevolence), do not exist, is quite silly.

2) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  I have argued against the concept that we ‘choose’ what we believe in other posts (particularly here in ‘Agnosticism in the Kingdom of God’, from 23 September 2011 and here in ‘Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life’, 9 May 2012), but I’ll attempt to reiterate and expand some of that argument here.  In short, I don’t believe any of us choose what we believe and instead—based upon the information we store in our heads from our experiences—we ‘reason’ to what makes the most sense to us.  It’s not Logic with a capital ‘L’, but it’s some type of existential logic.

For a friend of mine, Christianity made sense until something else—whether that is new information he learned or a new experience or series of experiences—led him to see his Christian belief system as illogical.  I do think that we can cultivate a particular belief via manipulation (like any gay men who cultivate the unfortunate belief that their sexuality is a choice), but ultimately, I think belief is something that happens to us.  This makes most sense in Christianity (as opposed to this idea that we choose our beliefs) because, alongside the broader Christian tradition, the Bible seems to express that faith/belief is a gift:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’  Matthew 16:13-17, NRSV

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV

Even the account of St Paul’s conversion implies that faith is something that happened to Saul, not something he chose (see Acts 9).  If the element of choice is ever involved in the Scripture, I believe it’s a matter of choosing between that which is in line with the values of the kingdom of God and that which is out of line with the values of the kingdom of God.  As a result of acting upon belief, some people are commended by Christ:

As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.  Luke 18:35-43, NRSV

There are many other similar passages in the Gospels (such as Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:34, Luke 7:50), but as is expressed in the Epistle of St James, faith/belief is a gift from God:

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  James 2:5, NRSV

I didn’t choose to become a Christian.  Perhaps every day I have the choice to follow either that which I conceive of as following Christ or that which I conceive of as not, but the conception of following Christ, being a Christian, believing in God — those things are part of my faith, and my faith is a free gift from God.

This is a good place to look at the concluding lines of the dialogue, which reveal what is perhaps the most important reason why I cannot stand by this video:

D: I can’t help people that don’t come to me to have their teeth fixed.
P: Exactly.  It’s the same way with God.  It’s a bit rich of us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him and instead insist on doing things their own way.
D: And how am I meant to come to God?
P: Just talk to him – he’s listening.

Here the patient tells the dentist that it’s unreasonable for us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him.  Why would I have any problem with that?  Being that we’ve just celebrated the Epiphany a few days ago, the doctrine of the incarnation weighs very heavily upon me.  At the very heart of the Christian faith is the belief that God became human in Jesus.  This divine mystery plants God in the midst of human existence, as a human.  As quoted in the Gospel of St Matthew,

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’  Matthew 1:23 (cf. Isaiah 7:14), NRSV

Christianity rests on the belief that God is the one who comes to us: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8), ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19).  It is God’s initiative, God’s move that makes this happen.  God is not sitting, twiddling her divine thumbs, waiting for us to turn up.  God is here, in our midst.  And yet, whilst I believe that this is true, the patient’s response to the dentist’s final question, ‘And how am I meant to come to God?’  Poses some other difficulties.

I do believe that God listens.  I do believe that God cares.  But as I have written in a previous post,

I don’t know why some people believe they’ve had a religious experience when they didn’t want one, whilst some people really want a religious experience and have yet to receive it.  I don’t know why the universe is chaotic.  I don’t know why such lovely people die of cancer.  I don’t know why millions of people die of starvation and disease each year.  I don’t know why, if a God exists, that God doesn’t just sort all this out this instant.  These are difficult questions; questions that make the writing of some blog post seem absolutely meaningless.  But even though I cannot give someone a life-changing religious experience, even though I cannot stop a tsunami, even though I cannot feed all who hunger and even though I cannot answer these questions in a neatly-packaged way, I know that this world and the people therein are beautiful and God has called me to give of myself for others in love, despite my lack of love and my lack of ability.

I know that this is not a resolution to the logical challenges facing Christians who maintain that God is omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but in light of the reality of suffering in our world, I believe that those who have faith should tread very lightly when arguing for God’s existence to those who—without us even being aware—have tried very hard to call out and listen for God.  The video above seems to imply that God is just a phone call away, but it does not balance that belief out with the reality that billions of suffering people who have cried out for the aid of a higher power have not received the answer that we of faith so take for granted.  For this reason, someone might see this video and be unnecessarily hurt.  This is why this video rubs me the wrong way.

A life of belief in God is not always cushy.  It’s never easy.  The only concrete thing I believe with this regard is that, through Jesus, God empathises with human suffering and wants people who call themselves followers of Christ to help ease it.  One way we can do that is to train up more dentists in order that they might ‘show the love of Christ by offering dental relief to those in need around the world.’

Lost in the Aesthetic

As you might have noticed, we have had a wee bit of a redesign here at Lost in the Cloud.  But how you would have noticed, I am not sure, since any visits to this blog in the last year or two will have proven generally underwhelming (even more underwhelming than when we post more often).  Thanks to Greg’s posts John Stump, composer of Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz and Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions (both published in 2010), we still receive between 100 and 200 views on any given day.  But those views are the result of a couple of brilliant niche subjects and not the steady traffic that results from consistent and thoughtful blogging, the initial challenge we set for ourselves here at LITC.

Granted, Greg and I are quite busy with relationships, our respective church ministries and life in general, but this is my formal recommitment to Lost in the Cloud and the first order of business was the redesign.  It seems like the last design update was only a few months ago, but looking back at my records I realised that the blog hasn’t had any design changes since September 2011, which, in graphic designer terms, is ancient.

I’ve always aimed to make the aesthetic of the blog efficient, playful and thoughtful.  Those values played a significant part in the inspiration for my original ‘yod cloud’ design back in 2004.  Since those initial doodles I have employed the wee cloud in a large number of designs, including this painting with the full Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew name of God (יהוה‎ or YHWH) which was commissioned for a church in 2006:

Vanityoil on maple, 4′ x 5′, commissioned for Grace Brethren Church of Long Beach

Later on in 2006 I was part of a mix CD club with Greg and some friends and for my round I decided to make a mix that was a playful reflection on the mythical history presented in the Christian Bible called Die Geschichte (The Recapitulation).  This was when I discovered the versatility of the yod cloud design:

CreationI. The Creation

The FloodIV. The Flood

SinaiVI. The Exodus & the Wilderness

TransfigurationXII. The Life of Christ – The Transfiguration

The playfulness of the design is made quite obvious in these illustrations and it was this yod cloud in the Transfiguration that most captured my imagination.  I began to use it obsessively.  I even designed a book stamp featuring it:

Stamp

In 2007 I devised and led an art project made up of a group of university friends that formed a small orchestra and theatre/dance group and performed a theatrical and orchestral version of Sufjan Stevens’ ‘The Transfiguration’ at Biola University in La Mirada, California.  The programmes featured the illustration from the Transfiguration above:

The Transfiguration Flyer

The iconic clouds played a very prominent role in the performance, adorning dancers as well as musicians.  So two years later, when Greg and I were first inspired to start our own blog the name, taken directly from the coda of the song above, came rather quickly, and the yod cloud was sure to be a design feature.  So here’s a wee walk-through of the header designs we’ve employed in the last four years.

