Belated Post 9/11 Thoughts

DISCLAIMER:  This is not a political commentary.  So in this post I will not re-litigate the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq or speculate on what President Bush should or shouldn’t have done or what President Obama is or isn’t doing.  I will not comment on Islam or terrorism.  And I will not mention the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, the TSA or warrantless surveillance.  You have been warned.

This past weekend I watched some of the coverage of the various tributes, remembrances and events surrounding the 10th anniversary  of 9/11.  It brought back memories of the surreal, shocking, traumatic nature of that day.  I read several takes by various political pundits, social commentators and theologians about what 9/11 meant and still means.  Some of them were good and a few of them bordered on the ridiculous.  Generally speaking, I can’t really speak to what an event like this “means” to much of anyone other than myself and I am not sure that there are many who can (although there seems to be no shortage of people willing to try).  With that in mind, I do have a few observations/thoughts about what has stood out to me.

1.  “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” – This is the opening line of C.S. Lewis’ book “A Grief Observed”.  Man, that is true.  I think that oftentimes it is hard to separate grief and fear.  The emotions are so similar that they tend to bleed into each other.  And there are so many aspects of how they overlap.  After 9/11, I was certain that we would experience another attack.  We haven’t experienced another one, although there have been attacks in other places like London as well as other attempts in the U.S.  The feeling of vulnerability has faded over time, but I am not sure that the actual vulnerability has.  For those who were directly affected, such as those who lost loved ones in the attack or in the wars, the grief is much easier to locate.  I, on the other hand, haven’t been directly affected in any truly tangible way.  So one wonders what the emotions are really all about.  What am I grieving?  Or what I am afraid of?  The chances of me being directly affected by an act of terrorism are pretty small.  I don’t live in fear of that at all.  So why do I have an emotional investment in 9/11?  Is it just patriotism?  I think that it is just the reminder of the fragility of life that rocks us.  We just don’t like to think about the fact that our everyday world can be shattered in an instant.

2.  One of the lasting images of 9/11 for me is the raw physical courage exhibited by First Responders.  Firefighters and police officers running toward Ground Zero and into harm’s way while others are running out of the damaged buildings makes an indelible impression.  Similar stories of courage regarding soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan also make their mark.  Before 9/11 it seems to me that physical courage in the face of mortal danger had been deemphasized in our society.  In past times, this kind of courage was often central to the survival of a society.  Everyday life presented the opportunity for this kind of courage a lot more often than it does for most of us today.  But this kind of courage has been a cardinal virtue throughout human history.  Cultures of every kind recognize and value it.  The display of this kind of selfless disregard for one’s own safety and well-being on behalf of another touches something in me that nothing else does.  “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV)  If a society puts this kind of courage on the back burner, then at the end of the day we are putting love on the back burner.  There is no other conclusion I can come to.  Heroism and courage are real.  They are not a punch line.  Love is not sentimentality.  It is laying down one’s life.  I am thankful for those who showed it on 9/11 (and afterwards) and who show it in every day life.  Lord, may it increase in my life and in our land.

3.  I am an opinionated person.  You can ask me about almost anything and I am glad to give you my take.  As a society, we have no shortage of opinionators.  Our political process is full of full-throated bloviation.  Our culture gives almost any viewpoint a megaphone.  I think that most of us would be better off doing a lot less opinionating and a lot more shutting up.  There are very few people, times, places and subjects where the world really needs to hear my point of view.  I know that a blog post seems to be a pretty incongruent place to express that thought, but I think you know what I mean.  It is one thing to give a voice to one’s thoughts in a way that is humble and responsible.  It is another to blast away as if everyone else’s lives would not be complete without knowing our thoughts on the subject (whatever that subject is).  All viewpoints aren’t equal.  A platform to speak should really be earned.  The best way to earn that platform is by actually contributing something of value to others.  Even then, that platform can be abused by careless words and arrogant thoughts.  Unfortunately, I saw that demonstrated around the 9/11 remembrances this past weekend.  More than one commentator with a platform abused their platform.  I hope that they didn’t cause too much pain with their carelessness and arrogance.  I don’t have control over what they say or do, but I can think about how I use the influence that I do have (such as it is).

Thankfully, days like 9/11 don’t happen very often.  But every day has its share of pain, trauma and loss for someone.  Life is always fragile and we should be thankful for it.  I may not be called upon to risk my life for someone else today, but I know I am called upon to lay down my life in some way for someone today.  It may be a small service in the big scheme of things, but I don’t know of any other way to be ready for the big things except by being faithful in the small things.  Maybe the best service I can give to others today is to use the platform that I have to speak carefully so as to add value and not to tear down.

