01.30.13

the jedi

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:03 am by Administrator

my son and i were talking today about star wars concepts (he’s six and a half and utterly absorbed in the original trilogy). after a glass of brandy, i sat down with him and asked him to entertain what i believe is one of the more interesting questions pertaining to star wars. when exactly did luke become a jedi? my son thought that he was a jedi at the start of episode 6. i suggested that luke probably became a jedi at the moment he decided not to slay Darth—when he exerted self-control and defined himself a jedi, like his father before him.

this prompted my son to ask me when anakin became a jedi. and this, i believe, is the greatest question of them all.

if jedi identity is based on power alone, then perhaps one could argue that anakin’s identity was established at the moment that he was capable of some kinetic trick. but yoda suggests that jedi identity is derived from more than simply power; it is a combination of both power and self-control. seeing that anakin is depicted as a youth ruled by his obsessions and anger, i might argue that anakin never attained jedi identity. not until the moment, perhaps, when his son declared him a jedi, there at the very brink of his extinction. i’d argue that luke’s declaration of his father’s identity as a jedi enabled the completion of anakin’s training; by reaching out and seizing it, so to speak, anakin reasserted himself, to the demise of Darth Vader, and in vanquishing the Emperor he proved his nature as jedi and fulfilled the destiny accorded to him by the prophecies.

power and self-control. indeed, one does not really exist without the other. for a completely powerless man has no need for self-control; there is nothing within him to be restrained. on the other hand, self-control is not evidenced except where there is true power. and where there is absolute power, there exists the highest form of self-control. power begs to be evidenced in a force of will; self-control robs power of that actualization, but in so doing it lends purpose to that power. the honing of power is what gives it focus, durability, and enduring impact. and thus we see in the person of Christ the ultimate Jedi—the most profound example of raw power restrained by mercy, directed against sin, ultimately evidenced in a human resurrection.

my son today asked his classmates about faith in God, discovering that “most kids believe in God but some don’t”. he advised the unbelievers to believe in God and go to church. i asked my son why he believes in God, and he said it’s because both of his parents believe in God. i asked him if he’s ever heard the voice of God, and he asked me how this is possible. i told him that i have heard the voice of God, in my mind. he shut his eyes hard and searched his mind for the voice of God, thereafter telling me that he had heard nothing. i told him it takes time. jedi training takes a long, long time. but if he wants it enough, if he really desires to hear the voice of God, then he will hear it, when the time is right

01.28.13

reading the bible, with carl

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:49 pm by Administrator

transcript of a recent chat conversation with Carl, on scriptural interpretation:

————————————————-

Me: when i am honest with myself, and i look at the way i look at the Bible, i would describe it more as a mirror than as a book.
Carl: that’s very honest.
Me: i don’t see steadfast principle in the Bible. i don’t see God the same way
Carl: and i think most people should be able to confess the same thing–mirror vs book
Me: see, but this has been a source of great struggle for me. my close friends are very principled people. it’s weakness to not understand what you believe, in specifics.
Carl: i see.
Me: it’s folly to not be able to defend your beliefs, from the scripture. it’s heresy, to contend something that is not explicit in the Bible. but to me, the Bible defies understanding of God, when read as a book.
Carl: it’s really the curse of the scholar to some degree too–seeing value in too many opinions
Me: there’s something going on between Peter and Ananias… and my assumption is that we cannot infer a principle.
Carl: i don’t understand your last sentence, ending with “read as a book”.
Me: a book is something with a beginning and an end; it is textual; it has an author. it can be properly interpreted, if one knows the author’s intention, and thus it can be understood, for what it’s intending to say (in an ideal universe, in which one has access to the author). but i do not experience the Bible as a book. to me, it is less text than rumination.
Carl: by whom?
Me: innumerable ppl.
Carl: i mean, the readers or the authors?
Me: the authors are innumerable ppl. they have been pieced together, but they are interlinked and now inseparable, God included. what is important is not what they’re saying but what they experienced in their time. and i have a conduit to that through their words, however changed those words have become.
Carl: reminds me of Barthes, who says that there are no authors, just “scriptors” who refashion already existing materials, so we have endless quotations.
Me: yeah. i’m struck by something keller said once. that if the apocrypha were in fact written by a true godly source, so what? a bible missing a few books does not lose its central truth. i’d go further and say that if we fundamentally misunderstand many of the words in the Bible, it is still possible for us to read it “correctly”, if what we’re getting at is not principles but rather core experiences.
Carl: ok, i could go with you on that. less crazy about what keller said though
Me: ahh. i thought it was interesting, and a bit bold
Carl: i don’t know if principles vs experiences is the right contrast.
Me: it works for me cuz of the kind of person i am
Carl: to me, the bible is certainly a historical record of particular experiences, but i think the bible gives us help understanding experiences too. the bible not as the object of inquiry but as a lens of inquiry too. the early church experienced all this stuff–miracles, death and resurrection of their leader, pentecost, betrayal by a core dsciple, jewish leadership opposing them, etc–and they looked to scripture to explain their experience. acts 2 pentecost is a great example of that–wth is happening? are they drunk? no, says, peter, let’s look at joel, who explained many years ago what is happening right now. what we’re experiencing is called the spirit of God, and it tells us that we’re living in a special, long-awaited time, etc. so i guess you could call that principles, but i’m not sure if that’s the best word.
Me: perhaps i have a better contrast of terms. mode of relationship, versus manner of relationship. i blogged about this recently, i think. i feel we get so fixated on mode of relationship: sonship, citizenship, membership. we look at the establishment of our mode of relationship as the primary fixation of God’s promises. but i also feel that we underrate how much the manner of relationship is close to God’s heart. he wants us to be sons… so that we will worship in truth and in spirit. he wants us to be free from the law of sin and death… so that we might enjoy Him completely. one can be a son of God, adopted and by rights an heir and yet still fail to experience God’s favor in some way. like the brother of the prodigal son. the point, in other words, isn’t the rule by which we are “saved”. the point is relationship with God, for which we are afforded a foundation. this, for me, is what i’m getting at, in the discussion of principles and experiences. what we believe is less important than how we essentially relate to God.
Carl: ok i follow. i think you’re right.
Me: if what we believe enables us to submit to God in totality, we believe what is true.
Carl: and what you’re describing as “mode” is basically what others might call “dead orthodoxy”.
Me: or, a construct