Our first header was rather simple, featuring the yod cloud prominently:

lost-in-the-cloud-header-colour2.jpg

As with many of my designs, looking at it now I see it as cluttered, boring and lazy, but I think we really liked it at the time.  The second design was introduced in November 2010 and was nearly identical, but with a few changes:

lost-in-the-cloud-header-update-ii4.jpg

One cloud was added and each cloud employed finer lines, which tidied up the look a wee bit.  Also, the text was brought out to the foreground.  Nothing too major until July 2011, when the third overhaul took place:

cropped-lost-in-the-cloud-header-update-viii.jpg

For some reason I went back to my early design days and employed a whole lot of drop shadow and opacity.  Making two dimensional designs ‘appear’ to have three dimensions was all the rage.  Not long after this design I realised that the white background was looking very boring, so in September 2011 I added the sea foam hue:

lost-in-the-cloud-header-update-viii2.jpg

I would consider this a definite improvement, but it frightens me that I went more than two years without altering the design.  That is a reflection of how much (or how little) attention I’ve paid to Lost in the Cloud, and for that I apologise (although I suspect that most folk pay no attention to the design and those that do probably never thought of our blog’s aesthetic as much to look at).

This leads me to the current design:

litc-header-2013-sm1.jpg

The Andersonian echoes should be screaming at you (though I assure you, it was subconscious).  I’ve decided to really shake it all up.  The hallmark yod cloud is there, but I’ve actually finally tailored it into a nice, clean, modern design.  The hand-drawn element of the previous designs had its own charm, but I’m in the mood for this streamlined cloud.  Flanking the redesigned cloud are navigatory motifs (left) and cloudy-scientific motifs (right).  And yes, I think I just invented the word ‘navigatory’, but I’m pretty sure you know what I mean.  We’ve got the text in a cleaner, modern typeface (the old stenciled typeface was really getting on my visual nerves) that stretches across the whole of the header and below it you may notice nine wee symbols.  These are actually international weather office map code for describing different types of high clouds.  Along with ditching multiple clouds and the old typeface, I also flattened everything.  I think this might be related to the rekindling of my love for printed media and classic branding (see a series of redesigns of professional Scottish football badges I attempted over the last five months).

If you have stuck it through and are still reading this post, let me both apologise for my self indulgence and extend a hearty thank you to you!  Greg and I are back to post more regularly and we hope it’s as exciting for you, our readers, as it is for us.  And maybe I’ll finally get around to manufacturing some merchandise (like this yod cloud badge) for those eager to rep LITC…

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The World Unchained

DjangoUnchained

WARNING: Contains spoilers

This article was originally published in the February 2013 newsletter for Govan & Linthouse Parish Church, Glasgow.

Last week I had the opportunity to go to a screening of the latest Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained.  If you’ve never seen a Tarantino film, they are known for their excessive violence, brutality and coarse language.  Django Unchained is no different.  I’m not suggesting you see the film, that is, unless you’re willing to endure 165 minutes of brutality (but it’s brutality with a point).  If you are planning on seeing the film, I warn you that this article will contain some spoilers.

The film is made out to be a western epic.  It takes place in the pre-Civil War United States.  The main protagonists are Dr King Schultz (played by Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz), a German immigrant and former dentist who works as a bounty hunter, collecting rewards for the bodies of federal outlaws, and Django (played by another Academy Award winner, Jamie Foxx), a black slave who has been separated from his wife, another slave called Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington).  Schultz first ‘unchains’ Django as he is being transported by slave drivers through Texas.  Previously, Django had been a slave on a plantation where three murderous outlaws, the Brittle Brothers, had worked as farmhands.  Schultz wishes for Django to assist him in identifying the Brittle Brothers so that he may collect the reward for their bodies.  Schultz, who throughout the film demonstrates his utter distaste for the institution of slavery, offers Django his freedom, $75 and a horse in exchange for his assistance (and feels awful for not simply giving Django his freedom straight away).  After the slaying of the Brittle Brothers, Schultz asks Django, who demonstrates great skill in the ‘art’ of bounty hunting, if he would join him as his business partner for the winter and Django accepts his proposition.  Django reveals that once he is finished with their winter’s work, he is going to try to find his wife and rescue her from slavery.  Schultz, who has developed a very close friendship with Django, insists that he helps Django, as they discover that Broomhilda is a slave on a large plantation outside of Greenville, Mississippi, a particularly dangerous part of the States for a black man, free or not.

After the winter they come up with and carry out a complicated plan to reunite Django and his beloved Broomhilda.  But after their plan is uncovered, Schultz and Django are given an ultimatum: either they pay the exorbitant amount of $12,000 to purchase Broomhilda or she will be killed by her owner, the ruthless and bigoted plantation owner, Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).  After they comply, Candie proposes that the transaction is not official until Schultz shakes his hand.  Schultz, who has been having flashbacks of an event during which Candie ordered a runaway slave to be torn apart by dogs, refuses to shake hands.  This is the point in the film which I believe carries the most moral weight.  As we, the audience, have been battered with the injustice and brutality of racism and the institution of slavery throughout the film, we feel something of that same moral weight.  Ultimately, Schultz’ refusal ends up costing him his life.

The film continues from there, but it’s at this point that I want to ask a question: what does Django Unchained have to teach Christians?  Our two main protagonists exhibit many Christ-like qualities throughout the film, but the one which I think is most profound, as a result of the build-up of the film, is Schultz refusal.  On principle, Schultz sees shaking Candie’s hand as some sort of approval of Candie, his vicious treatment of slaves and the whole of institutionalised racism that still, even in the age of a black President, finds expression in some parts of American culture.  Although some Americans, particularly the Quakers in the North, were opposed to slavery during the first half of the 19th century, the institution was still regarded as rather normal for most Americans.  Still, Schultz refuses to betray his strong sense of justice, even a sense of justice perhaps rather clouded by his recent career as a bounty hunter.  He demonstrates this passion in his last great speech immediately preceding his refusal to shake Candie’s hand.  After completing the paperwork for Broomhilda, Candie offers Schultz some rhubarb pie, but Schultz declines.

Candie   ‘Are you brooding ‘bout me getting the best of ya?’

Schultz   ‘Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan.  And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.’

Candie   ‘Dumas…?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas.  He wrote The Three Musketeers.  I figured you must be an admirer.  You named your slave after that novel’s lead character.  If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would of made of it?’

Candie   ‘You doubt he’d approve?’

Schultz   ‘Yes, his approval would be a dubious proposition at best.’

Candie   ‘Soft hearted Frenchy?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas is black.’

The weight of the tone of the speech can only be captured if you see the film, but written out here, we can see that Schultz is able to undermine Candie’s ignorant racism with his poignant and authoritative presentation.  Candie, a self-professed Francophile who, although he does not know the language, insists on being called Monsieur Candie, is left stunned and confused.

Schultz’ words here remind me of the Parables of Christ.  Taking something trivial such as the raw materials of everyday life and turning it on its head in order to shift the worldview of his listeners toward that of the truths and values of the kingdom of God.  Unfortunately, Candie did not have ‘ears to hear’ the truth that Schultz uttered.  Do we?

Of course, our context is quite different.  The context of slavery-era Southern United States is a far cry from present day Govan and Linthouse.  I’ll even say that we live in a fortunate part of Scotland with a long heritage of fighting for social justice.  But have we grown complacent?  Perhaps we don’t have slaves in our context, but throughout our congregation and parish there are new battles to be fought.  Among others, the people who suffer in poverty, the people who struggle with addiction, the people who have immigrated from other countries, the people who seek asylum – they all suffer under various institutions of injustice here.  Maybe we’re responsible for some of that with our behaviour.  In Django Unchained, white people are appalled at the scandal of a black man on a horse.  I’ve heard people express their shock about the scandal of a recent immigrant with a bankcard or a mobile phone.

