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Friday, July 11, 2014

Seductive Selfies: A Response

I went through a phase in high school where I really enjoyed arguing. I called it debating, of course, because that sounds less abrasive and more intellectual. But I really just liked arguing to prove that I was right. Since then, God has taught me a lot about His sovereignty, how I don't need to be right, how sometimes silence is a better testimony than a well-crafted apologetic. Obviously, there are times to speak up, and I'm certainly not advocating running away when a defense should be made. But there is so much division within the Church that I have lately found myself trying harder to build bridges than stand guard on them. However, I recently ran across a popular article lately that I felt warranted a small correction.
In the spirit of building bridges, let me start with a general agreement. Girls posting seductive pictures of themselves is evidence of heart-vacancies. They want attention. They want people to tell them they are beautiful. They want to be loved. And they think that they'll get those things by posting sexy pictures on facebook. The sad thing is they are usually successful. Post a selfie and expect to get a lot of "likes" and a few "you're so gorgeous" comments within the hour. My real problem with the article is found near the end. 

"God gives us standards for purity and holiness because He knows it’s what’s best for us. True joy and contentment won’t come through the applause of your friends, it will only come through obeying and honoring God. “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with their whole heart” (Psalm 119:1-2).I know you want to blessed by God. I sure do! Instead of striving after the empty applause of this world, strive for the fulfilling applause of your King.
You will never be happier than when you’re living your life for God’s glory."

Within the context of the gospel, our motivation for holiness is not being blessed by God. These are dangerous words that speak to a bargain mentality with God, and one I've heard at youth camps for years. These "if-then" statements recall the words of Job's friends when they insist that Job is suffering because of sins he has committed. God deals with Job, but notice Job 42:7- 
After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.
God makes it clear to Job and Co. that He does not operate on an earning system. He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. But from the way we talk, we believe that He is responsible to reward us for our self-imposed righteousness.  
"Don't you want a godly husband?  Then stay abstinent." As if sexual purity is the way to earn a man. 
"If you have sex before marriage, you'll never be truly happy." As if God is so unmerciful that you'll never recover from the sins of your past.
The gospel tells a different story.
Instead of seeking purity because you want to be blessed by God, realize that you already are incredibly blessed by God in the salvation He offers through Jesus. Then, out of joy and thankfulness, stay away from the stuff that put Him on the cross. Run to Him for acceptance and love.  
When you realize that you are already loved and accepted in Christ, you don't need to go searching for approval from others. You will lose the thirst for others' attention. You'll be free to focus on others without worrying about what they think of you. That is true freedom. And that will keep you from posting seductive selfies. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Mumford and Sons: Roll Away Your Stone

Mumford and Sons is not like The Script.  
The Script writes resonating, emotional songs circling around questions. They ask important questions that are currently haunting the post-Christian nations of the world. They don't speak for their souls only when "praying to a god that I don't believe in" and ask "is there anybody there?" The group reminds me of Whitman's Noiseless Patient Spider, casting out filament after filament of themselves in hopes of feeling them catch somewhere. Unresolved longing characterizes their major themes.    
(For a more in-depth look at the redemptive qualities of The Script, check out this link.
Mumford and Sons is not that band. 
They ask tough questions and suspend judgment and allow for other interpretations and all that politically correct jargon. But at heart and soul, Mumford isn't throwing open ended questions down a dark hole. They are lowering ropes and hitting solid ground. By that I mean that they don't avoid uncomfortable topics, but they don't leave listeners in the dark either. 
Their song Roll Away Your Stone is a particularly compelling picture of grace. 
The narrator exposits his vulnerability and the conflict begins. 
How could I not recognize the "hole within the fragile substance of my soul" and that "I have filled this void with things unreal?" This is my testimony. 
But as Mumford reminds me, there is grace enough for this. And to my great relief, it is not law-driven moralism that gives me answers, because "It's not the long walk home that will change this heart, but the welcome I receive with every start." The biblical reference to the prodigal son draws a line between the hopeless wondering and the hopeful knowing. Secure grace gives me solid ground to stand on so I can become that "newly impassioned soul" that finishes out the song. 
But I'm cheating now in my cultural reviews, since I just picked an easy song.  Redeem a song about redemption, why don't I?  (Check out, also, their new song "Lover of the Light." The music video is an experience in waking sleeping dragons inside yourself.)
Forgive me, but when grace is hidden everywhere I can't help but enjoy a clearer picture from time to time. I now propose a toast to Mumford and Sons, the English voice for light and grace and love. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Batman Begins to Make Sense

From where I stand, the genre can't surprise me anymore. Superhero stories follow that basic pattern that my favorite antihero, Megamind, wrestles with so much.