01.24.13

laker drama

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:28 am by Administrator

for years, i’ve maintained a litany of unflattering observations regarding Laker fans, and for most of those years i’ve been dismissed for being “jealous” or “so Philadelphia” or straight-up obnoxious. but i’ll say for sure that this was the year that my general understanding of the L.A. sports scene was confirmed. in short, i present my central critique: Laker fans are only able to express negativity about their team by disengaging.

now, there are many who would say that this is possibly the most constructive way of expressing frustration with one’s team. let’s look at the alternatives. Philadelphians express negativity about their teams by crucifying their star players and running them out of town. New Yorkers express negativity by beheading management at a moment’s notice and publicly demanding accountability. Bostonians become more surly versions of themselves, drinking excessively to the point that their speech, already barely comprehensible, becomes a foreign language. in most parts of America where sports teams routinely disappoint their fans, the expression of negativity is a normal part of city life; it fuels cab conversations, the bartending economy, and the budding careers of op-ed columnists.

in L.A. however, when a sports team begans to fade, there is momentary confusion, and then things begin to vanish. Rams and Raiders fans (followed by the teams themselves). Clipper fans, during the “drought years” (meaning every year since Larry Brown’s departure up until last year’s Chris Paul trade). there is momentary confusion because L.A. natives, indoctrinated as they are with the Disney myth of perpetual happiness, do not know how to navigate a path that does not lead to certain success. when faced with adversity, they sit in their seats with stunned, glazed-over looks, fumbling for their phones, hoping for a momentary diversion from the awkward scene of defeat being revealed before them. they erase facebook posts announcing that they are at a game. they do not talk about what happened on the day after.

and then they proceed to vanish. three weeks ago, a lifelong Laker fan came up to me during her birthday party and asked me what team she should pick now. i asked her what she was referring to. “oh, you know the Lakers!” she exclaimed. “they are too frustrating!” when i pointed out that the Lakers have delivered five championships in the past thirteen years, she seemed momentarily surprised, as if none of it had happened at all. after she recovered from the moment, i suggested the other L.A. basketball team, and her response was “no way, i have principles“.

in some way, shape, or form, i have seen other Laker fans similarly make their gradual transition into blithe oblivion. a colleague at work recently told me that he’s seen this meltdown coming for years (despite the fact that the acquisitions of Nash, Howard, and D’Antoni were quite recent) and that there was nothing more to say about it really (or ever again). as he’s above me in the company hierarchy, i have interpreted this as his signal that we are to never discuss the Lakers again. another Laker fan who is a patient of mine usually wears some piece of Laker paraphernalia to his visits (a hat, a jersey, a t-shirt), but recently he has stopped wearing these things and has pointedly stopped talking about basketball. a subtle “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture is palpably pervading my social circle in Los Angeles; and while i could be encountering selection bias, i would say that the large sample size of my observations is building a strong case. Laker fans don’t merely get off the bus; they slide out the rear emergency exit at a non-scheduled stop, without saying a word.

my friends here who grew up in other places believe that Laker fans are simply pampered, but the real truth goes deeper than that. they have not yet learned how to express negativity without shame. whether because they’re afraid to be perceived as unhappy or because they’re afraid to be mocked by out-of-towners, they deftly shift their allegiances to whatever local team is having success (the hockey Kings, for instance), while quietly pretending that they have not been paying attention to the debacle of the 2012-2013 Laker season. and it has been nothing less than a debacle. ohhhh yes. it has been an unusually and ridiculously awful underachievement by one of the most highly hyped teams in all of NBA history.

most therapists feel that the beginning of recovery is the open and honest expression of negative feeling. however stunted and malformed Laker fans innately are, i feel like some form of growth is nevertheless possible for them if they are allowed to validate their inner frustrations. progress begins when the Laker fan admits that he is having a bad time this year, that he can foresee that the team will not win the NBA championship, that he can foresee his own unpleasant reaction to this inevitable defeat. healing perhaps can begin afterwards, when the Laker fan begins to understand how much the culture of feigned positivity in L.A. has breeded a sort of fan experience one can only describe as shallow, self-satisfying, and fantastical. then and only then might he begin the journey taken by fans in so many other cities of America, a journey that culminates in an enduring, occasionally brash, and unabashedly loyal devotion to a sports team.

