Man Up … Men, Women, Modesty and Lust Part Two

Roasted Brussels Sprouts by Mcmlxl, Creative Commons

Roasted Brussels Sprouts by Mcmlxl, Creative Commons

This is my second response to In my Emily Maynard’s Prodigal.net article, “Modesty, Lust, and My Responsibility.”   In my first article, I talked about modesty and women.  Now I want to talk about modesty, lust, and men.

Just as women get dehumanized and have their agency stripped away in this debate, becoming dress-up-dolls for our lusts or our self-righteous desires to control the way they dress, so too do men get dehumanized.  Sometimes literally: how many times have you heard someone say that “Men are dogs” or “Men are pigs” or “Men can’t control themselves?”  Even “Men are visual creatures, and are more affected by appearance than women are,” while gentler sounding, and not strictly speaking dehumanizing, still steals agency from men.

Women are not responsible for men’s sexual fantasies.  Men are.  Women are not responsible for men mentally objectifying them, thinking of them only in terms of sexual performance and fantasy.  Men are.  Men are not dogs or pigs.  We are human beings, made in God’s image, just like women are.  And if we are, on average, more visual than women, so be it.  If it causes a problem, it’s our problem.

I think all the men here can think back (maybe not that far) to a time when you either entertained or resisted the temptation to entertain a sexual fantasy about someone who dressed modestly, wearing clothes that were neither revealing nor highly sexualized.  How “modestly” do women need to dress to protect us from our own moral responsibility?  Maybe a burqa would do it, but I don’t think even the strictest anti-feminist wants to go there.

So what’s the take-away from this, not for women, but for men?  We have the power (with God’s help) to control what your mind does.  When we see an unusually attractive woman, especially if she’s dressed in a revealing manner, we usually get a rush of attraction.  But we have the power to decide what we’re going to do with that reaction.

Will we remember that she is a person, made in God’s image, just like we are, or will we reduce her to a sexual object in our imagination?  Will we keep her humanity in mind, or will we put the blame on her for how she looks or how she’s dressed?

That’s the question.  What will we choose to do.  Because this is a choice.  We always have the choice to remember her humanity.

  • How does she feel about Brussels sprouts? (EVERYONE has an opinion about Brussels Sprouts)
  • What’s her favorite band, her favorite sport, her favorite movie?
  • What about the last good book she read?  Does she prefer paper books or e-readers?
  • Does she like Farmville, or would she rather take you on in Call of Duty or Super Smash Brothers?

Sexual-fantasy-girl won’t be able to answer these questions, of course, because she isn’t real.  But the actual woman, the one who looked so hot on TV, on campus, or at the mall, can answer those questions.

Humanity.  That’s what it’s about.  Not wardrobe.

Proof-Texting and Cherry-Picking

Cherries from the Jerte Valley by Hispalois, Creative Commons

Cherries from the Jerte Valley by Hispalois, Creative Commons

It’s only human to sift through the evidence and latch on to any fragment that supports your case.  Prosecutors do it. Lawyers do it. Even preachers and theologians do it (there’s a song in there somewhere, I think).  It’s only human … which means it’s certainly not divine.

The things we believe are vital to our subconscious, especially in Evangelical Christian circles.  In a very large sense, we are what we believe. You’ve probably heard of confirmation bias, the tendency to subconsciously interpret the evidence before us (whether textual, physical, or statistical) in a way that’s consistent with our existing worldview.  We cherry-pick and reinvent to protect our self-image.  And most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

So it’s not that surprising when someone accuses me of not taking the Bible seriously.  What they generally mean is “Anyone who doesn’t agree with my interpretation of the Bible doesn’t really take the Bible seriously, and here are the proof-texts to prove it!”

As if using isolated verses out of context to prove your point in an internet debate actually amounts to taking the Bible seriously.

The Bible is simultaneously a divine work of amazing unity and a related group of human works spanning several centuries and many genres, including poetry, history, prophecy, apocalypse, epistles, and genealogies.  It’s kind of like Jesus in that way – simultaneously fully divine and fully human, as Peter Enns wrote.

Both aspects have to be appreciated and respected, if you want to take the Bible seriously.  Isolated verses thrown out with no cultural context (and in translation, no less), used to silence opposition and win arguments?  That’s how the world uses knowledge: as a weapon, a means to an end, with the end justifying the means.

I’ll quote a comment I made earlier (I won’t link to the debate, because I think that would just be “pointing fingers” at the person I was arguing with).

