Monday, April 30, 2007

Ideas That Do Not Square with the Christian Faith: "Coolness"

Many of my generation trip over themselves in pursuit of that elusive brand: "cool." "He's cool." "She's so progressive." And on and on. But cool doesn't really square with Christianity.

That's not to say a Christian can't, in the end, be branded as "cool." Some are, and that's fine. But it is to say that a Christian should not pursue coolness. A Christian should not seek to be a social alien in his culture, but he should not go to the opposite extreme and seek to be culturally cool. The core of Christianity is not image. It's truth. The pursuit of cool is bound up with the pursuit of an image. One buys the right things, says the right things, and goes to the right places, all so that one can construct an image. In one sense, of course, we all play some part in constructing our image. But I think a Christian should do so as un-self-consciously as possible, to write badly.

Christians do not desire image. We desire heaven. While we don't seek to be freakish in a social sense, we are also those who know ahead of time how much coolness matters in the end. Unlike the world, we realize that it will all vanish away at the extinguishing of our lives, and then it will never again matter, not for a single thread of a second. Coolness and image are two ideas (closely bound together) that have no place in heaven. Everyone will be mature in heaven, and so in actuality there won't be a cool group. There will only be people as they are, people who worship Christ, not people who have constructed an image.

Being culturally aware can help us to make initial connections, but we should not deceive ourselves and think that coolness is what draws people to Christ. If people are drawn to communities that emphasize cultural relevance, and if they stick and become Christians, I'm guessing that the primary reason they did so was not because the church's members listened to the right songs or wore the right clothes. I'm guessing it was because they saw authentic faith, actional faith, that loved them as they were and told them good news of salvation. We can deceive ourselves, I think, such that we think the trappings, the accessories, are the substance. They are not. Trappings may on some level help us to have more fluid initial conversations, but when it gets down to it, lost people will desire to know us better based on whether we make an attempt to understand them, to listen to them, and to love them. I play basketball and am aware of cultural media, but I realize that connection to these things simply helps me to connect with certain people better in an initial sense. It doesn't guarantee fruitful witness or conversion on their part. Love and truth, however, do, when the will of God so desires. So even if you're not terribly relevant to today's youth generation, so long as you seek to love them and earnestly connect with them, you'll be fine. You'll also save yourself some loss in the day when the heavens and earth are recreated. Coolness, you see, like your possessions, is going to pass away, and we will never see it again.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Who Was Harold Ockenga?

I have been in the tunnel all week. The paper-writing tunnel, that is. Here's a selection from the 33-page paper I just wrote about the Boston pastor Harold John Ockenga, a hugely important twentieth-century evangelical figure.

"Harold John Ockenga was born on June 6, 1905 to a lower middle-class family in Chicago. The only son of Herman and Angie Ockenga, Ockenga was raised in the Methodist church by his mother as his father was not yet a believer. From an early age, Ockenga had a spark that set him apart from other children. Biographer Harold Lindsell comments on an early money-making venture by the young man: “Harold inherited energy and ambition from his parents, and turned toward the production of income when most other boys turned away from it. When nine years old, he got a Saturday job delivering orders for a grocery store, working from 8:00 in the morning to 9:00 or 10:00 at night.” Ockenga applied this same intensity to academic and religious ends throughout his early life. He finished high school in three and a half years even as he worked throughout. Before his conversion at the end of his high school years, he attended no less six church services each Sunday.

Ockenga then attended Taylor University in Ohio, where he attained a 94 average and qualified for a Rhodes Scholarship nomination that proved unsuccessful. Ockenga developed a love for literature that led him to major in English. John Marion Adams reports that at Taylor, “His courses in English introduced him to a broader liberal arts curriculum. As an English major, Ockenga wrote papers on William Shakespeare, Robert Browning, Dante Alighieri, Christopher Marlowe, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Victor Hugo.” Ockenga joined a preaching team while in college and decided to pursue the ministry as a vocation after graduation. He enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary and studied there for three years until he decided to follow his mentor, J. Gresham Machen, to newly founded Westminster Theological Seminary. Ockenga’s pattern of achievement continued during his seminary years. Entering a Greek contest in his second year at Princeton, Adams notes that “His exegesis of Romans 11:1-2 obtained both the first place finish and a one hundred dollar stipend.” During his time under Machen and other Reformed scholars, Ockenga acquired a love for reformed theology, intellectually engaged Christianity, and stout doctrinal preaching. Ockenga’s life was at this early stage stamped by a concern for the life of the mind and an ability to translate this concern into academic excellence and ministerial action.

The strength of Ockenga’s collegiate and seminary course led him to pursue both a master’s degree and a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh following graduation from Westminster. Ockenga labored on these degrees for over eight years as he pastored the Point Breeze Church in Pittsburgh from 1931 to 1936 and then moved on to the prestigious Park Street Church in Boston, MA. Park Street had a long and storied history, and the polished young pastor, though from the Midwest, fit the church well. Ockenga labored on his dissertation for the next four years, eventually earning his doctorate through his thesis on “Poverty as a Theoretical and Practical Problem of Government.” If this seems a strange dissertation choice for a pastor, Adams observes that during this period, “the study of Communism captivated him. Rumblings of communist enclaves surrounded him in Pittsburgh.” Ockenga’s thesis reflected interest in the greater social questions of his day, developed his ability to think and write cogently and persuasively, and rendered him a qualification that opened doors for the rest of his life."

