Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tangents and Overlaps

In our most recent discussions, my Bible Study group talked about the relative value of consumable art and how to weigh its redemptive value. There was some disagreement on the subject of satire, which is understandable, because the primary purpose of the genre is to ruffle feathers. Now, I am still not quite sure the matter is settled in my mind, so I will try to explore and explain as best as I can to get a better understanding. Bear in mind that the goal is to get closer to God and live a life pleasing to Him, not to justify the way I already live so I don't have to change.

The question stems mostly from the relative difficulty in distinguishing the difference between a piece of art whose purpose is to expose for rebuke aspects of something (in this case, a method of worship) and one whose purpose is to put down for derision. (Or its negative, one that raises up something preposterous for the sake of looking silly and the ignorance of those who think they are doing right.) I submit two topics whose sources we can only speculate their motive.

On the Genesis album We Can't Dance, there is a track named Jesus He Knows Me. It's a fun tune that is rather irreverent towards televangelists. I don't think that the members of Genesis are Christians, even though their band is named after a book of the Bible. It came in an era of where televangelists, despite whatever good they might have done, earned some irreverent tweaking. Preachers, whether on television or not, definitely depend on requesting money in pursuit of divinely inspired goals, and sometimes they explicitly ask for it. Giving, especially to the church, is a form of worship, so this song is a satire of a fundamental Christian behavior.

Now, looking at something quite different, consider this weekend's Big Game. It seems spiritually innocuous enough; there is nothing sinful about football (thank goodness). Players even pray on field and point towards heaven when they score sometimes. The Super Bowl also represents an unifying American television event that we all share in, even more so than the State of the Union which just occurred last week, so there's a shared experience aspect of this too, sort of leading to an endorsement by societal acceptance. So this event is a rather mainstream and benign happening.

Here's my question -- is there a reason to reject the song? Or sanction the Super Bowl? I think that exposing hypocrisies, failures and inefficiencies in the way we worship, whether done by believers or not, is healthy and necessary for spiritual and societal growth as Christian people. And I think there is no shortage of reasons that the Super Bowl doesn't deserve some sort of derision that is frequently heaped on things that are critical towards Christianity -- the television event itself is an orgy of consumerism, celebration of ego and elevation of storylines that is artificial and self-reinforced: we all accept that this event (and the NFL Season at large) is important because other people thing it is important, and one team will invariably say that nobody respected them. Those complaints, by the way, are not terribly off the mark for outsiders criticizing what we do, either.

On the other hand, you could spin both of those arguments the other way. There are a number of positive messages ingrained in the Super Bowl, from the payoff of hard work, the value of working together, and opportunity to share something exciting with people you care about. Is that sufficient? Does the positive value of the satirical song make up for the clear irreverence intended for people whom, at some level deep down, do have nominally pure motives?

Romans 14:2 is relevant here: "One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on the man who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him." This implies there is some individuality and discretion involved.

It is also important that the valuable message be extracted. Hypocrisy is indeed a problem we face, and Jesus He Knows Me speaks to that. Hearing that song (and by extension, that argument) ought not try to convince us that hope is lost because our leaders are hypocrites. We are all hypocrites. If edification can be seen through the Super Bowl, who am I to say you shouldn't find it?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

If you believe in forever, then life is just a one night stand

We are talking about a book called Thoughts for Young Men by J.C. Ryle in our men's study group right now (yes, that's right, young men). It's a pretty compelling book, and it serves as a reminder (along with the Bible itself, of course) that people don't change that much over time, even though the surroundings might. It also makes him sound a little bit like a very smart stick in the mud, which at least help battle one stereo-type of Christians while reinforcing another: Christianity is not necessarily anti-intellectual, as it is often portrayed, but sometimes we get painted as anti-fun. One of the reasons for that second one is explained in the section we discussed last night had the heading "Never forget that nothing is as important as your soul."

I got into a [losing] argument with my peers over this, because I felt like it wasn't a terribly effective evangelism tool to approach somebody who is agnostic on the subject and say, "By the way, your eternal soul hangs in the balance." My colleagues' basic reply was, "Of course eternity is important, and how can you avoid it?" While they are right, there is still something bugging me about it. I feel like a few other arguments need to be made first (and to be fair, this is a section in a book; this headline does not appear in a vacuum) and if you appear as a stick in the mud, what's so compelling about spending eternity with lots of other sticks in the mud? Like Billy Joel said, "I'd rather laugh with the sinners and cry with the saints; the sinners are much more fun."

The things that I think need to be articulated first is that Christianity, the faith Ryle is defending, is not simply a list of rules to follow. Other religions look like this (I think -- I might be just as guilty of ignorance as the people who look at Christianity like this), and knowing the Ten Commandments and all, it makes this an easy way to appear. "Don't do sinful things because it harms your eternal soul" can ring empty if a convincing reason as to why waiting until for sex is worthwhile or it is important not to spread gossip, for instance. Those things are satisfying now, and if the whole message of Christ is forgiveness, what's the big deal?

The big deal is that what separates Christianity from those other religions (as I understand it) is approachability. Our sacred text tells a story of an almighty God trying to reach out to us, to interact with us, and how we spurn those advances. In addition to being almighty, he is also good, and is the only thing that is so; Christ even explains that He is not, only the Father is.

