Friday, December 30, 2011

The Top 10 Things of 2011

Keeping in the spirit of this blog -- in which I write about my haphazard interests as inspiration strikes -- I decided to simply do a "Top 10 Stuff of the Year" list, rather than a Top 10 books, films, or albums list. Another reason to approach it this way is that I haven't seen 10 films I loved, or liked 10 albums that much this year. Part of that is me just not keeping up, but another part of it is that it has been a somewhat lackluster year in film and music, for example, not withstanding some stellar stand-outs. This also frees me up to highlight things that didn't necessarily arrive this year, but which I discovered or appreciated this year. Many of these things I've already blogged about, and so I'll mostly just quickly describe what was great about each thing and link to other more in-depth posts. Without further ado:

The Top 10 Things of 2011

10. Lakers Meltdown

Though I don't expend much energy following sports these days, as an avid, lifetime Laker-hater, I felt compelled to include their getting swept earlier this year in the playoffs in the top 10. Not only did the Mavericks sweep them, they did so in spectacular fashion, blowing them out by 36 in the fourth game, sending the Lakers into a pathetic temper tantrum. Kobe humbled, Phil Jackson sent into retirement, the dynasty very likely reconciled to at least a near-future of mediocrity; the sound of that legacy crashing with a thud is sweet, joyful music to my ears.

9. Drive

Though the thrills are somewhat tawdry and cheap, this stylish flick by Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the better of its kind that I've seen in recent memory. Ryan Gosling plays a part-time mechanic, part-time Hollywood stunt driver, and part-time robbery getaway driver that gets embroiled in a situation with a host of shady characters which explodes into violence. There's not a whole lot to the film, especially with Gosling's playing it in such a stoic fashion, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in flair and pizzazz.

8.  The Republican Primary Campaign 

This is something I imagine 99% of the populous won't understand -- and I fully sympathize with your antipathy or apathy, whatever the case may be, I assure you -- but as a political junkie I have enjoyed following the campaign. Whatever it says about me, I religiously watched every televised debate but watched almost no other television this year -- you might have noticed the conspicuous lack of anything television related on this list. From Cain's downfall to Perry's flub to Newt's late rise to Romney's steady presence it has been interesting and disheartening, compelling and disappointing.

7. The Expired Dictator

While I think the Obama administration has been a travesty, at least he gave the go ahead to kill Osama bin Laden. It's hardly a feat deserving of much credit -- any president that didn't sign off on it would be incompetent -- but he is a Democrat and conceivably could have backed off on the War on Terror altogether, but he didn't, so that's at least worth a small amount of recognition. Gaddafi and Kim Jung-Il also met their demise this year. Of course, the rate at which evil replaces evil in this world is often astonishing, so these developments may not have any significant, lasting impact, but the passing of these wicked men is something to be thankful for.

6. Google (Google+, Google Currents, Google Music etc.)

I'm not really much of a tech guy, and while I'm sure there were probably much more significant developments in the tech world, I mostly enjoyed the rolling out of these excellent Google products. I just finally got a smartphone this year, so these products having Android apps to go with them made Google a noteworthy contributor to my universe this year. Google Music? Upload your entire MP3 library and have it accessible from any browser anywhere. Delightful. Google+? The best social-networking experience available (though it still doesn't have enough of an active user base to be the runaway best, it is the most enjoyable to use). Google Currents? A slick, aesthetically and functionally pleasing way to read online news, blogs, articles, and essays. Total cost? $0. The technological age has a lot to be said for it, and Google is near the top of that list for me.

5.  The Attributes of God by Shai Linne

Highly related to entry number three, Shai Linne's Holy Hip-Hop album The Attributes of God was released in November of this year, and is by far the best rap album that I have heard this year. Titled and patterned after the book by A.W. Pink, The Attributes of God is an album-length meditation on just that: the attributes of God. His goodness, faithfulness, justice, wrath, love and grace, to name a few. Each attribute is addressed in a separate track (though there is some cross-pollination, of course). Shai Linne spits creative, incisive reformed theology of such high quality it's somewhat unfair to classify the album as "just" a hip-hop album. It's a legitimate theological treatise and an intense act of worship. Provocative, wise, and relentlessly christcentric, the album was unlike anything I had ever heard (though it led me to Lampmode's back catalog, where there were other similar gems). To add to the revelation that the album was, even aside from the content, the beats and rhymes themselves are more impressive than anything the secular rap world currently has to offer, and it isn't even really close.

4. Tim Tebow 

Try as I might, I was unable to resist the magnetism of the Tim Tebow phenomenon. A strange confluence of events on and off the football field led to one phenomenal football story as Tebow led the Broncos to a 6-1 streak while winning in bizarre, seemingly miraculous fashion week after week, and praising Jesus while doing it. How could this story not send me into fits of rapturous ecstasy, especially when Tebow's humble glorifying of the Creator of the universe actually raised the ire of critics? What's not to love here?

3.  Holy Hip Hop / Lyrical Theology / Reformed Rap

I've said almost all that I can say on this topic in my previous post. To summarize: I discovered Lampmode records -- most notably the rappers Shai Linne, Timothy Brindle, and Evangel -- along with the whole Holy Hip-Hop movement this year, opening up a new dimension of hip-hop to me, as well as providing a tool for spiritual education and edification. Not only are these guys making extremely intelligent, Christ-centered, theological music, but they're doing it with a very high level of skill, making the exact kind of hip-hop music that I enjoy. Hallelujah!

2. David Bentley Hart's Writings

If I make a similar list to this in years to come, I expect this to be a mainstay right near the top (especially with him having at least two big projects coming up soon). The Eastern Orthodox theologian's massive erudition as it relates to history, culture, language, and religion, and his penchant for being a delightfully acerbic polemicist are some of the reasons he's my favorite living writer. Not content to merely excoriate Christianity's facile critics and make significant contributions to high theology, he also displays a great amount of literary creativity, humor, and wit in many columns which may fully blossom in his upcoming short story collection.

1. The Tree of Life

I've written more about this film than any other subject this year, so I'll spare you too many more adjectives of adulation. But the gulf that separates The Tree of Life from every other film released this year is titanic. The scope and ambition of the film is gargantuan as it tackles the subjects of the universe, humanity, death, sin, family, existence, and God deftly and without pretension. Through the prism of the life of one family, as remembered by one man, the mystery of the exquisite savagery, grace, and beauty of the universe is explored and unraveled. I will be marveling at this work of art for some time to come.

Monday, December 26, 2011

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' -- Fincher's Take

Despite my not having read any of the books, or seen the Swedish films, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was still atop the list of my most anticipated films of the year because of director David Fincher. Fincher is one of a small handful of elite American auteurs and also one of my personal favorite filmmakers, so naturally I closely follow all of his projects. And though I had no personal familiarity with the source material, I was aware that it was dark, gritty, pulpy, and intense which is right in Fincher's wheelhouse. Knowing this, seeing the trailer, and being aware that he would again be teaming up with Trent Reznor -- which seems like a much more fitting marriage of material-director-composer than did The Social Network -- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo catapulted to the top of my most anticipated list for 2011 (2nd only to The Tree of Life).

To briefly set the table: the film is set in present day Sweden where investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just been sued for libel and lost the case. Publicly disgraced, he is contacted by a rich businessman who wants him to investigate the disappearance of his niece, who was 16 at the time she disappeared forty years ago. The businessman and his family live in a secluded area, where members of the wretched family rarely talk to each other, despite all living within earshot of one another. He wants Mikael to apply his keen eye to a collected storehouse of evidence and see if anything stands out to him, all the time suspecting someone in his own family to be somehow involved in the nasty business.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander is a 23 year-old, pierced, tattooed, mow-hawked girl who the state essentially contracts out to people who need her hi-tech savvy and brilliant investigative acumen. After a brutal subplot involving Salander's rape by -- and revenge upon -- the social worker in charge of her finances, Mikael seeks her out to be his partner in attempting to solve the case. With their combined skills, they form an investigative super-team and get to work.