01.22.13

amour

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:05 pm by Administrator

there is much much buzz about Michael Haneke’s “Amour”, and the reviews are universally positive. i’m not writing this entry so much to critique the movie as to debrief myself, because it was an intense experience for me. regarding the merits of the film, i’ll say that it was well-acted and quite poignant at moments—but it was not entertaining in the conventional sense, nor was it particularly innovative in its narration and thesis. it did drag quite a bit, though one could argue that part of Haneke’s point was to discomfit his audience by trapping them, so to speak, in the tedious rhythms inherent to the inglorious process of dying.

for the very first time, i think, i was struck while watching a movie by how much the medium imposes on its audience. during those two hours, a viewer must witness the inner workings of a stranger’s mind, while prohibited from interacting with that stranger. the viewer is not privy to the content of the movie prior to viewing it (a certain suspense that is integral to the experience), and thus he cannot fully anticipate or shield himself from what he is about to be subjected to. due to the culture of silence and attentiveness demanded in the theater, the viewer cannot actively process or deflect what is being thrust upon him. he is essentially helpless, forcibly spellbound by the medium, compelled into recipient silence. even in the aftermath, there is no way that the individual viewer can mount a response equal to what was imposed upon him, unless he himself constructs the full audio-visual experience of a responsive film. in short, the moviegoing experience is captivating, perhaps in some of the positive ways, but certainly in some of the less pleasant ways as well.

“Amour” along with “United 93″ and “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” constitute the three most unpleasant cinematic experiences of my lifetime. in a true way, i felt victimized by all three experiences. when i reflect on those movies, the nature of the abuse in the three situations varied widely, but there were distinct similarities in my reactions. i felt cornerered, trapped, and uncomfortable. while watching, i wanted to interact with others, in order to deflect the experience, but i was prohibited from doing so. in all three movies, i was conscious of an unpleasant psychosomatic reaction to the movies. during “amour” i felt hemmed in; during “united 93″, i experienced a full-blown panic attack; and during “tetsuo” i experienced acute nausea.

as distinct as these movie experiences are, i can’t help but conjecture that there are elements of this psychological experience that i have even while watching movies that i consider more pleasant. as i get older, i’m more and more cognizant of how tired and wired-up i often feel when i leave the theater. i’m less and less tolerant of vapid movies, particularly the low-brow Hollywood action flick (i.e. Transformers). i spend more time scouring reviews before an anticipated movie night, because i’m more wary of the unpleasant consequences of a bad movie. i study the reviews not because i want to anticipate the plot but because i want to anticipate the kind of psychological experience i will have. i am not necessarily looking for a happy or unhappy feeling; but inasmuch as it is possible, i want to avoid feeling manipulated by another person. i think that this explains why i have such distaste for Michael Moore, despite the fact that i have sympathized with him on the matters that he’s filmed.

there is so much of our recreational experience in post-industrial America that i would describe as forced captivity. as time goes on, we are subjected to more and more heavy-handed media manipulation. our goal is to overwhelm one another’s senses, through 3-D IMAX, surround sound, ubiquitous advertising, incessant product placement, and the monetization of hand-held media experiences. and yesterday when i experienced the feeling of being cornered by Michael Haneke, i remembered why i discontinued television service and deactivated my facebook account three years ago. i do these things because i honestly believe that there is something insidious and spiritually devastating about being pounded in this way, manipulated and consumerized to the point of mental numbness, to the point that self-expression can be nothing other than reflected indoctrination.

a last reflection: i see it shaping the church worship experience as well, and i wonder at it. it is already so odd that the sunday church experience is dominated by the homily. do we understand how arbitrary this is? there was no prescribed practice for a featured teaching during the gatherings of the saints; and yet here we are, assembling as worshipers in the “didactic position”, implying to the world that the main emphasis of worship is to be talked at, instructed, and even entertained. this is odd enough, that we choose to feature spoken essays over the established sacraments; but then we add to it the audio-visual extravaganza that has come to be the trademark of the large church experience, replete with electronic music, multiple screens (as if proximity to the closest flat-screen is a surrogate for closeness with God Himself), light shows, and elaborate staging. i don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t put energy and attention into the liturgy; rather, and more fundamentally, i wonder if the worship experience ought to be a performance at all! in any case, it is a perfect reflection of our entertainment culture at large; we are comfortable with the performance experience, to the degree that we demand it in more and more elaborate ways.

as strong as my words are, they’re not meant to be a pointed critique. rather, this is my way of speaking out, speaking out against the imposition, speaking the suppressed sentiments within me. in a sense, i’m less and less entertained by the experience of sensory overload, and i want to be “talked at” less and less with time. on the other hand, i’m finding more and more pleasure in conversation, in structured interaction, and even in meetings. so many of the people i work with dislike meetings by nature; but more and more, i’m discovering that the “meeting” essentializes what i find most entertaining in life. but this is another discussion for another time.