To read the whole paper, email me through my profile.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Quotation on Martyrdom

This from Richard Bauckham's The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge):

To the inhabitants of the earth (13:8) it is obvious that the beast has defeated the martyrs. The political and military might of the beast, which seems to carry all before it and wins the admiration and the worship of the world, here seems triumphant even over the witnesses of Jesus.…But John’s message is that from the heavenly perspective things look quite different. The martyrs are the real victors. To be faithful in witness to the true God even to the point of death is not to become a victim of the beast, but to take the field against him and win. (90-91)

I am not one to go out and call for Christians to die on purpose, but I must say, this quotation caused me to think about the power of martyrdom. Too often, I think, we assume that the Gospel will be vindicated through ardent persuasion. There is a large place for this in Christianity, but I wonder if we haven't lost sight of the power of martyrdom, and if we have fallen prey to thinking that martyrdom weakens our gospel witness. Have western comforts and the desire for safety caused us to think that life is gain, and dying is loss? Perhaps we need a reformation of thought--not necessarily so that we pursue martyrdom, but so that we are ready for it if it should come.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind

This is the title of an engrossing biography of Edward Carnell, one of the brightest minds of the twentieth-century evangelical scene. Written about twenty years ago by a New York University professor named Rudolph Nelson, and published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press, the book chronicles the life and thought of Carnell, a brilliant apologist and former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, the alma mater of such men as John Piper, Tom Schreiner, and Bruce Ware.

Nelson is a former evangelical who writes with some sympathy for Carnell even as he subjects his thought to a thorough analysis. The resulting portrayal is masterful and, honestly, fun to read. If you enjoy intellectual biography, and you like both historical detail and philosophical discussion, you will enjoy The Making and Unmaking. I would recommend the book to Christian graduate students and intellectuals who regularly face scorn and hostility for holding to Christian commitments. I make this recommendation because Carnell--who obtained not one but two doctorates, one from Harvard and one from Boston University--himself faced such pressure. Sadly, Carnell drifted from his stout doctrinal moorings, and became by the end of his life an ecumenical Christian who lampooned fundamentalists. Surely the fundamentalists were eccentric on many points and theologically and intellectually underdeveloped, but most of their number were surely Christian. They loved the Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel, and they contended for the faith until the end. We ought never to adopt a snotty or condescending posture to our brothers in the faith. At any rate, Carnell had by the end of his career accomodated to cultural thought, having allowed in some measure the demands of the academy to determine his theological program, not the demands of the gospel.

His life ended tragically and horribly. Carnell died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1967. He was perhaps the sharpest mind of his generation, and he had endless talents to use for the Lord, but he shipwrecked his life and compromised his faith by the end. His story is fascinating, easy to read, but ultimately, very sad, for when we read biography, we always remember that we are not reading the story of some fictional character, however realistic. No, we are reading the story of a human being just like us, whose weaknesses could claim us just as they claimed our subject.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Reading Books Instead of Blogs

What an odd title, I know, given that it adorns a blog. But my strange title is no accident. As I've been thinking some this past week about blogs, this thought occurred to me: we ought not to spend much time on blogs. Some time is fine, but I fear that much of the time we used to devote to reading books is now given to reading blogs.

I personally don't read many blogs. I don't have much time. I enjoy reading blogs when I can, but I am glad that my job and school commitments require me to do alot of book reading. Good books are worth far more time that television, the Internet, and magazines combined. In good books, authors take time to develop their thoughts, to make arguments, to push the reader to consider things he otherwise would not consider on a scale he otherwise he would not encounter. There are definitely blogs I've found that are worth reading (why else would I have a list of links?), but it is my practice to spend little time on these sites unless I have a great deal of free time. At that point, it's fun to catch up. But on a regular basis, I try to limit my blog reading in order to allow myself to read as many books as I can in order to develop and delight the mind God has given me.

I'm not asking you to stop reading this blog. Please keep reading this blog. It's fine to read blogs, I think, provided you're being spiritually and intellectually fed by good books. But if reading this blog and other blogs stops you from reading, say, rich spiritual works, I would encourage you to drop your blog readership from a number of those sites. I hope you don't have to, but if that means you drop consumed, I'll be sad to see you go. If you must do so, though, I'll understand, and I'll be glad for you. After all, you'll be plunging into a world of great depth and richness of discovery--the world of books.

