Monday, March 31, 2008

August Rush: Another Movie Searches for Transcendence and Finds it in Music, and Family

The movie August Rush, which debuted in November 2007, presents an uneven but inspiring tale of one sweet boy's search for transcendence in a world of isolation and evil. The movie is not flawless, but its depiction of the power of music alone makes the film well worth watching.

The plot centers in two musicians (played ably by Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who chance upon one another, sleep together, and then lose touch completely with one another, despite the fact that they developed an incredible bond with one another (yes, in one brief night of passion; cue eye-rolling now). Russell's character ends up pregnant and gives birth to a boy she never meets (you'll have to watch the film to see why). The boy, "Evan Taylor" (played by Freddie Highmore of Lost in Neverland), ends up in a miserable home for boys. Sweet-spirited and mystically in touch with music, which he hears in even the most ordinary of sounds, he escapes from the home, ends up in New York, and embarks upon an adventure in which he trains himself to play a number of instruments at a lyrical level. The plot, as noted above, is a bit uneven and seems half-heartedly devoted to aping the story of Oliver Twist. In addition, some of the characters are less than plausible (Robin Williams shows up for several scenes of extended, and unneeded, histrionics).

These factors, and the act of fornication that drives the movie, are regrettable, but the movie has significant strengths as well. This is a film that quite simply is in love with music. As one who loves music (a rather broad statement), I resonated with its appreciation of harmonic beauty. The film, though not Christian, does also pick up on elements of common grace (though it would not call them such). Though little Evan is mired in a painful station in life, he finds beauty all around him, and maintains a disposition of hope and good cheer. It's touching and challenging to watch. Most of us are far too swallowed up in our own selfish little existences to notice the beauty of the world, let alone to draw others into it through creation and celebration. The movie further succeeds in representing man realistically. He is not inherently satisfied with life as it is placed in front of him. No, he searches, and quests, and storms until he finds that which he deems transcendent. For Evan (or "August", as he is renamed), the search ends with music, and also with a reunited family. These same ends bring transcendence to Evan's parents; throughout their young lives, they wrestle with music as Jacob with the angel, and even when musically accomplished search for their other family members. There are two insights here: one, music elevates our earthly existence, and two, family does the same. Without these two goods, we are impoverished, living isolated, hopeless lives.

As Christians, we can resonate with these points. As I've very recently said (in writing on the movie Once, which carries some similar themes), music is imbued with transcendence. It is not cheap and small; it was given us by God to explore the moral and spiritual complexity of the universe. Though music is not God--and thus August Rush fatally overreaches in ascribing it such significance--yet we can say that music is a strange and magical thing. It is another language, a way of speaking about our lives and experiences and the truths and mysteries of this world that defies verbal communication. Music is not Transcendence, then, but it is a transcendent art form, capable of reaching across structures and thought patterns to grab hold of our soul and plunge us into pools of mysterious and beautiful reality. I love that August Rush believes this and seeks to communicate it. Though it strains in this endeavor, and misses the truth that music points us to--that God alone is Transcendence--yet it succeeds in capturing something of the essence of music. It is a beautiful film, and there are several scenes that moved me on a deeply emotional level and made me thankful that people take up cameras and attempt to capture aspects of human existence such as music.

The film, as noted, also shows a powerful belief in the family, and perhaps unintentionally, the nuclear family (dad, mom, child). This is a great insight as well. Though the family is also not ultimately transcendent, as August Rush might lead us to think, we may say that the family is perhaps God's greatest earthly gift to us. It is simply impossible to enumerate the ways in which we are blessed on a daily, even hourly, basis by our families, even if they are not families of considerable health. Just having a family is immensely meaningful. The support that one has in being part of a family is not often consciously thought of but is precious beyond quantification. The film knows this, and shows us what it means for people to live without the structures of family--and most clearly to live without parents as an abandoned boy. One can have talent, and beauty, and joy, but without a family, one is ultimately unhappy. We Christians would of course go beyond this to say that God alone is our greatest need, that it is our most urgent necessity to enter into not an earthly family but a spiritual family that transcends this earth. On an earthly level, though, it is clear that God has structured the family to be the central part of our earthly existence. He has done so, I would argue, to show us something of the taste of familial perfection as expressed in the Trinity, the union of Father, Son, and Spirit, of which our families are but a type and shadow.

August Rush seeks true transcendence and fails to find it. But we may commend it for its pursuit and enjoy for its depiction of two of the choicest gifts God has given humanity: music and family. This movie shows us for the hundredth time that the people around us are not living atomistic lives, at least not all of the time. No, they are looking for something; something greater, something higher, something unified, something beautiful. Though they may discover numerous gifts of common grace in their search, we know that until they find the Christ, the salvation-giver, this search will prove fruitless in the end. We must be around them, then, to tell them where transcendence, and joy, and true hope may be found. It is not in music, but the One who created music; not in the family, but in the One who created the family; it is not found in the gift, but only in the Giver.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

The Week-est Link, March 28. 2008: Blogging Tournaments, Disney World, Blog Gems, and Violence

1. Whew. It's been quite a week here at consumed. This little blog has seen a relative avalanche of comments due to some controverted content. I'm really thankful for those who have weighed in, and it was interesting to hear another side of the Billy Wolfe saga. Thanks again to everyone who wrote in. I don't have time to respond to comments, but I read every one of them, and I'm often pushed to think by them (as you can tell if you read my frequent follow-up posts).

2. Said at Southern has a terrific March Madness-like contest going on right now (replete with brackets and all!) that has the dual purpose of 1) finding out which SAS-related blog is the big dog on the block and 2) giving exposure to unknown bloggers and linking them to better-known bloggers. It's a terrific idea, though Tony Kummer and Timmy Brister are known for terrific ideas. The "Madness" is in its second round, and somehow, inconceivably, consumed made it to the second round. Sadly, folks, we're currently getting smashed. Oh well--I suppose this blog is something like NCAA cinderella Siena. At least, like them, we made it to the second round!

3. Together for the Gospel has multiple videos up from the 2006 conference. They will be well worth the time it takes to load and watch them. I was there to witness most of this content in person, and I can say that it made an impact on me. Less than three weeks to go 'til 08!

4. Slate ran a hilarious series exploring the weird sub-galaxy of Disney World this week. Not everything is nice (or rated PG), and I don't love the paranoid, mocking nature of some of the author's writing, but he also unearths some pretty realistic insights about this strange place. I don't know about you, but animatronic robots give me the absolute creeps.

5. Introducing a new feature on this blog: "Blog Gems". I want to bring to your attention worthy blogs that you may not have heard of. I'll do this on Fridays, and I'll generally only give you one link so as not to water this feature down. Today's Blog Gem: Redeeming History, a blog written by Trinity Evangelical Divinity School PhD Student Mark Rogers. This blog, written by a very sharp Historical Theology student, is devoted to spreading the riches of Christian history. It is well-written, well-researched, and spiritually profitable. Mark is a good friend and a future scholar, and I could not encourage you more to check out his young but very good blog. I may not have many readers or much "virtual clout", but many people have been very kind to me in giving my blog attention (Tony, Timmy, Justin Taylor), and I want to extend that kindness to others. Email me at owendstrachan [at] if you think you might qualify here.

6. Last words on the violence issue (I promise). Let's cut to the chase: I think it's rather foolish to think that one needs to watch shows devoted to acts of brutal, needless violence in order to train one's son to be a robustly masculine protector. We need not freak out about violence, but neither should we think that the worst iterations of it (i.e., meaningless, needless violence) serve as the best instructors of our children. That's just silly. If you want to cultivate a strong man, a good man, a man who knows his body and can use it for good, train him in biblical truth. Teach him. Show him how to use his body. Wrestle with him. Teach him about safe, bounded, harmless (relatively) violence. Allow him to participate in contact sports, albeit those (in my opinion) that do not glorify or rely on violence (e.g., basketball, baseball). In these ways and others, you will acquaint your son with his body, teach him to use it productively (an important word, no?), and ensure that he does not equate physicality with hurting people--which so many boys today, whether Christian or otherwise, do. This is productive training.

It is silly to think that we need to expose children to bloodsport to train them up. Simply put: we do not. Our children need not be awkward, unexposed to physical contact and play, but neither do they need to love violence and crave it to be robustly masculine men and protectors of others. Those who argue along these lines are overextending the bounds of credulity, in my humble opinion (though I appreciate my friend Reid's thoughtful piece on this subject, even if we do come to different conclusions).

My father never watched a brutal fighting match with me, but he trained me to be a protector. I never played football, or wrestled, or watched brutal combat fights (either real or otherwise), and I never relished violence. I wasn't a wuss, though; I loved sports, and I liked some degree of contact. My father oversaw all this, and he exuded a spirit of tenderness toward the women in his life, being primarily his wife and daughter. I never had any doubt that Dad would protect us to the death, and I don't have any doubt that I would do the same for my family. I am thankful that he did not think that I had to become hungry for brutality to develop this instinct. He didn't think that, and I didn't need it. I simply needed what we all need: an unapologetically masculine, physically capable, compassionate man in my life, showing me on a daily basis what it means to be a strong but restrained, able but careful, manly but gentle man of God.

