Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Curse of the Dollar-Shaped Plank

Sometimes I wonder if the reason we interpret "Blessed are the poor in spirit" to mean "Blessed are the people who feel poor on the inside" is because American culture is so oblivious to the sway that money holds over it that we feel we have no other choice but to read this beatitude in such a way that it makes no demands upon our lives. I mean, it's either that or we have to sell one of our Hummers (and that ain't gonna happen).

All cultures have their blind spots, including us. I mean, we have no problem recognizing the faults in other cultures, or in American culture of times past, but diagnosing similar traits in our own is another story. For example, we look at the fact that Muslim females wear those black robes with their faces veiled and lament the way Islam treats its women, while at the same time rarely seeing the demand for Botox, Calogen, and surgical augmentation as glaring testimonies against how we Westerners view our own.

We can wonder with great sanctimony how antebellum Southerners could claim to be disciples of Jesus while simultaneously being owners of slaves, but when a Fortune 500 CEO moves his company's manufacturing to a sweatshop in Malaysia so he can pay the workers $.09 an hour without having to worry about those pesky labor laws to protect them from oppression, we don't call that "slave-owning," we call it "smart business."

We watch those WWII documentaries and wonder how the German population could just sit back passively as Jews were being slaughtered, while feeling no more guilt than the Germans over the 1,000,000 innocent men, women, and children we have killed while liberating Iraq.

My point is simply that if we desire to interpret the Gospels correctly, we need begin by recognizing the dollar-shaped plank that we have firmly lodged in our collective eye.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Blessed Poverty

I just began a series of Sunday morning sermons on the Beatitudes and, after studying and reading in preparation over the past week, I've come to the conclusion that, to quote The Princess Bride, they don't mean what we think they mean.

On the first, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," we almost invariably hear that Jesus is describing the internal state of spiritual bankruptcy that results from our realizing our own sinfulness in the presence of a holy God.

Herman Ridderbos argues, however, that the blessed person described as "poor in spirit" is the one who willingly foregoes earth for heaven. In other words, when we submit to actual poverty (or some other this-worldly affliction) for the sake of Christ and his kingdom, we will be recompensed in eternity with the kind of treasure that cannot pass away.

Consider the fact that in Luke's version of the beatitudes it is the person who weeps now who is contrasted with those who will weep then, and the person who is hungry now with the one who will be lacking then. When Abraham denies the rich man his request for relief from torment in Luke 16, his rationale is that on earth he enjoyed good things while Lazarus the beggar experienced only bad things, and now it's time for the turning of the tables. After the rich young ruler left Jesus sorrowfully because of his many possessions, Jesus told the disciples that if they leave behind houses, lands, or family for his sake they will receive a hundredfold in the new world and will inherit eternal life. And the occasion for James's rebuke of the rich was that they "have lived on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence" and have thereby stored up a treasure-house of curse and condemnation for the last day.

Returning to the beatitudes, then, it is perfectly consistent with the rest of the New Testament to understand "blessed are the poor in spirit" to be describing the person who lays up his treasure in heaven to such a degree that he actually enjoys less of it here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Off to Presbytery....

I will be in Eugene, OR, for presbytery until Saturday evening. Prayers, as always, are appreciated.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ten Great Films of the New Millennium

Yes, I realize that I am bumping up my Friday Feature to Wednesday, but I will be in Oregon for presbytery from Thursday until Saturday, and I know what pop culture buffs you all are. So without further ado, here are my ten favorite films of the new millennium:

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Unlike many, I am willing to forgive Peter Jackson for his modifications to Tolkien’s story (with the possible exception of Legolas’s varial-kickflip-ollie-to-frontside-smith-grind on an Orc shield down the steps of Helm’s Deep in film two). The stand-out actors, in my opinion, are Sean Bean as Boromir, Bernard Hill as Theoden, and of course, Elijah Wood as Frodo. I’m not sure if I like Fellowship of the Ring or Return of the King better, but I am leaning toward the former.