Friday, April 20, 2007

"The Most Beautiful Notes Ever Played in Music"

That's the claim my former pastor, Mark Dever, made to me regarding Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, "The Emperor." After listening to this song, I can say that it is indeed a stunning piece of music. Some music is so beautiful as to evoke tears from one's eyes. I'm not going to say whether tears were in my eyes when listening to the song. I'll leave you to guess--and to put some tears in your own eyes by buying this album. While you can, while there is still time in the day, buy this music, and expose yourself to a timeless work of incredible elegance. It is pieces like this that cause us to marvel at the mysterious and miraculous character of the music of this world God created. Sometimes, we find works so beautiful, we swear that they cannot be this-worldly; they must have come down to us from another realm. Perhaps it is so.

While you're at it, get Allison Krauss's latest album. Krauss sings sad and beautiful music unlike most anyone else out there. Her material is gentle, lilting, but altogether stirring. I cannot get enough of her latest project, Hundred Miles or More. You won't either. I may actually have already recommended this, but if I have, I don't care. This is such good music, it bears recommending twice. I might add that my wife first directed to this album, which for a time was playing all the way through for free at That was the first time I had ever been to Bethany's quite a web user, and in fact, someday soon you may just see a consumed recommendation to read a new blog published by a certain beautiful intellectual.

I think that's all for now. It's been an eventful week here in America, hasn't it? I think we as a nation feel tired. May the weekend bring rest and peace. Let's pray that many will find true peace by visiting our local churches and hearing and responding to the gospel of grace.

Until Monday, be blessed.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Supreme Shock: The Nation's Court Upholds Partial-Birth Abortion Ban

I'm not sure if many people noticed due to the Virginia Tech tragedy and aftermath, but the Supreme Court upheld the ban on partial-birth abortion by a 5-4 decision. I'm not going to go deep into the workings of this case, but I did note that Justice Anthony Kennedy, a notorious swingman from right to left, actually wrote the majority opinion. In a world of surprises, this one is most welcome.

I find it quite surprising that Kennedy took the pro-life side in this particular case. This development led me to wonder a bit about what exactly is going on in the Supreme Court. I put my conspiracy theory powers to work and came up with the following. It is well-known that Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito are staunchly pro-life, persuasive, and brilliant. It is also well-known that Kennedy switches sides on opinions--sometimes he leans to the right side of the boat (literally), other times he leans to the left. He has fashioned himself in the role of the wild card, and he may be convinced, provided you make a good case to him. I'm wondering if Roberts and Alito aren't warming to him personally and whispering to him intellectually, exerting a positive influence on him. It is thought, of course, that Kennedy may be against partial-birth abortion but overwhelmingly supportive of regular abortion. This may well be so, but it does not necessarily shoot down my theory. Kennedy has clearly recognized that partial-birth abortion is horrible (his majority opinion makes this clear), and I wonder if more time around such persuasive and winning presences as Roberts and Alito may sway him further. I may well be wrong, but we can hope that this is so.

The upholding of the partial-birth abortion ban is a reminder to pray for the end of abortion. If you are a Christian, pray often for this. Don't simply pray about your family and friends and home life and work. Pray for major causes like this. Abortion is the chief evil of this society. Beseech God that He would remove it from us, and save countless lives, and end the horrific, abominable holocaust that is everywhere around us.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Living in an Unseen Storm: Christians and the Disturbed

I may return to the idea of Internet-based narcissism, but for today I want to write something about the Virginia Tech tragedy.

There is a great deal for a Christian to sift through in the wake of a happening like this. My primary thought is this: we who are saved and healed by Christ need to reach out to those who are unsaved and sick. It's a simple thought, I know, but it's a life-saving one, if we will translate thought into action.

Our action cannot ultimately prevent evil. Cho Seung-Hui is not a victim. He acted out of a sinful heart, and gave voice through his deeds to the evil that lurked within him, and that lurks within all of us. He is right now facing horrific judgment the likes of which you and I cannot imagine. I make no apology on his behalf. He was, like we all are, a monster. It's just that some of us are stronger monsters than others.

To some degree, though, the action of monsters is determined by their peers. Many youth avoid disturbed people, and even mock them. If you are like me, you can quickly see that there is a very good chance that if this young man was in your classroom, and was your fellow student, you would have followed your classmates. Sure, if you're a Christian, you would have felt pity for him. But if you're like me, and you are weak and lazy and focused on much that does not matter, there is a good chance that you would not have acted on that pity. There is a good chance that you, and I, those who possess the only means of hope and healing in this forsaken world, would have cared more for our grades or our hair or next class or our next meal or our upcoming date. There is a good chance that we would have made such behavior a pattern in our lives, and so day after day, we would have passed up an opportunity to reach out to an extremely lonely, angry, troubled, sinful young man. The gospel would have stayed silent, and the storm would have kept raging. Unseen.

In a time of great sorrow, then, let us not let this lesson go unlearned. Let us reach out to the lost people around us, not for number's sake, not so we can drive up baptisms, not so we can tell everyone we shared the gospel, but so that light--even a glimmer--will reach into the blackest darkness. Cho Seung-Hui is dead, but there are countless others like him, troubled, hurting, violently angry, disturbed. You and I may not see it, but darkness is out there, in the hearts of men, simmering, desperate, destructive. The good news is that the gospel is here as well, and it is the power of God unto salvation. It banishes the blackness, heals the hurting, saves the sinful. It is marvelously powerful, but it must be shared to be so.