The most interesting, and not immediately obvious, thing about the film is the way that it fits inside of Fincher's oeuvre. Most significantly, the fact that it's his third serial killer film, and the manner in which it acts as a kind of counterpoint to Zodiac. Zodiac was a serial-killer detective procedural that was marked by frustration and failure, where every piece of evidence seemed to only lead to other pieces of evidence which didn't connect, or to complete dead ends. Common human failure and technological limitations of the era were the primary sources of disruption, and the halting but deliberate pacing of the film was reflective of this. By contrast, Dragon Tattoo is marked by a breakneck pace that mirrors the immaculately speedy and efficient detective work on display in the film, which is aided by today's wealth of technological tools that make the '70s look something like the stone-ages. Where Zodiac was a film that depicted human limitation and weakness all too clearly, Dragon Tattoo is an ode to reason and deduction and the rewards that can be reaped from skill and dedication. Instead of every piece of evidence popping up and then promptly disappearing again, every piece of evidence fits into the greater puzzle. Every loose end can be tracked down and tidied up.

And, as exciting as that can make the exploits on screen, it also strains credulity at times. The central crime that is being investigated took place over forty years ago, long before the explosive proliferation of cell-phones with cameras, yet there is an insane abundance of photographic evidence that the investigators are able to collect. So much, in fact, that Mikael is able to create a flip-book with shots from one crucial scene and, without much difficulty at all, track down a shot from another angle on the other side of the street at an important moment. Not that realism is at the top of my list of requirements for a film, but there are still reasonable limits and the film tested them in certain moments.

Fincher puts a great deal of faith in his audience, which I always appreciate, but there is at least one pivotal scene that is a wordless montage which requires reading a bit and following a certain investigative logic that I imagine could lose some people, especially given the speed at which the events unfold. In my case, it just made those sections exhilarating.

Despite the, at times, quite outlandish nature of the material -- not only the superhuman feats of the detectives, but also the almost cartoonishly wicked characters that they come into contact with and scenarios that unfold -- Dragon Tattoo excels as a superbly crafted entertainment. Lisbeth Salander lived up to her billing as an original and iconic character. It's quite difficult to think of any legitimate benchmark for comparison as I've really never encountered much like her in film or literature. She is a creature of an emerging world and something novel.

Shot in actual Sweden, the cinematography is predictably phenomenal. Fincher's trademark cinematic  wizardry is on display throughout, whether it's in the transitions, in the framing of shots in the middle of a blizzard (which may or may not be a CGI creation), or shots of Lisbeth tearing through the streets on her motorcycle, the aesthetic qualities of the films are excellent. Reznor's soundtrack is another subtle, brilliant piece of work, rarely intruding too openly, and always adding a grim layer of texture. Daniel Craig as Blomkvist is the best that I've ever seen him, and Rooney Mara turns in a solid performance as Salander, though at times it seemed that her performance may have lacked a certain intensity. Which, admittedly, is explicable as a product of her lousy childhood, and which may contribute to an air of even greater cloaked intensity. I'm not positive which it is. In any case, Fincher made it work for the film.

As a standalone piece, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is another triumph for Fincher who continues to deliver the goods. Seen within the greater context of the work of the artist, specifically as part of a triptych along with Se7en and Zodiac, Dragon Tattoo's standing is elevated even further.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Discriminating God

In his debate with William Lane Craig, Sam Harris lodged the forceful objection against Christianity (and Islam) that, according to its doctrines (as he misunderstands them), millions of people will go to hell for being born into the wrong culture at the wrong time. What he means is that those born into, for example, predominantly Hindu or Islamic cultures will be less likely to ever come to accept the truth and forgiveness offered by Christ's redemptive and salvific work on the cross and in His resurrection, than someone who was born into a predominantly Christian culture.

While this is, in a sense, true, it's an incomplete picture of the situation and it is represented with a particular narrow rhetoric that doesn't do justice to reality. Once a few things are clarified, the poverty of this particular representation of the situation becomes clear.

First of all, simply being born into a Christian culture will curry you no favor with the Christian God. Many people who are raised Christian, and even many who consider themselves Christian, in the vaguest sense, are not actually Christian. Then there are many who are born into Christian cultures but reject Christianity. And -- something I sometimes forget about myself but was reminded of when I re-read The Screwtape Letters recently -- even a true Christian can sometimes fall away from the faith (not that that happened in Screwtape, but the simple fact that Screwtape's "subject" was a Christian reminded me).

Secondly, given the global spread of Christianity, there are many people in all cultures who are now Christian. Not to mention that what were once the "right" places for being born Christian, such as France, are increasingly becoming (or have become) places where you're much more likely to be raised secular and godless than many villages in Africa where you are now more likely to be born and raised Christian. So the picture is much more ambiguous and muddled than merely being born into the "right" or "wrong" culture.

Thirdly -- though perhaps this should have been my first point -- according to Christian beliefs, all people are guilty of sin, the wages of which are death. If someone goes to hell it wasn't because of which culture they were born into, but because they sinned against God, and because they rejected -- not didn't hear, but rejected -- the gracious rescue by Christ from sin and death.

Now, as to the supposed injustice of it being easier for those born into a Christian culture to come to knowledge of, and commitment to, Jesus Christ, this is probably true. Christ came to rescue all humanity and open the way to God for all people, yes, but he did this knowing that many people (and cultures) would reject him. If that seems "unfair" to our modern (and perverse) cultural lenses, who ever claimed fairness (in our modern sense) to be a divine attribute? We claim that God is just, and justice for the guilty means death. Death means separation from God and hell. That is what everyone deserves. God would have been perfectly just to leave us in our death. Anything humanity is given that is greater than death and hell for all is an act of Grace. Something no one deserves, but which you may either accept or reject.

The fact that God seems to make the conditions for following him "easier" for certain peoples isn't exactly inconsistent with his character as revealed in the Bible or as understood by Christian doctrine. The God of the Old Testament was the God of Israel, His chosen people, to the exclusion of the other peoples of the world. God also annihilated human life on the whole planet except for Noah and his family. While we may find this act more palatable because Noah was a relatively righteous man in a wicked world, he was still a sinner whom God could have also justly eliminated. But God had mercy on him. The situation is no different from today, only it isn't a "relative goodness" or a "smaller wickedness" that Christians possess, as Noah did, but a perfect righteousness that is imputed to Christians via Christ's substitutionary work of atonement on the cross. The sins of those who trust in Christ are washed by His blood and they are made new in His resurrection. Not because they were born into the right culture, but because they placed their faith in Him and accepted the only salvation available to the guilty. And this way is open to all the people of Earth.

Whether or not one accepts the truth of this narrative, the question that's pertinent here is whether or not it makes sense to impugn God's character as unjust or unrighteous. If it did, then that would be a legitimate objection to a faith that claims that God is just and righteous. And this was Harris' point; if the God of the Bible is real, then He is "unjust" or (really) "unfair", because the God of the Bible doesn't fit our modern American model of fairness. He had a chosen people, and even when He graciously opened the way for all people to Him, it's still a truth that is easier for some to accept than others. Shouldn't he make it equally easy or difficult, to be fair? And if He claims to be just and righteous but isn't (again, according to our faulty model of what it means to be just and righteous), then He either isn't actually real after all, or He isn't worthy of our allegiance because He's discriminatory (and a discriminatory God is unacceptable to our cultural tastes).

Once the objection is seen for what it is, it carries no weight whatsoever against the truth or consistency of Christian belief, although one could see how it might resonate with the values of our culture. If God were actually "playing favorites", that would be his prerogative and we would have no legitimate complaint against it as we deserve nothing but death. But, viewed in the correct light, there's no reason to conclude that anyone is ever treated unjustly, even granting that people born in certain cultures will more readily accept Christ, and others will more readily reject Him.