Memento: This is obviously the work of Christopher Nolan since, like all his films, its protagonist suffers from short-term memory loss, with the color footage taking place in reverse sequence and the black-and-white footage occurring in proper chronological order. I love judging films by their directors.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: This film was simply amazing. Casey Affleck should have received, at the very least, a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Garden State: Natalie Portman has been a favorite actor of mine since I saw her in Leon (called The Professional in the U.S.). Zach Braff, who wrote and directed it, basically rises from the dead as the film progresses, going from a medicated zombie to a young man who confronts his past and falls in love. Plus, The Shins play on the soundtrack.

Before Sunset: This film just rips your heart out, doesn’t it? I hope they continue to revisit this project as Ethan Hawke and Julia Delpy grow old.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: Though this only showed on Showtime, I am counting it as a proper film. It chronicles the last gasp of the Sioux, and does a wonderful job of putting a human face on both the victors and the victims. If you’re prone to white guilt, stay away.

Napoleon Dynamite: Pure genius. “Back in ’82 I coulda thrown a pig-skin over that mountain.”

The Departed: Great cast, great acting, and the scene in which they’re driving to the final showdown as Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” is playing—well, it makes you wanna drink and fight.

V for Vendetta: Terrorism never looked so cool, and neither did a girl with a shaved head.

Juno: I wish Ellen Page had been old enough to play Lindsey Weir on Freaks and Geeks. Sure, there are times when this film is a bit too self-conscious and clever, but I loved it anyway. My favorite line is when Juno’s father says, “Geez, Juno, I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say ‘when.’” and Juno responds, “I don’t really know what kind of girl I am.”

Honorable mentions: High Fidelity, Batman Begins, 3:10 to Yuma, The Village, Michael Clayton, Snatch, Ocean's 11, and Serenity.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

When Irony and Iconoclasm Intertwine

One of pop media's greatest weapons is the art of subversion. Comparing the U2 of the '80s with the U2 of the '90s is a perfect example of what I mean. The former were earnest, heart-on-our-sleeve do-gooders who felt it their duty to remind us, often, of just how evil a place this world really is.

But the U2 of the '90s was the exact opposite. They were cocky, gauche, and ironic. They embodied, down to their eyewear and platform shoes, the rock 'n' roll stardom they once sought to avoid. When asked in 1991 what their forthcoming album would sound like, Bono replied, "It sounds like four guys chopping down The Joshua Tree." Though they lost their vision a bit with their Popmart tour, the ZooTV era of '92-'93 was all about satire, mockery, with plenty of Ecclesiastes and The Screwtape Letters thrown in for good measure. Of stardom, Bono sang:
"They want you to be Jesus,
They're going down on one knee;
But they'll want their money back
If you're alive at thirty-three."

My point is that sometimes truth can be communicated more effectively by a smirk than a megaphone. Sometimes crawling into a culture and subtly mocking its idols from within is more interesting than standing without and casting sanctimonious stones. In a word, with his program The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert is a greater ally of the Left than Al Franken could ever be with his book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot.

You can't watch Alec Baldwin's character on 30 Rock without feeling a tinge of pity for anyone that in love with the free market (and himself). You can't listen to Bright Eyes' "At the Bottom of Everything" without seeing the vanity of having to run "in this endless race for property and privilege to be won." And you certainly can't listen to "Love Is Blindness," the last song on U2's Achtung Baby, without feeling the hopelessness of having "all the secrets, but no one to tell."

Then again, it makes one wonder what Bono was really saying when, every night on that tour, they followed "Love Is Blindness" with their closing song, "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Ten Good Shows of the Oh-Ohs

The usual disclaimer applies: This list is not a tacit endorsement of plane crashes, crooked cops, outplaying/outwitting/outlasting, or the mafia.

1. Lost: Possibly the best program on television. Now that they have a finite amount of shows before they'll call it quits, I am expecting them to stick to the story and stop wasting our time with people like Paulo and Nikki (what do you take us for anyway?).