01.18.13

the megachurch thing

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:11 am by Administrator

though i write a lot about theology and culture, i don’t write much about churches in particular. it’s not that i don’t have a lot of opinions about various pastors, church leaders, and churches. it’s that i’ve had a difficult time coming around to a synthesis, a real consistency of perspective on the things related to the American church of the 21st century.

before i attempt to push toward a thesis, i’m going to lay out some observations of the American church that i’ve made over the last decade:

1. there is increasing overlap in the literature regarding business success and church growth. there are crossover authors; authors in one category cite authors from the other; and megachurch pastors are bestselling authors.

2. the roles of teaching and pastoring in the church have become conflated. generally speaking, senior pastors are assumed to be the primary teachers of that congregation, and teaching may be a senior pastor’s primary role.

3. from anecdotal experience, many of my friends going into pastoral ministry want crossover careers, involving academic work, publication, and active participation in (if not executive control over) charitable organizations.

4. denominational ascription plays a smaller role than the pastor’s individual sense of vision in determining the culture-formation and priorities of a local body.

at one point, i looked at these four observations and summarized them as reflecting the emerging acceptance of “cult of personality” as the guiding force in church development. indeed, many of the church leadership conferences i’ve gone to have emphasized the key role that a senior pastor’s unique perspective has in generating connection with a specific demographic, for the growth of a church. contemporary megachurch experience suggests that it is the pastor’s combination of charisma and marketability that best predicts his material success (through book deals) and his ministry success (through membership enrollment).

while this viewpoint motivated some of my former resistance to the megachurch model of ministry, it would be unfair of me now to reduce that view as being unduly cynical. though i no longer dismiss megachurch models out of hand, i continue to be wary of the effect that the consumerized sensibilities of the American public have on the priorities and attitudes of church ministers.

if there is a persisting question i’ve had during these years of exploration, perhaps it’s this: do we hear enough of an emphasis on shepherding as the primary role of the American pastor? and related to this, in the context of our general fixation with growth, influence, and ideological relevance, do we emphasize enough the church’s important role as a social and spiritual safety net for the marginalized elements of society?

granted, i’ve been all over the spectrum when it comes to the church’s role in the national political forum. but i think that there is a difference between standing for a socially liberal agenda and standing for the disadvantaged. they are not the same thing. a church can be devoted to its own dispossessed without necessarily advocating laws and policies that can theoretically assist those dispossessed. deep down, i think what i quest for is a church that seeks social relevance not through political activism but rather through the active and consistent demonstration of counterculture.

it’s here, regarding the church’s role in caring for the marginalized, that i see inconsistency in the church’s outreach. megachurches are still predominantly suburban phenomena, limiting their relevance to the most desperately poor. the American church in general is mostly hostile to one of the most marginalized groups in American society, that being the LGBT population. politics are preached wantonly from the pulpit, but there is no unified message from the church regarding the plight of the dispossessed. where the church should be most ecumenical, it is more notably splintered, politicized, and ideologically fastidious. this is because our pulpits are populated by charismatic intellectuals and not by healers, shepherds, and community advocates.

i sound judgmental even to myself, but i offer these thoughts as my necessary starting point. everyone has a bias regarding what is best about church, and my bias is that church leaders should be a bit more allergic to popularity. big, booming churches have an obligation not only to their congregations but to smaller, struggling churches in communities of need. one local body should not exist in an island of ministry; each church proves its relevance not by how many church plants it generates but rather by how well it partners with other local bodies to meet the needs of the lost and suffering. we need dynamic models of interrelationship that transcend ideology, personality, and denomination, in the pursuit of both unity and compassionate practice.

a part of me is unable to grieve for the church in our time, because i’ve known no different. but the child-abuse scandals, the current disunity and disrepair of the church, and the emerging intellectualization and commodification of Christ’s central message are more than enough reason for real grief. we try and try to make Christ more interesting and more engaging, for the purpose of self-validation. we forget that we were only called to serve according to our giftings, and to channel the work of His spirit. between paradigms, a perfect representation of what i judge most harshly, i look at what i am and recognize that we are so reprehensible. we need new shepherds; we need new examples of ministry; and we need to change

01.15.13

Assault rifles, and the Primacy of Possession

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:28 pm by Administrator

my old friend chris visited us the other day, and talk got around to her husband Carl and a certain pipe dream i’ve entertained of being his partner in ministry someday. chris expressed some reservations about the idea, as it’s not unusual to see ministry partners (as with business partners) become estranged due to conflict. my wife interjected that i probably don’t even agree with Carl’s theology. to that comment i gave my own well-rehearsed reply: that i am an unprincipled man. if i follow a man that i respect, then ultimately i’ll take on his worldview.

i say that without shame but with a little embarrassment. it’s not a shame to me, because i’ve come to believe that there’s no fault in being more molded by experience than by ideals. i’m very affected by the lives and feelings of others; and personal friendships have deeply affected my attitudes toward abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality, to the degree that i have reversed many of the political views i once held on these issues. the world is full of leaders who pride themselves on being consistent in their ideals and beliefs; but i will never be able to boast of such consistency. there’s only thing i can think of regarding which my beliefs have not changed over time, and that thing is the sovereignty of God.