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Longings

Last year I read John Eldredge’s book, “The Journey of Desire”.  It’s one of those books that you can read without really reading it.  What I mean by that is that the message is so potentially life-changing that the temptation is to finish the book so that you don’t have to think about it any more.   The message of the book (distilled down to a simple statement) is that the Christian life is not about killing our desires, but about recognizing that God is speaking to us through our desires and that it is only through Him that our deepest desires can truly be fulfilled.  That is a wonderful message, but when you take a serious look at that in contrast to how we typically live our daily lives it can be terrifying.  If we really open our hearts to what we truly desire the first sensation isn’t fulfillment, it is deep longing.  It is the realization that the life we are living much of the time is a pale imitation of the real thing, hardly worthy of the title “life”.  It is much easier to just put our heads down and get things done.  And if we are tired, just drink another cup of coffee and grind on through.

I find that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I really want, other than the desire to get through with enough things to read some of the books I want to read.  The truth is, I don’t want to think about it because when I do, I find that I tend to settle for “good enough”.  I don’t really like my job but it pays the bills (and barely at that, some months) but I struggle to put myself out there and see if there really is something better.  Plus, I don’t want to be irresponsible.  My family and I have struggled financially enough to know that a foolish decision money-wise can cause a lot of heartache.  So, I just keep on going.  I go through seasons where I really seek God deeply but I find myself backing away when my heart is really waking up.  Why?  Because it reminds me of what I am lacking, it easily gets profoundly uncomfortable.  But regardless of how often I default to personal comfort and routine, those pesky longings for something more just won’t go away.  Staring this reality in the face I have come to a startling conclusion.  My discontent is one of the greatest gifts that God has ever given me.  He loves me way too much to let me settle.  My restlessness is the one thing that is driving me more toward the Lord than all of my other motivations combined.  I feel like Peter when many of the followers of Jesus were abandoning Him after His difficult words found in the gospel of John, chapter 6.  Jesus looked at the twelve and asked them if they were going to leave as well.  Peter’s words were telling, “Lord where else are we going to go?”  Lord knows I have tried more than once to just push my desires down and be happy with a “nice life”.  It would be great to get a little money in the bank, get the household projects done, pay the bills and take a nice vacation here and there and not have to think about anything else.  Except it wouldn’t.  The truth is that the worst thing that I could ever do is push my desires down and aim for a “nice life”.  I was made for more than that and so were you.

So how do you handle the longing for something more?  Do you just do the best you can, grab the moments when you can get them and live with the ache?  There is a riskier path, one that actually chooses to believe that longing can actually be fulfilled.  I’m not talking about mid-life crisis nonsense, trying to recapture lost youth.  That’s a counterfeit and we all really know that (even though some willfully choose to forget).  What path shall  you and I choose?  Do I believe that my longings are God-given and worth fighting for?  Do I believe that they were put there to ultimately be fulfilled?  Do I believe that God’s love is ultimately the only place that they will be fulfilled?  Do I?  Do you?

In Defense of “Crappy” Christian Art

On September 30, the film “Courageous” will be released.  This is the latest film produced by Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia, the same church that produced the films, “Flywheel”, “Facing the Giants” and “Fireproof”.  And right on cue, it seems, I have noticed a few articles and blog posts decrying the sad state of Christian art.  It seems that according to these writers, it is just awful that almost all Christian television, movie-making and music is of such poor quality as to make it a laughingstock to those outside the Christian fold.  It is shallow, two-dimensional and prone to formulaic happy endings or derivative, transparent copycatting of whatever is big in pop culture at the moment.  What we need, they say, is fewer Christian artists and more great artists who just happen to be Christian.  To which I would say with firm conviction and all the Christian charity that I can muster – bullshit.