2. Alias: A perfect example of a show that didn't know when to quit. Once Michael Vaughn told Sidney he wasn't really Michael Vaughn, I quit watching. But the first few seasons were killer. Ms. Bristow, I feel your pain.

3. Battlestar Galactica: Post-apocalyptic stories fascinate me, as do ones where our servants become our masters. This one has both. Starbuck has even grown on me.

4. Arrested Development: So good, and so sad no one figured it out in time. Sigh.

5. The Office: The British one is way better. There, I said it.

6. 24: Just because I liked the first few seasons of this show does not mean I endorse anything the CIA has done since its inception. How's that for an unexpected disclaimer?

7. The Shield: Not many show bring out the good ol' moral dilemma like this one does. Come on, admit it: You liked Shane despite what a scoundrel he was.

8. The Daily Show: Stewart/Colbert '08. 'Nuff said.

9. Survivor: How many seasons has this show run? Seventeen or something? And it's still intriguing, not to mention the most genius format for a reality TV show ever. I hope Ozzie wins.

10. The Sopranos: Despite the lack of good ol' fashioned family values, this show is really good. One thing I especially appreciate is the fact that it does not, in any way, shape, or form, glamorize the lifestyle it depicts. Bada bing, bada boom, fuhgetaboudit.

Honorable mentions: 30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Rescue Me, Dexter, Firefly, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Which Came Last, the Chicken or the Egg?

Since the dawn of Puritanism (at least) we have heard that in order to prescribe a cure for man's spiritual ills, you must first diagnose his disease.

Rubbish, says G.K. Chesterton.

In his little book What's Wrong with the World, Chesterton decries what he calls the "medical mistake":
"The first great blunder of sociology... is stating the disease before we find the cure. But it is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease."
Though Chesterton was a contemporary of Geerhardus Vos, the former spent his life in England and, as a Roman Catholic, was probably unfamiliar with the Princeton divine. Nevertheless they both seemed to agree on at least one thing: Man can only be understood if we contemplate his telos or end.

Chesterton uses the famous "Chicken or Egg" quandary to illustrate his point. He says that the real question is not which came first, but which comes last. One is a means, he argues, and the other is an end.

"Leaving the complications of the human breakfast-table out of account, in an elemental sense, the egg only exists to produce the chicken. But the chicken does not exist only in order to produce another egg. He may also exist to amuse himself, to praise God, and even to suggest ideas to a French dramatist."
The fixation upon eggs rather than chickens (or upon present conditions rather than the divine object), Chesterton concludes, is as morbid and poisonous as insisting on asking what is wrong while forgetting to ask what is right.

Returning to Vos, we may safely conclude, therefore, that though all divine image-bearers share in the collective ache of Romans 8:22-23, for the believer life is a pilgrimage with a destination, while for the unbeliever it feels more like a hamster-wheel.

Hence his burden, hence his frustration... and hence his art.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Do Pagans Make the Best Vosians?

I just preached from Romans 8:18-25 where Paul gives, in the words of John Murray, his commentary on Genesis 3:17-18. The creation has fallen under curse and, therefore, groans under the weight of its bondage to decay, longing for the liberty that will accompany the glorification of the seed of the woman.

Yes, this relates to the way the believer should think about popular culture.

If the sub-human created order can recognize that something is amiss, then, to argue from the lesser to the greater, it would follow that the same insight can be found among non-believing humans as well. After all, if Ecclesiastes is an account of life "under the sun," then all who behold this age from that vantage point can reasonably conclude that it is but an unmerry merry-go-round, a wild goose chase without the wild goose.

What is pagan art if not a commentary on Ecclesiastes? What is Edvard Munch's The Scream, or The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," or the Wachowskis' Matrix trilogy if not a commentary on the inexplicable longing on the part of the human soul for something it has never seen but knows is out there?

Paul's point in the passage cited is that the cosmos groans, but "we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit" ache with an even greater frustration. Or at least we should. But if the unbelieving world displays, through its art and other media, an even greater frustration with earth than many believers exhibit, what does that say about where our true devotion lies?