Fellow believers, remember the story of Cho Seung-Hui. Remember him. In one sense, you will never see him. He is dead. But in another sense, you will surely see him. He will have a different face, a different look, and a different mask, but his distress is in most everyone around you. You will not see it, but it will be there. Reach out, brothers and sisters. Speak out. Share the gospel. Proclaim the truth. Minister to the sick. Love the unloved.

Banish the storm.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How Blogging Can Be Narcissistic

I think that the primary way a blog can be narcissistic is if it about you. There's nothing wrong with having a journal. Lots of Christians way more godly than me journaled and found it a useful spiritual exercise. So I have nothing against it per se. However, I do think that there is something fundamentally narcissistic with a journalistic blog, which is by its very nature public. Some things are best kept to ourselves.

This will surprise some people, I'm sure, because public journaling is commonplace nowadays. I think, however, one can better use a blog by thinking through things with others, or honing one's writing, or sharing information about a common cause. That sort of thing, I think, is useful. It is not fundamentally narcissistic. It does not involve one taking lots of photos of oneself and telling everyone what one's cooking for dinner. These may well be nice, and worthy of sharing with a few folks, but why put such information online? It strikes me that in devoting ourselves to trivial things, in publicizing trivial things, we ourselves become trivial. I see a trend in public journaling blogs in which people lock themselves into immaturity by prattling on about the rudimentary things of life, complaining about hardships, procrastinating, being silly, and generally wasting time. It's fine to write and to journal, but surely there are more productive uses of time than writing a blog about mundane and petty things. Of course, there's nothing wrong with an occasional personal post or taking a day to share some exciting news with the world, but I would push for us to save such personal blogging for the more important things of life, rather than the everday things.

I would challenge young bloggers to devote blogs to spiritual things, devotional thoughts, cultural commentary, philosophical discussion, and the like. If you're going to take the time to blog, make it worthwhile. Sharpen yourself, and sharpen others. Avoid the narcissistic drive that comes into play when we broadcast our lives to the world. The world tells you to do everything publicly today--to vent, air grievances, express happiness, and all to as many people as possible. In the process, you become a self-centered person concerned not with others and their betterment but with you and your publicity. As Christians, let's resist this temptation, and write to urge one another on in the faith, to think through and appreciate life, to make some meaning out of our days while we still have them.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Bathing in a Sea of Technological Narcissism

Many people have already talked about today's topic, but I think it's worth chipping in my own two cents on the matter. The more I use the web and the various social sites it offers, the more disillusioned I become. I'm sure many of you out there have had a similar experience.

The Net used to be a tool for making friends, building odd sorts of artificial community, and researching one's interests. Today, the Net has taken a sharp turn away from community toward the self. This is especially prominent in the proliferation of sites like MySpace and Facebook, used predominantly by younger people, often without close parental supervision. Yet I'm not concerned in this particular blog about the issues of posting inappropriate photos and comments. I'm concerned with the sea of narcissism created by such sites, a sea in which countless young people bathe. It's a disgusting thing, really, when you consider it. Scores and scores of young adults showcasing themselves for all the world to see. Any sense of humility, modesty, and privacy is trampled by the self's lust for attention, and, if gilded fate would have it, fame. It's all very disheartening to see.

One of the most discouraging trends to me is the constant "profile updating" that goes on at sites like Facebook. I use Facebook, admittedly, but for the purpose of connecting with old friends. I thus have little occasion to "update my profile" and tell the world what I'm thinking, liking, crying over, and doing at any given moment. In addition, I have little need to change my profile picture on a daily or weekly basis, an action that seems based entirely on a desire to be seen and commented upon. It strikes me that Christians have yet to develop and apply a social networking ethic that might apply to such situations. There is a need to do so. Activities like Facebook updating--how hilarious that this could even be called an activity, but indeed it can--quickly leave a neutral state when one is constantly updating one's profile, constantly taking newer shots in more avant garde poses, constantly telling us what one had for supper. All of these activities done repeatedly and for the public constitute a serious form of narcissism that should necessitate repentance and spiritual action. We should not brush this off, but bring the gospel to bear on our Internet usage.

If you or fellow brothers and sisters fall into this category, repent before God and challenge yourself and them to change their Internet habits. Encourage one another not to be narcissistic and desperate for local celebrity as so much of the world is. We all have silly, fun, mindless, and even meaningful moments in life--but it's better for one's character to keep most of these to ourselves. Step out of the narcissistic sea and rediscover true community, true meaning, and others-first living. Live your life, and let Youtube and Facebook and all the others broadcast someone else's false celebrity to the world.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Strange and Nihilistic World of "The Office"

I've taken this week to try and dissect some interesting cultural media. I'll close this week's series with a look at NBC's "The Office," a show that follows the workings of a fictional Scranton, PA paper company called Dunder-Mifflin. The show is a comedic study of office life as set in this one little company involving a diverse group of characters, including the show's main character, the boss, Michael Scott (brilliantly played by Steve Carrell). Significant and ongoing plotlines include a romance between coworkers Jim and Pam, tension between office workers and factory workers, and various inter-office feuds and relationships.

