Friday, December 24, 2010

Tron Legacy as an allegory of internal conflict and of "legacy" as the obstacle between father and son

For all the drubbing this film has gotten from critics I enjoyed it. Yeah, it's not exactly 2001 or Lawrence of Arabia or Citizen Kane by any conceivable stretch of the imagination. It's a big, dumb, special-effects saturated popcorn movie. Was it as po-faced and pretentious as The Stranger called it? Meh .. I'd reserve that put-down for Terence Malick before I'd ascribe it to a movie that calls itself Tron Legacy. Does anyone even remember these days what Tron refers to? TRace ON and TRace OFF were old commands in a computer language, BASIC, that was commonly used at the time.

Now, sure, people could say that thirty years later we don't need a sequel to Tron. Sure, we can keep saying that. But no movie of any kind is, strictly speaking, strictly necessary. All cinema is the result of consumerism, period. No matter how high flown your aesthetics of cinema may be the person who goes to see The Sorrow and the Pity or The Black Swan or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or Toy Story or American Beauty or whatever film is going for the same reason, that person has the leisure time, disposable income and the will to spend hours of his or her life immersed in a divertisment that is not necessarily for living. The reason I can be so laid back about what appears to be the shallowness of this or that pop culture manifestation is because we all excuse our hobbies while denouncing the hobbies of things we don't like. Some guy could denounce Twilight as absurdly unrealistic and promoting delusional ideas about love and romance while enjoying the TV show 24, which promotes delusional ideas about patriotism and national security risks.

So while I obviously have a place in my heart and mind for all art to address matters of utmost importance, there is a point where I see a trailer for a new Tron movie that has Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner in it I think to myself, "Sure, why not?"

Tron Lgeacy is a popcorn flick. It has "some" pretenses to weighty ideas but not many. There's a whole plot of a son dealing with a life estranged from his father by circumstance. Film critics have noted a preponderance of "daddy issues" in blockbusters like Iron Man 2. Tron Legacy is not so different. In fact Tron Legacy and Inception both have in common that the central premise of the story is that there are fathers whose immersion in a virtual reality has led to their separation from their children. In Inception Cobb is working to get back to his children (or so he thinks) while in Tron Legacy Kevin Flynn and his son Sam are brought together by the machinations of C.l.u. I'm not going to bother either with spoilers or explanations too much on Christmas eve. I'm just sharing some disorganized thoughts about the film.

Critics who see a preponderance of "daddy issues" in blockbusters real and would-be aren't wrong. Critics being critics they seem surprisingly uninterested in doing more than just noticing the subtext without doing much work at thinking through why even blockbusters are saturated with this meme. Why blockbusters and not so much those artier films? Even on TV shows like Scrubs the whole Dorianic quest for a hug from Dr. Cox has been at least one example of the daddy meme in pop culture over the last decade.

Then there's Homer Simpson's ambivalent quest to be a better dad than he is though he's likely to forget that he aspires to that next week anyway and we've had that for two decades. Christians could set aside the rote objection that Homer is Fox ripping on the American dad but these days a guy like Mark Driscoll might do more conspicuous ripping on an American dad as a failure if he's in any way a stay-at-home kind than the by now anodyne satire of the Simpsons. I mean, come on folks, I have friends who weren't even born until after the first episode aired! By now evangelicals are probably more obsessed with the failures of dad and mom with "Where's dad?" rhetoric than the world, which is ambivalently noted that dad's disappear and sometimes it's their fault and sometimes it isn't.

In the case of Kevin Flynn the disappearance is a combination of things. It's his "fault" in the sense that he made the program C.l.u. in his own image and C.l.u. was a self-impressed fellow who imagined he could re-order everything to be better. In this way Kevin Flynn and Cobb from Inception are both fathers whose ultimate battle is confronting their own failures of character not merely as fathers but as men. I would propose, in a rather slapdash thumbnail spoilery way, that the difference between Tron Legacy and Inception is that the Disney film reconciles the father and son as we would expect it to while in Christopher Nolan's film the father's dream of being reunited with his children itself is the dream from which he cannot wake up which paradoxically ensures that it is not real reunion he attains but a chimera from his own self-deceiving mind. We have two fathers whose obsession with pursuing and exploiting the possibilities of different kinds of dreams separates them from the ones they love.

Now if people consider Tron to be a lightweight film that's fine but as Anton Ego so eloquently put it in Ratatouille more time, thought, and passion goes into the creation of a common piece of junk than in the review from the critic that designates it as junk. I mean, someone clearly put a lot of thought into the haircuts and hairstyles the characters do and don't have in Tron Legacy. If some of that work somehow seems odd or lazy that does not preclude that even a popcorn film can attempt to grapple with, however unsuccessfully, big ideas.

Let's take the portentious speeches of the different forms of Flynn. Both Flynn and C.l.u declare that "out there is a new world. .... out there is our destiny!" The idea that any concept of destiny becomes the ethical enemy of natural being isn't hard to glean from the film. We're getting hammered with it about every twenty minutes. The "value your family over your vision of the future" thing is not surprising coming from a Disney film but I do think that instead of just shooting down the film a reviewer or two could have attempted to discuss that the film was in its own way actually proposing ideas.

The conflict that is at length revealed in Tron Legacy is less about Sam Flynn (who is merely our entry-point into the Grid) than about the conflict between old Flynn and C.l.u. who at the most literal level represents the younger Flynn who embodies the ambition that trapped him in the Grid and thus separated Kevin from his son.

Curiously underexplored and unstated is a fascinating possible irony throughout Tron Legacy--Kevin Flynn spent so much time motivated by seething resentment and a massive sense of entitlement in his crusade to get revenge on Dillinger in the original Tron that he didn't seem to realize that once he got his revenge, made Clu, and set about to create a new Grid that he was in most respects simply mirroring the same character flaws Dillinger himself had. Sure, Flynn wasn't lying or stealing other people's work but Flynn managed to have comparable character flaws that included massive ambition married to a sense of entitlement. That Flynn wasn't a liar or a thief does not make his character flaws less similar to Dillinger.

For a sequel that comes to us decades after the original and is obviously still revolving around Kevin Flynn there could have been more in the story about Flynn having some recognition that he had the same flaws Dillinger had but displayed them in a different way. Those of us who watched the original Tron know the Master Control Program reflected the flaws of Dillinger and that Clu ends up displaying a similarly tyrannical impulse is simultaneously too obvious as a plot point but not obvious enough in how the film was directed. On the other hand, if we consider the story to be Kevin Flynn's and not Sam's then most of the plot holes in the film are moot. Once we go with the Flynn vs Flynn conflict as the central point of the film plot holes that might be terrible built around another conflict become less important. It's too bad that at many points the director seemed to be staging everything so that the main story appears to be intended to be about Sam.

What did the conflict between Flynns consist of? Their attitude toward the "isomorphic algorhythms". As Bridges Lebowski's his way through the old Kevin Flynn's lines (which, don't get me wrong, is always fun) he explains that the "isos" represented the birth of a native and autonomous form of digital sentient life.

Well before that point I knew that Quorra, played by Olivia Wilde, would inevitably turn out to be plot device girl. That Wilde somehow settled on playing Quorra as a mixture of Bubbles and Buttercup from The Powerpuff Girls with Dora the Explorer's look in Tron gear doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the character. Considering she had the almost universally thankless role of playing a magic pixie girlfriend in a genre film she doesn't come off any worse than most. Wilde obviously decided that playing up the ultimately childlike nature of the character was the thing to do. The whole orange and teal color schemes in Tron so obviously telegraph "good" and "bad" that when any character is dominated by "white" that identifies them as free agents. Ergo, Kevin, Sam, and Quorra represent those who have free will over against those that don't have it.

Or ... maybe not. One of the most undeveloped plot points in Tron Legacy is the title character. Tron was Alan's program and Tron was seen getting attacked by Clu for siding with Flynn. Sure enough, it was no surprise to discover that Tron joined Clu's quest to order the virtual cosmos. There is virtually no explanation for this in any obvious way but just as Alan in the real world had what everyone called an absurd loyalty to Kevin Flynn and a belief in the goodness of his motives so Tron displays what is arguably the same character flaw in his avatar. This is not quite as undeveloped or unexplored as might first seem. Tron's loyalty to Clu is the loyalty of a program to another program. In other words Tron's loyalty to Clu is based on his established loyalty to Flynn the user. When Flynn escapes Tron is left only with Clu as the extension of Flynn. Without Flynn and with no certainty of Flynn's survival Tron's loyalty shifts to the next best thing, Flynn's creation after Flynn's own image.

The first Tron film opined in the bluntest way possible that the creations of men reflect the men in every way. It's unsurprising in the extreme that Alan's creation would side with Kevin's creation right up to the point that Kevin himself, from within the Grid, declared that none of these things that transpired in Tron Legacy's plot were what he REALLY wanted. Once Flynn expresses his change of heart and acts upon it it doesn't take Tron long to reveal that his loyalty is to the users. So both Alan the man and Tron the program reveal the same indomitable loyalty we would expect of them. The allegory is so crude that we could declare it ineffectual or stupid but as I said earlier, when we do this we should remember that we are at this point debating the significance of things we don't need to spend money on. As it happens I don't have the money to spend but a friend was kind enough to treat me to the film. I am happy to say I enjoyed the film for what it was. Hey, I admit I enjoyed The A-Team this year, too.

It may be too obvious and thus benefit the dignity of some film reviewers but Tron Legacy pretty much tells us through the title and the subsequent movie that too many men damage the relationships they have with their children by thinking of their own legacy. The "legacy" in this case is what separates father and son. Now officially the folks involved in the film have talked about how the technology that brought people together in the first film keeps them apart in the second but this official description does not really go deep enough. Technology even in the original Tron, in the form of the Master Control Program, sought to separate. Those who believed in users were separated and punished. The MCP was part of Dillinger's taking credit of Flynn's work.