In the early part of the 2oth century, the great Christian writer G.K. Chesterton wrote a strange essay (though when considered in the context of everything else he wrote – not so strange at all).  The essay was titled “In Defense of the Penny Dreadfuls”.  The term “Penny Dreadful” referred to the many cheap, straightforward adventure stories produced for a juvenile audience in Chesterton’s day.  They were known for fantastical plots, overly heroic heroes (and dastardly villains), damsels in distress and the predictable outcome of the good guy winning, the bad guy losing and British values being upheld and vindicated in all instances.  It seemed that many in his day thought that this kind of literature was bad for the youth.  They thought that its poor quality and easy confirmation of bourgeoisie values kept young people from appreciating true art and from thinking critically about the shortcomings of British life.  Chesterton contended that these criticisms entirely missed the point.  He pointed out that the audience that read this kind of literature was typically not under the illusion in their daily lives that the good guys always won and that British values were always right.  Most of the avid readers of this kind of literature were well aware in the circumstances of their daily lives that life was not always (in fact downright seldom) fair and that British life had more than its share of injustice and hardship.  So why did they read these books?  They read them not because they needed their “British values” reinforced or their prejudices confirmed.  They read them because the books, however flawed they might be, touched something very basic in human nature.  Most of us are aware that life is hard and that things don’t seem to work out very often in the ways that we have hoped.  But something within us longs for a world where things are put to right, where justice is done.  We long for a world where the good guys win and the bad guys lose and where that which we know in our hearts to be true is proven out.  It is no accident that many of the stories that have the longest life in the human story have something of the “and they lived happily ever after” flavor to them.  The human heart has a deep longing for the happy ending.

So what does this have to do with “Christian art”?  I think it has everything to do with it.  Somewhere along the line our culture (and by this I mean American culture) has bought into the line that unless something is dark, complicated and has more than a slice of nihilism in it, then it isn’t real art.  We are willing to make some small concessions to this in the case of children’s art (is it any wonder that Pixar’s films tend to be some of the most popular AND critically acclaimed out there?).  There has also always been an element of criticism in culture that wants to be the arbiter of what really is and isn’t art.  (Humorously, many of the contemporary reviews of Handel’s Messiah criticized it as being shallow and repetitive, after all how many times CAN you say Hallelujah in one song?)  So who gets to say what is “real art” and what isn’t?  Who gets to say what is “Christian” art and what isn’t?  I saw one Christian writer, in criticizing what he saw as overly sentimental Christian art (from the painting of Thomas Kinkade to the film “Facing the Giants), compare it to pornography.  So, wow, “Facing the Giants” = “Debbie Does Dallas” – who knew?  I think it is official.  Christian criticism of Christian art has officially jumped the shark.

So let me defend “crappy” Christian art with one simple recommendation.  If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.  Don’t watch it, don’t listen to it, leave it alone.  If those outside of Christian fold want to make fun of it and laugh at it, let them.  They have a right to their opinion and if it hurts your feelings as a Christian, grow a thicker skin.  I am not in a position to judge the hearts of those who make Christian movies, Christian television programming, Christian art or Christian music.  It’s not my job to decide what they should or shouldn’t be doing.  If some of them have less than pure motives, God’s big enough to handle that.  It’s my job to decide what I like and want to buy and what I don’t.  I also have a great big say over what my children see and hear as well.  Beyond that, I have learned that God has given me permission to not have an opinion about it.  The world will be just fine not knowing what my view is on everything that comes down the pike.  Frankly, I think the world is better off without some of the opinions I have read recently as well.

One last thought.  Let’s give some credit to people for being a bit smarter than we think.  I don’t think the person who reads Jeanette Oke’s latest page turner is pretending in their heart that Jeanette Oke is a modern day Jane Austen.  I think he or she just likes the book.  I don’t think the evangelical community has mistaken Kirk Cameron for Sir Laurence Olivier or the Kendrick brothers for Peter Jackson or Christopher Nolan.  I think they just like the movies.  It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.  I don’t think God needs His people being ashamed on other peoples’ behalf or embarrassed by the likes and dislikes of some of their brothers and sisters in Christ.  If I am embarrassed by what someone else likes it is really a not-so-subtle way of putting myself in a superior position, of thinking that I am better than they are.  And in my heart I know full well that I’m not.  And you should too.  And to those who think that Christian art is so bad I have one question.  Have you seen what the world is producing these days?  By and large, is it really all that much better? (Did we really need a remake of Charlie’s Angels?) Great art is hard to come by – no matter who is producing it.  Just sayin.

Exactly How Important is Politics?

A few weeks ago I was following and commenting on the thread of a friend’s Facebook post regarding a political subject.  This friend made a statement that got me to thinking.  The paraphrased statement goes something like this, “I am skeptical of politics to enact lasting change.  It seems to me that we just swing back on forth on a pendulum every 4-8 years.”  There is certainly a lot of evidence to support this statement.  Consider the following recap of the last 6+ years in national politics.