That, and not any form of violence-glorifying media, is what we need more of. Not UFC, but good dads. Not TKOs, but good dads. Not wrestling that hurts, or football that brings concussions, or chest-beating fury, but good, godly, wise, masculine dads.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Further Thoughts on Guys, Fighting, and Needless Violence

There have been some great comments on recent posts. Thanks to all who have written in with thoughtful things to say. Even when folks have disagreed with me, they've been charitable and reasonable.

I'll focus today on how Christians might understand needless violence. With pursuits like football, or backyard boxing, or karate, how are we to think as Christians about these things? Let me first say that I don't think that there is an easy answer here. In other words, I am not assuming that I have everything figured out, and that in thinking about this topic, all gray areas have been peeled away and I am now in a position to clarify the black area and the white area regarding this topic. Simply put--I'm not. There is a significant amount of gray area relative to the topic of "needless violence". For example, I play pickup basketball. It is not as violent or physical as is football or boxing, but it does involve physical contact, and thus in playing it, I run a higher risk of injury than I do if I simply stay home and exercise. With all of us, then, there are areas that cannot easily be defined as right and wrong; we are in one in this discussion.

Having said all that, I'm still game to try and come up with a framework for thinking through these matters. I start, as I did yesterday, with noting that it is fundamentally a good thing for a man to prepare his body for defense of self and family. I am not a pacifist, and I do not think that the New Testament teaches pacifism, but readers should note that neither do I sneer at it. It is true (however much we might like it to be otherwise) that there is no explicit command (that I know of) in the NT that enjoins us to defend our families with violence. Indeed, there is much material that does call us to peace and non-violent response to provocation and even pain (Matthew 5-7, for instance). With that said, the Bible doesn't cover everything, and I think it's legitimate to defend oneself and one's family from attack. No, that's too weak. It's imperative that one do so. If self-defense, after all, is not explicitly commanded in the Word, neither is pacifistic response to attack. This is a gray area, and I think that we have freedom to defend ourselves and our families from attack.

It is important, then, that men take the time and effort to make their bodies ready for defense and also for utility around the home. I don't have a specific verse to point to here, but it's a shameful thing when an able-bodied, physically capable man allows his body to become weak and flabby due to gluttony, laziness, and irresponsibility. We may joke about it, but if our homes were attacked, if our wife's purse were snatched, if our families were threatened with violence, would we be able to respond? In my humble opinion, men should take care of their bodies, exercise regularly, and make themselves strong (to a reasonable extent, of course) for the purpose of protecting and caring for their families. Get a BowFlex, join a gym, run three times a week, do pushups--exercise doesn't have to be fancy or even that long to be profitable.

Moving on to the matter of needless violence, we're all going to have to use our minds on this one. We'll need to think hard about our involvement in pastimes that could hurt our bodies and damage our ability to physically care for our families. There's no code to refer to here, and the Bible has very little to say on this matter, directly. It is my own personal conviction that I will play sports that have a relatively low degree of contact and possibility of injury. I personally would not box with other men. Concussions can come fairly easily in boxing, and I could not justify such potential injury. I need to be able to use my mind for the rest of my life, and I cannot see how risking long-term injury for no purpose fits in with responsible Christian headship. I am able to get the exercise and exhaust the energy I have in far less dangerous pursuits. If I am involved in a football game, I will always advocate for touch or flag-football. It may be fun to tackle (though it's not for shrimps like me), but let's face it: most of us twentysomething guys are getting old, and we can easily get injured from tackle football. With something like karate, I'm fine with it, personally. I don't know a ton about it, but if one does karate carefully and for the purpose of self-defense, I think that's fine.

But with things like mixed martial-arts, we're in another category. Yes, the church needs more testosterone--that is true, and if you read this blog for more than a day, you'll see that I argue just that, if in a nuanced way (I hope). But we don't need to lift up bloodletting and physical pain and needless violence to encourage a culture of masculine leadership. If we do so, I think that we're making a mistake. The authors of the New Testament do not teach us that physical exercise is of huge value--they teach us that it is of little (1 Tim. 4:8). It is possible for us to be so captured by the idea of a masculine pastorate that we go well beyond the categories of the New Testament and make requirements of our leaders that it simply does not make. While encouraging men to take care of themselves, to seek to live long by eating well and exercising much for the benefit of others, and to be robustly, unapologetically masculine, we must be very careful not to exceed scripture and think that our pastors must be capable of beating people up. If that is the requirement, friends, I have clearly misperceived my call.

On the matter of what entertainment we watch, some commenters made good points. I can honestly say that I am probably not as careful on this point as I could be. We should be careful about reveling in violence. In a violence-saturated society, sometimes it's hard to see that we are doing so. I'm sure that I'm sometimes guilty of this, and those who have pointed out this potential hypocrisy in me and others have made a good and worthy point.

Thanks to all who wrote in. Let's continue this discussion in days to come.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is Vicious Combat Between Guys a Good Thing? The New York Times on Mixed Martial-Arts

The New York Times magazine just published a story on mixed martial-arts fighting that caught my eye. Paul Wachter has crafted "Gladiator" as an exploration of the culture and morality of this "sport", which is rapidly growing in the United States. I've read material on this sport before but had not encountered an article of such length and depth. This piece raises questions that many folks would have about "M.M.A.", and leaves one wondering whether it is appropriate for Christians to support and participate in such events.

Those of you who read Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll's material will know that he enjoys MMA and has attended fights in the past. Driscoll, who I respect and have benefited from, advocates that Christians not turn their back on the "sport" due to its authentic representation of the desires of contemporary men. Beyond this, Driscoll encourages Christians to engage the sport: "My three young sons and I enjoy watching Ultimate Fighting in conjunction with our Old Testament Bible studies", he said in a 2006 blog. "Because I am a Christian pastor I now need to find something that connects all of this to being a Christian. So, I'll just say that while young men are watching tough men compete, the reason they don't go to most churches is because they could take the pastor and can't respect a guy in a lemon-yellow sweater, sipping decaf and talking about his feelings." There's something to commend in these comments. The Bible is not a sanitized book, though many of us think it is. The Old Testament in particular is raw and bloody, its scenes and narratives acted out on the level of gritty, even gruesome human behavior. Many men, even men of God, were not soft-edged and soft-voiced. They were tough, salt-of-the-earth types who worshiped God with a sword in hand.

Furthermore, I don't condone feelings-oriented churches led by weak men. It's a beautiful thing to see a strong man of God balance courageous leadership with a compassionate disposition. I think that Mark Driscoll has some things to say on this matter, then. But while I do have great respect for Driscoll and look up to him, I wonder about a whole-hearted embrace of Ultimate Fighting and its counterparts. Wachter describes a street fight organized by a rival to the Ultimate Fighting Championship: "The two men approach each other throwing wild haymakers. Alvarez lands a knockout punch, and Tommy collapses to the ground. In the U.F.C., this fight would be over. Instead, Alvarez rushes over to his unconscious opponent and delivers five more punches to his head. Next, he leaps, bending his legs behind him, and slams his knees down on Tommy’s face with the full weight of his body. Then he does it again. Finally, Lynch intervenes as Tommy lies on his back, moaning and struggling to breathe, with blood streaking down from a gash on his chin." Now, we need to note that this is a bloodier, more brutal type of fight than the UFC would sanction (and, presumably, than Driscoll would watch, though I don't know that for sure). With that said, there are similarities between the formalized UFC and its street offshoots. In each, men beat each other up with savage ferocity. In both, men come away from their fights bruised and bloodied. Both celebrate a wild masculinity in which men are prized for their power--specifically, for their power to harm another man.

I in no way would want to encourage Christians to be physically weak. I think it's a very good thing--I would say a duty, but that might be too strong--for men to be strong and able to protect themselves and their families. Speaking personally, I would be wracked with guilt if I were physically unable to protect my wife and family in the event of an attack. It's also very helpful to be able to take care of things around the house for my wife--to move things, and shoulder burdens, and generally be capable of helping her physically. I don't have a Bible verse to back up this desire of mine, but I don't think it's entirely necessary here--it seems to me to be common sense. Men who are out of shape and weak should consider what they might do in the event of an emergency or an attack--would we be able, to some degree, to help or protect? Or would we be woefully unable to act assertively due to laziness, gluttony, and irresponsibility? These are important questions for the head of the home, I think. It should be clear, then, that I think that Driscoll and the UFC have something to teach us. I do not style myself a wimp, and though I lack height and bulk, I try to steward my body well in order that I might help my family and, to some degree, glorify God.

But I am not convinced that the UFC and its counterparts contribute positively to society. I'm afraid that they perpetuate an age-old stereotype of masculinity, namely, that it is determined not by the character of a man's heart but by the circumference of his biceps--and his ability to deploy said biceps in conflict, whether necessary or otherwise. I would challenge the notion that men today are especially drawn to violence. Couldn't we legitimately say that men have always been drawn to violence? Yes, the UFC does represent, I think, a response to a culture that beckons men toward effeminacy and weakness in many dimensions. In that sense, then, this movement is uniquely contemporary. But couldn't we also say that this is merely one iteration of many across history of men prizing blood-sport? If this is true, then we should mark that, even as we consult the scriptures for testimony encouraging men to prize needless violence.