No matter how much we try—and we do try—justice is not the way of Scotland, the United Kingdom or any other nation.  Nations are made up of all kinds of people with very different ideals, some of which propagate institutionalised oppression.  In reality, the Church looks very much the same, and while I am grateful to God that the Church of Scotland and that Govan and Linthouse Parish Church are very much composed of a diverse body of people, I think we can unite in discipleship under the leadership of one man, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The words found within our Gospel readings for the month of February have a great deal to teach us about the way that being a Christian turns the institutions of this world on its head:

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh…

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:17-21, 27-31

As Christians, it is our daily challenge, not just in the month of February, but for the rest of our lives, to seek the values of the kingdom of God.  And we are not called to do this simply because we are good people or we think we will get a box of treasure in the future.  We are called to love because God loves this world.  God desires that we ‘unchain’ the world from oppression — what an unworthy honour for us!

May we be inspired by the love and grace of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the works of the kingdom and fight with great conviction, as Dr King Schultz fought, the injustices in our community and beyond its boundaries.  It’s no simple task, but maybe we could keep each other accountable.  Next time you see me, I’d appreciate it if you reminded me to be more like Jesus and Dr King Schultz.

Many blessings,

Elijah

In this post a pacifist proposes a rivalry

This afternoon the Detroit Tigers will take on the New York Yankees at Comerica Park in Downtown Detroit.  I know that some of you are thinking, ‘Oh no, another baseball post…’  But hear me out.  A Tigers win in today’s game [UPDATE: The Tigers won!], which was originally scheduled for last night but was postponed due to adverse weather conditions, would seal a few things:

  1. The Tigers have stopped the Yankees in each of Detroit’s last three postseason appearances (2006, 2011 and 2012).
  2. The Yankees have been swept (losing a series with no wins) in a seven-game postseason series for the first time since their 1976 loss to the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series.
  3. The Motor City Kitties have won their eleventh American League pennant. (*For those of you who are not baseball fans, Major League Baseball is divided into two historic leagues: the American League [AL] and the National League [NL].  When a club wins the championship in either league they receive what is called ‘the pennant’.)
  4. The Tigs will compete in their eleventh World Series, hoping to earn their fifth World Series victory (1935, 1945, 1968, 1984 and 2012?).

Five out of eleven?  Even if the Tigers make it to the World Series and even if they win they will still only have a 5/11 (.455) record when it comes to World Series appearances.  The individual games (out of ten World Series) breaks down to 26 wins and 29 loses, or .473:

  • 1907L 0-4 (Chicago Cubs)
  • 1908L 1-4 (Chicago Cubs)
  • 1909L 3-4 (Pittsburgh Pirates)
  • 1934L 3-4 (St Louis Cardinals)
  • 1935W 4-2 (Chicago Cubs)
  • 1940L 3-4 (Cincinnati Reds)
  • 1945W 4-3 (Chicago Cubs)
  • 1968W 4-3 (St Louis Cardinals)
  • 1984W 4-1 (San Diego Padres)
  • 2006L 1-4 (St Louis Cardinals)

So the Tigers aren’t the strongest club as far as World Series victories are concerned.  After a quick glance at their World Series opponents two stand out: the Chicago Cubs and the St Louis Cardinals.  As can be seen above, the Tigers have faced the Cubs in four World Series, splitting their crowns 2-2 (although the Cubs have won more games in the four: 13 Cubs wins vs 9 Tigers wins).  Unfortunately for Chicago, in their ten World Series appearances they have only won two: their 1907 and 1908 victories against the Tigers.  In fact, the Cubs haven’t even been to a World Series since 1945.  Poor lads.

So if we’re looking for an exciting, historical, cross-league rivalry for the Tigers (since AL clubs very seldom face NL clubs outwith the World Series), which is what I’ve decided that we’re doing now, then the Cards are a better candidate than the Cubbies.  [Oddly enough, I referenced this rivalry in this tribute to Steve Jobs last October.]  The Cardinals have only played the Tigers in three World Series, but we’re talking about a range from 1934 until 2006 – 72 years!  And the Tigers are the underdogs, having only beaten the Cards once in three World Series.  The Cards are the reigning World Series champions and rank number two (behind the Yankees) in most World Series appearances (18) and victories (11).  AND there is a decent chance that 2012 will give us another Tigers-Cards World Series.

Of course, in baseball there’s no telling who will be going to the World Series until both leagues have awarded their pennants [UPDATE: The 2012 AL pennant belongs to the Tigers!].  The Tigers had a mediocre season, finishing with a .543 record, the lowest of any team in the postseason, even the wild card clubs!  They’ve turned things around in the postseason, especially during this series against New York.  But the Yankees have their southpaw ace CC Sabathia on the mound tonight.  That being said, it should be a good match-up between CC and the Tigers’ ‘other ace’ (the ‘ace’ title being given to the venerable Justin Verlander), Max Scherzer.  Scherzer has had a great season and a great postseason, so I have high hopes.  [UPDATE: Scherzer and the Tigers defeated Sabathia and the Yankees 8-1.]

Whilst trying to avoid sounding like the Kitties have this one in the bag (OMG, TIGERS GONNAE GO TAE THE WORLD SERIES THIS YEAR!!! [UPDATE: Seriously.]), it will be a great challenge for the Yanks to pull out of this 0-3 deficit given the poor state of their would-be power hitters like Teixiera, Cano, Swisher, A-Rod and Granderson (the latter three will sit out today’s game) and without their injured captain Derek Jeter.  (*On a side note, these four players have receive a combined $93.075 million salary this year, which accounts for nearly half of the entire Yankees payroll and is a higher figure than the entire payroll of 16 of the 30 Major League Baseball clubs.)

The Cardinals’ fight to clinch the NL pennant looks a wee bit more difficult.  The Cards finished their season with the same mediocre Tigers record, .543.  Unfortunately for the Cards, the NL Central Division also featured the Cincinnati Reds, who boasted the second-highest record in all of baseball this season.  But the Cards won the wild card playoff game against the Atlanta Braves and went on to defeat the winningest team in baseball, the Washington Nationals (.605), in the best-of-five National League Division Series.

They’ve done well in their uphill battle, but the National League Championship Series between the Cards and the San Francisco Giants is looking even more competitive.  The Cards are up two games to one, but who knows what will happen…

As far as any true rivalries go, it’s fair to say that the Cards have a much stronger World Series history than the Tigers.  The Yankees seem like the natural cross-league rivals for the Cardinals (or any club, for that matter).  As mentioned before, the Cards are second both in World Series appearances and victories to the Yankees.  In addition to this, the Cards have played the Yanks in five of their 18 World Series appearances (1926, 1928, 1942, 1943 and 1964).  Like the Tigers, the Boston Red Sox have faced the Cards in three World Series (1946, 1967 and 2004).  But both the Yank and Sox rivalries with the Cards lack the longevity of the rivalry I’m proposing.

If both the Tigers and the Cardinals make it to the World Series we’ll be looking at their fourth meeting and an opportunity for the Tigers to level the score (2-2) in what would then be a World Series rivalry spanning 78 years.  That would be a match-up for the ages.  A less gentle man might propose that the Tigers rip the throats out of the Cardinals and make their children weep for generations.  But that wouldn’t be very nice of me to write.  So let’s go Tigers and let’s go Cardinals!  (But mostly, let’s go Tigers!)  [UPDATE: The San Francisco Giants beat the St Louis Cardinals in seven games to clinch the National League title and reach the World Series.  This will be the first ever Tigers-Giants World Series meeting.]