The "list of rules" aspect becomes easier to follow when you begin to learn who Christ and God are, and realize that they know you, too, and want things for you. Disappointing them takes away from the satisfaction of sin as you grow closer, even though sinning is still inescapable. The consequences of sin are not, thankfully, do to the efforts of Christ Himself.

If there's no reason to care about eternity, no positive outlook for what happens, then looking at life is not especially different from looking at your 401K. Retirement is as much an abstraction for me as the afterlife right now. Could I save an extra 1% a month? Yes. I don't, because I don't know what difference it'll make. I know in principle I should save more, because saving more is better. If I engage someone who does not have relationship with Christ about how he should go to church or read the Bible, he or she typically knows in principle it's a good thing to do, but doesn't know specifically what that good is.

What do you think? How does the eternity part fit into this understanding? I was just looking back over this to see if I could add a joke because I was starting to sound like a stick in the mud. Sorry, I'll try better next time.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Over the weekend, I found myself in an unusual setting: a mock courtroom listening to a lecture about the contrasts between our systems on Torts and Contracts being delivered by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court -- of Canada. I went to visit my little brother in Tampa and he's in Law School, and he warned me of his guest lecturer, but I felt like this was an opportunity I of which I ought to avail myself. I mean, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. It's too crazy to make up.

The experience itself was what you'd expect -- I felt like I understood only about 70% of what was going on (she was a very concise communicator -- it's a priority of her legal career), and since I'm not in law school, I was only interested in so much of it. The atmosphere, though, carried in it something I did not expect: there were about 15 students, beginning their law careers, listening to a woman who had reached the absolute pinnacle of hers, yet all of the people in the room were talking about justice. People coming together to work out complex solutions to the rules we have set as a society in the theoretical, academic, purest sense. Just sitting down in the room kind of made me think of that, how the purpose of this place is to find the truth, and to acknowledge that the truth is not always as clear for professions outside of the sciences, and it can get dicey even with our measurements.

What this means, though, is that the American and Canadian justice systems are constructed in an effort to ensure that the most good is done by the state to its citizens. It only demands actions from its citizens when they do wrong; punishments are meted out for committed crimes or judgments assessed when your fence is too far on your neighbors' property. This, of course, is a noble endeavor, but it's incomplete.

I think that incompleteness really impacts the way we view God's sense of justice. If I don't break the law, then He won't punish me. Sounds fair, right? Sure, except we always think of ourselves as being more in the clear about the law than we really are. "Oh, officer, I was only going 7 over..." Sin doesn't really work like that.

God promises to punish sin, Paul tells us in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death. We have a sense of what this means when people do us wrong, we demand justice, right? Think about the last guy to cut you off on the road. It's infuriating, right? And that wrong costs us essentially nothing. Punishment for evil is a natural and God created concept, imprinted on all of us. We also know that we cannot escape sin, that is also a trait of humanity, unfortunately. If it was not, there would be no need for that mock court room in which I sat on Friday afternoon.

This institution is an effort to try to bring Godly principles down to earth, whether we realize it or not. The nature of our courts -- especially those descended from English Common Law -- is an evolutionary sort, where decisions have impact downstream and their results influence legislation. We are ever seeking perfection, which of course, we will never achieve. There is good news, though: the second half of Romans 6:23 is but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord. This is a clemency offered that our courts cannot match, as their authority does not extend that far.

When we see a court give a criminal a light sentence, do we praise it for being merciful? Only on the rare occasion when circumstances are particularly unusual; we typically delight in criminals receiving their just desserts because bad behavior is dangerous. Bad behavior is dangerous, and that is why the wages of sin is death. God does offer mercy through Christ, even though that does not match our perception of how the institution should operate. He also has a rehabilitation plan, to help us improve our behavior: relationship.

It's not so simple a thing as to say, "Stop sinning," because we can't. Relationship with Christ, however, helps to stem some of the qualities of our nature in ways that improve them, in order to make us more receptive to that idea of mercy and the pursuit of truth and the elevation of justice, just as those young people embarking on their careers are looking to do the same.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Where is the busy bee

You probably noticed (or didn't notice, which really, in this case is the same thing) that I haven't written a lot of these lately. I've been busy, it slipped my mind, blah blah blah, it's the same reason that you haven't heard from your college roommate in two years or haven't seen your best friend from high school since two Christmases ago. Life got in the way.

Today's sermon (not up yet but should be soon) kind of talked about the things that get in our way and how we should try to add one thing to our ministry lives, and in my mind, I immediately started making excuses as to why I didn't need to try to do that. "I already do X, Y, and Z with the church, surely that's enough!" Then I immediately felt ridiculous.

It's still so easy to want to compartmentalize -- these are my church friends and those are my work friends, this is my God time and this is my me time -- but that's not really what we're after here. Deuteronomy 6:5 tells us to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, not just the fraction of it that is convenient for us. This is especially prescient because the explanation surrounding this verse and the previous chapter (which includes the Ten Commandments) explains that it's for our own good; in other words, we compartmentalize at our own peril.

So let's look at the New Year as an opportunity to concentrate a little better and do a better job filling in the gaps in our lives. Evangelism has always been a weak point in my spiritual life, and this is really the only regular opportunity I have, so I'm going to try to commit to do a better job with it. I hope that there are still people out there interested...