Despite the fantasy trappings Tron Legacy is ultimately a story about the conflict of man vs himself. Clu can't be destroyed so much as reabsorbed back into Flynn by Flynn recognizing and confronting Clu as himself. That ending probably seems cheesy and stupid to some film-goers and, well, why should we say it's not? But that doesn't mean that the actual conflict in the story we got in Tron Legacy didn't require the conflict to be resolved in that way. Flynn's resentment in the first Tron film is simultaneously understandable but inevitably sets the stage for his avatar Clu placing his own legacy and self-aggrandizement above the benefit of others. The old Kevin can neither escape this by merely hiding nor can he escape the consequences of thid abdication merely by attempting to supress desire and argue himself continually into the state of inaction. At one point he says in piquish frustration, "You're messing with my Zen thing, man!" Kevin has to embrace both the reality of Clu's propensity for evil (which is his own, and which is something he in his self-righteous indignation and envy could not have possibly reconciled himself to in the first film) and his own shortcomings as a father through the denial of a desire for presence and empathy in order to resolve the conflict within himself. Sure, that's absurdly bad sci-fi but it's not as though the original Tron was actually sci-fi, it was clearly unhinged fantasy using sci-fi trappings as a gateway. Yes, I do want to give credit to J.S. Bangs for getting me thinking about this in the last week or so with one of his blog posts over at Infinite Recursion.

So that's some rambling on Tron Legacy from my on Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

xkcd has a little comic on breaking up and the use of data

There's no need to explain the comic, just go read it. Don't forget to read the scroll-over commentary. Often the best part of the joke is saved for an added punchline in the scroll-over.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

projects new and old

The old project about writing a series on Hell has been tabled for so long I wonder if I should bother. Well, I feel I should but I have had other things that have been more pressing. Still, I don't wish to give up on the idea and, frankly, even in my Mockingbird essay on the Toy Story trilogy I was thinking through aspects of what I have wanted to say in writing about Woody and Lotso. Toy Story 3 includes an image of toys being sucked into the fiery maw of toy hell where the fire at the center of the land fill never dies. Most film critics noted this hellfire imagery and remarked on how startlingly existential and anxious these toys were about points of ultimate destiny. See, it's a very Christian movie!

Anyway, in addition to that still-tabled project I started just the first part of a rambling series on complementarianism and evolutionary psychology over at City of God. I still plan to tackle that but I recently also got an offer I can't refuse, to begin a primer on the DC animated universe. So I have been mapping out my numerous thoughts on what is an even more daunting project than the Toy Story project, some fifteen years of virtually continuous narrative continuity rather than three easily digested feature films!

And on top of all this I have not really stopped composing preludes and fugues for solo guitar. I recently even sketched out a blues trio for trumpet, tuba and guitar I hope to test out with a musician at church. As I blogged earlier I did finally finish the Good Friday movement for a string quartet in G minor I've been working on for ten years. One of three projected movements getting finished in a decade means that quartet probably has to be chalked up as a life's work.

And, of course, I haven't stopped looking for a steady job. There have been some short-term free lance projects working on a database and before that a commission to arrange Christmas music that have kept me busy the months of October and September but I still am searching for even part-time steady employment.

Oh, yeah, and I'm rehearsing Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Fantasia for piano and guitar so that my pianist buddy and i can play through at least the first movement. Ironically we knew each other for years and had discussed Pixar films and Powerpuff Girls episodes all that time without realizing that, hey, he plays piano well enough to tackle the Apassionate sonata and I wrote a guitar sonata in F minor inspired by the late works of Beethoven. Okay, so what's to stop us from tackling a great piano/guitar duet written by the composer who was the mentor to John "Star Wars" Williams? Turns out mercurial schedules. Be that as it may, we're making slow but steady progress.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

thanksgiving in failure

I have been looking for work for thirteen months and have not successfully landed any steady employment. For a short period in September I had a commission to arrange Christmas music and that was a wonderful opportunity. For a short while in October I had an opportunity to do some short-term work but overall in the last year I have not managed to land much of any work at all.

Not all my friends would agree to this statement but in the last year I have lived in poverty. No, I don't mean the "poverty" that means I'm in some shanty in Africa and, yes, I'm aware that there are plenty of evangelical Christians who define American poverty as somehow not counting as "real" poverty because we're so blessed and all that. I know all that but to that I suggest, not without some hesitation, that the scriptures do not actually define what poverty is for us. Why? Well, whatever the providential reasons the Lord saw fit to not define poverty would be speculation.

Since the speculations of many brothers and sisters are presented by said-same as certain observations I'm going to speculate--perhaps the Lord does not define for us what poverty is in the scriptures so that we are not tempted to refuse helping someone in need on the thinking that since he or she isn't really in poverty I have no reason to help my neighbor. I could tell them that compared to someone else in some far off land what may seem like poverty to them is wealth and riches in, say, Africa. But, of course, poverty isn't the same in every region.

All that is to say that in the last year things have not been so great for me. I have looked for work without success. I have often felt like I have simply failed as a person. I studiously and not-so-studiously skip listening to the Peter Gabriel song "Don't Give Up". Now I've pretty much always liked Peter Gabriel's solo work even since I was a kid but that song hits too close for me these days. It doesn't just hit home, it turns out to have a key to unlock the front door, comes in, sits on the sofa, and asks me how I'm doing even though it already knows the answer. So, yeah, I don't listen to that song so much these days.

In everything give thanks for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus is both a command and an invitation. We tend to get given this verse as a kind of "count your blessings" verse, we tend to sell it to ourselves that way. I know that is how I used to interpret the verse, as a kind of "be thankful for the good things that you got" as the old song in the Christianese pep talk tradition puts it. Being thankful in the midst of persistent failure is not something that seems to preach well. It's so easy to feel as though my persistent failure must be indisputable proof of a plethora of character flaws. Well, okay, other people may see persistent failures as stemming from something ELSE, perhaps from bad people holding them back or holding them down or otherwise depriving them of much-deserved success. I, on the other hand, as I have written elsewhere, tend to internalize failure. If I have failed at something it's because there's something wrong with me.

Perhaps strangely, giving thanks to the Lord in the midst of failure seems like a reminder that even if there seems like nothing to be thankful for there is a kind of spiritual discipline involved in thankfulness. It is not as though Joseph seemed to have much to be thankful for after being sold into slavery and then wrongly imprisoned on false charges of attempted rape and years of his life being stuck in a prison with no one outside remembering him. Yet by the time Joseph is reunited with his brothers he says without hesitation "What you intended for evil God worked out for good."

To put it mildly that is not the kind of spontaneous declaration that could have been said by a man who never found reasons to be thankful to God! When you are, after years of being imprisoned in a foreign land because your brothers literally sold you out from resentment, presented with those brothers that betrayed you it's impossible to say what Joseph said if you have not cultivated a heart that is thankful in the midst of catastrophic personal failure, loss, and injustice! Joseph went so far as to say that what his brothers meant for evil God had worked out for good. If this does not reveal a disposition of thankfulness when confronted with the people who committed the first and harshest betrayal in his life I am not sure what does. Joseph had spent a lifetime paying the consequences for wrongs that were wrongly credited to him.

There comes a point in the life of every Christian where we do not have an opportunity to thank God for the abundant blessings we see that we have but do have an opportunity to practice thankfulness for whatever we have and perhaps even for whatever we don't have. Godliness with contentment, as the apostle put it, is great gain. Whether or not all American evangelical Christians I know would even agree I have spent the last year living in poverty I have a lot to be thankful for. As the book of Ecclesiastes put it it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion and as I have said before we live in a culture that prefers to celebrate dead lions and ignore living dogs. That's how people are. The scriptures would not include a reminder to us that it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion if we were not so often tempted to think otherwise.

If you are a living dog you can be thankful that you're alive and not a dead lion. Since in prosperity Israel often turned from the Lord we can even cultivate in our hearts a thankfulness that some of our prayers have not been answered. To say that the Lord always answers prayers skips the reality that we go through life with prayers that have no answers that we can discern. This is no abstraction for me. I can be thankful that, for whatever reason, I have not yet landed a permanent job. I have had friends and family praying for this job or that job to work out and those prayers were either answered with "no" in the form of my not getting the job or, at best with the "not yet" of me not getting the job.

Even so I have lived just long enough to realize that there can be times when God permits one disaster to protect you from another you couldn't have thought of. Some fifteen years ago I was in college and the professor whose work constituted 90% of what coursework I needed to get my degree resigned in a university politics dispute. My self-designed degree had finally gotten approved and the professor who I needed to keep studying with to finish the degree had just resigned! This was a disaster. How was I supposed to finish my degree?

The dean of humanities gathered us together who had this self-designed degree and had us sign contracts with him establishing that he would ensure that now that our degrees had finally been approved he would do whatever it took to see to it that we'd actually graduate with those degrees. This was small consolation to me as a couple of classes I needed to complete my degree were never going to get taught.

Fast forward a couple of years. In my last quarter the business office called me to tell me they were expelling me. This was a big shock. Why? Because I had not kept up with payments enough and they were cutting me loose. The fact that this was my last quarter didn't matter to them. I objected that my degree had been messed up by university politics and that Professor X had promised that he'd help me graduate. Was the business office saying this professor's word counted for nothing on the campus? The business office said they would get back to me and check to see if what I was saying was true.