Image

[Updated on 24 October 2012.]

Some thoughts on Detachment (Tony Kaye, 2011)

Last night I had the pleasure of viewing Tony Kaye’s third and most recent ‘talkie’, Detachment.  The film was shot beautifully and acted brilliantly, and for those qualities alone it is worth seeing.  But the content is yet more intriguing.  Detachment follows a few weeks in the life of a substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) as he takes up a temporary post at a New York state school in decline.  But the film could take place in any school.  In the New York Times review of the film from 15 March 2012, the film is ‘about the failing public-education system [in the United States].’  I would agree with this claim in part – yes, prominent in the film is this portrayal of the dysfunctional education system.  But it’s so much more than that.  I’d argue that the entirety of the film represents a microcosm of society at large.

This isn’t me dropping a shameful reference to my doctoral research, but I think a strong case could be made that Detachment is actually a parable.  By this I mean that the film is using the raw material of every day life to tell a bigger, more disturbing yet more hopeful story.  Just as Christ told parables the audience in the Gospels, the film is tied together by a loose narration from our Henry Barthes, with close-ups of his unkept face in a dark room (perhaps during a counselling session).  We’ve got representatives from various levels of society and various levels of engagement with and detachment from their current situations.  At the very heart of this parable is not ‘education’, for education is merely an outflowing of the deeper social illness.  The parable takes society back to the most basic social framework, a framework we all encounter by virtue of being born – family.

To quote the oft-quoted Larkin poem, ‘This Be The Verse’, They fuck you up, your mum and dad.  Most of the great conflicts in the film are rooted in family and parenting, just to name a few:

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW, SKIP TO THE NEXT SECTION TO AVOID THEM

a girl is expelled from the school after she threatened and spat upon Ms Madison (Christian Hendricks) and her similarly-tempered mother storms into the school hurling yet more abuse at the harmless Ms Madison.

Mr Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) takes up an odd stance at a school fence every afternoon hoping to be noticed by anyone as a result of being ignored constantly by his family members when he returns home from work every day.

Meredith (Betty Kaye, daughter of the director) is discouraged in her artistic endeavours and told that she ought to lose weight and conform to social norms by her father and ultimately decides to kill herself as a result of her extreme sense of rejection and isolation.

Erica’s (Sami Gayle) lifestyle as a teenage prostitute and her great distress when she is removed from Henry’s care by social workers.

During ‘parents’ night’ at the high school, virtually no parents show up, demonstrating a lack of both the parents’ concern for their children’s education and appreciation of the teachers.

And ultimately, Henry’s sense of detachment from being abandoned by his father as a toddler, losing his mother to a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol when he was a small child and caring for his dementia-stricken grandfather, whose abuse of Henry’s mother led to her substance abuse.

END OF SPOILERS

Like a parable, the characters are universal (as opposed to cliché) in order to open the eyes and ears of the audience to the deeper level of meaning.  In addition to his ‘counselling session’ narrative, at different points in the film Henry also tells the audience (by way of telling his students) the root of these social ills, calling on his students to avoid the ‘ubiquitous assimilation’ of oppressive values being shoved down their throats by a constant barrage of bull shit that has not only broken into media and culture, but has also infiltrated the very fabric of their family lives.

During the opening sequence we are given a quotation from Camus’ The Stranger, concluding with ‘And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.’  Throughout the film Henry is challenged to break down his wall of ‘compassionate detachment’.  The blurb from the official website states, ‘Kaye has molded a contemporary vision of people who become increasingly distant from others while still feeling the need to connect.’  Does that wall ever break down?  Well I’m not going to include any more spoilers – you should see it for yourself.

The aforementioned New York Times review concludes with, ‘Is it really this bad? Or is “Detachment” a flashy educational horror movie masquerading as nightmarish reality?’  No, it’s not really this bad – it’s worse.  As I mentioned before, I believe that the film is using the façade of the educational system (severely broken as a result of the deeper problem) to tell a bigger, more disturbing yet more hopeful story.  In a recent Guardian interview, Kaye states, ‘We live, we go through these realms, we learn, we figure out where we went wrong.  That’s what living is.’  Detachment won’t be tearing down the power structures built up in our society to control, but perhaps it can help inspire us to fight harder with all that we have in hopes that we might chip away at the foundations of such oppression.

Rest in peace, Steve Jobs

It’s late at night here in Fife and I can’t sleep.  So I do what many Western twenty-first-century twenty-somethings do – I end up on my computer, browsing the internet.  Tonight I am especially glued to the computer with the Phillies-Cardinals game going on.  If the Cards lose tonight they’re out of the playoffs, so I desperately want them to win in order to keep the prospect of a Cardinals-Tigers World Series alive.  For those who are unaware, the World Series rivalry between the St Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers (my favourite team) spans nearly eighty years.  The first time the two teams played each other in a World Series was in 1934, with the Cardinals taking the series in seven games.  They met again in the 1968 World Series, which the Tigers won in seven.  They last met in the 2006 World Series.  After having defeated the Yankees and Athletics in the playoffs, the Tigers went on to lose the World Series to the Cards in five games.  So in the [unlikely] event that both the Tigers and the Cardinals win their respective league titles and end up facing-off in the World Series, well, I will be an excited young man.

But the Major League Baseball 2011 postseason is not why I am compelled to share a few thoughts in a blog post.  The answer to that ‘why’ is sitting right here in front of me…literally…on my lap.  Yes, I am a ‘Mac user’, and tonight, as has been made clear from the incredible flood of identical status updates on Facebook (yes, I am a ‘Facebook user’), it was announced that Apple co-founder and former CEO, Steve Jobs has died at age 56.

Not only was Steve Jobs the official technological outfitter of hipsters, he was a proto-hipster.

Without a doubt Jobs’ death will be the talk of the town tomorrow.  Whether you loved him, hated him or found yourself generally apathetic toward him, Jobs has had a significant role in the daily lives of a great many people over the last few decades.  When I initially heard the news of his death I figured that enough people are writing about this, why make my own feeble attempt to eulogise, inadvertently adding to the cloud of ‘We’ve lost a visionary!’ chat?  While I have admitted to being a ‘Mac user’ I have neither a literal nor figurative Apple tattoo.  I am not especially wowed by Apple Keynote addresses.  I certainly don’t trouble myself with the false ‘need’ to possess a wide array of Apple products.  To be honest, it’s all very expensive and even if I had the money part of me doesn’t think that it would be especially responsible to indulge in consumer electronics.  But I have owned several Apple products.  As a child my family had an early Macintosh (we weren’t cutting edge or wealthy, but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t stolen either).  All throughout my school years we used Macs in computer labs.  I first learned computer programming on a Mac.

When I went to university I used my extra scholarship money to buy my first computer – a 12-inch iBook G4.  A few years later that laptop’s display went kaput and I eventually upgraded to a black MacBook, the very MacBook that’s sitting on my lap now, four years after that purchase.  A couple years ago a certain Greg gifted me with some money, in celebration of my birthday/embarking on my PhD, meant specifically to assist my purchase of an iPod.  I only tell you this incredibly boring history of my Apple product experiences to highlight how my life actually is affected by the influence of Steve Jobs on a daily basis.