Our God is a discriminating God. There are things that delight Him and things He finds abhorrent. He bestows blessings and curses. He has a people. He has a Kingdom. He has standards. We all fall short of those standards and must either accept or reject His Gracious offer of Christ's blood as a means of reconciliation. Being born into the "wrong" culture is no excuse.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tebow Fever: Caught

I tried to resist, but even I have caught a dose of Tebow fever. Though I've followed baseball, football, tennis, and basketball at various times in my life, in the last 4 or 5 years I haven't followed any sports closely at all, and I was fine with this development. With the NBA lockout this year causing even greater disillusionment, I was prepared to write off all sports forever.

Then in the last few months the name 'Tebow!' (always with an exclamation) kept appearing in my social network feeds, even though I don't follow any sports-specific figures on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook, and only some of these posts were coming from friends who were into sports. I knew who Tim Tebow was, that he was on the Broncos, and was aware of his faith, but I didn't know why he kept appearing in my feeds. After a while I finally googled him to see what the fuss was about and learned that, since becoming the Bronco's QB, they had gone 5-1 (at the time of the googling) with many of the wins being 4th quarter, miraculous comebacks. And that his persistent giving of credit to Jesus Christ for all that he accomplished -- in post-game interviews, during the game, in press conferences, and symbolically by kneeling (or 'Tebowing') after big plays -- was adding to the controversy surrounding him, creating vociferous and adamant supporters and detractors. Not only that, but Tebow's statistics at quarterback during this run have been fairly abysmal and his mastery of the fundamental skills of the position leave much to be desired, adding to the strangeness of the run. In many of the wins he seems to play poorly or mediocre for three quarters and then often brilliantly in the fourth. OK, so this is why he was causing such a stir. Interesting.

So yesterday, at home after church, I happened to see that the Broncos were playing and put the game on. The Broncos were down 10-0 with 5 minutes in the game when Tebow engineered a brilliant comeback, which was (providentially?) assisted by a severe mental blunder by Marion Berry -- the running back for the Bears -- when he ran out of bounds with 1:55 left on the clock, when merely staying in-bounds would have won the game for them. Later, in overtime, Berry looked poised to break free on a run for a possible game-winning touchdown, or at least to get into great position for a game-winning field goal, and instead he fumbled the ball and the Broncos recovered. This was another bizarre play in which, at a most crucial moment, eminent defeat was transformed into victory. Are there greater forces (or, more precisely, The Greatest Force) at work here?

Of course the magic isn't being created by Tebow -- or providence -- alone. In yesterday's game, for instance, the Bronco's kicker nailed monster 59 yard and 51 yard field goals late in the game, the former tying the game with seconds left and the latter being the game-winning field goal in overtime. Tebow put them in position, of course, and also helmed a crucial touchdown drive which put them in reach, but his teammates stepped up as well. After yesterday's miracle victory, the Broncos are now 7-1 with Tebow at the helm and poised to make the playoffs.

Whether God is a Broncos fan remains to be seen. It seems a trivial thing for God to care about, on one hand, but on the other hand, having a national figure so publicly and unabashedly proclaiming the power of Christ whenever he is given the opportunity is no small matter.

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." - Phillipians 4:13

Clearly Tebow believes this, and if he is always humbly pointing to the One who makes his accomplishments -- to say nothing of his, or anyone else's, existence -- possible, it isn't so hard to imagine that God would dignify that all-too-rare act with recognition.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

David Bentley Hart's Translation of the New Testament (and other news)

About 4 months ago I posted an inquiry on Google+ (which, as it happens, I enthusiastically support as the premiere social network) to Giles Anderson of The Anderson Literary Agency, which represents David Bentley Hart, as to whether he had any information on what his next project would be. A few months later Anderson informed me that they would have an announcement concerning the details of his next project shortly. Hart had mentioned that he had written (or was writing) a novella with the character of the Devil appearing in it. I was expecting Anderson's announcement to be with regard to this novella.

In the meantime, a collection of short stories by Hart titled The Devil and Pierre Gernet appeared on Amazon along with pre-order information. There was no announcement from Anderson or his agency, so I assumed this was an outside project for Hart. Due to arrive sometime in February, the prospect of David Bentley Hart's imagination and erudition being applied to a proper work of fiction was cause for legitimate excitement.

Then, a few days ago, Anderson messaged me on Google+ with what appeared to be an excerpt of an email from Anderson to Yale University Press regarding Hart's next project. Here is what he sent:

"Author of Atheist Delusions and recent winner of the Michael Ramsey Prize David Bentley Hart's THE NEW TESTAMENT: A New Translation, a version that promises to awaken readers to the mysteries and ambiguities in the original text, to Jennifer Banks at Yale University Press, by Giles Anderson at Anderson Literary Agency."

For Hart enthusiasts, such as myself, that is one colossal, exhilirating announcement! Coming, as it does, on the heels of another translation by a public Christian intellectual -- N.T. Wright -- it also could mark the beginning of a contemporary trend of sorts.

In addition to both these bits of news, Hart recently contributed a piece to The New Criterion's "Future Tense" series with an exquisite, brilliant essay on religion in America, in addition to an excoriating article at First Thing's online dismantling "the Oxfordian hypothesis", which is the basis for the seemingly ridiculous film Anonymous.

All of this following the demise of his regular On the Square column and a few months of troubling silence. I have both been edified and left in a state of great anticipation.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Myth of Progress

Abraham Lincoln once said "It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues." Some academics seem convinced of the fact that much of the history of man has been the process of taming our worst social vices: violence, genocide, slavery, racism, oppression, despotism etc. Not that we're free from these ills today, but that as history progresses we seem to continuously push them further back. For example, Steven Pinker points out that it seems as if violence has been decreasing, in the amount that occurs per capita, over the centuries. Of course there are setbacks along the way -- the 20th century's record of violence and genocide comes to mind -- but if we view history as a whole, concentrating on the elimination or reduction of these ills, human progress seems like an undeniable reality.

But by what means are we reducing these evils? Are we replacing them with goods, or simply neutral spaces which are more free from violence and coercion? Are there not other evils that arise in their place which we simply don't recognize as easily? Is the process that tames vices simultaneously taming our social virtues?

By taking our 'do no harm' ethos so far as to make it an ultimate end, it turns out that we must also 'do no good', at least at the social/collective/governmental level. Why? Because another thing that history has taught us is that men, or collections of men, with good and pure intentions are often among the most potent sources of tyranny and wickedness. As C.S. Lewis said: "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

Power itself is a corrosive, corrupting thing and so we can't discriminate too finely between those looking to do ill and those aiming to do good; they both need to be restrained by the same systems. Gandalf possessing the One Ring is, at best, only slightly preferable to Sauron possessing it. With this being the case, certain social virtues can't be allowed to flourish because there is the substantial risk that they will devolve into tyranny and oppression.

So what is the result? We are indeed succeeding at taming the worst manifestations of our worst vices, but at the price of taming our virtues. As Nietzsche saw, and feared, this process results in the mediocritization of men. Everyone is protected; everything (besides trampling on others) is accepted; nothing is greatly praised or honored above the virtue of not-trampling-upon-others; and the result is a rather dreary and drab collection of social virtues: tolerance, equality before the law, freedom.

Not that there's anything wrong with these things per se, but there's not a whole lot praiseworthy in them, either, except that they all denote the absence of something bad (rather than the presence of a good). Freedom is the absence of illegitimate coercion, but freedom means the freedom to be a dullard, parasite, or a miser just as much as it means the freedom to be a great teacher, artist, or philanthropist. And if freedom is elevated as the ultimate virtue by  the West -- as it is -- then neither outcome can be prized too highly above the other. We just have to be happy that at least people are free, even if they don't use that freedom to do anything worthwhile. Tolerance as a virtue means intolerance of those who are intolerant, and thus is a bit self-defeating, and more importantly requires making few-to-no judgments about what is virtuous and true, just as much as it means refraining from denouncing anything as wrong or wicked or undesirable (except trampling on the rights of someone, of course). Equality before the law -- and therefore the subsidence of racism and sexism -- is a good thing, but even this has a dark side. Namely, the subtle alchemy which transforms equality before the law (derived from the equality we have in the eyes of God) into the idea that we also have a right to equal results, which in turn creates a monstrous tyranny aimed at attempting to 'remedy' a veritable sea of existing 'inequities'.