If it all sounds a bit, well, anticlimactic, it is. It's supposed to be. "The Office" is a comedy and garners many laughs in its half-hour segments, but it is fascinating to realize that the general worldview of the show approaches nihilism. There is no great purpose to life, and office life is certainly unsatisfying, and so the show's characters seem to make meaning as they see fit. "The Office" is a purely Hollywood creation, showing a strange and unrealistic portrait of American life in which almost noone is religious, almost noone has children, and almost noone is married. The show's characters have little connection to anything beyond themselves and little purpose from which to derive meaning in their lives. Day after day, they come to the office and try to avoid work even as they haltingly connect with one another. I'm sure this sounds sad and depressing and, when you step away from the show's humor (which is substantial and satisfying), it is. In this show's world, work is drudgery, God is absent, and one is left to live life alone, with nothing but a few Word docs to show for it.

This is not to say I don't enjoy the show, or that the show doesn't have light touches in which it discloses the humanity of its characters and briefly brings them together in gestures of kindness and meaning. It does. And the romances are very well done, generally speaking, as they typically use the traditional (and far more effective) device of promise as opposed to fulfillment. Finally, the show is extremely well written and acted, with few people following the contemporary trend and overacting. "The Office" does succeed in capturing much of the awkwardness and confusion of life, as opposed to the slickness and surety found on so many shows. No, the world of "The Office" is philosophically realistic, if not socially realistic. The life of a lost person is filled with loneliness, awkwardness, and confusion. There is humor and charm to be found in life for such people, of course, but when one steps away from the moment, one realizes that the laughter soon fades and the joy soon dissipates. The office has replaced the church or the traditional family as the place of meaning and goodness. This, then, is "The Office": a hilarious, partially truthful, and ultimately nihilistic look at a group of people for whom meaning is located, strangely, in the very place they despise: the office.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Is the Movie 300 Speaking Truly About Men?

Many Christians, I am guessing, will not see 300. I can understand this decision, as there is a good deal of objectionable content. It's always tough to deal with such situations--one is not immediately sure how to balance the desire to engage the world and the desire to be spiritually careful.

But after checking out the movie on, and timing my concession breaks, I was able to see the film and to engage its worldview. 300 offers a premodern portrait of manhood in postmodern garb. The director seems to be returning us to a time when manhood reigned, when men were men, when men acted and did not ask women to fight their battles for them. 300 is many things, including a hyper-bloody portrait of warrior masculinity, but it is prominently a statement about men today. At every turn, director Zach Snyder shows us strong manhood, manhood that trembles with anticipation at the thought of death and laughs with derision at the specter of fear that rises in battle. Though he never uses a character to make this statement, it is clear that Snyder is indeed making a statement about contemporary manhood. In contrast with the action-oriented Spartans who ooze courage and reek of lust for glory, today's men are weak, enfeebled, and reeking of passivity. Snyder's portrait is over-the-top, to be sure; he goes far over the top, and equates manhood with violence and a hunger for blood. Christians cannot endorse such a view, even if we can recognize that violence and war are sometimes necessary and even wise in a fallen world. In addition, and most importantly, we Christians must reject the view that this life is all there is, and that death does not matter, and that earthly glory is to be sought. No, we seek a heavenly glory and await a heavenly rest. Men may know our names or not, but we will seek the renown of Christ, and work for His cause, not those of men, which will all perish as a cry in the wind. Yet we can recognize that Snyder is onto something here. We can agree with him that men are not what they used to be, and that manhood does not mean what it used to mean.

In sum, Snyder's film is a bold and sometimes beautiful statement. It is exhilarating to see the courage of the Spartans and to observe their technical excellence in war. The film's graphics are often incredible, and the action is often gripping to the point of paralysis. The brief but loaded scenes between fathers and sons and husbands and wives are quite evocative, and moved me close to the point of tears. Finally, the general picture of manhood contains numerous positive elements as it exalts masculine courage, leadership, and boldness. The resulting picture is imperfect, however, and we must ultimately reject Snyder's overall portrait of the ideal man, even if we embrace certain elements of it. With these things said, at the end of the day, we may join with Snyder and the legions of men who have viewed the film and celebrate the courage of the Spartans exhibited so many centuries ago at a mountain pass in Greece. Surely, we may yearn for men to be what God has created them to be--strong, courageous, aggressive, tender, loving, and godly. Yes, we may yearn for the past to seize the present, and men to rise and lead a cause whose glory truly never will fade away--the cause of Christ, our Savior, the Man who embodies all that manhood is and should be.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Message of 300

I've recently watched the movie 300, about the battle between the Spartans and the Persians at the pass of Thermopylae many centuries ago. The movie does not seek to be a faithful retelling but is rather a stylized war movie based on historical events. Thus, while you can't call it fantastic history, you could call it "historical fantasy."