A week later the business office got back to me. It turned out that, yes, I was telling the truth after all and that the dean of humanities really had signed a contract with me to ensure I could graduate. So, no, they were no longer going to expel me but they sternly warned me that I had better graduate! I replied that I made sure to pick the most bonehead courses possible for my last quarter and that I would definitely graduate. I did graduate with my degree. Of course I got that degree and found out that it was virtually useless in the job hunt but that is not quite the point of my story. What I am able to see now is that God used the disaster of not being able to finish my degree as a way of providentially ensuring that I could actually graduate with that degree. Even with an admittedly useless communications degree at least I have that degree. As my teachers used to tell me, by the early 1990s all an undergraduate degree really told a prospective e mployer is that you can finish what you started if you commit to a big expensive project. At any rate I ended up being thankful for the thing that, in the moment it happened, seemed like nothing less than a disaster for my academic career.

It may seem like grasping at straws to be thankful for what you don't have but there is a time and purpose for everything under heaven. In the last year I learned things that made me grateful, at least for a time, that I no longer had my old job. When I got in touch with some former coworkers earlier this year one of them told me that they got hit by a disaster in something that directly concerned my whole former job. She said that the situation was so bad that she said I could be glad I got laid off when I did because I would have been furious and miserable dealing with the problems that other people had created.

There is a bad kind of thankfulness when you thank God that you're not this or not dealing with that--we all know the Pharisee was wrong to say "Thank you I'm not like that tax collector." But there is a time to be thankful that you don't have this or that. Certainly in the last year I have become thankful that I didn't have to deal with the things my former coworker told me about. I have also been thankful to neither be married nor to have children who would be more adversely effected by my poverty than I would be by myself. If having virtually no income and only expenses for an entire year living in America doesn't cosntitute poverty we can discuss that in other contexts.

I can be thankful for things that, I admit, seem like not great things to be thankful for. When I had some significant differences with decisions made by leadership at my old church I can be thankful that I was able to find a way to express those differences without rupturing all the relationships I still have with people from there. I have also maintained friendships with people who have left, at least the ones I'm closest to, despite a period where members were told to avoid association with those people. I have lost a few friends along the way in the wake of that but those losses, sad as they are, did not come about because of that initial rupture but as the culmination of character differences. With some regret I can say that I am thankful I'm not around those former friends anymore. Not being around doggedly bitter people does make it easier to avoid a temptation to bitterness. Yet in even this I can be thankful that through circumstances and reflection on scripture God can provide lessons of observation even from these moments.

Unmet expectations and unfulfilled dreams constitute two of the most powerful roots of bitterness a person can have. There is a kind of false hope you have to relinquish before you can be truly thankful because those false hopes are what you hope to be thankful for in the future that guide you now. A man who rejects God because he doesn't have a wife ultimately put his hope in securing a wife or being the kind of man whose status would procure one.

But I am thankful for the opportunities I have been given in this year all the same. I am thankful that I got a commission to arrange Christmas music and that I got paid for that work. That constitutes my first paid gig as an arranger. I am thankful that I was given an invitation to write for Mockingbird and was more than happy to write about the Toy Story trilogy. I am thankful I was invited to contribute to City of God, which is another blog I enjoy reading. In the last thirteen months of job-seeking I have finished sixteen of twenty-four preludes and fugues for solo guitar. Of course I am likely to revise some of that work because I'm a perfectionist and a self-doubter but I am glad I have been able to have a creatively productive year. I am also thankful to have generous and generally very understanding housemates. I am thankful for the church I have been able to be part of over the last year.

None of this means I don't want a job or that I don't often feel depressed. But even in the midst of feeling like a failure and, well, being a failure where hunting for work goes, the Lord's mercies are new every morning even when I don't feel like they are.

Who is our ultimate model for thankfulness? The man who went to the cross. Who is our ultimate guide for giving thanks? The man whose prayer that the cross might not be the path he had to take and then went to the cross, scorning its shame for the joy that was set before Him. That the path of thankfulness to God ends in death for us, too, need not be a basis for despair. Christ took upon Himself our sin, our failure, and by sharing in that with us gives us the hope of sharing in His life. Trusting in the goodness of the God of Israel who made all things and trusting in Him through Christ means that I embrace a path following someone who was killed on trumped up charges of terrorism against Rome and blasphemy against the God Christ proclaimed Himself to be. A servant is not greater than his master. Even at Lazarus' tomb Jesus could thank the Father that his prayers were heard and still be angry at death. In the moments when Christ knew he was about to be betrayed he could still thank the Father those those who had been given to him had not been lost. Not for nothing does Joseph's example of perserverance in the midst of suffering and loss and the capacity to be thankful to God for a providential kindness that cannot be seen except through faith culminates in Christ Himself.

Well, that's my little Thanksgiving self-directed pep talk for the 2010 season. It may not be of any use to you, dear reader, but these are things I feel it is important to remind myself of.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Link: Practical Theology for Women: Pariahs

Generally whatever Wendy says on her blog is succinct enough and substantial enough that I feel comfortable merely linking to what she says.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The liberation of being average part 2: feeling free to dream small

Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.
Ecclesiastes 5:7

One of the great staples in children's entertainment is best distilled in a song in Blue's Big Musical Movie, in song, no less. You can be anything that you want to be, do anything that you want to do. If you can dream it then you can do it the moral goes so the implicit admonition is to dream the biggest dreams you can dream.

Many of us know the film It's a Wonderful Life. Many of us know that George Bailey dreamed of leaving his penny-ante hometown to go and see the world, to build big buildings and see and do great things. He didn't get to do any of those things but as the film so poignantly tells us, George Bailey really did have a wonderful life. He made the lives of the people around him better despite not having attained any of his great dreams. Without George Bailey to save his brother his brother would not have gone on to be the war hero he became. Yet by the time of his fateful encounter with Clarence he is bitter and resentful and believes he would be better off dead than alive or, perhaps even better (as the author of Ecclesiastes grimly noted) to have not been born so as to not see how miserable things are in this world.

Less explicit in the film's narrative is that the man who has attained the greatest achievements in that penny-ante town is one of the most reviled and distrusted people in that town, Mr. Potter. Something the ancients frequently understood that we lie to ourselves about is the nature of the hero. We lie to ourselves and each other about the cost of being a hero on any scale. Every hero to one is a villain to another. The person who heroically accomplishes great things destroys the lives of people along the way in attaing his victory.

Ecclesiastes warns that with much dreaming and many words there is foolishness and that we should fear God. My reflection upon this precept lately has been in looking at the arts and what I have wanted to do and what I have seen others want to do. To frame this all rather cynically there are three things idealists aspire to, four that they rarely accomplish: a trilogy of fantasy novels; an innovative rock song; a screenplay filmed exactly as written; and getting anything done.

I look back on my own idealistic aspirations in the arts with a little embarrassment. I thought I was going to accomplish big things. I guess most teen-aged boys dream big and think the sky is the limit. I was disabused of this no sooner than I graduated from college and tried to find a job to pay the rent. The band I was in was never going to go anywhere and I figured that out after a few years but I didn't feel like bailing on the band for something more potentially "promising". I have since not exactly entirely abandoned pop or rock music but have not really hung any hopes on doing the rock thing. I also found over time that I really enjoyed composing chamber music. The dreams I had of what I was going to accomplish and the plans I made to accomplish those things have by and large not come to pass. I don't think they ever will come to pass.

There are two ways we can use our ambition to look down on other people. Really there are only two relationships we can have with other people in light of our ambition depending where we are in relationship to accomplishing those ambitions. Either we look down on others for not having our ambition as though that meant their dreams were nothing. Or, as I suspect is more common among mediocre, average, bad, and inferior artists, we can look down on others who are actually getting work done because we believe our ambitions and vision will ensure that we do better than them. I definitely have always been in this second category even when I managed to accomplish anything myself.

When I was in my teens I faulted my peers for their lack of vision. One of my high school teachers who was a mentor to me said that if I had managed to find a creative vision to motivate me to feel lucky and not hold it against other people that they didn't have it at such a young age. Most people don't find their creative vision until later in life, if at all. In hindsight I realize that a downfall latent within a strong creative vision is that traps you into such a narrow or didactiic frame of mind that you don't get anything done. I wanted my work to have content and meaning but I also was not particularly prolific. Other people were prolific and didn't think at all about content or meaning. Truthfully it seems that you can't avoid one at the expense of the other--by dint of production themes will emerge and by dint of exploration of a theme one will at some time become more prolific.

Now that I'm in my thirties and nearing forty I consider all the people I have known and it seems as though the people who have dreamed some of the biggest dreams for projects in a creative enterprise have had the smallest production. There's a guy I used to know who, when I met him ten years ago, had like so many other guys before him, resolved to write a trilogy of fantasy novels. My brother once said that it seems that every guy who wants to write fantasy has to conceive of a trilogy of fantasy novels. Some unobtrusive and overlooked boy of humble beginnings turns out to be the chosen one who was prophesied about long ago who will conquer the forces of evil and bring about a new era of peace and prosperity the likes of which the benighted earlier epochs did not know.
Curiously the idea that the landmark fantasy trilogy told the opposite sort of story
seems to get less attention. The idea that someone is chosen to bear the terrible task of carrying the distillation of evil and abusive power to the point of death so that its power is diminished but ushers in the final crumbling of the remnants of an earlier, great age, is not usually what people think makes for great fantasy-telling even though that's how Tolkien did it. The number of heroic epics that end happily ever after may not be so big as we think. Arthur's kingdom ends in ruins. Beowulf ultimately falls. Even the Jedi, yes, are all but obliterated and survive only because one jedi refuses to follow the deceptive and bad advice of his mentors (for the record the prequels reveal that Obi-wan and Yoda are preening imcompetent fools).
Actually there is another guy who was interested in writing a trilogy of fantasy novels. His first novel went through several drafts that were frankly painful to read but he has over time dropped (so far as I know) the fantasy trilogy part in favor of just getting something done.
Another fellow I met had settled upon writing a rock opera (I considered it at several points in my life so I get the appeal). Neither he nor I ever finished a rock opera. I certainly haven't even come close to composing anything like a passion setting that I had planned for years. I have at best composed two movements of a Mass. I have not composed any of the big projects I set out to do and when I have begun the projects I have not finished them. It took me ten years to finish what I at various times thought was going to be a gigantic piano sonata. When I finished the sonata it turned out to be ten minutes.