The Old Testament, to be sure, includes numerous stories of war, bloodshed, and violence, but we've got to remember that much of this violence was in fact sanctioned by God. God not only allowed it--He decreed it! Israel incurred some of its harshest penalties for failing to carry out total warfare, in which entire cities and societies would be utterly destroyed. Our minds struggle to comprehend this reality, but it was so. In the New Testament, however, warfare seems to be carried out on a spiritual plane. We do not wage war against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers (2 Co. 10:3). This statement seems to correct a mindset that exalts violence in the current day.

I make this last point to argue against a view of UFC-type violence that sees it as sanctioned in the current day because of Old Testament texts. Just war and defense-oriented war are, I believe, biblical, but random violence is hard to justify simply by citing texts on total warfare sanctioned by the Lord Himself for the purpose of carrying out judgment on wicked nation-states. There's a bit of a jump there, as I see it. I don't think that Christians should be afraid of violence, in one respect; that is, we shouldn't cower in its face, and we should be ready, as mentioned above, to defend ourselves, our families, and our lands, when these causes are just. But brutal violence that is needless should have little place in our homes, and little place in our raising of sons. As Christian fathers seek to be protectors, so they train their children to be protectors with nuance and wisdom. But these same fathers should avoid teaching their children to glorify and even pursue senseless violence. If it is poor stewardship of one's body to be weak and powerless when one is physically healthy and able, so it is equally poor stewardship to subject oneself to violence that could permanently impair our minds and bodies and could, in just the wrong moment, rob us of life. What a stupid reason for injury and, God forbid, death--a silly boxing match carried out for no reason other than to sate the hunger for aggressive combat. How one would answer to the Lord for that, I do not know.

"Gladiator" provokes much thought, then. It encourages us to put violence and masculine aggression in proper perspective. God has made men strong and capable of great physical feats (some of us, at least!). But it seems that He has made us so not to exercise our wildest passions, to revel in our base pursuits, but to be living reflections of His character. The Lord, after all, is our protector, but He is never frivolous or selfish in filling this role. It is our charge, then, to emulate our creator, and to steward our bodies well for the betterment of others. We do not seek to become gladiators--no matter what the culture tells us--but to be protectors. Each term is just a word in length, but there is an ocean of difference between what they signify--and what we must become.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

When a Lawsuit's a Boy's Only Hope: Billy Wolfe, Bullying, and the Results of a Peer-Based Culture

It's not every day that you see a story about one boy being bullied without headlines accompanying headlines announcing a vicious death or a closeted homosexuality. Yesterday, though, the New York Times published just such a story. Dan Barry wrote the piece, entitled "A Boy the Bullies Love to Beat Up, Repeatedly", as a sober, quiet reflection on bullying. Though there is no grisly headline attached to the story (thankfully!), the piece is worth reading and thinking about.

Barry notes, succinctly, that fifteen-year-old Billy Wolfe of Fayetteville, Arkansas gets bullied on a regular basis. This is the kind of piece that Barry regularly writes for the NYT: pieces that go beyond headlines and burrow into the experiences of everyday people. A steady diet of such articles would grow tiresome, probably, but this piece raised a number of issues in my own mind about the link between schools and bullying. Billy is bullied on a regular basis by a number of boys who randomly approach him and punch him. There seems to be little rationale for this behavior, though one could guess that Billy is an outsider in his school--he might be bookish, or he might be slightly effeminate, or he might be a little socially awkward, or he just might not be strong, debonair, or athletic. As one who went to public school, I can reason that any of these factors could be directly contributing to Billy's situation. Kids--despite appearances to the contrary--can be relentlessly cruel. Public school can be quite difficult, then, because it often involves a large number of kids, some of whom are quite cruel, and little supervision by wise, discerning adults. For the child who is, for whatever reason, on the fringe, public (or private) school can represent a day-in, day-out exercise in sustained fear and unalleviated despair.

Perhaps many of us have forgotten this truth. We've long ago left behind school experiences that were difficult. Perhaps we are internally ashamed of the fact that we were once bullied. In fleeting moments of remembrance, we feel as though we caused such treatment. Maybe we remember how gawky we were, or how awkward, or how small, and we feel that we deserved to be bullied. Let's square with bullying, and with the pre-teen and teenage years: they can be quite hard. We're not giving into silly psychobabble or becoming weak if we look our past in the face and see the pain and hurt that lies there. I was always very short, and I remember being on picked on continually for it. I told my parents about some of it, and occasionally talked about it with friends, but there was alot of evil that I could do little about it and simply bore on my own. Some would say that this reality shaped my character and made me tougher, and that's probably true. But my experience in public school among a bunch of nasty kids also left me with some scars. I'm sure others experienced the same, though it's unlikely they'll talk much about it.

In reflecting on Billy Wolfe, I'm reminded of a few recent trips to local coffee shops. While reading in the afternoon, I've observed schoolchildren, fresh out of school for the day, play a number of pranks on one another. I've also seen packs of children hanging out with no adult supervision. In all of these instances, I've thought to myself that it is no good thing for packs of unsaved children to hang out together. There is little good that results from such grouping. Unsaved children, after all, do not tend to focus on goodness, truth, and beauty, especially in a Christian sense. No, they tend to focus on what is evil, outlawed, unkind, "cool", and funny, despite what others may think. The peer-based culture of American children that stems from the advent of public education in the twentieth century can hardly be viewed as a positive development for our society. I am not offering a direct application regarding the viability of public school for children of Christians here. Some kids thrive in such situations--they're well liked, they have a good witness, and all goes rather smoothly. With that said, though, it only makes sense that public or private school, unless closely monitored by wise, kind, just adults, threatens to present schoolchildren (particularly those who are not well-liked for whatever reason) with situations marked by cruelness and, well, evil. As Christians, we've got to think carefully before we plunge our kids into such worlds.

It is not easy to admit that one was bullied. It is also not easy to forget being bullied. I remember getting punched by bullies in school, and I remember one of my friends being shoved into a locker by a bully. He cut his hand so badly that he had to go to the emergency room. There was a great deal more that I can remember, too. I remember being taunted by older boys about a poor basketball game I played. Without any provocation, these boys repeatedly made fun of me for making a few turnovers. Twelve years later, I can easily recall my hot cheeks, my attempt not to cry in front of other boys, my inability to say anything meaningful to these boys.

These recollections show me that I, along with all Christian parents, need to think carefully about schooling. We cannot shield our children from the evil of this world; indeed, we must teach children to live in the midst of it, and beyond this, to be light in this place. With that said, though, we should remember children like Billy Wolfe. There were many children I can recall who were chewed up by public school and the cruel kids who populated it. We should remember, perhaps, our own histories, and run our minds over our own scars. As parents, we should be prepared to stand up with great force and courage for our children. I'm thankful that my own parents were always there for me. We've got to teach our children to defend themselves, even as we teach them to, when possible, suffer reproach for the gospel. Most of all, we need simply to think--to think about our children's souls and the way they will be shaped by the childhood years in which we shepherd them. Education is important, after all, but at what price does it come?

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Friday, March 21, 2008

The Week-est Link, March 21, 2008: Devotions?

1. Video of Tim Keller speaking apologetically. Keller's talk is not to be missed and can be used both to edify and instruct Christians. (HT: Justin Taylor)

2. Helpful discussion of how to tackle the sometimes thorny subject of morning devotions. Covenant Life members CJ Mahaney, former pastor, and Jeff Purswell, pastor and theologian, are the writers here, and they have some very helpful things to say. This topic can befuddle many Christians, and we can easily condemn ourselves on this subject. Great to have someone speak pastorally and directly to it.

3. Biblical theologian Graeme Goldsworthy recently spoke at Southern Seminary, and the talks sounded great to me. Here are the links. They include a PDF of Goldsworthy's talks that stretches over 70 pages--fruitful material you shouldn't miss, particularly if you want to understand the unity of the Bible.

That's all, folks. Have a great and edifying Easter weekend!

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What's More Valuable: Putting in Time or Preaching the Truth? Kingdom Considerations

The answer to the above question must be carefully qualified, in my humble opinion.

Both pursuits, offered out of a redeemed heart, are honoring to God. God has given His creation and His people the opportunity to labor for His glory (1 Co. 10:31). As with all things that we do, we have the opportunity to present our works and deeds to God as gifts. How do we do so? By performing them out of a heart of love. Though it is easy to get a bit over-heated about the nature of work--some theologians have oversold its value, as I see it--and see every task as ushering in the kingdom, it is clear from the Bible that work possesses inherent dignity when done to maximize God's glory. Though the actual tasks we perform may not in themselves advance the kingdom (the kingdom is advanced primarily by proclamation and inherently spiritual activity, I would contend), yet our attitudes, our dispositions, and our constant devotion to God can well bless the Lord.

We see, then, that while making a shoe may not inherently advance the kingdom (the shoe possesses no spiritual value, after all), the attitude of the shoemaker (his worshipful heart expressing itself even as he sows the shoe together) and the good he accomplishes with the shoe (passing it on to a needy child in the name of Christ, for example) may well contribute to the forward movement of God's kingdom. Not everything we do contributes to this forward progress, I would argue, but this is not to say that we cannot bring God glory in our daily goings-on and, perhaps often by means of our heart and our spiritually minded acts, claim some kingdom ground. We see, then, that the matter of work--indeed, all of our daily acts--becomes a matter of theological consideration, and requires us to carefully define the kingdom on biblical grounds.

