Friday, October 01, 2010

I guess the fear club just got bigger

If some conservatives are afraid that illegal Mexicans are coming up and stealing American jobs the people of Guatemala can now be afraid that the United States has been using their hapless people as guinea pigs for doing research on the STDs Americans are getting with their profligate living. ;-)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

HT: Mockingbird, Michael Vick's American Redemption"

There is a lot I could write about the idea of American redemption. I don't care for atheletics and was never good at them. Not being born with fully binocular vision meant that I found sports useless and sports fans found me useless. In earlier ages I would have died before I was a week old. I have also never particularly cared for movies about sports. Perhaps this is why I take a cruel pleasure from the South Park episode "Stanley's Cup" which brutally subverts and satirizes the cliches of the sports movie. A few people I know found this episode profoundly offensive since it turns out at the end of the game the team Stan is leading is set up in a rigged game because an old coach wants his son to be in a winning game at all costs and sends his imcompetent adult team against a bunch of pre-schoolers. A little boy dying of cancer sees the televised game, decides that there is no hope because his sports team didn't win, gives up on life, and dies. I submit that what people found offensive about this South Park episode is how brutally they subvert and skewer what is usefully called "American redemption".

Redemption would normally mean being redeemed from slavery, being delivered from bondage. "Redemption" in American popular narrative now seems to mean nothing more than going from being the underdog to trampling and triumphing over your adversaries. This is a posture nearly anyone can plausibly take with the right public relations assistance. The most striking observation in the Mockingbird post is reference to Keown's statement that American redemption isn't the same as real redemption. All can be forgiven if after your fall you get back on the horse and still do as many cool things as you did before. So long as you sustain your success after your conspicuous failure you're still considered a winner.

Many people fail in all sorts of ways but theirs is not a story of redemption in the American sense because their failures or imcompetence are sufficiently hid that they are still seen as winners.

A church I know of made a spectacularly ill-advised and expensive property purchase but since out of sight is out of mind and the other successes of the church are more publicly visible the church is seen as a big success. And it is, in some things, but that doesn't mean the church is not equally spectacular a failure in other respects. Thanks to an American vision of redemption it doesn't necessarily matter "how" you won or how complete your victory is so long as you won.

American redemption has a winner-take-all narrative to it, as more or less every worldly view of "redemption" has. The underdog young athlete goes on to win the game and get the hottest girl around. The burly brown-haired guy gets the hot blonde and wins everywhere he goes through hard work and just being better than everyone else because some old guy believes in him and gives him a shot when he was just a nobody. But the thing is this narrative arc is not redemptive, it's just Maslow's hierarchy taken to its summit of self-actualization and realizing one's full potential. Sure, we could say The Karate Kid won and was an underdog but the original film made it clear to us at multiple levels that he had the better teacher both in terms of skill and in terms of ethics. It's like suggesting the Autobots are the underdogs and yet they have Optimus Prime. In other words victory is assured.

So the "redemption" at work in these kinds of stories is sort of like the redemption of a coupon or a gift certificate that allows your true status to be revealed, the Golden Ticket that provides you the opportunity to test your mettle. The danger of this kind of "redemptive" arc is that we can tell ourselves we got to where we got by God's grace and His unmerited favor when the truth is, in our quieter moments, we still tell ourselves we're better than that other guy and THAT is how we got to the top or that the other guy not being good enough was how he toppled from his place. Perhaps in the case of Vick a proverb is appropos, when your enemy falls don't rejoice over his failure or the Lord may see your gloating, disapprove, and restore him. Don't taunt Michael Vick when he's down or God might just let him make a comeback!

Link: Roy Baumeister: Is there anything good about men?

Just go read it. I will have more to say about this presentation later but at this point I am content merely to link to the thing.

Pride is the stem cell of sins

I have written elsewhere about how pride can be used as a pre-emptive shortcut to explain sin, whether the sins of self or others. I have been in settings where the hamartology of a church culture reduced all sin down to being motivated by pride. Therefore, confronting people about their pride was paramount because once you took out their pride you were confronting the cause of their sin. Well, no, not exactly.

In interacting with Wendy on her blog over at Practical Theology for Women and considering the strengths and weaknesses of the "my pride" approach to sin I have cast about for a metaphor that I hope can incorporate both kinds of spiritual assessment, the following views: 1) that sins stem from pride and 2) that many sins don't actually appear to derive from pride at all in the way most people conventionally use the term "proud". Many sins seem to come about from having no pride at all or, to use modern vernacular, really low self-esteem. Don't roll your eyes yet, dear reader. I'm getting to my metaphor.

So the metaphor is that pride is the stem cell of sin. Stem cells in a fetus don't just remain stem cells, they grow into other things, become other kinds of cells, transform into identifiable organs. The stem cell of "pride" (which may be more accurately described as hubris) can transform into reckless violence in one man while becoming evasive cowardice in another.

Yet in the pride-only estimate of sin both men would be told "You need to repent of your pride!" This counsel would be equally useless on both men since the first man would see no reason to repent of his pride because he didn't beat up anyone who didn't deserve it while the other man couldn't be convinced of his pride because he has nothing to be proud of and isn't worth that much. Yes, there is a kind of spiritual pride that is the seed for these kinds of sins but you won't get anywhere attempting to tell a tree that it's problem is the seed. The tree has already grown and born fruit! Telling a full grown tree what its seed is useless in transforming the tree into another tree. As my comrades at Mockingbird would probably put it, telling the tree its problem is the seed it grew out of is the function of the Law. What is needed is to reveal that the good news of Christ is that in Him you can become an entirely new kind of tree.

What is more, as I have written before, we must remember that the apostle John made a distinction between the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the boastful pride of life. Many neo-Reformed types I have run into seize upon the third as the ultimate explainer of all sins without considering that in the apostolic taxonomy of sins the other two categories still exist.