But I had comparable or greater delusions of grandeur for myself for much of my life. When I look at the lives of people who dreamed big and didn't accomplish any of those dreams I am looking at my own life. I never became the poet I wanted to be in my teens. I never even kept interest in politics long enough to get into politics. I wanted to go into New Testament studies in my undergrad days but I ended up a communications major. I minored in music composition by the time I finished and was more interested in music by the time I finished my journallism degree than I was interested in journalism. I found that I don't have that much of a gift as a writer of fiction. I am at best merely a competent poet. I am a guitarist and some people have said that I'm good but I am at best a guitarist of average technical ability who has a higher-than-average interest in musical form.

As a scholar of biblical literature I am below average as I never learned the biblical languages and merely have a middling Christian's affection for the Bible. Sure, I enjoy reading Leviticus and Deuteronomy but before you think I"m some saint I skip the genealogies in Numbers without remorse.

All of this is to say that when I look at myself and my actual life it was unfair of me to look down on other people as having less vision or ambition than I had in the arts. I have come to a fuller appreciation of a view that I always used to hate, the idea of creating art for the sake of art. Believe me, words fail me to describe how much I loathed the idea of art for the sake of art. I still feel weird about it. I still often feel as though the arts are in some sense not as useful as the sciences. I wanted to get into the sciences when I was a child and some part of me still sees the arts as time-wasting enterprises and science or engineering as somehow more useful. But God has created a world in which both sorts of activities can be pursued by the same people. Plus I never got beyond rudimentary algebra and remember virtually none of it. But I digress, as usual. Here I am blogging about how I wanted to do great things and I'm a nobody. There are folks who have a big public voice who describe themselves as nobodies but they're fooling themselves. :) Wenatchee the Hatchet obviously isn't my real name and odds are good (I hope) that you don't know me from Adam unless you know me personally. I haven't done much of anything that is ultimately that special and here I was a kid who thought he was going to do big things. Maybe getting a few possibly dubious or possibly kosher prophecies from charismatic acquaintences accounts for that.

What I have been trying to say is that for those who dream big and have ambitions to do big things with art that thing may be the greatest obstacle to you ever getting anything done. Abandon ambitions for great accomplishments in an art and replace it, if you can, with a love and joy in simply doing things for the fun of it. So the story goes Robert Frost had two aspiring poets come to him asking to learn how to become poets. One man said he had great and important things he wanted to say, the other said he just liked playing with words. Frost, so the story goes, chose the second man as the one who would actually make a good poet.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to say important and valuable things, of course, but a person bent on saying one thing would do well to heed the advice of pastors, find your one sermon and never stop preaching it! If you want to be a preacher, a one-note instrument, a one-trick pony and to be known for the amazing qualities of that one thing, then by all means go for it. It's okay to be a one-trick pony. Being, in essence, a one-trick pony got Jackie Chan his film career for years if you get my meaning. Just make sure no one on earth does your one trick as well as your pony does. But there is a sense in which, at the end of all that, you became the best at something because your goal was ultimately small enough to be perfected. As the psalmist so often wrote, selah.

In the first part of this reflection I wrote about how we generally consider ourselves above average. We imagine that we are better, more moral, more productive, and more inventive than we generally really are. The world is full of people who could have started rock bands or written rock operas; of people working on screenplays that will never get finished or never get filmed once they are finished; of people working on symphonies that will never be played and on books that will never get published. We can tell ourselves that what we are working on is as good or better than any of the junk out there that is currently getting published and in our minds it is but that does not make it so. It is true, as Brad Bird's Anton Ego put it, that more time and thought went into the creation of a piece of common junk in the arts than the review that designated that work as junk. Critics take that personally and they should because it is true.

But it is also true that most of us who aspire to write that comic book or finish that symphony or write that rock song or finish that screenplay or design that breakthrough in engineering simply won't do it. The bigness of our ambitions may have defeated us. And suppose we attain that big thing we went for? There is nothing new under the sun. The trilogy of fantasy novels was done by Tolkien. The big symphony was done by Beethoven ... and Mahler ... and Shostakovich. The graphic novel thing covers so many people I won't bother to list them. Even our greatest feats can and will be and have been dwarfed by other people with greater accomplishments. Whatever legacy we think we will leave is going to vanish, as Ecclesiastes so glumly warns us. How do we know that those who inherit these legacies we build for ourselves will even be worthy of the legacy? Have any of Lennon's sons lived up to the greatness of the legacy John Lennon's fans ascribe to him?

We are all much more average than we think we are and even those of us who are truly above average are aware, perhaps awkwardly aware, of just how limited they really are. Every one of us has a temptation at some point to look at something someone else did and say "I can do better than that." We are at some point tempted to begrudge someone else for having accomplished something we think we are already good enough to have pulled off or wish that we had accomplished by now.

This is a point where we, if we are Christians, can utterly fail to rejoice with those who rejoice. For our own lives it is okay to dream small for this life. If in Christ we have a promise to rule and reign with Him and to one day judge the angels not only should we learn from this to adjudicate smaller matters among ourselves, we should remember that Jesus said that whoever is faithful with little will be faithful with much. It is okay to acknowledge that in the eternal scope of things what we have been given is little. God can destroy any legacy we build for ourselves in a few minutes. We ourselves are capable of destroying a legacy that took a lifetime to build with just a few minutes of deciding something stupid that may not even be sinful. Jehoshephat's last decision as king led to the slaughter of his sons and a reversal of nearly everything he worked his whole life to achieve.

Rather than fool ourselves into thinking we have any legacy we may not even have in this world, let us remember to fear God. When foreigners and eunuchs were addressed by the Lord in Isaiah 56 He told them to not consider themselves withered, fruitless trees for the Lord Himself would establish a monument and a legacy for them, an inheritance and a name better than sons and daughters. In the ancient world sons and daughters, of course, were the hope that the family legacy could continue. God has revealed to us that that, too, can merely die. If our legacy is in Christ than though we become failures in everything that can be measured in this world we receive an inheritance in Christ that cannot perish. In this way we can appreciate Paul's advice that those who are married should live as though they are not and those who are free as though they were not free. When we properly understand what our real legacy is in Christ we understand that it is His legacy and not ours. Christ bore both the greatness and the weakness of our legacies to save us from them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

another link to the BHT

I don't know where J.S. found this but this could exemplify the worst impulses in theo-blogging in a very jocular way. Not that I'd say anyone should actually go ELCA at any point since I agree with my friend that the ELCA manages to only be American and may not quite so much be any of those other things in the acronym.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

thoughts spurred by some new activity on the BHT

The question of why evangelicals stink at the arts has come up again over at the Boar's Head Tavern. One proposal was the lack of sacramentalism in evangelicalism. Not so sure if that's really the case. It's tempting if you look at how some of the big innovators in art, literature, and music in the last century or so came from Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox backgrounds ... and yet ... and yet there are plenty of people of no faith whatever that made remarkable works of art.

I think J. S. Bangs is on to something here:

I’m with Bill on the sanctification discussion, and against Capon. (I think. I haven’t actually read Capon on this, so really I’m just reacting against Capon as filtered through other BHT members.) But watch me connect this to the other conversation from yesterday: I think that this truncated understanding of salvation is the big reason that evangelicals suck at art. Salvation is gettin’ good with Jesus, and once you’ve got good with Jesus there’s nothing else to do. So not only sanctification, but art, beauty, etc. have no real place in this scheme, and the art that can properly be called Christian art is that which is made to help you get good with Jesus.

Here I mean to replicate but also correct spellings in something I shared with J. S. about his proposal:

I was reading an article in the Guardian a year ago (or maybe it was this year) where the author pointed out that we can see a curious dichotomy in the legacy of the Puritans. On the one hand they could often be very much against the arts and yet they gave us an amazing body of poetry and literature. They could be startlingly legalistic and yet amazing champions of individual conscience and liberty. Perhaps both the good and bad of the Puritans might speak to their actually giving a crap about sanctification and incorporating that concern into the arts? Just an idea I’m playing with.

In the works of Bach we could, arguably, see a nexus between traditional Lutheran thought and the integration, some say, of pietistic elements. Now if this were something by Rod Rosenbladt we'd jump into the dangers of pietism as a corruption of understanding justification by faith (or not, I plead ignorance of the bulk of Rosenbladt's work other than his compact but compelling The Gospel for those Broken by the Church). But since this is Wenatchee the Hatchet and not Mockingbird or Internet Monk and since J. S. is a friend of mine whose ideas in this case I find very compelling I'm going to run with his idea.

If you look at the actual lives of many of those ostensibly Catholic and Orthodox composers who were major innovators (i.e the actual lives of guys like Stravinsky or Haydn and what not) we'd see folks who would have or should have come under church disciplinary procedures so hard and fast their heads would have spun. Just about anyone who knows anything about Johnny Cash can surmise that his faith in Christ was genuine and that he was a genuinely flawed, fallible guy! Cash did not attempt to sand off the roughest edges of his failures in a walk after the Lord and that, we should probably agree, is why his work is of lasting value. Cash may well be a popular Protestant example of how someone who is not locked into the CCM template/prison can actually be a fully balanced artist and, however flawed, also a balanced Christian in exploring both how one gets right with/through Jesus and how that actually may look in the messiness of life.

I would go so far as to say that a Catholic like Messiaen was brilliant because he managed to compose music that was not merely (or even generally EVER) about jsutification. You may grant the minute you hear it tha tmeditations on the Holy Trinity is a sonic mess of a piece for organ. Ditto The Lives of the Saints or the Meditations on Pentecost. But the titles all suggest that Messiaen was able to integrate his work around the church year. Bach is the uber-exemplar for Lutherans. I would say that in our own time Arvo Part has demonstrated that it's possible to create compelling, contemporary and wonderful art.

