Saturday, April 28, 2007

Every Underdog Will Have Its Day

I have been preaching a series of sermons at Exile Presbyterian Church entitled "Thy Kingdom Come" for the last four months or so, and surprisingly (at least to me), one of the most important of these sermons was the one about Noah and the ark.

The kingdom of God had come to be identified with one man and his family, with the rest of the earth being filled with violence and wickedness. When the cause of God was that dire, and the kingdom that threatened, Noah's hope was placed not in the transformation of "the world that then existed," but in the new creation that would emerge in the postdilluvian world (II Pet. 3:6). In fact, since Peter holds Noah and his generation up as the pattern for us and ours (II Pet. 3:1ff), and since Jesus explicitly points to "the days of Noah" as indicative of the end (Matt. 24:37), it seems rather obvious what this means for our faith:

Christianity will always be an underdog religion. In fact, it works better that way.

But the problem with this hypothesis should be obvious: We Americans are not used to being in the minority, and when it comes to being underdogs, we're just plain bad at it. Hence the American church's desire to craft a faith that is relevant and beneficial to the culture around us (some people actually say, out loud, that if a church is doing its job, the community should thank them for their presence).

Is all of this sentiment the result of actual exegesis, or is it merely an example of our confusing the "power" and "wealth" of the earthly kingdom with that of the heavenly? Or to put it differently, if few bothered to thank Jesus for stopping by, can we expect better without shirking the cross in the process?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Unworthiness of Egypt

There was a line in a film that came out about a decade ago that has always stuck with me:

"I see all this potential, and I see squandering. . . . An entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy junk we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."
These sentiments are uttered by a protagonist who is desperately searching for something to restore a semblance of hope to a generation obsessed with materialistic consumerism.

What haunts me is that if someone like him can see it, or to reference another film from that era, if someone like Neo could ask, "What is the Matrix?", does it not stand to reason that the believer, of all people, should see through the charms and enticements of this age? If the wealth of Egypt was unworthy of Moses' pursuit and devotion, what does that say about the treasures that we insist on consuming?

I'm not saying the delights of this world are all necessarily sinful or evil. But that's the wrong question, anyway. The real question should be, are these pursuits worthy of us in the first place?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Invention is the Mother of Necessity

I do not doubt that the well-worn slogan "Necessity is the mother of invention" was at one time true. When the cavemen got cold, they had two options: invent fire or freeze to death.

But with the rapid growth and advancement of technology, supply no longer is the result of demand but often the cause of it. In other words, inventing stuff is easy; the challenge is to convince people of their need of it.

Consider the Internet: a technological phenomenon that I, back in the mid-nineties, dismissed as a passing fad that would be as quickly forgotten as the Slinky, has now become so intertwined with our lives that most people could not work, or even socialize, without it (no, the irony here is not lost on me).

But I would maintain that one's true happiness and fulfillment in life actually decreases as his or her level of dependence on technology increases. Whether we're talking about cell phones, laptops, or automobiles, we have allowed a myriad of components into our lives in order to "simplify" our existence, only to find that, soon afterward, we have become slaves to these harsh masters.

Sure, technology solves some problems, but they're often the very problems it helped create. Whether it's a cure for the cancer that we contracted due to the chemicals and radiation we are constantly exposed to or the Blackberry that helps us remember the various business meetings we must attend (to discuss how best to market Blackberrys), the fact is that technology's benefits are questionable at best.

Do we ever consider the adverse effects of our gadgets? For example, no one bothers to remember anyone's phone numbers anymore, since they're programmed into our cell phones (which doesn't help when your battery dies and you need to use someone else's). No one can make actual commitments to be anywhere at a specific time anymore since, after all, "I can just call you when I'm ten minutes out." College-aged kids can barely socialize face-to-face these days, since the bulk of their "personal interaction" is done via (and don't get me started on MySpace's redefinition of what a "friend" is).

We've spent so much energy asking, "Can we?" that we've forgotten to ask a more important question: "Should we?"

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Fuel is for Machines

In the spirit of continuing to force my views on others by means of diatribe and rant, I would like to propose that we cease thinking about things like food and beverages purely for their utilitarian benefits, and get back to the idea that these things are to be savored and enjoyed.

It was the fascists, after all, who popularized the idea that food was merely fuel to replenish the workers' empty tanks so that they can continue to produce efficiently. For truly dedicated workaholics like Gordon Gekko, however, "Lunch is for wimps" (time, after all, is money, right?).

For my own part, I have never enjoyed (let alone even felt) the utilitarian effects of coffee, which probably explains my disdain for the drive-thru espresso stands so ubiquitous here in the Pacific Northwest. Coffee is to be drunk while sitting in a comfortable chair with a book in hand, not while fighting our way through rush hour traffic after a "power lunch" (and when a cigar is involved, one has no choice but to just take one's time).