In a way I feel sort of dirty for thinking so much about this.  Nearly one billion people in the world don’t have clean drinking water, let alone a computer, let alone an expensive Apple computer (granted, I’ve never owned the ‘high-end’ Apple products).  It’s very evident to me that I should change my lifestyle, but I’m not going to pretend that I don’t make extensive use of my Apple products.  My Macs have brought me through university degrees, have been the means of countless designs (like the designs you see here at LITC), blog posts (like this one), letters, mix CDs, recording songs, etc.  I don’t necessarily need to do all of these things on a Mac, but I have a Mac so I do.  And the iPod – unless I’m spending uninterrupted time with people it is a very common feature of my day.  I estimate that I probably use my iPod for, on average, two hours a day.  I don’t necessarily need to listen to music on an iPod, but I have an iPod so I do.

My point is not to make some profound argument about how the world would stop without Apple – it wouldn’t.  My point is not even to make some profound argument about how my life would be drastically different without Apple – it probably wouldn’t.  But the vision of Steve Jobs, a man who was genuinely passionate about innovation (and genuinely good at selling it), is the fuel behind the success of Apple, success that cannot be reduced to mere monetary units.  The Jobs-led Apple set the bar for other manufacturers (yes, this is a mild endorsement of one aspect of a capitalistic system).  Even though Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, they dramatically changed the way that our society experiences recorded music.  Aside from the technical innovations, Apple also brought a high aesthetic quality to the realm of electronics.  Why can’t our electronics be both functional and pleasing to the eyes?

It’s quite depressing to think about reducing a human being to a brand.  The media outlets will soon be publishing frightening news about how Apple’s success will decline because of Jobs’ death (which isn’t that frightening even if it was true).  Part of me finds this sort of revolting – Steve Jobs was a man with his own unique personality that, in theory, extends beyond the confines of a business, even a business as large as Apple.  But then another part of me realises that Apple was very much at the centre of Jobs’ life and he liked it that way.  Apple was not merely a business venture, but an invaluable outlet for Jobs’ vision and self-expression.

Apple is not dead and will continue to produce excellent innovations, but I don’t think that trajectory could have been so successful without the creative leadership of Jobs.

Steve Jobs wasn’t my friend and I generally do not have a great deal of respect for large companies and their leaders, but all-in-all I think he might have been something like an artist, and a great artist at that.  For someone I never knew and never followed with any sense of dedication, somehow I think I’ll miss Steve Jobs (or as I like to call him, ‘Esteban Trabajos’, with affection).  Thanks for sharing so many good things with the world, Steve.  We here at Lost in the Cloud salute you and will think of you as we experience the blessings of our MacBooks and iPods (and Greg as he uses his iPhone).

Cards won the game, by the way.

Why I am not a Scientologist

Last spring it was revealed that one of my favourite directors, Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood) was trying to pitch a new film to a studio.  In December of 2009, Variety reported on the new film, possibly dubbed The Master, with the outstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman set to star.  A synopsis of the script was published by The Playlist last February:

‘The Master’ is the story of a charismatic intellectual … who hatches a faith-based organization that begins to catch on in America in 1952 called The Cause.  The core dynamic centers on the relationship between The Master and Freddie Sutton, … an aimless twenty-something drifter and alcoholic who eventually becomes the leader’s loyal lieutenant.  As the faith begins to gain a fervent following, Freddie finds himself questioning the belief system he has embraced, and his mentor.

Essentially the film has been seen as a critique of the infamous L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology.  The Master has encountered several snags since these reports, snags that some connect with Scientology’s influence in Hollywood.  But alas, the film seems to be under way, with Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix potentially set to star alongside Hoffman.

Anderson is a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.  I’m certain that The Master, or whatever it will be called, will be an excellent film – he just doesn’t make bad films.  I suppose that’s why it’s so shocking that he’s gone through such an ordeal to find a studio to back this latest project.  It’s easy to point the finger at the heavily-caricatured Church of Scientology, but in my reflections I’m not so sure that’s fair.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time investigating Scientology for someone who has never considered taking up the belief system.  Growing up in and around Los Angeles, Scientology was always something ‘close to home’.  In the last few years, Scientology has been the target of a significant amount of slander.  I suspect that this can be largely attributed to the erratic behaviour of one of their most outspoken members.  I’ve read a lot of Scientological literature (Dianetics, What is Scientology?, Scientology 0-8, etc.) and have learned a lot of Scientological terminology (‘Thetan’, ‘Clear’, an ‘OT’ = ‘Operating Thetan’, ‘KSW’ = ‘Keep Scientology Working’, ‘LRH’ = ‘L. Ron Hubbard’, an ‘SP’ = ‘Suppressive Person’, ‘Tech’, ‘In-Ethics’, ‘Out-Ethics’, ‘Orgs’, etc.).  I’ve heard many people criticise Scientology for its ‘outlandish’ beliefs, such as the fundamental belief concerning human origins (called ‘Incident II’): that the dictator of the ‘Galactic Confederacy’, a being named Xenu brought billions of beings to Earth and killed them with hydrogen bombs, though leaving their essences to inhabit bodies that are now people, etc…

That bit does seem like a lot to stomach—and I know that the orthodox Christian claims concerning such as the existence of a personal deity, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus, could be just as alienating—but Scientological ‘cosmology’ is not my primary reason for rejecting Scientology.  The Church of Scientology’s Creed, written by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, states:

We of the Church believe
That all men of whatever race, color or creed were created with equal rights.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own religious practices and their performance.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own lives.
That all men have inalienable rights to their sanity.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own defense.
That all men have inalienable rights to conceive, choose, assist or support their own organizations, churches and governments.
That all men have inalienable rights to think freely, to talk freely, to write freely their own opinions and to counter or utter or write upon the opinions of others.
That all men have inalienable rights to the creation of their own kind.
That the souls of men have the rights of men.
That the study of the Mind and the healing of mentally caused ills should not be alienated from religion or condoned in nonreligious fields.
And that no agency less than God has the power to suspend or set aside these rights, overtly or covertly.

And we of the Church believe
That Man is basically good.
That he is seeking to Survive.
That his survival depends upon himself and upon his fellows and his attainment of brotherhood with the Universe.

And we of the Church believe that the laws of God forbid Man
To destroy his own kind.
To destroy the sanity of another.
To destroy or enslave another’s soul.
To destroy or reduce the survival of one’s companions or one’s group.

And we of the Church believe
That the spirit can be saved.
And that the spirit alone may save or heal the body.

Perhaps you read this creed and find no fault.  Perhaps you read this creed and see a bunch of convoluted and meaningless language.  When I read this creed something else jumps out at me.  At the very centre of Scientological belief is the view that a person is a spirit, a thetan.  According to their website, and one of their more prominent evangelical campaigns in the last few years, the heart of Scientology lies in an answer to the question, ‘Is Man a spirit?’  The official website states,

Yes.  A short exercise can quickly answer this for anyone: Ask someone to close their eyes and get a picture of a cat, and they will get a mental image picture of a cat.  Ask them who is looking at the picture of the cat and they will respond ‘I am.’  That which is looking at the cat is you, a spirit. One is a spirit, who has a mind and occupies a body.  You are you in a body.

Scientology breaks up the ‘Parts of Man‘ in this way:

First there is the body itself.  The body is the organized physical composition or substance of Man, whether living or dead.  It is not the being himself.

Next, there is the mind, which consists essentially of pictures.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the thetan.  The thetan is not a thing.  It is the creator of things.

Of the three parts of Man, the thetan is, obviously, most important.  Without the thetan, there would be no mind or animation in the body.  While without a body or a mind, there is still animation and life in the thetan.