Now here, to throw a bone to the folks who aregue that the problem with evangelical art is its lack of sacramentalism, we may suggest that the sacramental observation and the sanctification observation are two sides of the same thing. What are sacraments but means of mediating grace? Saving grace? Soteriological grace? No. Sanctifying grace? Yeah.

So in a way the statement that evangelical art founders due to a lack of sacramentalism and that evangelical art founders due to a lack of emphasis on sanctification in its obsession with a transactional view of salvation are basically the same observation from two different sides of the wound. At the risk of yet another sweeping generalization those who see a lack of sacramentalism or symbolism in evangelical art may be seeing things from the side of a kind of post-structuralist post-modernist abandonment or shared narrative that in evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity curiously predated post-modernism as a formal movement. The outward mechanisms and tools for articulating a symbolic iteration of life in Christ was rejected a priori as "dead formalism" and "traditions of men".

From the other side of the breach, though, the lack of emphasis on sanctification sees the wound from the perspective of recognizing that merely accepting Jesus as king does nothing to articulate or expand upon the implications of this kingship. The sacramental side may see a lack of vocabulary or tools to use the arts to embody feelings that must exist and are necessarily inherent in the Christian experience. Meanwhile, from the perspective of those who see transactionalism as drowning out any other experience of Christ the concern is that the transactional theology in evangelical art actually precludes the possibility of feeling those things the sacramentalist might think are actually being felt. One critique proposes a lack of a vocabulary for sharing experiences while another, perhaps, goes so far as to propose that the vocabulary that has been codified in "evangelical" art has straitjacketed the very concepts and feelings that are even possible to express. So I think J.S. was right to say that there may be different emphases on the same basic flaw in the arts in evangelicalism.

If the example of the Puritans reveals the best and worst attitudes and precedents regarding the arts then it means they were always hot or cold.
Those of us who are in any sense artists might here dare to allude to the words of the Lord, there are times and places where it is better to be hot or cold than to be lukewarm. It's better to see how art can explore and encourage sanctification or avoid it altogether than to subject art to such a truncated theology as a transactionalist understanding of life in Christ. If evangelical art is obsessed with the initial moment of "have you done business with God?" they need to understand that sanctification is what happens when, to press this metaphor further, a Christian does not merely buy Jesus but becomes a regular customer. The non-evangelicals and the old-school evangelicals (a la Bach, etc) obviously got this.

Evangelicalism, to the extent that it is fixated on a transactional comprehension of salvation, will be limited to either the discussion of the transaction or the anticipation of or a demand for a new transaction. In American spirituality this will take two generic forms. The first would simply be the "How I got Saved" narrative. The second would be the "We Need Revival" narrative. Of course this is wildly broad and unfair but there are kernels of truth to this. Consider how popular "Amazing Grace" is in American folk music. Does this not represent the archetypal "How I got Saved?" narrative compressed and distilled into its most universal expression in the English language? There are good reasons it is both one of the most compelling as well as the most beautiful and simple articulations of comprehending the mystery of salvation in Christ. Indeed arguably the entire musical life of the Church really should center on this one central proclamation.

I've rambled enough for this entry. What J. S. wrote is a great catalyst for thought and discussion. I hope this discussion can keep some momentum over at BHT. If Michael Spenser were alive to read it I think he might well be please.

Friday, November 05, 2010

project pending for City of God

Around the same time I was invited to write an essay on the Toy Story trilogy by Mockingbird I also got an invitation to join City of God. I think I finally have a writing project to put together for City of God but I'll need to hunker down and assemble that over time. I have more writing ideas than I feel I should try to tackle all at once but I'm overdue to write for City of God seeing as they were kind enough to invite me and I haven't written as much for them as I had hoped.

The little entry "Holy blasphemy" was the most I managed and that was more a personal reflection on how I've seen the name of the Lord abused in charismatic and Pentecostal circles than a sustained discussion of something. Now my background growing up was Assemblies of God and I've got a couple of books by Gordon Fee but the project that has most interested me that I think could be a good fit for City of God is something else. This is basically a "stay tuned" post for regular readers of the blog who are interested in the theology part of my nerdiness. If that's not you're thing and you're more into musical nerdiness I will try to have something for that interest eventually. For cartoon nerdiness I must plead poverty but because Quinault and Totoro-Man both commend the film I plan to see The Secret of Kells as soon as I realistically can.

Link: Cinemagogue: Flashback to Donnie Darko

When I saw this film it was all the way back around 2002 back at Mars Hill and I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Almost immediately it struck me as a mirror image of It's a Wonderful Life but recast as death. Donnie gets a chance to see how much better off the people he cares about will be if he is reconciled to his moment of death than if he defies it. Since Cinemagogue so conspicuously mentions this and I proposed the idea to James Harleman and other folks I know years ago I'm linking to this because, well, I came up with the Frank Capra comparison. :) I no doubt couldn't be the only person who made the comparison but I think it is a good angle into understanding how and why the film works, beyond the hilarious and ribald conversations about Smurfs or the satire on motivational speakers!

Plus I feel the least I can do is link to the work of one of my valuable friends over the years. James Harleman over at Mars Hill is a guy I respect a lot. If I hadn't known him over the last eight years I don't think I would have found myself thinking through Pixar films as I have or considering how various components of storytelling converge to express the things a storyteller urges us to put hope in or to reject. I owe James a lot for all the time we've spent together over the years discussing theology and comic books and anime. He, his wife and I have had some pretty good times discussing film and theology over the years which I hope will continue until the Lord calls us all home. Same goes for pretty much all the other folks who have contributed to Cinemagogue. So here's to my friends over at Cinemagogue. Keep up the good work. :-)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Link: City of God: Questions for advocates of multi-site churches

I have been deliberately late to discussing this here at Wenatchee The Hatchet because real world concerns trump virtual world concerns and virtual preaching at multi-site venues, though interesting to me, has had to take a back seat to real world concerns.

The discussion Dever, Driscoll, and MacDonald highlights what I consider to be the real debate behind the viability of multi-site church model. The debate is not about missiology and ecclesiology, as Driscoll put it, the debate is not necessarily about whether eklessia refers to the physically gathered assembly as Dever was moving toward (though I'll grant it can and does touch on that). I think what we're seeing in that video is a debate amongst Reformed Baptists about sacramentology.

The reason a multi-site model can be controversial is because we're looking at a church tradition with such a low approach to sacramentology that guys like Driscoll and MacDonald can basically have it both ways. On the one hand MacDonald can say J. Vernon McGee's Bible study broadcasts should not even be on the radio anymore because McGee is dead while on the other hand claims that there's no disconnect between a multi-site pastor's video feed and a satellite campus even though in principle a video sermon creates the same temporal and spatial disconnect between a pastor and a congregation that a recorded radio broadcast does.

So, somehow, a video venue with a week delay is okay as long as the pastor is alive but once he's dead it's somehow not kosher because the Spirit is somehow no longer working through a dead pastor's ministry. MacDonald's argument is inconsistently applied if it works on the matter of video preaching and self-defeating if it works on the supposition that a pastor must be alive and present for the Spirit to use video preaching because at that point he's making a sacramental assertion about preaching that would suggest Dever's concerns are right and that it makes more sense for a pastor at a satellite campus to handle the majority of preaching.

So if MacDonald is right that McGee shouldn't be on the radio because he's dead and the Spirit has moved on does that mean we shouldn't have preserved for us the sermons of John Donne, Charles Spurgeon, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the lectures of Cornelius van Til, or the lectures of J. I. Packer (who, obviously, isn't dead yet)? I don't see why that would be the case. There wouldn't be a Reformed Baptist movement if MacDonald's case that preachers and teachers should stop being in mass media like TV if it is necessary for a person to be alive. There wouldn't be a Bible if people stopped circulating the letters of Paul because the apostle had died and the Spirit was no longer working through him. I mean, really, my Orthodox relatives could just go to town on a logical fallacy big enough to fly the entire fleet of B-2 bombers through!

Now to be clear my objection to MacDonald's reasoning is not that I think there's no place for downloadable sermons. For people who are disabled or poor and unable to get to church, having at least PART of a church service available in downloadable form is wonderful! If a nasty snow storm in Seattle makes it too dangerous to get to church for someone with a disability of some kind that person can at least download the sermon. Or they can be the hard-core of the hard-core and brave the snow and risk their safety to hear a preacher preach via video feed here in Seattle but I hope you'll forgive me for that possibly inexplicable moment of being a smart-ass.

But if the pastor has to somehow be alive for the teaching to have power do not the canonized epistles themselves demonstrate the falsehood of this assertion? The problem is more that guys like Driscoll and MacDonald want to have their cake and eat it, too. Driscoll explained to Dever that the satellite campuses are slow, long-term church plants and that when he dies those churches become independent. Well, great, but most of the pastors are around Driscoll's age so around the time HE dies those pastors are likely to die, too. Dever's question in reply is the not-so-tacit, "Okay, so why can't they be that way now?" MacDonald's claim that McGee's time has passed and that when he himself dies he wants all his sermons pulled can be called out as being poor reasoning. There's no compelling theological reason a sermon is only effective while the pastor is alive. If we as Christians practiced a religion that said that ONLY the spoken word conveys the power of who Christ is then there might be a case but I bet guys like Driscoll and MacDonald have books and books of reprinted sermons that demonstrate this isn't true.