You know it.  The one where the man with muscles ends up with the gorgeous girl after an epic battle with the nemesis, a battle that costs him very little because, after all, he is (Insert Epic Name Here)-man and he has the astonishing ability to blow things up by biting his fingernails....

I haven't seen the Avengers yet.  My students tell me that I would appreciate the humor of one "Loki of Asgard," but I haven't made time for it yet, because in my premature judgment I'm pretty sure that doing so will result in that pattern...a lot of explosions instigated by people wearing really tight costumes and yelling insults at monsters while trying to save innocent people.  
And if I'm going to watch a movie, I prefer a gut-wrenching drama like Becoming Jane (an all time favorite with a horrifyingly beautiful ending) or a thought-provoking science-fiction/action drama like Inception (wherein Leo references Greek mythology and a plot twist blows my mind several times per scene.)

Still, I know that superhero stories satisfy some craving within us.  Rather I should say that they open up the wound of our craving, which is even better since that will hopefully send us looking, and in looking we might end up in the best place.  There are small, but tangible, echoes of Eden and Calvary even here, as we yearn for the Super-Man who can save us from our fears.  So, to defend it from my own attack, I know it isn't the surprise that producers go for.  I think they actually market to the "of course...yes...I saw that coming" crowd.  Which is perfectly fine.  Just not my go-to.

All of this is a long, unnecessary self-justification for the three or so hours I spent last Friday watching Batman Begins for the second time in my life.  The first time I saw it, I enjoyed watching those scenic mountain training sessions right next to the exciting technological weaponry scenes, but I didn't really understand what was going on. Thankfully, this time around my brother patiently allowed me to ask questions throughout the film so that I wouldn't get lost in the non-linear storytelling.  After a weekend to think it over and a bit of time with a pen, I've come to a concise takeaway in two parts. 

When Good conquers its fears, then Evil should be afraid.  Where there is goodness, there is hope. 

The great thing about Batman is his lack of any inherently supernatural qualities.  Bruce Wayne is just a human whose training makes him really tough and whose inheritance makes him really rich.  Excellent qualities in a crime fighter. Add to that his voluntary six years of vagabond living and a Rachel-motivated heart of compassion, and you have the ideal vigilante. He isn't just promoting "the ends justifies the means";  he's actually providing a blueprint for worse-case-scenario decision making that advocates courage and love. When forced to choose between the rigid justice of the League of Shadows and the lawless bureaucracy of Gotham, Wayne doesn't fall into the trap of false dichotomy. Instead he makes the decision to live an isolated, misunderstood, self-sacrificing life to give hope to the people of the city.
But to do so, he has to reconcile with his past.
Batman chooses bats as his symbol because it is his greatest fear.  When he overcomes that fear, he becomes a force to be reckoned with on the streets of Gotham. Criminals cower in terror at the mention of his name, and the people begin to think that their city can be something beautiful again.

Batman isn't about a guy with special abilities who wants to flex his biceps before an adoring crowd. It's a spoiled rich kid who matures into a man who loves goodness.
As soon as I comprehended that, Batman began to make sense.
(Also, I really actually enjoyed it.)

Book Review: Map of Time

"Don't some lies make life more beautiful?" - Gilliam, Map of Time

The answer is yes.  Of course.  Some lies make life more beautiful, more livable even.
Belief in something, regardless of its correspondence to reality, may comfort temporarily, but as those who suffer know all too well, a comfort grounded in a lie is no true comfort at all.  There is something to be said for Truth in connection to Beauty.  Beauty is without substance when it abandons Truth.

Not to start on a negative note at all.  Because Felix Palma is a brilliant author whose use of words punctures holes in my ignorance. With a dizzying plot that left me breathless and somehow also creative, the book whirls and weaves two main plots into a shocking end.  The idea of the book is a philosophical feast and so elegantly phrased that I forgot I lived in the 21st Century. And I have to praise any author who dares to invent three different, yet believable, means of time travel. My favorite passages are the introspective moments in the thoughts of H. G. Wells revealing an author with an intricate mind.  Palma's mastery of plot development is only rivaled by his exquisite character development and the highlights are at critical, emotional commentaries on the works of other authors wrapped up in seamless narrative.  If there are any weaknesses in craftsmanship, it is his use of an elevated vocabulary which some readers tend to find irritating, but which I enjoyed as a nerdy philologic celebration.

However, I do have two issues with the book.

The first, and less important, is a gratuitous use of sexual immorality.  While the first appearance provides a significant contribution to the plot, the subsequent occurrences are (in my opinion) excessive, detracting from the purpose of the book.