i do regard this fact about myself with a little embarrassment though, because i’m well-known for expressing my beliefs if not adamantly defending them. my wife frequently points out to me that we’ve had vehement disagreements on a variety of things throughout our marriage, but oddly i have ultimately acquiesced to her viewpoint on nearly all points of disagreement. it’s embarrassing to me not because it’s evidence that i’ve been wrong; but rather it’s embarrassing to me because i know i don’t have much of a leg to stand on in our future disagreements. as important as victory is to me, my history of ideological defeats and compromises is a thoroughly humbling matter to me—and one which has necessitated profound self-evaluation.

in any case, i offer this introduction in order to contextualize my own attitude toward gun ownership. i’ve always been vigorously opposed to gun ownership. but a couple of years ago, when i got into a fight with another driver on the road, i went home and decided that i needed to buy a gun to protect myself and my family. i talked to other gun owners; i learned how they secured their guns; i came to understand their general attitudes toward safety and gun ownership. though i ultimately decided not to purchase a gun, it wasn’t because i reverted to my belief that there is something unethical about gun ownership. rather, i chose not to purchase a gun because i came to the personal belief that the gun would be a greater danger to myself than to anyone else.

it is odd that the debates that have erupted since New Town have sensitized me to my own changing attitude toward gun ownership. more than ever before in my life, i feel that i understand why people want to own guns. moreover, i can understand why stories like New Town deepen their convictions about the importance of gun ownership. i’ve gained this sensitivity to what was once a loathsome viewpoint to me not simply because i recently contemplated owning a gun but because i have deep friendships with people who do own guns. beyond this, i have begun to discern the profound cultural elements unique to America and its history that make gun ownership a uniquely important part of its heritage.

from the way i understand it, there are two really deeply ingrained values evidenced in the origins and evolution of the United States. one is America’s particular brand of “rationalism” (per Louis Menand) which i’ve previously commented on. the other is America’s premium on protecting personal property. regarding the latter, one can even argue that the American Revolution itself was fought over the right to personal property, unconstrained by government taxation, intervention, or machination. the right to bear arms was a natural consequence of this prevailing attitude about the sanctity of personal property; the point of a militia was to protect oneself, one’s family, and one’s community from the arbitrary cruelty of far-removed and external influences.

at the root of this sort of a belief is the acknowledgement that there is always tension between the defense of personal property and the rule of an overarching government. the early Americans were biased by a certain cynicism (if not outright fear) of government; and personal property to them was not merely about wealth but about the ability to protect their families from manipulation and harm. guns symbolized the empowerment of individuals, particularly in those spaces where government was either unwilling or unable to protect them; guns also symbolized a certain protection of these individuals from the excesses of their own government.

there is something about this latter philosophical bent that Gen Xers (and myself in particular) can relate to. the idea that our society is in decline is very much in the forefront of our minds; it occupies our imagination and fuels our art. we are ever more aware of our government’s capacity for duplicity and the violation of individual civil rights, as evidenced in the Iraq WMD scandal, Guantanamo tortures, and the government’s legal proceedings against those who “breach confidentiality” or “violate intellectual property rights”. and even as we fear “Big Brother”, we are ironically also more afraid of verging toward anarchy, as we measure the repercussions of a lost war on drugs, a defeated war on poverty, and a tax law that seems more unwieldy and untenable with every passing administration. in the face of both impending tyranny and spiraling chaos, the American consciousness summons memories of its roots in the Wild West and in the War for Independence. pistols are for warding away intruders; but assault rifles are for the lawless frontier.

it’s the primacy of possession that dominates the id of the classic American. take away his right to a fully automatic weapon and you violate his sense of American heritage. like it or not, we are a people perpetually wary of big government and preoccupied with holding on to what is ours. it is neither evil nor good; it is simply the central theme of this country’s story—a story of a land that broke from tradition, to empower the individual to both resist and to shape his government. in this light, guns and bullets are more than a right-wing fascination or a dangerous hobby; they confer a power equal to if not greater than the right to vote.

all of this is to say that i believe guns (and automatic weapons in particular) are here to stay in the USA. i’m ambivalent about that, which signals a change in my heart. i’m not for or against; i just feel that i understand better now what is always at stake in this debate.

testimony

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:02 am by Administrator

every now and then, i’m asked to relate my testimony—my reasons for being religious, the path i took toward faith in a god. oddly, as often as this happens, i always seem to give a different testimony every time. i feel like i should have a well-scripted, consistent story by now, but what i discover each time is that my perspective on the journey has changed. the struggling and the bumbling that i go through every time makes me feel like a poor storyteller when it comes to the history of my relationship with God.

part of the trouble for me is that the story doesn’t have a clear beginning. when i was much younger, that lack of a distinct conversion experience sometimes made me doubt my salvation. even now i sometimes feel like a second-class believer when i consider my faith origins, because i ascribe greater importance to the dramatic stories of those who were “knocked off their horse”. i’ve always had an intuitive sense of God; but i can’t remember ever meeting him for the first time.