This is why eschatology is so crucial. If Vos's dictum that "eschatology precedes soteriology" is true, then this means that this groaning for glory is part and parcel not of redemption, but of the created order itself. Simply put, you're supposed to feel like a fish out of water (or to correct the simile a bit, you're supposed to feel like a fish in water who longs to be free from it and to enter a new element that it knows, somehow and for some reason, is better).

Could it be that when Christians place their hopes in a transformed culture or a nation recaptured for Christ while their pagan neighbors listen to Bright Eyes while longing for escape, that the latter, rather than the former, are doing a better job at being divine image-bearers?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Great Albums of the Oh-Ohs

Beginning with this week’s Friday Feature we turn from the Nineties to the Oh-Ohs, or whatever they’re called. We begin with what are, in my humble opinion, the best albums of the first 4/5 of the present decade.

1. Chutes Too Narrow (The Shins): The guys sort of got onto our radar via the film Garden State (though I was already listening to them, of course, but it was nice to have the rest of the culture catch up to me). This album, their sophomore effort, is probably their best, as it captures the best elements of Oh Inverted World (their debut) and Wincing the Night Away (their most recent).

2. Show Your Bones (Yeah Yeah Yeahs): Karen O is the new Joan Jett.

3. The Crane Wife (The Decemberists): It was a toss-up between this album and Castaways and Cutouts, which was the first of theirs I heard. They’re so unique, combining cool instruments (like cellos and hurdy-gurdies) with Colin Meloy’s macabre lyrics, often involving phalanxes, dirigibles, and killer plays on words like this one: “Within sight of the baroness, seething spite for this live largesse; By her side sits the baron, her barrenness barbs her.”

4. Our Endless Numbered Days (Iron and Wine): Hushed, subtle, and oh so beautiful. Makes ya wanna grow that beard.

5. Quiet is the New Loud (The Kings of Convenience): The best of Lo-Fi. Plus, since I didn’t include anything by Feist I had to give Leslie a shout-out here since she sings with these two Norweigan guys.

6. In Rainbows (Radiohead): Not only is this their best effort since OK Computer, but they totally messed with the entire music industry by releasing it independently on their website for however much their fans felt like paying. I love anarchy, especially in the U.K.

7. Neon Bible (Arcade Fire): This band from Montreal has like ten people in it or something, and in concert they are so entertaining, switching their diverse and sundry instruments at random. They're one of the few bands whose stock rose significantly after seeing them live.

8. Hot Fuss (The Killers): What the heck is "Somebody Told Me" about anyway?

9. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (Bright Eyes): I love this line from "At the Bottom of Everything": "We must blend into the choir, sing as static with the whole; We must memorize nine numbers and deny we have a soul; And in this endless race for property and privilege to be won, we must run, we must run, we must run." The satire is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

10. Boxer (The National): Thank you, ACD, I am forever your humble servant for telling me about these guys. Singer Matt Berninger is like a Leonard Cohen for the new generation.

Honorable mentions: Accelerate (REM), Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Spoon), Seven Swans (Sufjan Stevens), Runaway Found (The Veils), Our Ill Wills (Shout Out Louds), Favorite Worst Nightmare (Arctic Monkeys), Final Straw (Snow Patrol), How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (U2), Transatlanticim (Death Cab For Cutie), American Idiot (Green Day), A Rush of Blood to the Head (Coldplay), Rock Steady (No Doubt), Brushfire Fairytales (Jack Johnson), Stadium Arcadium (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Make Up the Breakdown (Hot Hot Heat), Turn on the Bright Lights (Interpol), and Yours Truly, Angry Mob (Kaiser Chiefs).

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

What's Better: Pizza or iPods?

When the question is asked whether something is "good," the query is so general that it is virtually impossible to answer. Since people love it when you answer a question with a question, an honest reply would be, "Good at what?"

God is good, but he's mostly good at saving me from my sins, not for helping me understand how to replace my muffler. The Christian religion is good, but mostly at preparing a people for the age to come, not for cleaning up the present one. Pizza is good, but it's pretty much only good for eating, not for playing MP3s.