Critics have had a range of reactions to this ultra-violent film about men standing up for their country and their families. They've panned it as an ahistorical video-game romp, and they've praised it as a powerful war-film ode to men. 300 surely has both good and bad elements. It does not tell a complete story of the Spartans (editing out their homosexual tendencies) and it contains a number of sexual scenes that sent me to the concession stand. It is also gratuitously violent. But with these flaws, and they are significant, the film makes some powerful statements. I think the chief description of the film I would offer is this: it is a postmodern film about premodern principles. The men of 300 are strong, courageous, and fearless, daring their massive enemy to come and fight them. They are physically rippling, psychologically crazy, and yet faithful to their families and their country. One of the most touching aspects--surprising that 300 would be touching, I know--is found in the love the main character, Leonidas, has for his wife. As a married man, I was quite touched both by this aspect of the film and of the director's clear portrayal of father's love for their sons. In all of these ways, the movie seems to be about more than just blood and guts. It seems to actually have a soul, to be saying that men are to be something, that men are to stand for something with their lives, or else all is nothing, and life is meaningless.

Is this a good statement--a true one? Tomorrow, I'll seek to answer this question.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Lost Souls of Lost's Show

Continuing the theme of cultural media week, I want to briefly examine the show Lost, which my wife and I sometimes watch. We're way behind, but it's fun to occasionally watch an episode, a luxury afforded us by the DVD sets the show has produced. Lost is an engaging show with an interesting premise, good character development, and generally clean entertainment. There are occasionally snags, but for the most part, for a major show airing at a primetime hour, Lost is pretty clean.

But the main thing I'm interested in is the show's worldview, which slowly unveils itself through the diverse characters who are marooned on an unknown tropical island. Once the characters shared only a plane ticket; now they share life together. It's quite interesting to watch various racial, social, spiritual, and gender-based conflicts play out on the show. In addition, the show frequently jumps back to the lives of the main characters before the plain wreck. The resulting picture is most interesting for this one reason: all the characters on Lost are in fact lost. I'm not sure that this is the main point of the show; perhaps the writers are very clever and it is. Or, perhaps they're just making a show about a bunch of random people on a desert island, and their show just happens to make a fascinating point. Regardless of the truth of the matter, Lost portrays humanity in all its various forms as just this: lost. The characters come from wildly different backgrounds--medical doctor, rich Asian married couple, unwed pregnant twentysomething, African drug-runner, female renegade. The characters have in common almost nothing--but that almost makes all the difference. They are all lost as lost can be.

In this way, Lost reflects the fact that postmodernism--out of which the show comes--does make some good points. Postmodernism suffers from huge and terrible flaws as a worldview, but it is not cheerful about the state of mankind. It comprehends that men are twisted and complex characters, capable of both great good and great evil, though most fall somewhere in between. In exposing the flaws of all its characters--the courageous MD is just as messed up as the drug-taking rock star--Lost paints a realistic and powerful picture of humanity. Young and old, successful or beaten-down, up-and-coming or down-and-out, the characters of Lost are all, in their own ways, desperately searching for something, something that evades them, frustrates them as it does so, leaves them confused, pained, and ultimately, angry.

The show thus makes for a fascinating character study. Noone is painted with a perfect brush. Noone is perfect. Everyone is in their own way struggling, and everyone is lost. The show is great fun to watch, and many will really enjoy its smarts, its mystery, and its generally clean character. The show's chief value, however, is that it shows its viewers that the world is a difficult place, and mankind is a haunted race. In this sense, Lost is not really entertainment. It is a Hollywoodized form of life as it really is, and men as they really are: a race hunted by a foe they cannot see, haunted by a hopelessness they cannot dispel, desperate for the God whose very existence they hate.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A Week Devoted to Media

My lovely wife has informed me that I need a lighter week of material to balance some of the heavier stuff I've been writing about recently. I'm taking up her wise suggestion and will be looking at a few different things I've encountered in the culture recently.

Today I'll look at some good music that's out there. First, I want to encourage you who like modern hymns to go to the Getty Music website. Here you'll find the beautiful and faith-stirring music of Keith and Kristyn Getty, a husband-and-wife team from Ireland who now reside in Cleveland. The Gettys are a delightful pair, and they have put out a number of cds that feature some really beautiful music. I frequently play their songs here at work and find myself encouraged in my faith as I do. For those who want theologically rich, well-written songs that are both artfully played and beautifully sung, you need look no futher than the Gettys. Additionally, if you like Celtic music or if you delight in it as I do, you'll enjoy their music very much.

A secular band that nonetheless crafts beautiful, elegant, sad, soulful music is the band Hem. My wife introduced me to the gentle tunes of Hem, and I've been a huge fan ever since. If you're like me, and you love sad music, Hem will work great for you. It's not all sad, of course. But it is thoughtful. Listening to Hem makes you want to take a walk through forests and fields, thoughts of mystery and beauty cycling through your head as you go.