With all of this said, the preaching of the gospel is the fundamental means of kingdom advancement. See Matthew's first notation of kingdom-oriented preaching in 3:2--it is explicitly connected with the preaching of the gospel. Therefore, we should seek to preach the gospel to advance the kingdom, understanding that this is the primary--though not the only--means of pushing it forward. This means for those of us who work that we should indeed seek to preach the gospel in our workplaces. We should do so, however, shrewdly (Mt. 10:16). I don't think it wise for a Christian to consider their primary on-the-job responsibility to be evangelism. That's not honest. Your employer has hired you to be an accountant; be an accountant. Account. (Sorry, that's a bad joke.)

However, be a shrewdly Christian accountant. Season your conversation with the gospel. Look for opportunities to talk about your church, your faith, your conversion. Ask co-workers if they would like to hang out, and then engage them in honest, normal, but spiritually oriented conversation. Read the Bible in your lunch hour, and keep it on your desk. Let people see that the Bible is an organic part of your life. But do all this while being an excellent accountant (or forester or truck-driver or librarian or politician or athlete or stay-at-home mom). Know accountant laws. Put in a hard, full work day. Be one of the best employees in your office. Be nice, polite, helpful, and kind. Do your work with excellence. In summary, be a worker whose Christianity is apparent, whose goodness is evident, and whose work is excellent. Honor your Lord, but do so while honoring your boss.

Many Christians, of course, work in environments hostile or at least unfriendly to Christianity. In this case, simply turn up the "shrewdness" factor. People are still desperately lost; they are still looking for light, to some extent; they will still be unable to avoid noticing an attractive Christian witness when it presents itself. Over time, they'll ask questions and want to know what makes you tick, a situation helped, of course, by a Christian directing conversation well and living a life that looks and smells differently from others. Above all, Christians in these situations must look to share the gospel just as much as other Christians, though as noted they will need to do so with greater shrewdness than others. On the question of what to do when sharing faith involves the loss of a job, there is no black-and-white answer that I know of. One will have to balance faithful boldness with careful wisdom. One will have to do so, though, with Christ's warning about being an unfaithful or fearful witness in mind. No reward is promised to the timid; much reward is promised to the courageous (see the beatitudes of Matthew 5).

In summary, the Christian must thus see himself as part of a cosmic movement of God's Spirit that is orchestrated by the Father's will and proceeds forth from the Son's redemptive work. The Christian who goes off to work each morning should not simply think that he is putting in time and punching a clock; neither should he think that he is in some vague sense honoring God by working. No, he should realize that he is part of a kingdom movement, and he is able throughout the day to advance that kingdom by a godly attitude and disposition and by acts and deeds of gospel-oriented grace, justice, beauty, and goodness. We might restrain ourselves from saying that every task he performs directly contributes to this kingdom progress, but in doing so we would not make the mistake of thinking that only preachers accomplish spiritually meaningful things. No, all of us have the opportunity to participate by disposition and deed and word in this cosmic movement.

This perspective threatens to transform our daily rites, doesn't it? However you've considered work, you need not see it in stark terms, either as an evangelistic endeavor alone or a clock-punching exercise. No, work is a beautiful blend of these things, an opportunity to, as I said earlier, send God little gifts of glory by the things we do and the words we say. As you head into the forest, or wheel into your desk, or walk customers around the car showroom, you are not cut off from the kingdom. You are right in the center of it. As you live with integrity, and model Christ's grace and kindness, and speak gospel-saturated words, yes, you are right in the center of it. You may not know it, and no one may see it, but heaven is smiling on you in these times. And somehow, in ways imperceptible to human eyes and ears, a reign is being extended, a light is being lifted, and the earth and hills and stars are being readied to celebrate and surrender to the coming King.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

When Ordinary Is Extraordinary: A Reflective Review of D. A. Carson's Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor

This is one of the best books you will ever read about the Christian ministry.

That is a dramatic claim. Right now, you're asking yourself if it's true. After all, this book written by New Testament scholar D. A. Carson and published by Crossway Books in 2008 is just shy of 160 pages; it doesn't treat a figure of major historical significance; it doesn't claim to be an exhaustive primer on the Christian ministry. Indeed, it's rather paradoxical in nature--it's written by the preeminent evangelical New Testament professor of the current day, and yet it's a professedly humble little book. Why, then, the rather breathy claim that the just-published Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor is an excellent book? The answer is very simple: it's a straightforward reflection on everyday ministry written by a godly critical thinker, himself involved in the work of ministry. Those who read it will come away with a realistic picture of Christian ministry, an accomplishment rarely achieved with such accessibility and clarity.

Tom Carson was a pastor in the province of Quebec in Canada from the 1930s to the 1970s. He spoke at no major conferences, wrote no seminal work, and never pastored even a mid-size church by American standards. Yet it is clear from his son's profile that he was an exceptional man. He was a faithful husband, a devoted if quiet father, a dogged servant of the church, and a passionate witness for Christ. I never met him, but I know him. He is the man who can be found in countless little towns and hamlets across the country--no, across the world--who labors faithfully for the Lord in an unspectacular but steady fashion. Unlike many of us self-promoters, he's not in ministry to make a name for himself, but to glorify his God. This is what Tom Carson did for most of his life, and this is what many who are just like him do. Before, this group was overlooked. Now, they have a book. Indeed, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor is not only Tom's biography, it is the biography of countless men just like him whose names we will know only in the age to come.

D. A. Carson's Memoirs walks through Tom Carson's ordinary pastoral labors as a bivocational minister to both French and English speaking Canadians. Carson the son gives us historical background, comments, and excerpts from his father's diary to sketch his life and his ministry. I won't quote material at length here. I will say that the historical background is interesting and does provide the general backdrop of Tom Carson's life. One can tell that D. A. Carson is not a historian, and I sometimes had to backtrack to get the dates right for sections of extensive length, but this little book nicely illuminates the religious scene of twentieth-century Canada. Though I grew up just miles from Canada, I confess that I knew (and know) very little about it. To most Americans, it is a silent cousin, an unexplored country filled with Catholics, strange accents, and cold air. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor brings modern Canada to light and shows that it changed drastically over the course of Tom Carson's life. The country transitioned from a Catholic stronghold in the early twentieth century to a spiritual pastiche by the late twentieth century. Ordinary pastors like Tom Carson struggled to understand these massive cultural shifts, though they never failed to stop preaching the gospel of salvation in Christ.

Of course, it was not merely cultural shifts that Tom (and others) had to contend with. He had the requisite struggles of any pastor--church upheaval, family turmoil, the onset of Alzheimers in a spouse--and he grappled with these difficulties all of his life. Yet it is clear from the text that Tom never walked away from the narrow path. Though brambles hung in the way, and landed some tough blows, Tom walked on. He led tiny churches when no one else had eyes for unchurched areas. He knocked on thousands of doors when policemen harassed him for doing so. He exhorted young pastors when there were no major seminaries or internship programs to prepare men for ministry. His was the life of passionate, almost desperately active faith. Though the results are not startling in terms of their numerical count, they are extraordinary nonetheless.

In the midst of a spiritual wilderness, a land openly and unashamedly hostile to evangelical Christianity, Tom persevered, though his overactive conscience continually condemned him. His portrait reveals to be a flawed man, weak as we all are, but yet a great man of unusual integrity and zeal. As noted, D. A. Carson provides many helpful, if brief, sections of comment on his father's life. These sections alone are worth the book's price. Carson has reflected long and deeply on Christian ministry, and the reader will be instructed by his words. His father's diary excerpts are not particularly unusual in their content or depth of thought, but they are inspiring. The reader is taught through them, for they present a man who has gone before and stayed faithful. The book is helpful as well for its treatment of suffering. Most Christians suffer to some degree in their lives. Tom did, and he wrote about it a bit, and his son fills out his writing with his own considerations on how we handle trial and difficulty. Though it may be more fun to read about wild success and flashy ideas, these things won't tarry long for most of us. Trial, however, will. Like Tom, we'll go through nasty church splits, or marital crises, or deep personal or ministerial disappointments, and the quality of our faith will show itself in these challenges.

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor proves helpful, then, in constructing a balanced and realistic portrait of ministry. You won't come away from this narrative chronicle of Tom Carson's life inspired in exactly the same way as you will from reading Spurgeon's autobiography, but you will be ready, in a sense, for the challenging nature of everyday ministry. That is a precious literary gift. In addition, the section on the way Tom Carson deals with his wife's illness is quite moving and helpful for husbands. Tom was clearly a model husband in living with his wife in a gentle and loving way. Furthermore, the frequent commentary on how Tom dealt with being a number two man, as he sometimes was, will prove helpful for those who recognize that they are not best fitted for the most prominent ministry positions. It is quite instructive to observe Tom as he deals with jealousy and inadequacy in different seasons. Wisdom for men of varied gifting is readily supplied both by his example and his son's analysis of this lifelong struggle.

All of the above should not be read as concluding that the book is perfect. Its language can be a bit dramatic at times, and D. A. Carson's analyses of situations and people is occasionally sharp-edged. The book frequently switches between the present and past tenses, which often refreshes the reader but sometimes confuses him (particularly if the reader is a history geek trained to write about the past using only the past tense). I would have liked a bit more reflection from Carson the younger on his father's ministry at the end; the book closes rather suddenly, and the appendix material could have been a little more inspiring (though it is helpful). With these minor points noted, though, the book is excellent.