One of many reasons I stopped sticking around the church I used to attend for years was because I was worried that their hamartology was grossly oversimplified to a point where all sin was defined as being rooted in and motivated by pride. In their taxonomy of sin the two lusts outlined by John were basically nothing more than shells for the boastful pride of life. The tree was the seed; that any lust of the eye or lust of the flesh was functionally the boastful pride of life. The worm is in the spice and the spice is in the worm!

Now maybe someone with boastful pride of life problems would see lust of the flesh and lust of the eye problems as being pride of life problems by default, but the problem with this taxonomy of sin is that the stem cell of hubris (i.e. the kind of self-reliance that led to the Fall) can become the cell of all sorts of organs. That stem cell can grow into different types of cells we can call sin, ergo John's distinction of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the boastful pride of life. The pride-only taxonomy posits that the stem cell ultimately only grows up into an eye or an ear or whatever besetting sin the person positing the pride-only sin is likely to struggle with themselves.

Yet if the body of Christ is manifold in its parts and each member plays a different role then in the body of death or the City of the Babylon the eye is not a nose and the ear is not a foot. In other words, the stem cell of hubris could become reckless violence in one man and evasive cowardice in another.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Do not say to yourself, "God is tempting me"--the temptation to think God is testing you now to give you something later in this life

I really, really did not want to approach this point but in nine more days I will have hit the one year anniversary of having been laid off from my job. I have never been unemployed for so long a period in my life. There are all kinds of things that could be worse than they are but things are still pretty discouraging and depressing much of the time.

I have often wondered if I'm just bad at writing resumes and cover letters. I'm told by some folks that unemployment is at a very high level. If people who are counted as unemployed are only counted for a certain time period or if they are not counted if they never register then it may well be true that there are more jobless people out there than in official statistics. Some have told me that the problem may not really be that my resume and letter is badly written as that a job may get a thousand people interested in it. if so I feel like my credentials may be among the least impressive credentials a person could have in his given field.

In the realm of "I told you so" or "you were told so" the common denominator is that I should have gotten education back when I got laid off or that I should have gone on food stamps earlier. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say. There are a lot of things we can look back on and wish we had done differently. Some of us wish we had never gotten married or that we had not had children (or, far more likely in some cases, that we didn't have children with THAT person). We may wish that we HAD gotten married or HAD had children (especially with THAT person, but usually this is circumlocution for coveting of another sort). There are things I wish I had done differently but whereas I have been told I should have gotten more education after I got laid off (when I had no income and limited money) I wish I had opted to get more education while I still had a job. But the ideas I was pursuing for continuing education at that time were neither smart nor plausible in terms of job market stuff or as a fit for any interests or competencies I had. So, in the end, it's hard to feel particularly regretful that I decided it wasn't smart to pursue further education of the kind I was considering. I do regret not taking the opportunities to learn programs that, in theory, I had access to at my old job because THAT stuff would have been useful! All of that, believe it or not, is just a rambling introduction for the thing I am about to say. When we go through difficult times we remind ourselves (and are rightly reminded) that the testing of our faith produces perserverence. This is rightly and truly said.

Yet there is a point where it is useful to know that the word that is often translated "tempt" in scripture can also be rendered "test". As Susan R. Garrett noted in some of her books, such as the Demise of the Devil in the writings of Luke and The Temptation of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, not all biblical authors broach the subject of temptation and testing in the same way. Abraham was tested by God by being told to kill his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Yet James wrote that no one who is tempted should say "I am being tempted by God". This is also true. And yet the Lord himself taught us to pray, as is so commonly rendered, "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one." And lest we forget God authorized a spirit in the heavenly court to go lie to the prophets of Ahab to entice him to his death after Ahab's wife Jezebel had falsely used Ahab's name to frame a man for blasphemy, get him executed, and then procur the dead man's property so that Ahab could plant a vegetable garden. God, we are told, cannot lie, and yet God commisions liars to lie to effect His purposes. God tests and does not tempt.

I don't have any particularly profound or useful insights from any of this and I am about to use a verbal twist to demonstrate how interpreting times of testing are themselves a temptation. It can be tempting to try to turn every good or bad experience into some life observation or some life-lesson-learned. There comes a point where attempting to find meaning in things you go through becomes a symptomatic of peculiar kind of idol, one we disguise in godly aspirations when we speak to ourselves or others. Particularly dangerous at times is the impulse to try to explain that "God wants me to learn X" from something. Or "God is testing me through X so that I'll be ready for Y." Any time you say anything like this latter formulation that Y, whatever it is, is your idol. There are timez when I wonder what God wants me to "learn" from what I have dealt with in the last year and increasingly I have concluded that this impulse to attempt to explain everything is actually most likely to be the problem.

Say, "God is testing my patience in being single during this time so that this will prepare me for marriage" is one I have heard once in a while. No, He's not testing your patience by you being single for a long time so that you will be prepared for marriage. A variation is "God is testing my patience in my desire for a husband/job/child/heealing/ etc." If you think that God's allowing you to suffer is so that you may one day be proven worthy of some kind of reward in this age then dispense with that thinking as soon as you can.

I very much want a job. A job, however, will not procure a future for me that is insured. I could land a great job tomorrow and I might die tomorrow and never get to work a day of that job. Or I might get laid off the first week of the job because of a budget cut or fired because I don't have the competence to perform the tasks I was hired to do or because the people who hired me decided they didn't want to keep training me. Or I might find a job that I work at for a year or two or ten. I don't know. As someone I used to know would sometimes say it, God only knows and He ain't telling.

Let the reader understand .. (HT Fearsome Tycoon on BHT)

Just follow the link. Either you'll get it or you won't. :-)