If it were possible to tame our egregious social vices while replacing the void left by them with the more robust virtues of courage, humility, charity, justice, kindness etc. then I suspect we would be much better off, and Progress would truly be a reality. But this is simply an unrealistic denial of human nature. Everything has a price, and subduing our worst vices has also subdued our virtues. Of course, there's nothing stopping individuals from being virtuous in their personal lives, but there's also nothing systematic that is greatly encouraging it. The main point is that the values society at large promotes are really what tend to shape our lives, attitudes, and decisions in subtle ways. Which is why I'm sure we all know tons of tolerant people who greatly cherish their personal freedom, and abhor the mistreatment of others, but who don't have a strong moral compass beyond that. Not because these values are universal to humanity throughout history, but because they are the values our society most highly prizes and most vigorously promotes.

So while it's possible to plot a fairly steady reduction of certain kinds of evil in the world throughout history, unless you can plot the state of our goodness alongside it -- to say nothing of newer, more subtle evils that we may not recognize or be able to chart -- you are left with an incomplete picture. The conceit of progress is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Clearly history has arrived at the present, and since we are here occupying the present, and we like to fancy ourselves good, or intelligent, or enlightened, then history must have been building up to us. But this amounts to a tautology: we are here today and we value what we value. Of course if we had other values, say those of a 12th century European monk, then the 21st century America might appear quite horrific in many respects, with the 12th century appearing to be much better. This is not to deny the fruits of history, such as they are, only to say that progress is often an illusion born of confirmation bias.

I'm not suggesting, by the way, that I greatly desire history to have brought us to some other destination, or that I think the West should have substantially different values than it does have. The logic behind tolerance, freedom, and equality being our anchoring social mores is completely sound. I only mean to point out that the gains have associated costs, and that we shouldn't be so eager to buy wholeheartedly into the myth of progress.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lyrical Theology. Holy Hip-Hop. Reformed Rap.

If you know me or have read my blog, you know that theology and rap music are two interests of mine. They have almost always been distinct and separate interests, for me. While I had heard some good (and lots of mediocre and bad) Christian rap back in the 90s, and early aughts, none of it was extremely theological in character. And even the best Christian material I heard from those times wasn't among the best hip-hop music being made, in terms of the aesthetic and artistic quality. Around the mid aughts I stopped keeping up with newer rap music in general and didn't have any connections that would alert me of quality Christian rap that was being released, so the little amount of it that I had heard was all that I was aware of.

Last month Challies -- a reformed blogger-pastor -- posted something about Shai Linne's new album The Attributes of God, giving the album very high praise. As a hip-hop aficionado myself, I was highly skeptical as to the actual quality of the rapping and beats (I had never seen Challies post anything about hip-hop), even if the theological content was excellent, as Challies was claiming (I trusted him on that count). After giving the album a listen on Spotify, I was stunned. Not only was the rapping top notch quality, but the content was vibrant, coherent, intelligent, Christ-centered, and unrelenting. The first comparison that came to mind when listening to Shai Linne's album wasn't golden-era, mid-90s, boom-bap rap music (though stylistically, that is his heritage), but Reformed theologians! Not only was this Christian rap, but it was lyrical theology and it was brilliant.


As I had become largely calloused toward, and weary of, new rap music in general, this was a revelation on two levels: re-igniting my interest in new rap music, period, as well as acting as a portal into the Reformed Rap or Holy Hip-Hop world, which I didn't even know existed (outside of The Cross Movement). Two of my interests and passions were combined thereby creating a more intense love for both of them.

After listening to The Attributes of God -- which shares the title of, and is kind of patterned after, the book by A.W. Pink -- I went on to listen to a few more of Shai Linne's albums such as Storiez and The Atonement, which were excellent as well. After this, I listened to some material from a guy named Timothy Brindle, who was featured on a number of Shai Linne's songs and who seemed to be a phenomenal emcee. It turned out he had two albums to his name, The Great Awakening and Killing Sin, which were both excellent. Though it's a somewhat tired touchstone for comparison, Brindle is comparable to a Christian Eminem, in that they both made waves in the secular battle circuit, and stylistically they have similarities.

Another artist that had collaborated with Shai Linne was named Evangel, and since his couple of verses were incredible, I sought out some more music by him. There were no solo albums of his on Spotify, but he was a member of a group called Christcentric who had a newer album out called The Ephesians Project, which is a hip-hop-album exposition of the entire book of Ephesians. His songs and verses on there were great, as was his song Beautiful Church which was on the compilation The Church. Evangel is just a beast with a wicked flow (but not a wicked message, of course).

Discovering one new incredible hip-hop artist would have itself been a revelation. That happens very rarely, especially in the current climate of hip-hop, which is fairly dismal. Having been introduced to three incredible rappers, who all have a solid amount of material recorded and released already, was just that much more amazing. Essentially discovering a whole new genre, one that strongly appeals to my intellectual and spiritual interests, which can actually enhance my relationship with the living God, and a genre which all of these phenomenal, newly discovered artists are working within was just that much more incredible.

I know that sounds like a lot of breathless, overzealous, hyperbolic rhetoric for some rap music, but I should tell you that I'm a very cynical and critical hip-hop consumer. Even if these guys were praising God and glorifying Christ with sound theology, but they had weak beats and rhymes, it wouldn't do much for me. But the actual quality of the lyrics and the rapping catapulted all three of them into my upper echelon of living, working rappers.

Since this discovery, I haven't listened to much of anything else on Spotify except my Lyrical Theology playlist, which is quite extensive. Lampmode records, which boasts both Shai Linne and Timothy Brindle on its roster, has other artists who I haven't even yet given a proper listen, who may also be great. Stephen the Levite, for instance, had two great tracks on The Church compilation, and I haven't yet listened to his solo album in its entirety. So, even with the new universe of Holy Hip-Hop opened to me, and having already explored it heavily, there's still more to discover, not to mention whatever else God has in store in the future, working through these artists and new ones. Hip-hop is back on my radar and it's being used to glorify the ruler of heaven and Earth.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Challenge to Egalitarianism

While I don't hold a strong opinion one way or another on the Biblical question of the proper role of women within the church and the home -- complementarianism versus egalitarianism -- I've read some arguments in favor of both, and tend to lean toward the former, but one simple challenge to egalitarianism has recently struck me, and I haven't heard anyone else raise it. Most of the debate on this question seems to center on scripture and what hermeneutical lens you use to view it, and while my challenge also comes from scripture, it comes from a different angle.

For the uninitiated I'll give a very brief overview of what this issue is all about. Egalitarianism holds that there should be no inherent hierarchy within the body of Christ, or within the Christian home, based on gender. That men and women are equal in every way, including what positions and roles they can fulfill. While complementarianism holds that, while men and women are spiritual equals in the eyes of God, there are gender roles within the Church and within the home that are appropriate for men and women. The biggest issues seem to be whether women should be allowed to hold teaching or leadership positions in the Church, and whether they should 'submit' to their husbands in the home -- at least on issues where they can't come to mutual agreement.

Both sides make reasonable Biblical cases and I haven't investigated the issue enough to come down firmly on either side. However, I do have one challenge to the egalitarian view that I would like to raise.