As I bring this reflective review to a close, I note that I connected with this book on a deeply personal level. I am from Maine, where the spiritual "ground", so to speak, is as hard as it is cold. Maine is much like Canada, and indeed New England writ large is quite similar to Canada in a religious sense. I am from a 40-50 person church from a tiny town, and I have known many of the trials experienced by Tom Carson and his son, Don. Like Dr. Carson, though, I am also immensely privileged to be from a family of faithful Christians led by godly men. My grandfather, Daniel Dustin, was a great servant of his church, Grace Chapel of Lexington, MA (which is ironically a "megachurch" in New England terms, but was not always) and my father, Andrew Strachan, is a great servant of his church, First Baptist of East Machias, ME. Like Dr. Carson, then, I know something of the power of observation of faithful men, and I am grateful as he clearly is for those who have gone before me and shown me how to walk the narrow way.

Indeed, watching faithful men labor on a weekly basis in the work of local church ministry has a transforming effect. It is not fanfare that shepherds such transformation. No, it is faithfulness, rugged faithfulness, the kind of character that can only be forged by a supernatural work of the Spirit of God. In this sense, the ordinary transcends itself. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor is one account of such transformation. For this reason and all others mentioned before it is, simply put, one of the best books you will ever read about the ministry. It has no new ideas, no revolutionary gameplan. It has only a story, and a humble story at that. But this humble story tells a powerful message, one of an ordinary faith becoming something beautiful over a lifetime's course. In the end, then, the book is like the man it considers: unassuming, faithful, and--it must be said--quite extraordinary.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

The Strange and Consuming Spectacle That Is "Extreme Home Makeover" and "Oprah's Big Give"

I confess that until recently I had not watched a minute of the ABC show "Extreme Home Makeover." Then, randomly, I watched a few moments several weeks ago, my snobbery at mainstream American entertainment (temporarily) overcome. I came away touched by the show's heart, even as I found aspects of it quite interesting.

There's another show remarkably similar to this one, called "Oprah's Big Give" or something like that. The thing I find most interesting, and potentially troubling, about both of these shows is that they marry "consumerism and altruism", as a recent New Yorker piece by Nancy Franklin put it. Both shows involve lots of money and product being spent and given to help people. Now, let me say that I am not certainly not against money and materials being given to people. However, we should note that this is perhaps a uniquely modern way of philanthropy. Forget the monks of centuries past who would renounce all in order to live with and serve the poor. Now, we enlist corporate America, build the needy a McMansion, and adjust the television cameras to just the right angle to get that killer close-up. Does all this negate the positive effects of the so-called "consumerist charity" entertainment fare mentioned above? I'm not sure that it does. But then again, I'm not really sure what exactly to think of this brand of entertainment. It is quite clearly a mix of positive and concerning traits.

With my concerns quickly registered, I will say that I think that Christians should watch at least one episode of "Extreme Home Makeover". The show's host, Ty Pennington, seems to have a heart for people. He's a little wired and a little youngish for me, but he does seem to care for the needy, and he has, in his own way, helped many. Of course, his deeds don't seem to be done out of a redeemed heart (though I don't know what he claims religiously), and thus they aren't ultimately worthy, but in an earthly sense, it is convicting and encouraging to see a person working for the betterment of other people. All of the above qualification applies, but at the end of the day, I watch the show, and I think to myself, wow, this guy is doing stuff. What am I doing? How much do I do to advance the gospel and heal the broken everywhere around me? Do I even think of such people and such needs? Or do I think far, far more about me and my interests and my concerns and my own little atomized life?

For just a little while, this show makes me want to live for others, makes me want to reorganize my priorities so that my life is one long stream of blessing pouring into the lives of others. I can make a biblical and theological case for relaxation and enjoying God's good gifts and the importance of free time, as many can, but at the end of the day, I have to ask myself, where does the balance lie? It's easy to cast aside shows like "Extreme Home Makeover", to sniff at them, to deride them as thoughtless, silly, done out of wrong motives, culturally lowbrow, and so on. Some of those critiques would be true. But none of this does anything to change the fact that this show actually does reflect, however imperfectly, one of the fundamental tenets of biblical Christianity, namely, that we should live for others and not for ourselves. We who are redeemed are called to share and live out the gospel in our world, and this means sharing the faith verbally and then putting it into practice in tangible ways to heal, mend, and bless.

"Extreme Home Makeover" is not perfect. But perhaps it is a little gift of God in the form of a prodding--if overcaffeinated--reminder to we who are redeemed that our faith should not be passive but active. If the lost around us outdo us in caring for others, what does this say of our faith? More to the point, what does it say of our hearts? One wonders what Ty Pennington and his crew are like when the cameras are off. But for us, there is no need to wonder. Most of us do not have and will never have cameras on us. What people see is what we are. What do they see? Is our faith alive? Is it working? Or is it self-consumed, self-serving, or more scarily, dead?

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Friday, March 14, 2008

The Week-est Link, March 14, 2008: 9 Crimes, and the Sound of Falling Slowly

1. Earlier this week, I wrote about the movie Once. Here's the movie's key song, "Falling Slowly". Tell me it's not a great song. It's especially exhilarating to see the song performed in the movie. It's all make-believe, of course, but in the movie, the key actors compose it together in a music store. It's funny, and it's quite believable, and the song is beautiful. I like the quieter part, the man's low voice, and the piano. Give it a listen and tell me what you think of it.

2. I've been excited to give you this link to the Damien Rice song "9 Crimes". I don't exactly understand the video or the song, but I do know that I am haunted by it, and find it powerful. It mirrors "Falling Slowly" in that it uses undoctored harmony between male and female voices to create evocative music.

3. Interesting Al Mohler article on the effect of television sets in children's bedrooms. Shocking conclusion made by no less than the NY Times: they're harmful to kids. Common sense has its day, for about the millionth time. (HT: Justin Taylor)

4. What place does biblical counseling have in the local church? Here's a helpful conversation between the aforementioned Dr. Mohler and pastor Lance Quinn of Little Rock, AR.

5. Great video provided by Vitamin Z on a conversational pause so awkward it's almost historic. Absolutely hilarious. One of the funniest 30-second doses of humor I've heard in a very long time. Those of you who like the excruciating, hilarious awkwardness of "The Office", you'll love this one.

Have a great weekend, all.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

"Regulating" Home School: Briefly Dissecting a Fascinating Editorial on the California Decision

The LA Times published a piece today arguing that the recent California decision to limit homeschool to "credentialed" parents has been misunderstood.

The piece's authors, Walter P. Coombs and Ralph Shaffer, are professors emeriti at Cal Poly Pomona. They make some questionable points in "Regulating Home Schoolers", a piece so bad it fairly begs for satirization. For instance, read this statement: "The court's decision means that home schoolers must be given some substantive instruction in social studies and not simply spend their time watching Fox with its strange assortment of oddballs pontificating on current events." Well! Coombs and Shaffer, please, don't hold back. Tell us what you really think about homeschooling. While you're at it, tell us what you really think about Fox News. It's hard to read between the lines. Just stop for a moment and stand under this quotation, leaking with bias and unacademic discourse. Stick out your tongue and let your tongue catch it. Yes, kids, that's what condescension tastes like. You'll be drinking lots of it (if your politics align with "oddballs", that is) in college, where you can learn from such unbiased, objective academics as Coombs and Shaffer.

Let's proceed. Here's another gem: "It's evident that the vast majority who teach their offspring in front of the television do so because they don't want their children to be subjected to such dangerous doctrines as evolution, abortion, global warming, equal rights and other ideas abhorrent to the evangelical mantra." Well, yes. Abortion would appear to be a "dangerous doctrine", Coombs and Shaffer, at least for the fetuses who this very moment sit in garbage dumps all across America. For them, the "doctrine" of abortion meant death. Not sure how you two would define "dangerous", but that would qualify on my list.

Moving on, we come to this: "Finally, in its call for the Legislature to enact laws providing for home schooling, apparently without credentialed teachers, the editorial wants "reasonable regulations," citing as examples required lesson plans or a student portfolio of work. Those regulations might be acceptable to some of the learn-at-home parents, but the Internet will be full of angry letters from home schoolers saying all that bureaucratic regulation is what they wanted to escape by teaching their children at home." Once again: yes. Coombs and Shaffer, you've sketched this situation accurately, and your closing comment seems entirely logical and well-founded. These men, who I'm sure are quite intelligent, learned, and accomplished, have failed to justify a premise inherent in their argument, namely, that it is the right of the state to educate children, not the right of the parent to determine who and what educates their children. What on earth would make Coombs and Shaffer assume such a premise? There's certainly nothing in the Constitution or our country's founding documents that warrants such a conclusion. Furthermore, public education in America is barely a hundred years old. Yes, it took secularists that long to convince the American public that it was the state's right and duty to educate children. And think about world history. Do people who voice the argument of Coombs and Shaffer think that medieval children were trucking off to state-funded schools back in the tenth century?