I trust I've beaten that dead horse enough in the abstract and demonstrated a weakness in the position. The easiest practical way to illustrate the fallacy of MacDonald's reasoning about the death of a pastor in a video-based multi-site is to give an example of what may inevitably occur. Let's say Mark Driscoll never retires and keeps going until he dies. He's a workaholic sort so that seems a safe guess. Further, let's say that yesterday Mark Driscoll died. He preached his last sermon and next week goes in the ground. If sermons are only effective and Spirit-used while a preacher is alive does this mean that Mars Hill is going to tank yesterday's sermon and not send it via DVD to the satellite campuses for next Sunday as they normally would under current procedure? Of course they wouldn't do that! Driscoll's sermons can be useful to edify and teach people after he's dead. In fact that Mars Hill defense of video-venue preaching about six years ago was that a Driscoll sermon on video was like one of Paul's epistles, able to teach and edify regardless of spatial or temporal boundaries. In other words, Driscoll and other multi-site advocates appealed to Pauline epistles to justify their use of video venue and multi-site to begin with. Just as Paul used epistles, cutting edge technology in his day, so Mars Hill uses video preaching to ensure that the message of Jesus gets out to as many people as possible.

But the very nature of that defense reveals that it's impossible for a MacDonald or Driscoll to have it both ways. The sermon has no inherent quality that makes it necessary for the pastor to be alive for the sermon to be effective. Furthermore if the pastor need not be physically present to preach a sermon effective for a church he has oversight for (as has been defended at various points by the appeal to Paul's epistles to the churches) then there's no reason for a Mars Hill campus to not cycle through Driscoll sermons after he's dead. Would it seem daft to recycle sermons because the jokes and cultural references got old? Why do we even sell Spurgeon sermons or make them available on the internet if anyone actually took that argument seriously?

By the same token, though, there's no reason Driscoll has to preach 75% of the sermons every month when the campus pastors are able to do that work now. In fact in several cases I found the campus pastor sermons to be of substantially high quality in terms of exegesis and exposition than Driscoll's sermons over the last three or four years. It's not exactly that Driscoll's sermons are bad it's that the campus pastors who actually invest their lives in the local flock preach better sermons because they are preaching and teaching to their own people, not as a denominational spiritual head who has no idea what's going on in the trenches.

To borrow Driscoll's old analogy from the early `00's, he's completely immersed in the air war these days and the ground war is handled by the campus pastors. He's functionally the lead preacher and denominational figurehead in a church that has an episcopal form of government and is a denomination in all but name. Now I'm plugging into a denomination right now so, obviously, I've got no problem with denominations! But I do believe it bears repeating to say that Driscoll is now at a place where old Driscoll would suggest that he, as a functionally denominational leader, is not really in touch with what's actually going in his church at the trench level. There's already a relational gap so large that most people who hear his sermons hear them a week later after they have been burned to DVD. Why not, in principle, concede that this is already doing the same thing as Through the Bible Ministries did? Or, for that matter, Pat Robertson? Well, some folks don't realize the degree to which they have reinvented the wheel and that's okay. It falls to each generation to reinvent the wheel in its own unique way. That is one of the joys of the human experience.

Driscoll correctly points out that giving and activity is higher in the campuses where he isn't preaching but to say that this is because those folks aren't consumers like the visitors at Ballard skims over the reason the satellites have higher committment. The satellite campuses have higher committment because they generally involve a pastor and people who served in ministry with that pastor for years before the satellite plant happened. That's how it was with me and most people I knew at the Lake City campus when I was still over there--and I'm pretty confident that's how it worked with all the other campuses besides Ballard. If Dever knew this he might suggest that the reason those campuses are as they are is because of the tangible connection to the campus pastor rather than to any connection to Driscoll ... so why not let those campus pastors do 75% of the preaching rather than the 25%?

I'm glad there's a plan on paper for a leadership transition when Driscoll inevitably dies but I've got to say, as a former tithing member, I wonder if that plan will work so well in real life when pastors close to Driscoll's age start dying off and have to be replaced. I remember when the pastors had a great plan for the continuing development and growth of the church and it involved a capital campaign to purchase a building that never got developed into the thing we were told it would in the capital campaign or in Reformission Rev, Driscoll's 2006 book about how he planted Mars Hill. I want their ministry to continue and successfully bring people to Jesus but that doesn't mean I remain convinced that every plan devised by Mars Hill leaders is necessarily a good plan. The plan Driscoll explained to Dever has a big, gaping obvious hole in it that is that by the time Driscoll dies most of those campus pastors will be close to death, too. I've met a few of them. I know how old several of them are and I even know some of the health problems some of them may continue to deal with.

I don't say this just to bag on Mars Hill. I have friends and family there I love a great deal. I trust that they are apprenticing guys in their 20s now so that the real, sensible transitional plan will be that pastoral apprentices are at each campus to take up the leadership there. Meanwhile, I hope the plan is better than just having campus pastors take over after Mark dies. As the churches that James Kennedy and Robert Schuller founded have already attested, it doesn't matter how smart you think your succession plan is, it can still end up with your church being completely ripped apart by the power vacuum left by the death of your church's dominating personality.

Then again, I'm at a Presbyterian church so I have already arrived at my convictions about what the more practical and historically reliable to church governance seems to be than a megachurch that seems to not want to admit it's a new Calvinist Baptist denomination to the public. In any case, I did want to eventually write about this subject because I used to be at Mars Hill and admit to being profoundly skeptical about the biblical and logical viability of the defense of the multi-site church model I saw in this interview, especially in light of how making comments about McGee fits into that. Full disclosure, I loved listening to J. Vernon McGee's ministry on the radio when I was in my teens.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

the liberation of being average

One of the most compelling and valuable things I have ever heard in my life was not about excellence, it was about averageness. I was enrolled in a beginning newswriting course at my college. The professor who stepped into the class was a woman in her forties with a simple bob of dark brown hair and dark glasses. She was dressed very simply and once she spoke revealed that she was from New York. She surveyed the class and began with words I will not soon forget, though you'll pardon my paraphrase: Welcome to beginning newswriting. I want to make sure we don't misunderstand each other. Most of you are average writers. Most of you will get average grades. There is nothing wrong with earning a C."

In that moment I realized I loved this professor! I studied with her for another four years. You may think that my hearing those words and my response might sound strange but those words were the most liberating words I think I ever heard in my entire educational life. Here was this fast-talking stern taskmaster of a journalism professor explaining that odds were pretty good I and everyone else in the class were going to be average writers but also saying that being average was nothing to be ashamed of.

As I'm sure you know, we live in successive generations where men and women call us to rise above the muddled masses and to not settle for the complacency of being average. Nobody tells you that you might spend your whole life working your ass off and in the final analysis turn out to be average. Well, nobody I met except that journalism professor. I did, by the way, pass through my degree with above average grades and in my first quarter as a cub reporter at the college paper alarmed my peers by getting an A- in my first quarter, which was almost unheard of.

That wasn't my doing, though. Someone, an editor at the student paper, looked over my work and made a gut call that what I wanted to do (news) was not what I was really good at (features). He considered my news writing average at best but my features he considered pretty strong. So he made the call and I didn't see myself as stuck with it, I went with it.

I ended up having a small career as the features writer on campus and the editor who steered me in that direction once said to me, "I don't know how you did it Law-man [his nickname for me] but somehow you got all the arts professors to NOT hate us." That the arts departments hated the student newspaper was by then well-known to journalism students. I had unintentionally managed to pull off a detente between the arts departments and the student paper simply by knowing just enough about each art and having enough personal curiosity about it to end the animosity. Even the theater professors decided that while I obviously wasn't a theater buff I was allright.

At one point one of the art professors told me that I was the best arts reporter he had seen for the college newspaper since he'd been curator of the gallries at the college. Hazarding to ask when he began doing that, I asked, and the professor said he'd been curating the galleries since about 1967. So I had, entirely without knowing it, established myself as the best student journalist covering arts at my alma mater this professor had seen in thirty years. I couldn't have known that I was going to get labeled the best arts reporter for the student paper any faculty had seen up to that point but I'll bet there's probably someone better than me who has come down the line in the last seventeen years. What would have happened had I gotten what I wanted and gone into hard news coverage instead of covering the arts scene?

In that and in other ways I learned that part of navigating life is recognizing that you may be average or below average in the things you THINK you're good at but amazing at things you don't give much thought to. My professor's words had prepared me for accepting that if I'm merely average at something that's not a reason not to do it but that it doesn't mean I shouldn't switch to what I'm really good at when other people have the wisdom to nudge me that way.

The reason it is liberating to accept being average is because the tyranny of your expectations about what your life ought to mean in your estimation can make you rue your life itself. When Elijah's life and ministry didn't go as he hoped it would he asked for death. God did not give that to him. Jonah sought death rather than to obey the command of Christ to preach so as to save the lost. Jonah was denied the death he sought on his terms so as to bring about the repentance of a city he wanted to die. Jonah thought he was something and that the people of Ninevah were nothing, certainly nothing worth preserving but Christ saw fit to have the repentence of Ninevah the nothing bring to nothing the something that Jonah thought he was. Not for nothing does Proverbs warn us to not rejoice should our enemy fall lest the Lord see this and rain blessing upon the enemy to discipline us.

Some sociological research has indicated most people are average but, oddly, most of the average people when asked to assess themselves consider themselves at least slightly or significantly above average. We are a race of people who delude ourselves into thinking that the rest of the mediocre rabble is not interested in rising above mediocrity while we do not realize the depths of our own mediocrity. In passing judgment on the others in our peer group (mediocre at best) we just live out at some level more proof of the salience of Romans 2.

I used to be someone who looked down on the averageness of others but there's nothing quite like immersing yourself in the really great works of art, literature, and music to help you realize what a dumbass you are when you think you've got something new and unique to contribute as though someone hasn't gotten there first. I don't mean to say wallow in cliche, I mean to say that truly grasping how many people are more amazing than you not only keeps you humble it paradoxically prepares you for having the slightest chance of doing something decent yourself. No one ever contributed anything worthwhile to a creative tradition by only looking down on the majority of stuff in one's own time ... well ... except maybe for Stravinsky!