There are many places in scripture where the metaphor of Christ as groom or husband and the Church as bride appears. This is a beautiful depiction that works dialectically to help Christians better understand both the institution of marriage and Christ's relationship to his Church. Christ as the head, bestowing his gifts of love and grace, the Church in submission to him, receiving those gifts and returning them to him by how they show them to each other and the world. Some metaphors, as a tool of illustration, only work one direction. There is one thing that is well-understood, and you use it to illustrate something about another thing that is less well understood. In the case of this metaphor though, it works both directions -- which is what I meant by 'dialectically'. It simultaneously teaches Christians about how marriages are supposed to work, and what Christ's relationship is to the Church. And it doesn't merely teach us that Christ is the 'head' of the Church, but the metaphor also teaches about God's nature, and how he feels towards his 'bride'. In 2 Corinthians 11:2 it describes Christ as a jealous groom. Ephesians 5:25-32 teaches how husbands ought to love their wives, and it is in the same manner that Christ loves the Church.

So my challenge to the egalitarian view is this: doesn't an egalitarian understanding of marriage turn this metaphor into nonsense? If men and women, or more specifically husband and wife, are equal in every way including their roles in the home, then wouldn't an egalitarian read this metaphor to mean that the Church and Christ are exactly identical? Does it matter that Christ is the groom rather than the bride? Shouldn't the roles be interchangeable if egalitarianism is true? And if that's the case, shouldn't the Church be considered the Fourth Person of the Trinity, coequal with the Son?

True, it is also said that the Church is the body of Christ, but Christians generally take that to mean that we are Christ's extension, his representative within the world, the means by which he continues to act in the world. It is further said that through Christ's redemptive work on the Cross the Father sees us, with Christ's righteousness imputed to us. So Christ's Church does have a very close relationship to Himself. Still, even with this in mind, Christ takes precedence in the relationship as the head, and the Church follows and receives his gifts. There is a hierarchy involved here which is inescapable. And if there's hierarchy here, then the groom-bride metaphor implies a level of hierarchy within marriage.

You might say "well, it's just a metaphor." Yes, but it's A) a very important metaphor and B) occurs multiple places in Scripture (2 Cor. 11:2, Eph 5:25-27, Revelation 19:7-9, etc.), which is God's word. So if God didn't want to mislead us about marriage -- which it seems he would be doing if egalitarianism was true -- then he shouldn't use this metaphor to describe Christ's relationship to the Church.

It seems that the question of a Christian woman's "proper" role  usually centers on the question of whether they should hold leadership or teaching positions in Church. After all, whether you're an egalitarian or complementarian in your own home is between you, your wife, and God, and mostly doesn't concern anyone else. But the question of leadership in the Church is a question that is made in larger Christian community and whatever your Church decides can affect other people, one way or another, for good or for ill. Again, I have no strong conviction on this matter, but I do feel that this challenge to egalitarianism as a whole may have consequences that extend beyond marriage. 

The Tragic-Utopian Spectrum and Authority

Theology and Politics are distinct spheres of reality which, ipso facto, shouldn't necessarily have many common points of intersection. In the Christian tradition, governments and politics are a source of idolatry. They are a pale, worldly substitute for God's authority and rule. Still, they have to be understood and responded to in appropriate ways, and they themselves must act within certain parameters to be considered legitimate and enjoy being God's ordained, temporary administers of justice and order in the social realm. With this in mind, is there any reason we should suspect that the left-right divide in politics should share any commonality with the left-right divide in theology? On the surface, there doesn't seem to be any reason to suspect this, but let's pursue the question further.

While many people feel that the traditional left-right political spectrum is an insufficient, oversimplified means of representing reality, I think there's more to it than that. Many claim that there is no reason why someone who feels one way about the death penalty should also think something specific about taxation, and these people therefore feel that the political spectrum amounts to an arbitrary clumping together of views that are a product of a trenchant two-party system.

Thomas Sowell has done an excellent job of illustrating what it is that truly informs the left-right divide, and that it isn't actually arbitrary at all. It is the product two fundamentally distinct views of humanity, which he most fully outlines in his book A Conflict of Visions. The Tragic Vision of humanity sees men as fundamentally weak, as sinful, as incapable of conquering their own nature, and therefore believes that government's primary job should be applying restraints to the governing authorities and systems that arise among men (as well as accepting certain desirable trade-offs). The Tragic Vision sees men as easily corruptible, and power as a corrupting process, and so supports a system which fundamentally restrains and divides power. While the Utopian Vision of mankind sees man as fundamentally good, and capable of overcoming all (or most) of the things that hold him back through education, striving, and cooperation, which will lead to progress. Progress in turn leads to greater progress, as mankind learns from the mistakes of the past, and builds on the knowledge of the present, ultimately resulting in greater mastery over our condition.

Clearly the Tragic Vision is the vision of the right and conservatism, while the Utopian vision is the vision of the left and (modern) liberalism, generally speaking. With these visions outlined, you can see how these contrasting views of Man inform just about every position that we would traditionally call conservative or liberal, with some exceptions. These distinctions aren't really arbitrary, and the positions associated with the sides of the spectrum don't just 'happen' to clump together, but the differences are born out of legitimately divergent views of human nature.

It's fairly easy to see how this understanding of human nature also affects -- or is born out of -- Christian's theological views. Those with the Tragic vision will to tend to be more conservative theologically, and those with the Utopian vision will also tend to be more liberal theologically, in obvious ways. Conservatives will focus more on sin and God's judgment; liberals will focus more on his love and mercy. Conservatives will more quickly emphasize the inability of works to save; liberals will more readily emphasize the fact that works are fruits of the spirit. The implications are endless, and while they don't necessarily result in hard divisions (in the previous sentence, for example, both views are completely compatible with each other), but are rather a matter of focus and emphasis which can determine the character of our theological beliefs and practices.

My purpose for this post isn't to explore this issue fully and completely, but only to apply this understanding to one issue and it's the issue of authority and scripture (for the political sphere of the U.S., I hold that The Constitution is analogous to our secular scripture).

The observation I'd like to make is just how similar a manner liberals treat authority and foundational documents in both realms. In the U.S., political liberals are more apt to treat The Constitution as a 'living document', the meaning of which changes with time as humanity and society progresses in wisdom. As humanity advances, we can view The Constitution from the standpoint of the future, as more enlightened beings, and try to understand the Constitution, not merely by its words and what the words meant to those who wrote them, but as a document whose meaning depends on when and how it is being read. Of course, The Constitution has a built-in means of updating and altering itself: the amendment process. But liberals think that the meaning of much of what is there can change without needing to amend it, simply by reading it from a new, "enlightened" vantage.

While conservatives, being very wary of the impulses of the moment and how prone to error humans are, are much more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to time-tested wisdom and the principles of governmental restraint pronounced in the Constitution. Conservatives would also be less likely to amend the Constitution, or to interpret in any way other than what the founders intended. Which is not to say that conservatives are oblivious to the reality of legitimate progress and change in society, but that they believe when such change occurs it is either irrelevant to how the Constitution is read, or if the change cuts to some Constitutional principle that changing the meaning of the Constitution requires actually amending it, rather than simply 'understanding it anew'.

The founders envisioned a government of "laws and not men", which is why they constructed a system of checks and balances and divisions of power. Conservatives are much more likely to affirm this vision completely, while liberals would be more prone to want to override certain systematic constraints, allowing the understanding of the moment to rule over the wisdom of the past, including over certain restraints of the Constitution.

Thus instead of seeing the Establishment clause of the First Amendment as a restraint on the government from establishing a state religion, liberals re-interpret the amendment to mean that the government has absolute duty and license to also restrict religious free speech, in certain public spaces. Thus instead of seeing the Commerce Clause as limiting the federal government's role in commerce to one specific exception of interstate commerce, liberals creatively 're-think' what the Commerce Clause means and use it for the exact opposite purpose: to extend the control and jurisdiction of the federal government into all commerce. Meanwhile, conservatives read the Constitution as it was meant to be read, are very wary about changing it, and believe that if a change is needed it should go through the intentionally difficult and rigorous amendment process.

The analogy to Christianity should be clear. Theological liberals are more apt to view the Bible in the exact same way that political liberals view the Constitution, while theological conservatives are more likely to be more "originalist" in their interpretation. Theological liberals view the Bible more as a "living document", while conservatives tend to view it more as unchanging and settled. It's a slightly different situation because both liberals and conservative Christians tend to have a higher, more reverenced view of both authority and tradition than secular liberals do. Thus the divide isn't as large as it is in the political realm, as both sides of the spectrum agree about a larger array of issues, but the analogy is still illustrative of the fundamental underpinnings of ideology that color both spheres of life.