Public education, considered in the scale of human history, is breathtakingly young. And yet men like Coombs and Shaffer expect us to think that a) it's the only reasonable practice of decent human beings and b) that it's ridiculous for anyone to question this assumption. In reality, though, it is the thought of Coombs and Shaffer that is "young", baseless, and quite harmful to society. If parents want to put their children in public school, fine. But they have absolutely no need or responsibility to do so. They can do whatever on earth they would like to do with their children--they're the parents! No one regulates them or stands over them. See how far you can go with an assumed premise?

We close with this: "There has always been something decidedly elitist and anti-democratic in home schooling. It smacks of a belief that privileged children should not have to associate with the other kids in the neighborhood and that by staying home, they would not be subjected to the leavening effect of democracy. Moreover, it is apparent from the cries of the far right that there has been a specific policy in home schooling -- to teach only the ideas acceptable to ideologues who fear the contaminating influence of what is commonly known as a liberal education." This is a strange statement, historically speaking. It is often non-elites, culturally speaking, who home-school their children. This same group of people is often, whether you agree with them ideologically or not, fervently patriotic and great supporters of the democratic process. This last point is most curious, then, and it also gives us a nice parting shot at the end. Coombs and Shaffer seem to be confused, because many home-schooling parents love liberal education, classically defined (as consisting of study of the sciences, the classics, humanities, and other disciplines, a definition many of varying worldviews would subscribe to). That's precisely what many parents want to give their children, in place of a politically liberal education, which is what most children receive in American public schools nowadays. I should know--I went to public school all of my life. My education paled in comparison to the classic liberal education, though it was frequently infused by anti-conservative, unacademic teaching that left me with little in the way of skill and intellectual ability and much in the way of heated rhetoric and half-justified conclusions (which reminds one of a certain article, by the way).

Coombs and Shaffer can disagree with home-schoolers. That's their right (that one actually is in America's founding documents). Of course, one could argue that they might have stereotyped home-schoolers; not every home-schooler is conservative, after all, so they look a little sloppy on that point. Beyond that, though, if you look at your average home-school product, and I know many, they are often well-spoken, intellectually sharp, logically capable, and well-rounded students. They are frequently academically motivated and mentally gifted. Look at a school like Patrick Henry College. Whether or not you agree with its politics and religious views, its students, many (most?) of which come from home-schooling families, boast impressive SATs, vocabularies, and abilities. There are a ton of National Merit scholars that end up at PHC. This is merely one example of many, though I'll also note that my wife and her sister were both home-schooled, and thus I am personally insulted by this piece, and can testify that both of these girls were extremely well-trained and have both turned out to be women of great intellectual ability (I don't think my wife's sister has ever gotten a B, whether at a difficult private school or in college). In the end, that's the main problem with this article by Coombs and Shaffer. There's simply too much to refute its sloppy logic and its biased "arguments", and it ends up overwhelming the reader, and leaving him desperate for a class in a "liberal school" in which to fall asleep and so clear his mind.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Sad Tale Of Eliot Spitzer, and What it Tells Us (and What it Doesn't)

Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, has resigned after it became public that he had hired prostitutes through a "high-end clientele" business. The story is sordid, and very sad for the people whom Mr. Spitzer has let down. This would include, significantly, his wife, and, not insignificantly, the state of New York.

In looking at web coverage of this event, I came across this article in the LA Times by an evolutionary biologist. David Barash argues in "Want a Man, or a Worm?" that it is natural for males of many species to copulate with a wide variety of females from their species. Barash notes that among men who seek a number of female sex partners that "Even if, thanks to birth control technology, they do not actually reproduce as a result (and thus enhance their evolutionary "fitness"), they are responding to the biological pressures that whisper within men." This is a good point. If one looks through most any type of human history, biblical or otherwise, one sees that men often seek out a number of women for sex. Speaking rather broadly, many men have struggled greatly to confine their sexual drive to one woman, particularly men in positions of power like Mr. Spitzer.

Here's the fascinating thing about Barash's opinion piece, though. Right after acknowledging this historically proven situation, he says the following: "That doesn't justify adultery, by either sex, especially because human beings -- even those burdened by a Y chromosome and suffering from testosterone poisoning -- are presumed capable of exercising control over their impulses. Especially if, via wedding vows, they have promised to do so. After all, "doing what comes naturally" is what nonhuman animals do. People, most of us like to think, have the unique capacity to act contrary to their biologically given inclinations. Maybe, in fact, it is what makes us human." One wonders why the evolutionary biologist--who has just taken numerous paragraphs to explain polygamous mammalian sexual behavior as entirely natural--suddenly becomes a moralist, and attempts to convince the reader that the natural orientation of men (to avoid monogamy) "doesn't justify adultery". Barash has offered us no moral framework, no higher, transcendent cause or reason by which he could justify his judgement that adultery is wrong. If biology explains all, then all that we have an "is", an explanation for what goes on in the world, but we have no "ought", for biology in itself cannot bequeath us morality, let alone the spirituality that would birth a moral standard. No, if we explain life in materialistic terms, then we live it, ethically, in materialistic terms, and adultery cannot be judged wrong, and Eliot Spitzer cannot be looked upon in a negative light. Yet this is exactly what even the most learned among us do, and so show us, time and again, that the Christian worldview alone gives us a comprehensive, logical understanding of man and man's world.

Christian men are reminded by this sad event to seek self-control, or, perhaps, Spirit-control of self. It is no accident that men have sought polygamous relationships throughout history and that men seem far more often than women to destroy marriages and homes through extramarital affairs. This is not to say that women do not ever fall in such ways, or that all women possess less reproductive drive than men, but it is to say that a quick historical scan yields that men are much more likely to stray than women are. We can acknowledge, then, that there are significant "biological pressures that whisper within men", as Barash argues. We go beyond this, however, to say that adultery involves not merely biology but spirituality. Indeed, it is our sinful nature, our errant spirituality, that drives our biology. Adam would not have cheated on Eve prior to the fall. His biology operated at a cool "faithful" then then. His fall, though, shot that temperature up to "hungry", and won him a sinful nature, and a part of this sinful nature is the drive to commit the horrible, tragedy-inducing sin of adultery. Biology matters, yes, but so too does spirituality.

Men have been attempting to control themselves (to follow Barash's moral guidance) for millenia, and we can all see where that's gotten us. No, we must have the Holy Spirit living inside of us, willing us away from Internet ads and tv shows and stray glances at the mall and extended consideration and appraisal of other men's spouses and meditation on past objects of lust and spending time alone with women who are not our spouses and so much more. We must have the Spirit, men, and we must strive for holiness, both personally and in the embrace of the local church. It is a difficult thing to be a monogamous man, armed with a sinful nature and existing in a sex-saturated world, but we can resist temptation. We've got to fight for holiness, we've got to prize Christ and find our joy in obeying Him and turning away from the world, and we've got to celebrate marriage and cultivate happy, romantic marriages. Only then will we avoid Mr. Spitzer's mistake; only then will we avoid his tragedy.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Reflecting on the Turbulent, Sad, and Triumphant Life of Pete Maravich

Mark Kriegel's Pistol came out in 2007 and tells the fascinating and tragic story of the basketball player known as "Pistol" Pete Maravich (1947-1988). I highly recommend it to most anyone who likes reading, and to those who like biographies, and to those who like sports, and to those who like good writing. This is a sizeable group of would-be readers, I know, but it's justifiably sizeable. Kriegel is a solid historian, a talented storyteller, and has good insight into the human condition. His worldview and mine differ, and his characterizations of people lean far too heavily on psychology for my taste, but though I possess a fundamentally different understanding of the causes and the solution of Maravich's sad life, I commend him for what is an excellent, if heartbreaking, biography.

This is not a conventional review but a reflection on the book. In general, the story of the Pistol is one of excess and, resultingly, sadness and pain. In short, Pete and his father were obsessed with basketball. This obsession created a person of extremes: the Pistol's obsession with the game made him perhaps the most talented basketball player ever, and yet his obsession destroyed him, emptied him, left him without any greater meaning or purpose in his life. To read his story is to see a real-life Faustus in action. He makes his bargain with the basketball gods, and they make him wildly talented, and yet they demand his soul in exchange, leaving him a shell of a person. It is hard, bitterly hard, to watch this unfold, particularly as a Christian. One aches for Pete, yearns for his domineering, driven father, Press Maravich, to bring balance into Pete's life, but this never happens. Press raised Pete to be the first million dollar basketball player and, incredibly, he was. He drilled him and trained him and immersed him in basketball until the boy could not miss--and could not be happy.

Pistol is thus not simply the biography of Pete, it is the story of Press, a man driven by a challenging background to succeed at any cost. He did succeed--his son clearly thrilled him, and many others--but the spectacular height of the success was matched squarely by his failure as a father to train his son in what truly matters. The father laid his Isaac on the altar, but there was none there to stay his hand, none to catch him from driving his son into depression, drugs, drinking, decadence, and an early death. This is a story of fathers and sons that has been told many times in human history, and will be told many times more to come.