The second is the twisted truth of the healing power of story.  Make no mistake.  Story heals.  Stories affect us deeply and can be a means of grace.  (See my post on the grace of fiction for more on that topic.)  But it is the seed of Truth within the stories that bring the healing. Without at least that seed of Truth, the Beauty is lost and therefore the potential for comfort. The disconcerting use of lies to "save a life" in Palma's work cannot be reconciled with a love of Beauty at its essence.  Both Andrew and Clair live "better" lives without ever knowing that their existences are based on falsehood propagated by Wells, the third protagonist. This pragmatism is applied only to the "good" characters, while the "bad" characters seem to operate on another set of rules.  While I'm slow to condemn actions that are, in the end, selflessly motivated, I have to say that the book doesn't maintain a commitment to Truth, and because of this, the validity of the art suffers.  

That said, the work is truly fascinating and worth a discerning read if you're between library books and need a page turner.  The old-world feel is balanced by the potential for so much more since Wells himself pens The Time Machine, the book that started it all.  

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Redemption: Art in Christ and Christ in Art

Sketchers made my running shoes.  Crafted from the "minimalist" philosophy of running, they are designed to keep my foot stable and supported while being light enough to let me run freely.  And I love to run.  They fit me perfectly. They also have the added benefit of looking really cool. Which is why it's crazy how I treat those shoes.  I toss them into the car and snatch them from the floor and cram my feet into them when I'm ready to go.  Actually, those shoes are taken for granted even when I'm running, while they are protecting my feet from pavement, trail, or treadmill.  I don't realize how much I depend on them, because I truly don't want to run with another pair.  My sketchers are what facilitate my habit.  

Like my running shoes, I have a word that I tend to use and toss around without really thinking.  It's an important word.  One I wouldn't want to write without, but that I tend to take for granted, expecting my audience to grasp it without ever explaining it.  It fits.  It even sounds cool.  And I know it motivates my writing and facilitates my little writing habit.  
Though I overuse it, I call myself back to the original meaning in hopes of clarifying my goals for this blog and for all of my writing.  

The word is "redemption." 
It means "to buy back." 

There are two sides to Redemption stories: The Redeemer and the Redeemed.  
One who buys and one who is bought.  
Like in my favorite story of all where the stakes are very high, because the princely Redeemer goes to such great lengths and excessive personal costs to buy back an unworthy slave who hates him for no reason at all.  He buys back the slave with His own blood. Then, instead of returning the slave to work, He makes her his own and gives her the inheritance rights of a son, clothing her in His beauty and honoring her with His love. All of that is ancient world terminology for the cross of Christ and the glory of the gospel.  A love that is foreign to us.  A love that we crave beyond our understanding.

What does it have to do with the arts?
I often claim (a bit pretentiously, I admit) that I'm "redeeming" a bit of literature or a tv show or a song or some other such scrap of popular culture.  This is, by far, one of my favorite activities and one that is responsible for unreasonably late nights and writing binges during which I occupy a solitary spot and consume vast amounts of green tea.  But what does it mean? 

The realm of art is God's.  He is the originator of art and a great lover of art.  He is also the ultimate collector of it.  
Every realm of the creative world displays His glory.  And every realm of it is now trapped in a sinful world.  
Theater.  Journalism. Fiction. Painting. Music. Woodworking.  
All of it matters, and all of it reflects in some way, the God of Heaven.  
When I say I am redeeming a bit of literature, I mean that I'm "buying it back."  I'm attempting to unravel the meaning so that it can be traced back to the majesty of Jesus where it truly belongs.Whether the human creator realizes it or not, his or her work is often redemptive in itself because we bear, unwittingly, the Image of God and cannot help but reveal Him in our work. 
Therefore, rather than adding meaning where the author didn't intend to put it, I am simply pointing out where it shows up with or without the original intention of the artist.  It has more to do with the reality of the artist's humanity than with the agenda he or she is attempting to communicate.
I'm pulling back the curtain that inevitably covers those aspects that more clearly reflect the beauty, goodness, and truth that originate in Him and belong, still, to Him.  
Grace.  Love.  Joy.  Worth.  
By attributing these aspects to their rightful owner, I honor the art and the artist because I'm also pointing out their dignity in the gospel, regardless of their personal relationship to it. Additionally, I'm able to affirm those good things that humanity agrees upon, whether or not we recognize equally the Source.  Writing with this in mind is to see Him in everything and everything in Him, giving me endless material and endless reason for praise, which is why He gave us the arts in the first place. 

So-called secular art has imagined itself an orphan for far too long.  Let it find the Father.