I don't for a moment consider that I have outgrown a tendency to snobbery but I am also aware that snobbery is annoying in others as well as in me. I want to be the best I can be and I hope that my best can be considered pretty good but hope and accomplishment aren't the same thing. The truth is you have to do the best you can and you can't completely control whether your best is exceptionally good, above average, average, below average, or collosally poor.You can tell yourself all you want that you're this or that but in much of life whether or not you're good or bad at something will be defined and declared by others. If someone declares that you are average that does not make you less valuable as a human being even if you feel it does. I have to give myself this pep talk from time to time especially since I've been hunting for work for more than a year with no real success.

I come back to that liberating moment when my journalism professor said "There's nothing wrong with earning a C." We can tell ourselves that we struggle to be excellent and to rise above the average humdrum of whatever other people accept. It's easy to have this mentality when you're tired of being put on hold with customer service about some order that got messed up in shipment. It's easy to have this mentality that "you" are better than average when you don't have as much consumer debt as someone else but aren't really much better than anyone else. But the scriptures are clear here, let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips. Too many fools praise their own wisdom, measure their own greatness, consider their own accomplishments, make themselves the measure of reason or commensense or accomplishment and do not realize that they, like so many others, are actually more average in most ways than they suppose.

I have a strongly perfectionistic streak. I probably got that from my upbringing. I have unsuccessfully battled a tendency to not even start something if I feel that when I start I may never get to even an average level of competence. There are a lot of things in life where I have felt I have not had an average existence and really wish I had had one. The average person doesn't seem to go through life with the long term effects of vision damaged by oxygen poisoning in post-natal care or only being able to read with one eye. When I have seen people lament that other people have no ambition to rise above the average I get angry becasue most of these dimwits don't realize that there are physical limitations from birth that can ensure that there are averages you cannot obtain.

Back when I had a job and felt more average it didn't bother me as much that I couldn't drive anywhere and had trouble travelling at night because of poor night vision. I notice these things more now because my being physically less than average severely constrains me. Most people who complain about the contentment other people feel 9and it's always other people) about being average don't realize what a blessing it is to be average.

And our calling as Christians, Paul reminds the church in Corinth, was not predicated on our being special. Not many of us were wise or smar or beautiful when we heard the good news of Christ. In other words we could say that Paul was warning the Corinthians that not many of them were, really, above average when the good news of Jesus as Christ was preached to them. The great failure of the church in Corinth was imagining that they were better than average when Paul had to break the humbling and painful news to them--in these areas you are above average and in these areas you tolerate terrible things that even the heathens find debased, and in these other things I have to write to your shame because you have failed. As with the Corinthians so it is with us, the testimony of the apostles and the Spirit's conviction must reveal to us that we are not as awesome as we think we are but that we are also reciipients of the Lord's favor. It is this and not our self-perceived innate betterness than others that lets us have dignity. Woe to us if we think our dignity is self-conferred or based on actually being greater or more worthy of respect than other people.

Monday, October 18, 2010

there's nothing like real life to take the impetus out of blogging

I've been lacking productivity in blogging lately. I don't lack for ideas, just for ideas that I ultimately feel are worth blogging about after a year of unemployment and wanting that unemployed phase of life to be over. Even my thoughts and sentiments about Proverbs 19:4 and poverty aren't really worth writing. There's nothing I could blog that isn't spectacularly summed up in the axiomatic observation in scripture, is there? I could regale you with some story to illustrate it but there's no point.

The series on Hell has stalled because I've got more pressing things to do. I have nothing to gain by theologizing on a blog unless I care passionately enough about the issue to blog about it. Trust me, I will blog about theology and churchy stuff again because that's just the kind of person I am but real-world concerns about paying the rent and scrounging up job possibilities is more important than theology stuff even though I probably could talk all day about that stuff.

There's stuff I could blog about but I'd rather blog about those things after things are done. There's that old axiom that you should not count your chickens before they have hatched. In the interest of ensuring these chickens hatch beautiful and healthy I am avoiding blogging about the unhatched. God willing I hope things go well and I can blog about the chickens AFTER they have hatched. But they aren't important enough to EVER blog about in the end, just maybe they'll be happy enough events that I could blog about them anyway in the hopes that they don't bore people. :)

Things have stunk for the last year but that does not mean the Lord has not blessed me in a wide variety of ways. But that will be for another time. Man does not live by bread alone but man does need bread to live (unless he has gluten issues).

Edit: Okay, I have a couple of monster-sized things to write about but will be haphazard in writing about them. There's a ton of stuff I've been reading about gender and accomplishment that is amixture of stuff I've read via City of God and Mockingbird and a few other favorite blogs and it was not for no reason I linked to a Roy Baumeister lecture earlier. I am also planning on eventually returning to the Hell series. I also hope to discuss some thoughts about creativity and personal judgments; particularly the disconnect between who we can often imagine ourselves to be verses who others observe us tobe int he arts. But that's for a later time after I've had some time to actually think a bit.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Logged in and logged out

Connection to everyone
is connection to no one;
The measure of loneliness
is that you're laughing alone.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Proverbs 19:4 says ...

Wealth brings many new friends, but the poor man's poverty loses his last friend

This is the blog post where paraphrasing varient readings of a biblical proverb is all I feel any need to say.

Monday, October 11, 2010

one year anniversary of unemployment happened last week

Last week, on Monday actually, I hit the one year anniversary of having no job. It was not the most exciting anniversary as anniversaries go. I went to the local Worksource office at the nearby community college and spent a few hours there hunting for different people to talk to and departments to discuss things with. I still have more to do there. This week I figure I might as well find out about eligibility for funding for continuing education or worker retraining programs. I also need to look at radically revising how I tackle resumes and see if I can add some tools to the utility belt (it's not that big, I would say, and needs a few more batarangs or bat-shark-repellent).

I have gone this whole last year without the benefit of being eligible for unemployment benefits and was not even on food stamps for the majority of that time. Family has assured me this should have been different but seeing as the money has been spent, well, that's that. Seeing as I ended up paying the highest ratio of the rent despite having no income over the last year, too, that is not something that I can undo now even though I thought about proposing to the housemates that I pay the lowest amount since I'm not the one who uses the most space in the house but I was too timid about this. Fortunately the roommates eventually pieced together the logistical problems of my paying more than anyone else for what amounts to not that much space.

I am not a very assertive guy in a lot of things. I can be very assertive when discussing or debating theology or biblical literature but I'm not really a go-getter about most things in life. I am overly timid and piecing together the implications this has in job hunting has given me a lot to think about. Being halfway between having a disability and having normal eyesight has not made this easier. I have the unpleasant double-whammy of seeing far too poorly to ever be able to drive but not seeing nearly poorly enough to claim any of the disability advantages that people have suggested I take advantage of. I also, frankly, don't like taking advantage of things like that about my background just to get jobs. Friends and family have urged me to reconsider this.

Well, that's all I feel like writing in this particular entry.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mad Max and the tragic character arc of the avenging hero

A friend of mine showed me Mad Max recently and I have been thinking about how the story is essentially a tragic character arc. The whole gist of the film is laid out in a conversation between Max and his chief. Max explains that he wants to quit because he realizes that more and more the only difference between him and the thugs he brings in is ONLY that he happens to have a badge which makes it okay for him to use force when it is considered necessary. Of course by the end of the film wrath and grief become his motives to cross the line and become one of the people he used to bring in.

Now the film is called Mad Max and he is the protagonist and we are, at many levels, expected to root for him, but part of the durability of the film, as I saw it last night, lays in how the skeletal plot leaves a tiny bit of room for the tragic insight that in reacting to the things we hate about a society, the very worst things about that society, we can paradoxically become those things. There may be something to be said about how Mel Gibson's actual life may illustrate this point but I leave that to people who actually have it out for Mel Gibson. I see him as a genre actor who has carved out an exceptionally lucrative and at times artistically compelling niche for himself. He may be crazy but he really IS great at what he does whether you go in for that thing or not. Sometimes I do and Mad Max is a compelling early performance.

As a Batman fan I can say that Gibson's most memorable performances fit with the impression I have had of Harvey Dent in his descent to the identity of Two-Face. Mad Max gives us a character trajectory like that of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight only in the form of a sympathetic tragic portrayal rather than the more distant and less sympathetic observation in the Batman film. We're not supposed to approve of what Harvey Dent does by the end of The Dark Knight the way we approve of Max's systematic murder of the gang that killed his wife and child.

Yet if Max weren't so aware of how close he already is to becoming the kinds of people he takes in under arrest the story wouldn't be compelling. If Max had no doubts about his virtue the story would not have taken hold in popular culture or established Gibson as a great genre actor. Even the most righteous indignation in memorable stories has to have some room for the recognition in the self of moral ambiguity, the possibility of a fall. For me this explains why Gibson's most compelling performances are as characters aware of this risk and why his least compelling performances have been as characters who have the most assurance and the least doubt about the justification for their violent solutions.

The capacity for self-doubt in the most assured action is what allows the action hero to not inevitably become the villain. This is why I think John Woo's The Killer holds up, because an exponent of the action genre was able to deconstruct our hopes and expectations for the action genre by showing how a man who lives by the sword eventually dies by the sword. It stands out as a great subversion of our expectation that the killer will redeem himself by not forsaking the path of violence altogether but merely ensuring that he only kills the people who deserve to be killed. Woo's Jeff is convinced of the rightness of his cause but tragically does not realize that not laying aside his methods is the thing that will destroy him. This robs him of even his ability beyond his own death to give his eyes to Jenny and has the corrupting effect of inspiring the sympathetic cop to commit murder and compromise his entire career.