The goal of a Scientologist is to become an OT, an ‘Operating Thetan’, defined by the Church of Scientology as ‘a spiritual state of being above Clear.’  It continues, ‘By Operating is meant “able to act and handle things” and by Thetan is meant “the spiritual being that is the basic self.”  An Operating Thetan, then, is one who can handle things without having to use a body of physical means.’

In order to achieve this OT state, a Scientologist much engage in a series of ‘gradient steps, each one slightly more advanced than the last and each with its own ability gained.’  The website continues, ‘At the level of OT, Scientologists study the very advanced materials of L. Ron Hubbard’s research.  According to those who have achieved OT, the spiritual benefits obtained surpass description.’

I want to make clear that this is not an attempt to set up a ‘straw man’ version of Scientology.  I could commit many different philosophical fallacies trying to incite hatred of the Church of Scientology, like rumours about conspiracies and brainwashing or the odd lifestyles of the late L. Ron Hubbard or Tom Cruise.  I could also argue that the language employed in these statements is convoluted and meaningless.  But what I am sharing here are things directly from the Church of Scientology’s official website, in the sections that are meant to evangelise to non-Scientologists.  It has been my aim to briefly and accurately express some core beliefs of the Church of Scientology.  At this point I hope to highlight a fundamental disagreement between Christian orthodoxy and Scientological belief, ultimately illustrating why I, as a Christian, am not a Scientologist.

From very early on, the resurrection of the body has been a fundamental tenet of Christian orthodoxy.  In the Creed of Marcellus (a precursor to The Apostles’ Creed) from 340 it is written, ‘… And [I believe] in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body [σαρκός], life everlasting.’1

The need for these sorts of credal affirmations of the physical body arose from a very early Christian heresy that is labelled ‘gnosticism’.  Within a very watered-down gnostic worldview we find the idea that there is an fundamental antagonism between God and the material world (dualism).  The soul is trapped in this material world and through certain esoteric knowledge the soul can find a way of escape.  From what I have gathered, the Scientological belief system very closely resembles a type of gnosticism.  But in light of their understanding of the resurrection of Christ, early Christians, like the second-century Ante-Nicene Father St Irenaeus, condemned such views.  Indeed, when ‘the resurrection of the body’ is mentioned in early Christian sources the phrase does not mean that Christ (as the ‘first fruits’ of the resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15:23) has figuratively risen from the dead.  Contrary to the claims of critics like John Dominic Crossan and his ‘Jesus Seminar’, what makes the claim of the resurrection in the first-century Jewish context so problematic is that it only ever refers to a physical, bodily, literal raising from the dead.2

Whether or not one accepts that Jesus rose from the dead in this way, the early Christian Church held this view and when we say in the creeds, ‘He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day…’ we mean just that.  While St Paul condemns ‘sin in the flesh’ (ἐν τῇ σαρκί) in Romans 8, he is not condemning the body, but the sinfulness over which Christ has triumphed.  This is the key to the validity of the Christian faith.  It is both our present and future hope.  Part of the beauty of this hope is that it restores value and dignity to the creation, the physical creation, that God has created.  The Christian faith is not some collection of data that prepares our souls for a rescue from our bodily prisons, but it is a submission to the reality that God has begun to rescue and will fully rescue this physical world from its corruption and decay.

In this way we are invited to throw ourselves into the rushing stream of God’s kingdom.  We are asked to take part in God’s story through loving others as we have been loved by God.  We do not fight the oppression of the physical world.  Instead, we declare that this physical world has been redeemed by Christ and demonstrate that redemption through God’s working in our lives; caring for those who have been mistreated; being a beacon of peace in the midst of ongoing conflict; standing up for the dignity all people, regardless of nationality, race, age, gender or socioeconomic status.  We are to be constantly challenging the way that those with power (including those within our own large-and-small-scale ecclesiastical institutions) exercise their oppressive authority over the powerless.  God has come in a body through the incarnation, Jesus met the holistic needs of people during his ministry and in the death and resurrection of Christ God has exclaimed ‘I have redeemed the whole person, not merely his or her “soul” and not merely his or her “body”!’

In Scientological literature we are presented with this: ‘A Scientologist can be defined by a single question: Would you want others to achieve the knowledge you now have?’  In the Christian faith a similar question might be worded in this [admittedly cumbersome] way: ‘Would you want others to receive the present and future, holistic hope that you now have?’

+++++

1. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, Third Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 23.
2. For a brief, accessible look at this literal concept of the resurrection, see Tom Wright’s Simply Christian (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), 111-6.

Imaging the Kingdom V: Agnosticism in the kingdom of God

This long-overdue installment of Imaging the Kingdom will be focusing on what I consider to be a healthy degree of agnosticism in the Christian faith, and I’d like to begin with a personal story.  In my first year as a theological studies undergraduate student I became aware of an interesting issue within American Christianity: the age of the earth and the interpretation of the Book of Genesis.  Coming from a more scientific background, accepting the idea that the universe originated with the Big Bang was no struggle for me.  Belief in the God of creation and the discoveries of contemporary science were not contentious, unless of course those scientific conclusions depended entirely on an exclusive naturalism, a presupposed atheism that is just as certain of the non-existence of a deity as theism is of the existence of one.  Despite claims of the purity and certainty of science and reason, I found these atheistic presuppositions to be more experienced-and-feeling-based, like a religion – but I digress.

Through my late exposure to American Evangelicalism I was confronted with another story, a story that claims with certainty despite strong scientific evidence (proof even!) that the earth alone is some 4.5 billion years old, that argues for a ‘young earth’ model.  If the earth is only several thousand years old, then how could biological evolution have happened?  Exactly.  This view also claims that the ‘theory of evolution’ (as if emphasising ‘theory’ makes it less legitimate straight away) is a fabrication of the godless scientific community.  While evolutionists have historically presupposed atheism—seeing evolution, as opposed to theistic creation, as a legitimate way of explaining the diversity of life on earth—I still found no significant tension between the concept of evolution and my belief in God.  That may simply be a matter of my own ignorance, but indulge me.

So as a first year undergraduate student I was confronted with these ‘young earth’ views and I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with them.  I decided to consult someone I trusted, someone whose name was synonymous with ‘wisdom’ in the seminary I attended: Ed Curtis.  Dr Curtis was (and still is) a white-haired sagely Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies who specialised in the Hebrew language and Wisdom Literature.  On top of this, prior to pursuing theology he studied physical science and worked as an engineer and physicist.  I approached Dr Curtis during a theological staff-student luncheon and eventually shared my recent confrontation with the conservative Evangelical position on creation.  He shared that he found himself confronted with the same tension, but in his gentle Texan-drawl he delivered a profound piece of wisdom that has stayed with me since: ‘If we only concerned ourselves with that which we can actually know we’d have enough on our plate.’

This reality puts a significant perspective on how we approach issues of doctrine, belief and practice as Christians.  The ‘that which we can actually know‘ that to which Dr Curtis referred is essentially boiled down to the love that God has revealed to us so explicitly.  In other words, as Christians we know that God loves the world that he created and the incarnation and giving of his Son Jesus Christ is a profound demonstration of this love.  Not only that, but in response to this love, empowered by God’s Spirit, we are called to love God and to love our neighbour.  In fact, loving our neighbours is very much synonymous with loving God, as we hear in Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV):

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”’

Truly, if we primarily concerned ourselves with caring for the holistic needs of all of those around us we would have plenty with which to occupy ourselves.  That all sounds so beautiful, but that still leaves the issue of uncertainty wide open and Westerners don’t like uncertainty, right?  A more troubling thing is that these adamant ‘young earth’/’anti-evolutionary’ views are not bound the sidelines of public discussion – the prominent Republican political figures Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (the latter two are currently competing for the Republican Party’s nomination for president) all hold to and promote conservative Evangelical views on these issues.  In our society these people have a right to hold these views, but the general intolerance demonstrated by many who hold such views only seems to promote needless division.