Pete's life ends on a happy note. He becomes a Christian and, in turn, something of an evangelist. His transformation was genuine, and he became an adoring father, a good husband, a dutiful son, a passionate witness for Christ. This period of light in Pete's life is brief, sadly, because only a few years after God saves Pete, he dies in 1988. Playing basketball with, of all people, Dr. James Dobson, Pete collapses and dies on the spot. He left behind two young sons who worshipped the ground he walked on and who have never really found their way. Kriegel tells their story as well, and it is clear that the loss of their loving father left the boys as lost as Pete himself once was. Pete's life, then, truly is a mix of pain and beauty, though both are magnified in an unusual way. The beauty he created--even if you don't like basketball, watch this video, and hold onto your jaw--was breathtaking, and the wake of pain he experienced and created was similarly significant. Pistol Pete was a mystery, a paradox, and he will remain enigmatic, a comet who flashed brightly and landed hard.

If you're a man who likes sports, or a dad (or mom) who has children who love sports, read this book. It has lessons that you will quickly pick up, though of course Kriegel does not write in a moralistic way. Or, if you're a Christian who struggles to restrain your passions for earthly things, whatever they may be, read this book. You will profit from seeing the logical outcome of pursuing earthly things too hard. I did. As a boy, I was influenced by the Pistol, and came to love basketball too much. I still struggle to keep my passion for the game in check, though I have all the right answers in my mind--don't obsess over earthly things, it's just a game, play for joy and fun and, when possible, evangelism--but I don't always put those answers into play. I am a man, and I have clay feet, and though I am redeemed by the grace of God, I still struggle to keep my passions in perspective.

I suppose that many of us are like this, in one way or another, and that we struggle to keep certain impulses and interests in balance. Though we do struggle, we must not misread the presence of struggle as a justification for defeat. We've got to struggle on, to keep fighting, to pray hard, stay accountable, and seek holiness. Most of all, we've got to focus on Christ, the One who was, like the Pistol, a man of great paradox. This man, though, did not wrestle with sin. He had none. No, He was paradoxical because, though He was omnipotent, He became a man. Though He was a lion, He became a lamb. Though He deserved no death, He died, in order that you, and me, and Pete, and millions upon millions of other people could escape the sins that would drive us far from God's hand into a place of uncountable sorrow. This is a paradox that, unlike the Pistol, does not leave us with sadness. It leaves us with joy--and it promises to transform us, and make us triumphant, even as Pete now has won the victory, and lost his earthly chains.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

What the Movie "Once" Shows Us About the Power of Music

Here's a movie you should consider seeing: Once.

It's an independent film made for $160,000, and yet it is better than many films costing 100 times more. It is not an incredible film, but it has a soul. It tells a simple but moving message of the power of music. To briefly summarize the film, a street musician ("Guy") meets a street saleswoman ("Girl"). The two share a love of music and end up making it together. I won't reveal what else happens, but suffice it to say that the outworking of this extremely brief plot summary is compelling and, yes, inspiring. The film considers both the power of music and the potential of romance as themes, but the former wins by a mile. Though it could be billed as a romance, the film is really about the beauty of music and the power it possesses to unite even the most alienated of people. In the end, it's a simple message, but a true one.

The only thing to watch out for here is the language of the film. There are no sex scenes or anything of that sort. The film is quite clean otherwise and thus allows the viewer to focus on the aforementioned idea tossed out by the movie, namely, that music--when played with beauty--has great power and can unite even total strangers. Though Christians of course believe that mankind can find true unity only when connected to Christ by faith in Him, we can likewise affirm that God has invested music with great potency on the earth. In effect, God has given us another language in programming musical ability and interest in us. We err when we so emphasize propositions and speech in our lives that we miss proper recognition of the language of music. It is my personal opinion, based entirely on speculation, that God gave His earth music in order to express the emotions. We can attempt to capture our emotions with words, but it seems that we often fail in this endeavor. With music, though, I think that talented performers are able to an extent to plumb the depths of what it feels like to know despair, to experience true love, to sustain faith through trial. I don't know if many people approach music in this way; perhaps they do. But I sometimes think that they don't, and thus that they miss out on much of the beauty of experiencing music. Music can be an aural backdrop, it can be a diversion, it can be a mere motivator, but it can also be a chamber of the soul, a place to escape and hear the emotions, experiences, and feelings of life. We need not shy away from such a perspective; if God did not want us to more fully experience life, he would not have given us music.

You'll see what I mean by all this if you watch Once. The movie is not epic, it is not incredible, but it is good, and it will inspire you whatever your musical ability to more fully appreciate and even create works of beauty. Music is not God; it cannot truly, purely unite us and "save" us, so to speak, but it does possess a vast potential to inspire, discover, and bless the world by the secret place of the emotions, the experiences of life, it opens up to us. That's the story of Once, and it's a story worth telling, and worth watching.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

The Week-est Link, March 7, 2008: Rap, and lots of Sovereign Grace

1. Sovereign Grace recently posted a review of what sounds like a terrific rap cd. It's by Tony Reinke, assistant to Sovereign Grace director C. J. Mahaney. I haven't heard the album in full, though I've heard it in parts, and I can say that Tony hits the nail on the head, and reveals that rap, though it may sound strange to some, can actually prove to be a very theologically friendly style of music. All the lines that rappers say (far more than most singers of other genres) provide Christian rappers with the opportunity to speak a whole lot of truth. Check out the cd Tony reviews and hear a few tracks from Shai Linne's "Atonement" (hint: click on the "boombox") (HT: Justin Taylor)

2. Here's another link related to Sovereign Grace: check out the welcome video from the denomination's flagship church, Covenant Life. Covenant Life is one of my favorite churches in the world. This video shows a few hints of why it's such a great church: the people are theologically concerned, the church is very friendly and joyful, and visitors are made to feel welcome even as they are instructed in truth. I am regularly encouraged by this church, and I would encourage you to check it out. You don't need to agree with all its doctrine to see that Covenant Life is a very healthy large church, something of a model for the rest of us.

3. CBMW just linked to a post I did on masculine provision. If you have already read the post, then use this link as an opportunity to tool around the site and see what else is there--they have a plethora of interesting, helpful resources.

4. A JC Penney commercial, of all things, tipped me off to this gorgeous song. It's by Allison Krauss and Robert Plant and it's called "Killing the Blues" from the Raising Sand album. I highly recommend it.

That's all for today--have a great weekend, everyone.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Training a "Gospel Girl" When Every Daughter Wants to Be a "Gossip Girl"

The New Yorker has a good story on a series of books that you may or may not have heard about. They're called the "Gossip Girl" books and they deal with a pack of tony New York prep school kids who act like, well, tony New York prep school kids. I can write that line with credibility--I went to college with a bunch of this type. They were fascinating to a small-town Maine boy, much like a rare species of African bird. I have not read the books that touch on this demographic and will not be reading them at this time. I can, however, say that Christians should be aware of these books and the worldview they represent. If you have kids, or if you are involved in ministry to teens, or if you are remotely interested in how the culture is thinking, you will want to be aware of this series and the tv show it has spawned.

Janet Malcolm, the author of the piece, summarizes the key characters of the show in this fashion:

"As the first book opens, Blair Waldorf—who is almost seventeen and lives in a penthouse at Fifth Avenue and Seventy-second Street, with her divorcée mother, Eleanor, her younger brother, Tyler, and her cat, Kitty Minky—is sulking in her room. Blair, in the description of a classmate, antiheroine of the first rank: bad-tempered, mean-spirited, bulimic, acquisitive, endlessly scheming, and, of course, dark-haired. The blond heroine, Serena van der Woodsen (who lives at an even better Fifth Avenue address, right across from the Metropolitan Museum), is incandescently beautiful, exceptionally kind, and, in the end, it has to be said, somewhat boring. The series belongs to awful Blair, who inspires von Ziegesar’s highest flights of comic fancy."

Apparently, Blair attempts to accomplish two goals throughout the series: sleeping with a boy she likes and getting into Yale. Serena apparently is nicer and morally purer than Blair. The series involves a series of exchanges between the two and various boys, with a good deal of commentary thrown in on modern rich parents. The parents of these girls and their classmates seem to do very little to regulate, constrain, or direct the behavior of their progeny, though they wish ardently for their children to attain the trappings of a "good life": an excellent education, wealth, an attractive spouse/partner. The show, which I have not watched but am familiar with, seems to follow roughly the same lines as the book series, though with larger roles for the parents.

So what's the big deal, one might ask? Well, it's my humble opinion that though we Christians may not watch this show (and shows like it), and though we may very well steer our children from such fare, we will nonetheless benefit from knowing that it exists and from studying its worldview to anticipate how the secular world will be influenced and, in turn, will seek to influence our children. Books and shows like "Gossip Girl" have a serious trickle-down effect in the broader culture. There's a reason that they're set in New York, one of the cultural capitals of the world, and they influence the way that children all across the world think and view themselves and others. These particular works seem to encourage the reader to think that parents (and adults more broadly) are stupid, irresponsible, and not worthy of the authority they possess; that it is good and right for children (teens) to pursue sex, intrigue, and materialism of the most excessive sort; that beauty and social standing set one's course in life. Of course, the author of this series mocks these views, but it seems clear that her mockery is set in a worldview that simultaneously enjoys and even celebrates them. If beauty and materialism really aren't important, why write a series of novels that, however ironically, celebrates them?