another aspect of my story is that there’s no plot, really. at times, i felt that God was directing me toward a specific vocation or a life end, but then later i’d realize that i’d misinterpreted the ends for the means. there’s been no central conflict, no single enemy to conquer, no single moral of my story. there’s been lots of struggle, but the struggle has had no consistent theme. there’s been plenty of change, but the changes have been to every facet of my being, to the point that i have no consistent frame of reference for my transformation. my story, at its most dramatic point, was about my rejection of God because of my inability to grasp His goodness; but i think i still struggle to understand His attributes, goodness among them, despite the fact that i’ve genuinely rededicated my life to the pursuit of God.

in addition to the small problems of lacking a beginning and any semblance of a plot, it would appear that my testimony only has one real character, that being myself. i can speak of God but only indirectly, as one who is reflected in my own thoughts and deeds. i could personify Him as someone that i converse with and relate to, but more accurately, i think i’d describe God as a force in my life, a recurrent theme in my thoughts, or a pattern of behavior. when i speak of Him that way, it makes my relationship with Him sound particularly abstract; it’s not the stuff of good, straightforward storytelling. other people talk about God as if He’s a guy who comes around the house for a cigar and a shot of scotch, and though i’m often tempted to speak of Him that way, it feels like someone else’s story. God is real to me; but He’s not someone that i can easily describe.

so there it is. the testimony of my faith is extraordinarily difficult because it contains none of the obvious elements that a good campfire story must have. my testimony is a vague, imagistic assemblage of monologues that culminates in a series of questions without answers. put that way, i can’t imagine paying someone to sit through that sort of a tale. it sounds like a really bad version of “Mulholland Drive”.

but i feel pressed nevertheless to somehow relate to others my unique story of Christ. despite the fact that i don’t have a conventionally dramatic story to tell, my story is full of poignant moments with God that feel very special to me. they are so difficult to describe, but they are profoundly emotive to me, and even magical. perhaps the best way i could relate the story would be to recite a dozen monologues, much like the psalmist, and leave it to the reader to discern the object of my fascination. at times, the God i know flows through me; at other times He is a wall pressing against me; at other times, He is a gust of wind blowing me off my feet; and at other times He is soft earth bearing my weight, giving me a foundation and a form. the better i get to know God, the less organic He seems. the deeper i explore His mystery, the more i find Him truly otherworldly.

01.11.13

desire

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:59 pm by Administrator

i’ve come to learn that the biblical story has an interesting point to make about the nature of desire. the point is this: man is judged by his predominant desire, and not by the span of his desires.

it’s crux to the Christian theology that sinful desire is intrinsic to human nature. there are various interpretations of the function of the Law in dealing with personal desire and with its communal consequences. but Paul’s synthesis makes it clear that the process of “putting to death” the sinful nature isn’t simply a matter of self-perfection, in the vein of Zen thinking. rather, it’s a process by which the spectrum of natural desire is reoriented around a predominant, central desire—the desire to emulate Christ. Paul does speak of self-control with regard to self-expression, but more frequently in his magnum opus he emphasizes the new reality of freedom of expression, with regard to the desire for obedience that prevails in the redeemed self.

for the last two months, i’ve been emphasizing this new understanding of desire in my prayer life, continually preaching to myself a shift in paradigm. while once i sought to extinguish sinful desire from my life, now i openly acknowledge its reality and inevitable persistence; but among the many desires i acknowledge, i actively seek the ascendancy and magnification of one principal desire among them—that ambitious, jealous, and relentless hunger for the singular, personal, and exceptional favor of God.

the shift in paradigm has had important and immediate psychological ramifications on my daily wrestling with self. specifically, my struggle with temptation has been entirely transformed. whereas before i aimed to minimize if not dismiss all negative thought or sinful tendency from my day-to-day thinking, now i view the experience of temptation as a challenge to experience a proportionately greater hunger for the experience of God (and His acceptance and approval that lie therein). stronger temptation prompts an even stronger demonstration of my desire for His favor.

the effect on my communication with God has been interesting. when i succumb to a sinful temptation (and i succumb to many every day), i experience a more immediate and disturbing reaction than ever before. i feel that my relationship with God is at great risk. and i’m not speaking of relationship in terms of the mode of relationship (i.e. sonship, salvific identity); i speak of the manner of relationship, which can vary in honesty, intimacy, and affection as with any human relationship. i sense God’s disappointment with me when i reject Him or disobey Him; it is acutely painful to me. interestingly, while i do experience guilt, guilt is not my primary experience of sin; rather, it is fear—a fear of separation and alienation.

on the other hand, i feel a certain eager anticipation of testing, whether it come in the form of temptation or limited hardship, because i feel a greater need now to prove to God that my desire for Him exceeds my desire for other things. the proof i seek to offer is not evidence of my mode of relationship; rather the proof is what i offer as worship, so as to support a certain manner of relationship with Him. i actively seek His favor, on a daily basis. my offerings to Him are the moments of my day when i can attest that my desire for Him supercedes my sundry desires for other things. the goal of my day is to demonstrate, before God and before men, that my heart for Him is undivided, that i serve no other god.