This is why, not coincidentally, I think one of the more compelling aspects of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is exploring how even Bruce Wayne's best efforts to stop evil lead him to compromise his own ideals in the pursuit of pragmatic ends. Some might see this as overbearing and damaging to a caped hero film but I think Nolan was more effective in simultaneously paying hommage to and deconstructing aspects of the character than Bryan Singer's attempt to show us a physically invulnerable Superman who was somehow, he told us, able to be emotionally vulnerable. Justice League Unlimited did a better job doing that in their Cadmus arc but I had best stop here before I get too absurdly nerdy about superheroes and cartoons and genre film, as if I hadn't gotten there from my opening paragraph. I think we can be happy that Gibson's formative performance contributed to this genre of the avenging hero narrative. It still stands as one of his most compelling and memorable performances even three decades later.

mulling over some new blogging ideas

There's still that series on Hell I haven't finished. Obviously I have tabled that for the time being. I hit the one-year anniversary of being unemployed this week and I trust you understand that for obvious reasons blogging is less critical than the job search.

I have a new idea for a possible series of blog posts about gender and social function I'm thinking about. I have been particularly reflecting on what appears to be a set of crises in this current job market and culture for unmarried guys in their 30s. Roy Baumeister's discussion of how societies make use of men and women is pertinent to that. That will take some time because I'll want to review some evolutionary psychological stuff to consider what I'm finding to be a curious overlap between EP and complementarianism.

I actually finished the sonata form for my G minor string quartet in the last month or so. Years and years have work have, I hope, finally paid off. I also had a project arranging a bunch of music for oboe, cello, and guitar that I took on in the last few months that has come to a close. And I have had a few social events like family birthdays come up. I still in principle want to blog but in practice life is what it is.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Amaziah, king of Judah: You're biggest failure can come through your response to your greatest success

Over the last few years I have been going through the narrative books of the Old Testament and reflecting upon the divided monarchy. A while back I wrote at some length about the Judean king Joash (Jehoash). More recently I have moved on from Kings to Chronicles and have been impressed recently by Jehoshephat. Where Jehoshephat was a king who whole-heartedly loved the Lord his genuine love was not example enough to reform the people and the king was beset by a foolish tendency to ally himself with godless leaders in both military and financial matters. His final decisions were an ill-advised commercial venture that ended in disaster and to appoint a terrible son as king who slaughtered his family. We as Christians often persuade ourselves that if our heart is in the right place and we genuinely seek the Lord that the Lord will protect us from our own foolishness. This is not so. In fact Jehoshephat's legacy is, in the end, not a positive one. He himself was saved, if you will, but as though through fire.

Amaziah is the Judean king whose life I have been reflecting upon a lot lately. Amaziah, like his father Joash who renovated the Temple, is a grimly sober warning that those who appear to start off well and obedient to the Lord can reveal themselves in the end to be idolators at heart.
Amaziah presents a particularly disturbing case because it seems that the beginning of his spiritual wandering came precisely through his reaction to immense blessing from the Lord.

Now Amaziah killed the men who murdered his father Joash (yeah, that Joash who had Zechariah murdered that I wrote about long ago). He did not punish the children of the men who killed the king, which at that time was unusual. He marshalled a mercenary army from Israel to go into battle against Edom but the Lord ordered him not to through a prophet. Amaziah obeyed and was given a great victory.

Sadly, that victory turns out to ultimately be a form of defeat. Amaziah appropriated the gods of the men of Seir and takes them home and installs them as objects of veneration. Puffed up from the victory God gave him against Edom Amaziah takes a disastrously ill-advised move to battle the northern king. It ends very badly. Amaziah is taken captive and is eventually killed in a conspiracy against him for the disaster he brought on Judah like the conspiracy that led to the assasination of his own father before him. Two generations in a row Judah was ruled by men who did not love the Lord whole-heartedly.

Now the gods of Edom were predominantly fertility gods. Now while this is not necessarily the case of the Edomites' dominant gods it may be useful to tangentially note that in the ancient world fertility gods and goddesses might play limited roles covering just the domain of fertility and reproduction but in other settings fertility gods were also, paradoxically, associated as also being gods or goddesses of war. Why this is is certainly not something I really understand I just find it interesting that in some polytheistic settings the same god you would appeal to for fertility would be the same god who presides over warfare. A fertility cult could simultaneously be a war cult. Perhaps these cultures found it useful to circumscribe both life-giving and death-dealing within the same deity for some philosophical reason.

Yahweh was furious with Amaziah for worshipping the gods of those over whom He had given Amaziah victory. It was generally accepted in the ancient world that if you destroyed an enemy army in battle you had also established you were given a victory over their gods. Amaziah's decision to venerate some of the gods of the army he had defeated was probably not unprecedented but it was certainly unusually offensive to the Lord and thus merited mention in the scriptures.

It may here be useful to point out that Edom was never to be the subject of aggressive campaigns by Israel. Deutoronomy explains that Edom was not to be a target for aggression like the other nations because of kinship (i.e. through Esau) and because God had given them Mount Seir as their possession (Deuteronomy 2:4-5). Since the Lord does not remind Amaziah of this prohibition it may be that the Edomites, who were prone to oppress their neighbors, were under God's disciplinary action. They were obviously formidable enough as adversaries that Amaziah thought it was wise to hire 100,000 men from Ephraim.

Now when the Israelite king Jehoash saw that Amaziah had arrayed himself against him he said, in essence, "Hey, why are you doing this? You are a thistle and I am a cedar. You will die and Judah will fall with you now that you are undertaking this venture in arrogance. Why punish yourself and your people?" Amaziah would not listen because God had resolved to crush him for seeking the gods of the Edomites. And so it happened.

Amaziah's greatest victory became the seed of a pride that led to his ultimate defeat. The scriptures attest throughout that we are most in danger when we believe we have been given success by the Lord's hand than when we are failures. When we are failures we may not be failures because of our own sin (though it is popular to suppose that) but when we are successes we are not necessarily successes because God is always on our side or, more importantly, because we are ultimately on the side of the Lord. The Lord has given great victories to all sorts of men and women who finally had no regard for Him but a great deal of self-regard.

We must be cautious and realize that what seems like a victory in material terms can often reveal a spiritual defeat. This is not because God's blessings are bad! Our disposition toward the blessings God gives us is the problem.

If God gives you a victory that may not be because God's intent is to give you a greater victory so as to attain greater glory (for Jesus' fame, I suppose we'll tell ourselves). God may have given you a victory so as to protect you from a disaster and to be in a position to bless others rather than deliver you the things you hope to attain for yourself and your legacy. Amaziah didn't grasp this at all. When the Lord gave him a great victory Amaziah was not satisfied with that victory. Instead he took gods from the Edomite people (very probably fertility gods) and began to worship them. God's people were called to be a blessing to the nations rather than a blessing to themselves. But it is obvious throughout the generations that God's people have often seen fit to suppose that if "I" as God's elect am blessed then that means that there will be a trickle-down blessing that will see to it that the others who aren't Christians will eventually be blessed by God's blessing of me. The possibility that someone who isn't a believer will be blessed so as to be a blessing to me doesn't usually figure in the moral ontology of Christians as much as it could.

There is a risk for the Christian to be like Amaziah, that when the Lord blesses with victory we take upon ourselves to worship the literal or figurative fertility God has given us as though that were to be the means of victory. In this respect church growth can, obviously, become an idol that is disguised as seeking the continued blessing of the Lord by seeking more and more victories on behalf of Judah. Certainly the Lord wanted Judah to prosper and be a blessing to the nations but there were more ways for Judah to be a blessing to the nations than to conquer territory in the northern kingdom.

We must be cautious in perceived victories as well as defeats. Saul was blessed for years before God revealed that He was departing from Saul. You may win something, or think you have won something, and perceive that in this God has shown you to be justified. It may not really be the case. You may reveal in the moment you perceive God has given you a victory that you have found the idols in the spoils of that victory that you intend to take home and venerate. Certainly in the spiritual tradition I have been part of one of the great temptations is to win arguments at the expense of people. I have been very bad at this and continue to be very bad at it. I find it easier to recognize in others than I do in myself. I think there have been many of us who were drawn to that spiritual tradition precisely because of that idol of victory in fiery rhetoric at the expense of godly restraint.

In fact I have come to believe that those who have been most outraged by that aspect of the tradition have been those who were the most strident exemplars of that character fault! I ended up telling one of these that it seemed as though he had spent years attempting to turn people against another man only to ultimately have those men turn against him instead while the man he wanted corralled as an outsider of the orthodoxy of the time and place was left mostly untouched. I find these qualities aggravating in others because I am so very, ver bad about being prone to this stuff myself.

I find Amaziah troubling because I fear that I myself may simply be an Amaziah. All the work I thought I was doing for the Lord's kingdom may have just been a ruse I played on myself. The Lord has been kind to me and kind to a degree I could not possibly earn. I am able to read and write because of the Lord's mercies. The things that I could consider victories for me may be lures in which I am revealed to have a straying heart rather than a heart focused on the Lord. I am more aware of the ways in which my heart strays than I feel like discussing at any further length in a blog. Gratitude is a vital part of the Christian's life. Not only does gratitude constitute a healthy response to the kindness of the Lord gratitude to the Lord for His kindness is our surest defense against the idols we would erect in our hearts after God has given us a victory over the armies of those idols.

I must remind myself, as we all must who consider the warnings of the scriptures, that no one is so victorious that he or she can't fall. In fact the worst that can happen is that the victory we see from the Lord's hand will reveal our LACK of loyalty to Him and harden our ways before him and others. If we do that then, like Amaziah, the Lord may just permit us to be destroyed by an adversary we thought we could easily handle in our pride when we could have rested in the Lord's provision and not attempted to conquer more for ourselves and our glory than what the Lord had providentially provided that already met our needs. It is too easy for me to be an Amaziah. I hope, Lord willing, it is not too easy for you.