Because man is weak, broken, and prone to error and misdeeds, his power over others must be limited and restrained as much as possible, and because of this there should be a great reverence for the principles which do the restraining and transcend any living man, woman, or even majority of people in a democracy. Therefore the Constitution should be held in high esteem and we should alter it only in the most unusual circumstances. Therefore the Bible should be held in high esteem and we should alter our understanding of its plain, established meaning only in the most unusual circumstances, with proper reflection, prayer and consideration.

Alternatively:

Because man is evolving, learning, and progressing throughout history, our understanding of the Constitution and what it means should also be evolving and progressing. Therefore the Constitution should act as a vague, general signpost, but if our advancement as a society or species seems to be hindered at all by it, we must find ways to reduce its impact or otherwise circumvent it. Therefore, while the Bible should be esteemed, we must not limit ourselves to traditional understandings, but allow ourselves to buttress our understandings of the Bible with the gains of wisdom and knowledge of the world, and always re-think the Bible in the light of the moment, which is the peak of our understanding.

Some of those on the left might complain about the language I've used to frame the discussion, but I can only say it's my honest conclusion. Also, just because this is what I think that conservative and liberal principles dictate doesn't necessarily mean that it applies to how conservative and liberal people actually behave, respectively. So if you can think of a plethora of examples in which certain conservatives or liberals do the opposite of these dictates, I would probably respond by simply noting that those are instances of conservatives doing something liberal and vice versa.

 In addition to my language betraying my conviction in favor of the validity of The Tragic Vision, I must also call attention to the fact that Steven Pinker -- a cognitive scientist, linguist, and liberal -- points out in his book on human nature The Blank Slate, the most recent findings of the sciences of human nature -- genetics, neuroscience and such -- are largely vindicating The Tragic Vision of human nature, over and against The Utopian Vision. He accepts Sowell's formulation of the divide, and addresses the issue of political beliefs in the light of these new findings. Pinker isn't willing to concede that this is a complete triumph for the right, but he thinks that the discussion has to advance and evolve with new ideas and terms framing the left-right divide, and that the left will mostly have to abandon The Utopian Vision. But it's clear that, at this point in time, they haven't yet done so.

As I've written elsewhere, the modern, secular world seems to have a problem with authority in general which results in the political spectrum being much broader than the theological spectrum. When man is his own ruler and own end, this will result in a greater diversity of views and much greater folly. When man submits himself to an authority greater than himself, diversity is permitted but limited by the constraints of authority, tradition, and scripture. American politics should take notes from theology and narrow its own diversity by willfully submitting to our secular authority, The Constitution. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Church Unity Revisited

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.

John 17:20-23

As I have written in a previous post on this subject, a striking feature of this prayer is the extremely strong expression of the Trinity that's present in it. While the Holy Spirit isn't mentioned by name, it is through the work of the Spirit that The Church will continue to be nurtured and empowered following the ascension of Christ, so His role can strongly be inferred in the Son praying to the Father for The Church. 

A very key word in this passage to me is the word "as". "May they be one as you are in me and I am in you", and "that they may be one as we are one." As Jesus conveys these sentiments he twice prays for the unity of the Church, and both times he uses "as" to signify that there is a certain way or manner that He desires for the Church to be one; namely in the same way that the Father and Son are unified and one. And how are the Father, Son, and Spirit one? 



I have always found this illustration to be a helpful expression of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in the historical Christian creeds and confessions. It doesn't say all there is to say on the Trinity by a long shot, but it does seem to be a true representation of the manner in which the Trinity is one. And if this is how the Trinitarian God is unified and one, then shouldn't his Church be one in the same manner? And isn't the manner of unity important, since Jesus explicitly mentions the manner in which the Church ought to be unified? And doesn't "being one as God is one" mean something different for those who believe in a Trinitarian God than for someone who believes in God as wholly singular in the strictest sense, such as the god of deism or Islam?

From the helpful illustration above I have derived the following illustration of what may be something like Christ's vision for the unity of His Church. 



In addition to Christ's prayer for Unity seeming to call for a Trinitarian form of unity, other passages in the New Testament seem to call for unity in 'mind and thought' or 'love' or 'faith' (1 Corinthians 1:10, Ephesians 4:7-16), rather than unity under a single 'roof' as it were, or uniformity in every way imaginable, even on non-essential matters. Which leads me to believe it's possible that some visions of unity are misguided. 

Many ecumenical efforts seem to have the long-term goal of collapsing all differentiation and diversity within the Church into univocity. And yet there is an internal dynamism, dialogue, and life within the Godhead, which is the model of unity Christ has in mind for The Church. If we don't feel the need to 'resolve' these tensions within the Godhead -- as we shouldn't -- then we shouldn't feel the need to resolve them within the Church. If our vision for church unity is utter univocity on all things, then why did Christ bother with the words that follow "as"? Shouldn't the vision of unity for a Trinitarian church differ from that of the vision were God's nature not Trinitarian? If a Muslim or a Jew had a vision for church unity which reflected the Oneness of God, it would make sense that there should be no differentiation within that church at all, but doesn't the Christian, Trinitarian God differ on this count?

Though these are the three largest branches of historic Christianity, I'm not claiming that the Church must be triune with these three specific distinct branches, or even that there couldn't be a larger number of branches. And of course under each umbrella, especially that of Protestantism, there is further differentiation still which isn't shown. The point is only to raise the question of whether 'One Unified Church in Christ' ultimately requires collapsing all of these distinctions.



Of course, this leaves open the question of which so-called divisions are not actually meaningful, sinful divisions, but are actually just an expression of the glorious life of the Trinitarian Church, and which divisions are products of sinful pride which are in need of healing. And I'm not claiming to address the question of which is which here.

The pictorial depiction of Church unity that I've given is what I imagine might be a rough approximation of how the Church can be unified, and yet still contain a manner of diversity on non-essential matters within that greater unity. In other words, that depiction doesn't show the existing divisions that are products of sin and which are legitimate barriers to Church unity. A visual depiction of those types of divisions might be a lightning bolt emanating from the space between two of the branches of Christianity, which results in "The Church" at center having a fracture in it. This type of division, of course, we can not abide and must seek to heal and overcome through the power of the Holy Spirit. My point is only that we should be mindful of the fact that our unity is to be modeled after the Trinity, and if that is the case we should attempt to make a distinction between unhealthy, sinful divisions that injure Church unity, and differentiation within the Church which reflects the life of the Trinity. Otherwise we risk wasting energy attempting to resolve some of the healthy, dynamic, lively expressions of the Trinitarian Church. 

While it's noble to seek reconciliation and healing of divisions within the church in many cases, in other cases it can be problematic to imagine yourself as being 'separated' or 'divided' from brothers in Christ in the first place, when you actually aren't. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Tree of Life and Eschatology

Brother... Mother. It was they who brought me to your door.

On first viewing these opening words to The Tree of Life seem enigmatic, but on a second viewing they take on a more literal meaning.

After having seen the film, we know that Jack has an intense love for both his brother and mother, whom we see in his memories. His mother is portrayed as a graceful, angelic, flawless being of light. Since no human purely embodies goodness in this way, it's safe to assume that the lens through which the mother is portrayed in the film is Jack's own memories. Many of which were based on real experiences, but many of which he probably has imagined or constructed. Such as when we see his parents grieving his brother's death, and there's a shot of Jack as a grown man in the room with them, but they can't see him. Indicating that this is Jack's own interpretation of how his parents received the news of his brother's death.  Or when we see his mother dancing on air. The mother in the film is most likely an idealized version of his mother -- as his memory has somewhat distorted or caricatured her -- whose graciousness and love led Jack to see goodness in the world and seek to understand it.