So what happened?  Why are we at this point?  At one point our Enlightened Western world accepted that through the power of our good science and our right reasoning we can solve anything; we can be have certainty.  Over the last few centuries, the findings of science and reason began to challenge the way that we understand Christianity, from Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to remove all things supernatural from New Testament in writing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in 1820 to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book The Grand Design, which asserts that the origin of the universe need not be explained by the existence of God but by physical laws alone.  In reaction to these assertions, many Christians (especially, though not always, those of a more conservative brand) have outrightly rejected science and reason, or have tended toward developing their own exhaustive analytical philosophies and pseudoscience.

While there is no room for half-baked, reactionary ‘science’ in the marketplace of ideas, providing a rational defense for Christian belief/theology is not entirely out of the question.  But what I’ve come to appreciate is the freedom to simply not know.  In other words, the inevitable transcendence of God (the inability for humanity to know everything about God) means the inevitable ignorance of humanity.  The sheer otherness of other people should be enough to help us realise our inevitable, eternal ignorance.  Even our inability to know ourselves fully shows us our ignorance.  We don’t need to be insecure about uncertainty and paradox.  It’s okay to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ – it’s even okay to answer, ‘I don’t know and I probably never will.’

Over the last few years I’ve engaged with this issue of agnosticism with a close philosopher friend who directed me to the eminent 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Wittgenstein stresses the importance of holding onto epistemological humility in Philosophical Investigations (426):

Here again we get the same thing as in set theory: the form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees the whole of each of those infinite series and he sees into human consciousness.  For us, of course, these forms of expression are like pontificals which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give these vestments meaning and purpose.

In the actual use of expression we make detours, we go by side roads.  We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed.1

It seems that Wittgenstein is telling us that both our language and our ability to know are significantly limited, thus necessitating a self-reflective hint of humility in how we argue for/hold onto various ideas.  I see this fitting perfectly with a healthy Christian agnosticism, as Barth expresses in his Dogmatics in Outline,

Christian faith has to do with the object, with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of which the Creed speaks.  Of course it is of the nature and being of this object, of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that He cannot be known by the powers of human knowledge, but is apprehensible and apprehended solely because of His own freedom, decision and action.2

This is not to say that we stop our pursuit of the knowledge of God, but that while we pursue a better knowledge—a knowledge that, when coupled with action, has the potential to transform lives and deliver those who are oppressed from their oppressors—we must always hold onto that which is most central to the Christian faith: the grace and love of God.  We can and should disagree with one another, as diversity is part of what potentially makes the Church so effective, counter-cultural, welcoming and healthy, but we should also take very seriously the fact that none of us will ever know everything.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.3

+++++

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953), 127e.
2. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, translated by Colin E. Gunton (London: SCM Press, 1949), 15.
3. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 33.

‘America!’, a ramble

Is America a force for good in the world?  Many people would respond positively, convinced of some strange belief called ‘American exceptionalism’, and would top it off with a resounding ‘God bless America!’  But on the other end of the spectrum we find many who would respond with disgust, as if such a question was not worthy of a response at all.  Perhaps both of these responses are true.  In an interview on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970, Orson Welles declared,

I think one thing that is generally true, the one generalisation that is true about America is that everything is true about it.  It’s impossible to say anything that isn’t true, good or bad.  Our enemies are right, our friends are right.  It’s an awful big country [with] an awful lot of different kinds of people in it.

I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement.  From my perspective, an expatriated American of Scottish extraction, I can’t bring myself to side with either one of the two  extremist responses above.  The disestablishmentarian in me would readily scoff at the first answer when looking at the actions of ‘America’ throughout its short history.  ‘Manifest Destiny’; CIA plots to interfere with South American politics in order to stop the spread of COMMUNISM(!); capitalistic exploitation in America and in third world countries; the ill-informed invasion of Iraq in 2003; all those boy bands from the 90s – America isn’t a wholly good nation.  But then again, such a thing doesn’t exist.  That is not to say that America has done exclusively ‘bad’ things with this power.  Throughout history America’s government—however manipulated by an insecure worldview—has acted in self-interest.  Sometimes America’s self-interest is beneficial for the rest of the world and sometimes it isn’t.

When I left America for Scotland I was told by a Northern Irish friend that I would probably find myself defending my the States more than I expected.  But to be honest, I never had an entirely bleak outlook on America in the first place.  At different points I toyed with expatriation as a self-righteous act of political protest, but if anyone wants to lump America together as a homogeneous society of nit-wits I will try my best to convince them that this cannot truly be said of any nation.  America, with more than 300 million citizens who for the most part find their origins in faraway countries, is a freakishly diverse and dynamic nation.  But as it stands, and while this is not unique to America, many Americans (me included) and American governments have been guilty of making this world a poorer place in many inventive ways.

But America is also a beautiful nation full of beautiful people.  This as well is not unique to America.  But growing up in and around Los Angeles has shaped who I am in many ways and I wouldn’t change that fact even if I could.  And while I profess a love for Scotland, it inevitably shares many of America’s flaws.  I simply can’t escape what is broken with the world because I can’t escape the world.  All any of us can do is aim to repair what is broken and spread what is good.  But at this point we must ask the question, what is good?

Regarding America, and in celebration of the Fourth of July, when Americans commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (according to Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams), I will now point out two things that I think are exemplary of the good: American music and baseball.

Let me make clear that these two things are not free of their own flaws.  For instance, in addition to the 90s boy bands I mentioned earlier, America is also responsible for Journey and a host of other terrible artists.  Of course this is a matter of taste, and while some poor folk might think that Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan are passé, their music had and continues to have a profound impact on culture around the world.  Of course we are reminded of the words of Donne, ‘No man is an island’, and the two owe a great deal to a rich and fertile musical heritage borne from countless sources like the Negro spiritual.  But it can be argued that, among many others, the highly influential genres of ragtime, jazz, country, rock and roll, soul, hip-hop, and grunge were all founded in the US of A.  And of course there’s the broad Americana genre.  Perhaps these developments can be attributed to the rapid economic growth of America throughout its short history, mixed with the continual convergence of various world cultures, all taking place alongside the development of music recording and transmission throughout the 20th century.

Regardless of the cause, American music has always pushed new ground and inspired subsequent generations of artists.  See legendary musicians of days long past like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jelly Roll Morton, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger (who is still kicking!).  Their torch was passed to popular artists like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Johnny Cash, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Thelonius Monk, and Frank Sinatra.  Then this was followed by a wave of dramatic developments from American artists like The Beach Boys, Blondie, James Brown, T-Bone Burnett, Devo, Philip Glass, Iggy Pop, Michael Jackson, Love, Ramones, The Talking Heads, Television, The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, and Frank Zappa.

In more recent years we’ve seen the rise of significant American musicians like Lou Barlow, Jeff Buckley, Botch, Converge, Fugazi, Grandaddy, Aimee Mann, Neutral Milk Hotel, Nirvana, Pixies, R.E.M., Tupac Shakur, Daniel Smith, Elliott Smith, Sonic Youth, Sunny Day Real Estate, The White Stripes, Yo La Tengo, and yet more recent artists like Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Explosions in the Sky, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Cass McCombs, and Frightened Rab…nevermind that last one.  Of course there are many more artists that should be included in this list (I merely picked some of my favourites), but that only goes to show how important American music has been in the last century.  In Sufjan Stevens alone we can see a massive and ambitious output of constant reinterpretation and innovation.