in this context, i can openly admit that i desire many, many things. in fact, over these past two months, without the self-serving mask of denial, i have been able to identify sinful appetites that i previously refused to recognize. indeed, i constantly desire the affections of attractive women. i hunger for the respect and validation of powerful men. i revel in the thrill of conquest, and i engage in games and competitions for personal glory. in most things i do for others, i hunger in some way for validation or affirmation, because i seek worship. indeed, at the root of most of my sinful desires is an overwhelming desire to receive worship from others. i see it now; i long to be served and worshiped by people, even when it is obvious that i am unworthy of that worship. i often measure myself with pride because i do not concern myself with the opinions and approval of others; but that is only because i assume myself to be more worthy of worship than they.

constantly competing with this personal desire to receive worship is the diametrically opposed desire that has persisted in my life from the first time i met God—the desire to submit myself wholeheartedly to God, in the pursuit of His glory. just as the lustful and selfish desires have always been a part of my life, the desire to worship God has never stopped being an important part of my life. i have always been a man who has desired things both good and evil; and the longing of my heart has never been to reject God but rather to have Him and to have the things of this world. this is why it is so critical when the Bible makes it plain that men cannot serve two gods. we would all serve the true god and the false gods at the same time, if we could. but God refuses to entertain the half-hearted; and this is why one desire must prevail, at the expense of the other.

throughout his narrative of the Old Testament, God’s judgments of Israel’s kings are summary and succinct. regardless of how complex a king’s life and works might have been to his contemporaries, God’s assessment of him came down to one simple question: was this man wholehearted in his devotion to me? thus was it stated that the kings of Israel overwhelmingly failed the Lord. and indeed, God’s principle of judgment is extended to the new covenant as well. for who is the “good and faithful servant”? it is the man whose prevailing desire is to join Christ in his death and resurrection. we are not judged by the spectrum of our desires but rather by the predominating desire that we demonstrate, in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds.

it continues to be obvious to me that God rewards the desires of a man’s heart. for him that seeks personal glory and separation from God, God gives him his individuality. and for him that seeks the favor of God without compromise or exception, God gives the birthright that He once reserved for the sons of Jacob. this is the nature and the import of desire. it is no more complex than this. every man must choose what he really wants in life; and the declaration of Christ’s lordship is meant to be the ultimate choice, once and forever a demonstration that one’s first and best is reserved for God and God only

01.06.13

the things that don’t change

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:41 pm by Administrator

christmas comes around every year (imagine that!) and while it has largely ceased to be a religious holiday for me, it continues to be a predictable but nevertheless poignant reminder of how cyclical life is—and how little i really change over time.

i insisted to my wife’s family that we cap our movie marathon with “zero dark thirty”, which i’ve been eagerly anticipating for months. we caught it on friday night, and it was as impressive as billed. bigelow applies her customary and understated precision to the story of America’s targeted elimination of UBL, in a film that exceeds “Hurt Locker” in scope and gravity. though it spans nine years of the Agency’s labor in locating UBL, the pace of the film never plods, and Jessica Chastain never comes across as methodical. it’s a testament to the solidness of the script and the exquisite deftness of bigelow’s direction that the film conveys both the painstaking duration and the climactic resolution of the assiduous process that was the pursuit of America’s enemy number one.

the experience of “zero dark thirty” for me was complex. on the one hand, there was no true suspense for me, as the story behind the movie is fairly well known to all. on the other hand, i was beholden to another kind of suspense—a certain and intense curiosity about how i would feel at the conclusion of the story. i have not disguised my ambivalence toward our “war on terror” over the years, and last year, after reports of UBL’s death, i wrote about my own oddly restrained reaction to the assassination. as i watched “zero dark thirty” unfold, what i was most interested in was how i would react, when this man—a symbol, a memory, a demon—was slain before my eyes.

bigelow takes her audience to the precipice, but she holds us back from the edge, restraining us even from a full view of the target’s dead face. we see only aspects: a beard, a bloodied profile, a nose. we are purposefully denied the visceral experience of UBL’s death; instead, the moment is delivered unceremoniously and in almost pedestrian terms. it is only on the faces of those who participated in his killing that we see reflected hints of our own sundry reactions: a muffled shout of triumph, a glimmer of recognition, and ultimately tears of both relief and self-loss. indeed, when Chastain’s superbly rendered protagonist sheds private tears in her only moment of true solitude, there at the end of the film, we understand what she is feeling. i understand what she is feeling.

there are some things that don’t change. 9/11 was the worst day of my life, up to that point. i am still angry, against the world, against what i consider to be evil. and i have never stopped hungering for the head of Bin Laden, a person whose identity and cause have never ceased to be loathsome and despicable to me. however angry i have been about what America has done in the past eleven years, i have not ceased to be indelibly American, and “Zero Dark Thirty” reminded me of what links me to every one of my countrymen. indeed, only an American can experience the killing of UBL as a matter of personal significance. for me, i am grateful for this movie, and i am grateful to the Seal team that killed UBL, and i’m grateful to the Seal member who authored this story. i am grateful for these things, because in a way these things allowed me to be there, to see my own worst enemy put to death, to understand how it happened, and to at last lay to rest something deep and grieving within me.

i will not watch “zero dark thirty” ever again. i don’t need to, and i won’t ever want to. i know this already. for eleven years of my life, there was a part of me in suspension, a part of me that did not change, did not grow, did not relent, and did not question itself. it clamored for things that i first described as revenge, later as justice. but what i craved was indeed neither of these things. what i wanted was blood. i have it now, and i am satisfied.