The same is true of his brother, but in a different way. He also sees his brother as fundamentally good, while he views himself as fundamentally wicked (at least after a certain age when he "discovers" sin). The death of Jack's brother profoundly affects him, even into his late adult life, as you would imagine. It is reflection upon this tragedy that prompts Jack to seek answers to questions about life by probing his own memories about his brother.

But whose door do Jack's mother and brother bring him to?

Within the context of the film it's clear that the door is God's door. The door of Faith, which is portrayed near the end of the film as a literal door frame in the middle of a desert landscape. Having searched his own life, through his memories, for answers about God, life, humanity and existence, and having primarily found those answers through his mother and his brother, Jack is brought to the door of Faith and he steps through.


As soon as Jack steps through the door there is a sequence of shots that are reminiscent of those from the Creation sequence earlier in the film when, in response to questions of "Who are we to you?", God responds -- as he does in the Book of Job -- with a display of natural wonders starting with the Creation of the universe. At this moment, when he comes to Faith by trusting in God and, according to the Christian belief, is made a new man through Christ, we are shown a glimpse of New Creation. The ultimate, eschatological reality of those who will be resurrected to live in the New Creation.

 Malick's choices of shot sequence are not arbitrary. These shots of New Creation are triggered the moment Jack enters the door of Faith. In most of these shots Earth itself is shown, and these shots can be taken to represent an external, God's-eye view of New Creation occurring -- Heaven and Earth coming together -- which we then "zoom in" to on the shores of a beach of New Earth, where the Humans are entering New Creation together, after having been resurrected. The title of the film is significant here as in Revelation 22:2 where the tree of life is used as a symbol for mankind's renewal during the time when Eden is being restored. Add to this the otherworldly look of the landscapes that are shown -- though still clearly being Earthly -- along with the resurrection images, and how all of this relates to the Christian doctrines of the Resurrection and New Creation, and how they in turn relate to Jack's journey in the film leads me to the conclusion that the final sequence is a profound depiction of Christian eschatology.

It would seem that this final sequence is a subjective vision as experienced by Jack, but one which acts as a preview for Jack, showing an understanding of the ultimate hope for humanity from his perspective. Whether it's a literal vision given to Jack supernaturally, or whether it is Jack's personal understanding of a divine truth is debatable, but the essence of what is being shown seems indisputable.

As the film can largely be seen as an ongoing dialogue with God, taking place in the head of Jack, with God providing answers to Jack's questions, this final sequence is a culmination of the answers to all the questions: "Who are we to you?", "Where were you?", "Why do we suffer?", "Is there nothing deathless in this world?", "How do I get back where they are [to a place of innocence]?" God provided individual answers along the way, but the ultimate answer to all of them is that God's love and grace opens up a means for Salvation from our fallen state where pain, sin, and death are defeated and erased, and we are given New Life in Christ.

With the grip that dispensationalism has on the contemporary, American religious imagination, it's highly likely that even many Christians wouldn't recognize this eschatological vision as being fundamentally Christian at all. Which is a shame because -- if not for other more important reasons -- it would allow for a deeper appreciation of this film and what it has to say.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Pragmatics of (Theoretical) Abortion Law

As the topic of abortion has become taboo and as the respective sides have hunkered into their corners, the issue seem to be broached less and less. Either you think life begins at conception, or you don't. Either you think a mother's "right to do what she wants with her body" trumps a fetus' right to live or you don't. Of course, framing the issue this way exposes my bias, and it isn't completely true as there are gradations of disagreements that go beyond these dichotomies, but the point is that meaningful discussion across the Pro-life / Pro-choice divide happens rarely.

But what about meaningful discussion within the spectrum of those views? That is, discussion about the topic of abortion and its implications among Pro-lifers, or among Pro-choicers, internally.

On the Pro-choice side of things the focus always appears to be solely, or at least primarily, on preventing anyone or anything from pushing back against "a woman's right to choose". In practical terms, this is all they are concerned with. And so the discussion among themselves tends to revolve around this singular objective. They may also have discussions about practical means of reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, and therefore reducing the number of abortions, but this seems to be only tangentially related to the issue of abortions. Reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies is something anyone can advocate, whatever they think of abortion.

On the Pro-life side of things, just by the nature of the case, the discussion is much more diverse and varied. From a policy perspective, if you do aim to make abortion illegal, it potentially leads to many other pragmatic questions that must be addressed. While if you aim to keep it legal at the federal level, there is only one real question that needs to be addressed, which is how best to defend the current legal status quo.

In a recent guided discussion with some Christian friends, who seemed to be fairly Pro-life, the topic brought up many practical concerns about the theoretical criminalization of abortion. If we were really to achieve this, by overturning Roe v. Wade, returning the issue to the states and having some states, inevitably, make it illegal, what would that look like? How would it work? How would it be enforced? Would there be exceptions?

These are issues that opponents of legal abortion must consider that proponents don't have to. [1]

The first question the group asked about criminalization of abortion is whether we, as proponents, were prepared to arrest and jail young women for the crime of abortion. While this issue was raised by the group I think it's mostly easily dismissed. Criminalization would have to include means of enforcing the law, but obviously the primary means would not be arresting or jailing individual perpetrators (though any legislation outlawing abortion would likely include this as one tool of enforcement), but by outlawing abortion clinics and enforcing the law on the physician's end. Policing illegal, back-alley abortions would be difficult. Unless, say, a husband or boyfriend pressed charges against a wife -- something which would itself be rare -- the illegal abortions that did happen would be very difficult to do anything about.

As for whether we would be prepared to advocate long prison sentences for the to-be criminals, in those rare instances where they are caught red-handed or where charges are pressed against them, I have no qualms about that whatsoever. Though others in the group did, I didn't understand their hesitance. I believe that the empathy they feel for someone who may be in a desperate situation causes some to question the logic of criminalization, yet we don't seem to feel quite the same empathy for thieves in desperate situations. Or at least, if we do feel that empathy, we're sensible enough not to allow it to mitigate against the logic of having laws against theft and enforcing them.

A related concern arises: will criminalization be effective in decreasing the number of abortions that happen? Will it just make back-alley abortions, which are much more dangerous, skyrocket?

If Roe ever was overturned, the issue would be sent back to the states. Some would make it illegal and others would not. It's almost certain that within those states where it was made illegal rates of abortion would plummet. With abortion clinics gone, and it being illegal for physicians in those states to perform the procedure, very few doctors would risk performing abortive procedures in illicit ways, as the risk would be too great for them. Similarly, the widespread knowledge about the risk of homemade abortions would prevent from those up-ticking too sharply.

The most likely scenario is that interstate travel to get an abortion in a state where it is legal would become frequent. Or, if the proponents of criminalizing abortion had it their way, international travel would be required, after every state made abortion illegal as well. In which case those seeking a place to have a legal abortion would most likely go to Canada (seeing as Mexico is heading along an anti-abortion path of its own). Of course, this would take decades to happen, if it were to happen at all. But this is what proponents want, whether or not it's immediately realistic isn't the issue. We must think through all the implications of our advocacy.

And what would the practical results of all 50 states making abortion illegal? It's impossible to say conclusively, but if you look at it in terms of the cost-benefit analysis for having an abortion, the cost to have one -- international travel fare, time, jail time, or significant increased risk to a woman's own health -- will have gone up immensely, while the "benefit" will have stayed the same. Since people tend to behave in self-interested ways, it's difficult to imagine abortions doing anything but dropping off significantly in that scenario.

During the interval when it's illegal in some states, but legal in others, the cost side of the cost-benefit equation within those states where it's illegal will also have gone up, though not as dramatically. The cost now includes the cost of interstate travel, but that's all. Still, that's enough of a hassle for enough people that the number of abortions occurring in the nation would still likely decrease immediately, though perhaps not drastically.