Finally, the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack is also quite melancholy and altogether worth your money. In particular, Sufjan Steven's song "Chicago," which unlike the rest of the album is clearly made from Christian faith, is worth the whole album. There are a number of other songs that I also listen to on repeat. So there you have it--some good cds to order and listen to, and find the themes of earthly sadness and earthly beauty mixed together in such a way as to clear your mind and stir your heart.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Fist Stick Knife Gun

The blog title is the title of one of the most stirring books I've read in a good long while. Written by a dynamic man named Geoffrey Canada, Fist Stick Knife Gun is a heartbreaking story of one child's journey through an inner-city environment so dangerous it seems possible only to the cinematic imagination. Sadly, however, Canada's evocative portrayal of life in New York's city is far from fantasy. It is real.

I cannot encourage you enough to buy or inter-library loan this book. It is a quick and gripping read and it is filled with real-life stories that break your heart slowly, like a branch beneath a sluggish tractor. Canada, an alumnus of my alma mater, Bowdoin College, interweaves an episodic narrative of his early years with commentary on the violence problem that attacks America's inner cities. I certainly do not agree with all of his diagnoses, nor do I agree with all of his solutions. For example, I believe that the problem facing the inner-city is not the handgun that kills the child, but the breakdown of a family through which the child is left without guidance or protection. Attacking the right to bear arms by private citizens is a classic case of reading the symptom as the problem. Such fallacy-prone thinking must be avoided, even as we can recognize that it is probably not the best policy to blithely support handguns but rather to grimly and conscionably push for their legality. Canada is also particularly weak on the problem of where violence comes from. He doesn't believe that it is generated by a sinful human heart, but thinks it comes from external factors. How this could be I have no idea, and can only respond that the human heart needs no teacher to master evil. In a world filled with tutors, it is nevertheless the instructor that exceeds them all.

I needed to point out those weaknesses (and there are others), but I want you to read this book nonetheless. Christians who only read books that align with their worldview only impoverish themselves. We must be those who can read all types of material and yet do so with discernment, sifting through the chaff to find the wheat. Don't fall prey to the mindset that says only Christian books are worth reading. That's silly and undeveloped thinking. Tackle books like Fist Stick Knife Gun. In such books, we find beauty in the writer's style, and some priceless insights in the writer's mind. Yes, buy this book, and consider for yourself the problems of America's inner cities. What can we do to help this situation of catastrophic proportions? Who will teach young men to be leaders and husbands and young women to be wives and mothers? Will we leave this work to lost but good-hearted men like Geoffrey Canada? Or will we ourselves bring the only true hope of any man, the gospel, to a place that desperately needs it?

Let us pray for the proper answer for ourselves and for our churches.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Giving Richly and Living Generously

Any extended discussion of Christians and consumerism must include material on tithing. Though I'm not going to quote Scripture here, as this isn't a lesson, if you are familiar with the Bible, you know that the Bible encourages us to give to our local churches. The New Testament tithe is not the same thing as the OT tithe (see D. A. Carson for more on that), but the principle of giving richly and generously to one's church is clearly extended over the whole of Scripture.

It strikes me that one of the foremost reasons God gave us a tithe is to free us from consumerism. In calling us to give generously to the household of faith, and to support Christians in need (see 1 and 2 Corinthians), God is programming us with a non-self-centered mindset. He has commanded, in a sense, that we think of others. Giving generously out of your earnings, then, is a key way that you as a Christian can fight cultural materialism and engender a generous spirit within yourself. If the dark side of possessions is creeping possessivism, then the bright side is cheerful philanthropy, in which we give what would seem to be an unsensible amount to our church and to needy Christians.

How much should you give? I don't know. But I do know this: give generously, and do so without extreme worry about the future. The Bible teaches with absolute clarity that you and I are not to worry about tomorrow. That does not mean that we are insensible regarding the future, but it does mean that we give without letting fear and anxiety grip our hearts regarding financial matters. All too often, financial planning becomes a back-alley entrance for greed and anxiety. Don't allow this to happen in yourself. Take care for the future, spend wisely, but always give generously. Remember, the Lord loves a cheerful giver, and as has so often been the case in my own life, He loves those who give in a very generous way. So often, I think it is the case that it is not those who most jealously guard their finances who are financially blessed. This is sometimes the case, but I have seen many cases in which it was those who gave richly and lived generously who knew the Lord's blessing. Are you able to live this way? Or are you possessed by your possessions?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Curious Phenomenon of Creeping Possessivism

If you've been around folks with money, then I'm guessing you've at some point observed the phenomenon I've termed "creeping possessivism."

What do I mean by this? Simply this: the more goods and money one gets in this world, the more one tends to hold onto them, and the less generous one tends to become. This is not always the case, of course. I'll give you a notable example below. But I can say with confidence that it is often the case. What a curious thing. One would think that the more one was given, the more one would give. Yet the opposite seems to happen. The more one gets, the more tightly one holds onto one's money and possessions. Where one would think a free-flowing, exuberant generosity would develop, a narrow-eyed, tight-fisted spirit often prevails. This is in fact not so much of a phenomenon as it is a natural law. Before I gain possessions and money, I am happy in my poverty, finding meaning in many things. After I gain possessions and money, I am bitter in my plenty, finding meaning in my many things.