So turning from pizza to art, how do we determine which art, or music, or films, are good? Well, we often hear that various forms of art are "good" when they corresepond to reality, biblically defined. OK then, what does this tell us about someone like Picasso, whose art is often less realistic than impressionistic? And don't get me started on Bob Dylan, who can't carry a tune if his life depended on it. What I'm saying is that sometimes the disconnect between art and reality is the whole point.

If art is not intended to be overtly didactic or preachy, then may it not simply describe rather than prescribe? Anyone familiar with U2's Zoo TV Tour understands the power of an artist's wearing another's shoes (or in this case, sunglasses) in order to subtly mock and subvert a culture's idols, often without their getting the joke.

So when you look at René Magritte's depiction of a wooden, saxophone-shaped thing with a bowl on one end in his painting entitled "This Is Not a Pipe," how ought we to respond to it? On the one hand he is right, it is not a pipe but a painting of a pipe. But on the other hand, is his intentional subversiveness dangerous for the Christian who believes that Jesus once held bread in his hand and said "Hoc est corpus meum"?

If common grace is a legitimate category, and if Van Til was right about unbelievers borrowing capital from the theist's worldview in everything they do, then perhaps we actually sell ourselves short when we equate the non-holy with the unholy, the profane with the destructive, and the secular with the "bad."

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Thou Shalt Not Kill People Who Like Bach

In his widely-acclaimed book All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Ken Myers argues for objectivity with respect to our standards for evaluating various forms of art. He writes:
"In an age of egalitarianism and relativism, it is easier than ever to regard matters of taste as wholly private and personal. I like Bach, you like Bon Jovi, praise the Lord anyhow. But is aesthetic judgment purely a subjective and neutral matter? Is 'beauty' exclusively in the eye of the beholder? Is something 'beautiful' just because I like it, or does it have some objective quality rooted in creation that allows me to recognize that it is beautiful?"
There is no doubt that there are objective standards rooted in creation. For example, just about every culture we know about thinks that murder is wrong. Despite the fact that they have no access to special revelation, the works of God's moral law are written upon their hearts, enabling them to recognize that moral standard without needing to be taught it.

Assuming that "thou shalt not kill" is a fair example, it would seem that in order for the argument for objective standards to be at all meaningful, the standard in question must be one that most people can recognize by virtue of natural law. After all, we have a label for those morally color-blind people who fail to see such standards: we call them "sociopaths."

Some questions that proponents of Myers's view need to answer, then, include:

1). If standards for music are as rooted in creation as standards for morality, then are those who fail to like Bach as culpable as those who fail to not kill people who like Bach?

2). Is it simply a coincidence that the objectively good forms of artistic expression by people like Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Rembrandt are almost all produced by white, western Europeans? Are there any Oriental, African, or Middle-Eastern contributions to the canon of the objectively beautiful?

3). Why is the overt expression of violence repudiated when produced by "homeys," but it is the bedrock of the "western canon" when produced by Homer?

4). Do you think Mona Lisa is beautiful? Not the painting, but the actual woman in it (you know, the one with no eyebrows).

5). How, pray tell, can I get my hands on a copy of the rulebook that lists the universally-applicable criteria for beauty?

Friday, April 04, 2008

Leithart Study Committee Meeting

The Pacific Northwest Presbytery's committee to examine the teaching of Peter Leithart is meeting again tomorrow morning at 9am. We are planning to report our findings to the presbytery later this month, so, as always, prayers are appreciated.


Some Great Nineties Films

This week’s Friday Feature lists ten amazing films of the nineties. And to make the usual disclaimer, listing a film does not mean I therefore endorse all of its content, any more than reading Macbeth is a tacit shout-out to regicide.

1. Braveheart: Virtually flawless, and that without CGI. A friend and I saw the midnight sneak preview in Budapest and were just blown away. Mel Gibson as William Wallace is great, but Robert the Bruce steals the show: “My hate will die… with you.”

2. Twelve Monkeys: Best time-travel movie ever, especially because it’s one of the few in which the past cannot be changed. And Brad Pitt is brilliant.