Another pragmatic issue that arose in the discussion was whether it would be easier for a rich person to get around the laws -- by travelling to neighboring states, or somehow procuring a black market abortion -- than a poor person. The implication seemed to be that if it was -- and obviously it is -- this should somehow play into our consideration of whether or not to make it illegal. On this point I just don't follow the logic. Virtually all criminal activity is more prevalent among the poor than the rich, yet we don't use this fact as a reason not to criminalize theft or assault. One might point out at this juncture that when the rich do do those things, they have a much better chance at getting acquitted of the charges. Is this an argument not to criminalize them? Of course not. It's not an argument of any kind, it's an emotional, guilt-based appeal.

Some would claim that the poor just commit the kind of criminal acts that are easier to "see", and therefore prosecute, than the rich, whose criminal acts are just better hidden. This is a theory that can't truly be tested, and therefore refuted -- there are no statistics on the crimes that we have no record of which might be happening, by poor or rich people -- but there's very good reason to doubt the validity of this hypothesis. Mostly by applying the same cost-benefit analysis to the incentive to do crime. People who are already rich have much less incentive to do anything illegal, as they risk what they already have, where poor people often have little or nothing to lose. None of which is to insinuate that its the inherent moral character of the poor that is at issue -- it's not -- or that corporate crime doesn't happen -- it does -- but it's about what poverty inherently means, and what its effects on people in a nation of laws are and should be.

This argument could require a book of its own so I'll stop short here, but my point, which should be uncontroversial, is that whatever you think about how much crime the poor commit compared to the rich, and the reasons behind it, the effects the theoretical anti-abortion laws will likely have on the economically disadvantaged should play no role in our decision whether or not to criminalize the behavior.

One final issue that came up that I'll discuss here is the question of, if you decide to criminalize abortion, whether or not there would be exceptions in cases like when the life of the mother is at risk, or perhaps in cases of rape or incest. This would be up to the state legislatures and how they choose to write their laws, but there's nothing preventing a state from including exceptions. Our murder laws have exceptions for self-defense and insanity, so why would our abortion laws not be able to have exceptions? Choosing what exceptions to allow and which to not might be a difficult task, but the question of exceptions doesn't fundamentally address the question of whether we ought to criminalize abortion at all.

Our discussion brought up many other issues as well, but these were the ones that cut to the heart of the issue for me, which is the legal question. Should abortion be made illegal, and if so, are there any practical, pragmatic concerns which would mitigate against criminalizing it? For me, the answer is a resounding "no."

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[1] - Or at least proponents hope they never will have to, and they prefer to focus on defending the status quo, for the time being.


Monday, October 31, 2011

Marx in the Market

I hardly ever watch television, but this weekend I happened to catch a 30 minute lecture titled Capitalism Hits the Fan on the the Free Speech Channel by Richard Wollfe. His lecture was on the recent financial collapse and how it was -- and is -- a crisis of capitalism. For this reason, he doesn't believe -- with most of the mainstream left -- that we can just return to the pre-Reagan, post-FDR era of regulation, when everything was hunky-dory. No, the problem is deeper than that.

Clearly I disagreed with the vast majority of Wollfe's presentation. Though much of his recounting of the events that led to the financial collapse was, more or less, correct, the conclusions that he drew from these facts were often non-sequiturs. Especially the conclusion that capitalism is the problem since most of the events described either had little to do with capitalism, or were examples of markets being significantly disrupted and intruded upon by government.

For this reason, when he attempted to venture a "solution" to the problem it was utterly nonsensical. He makes the same mistake that Michael Moore made in his film Capitalism: A Love Story. Specifically, he told the identical story about the more democratic and egalitarian internal organization of certain successful start-ups in silicon valley (I assume he's talking about things like Apple, Google and Facebook, but I don't really know) that rejected the typical hierarchical structures of corporate American businesses. Having held positions at firms such as IBM and Sysco, these start-ups consisting of computer-savvy friends had a distaste for the culture of corporate America and wished to offer an alternative way to do business, internally. So, according to this speaker, they did. Just like the bread company in Capitalism: A Love Story, the founders of these companies wanted a more equal, democratic and lively culture where everyone is involved in business decisions -- and therefore more equitably distributing the profits -- rather than the small number inhabiting the board of directors making all the decisions. In so doing, the story goes, these companies had explosive creativity and productivity and made tons of money. Therefore, these companies and their products are not triumphs of capitalism, as they are usually heralded, but really the triumph of quasi-Marxist business principles!

Not being a techie, I don't really know how true this story is, though I doubt the reality closely matches how he presents it. Still, even if we grant the complete truth of this story, it omits one hugely significant fact: these firms are making their money by competing in a free market. Their different ways of organizing themselves internally competes against the way in which other capitalist firms organize themselves. The profits that they bring into their companies are being made within a capitalist system, and without the system, it wouldn't matter how you decided to internally organize. Whatever internal incentives their employees have that typical corporations don't, they would be irrelevant if all of society was organized according to Marxist principles because the wealth generated in the marketplace would not exist.

This is no solution to our current financial situation. If it's a superior way to organize a business, then it's a way for certain capitalist firms to get an upper hand on other capitalist firms who adapt less quickly and efficiently. Even if implementation of this business model across the board resulted in greater productivity for corporate America, and is therefore a good thing, the financial crisis wasn't caused because of a lack of productivity. There were fundamental instabilities in our markets that would manifest in a more efficient and productive America -- perhaps slightly less quickly -- all the same, if the institutions and policies that led to them remain unchanged. But there's a difference between organizing a business on certain principles, and organizing a society, economy or government on certain principles. What works for the former doesn't necessarily work for the latter. Among other reasons, because employment is a relationship one enters into voluntarily; citizenship is one that one is born into. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Civil War

While I haven't had a chance to blog much recently, I've continued to wage war against the Occupy movement in discussions in real life and twitter. Most recently opposing the outcry from the left over Occupy Oakland being "attacked" by the police. In real time it was mostly reactions from rappers that I was responding to. In any case, the long and short of it is that I always give police the benefit of the doubt, and in this case there wasn't even much doubt to begin with. People were tweeting with straight faces at one moment about refusing to leave, ignoring police's orders, taunting them etc. and in the very next tweet complaining about police "brutality", which they had proudly, defiantly and knowingly brought upon themselves. And for what?

That's not the point of this post though. I give rappers (who are monolithically left in their worldviews) a hard time, but I still like some of their music. Most of the ones I disagree with the most are also ones whose music I do like, even though I disagree with the content when it's political or otherwise ideological. In the case of the new Immortal Technique, Chuck D, Killer Mike, and Brother Ali collaboration "Civil War" [be advised, the track contains vulgarity. Skip to 2:40 to avoid vulgarity and hear the part discussed below], I like the music and some of the content as well. The track is solid as a whole, but Brother Ali's verse is phenomenal. While I think the premise of his verse -- that America somehow restricted or abused the freedoms of Muslims in the wake of 9-11 -- is dubious and certainly not very timely (it would have been more apropos in 2002), still, the bottom line message about freedom is very true, and the technical aspects of the verse are stellar.

Listen
Our hearts were torn apart just like y'all was
Watching towers full of souls fall to sawdust
Every time we called your office you ignored us
Now you're holding hearings on us all inside of Congress
Microscopes on us, ask if we're Jihadists
My answer was in line with all of the founding fathers
I think Patrick said it best, give me liberty or death
I shall never accept anything less
You claim innocence, you play victimless
But you gave the kiss of death in the name of self-defense
Slavery and theft of other nations to the end
Of pacifying your citizenry with excess
We believe in freedom, justice.. security
But they're only pure when they're applied universally
So certainly if I rage against the machine my aim was only to clean the germs out of the circuitry
Urgently puttin fear inside your heart
Make you burn Qurans and tell me not to build a Mosque
Me, my wife and babies, we ain't never made Jihad
We just wanna touch our head to the floor and talk to God
Ask him to remove every blemish from our heart
The greatest threat of harm doesn't come from any bomb
The moment you refuse the human rights for just a few
What happens when that few includes you?
Civil war