Now onto the second good thing I want to affirm about America, which probably came as no surprise to seasoned LITC readers.  Baseball may not enjoy the global fame of association football, but I happen to think it is the greatest sport to ever grace the face of the earth (though football’s soccer’s not far behind – apologies to cricket, rugby, golf, etc.).  I’ve professed my undying love for baseball through blog posts on several different occasions.  And despite the inevitable corruption that plagues the sport (greed, performance-enhancing drugs, marital infidelity, bench-clearing brawls, etc.), there’s a magic and heart to baseball that is truly good.

In the classic 1989 film Field of Dreams, the character Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) is trying to convince the main character, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), to embrace his dream, a vision he had of a baseball field on his farm in Iowa.  Because Ray has cleared land for this baseball field and has invested money into its development (outfitted with stadium lights and all), he is losing money rapidly and in this particular scene his brother-in-law is trying to convince him to sell the farm and leave his dream behind.  Mann responds,

Ray, people will come Ray.  They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom.  They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it.  They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.  Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say.  It’s only $20 per person.  They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack…

And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon.  They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.  And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces…

People will come Ray…

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.  America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray.  It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.  Oh, people will come Ray.  People will most definitely come.

There’s much more going on at the core of the film, but I won’t spoil it – you should watch the film.  What I want to point out is this sentiment expressed so sweetly through James Earl Jones’ transcendent voice.  Throughout many wars and economic depressions baseball has remained because it is a special vessel of goodness.  I suppose that’s part of why I love the Tigers so much – they represent this beacon of goodness (among many other great beacons of goodness in Detroit) in the midst of a suffering place.

So this is to you, America!  And while I’m not too keen on the cult of the American flag, here’s Ol’ Glory, which stands as a mere symbol for the hopes and dreams—noble and ignoble—of millions of people throughout the last 235 years and in the present.  May God bless America, but more importantly, may God continue to bless this struggling world.

Will tomorrow be the ‘end of the world’?

Maybe, but I’m suspecting no. [Greg adds: Suspicion was correct.] Readers will no doubt have heard about a Christian group going around, informing the world that 21 May 2011 is the day that God will issue his divine judgment upon the earth. This is said to include an event called the ‘Rapture’, in which Christians will be taken from the earth before God begins a period of judgment that is called the ‘Great Tribulation’ or the ‘Seven Year Tribulation’. Their efforts have spawned a waves of both curious attraction and intense ridicule (which they expect, going up against the ‘Antichrist’ – see 1 John 2:18). One public Facebook event, ‘Post rapture looting’, has, by this afternoon, amassed more than half a million ‘attendees’ prepared to take full advantage of the potential ‘end’ and illegally acquire new stereos in the event of a ‘Rapture’.

If I was going to even begin to really analyse the many facets of this convoluted and heterodox belief system it would take thousands upon thousands of words and I suspect that out of my own personal frustration I’d actually want the world to end after all. I am not trying to pick on these Christians, as I am certain that they truly believe the things that they are preaching, and that if I was convinced the world was going to end on 21 May 2011 I could only hope to demonstrate the passion and fervency to make that fact known like they are. But I really think they’re wrong.

Where do they get these ideas? Well, without getting into the interpretive and mathematical gymnastics required to extrapolate ‘THE END OF THE WORLD IS 21 MAY 2011′ from the Bible, it’s important to know why these people have been looking for this date.

We must begin our brief exploration of this issue in the Book of Revelation, which is probably one of the most misunderstood sections of Scripture. In American Evangelical Christianity (especially within the belief systems called Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalism) there is a widespread view that the Book of Revelation foretells the end of the world in very literal terms. What is meant by ‘literal’, I can’t quite grasp, but it’s some way of applying a particular interpretive method described as ‘literal’ that is a somewhat willy nilly version of what we might understand as literal-minded (according to the OED, ‘having a literal mind; characteristic of one who takes a matter-of-fact or unimaginative view of things’, the term ‘literal’ being used ‘to denote that [an accompanying noun] has its literal sense, without metaphor, exaggeration, or inaccuracy; literally so called.’).

According to this interpretation (and there are many variations), the Book of Revelation is entirely futuristic and eschatological, that is, something that takes place at the end of all things. I’m not interested in exploring the legitimacy of this view right here, right now, but I will say that some startling insights for the Book of Revelation come from reading 1 and 2 Maccabees (considered apocryphal by most Protestant denominations) help illuminate the Second Temple Jewish context of the New Testament and the Book of Revelation and lead to some dramatically different interpretations of things like the ‘Seven Year Tribulation’ and the ‘Antichrist’.

Either way, this literalistic/futuristic view believes that God will bring judgment on the earth according to a complex set of events and periods of time. One of these events, as mentioned earlier, is called the ‘Rapture’. The concept of the ‘Rapture’ is primarily based upon one reference in Scripture, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18, which states,

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This passage provides those who hold to the idea that the Book of Revelation informs us that God will judge this world during a period of ‘Great Tribulation’ with a bit of relief: they won’t have to endure this period of judgment. But in light of the Second Temple Jewish context of the Book of Revelation, I don’t believe in this future ‘Seven Year Tribulation’, and my disbelief is not a result of a lack of faith in God or an interpretation that isn’t ‘literal’ enough. I merely believe that the best understanding of this issue within the Bible would indicate that the great tribulation in the Book of Revelation 4-19 is a reference to the occupation and oppression that the Jews experienced in the Second Temple Period (i.e. the ruler of the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus IV Epiphanes is the ‘beast’ from Revelation 13:5-8; see 1 Maccabees 1:20-28).

While I generally hold to this preteristic (as opposed to futuristic) view of Christian eschatology, I do believe that God will bring about his kingdom in its fullness at some point in the future. I certainly wouldn’t say that these doomsday folk are wrong in believing that there is something significant to come, but I do have trouble with their views on what that looks like and how/when it happens. With regard to the pressing issue of time (being that I may only have 24 hours before the end [15 in Australia!]), the time of God’s full bringing of his kingdom, the end of the authorities of this earth, Matthew’s Gospel (24:36) records Jesus as saying,

But about that day and hour [of my return] no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

I do not believe that the arithmetic these doomsday folk have derived from the Bible to draw the conclusion that the end of the world is tomorrow is actually faithful in any way to the content and purpose of Scripture. Even if the Bible was explicitly clear about this date, when tomorrow rolls by without the end of the world, God would not be made a liar. God is not the Bible. The Bible is a result of God inviting his people into his story. St Paul writes that no one will know when the end will come, as it will come as a ‘thief in the night’ (1 Thessalonians 5:2)

I don’t think we should waste our time with conjectures about when the unknowable will come to pass. Every Christian generation from the Apostles to our present generation has anticipated the immanent end, but no Christian generation has ever been the Church that loves and serves in the power of God’s Spirit; the Church that fights for the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised; the Church that extends to all people an open invitation into God’s loving family through the wholly effective death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the Church that has become what it is called to be. That is our goal and that is our priority. I hope that if tomorrow isn’t the end, these doomsday folk will experience the love and grace of God in a way that will encourage them to divert their incredible faith and energy back to the task at hand.

(Originally posted at Things & Stuff)

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