01.04.13

shibumi

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:15 pm by Administrator

i picked up Trevanian’s “Shibumi” at Vroman’s a couple of months ago but i only began reading it this week. oddly, i also recently saw the movie “Killing Them Softly”, a fairly mediocre movie about organized crime (and the ruthlessness of American capitalism). in any case, both “Shibumi” and “Killing Them Softly” happen to elaborate a similar critique of American culture, grounded in a moral objection to the extreme individualism and materialism of American society. but while the Brad Pitt movie advances its thesis in a familiar, heavy-handed manner, Trevanian’s novel offers a fascinating counterpoint to make its case, by describing the culture and values of wartime Japan in the 1940s. most intriguing to me are the really precious dialogues between the displaced Caucasian protagonist and his two Japanese mentors. his conversations with Otake-san, the Go master, are particularly spellbinding. in Otake’s words, the Americans are a merchant society without a soul because they are not a true people to begin with; their “melting pot” of ethnicities destroys any singular cultural basis for unifying identity, leaving them without tradition, conscience, or a spiritual aesthetic.

it strikes me as a surprising thesis, that America is not a people, but it is not necessarily counterintuitive. we boast of our exercises in diversification and assimilation, and in a parallel fashion we boast of our society’s technological prowess and rationalism. Trevanian strikes me as unique in claiming that the two overriding principles of American society are mutually derivative. he argues that an overriding national obsession with power and prosperity is the natural result of a broad-based cultural rejection of ancient traditions and their implied aesthetics. it’s a thesis i’ve not encountered since studying Henry Adams, the astute albeit dilettantish student of America who feared its preoccupation with the “Dynamo”, the engine of engines and the destroyer of worlds.

even more compelling though than any ideological treatise Trevanian offers is his lyrical exploration of “shibumi” and everything that surrounds it. Otake-san is content to describe shibumi indirectly, allowing the term to defy straightforward definition as with many complex concepts of Asian vernacular. shibumi, loosely understood as an understated, emergent beauty, strikes me as an interaction; it is an interaction between the observer and his natural world. there are elements of this interaction that we can perhaps define as harmony and appreciation; but there are mystical elements that appear transcendental, as in the spiritual union of the observer with the object of his observation. Trevanian’s narrative beautifully evokes shibumi more than it defines it, and i think this is what makes the reading of his prose something of a shibumi experience for me. it is an enlightenment that is not proven in distinct conclusions but rather in a new manner of relationship.

i am struck that i do not experience shibumi with the Bible, and i wonder if this is because my reading of the Bible is a rational experience for me. perhaps it would unfairly reduce the experience to describe it as a result of “Western pedagogy” or “post-Enlightenment rationalism”. but there is something about Trevanian’s idea of shibumi that i realize i’d like to experience in life and specifically with regard to the Word of God. in a sense, i envy the Muslims for their mystical experience of the Qur’an, and i find it entirely lacking in the way that i approach the Word as a Western believer. would that i could satisfy myself simply in the recitation of scripture, without having to seek a rational understanding of what i’m reading. it is the primacy of reason in our culture that prevents us from accepting any other form of religious undertaking. but the act of worship, i’m coming to discover, requires something more than agreement or an acceptance of terms; it requires an aesthetic, mutually created between the worshipped and the worshipper. this alternative expeience of reality is the object of submission; it is the ecstacy of shibumi.

i’ve known since college days that my interest in Henry Adams and my subsequent longings for counterculture originally stemmed from a deeper, visceral protest against an American culture obsessed with power and production. i grew up hating violin competitions, standardized tests, church rituals, and college applications; i saw them all as products of the same deep vein of belief in our society. on the surface, we are democratic, meritocratic, and skeptical. it has taken me decades to peel apart that veneer and discover the thing beneath that i most revile. at various points in my life, i called it technocracy, rationalism, and ruthless capitalism. Trevanian’s novel challenges me to define that insidious root of all i despise in new terms; he challenges me to see it as America’s fundamental failure to become a true people—a community bound up in all the trappings that give it transcendent and spiritual meaning.

part of the reason i bewail the world of my generation is that i recognize that the American version of social disintegration is no longer specific to the United States. it has become the very model of 21st century post-industrial society, exported to every marketized nation across the globe. it will supplant traditional societies; it will drive out the old; it will prevail in its rejection of Adams’ “Virgin”—the beatific icon. there is no longer much sense in separating East from West, North from South any longer. the world as a whole is converging upon a paradigm that will level societies and reconstitute peoples, to the rejection of old philosophies and religions, for the purposes of generating open access, liberalizing ideals, and wealth. with the grand changes in paradigm, there will be changes in the individual’s experience of life and community.

in any case, i quite like Trevanian’s novel, and it’s making me contemplate a re-read of Henry Adams’ “The Education of Henry Adams”.

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