3. The Big Lebowski: What made this a-here story that Sam Elliot unfolded so perfect was that the plot was so convoluted, and The Dude was about the most ill-equipped person to deal with it. This film, for me, will forever be associated with the “Big Lebowski Night” that a few of us seminarians celebrated with Darryl Hart, which consisted of, among other things, In ‘n’ Out Burger, White Russians, and a bowling tournament featuring the Nihilists vs. the Caucasians, complete with a Big Lebowski Cup which Darryl made out of a Folgers can and stick-on letters.

4. Forrest Gump: Call me sappy, but I love this movie. Only a great film can make you nostalgic for a period of time during which you weren’t even alive (not that I need more reasons for nostalgia, mind you).

5. The Usual Suspects: So unique a film, so unexpected an ending. And what a cast.

6. Good Will Hunting: If you’ve not seen the extended scenes on the DVD, you must. It’s hard to believe that Matt Damon and (pre-toothjob) Ben Affleck were unheard of until this film came out. In my opinion, this movie represents the best work from either of these actors (though for the latter that’s not saying much). And is it me, or could you slay a thousand Philistines with Minnie Driver’s jawbone?

7. Se7en: I’m still shuddering, especially about how eerily correctly a serial killer can understand and interpret natural law (excuse the profanity, all you Barthians).

8. Fight Club: OK, this is the last Brad Pitt film, I promise. Though some see Tyler Durden as the butt of David Fincher’s joke, I like to think that that honor belongs to you, the American consumer.

9. American Movie: You probably haven't heard of this one, but you must see it immediately. You will swear after ten minutes that it is a "mockumentary" akin to Waiting For Guffman, but, unfortunately, it is very real. Words fail to capture the horror and glee that we felt when DRD's own "ACD" found this film on VHS at some thrift store while we in seminary and screened it for us. Long live Mike Schank, vot-ka, and scratch-off lotto.

10. The Matrix: Ever feel like Neo, and that "there is no spoon"? If you see this film while simultaneously reading Orwell’s 1984, I’d say you need a healthy dose of Vosian eschatology to cure your depression.

Honorable mentions go to Reality Bites, Dances With Wolves, The Shawshank Redemption, Rounders, Before Sunrise/Sunset, The Sixth Sense, and Donnie Brasco.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Art: Take It, Leave It, But Don't Redeem It

Continuing our look at the relationship of the Christian to popular culture and media, I now turn to those who insist that the "missional" believer (or church) must embrace the genres of film, television, and music in order to "speak the language of the culture."

Appeal for this position is often made to I Cor. 9:19-23 where Paul claims to "become all things to all men in order to save some." Unfortunately for the "contextualists," Paul's demographic sensitivity is rather wanting, as seen in his placing all of humanity in one of two broad categories (Jew or Greek). It's kind of the equivalent of a missions conference holding a seminar called "Ministry to Non-Whites."

More damaging to the "incarnational" approach is the incarnation (the one of Christ I mean). One would think that something like, say, God becoming a human would be sufficiently accomodating without my quoting Panic! At the Disco in my sermons in order to "connect with the kids."

To our point, then, I would argue that it is a tad ironic that those who laud "authenticity" would advocate the believer's consuming pop media simply in order to build a bridge to people that wouldn't otherwise exist (anyone remember Mr. Rosso?). Just admit it: if you thought your dad was lame for saying "like, totally" to you when you were a kid, then it's a pretty safe bet that when we say "mos' def'" to ours the response is a similar rolling of the eyes. What... ever.

And finally, I often wonder why it's just white culture whose art is co-opted for missional purposes (either in its bourgeoisie, high-brow, wine-and-cheese expressions, or in its bohemian, arthouse, po-mo variety). I could be wrong, but if there are hip hop- or flamenco-inspired worship services in the PCA, I've never run across them.

Maybe Oscar Wilde was right, and "all art is useless." If art could talk, perhaps it would say, "Take me or leave me, but please don't redeem me."