"Modern coffeehouses," one author argues, "have as their mission purely useful goals: give you strong coffee and some bread to help you survive the day in a state of high anxiety and fear. They give off the unpleasant aroma of efficiency."

So as a form of protest against the hectic and rushed nature of our consumer-driven culture, I would call upon those who feel so moved to find some time to camp out in the corner of some café or coffeehouse to actually enjoy a meal and/or drink, and to crack open that book you've been wanting to read for years.

And no, you may not simply set your cell to vibrate. It must be left behind....

Friday, April 13, 2007

From Hierarchy to Mediocrity

"Unit. Corps. God. Country."

So the Marine lieutenant from the film A Few Good Men explained his priorities to Tom Cruise's character in order to justify his assault on a fellow officer (hey, he was following orders). The Christian version of this list usually places the "God" part a bit higher up on the totem pole of importance (like, say, first). After "God" follow "Church," "Family," and "Work" in varying order.

Some would argue, however, that it is illegitimate to place the various callings that God has given into a specific order of importance. If God has called me to be a dad, a husband, a church member, and a lawyer, then who am I to decide which of those legitimate vocations trumps the others?

Obviously, each person must come to his or her own conclusions on this matter. I will say, though, that if one sees his role as a husband and father as being more significant than he does his job (with the latter being a means to excel in the former), then it may be necessary to view with some measure of suspicion the clarion call Christians constantly hear to do all that we do "with excellence." Consider the following two reasons for this.

First, in order to be the best lawyer (or doctor, or WalMart employee) one can be will of necessity entail an excruciating amount of toil, stress, and overtime, which may very well interfere with one's performance in other areas.

Secondly, if Reformed, amillennial theology teaches us anything, it is that God is not glorified by what passes as impressive in the eyes of men. This means that when "excellence" is defined as whatever wows the worldly, it pales in God's estimation to the weakness, foolishness, and lackluster character of the cross.

So a hierarchy that places family above work may include a call for more mediocrity in the latter in order to show some excellence in the former.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Protestant Rest Ethic

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber drew a line connecting Calvinism and Capitalism, arguing that free-market ideology was much more likely to thrive in Protestant countries than in Roman Catholic ones.

Consider this illustration: It takes Joe 10 hours to produce 10 barrels of grain a day, earning him 10 dollars, which is the amount needed to sustain his and his family's needs. Now imagine that Joe were given a raise to two dollars per barrel rather than one dollar. The decision facing him would be largely determined, Weber would argue, by the volumes on Joe's bookshelf. If his shelf contains Thomas's Summa Theologica, then he'd earn his 10 dollars by producing only five barrels, and he'd leave work after only five hours' labor. But if his preferred reading were Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, then he'd still work all ten hours, produce all ten barrels, and earn double the money.

Now Joe can afford to buy a copy of The Wealth of Nations (a nice supplement to all his Reformation literature).

Despite Luther's doctrine of vocation (which gave even the most mundane tasks divine significance), the fact that it is Catholics who enjoy plenty of rest while we Protestants are toiling by the sweat of our brows seems theologically inconsistent. After all, is not Reformed theology the one that emphasizes resting in Christ's work, while those papists are supposedly trying to earn God's favor? And if most Catholics have only purgatory awaiting them rather than a new heavens and earth, then why is it the Protestants who are busily trying to improve their earthly portions?

Possible answers include: 1). Catholics risk displeasing their earthly bosses in order to get back to the business of trying to please their heavenly one; 2). Catholics believe that earning God's favor includes having as much leisure time as possible; or 3). Protestants' preoccupation with earthly rewards is greater than they care to admit.

At the risk of allowing my theology to unduly influence my cultural worldview, I call on all Reformed amilennialists to spend more time socializing with friends and family over food and tastily-brewed beverages, reading more of the Bible and theology than they currently do, and what may be the first step toward all of this: To Work Less.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Close Laptop. Turn Off Cell. Go to Pub.

“Visiting the pub and drinking beer,” writes Tom Hodgkinson, “became a form of protest against the new emerging work ethic.... Pubs once acted as the focus of the community, providing a free front room where people... could discourse freely, drink deeply, and carouse. One gets a real sense that the Industrial Revolution was taking the fun out of life” (How To Be Idle, 166, 167).

When I was living in Europe, my fellow-missionaries and I used to spend much of our winters watching the Lonesome Dove miniseries on video. As we observed the life-long friendship of Augustus McRae and Woodrow F. Call (played by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones), we all vowed that we would never allow ourselves to become like so many men in our day: working 60 hours a week with no friends with whom we could “quaff foaming pints of nut-brown ale in convivial company.”

The nature of our culture is to isolate us from one another. We sit at our computers or in front of our TVs, we drive alone in our cars from the garage at home to the one at work, we interact through MySpace and email, we converse through cell phones and blue tooths, and even the live events we attend, like weddings or birthday parties, are usually observed through the screen of our camcorders.