We Christians need to cultivate a large-hearted spirit of generosity no matter what stage of life we are in. This matter closely ties to the issue of tithing, a subject I'll cover tomorrow. For today, I'll share the example of one well-heeled man who is perhaps the most generous person I know. My former pastor, Mark Dever, is known for showering people with kindness, some who he knows, some who he does not know. Mark is no millionaire--not by a long stretch--but he has means, and yet I have observed him giving generously to others too many times to count. As his means have increased, he has rebelled against the natural law of creeping possessivism, and has instead increased his generosity along with his means. His close friend C. J. Mahaney follows along very similar lines.

These are merely two examples of Christians who avoided the trap of possessivism. What is it about the human heart that causes us, in times of plenty, to guard our possessions most jealously? What a strange phenomenon. Do you see this in yourself? I see it in myself, and I want to counteract it. How foolish that in the very season God gives us much, we would act as if He has given little. What is given to us is not ours to grip with a tight fist. Such behavior will have a powerful evangelistic effect in a consumerist culture that has little concept of "others." For many today, particularly the monied class, life is all about indulging oneself and pampering oneself and making oneself happy. Little if any thought is given to those in need, or perhaps just those who have less. After all, life is about status, and status is predicated upon goods, and so in order to keep up, one must spend lots to buy goods, and so one ends up a selfish consumer. As Christians, we need to show the world that this is a terrible bargain. So think: how can I be generous? How can I not fall prey to creeping possessivism? Who can I buy lunch for today? Most importantly, can I who am rich in possessions become one who is rich in faith and generosity?

The way you answer that question does not simply reflect your mindset. According to the Bible, it determines the very direction of your soul.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Desperately Seeking Fame

One of the major ends contemporary consumers seek is celebrity. A consumer culture seems to revolve around celebrity stars who tell us what we need and should want. Our attachment to these figures is not simply affectional. Rather, such people become a sort of materialistic guru to us. They preside over a goods-based spirituality in which they are the deities, we are the worshippers, and the means by which we ourselves might become transcendent is in purchasing.

David Beckham is one such figure, an insight developed in Ellis Cashmore's Beckham on the English soccer player David Beckham, now in Los Angeles. It's a good read, and here's a good quotation from it on this topic: "The excitement, love, glamour, and intrigue proposed not by Beckham but by the narratives drawn about his life say more about contemporary culture than about the player himself. They tells us that we now have a generation hooked on the irrational pleasures of celebrity watching, or, more accurately, celebrity fantasizing. People dream about becoming fabulously wealthy and globally famous but they have no effective means of achieving these ambitions." This is a telling quotation. I'm interested here in how Christians become consumers of celebrity. In today's age, even gospel preachers subscribe to "branding" and become larger-than-life entities.

Is this a healthy development? Or is it an accomodation, no, an embrace of a culture gone mad?

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Siren Call of Consumerism

I am right now reading an excellent book by a woman named Julie Schor. It's called Born to Buy and it is a seering exposure of the evils of consumerism that now run rampant in American society. Parents would benefit greatly from it, as would anyone who sometimes feels a bit guilty or wasteful in regards to spending too much money on unnecessary goods. I certainly fall in that category, and I'm certainly benefiting from this book. That's not to say that I agree with every point Schor makes, or even with Schor's basic worldview. I don't think I do. But there are often pearls to be found in secular literature.

Schor's basic point is this: companies, pursuing profits at any cost, are targeting children and creating in them a desire for "cool" products that they do not need. Schor chronicles numerous examples of this trend and supplements her points with statistics and interviews. The resulting read is enlightening and fascinating. It is also condemning. I was raised in a home that actively fought the consumerist mentality, and for that I am now very glad. Yet even with strong parental leadership, I still developed a love for Nike products. This love was due to Nike's success in positioning itself as the purveyor of cool. Nike thus became a part of my identity. I scoffed at cheaper brands and clothed myself in Nike product after product. I didn't realize it then, but I was buying wholesale the myth of consumerism, that I was a cooler, better, happier person because of the goods I purchased.

If you live and breathe, then I think you know what I'm talking about. I've observed people close to me "needing" to buy certain brands that sell single items of clothing at 150 dollars. These people, like me with my expensive Nike fixation, were allowing worldly culture to dictate their beliefs and principles. They were casting an identity for themselves that was based on brands and goods, not on belief in God. For those of us who subscribe, wittingly or unwittingly, to this mindset, shopping becomes a recreation, the mall becomes a Mecca, and goods become our release. We buy what we do not need to satisfy desires that we should not have. Instead of building relationships, enjoying nature, or serving the needy, we build our wardrobe, enjoy our goods, and serve ourselves. As I look at such behavior patterns, I'm honestly ashamed of myself. I have been duped by the world, I now realize. I truly have thought that J. Crew and Brooks Brothers makes me who I am. I have looked down on those who reject such thinking. In the process, I've played the fool, albeit the fool who thinks he's wise.