In January of 2005, following the 2004 Presidential election, the Republican Party was pretty much master of all it surveyed.  President Bush had just been reelected, winning the largest portion of the popular vote of any candidate since his father in 1988.  Republicans held both houses of Congress, with 55 senators and 229 Representatives.  This was the high water mark overall for the Republican Party since the 1920s in federal politics.  Former Democratic Senator Zell Miller had endorsed Bush for President and had penned a best selling book “A National Party No More”, claiming that the Democratic Party had marginalized itself and was in danger of becoming a regionalized rump party of coastal elites out of touch with the majority of America.  However, two years later the Democratic Party had regained both houses of Congress, with 233 Representatives and 51 Senators (counting independent Joe Lieberman and Socialist Bernie Sanders, who both caucus with the Democratic Party).  They expanded their majorities in both houses in 2008, winning 257 seats in the House and 59 seats in the Senate (eventually reaching 60 with the party defection of Arlen Specter).  Additionally, President Barack Obama won the presidency by the largest margin in the popular vote since Ronald Reagan in 1984, and the largest margin for a Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.  Sam Tanenhaus, the Senior Editor of The New York Times Book Review published a book in 2009 titled, “The Death of Conservatism”, arguing that the conservative movement (and by proxy, the Republican Party) had essentially petered out and was in need of a major reboot and reconsidering of its position in the American political landscape.  However, as was the case with the Democratic Party in 2004, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the Republican Party had been greatly exaggerated.  In the 2010 Congressional elections, the Republican Party retook the House, winning 242 seats, a larger majority than they held in the high water mark of the 2004 elections and added 6 Senate seats (7 if you count the special election victory of Scott Brown in January 2010 in Massachusetts).  The gains in governor’s races and state legislative houses were even more pronounced.  As I write this blog post, President Obama’s approval rating in the Gallup tracking poll sits at 38 percent, the lowest of his presidency.  There is over a year until the 2012 election, but suffice it to say that Obama’s road to reelection appears much tougher than one would have imagined at this time a year ago.

The narrative above certainly paints a pretty clear picture of wide swings of the pendulum in partisan political fortunes over the last 6+ years.  The economic picture in America has certainly changed a great deal since 2004 as well.  But beyond the partisan pendulum swings and economic circumstances, has American culture really changed all that much in the past 6+ years?  We have had some policy changes (though not as many as one might want to believe) and new cultural trends (popular TV shows/movies etc. come and go with the seasons), but fundamentally, are we really that different of a society?  To listen to political pundits, one would think that the results of every election are the most important and earth-shattering events that can possibly happen.  I am something of a political junkie, keeping up with current events and reading opinion pieces from a variety of politically themed websites and blogs on almost a daily basis.  But I think that politics is not the cutting edge of what a society is really about.  I think that politics reflect some of the values of a society, but mainly as a lagging indicator.  I also think that some aspects of politics, namely the backroom dealing, corruption and power plays, have changed little since antiquity.  There is very little that is new under the sun.  There are certainly differences in philosophy and policy between politicians and political parties.  But when it comes to the temptations of power and the tendency of political leaders to put their own interests in front of the interests of the people they claim to represent, the words of the great philosopher Peter Townshend ring truer than ever, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

So how does change really happen in a society?  And by that I mean change for the better.  Political leaders can certainly play a role.  The best example that I can think of historically is William Wilberforce and the ending of the British slave trade in the early 19th century.  But was this primarily a political triumph?  I believe that the political triumph (which happened in 1833, three days before Wilberforce died) was only the result of the change that had happened over the course of decades.  Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect (a group that we would all do well to learn more about) had labored for decades to change the minds of the people of England.  The ground for this sea change in opinion, in my view, had been plowed by the Wesleyan revivals of the mid-late 18th centuries that both predated and overlapped the work of the Clapham Sect.  In more recent times, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the political capstone of efforts to end legal segregation in the South.  But the moral argument had been achieved in a critical mass of the U.S. population by efforts beyond politics.  The social protests by Martin Luther King and those who worked together with him involved politics, but often only tangentially.  The main target of these actions were the hearts and minds of people.  In the end, the political objectives were achieved because peoples’ minds were changed.  The most important words of this era in my mind were not the words of legislation that were passed, they were the words spoken in speeches like the “I Have a Dream” speech or penned in “Letters from a Birmingham Jail”.  Legislation can only affect policy.  The words spoken and penned can affect hearts.

I certainly have a political point of view and I am not shy about sharing it.  But the problems that our society faces in my mind are not primarily political.  They are moral and cultural.  And the answers to these problems are not primarily political, either.  They are moral, cultural and above all spiritual.  It is easy to lose sight of that in our 24 hour-a-day news cycle and endless stream of talking heads.  The election next year is important.  But I don’t know if it is as important as we often think that it is.