We need to get out more (and I’m not talking about those “power lunches” during which we wolf down burgers at a food court so we can get back to work faster). How much political, personal, social, or theological reflection is just waiting to transpire at the local pub, if we would only make the time for it?

Frodo and Sam had the Green Dragon… what about us?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Rise, Shine, and Produce

"Sleep is a powerful seducer," writes Tom Hodgkinson, "hence the terrifying machinery we have developed to fight it. I mean, the alarm clock. Heavens! What evil genius brought together those two enemies of the idle – clocks and alarms – into one unit? ... For all modern society's promises of leisure [and] liberty... most of us are still slaves to a schedule we did not choose" (How to be Idle, 4, 6).

The author's point here is not that everyone should sleep until noon every day (he himself has small children), but that one of the (ill-)effects of our post-industrial world is that we have become what we once called "wage slaves," renting our bodies to tyrannical bosses. "What is truly amazing," Hodgkinson continues, "is that we buy alarm clocks voluntarily. Is it not absurd to spend our own hard-earned cash on a device to make every day start as unpleasantly as possible, and which really just serves the employer to whom we sell our time?"

I trust my point is not quite as idealistic as Hodgkinson's: Do we ever stop to think about the fact that the world wasn't always as hectic and hurried as it is now? That there are countries even today where people are not enslaved to the almighty dollar (what Jesus called "Mammon")?

For my own part, I desire to work as hard at my job as I can, while at the same time refusing to add to the simplicity of my calling a lot of extraneous non-essentials that would have kept me from sitting outside at the local coffee house a couple hours ago and enjoying a book and the sunshine.

Call it "inefficiency" if you must, to which I will respond that I am not a machine. Productivity, after all, may actually increase when we slow down the pace a bit....

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

On Hobbits, the Shire, and the Kingdom of God's Left Hand

In continuing to consider the believer's dual-citizenship in the kingdoms of Christ and culture, I would like to broach a topic of which the Bible speaks at length and in detail, but which is often ignored from the contemporary American pulpit (either because it has become so ingrained into our psyches that we don't really have the necessary perspective to think critically about it, or simply because we're afraid to ask the kinds of questions we should be asking):

Work, Money, and the proper use of our Time.

To kick the discussion off, I'll quote from the Prologue of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring "Concerning Hobbits" (bet you didn't see that one coming):

"Hobbits are an unobtrusive people; they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth. They do not like machines more complicated than a water-mill or hand-loom. They do not hurry unnecessarily. At no time had Hobbits been warlike, and they had never fought among themselves. They imbibed or inhaled, through pipes of clay or wood, the smoke of the burning leaves of a herb which they call pipe-weed or leaf [and developed a keen interest in the brewing and drinking of ales]."

My reason for this allusion is Tolkien's clear intention to present the lives of Hobbits as an ideal one, and the Shire in which they dwelt as a metaphor for the idyllic kind of life free from the pressures and hectic pace introduced by the industrial revolution.

The overarching question, then, is whether our lives reflect, even in a small way, the enjoyment of the pleasures of the kingdom of God's left hand, or whether we are so bound to our (legitimate) secular vocations that we have become incapable of being the moms and dads, wives and husbands, and even the human beings, that we desire to be?

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Noetic Effects of Grace: Pagan Ethics

When we consider the Bible's assessment of pagan ethics, we are forced, once again, to pause before we press the antithesis between the believer and unbeliever too far.

Jesus says plainly that "sinners" love and do good to others (Matt. 5:46; Luke 6:32-33); he also commends the scribes' and Pharisees' teaching of Torah, encouraging their disciples to obey their instruction despite the fact that their lifestyles are not always in conformity with what they teach (Matt. 23:2-3); Paul actually holds up pagan morality as a means to shame the Corinthians for the perversity allowed in their midst (I Cor. 5:1-2a); In Athens, Paul employs arguments from the intellectual tradition of Greece to demonstrate the folly of pagan idolatry, first quoting Epimenides of Crete, and then the Stoic authors Cleanthes and Aratus of Soli (Acts 17:28, [Apparently, these pagan philosophers had a sufficiently robust understanding of the nature of God to expose the futility of idolatry]). And finally, Paul quotes the Cretan poet Epimenides in his letter to Titus (1:12-13a), adding that the pagan poet's estimation of the morality of his contemporaries is "true."

To what can we attribute all of these things but to God's common grace?

What all of this amounts to is the conclusion that in common, non-redemptive fields such as art, music, philosophy, agriculture, architecture, and even ethics, the believer and the unbeliever are more similar than different due to their both sharing the imago Dei.

Moreover, if we mistakenly insist that the these fields of interest are under the jurisdiction of redemption and are therefore to be considered "holy," then not only ought all Christians to withdraw completely from culture into ghettos or compounds where the world's wicked influences can't touch us, but we also run the risk of dilluting the Bible's authority when it comes to the things it actually does address, like, say, the cross and empty tomb.