We need to know about cultural influencers like Gossip Girl. In a culture that prizes wealth, beauty, and social standing to an extreme degree, we must make sure that we prize spiritual wealth, spiritual beauty, and kingdom standing. We must take care to train our children, whether in our families or our churches, to reject the culture's ideals and principles and to embrace God's. I can only think of what series like this will do to a young girl, culturally plugged-in, who does not have a strong Christian family to train her to think rightly about Gossip Girl. It is only natural to assume that she will measure herself by its standards, prize its worldview, and slowly, quietly turn away from the true beauty and riches of the Christian faith. The things of this world do not appear to the natural man as hideous, remember, but as beautiful.

Gossip Girl
is a polished bauble in the eyes of many girls today and is a part of a culture that creates great animosity for things of God. Let us work, then, to create families where biblical womanhood (and manhood) is celebrated, where beauty is seen primarily in spiritual terms, where wealth in Christ is far more precious than the designer labels that call out for our consumption. Gossip Girl may tempt young women, but when it is placed alongside a joyful, God-centered, well-led Christian family and church, its luster will fade, and our girls will not want to be women of gossip and intrigue, but women of the gospel.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Aggressive Sales Tactics and the Fear and Loathing They Create

Have you been shopping recently and found yourself not so much helped by store staff but accosted?

My wife has had this experience a number of times in past months. She's gone out to the mall, browsed in a few stores, and had upwards of ten store employees stop her in the span of about twenty minutes to ask her if she needs help, wants information, or can't find something she wants. The first few times she's thankful and a bit impressed by the helpful spirit of the store; the last ten encounters leave her cold and make her want to avoid the store and its products at all costs. What's interesting, as well, is that many of these businesses do not pay their employees a commission for sales, so that motive for such hyperactive attentiveness is not in play.

"I have that problem with the "Disney Store" in our local shopping mall. The sales clerks have orders to greet every customer as the come in the door. I have tried to slip by on the opposite side of the entrance, but have been chased down and greeted. Why can't I just have a quiet shopping experience?" (A customer from the This is Broken blog)

I'm blogging about this because I'm wondering if anyone else has noticed this in their shopping. Being an armchair theorist, I have constructed a conspiracy theory: that the prevailing ethos in the retail world nowadays seems to be that it is best to be as aggressive with customers as possible. I wondered if I was the only one who had observed this phenomenon and so googled for "aggressive sales" and "aggressive sales clerks". I found the following links: 1) a story from the Seattle Times, 2) a blog chock full of comments about pushy sales clerks, and 3) another story with a survey about overly aggressive employees. This in about two minutes of searching. Clearly, there's some kind of prevailing ethos out there that emphasizes as much contact with customers as possible due to a belief that this will yield a maximum of sales. Of course, not every store practices this mindset, but many do. These businesses seem to think that an overwhelming level of friendliness provides the maximal shopping experience, but I could not disagree more. Better to make the customer at home, be available for help, and then leave them alone. If I wanted to talk to twenty extremely friendly people in fifteen minutes, I would have have gone to a (big, fat) Greek wedding.

I don't know about you, but if my armchair hypothesizing is correct, these stores (Crate & Barrel, Godiva Chocolates, various cell phone kiosks, offenders all) can count me out from making purchases at their stores. Okay, that won't amount to much of a loss, because I'm not exactly sunken by debt at Crate & Barrel these days. However, as one trained by my rural Maine upbringing to be private and uninvasive, I can say that this sort of "aggressive sales" leaves me cold. Stores that practice this type of model--and it is a model, as Google has instructed me--may win some sales, but I'm guessing that they lose others. They treat customers not so much as people but as targets. I saw this during a job I had with a cell phone company called The Mobile Solution that sells T-Mobile phones in malls. Though the malls in which the company worked had very strict policies against hounding customers, we trainees were instructed to "greet" people, which translated into salespeople yelling at shocked passersby, whistling at them, and generally harassing them. I thought in my first day on the job that I was going to be sick. The next day, I quit. Though I'd like to think this offensive company is the exception, I'm afraid it's the rule nowadays.

It's great for a store to engage a customer; it's another thing altogether for fifteen people to ask you if you need help in the span of twenty minutes. Or, as my wife has experienced a few times, to have a salesperson rope you into some sort of spiel that takes fifteen minutes of your time. Who on earth is telling their employees that this is a productive way of making sales? Of course, this probably is a productive way of making sales when one considers the bottom line. Some customers don't mind a high level of aggression from the stores they patronize. I, for one, hate it.

This all prompted a bit of reflection on how our churches interact with visitors. My wife's consumer experience makes me as a church member want to go out of my way to welcome visitors and make them feel at home. However, I don't ever want them to get the thought that they are nothing more than a target, a small percentage of the bottom line. Let's pursue connection with unbelievers and with churchless Christians, but let's not do so by adopting the current numbers-obsessed mindset of our local department stores. I suppose that this thought could have implications for Christians working in sales as well--we need not confine thoughtful treatment of others to our churches. In a world of inauthenticity and greed, Christians and the local churches they serve should stand as a beacon of authenticity and genuine kindness. We're desperate for sinners to be saved and Christians to flourish spiritually, but we're not desperate for recognition, numbers, or a successful but impersonal church. Where our world marches increasingly to a consumerist bent, let's stand out for being those who do not sell aggressively, but who love aggressively.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Daniel Day-Lewis, Oliver Twist, and the Mysterious Spectacle of Acting

A recent interview with Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis in London's Telegraph Magazine prompted some reflection on the nature of acting.

"Because of his commitment to a character, he has a very difficult time disengaging from a part. 'There's a terrible sadness,' he told me. 'The last day of shooting is surreal. Your mind, your body, your spirit are not prepared to accept that this experience is coming to an end. You've devoted so much of your time to unleashing, in an unconscious way, some sort of spiritual turmoil, and even if it's uncomfortable, no part of you wishes to leave that character behind. The sense of bereavement is such that it can take years before you can put it to rest.'"

I recently watched the masterpiece "There Will Be Blood" and loved it. The film showcases Day-Lewis's performance and reveals the actor to be probably the finest of his time. Acting is something of a mystery, a mysterious spectacle, and Day-Lewis is the embodiment of this enigma. Though he often struggles to get out exactly what it is that allows him to power through his performances, the above quotation explains a bit of his magic. For Day-Lewis, acting is a spiritual exercise, an attempt to find the soul of the character he is charged with portraying. No mere act of mirroring, acting for Day-Lewis signifies an assumption of the personality of another. It is for this reason that his performances draw your eyes like a burning sun.

My wife recently endured (well, I think she actually enjoyed it) a round of Day-Lewis films due to a slightly obsessive desire on my part to watch the actor portray other characters. My favorite film of the few we've watched was the 1997 drama "The Boxer", a tale of tragic love set against the backdrop of bloody 1990s Ireland. Don't watch the film if you want lots of fireworks and crazy plot twists. The film itself is moving and well-made, but the thing to watch is Day-Lewis's portrayal of a once-imprisoned boxer who seeks not vengeance but peace in the midst of a hometown torn apart by feuds between the Protestants and Catholics. The actor glides quietly through scenes washed in dark colors and carves out a man who is simultaneously capable of ferocity in the ring and tenderness with the street children he trains in his boxing club. One is moved not so much by swelling music or emotional outbursts but by Day-Lewis's profound humanity. In a town where men recruit boys to blow other men up, "Danny" devotes his life to living for others, to helping those around him in a self-sacrificial way. His character is nuanced, emotionally etched as if with the finest of brushes, and awes the viewer for the good he is able to accomplish by his gentle but stubborn will. In a world where so many men are worthy only of epithets, Danny's goodness considered as a whole puts tears in one's eyes. I've rarely been motivated to live more for the Lord by an invented person, but I was by this character as played flawlessly by Day-Lewis.

I remember playing the character Oliver Twist many years ago, back when I was the world's smallest eighth-grader. I have no illusions that I burrowed deeply into that character, though I can still make my mother and sister cry by singing "Where Is Love?". That useful talent aside, there is something in me that yearns to emulate Day-Lewis in disappearing into a character and bringing it to life. I don't think that I ever will, and I'm not sure that I ever could, but perhaps some out there understand this desire to probe the magic of drama. Is there not something almost unearthly about playing another person? I recall my limited drama experience with great happiness, and I suppose I'll carry a bit of a sadness with me until the end due to my inability to act. We all carry bits of sadness with us, I suppose, and that's one of mine.

But I can't stay melancholy for long, much as my current musical accompaniment (the Cranberries' "Empty", chosen in honor of Day-Lewis) seeks to do. It is a joy that though I do not now act, others do, others of great talent and insight. Perhaps more than this, though, this brief reflection on this "mysterious spectacle" that we call acting takes us to something beyond, something higher, something quite magical and mysterious, but something also real. One recalls a performance that involved the assumption of another nature, but this assumption was no fictional exercise, but one of authentic reality. Jesus Christ took on flesh and entered into a drama of positively cosmic proportions. The drama's climax, the death of the God-man, does not merely move us by its example. No, it has changed we who love Christ to our very core. Never was anything so real, so transformingly real, as this act. Held up against this figure, all our acting appears as vanity, for what is it that we strive for in our acting but the assumption of a second personality and the transformation of our audience? Daniel Day-Lewis may move us, but in Jesus Christ, we have found a performer, a dramatic figure, whose very real crucifixion has not simply touched us, or awed us, but has made us nothing less than a new creation. That, friends, is a mysterious spectacle we cannot quite comprehend, a genuine performance we cannot ever reproduce.

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