The truth is, we can cherry-pick individual verse and parts of verses from the Bible, and honestly, we can use them to “prove” anything – subjugation of women, Biblical support for slavery, predestination, free will, Manifest Destiny (the necessity of conquering “pagan savages” so you can teach them about Jesus), vegetarianism, socialism, capitalism, whatever.

THAT practice is what offends me. Not the scripture, but the use of individual verses (and verse-fragments) as a tool to back up whatever point we’re making.

The Bible can only be respected if it is studied as a whole unity, understanding that it was divinely inspired, but written by human hands. We respect it and take it seriously by studying it as a whole, praying for God’s guidance, AND by learning about the genres, culture, and lives lived by the people who first heard it.

The point is not that I’m wiser or more spiritual than some random person I’m arguing with on the Internet.  I’m not.  I’m as vulnerable to confirmation bias as anyone.  I’m as prone to cherry-pick and proof-text as anyone.

The point is, we all have to be aware – and beware – of our own biases and tendencies.  We want the Bible to shape what we believe, but too often it’s the other way around.  Sometimes I think we’d all be better off if we stuck with the basics:  Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

Prayer For September 11

World Trade Center Memorial by Derek Jensen

Memorial by Derek Jensen, 2004

Father, in Heaven, Holy One,

As we remember that terrible day, we pray

Please bring your healing to all those who lost loved ones

On that day, in the battles that followed, and in the wars to come

Protect us here, and protect our soldiers abroad

Be our shield, our strength, our portion, our vision

That no more buildings may burn

That no more towers may fall.

Holy Father, give restraint and peace to my countrymen

So no more mosques or gyro joints will burn.

Give wisdom and grace to us, as Christians

So that we may say, “not my will, but yours be done,”

So that we can pray for violent hearts to turn,

So that we can pray for souls and lives to be won,

Lord, we pray for America and Americans.

Force us to our knees,

So that we can learn to pray

For Iraqi, Afghani, even for Taliban

Even as they seek to shed our blood.

Lord, give us strength to offer those prayers genuinely

For we know that saying prayers for our enemies is easy

But meaning them is hard.

Just as loving them is hard.

Yours is the power.

Yours is the glory.

Help us belong to your kingdom,

Forever and ever,

Amen.

One Night with the Mayor…Retelling the Esther Story

Esther in King Xerxes's Harem, by Edwin Long 1878

Esther in King Xerxes’s Harem, by Edwin Long 1878

“Your daughter sure is pretty,” the sheriff said.  Then he spat.  A line of tobacco flew from his mouth, splattering like a twisted branch on the dry ground.  He reeked of stale sweat and old chew, and his pale eyes gleamed from within the fleshy folds of his face. “All willow-thin and fresh-faced. Oh, my.”

Essie looked up at her uncle, then back at the hulking lawman, her dark eyes wide.

The big man with the big leather belt and the big black gun just grinned and tipped his hat.  “Even her nose is perfect.  Not a big beak like most o’ you Jews.”  He ran his thumb across the side of his nose, then continued, not even looking at Mordecai.  “Course, I know she’s not really your daughter.  Her parents are dead, aren’t they?”

“Please,” Mordecai said, “she’s only thirteen.”

Even in the heat of August, Essie shuddered.  Her Bat Mitzvah – and her first flow – had come only two month ago.

“That’s okay.  The Mayor likes ’em young.”  The sheriff tugged at the strap of his Sam Browne belt while his gaze crept over every inch of Esther’s body.  “Maybe not this young.  I think we’ll keep her around the mansion for a while, till she ripens up a little.”  He cupped his hands at chest level and mimed squeezing.  “I think a year will do it.”

“Sheriff -”  Mordecai’s face grew red.  He knew not to appeal any further to this pig’s sense of decency.  Obviously, he had none.

The sheriff laughed so hard his belly shook.  “I told you the Mayor likes ’em young.  Don’t worry, little Essie, you’ll have plenty of company.  He’s got every pretty little thing in the county livin’ up there.  I think you’ll be the only Jew-girl, but that don’t matter much. I’m sure you’ll pretty up just as well as the rest of them, if they can get your hair to behave.  I declare, girl, it’s wild as a badger’s backside.”

“Damn you -”

“What are you upset about?” The Sheriff said, turning on Mordecai, “The Mayor’s gon’ choose a new wife when all this is over.  Your little Essie here could be the new first lady, live in that mansion forever, maybe even do some good for your scrawny little tribe.”  He snorted. “If she pleases him.”  He leaned in close to Esther, his breath thick and dank, his eyes hard as diamonds.  “You know anything about pleasing a man, little girl?”

“That’s enough!” Mordecai snarled, pulling Esther back and raising his fist.

The sheriff stepped back, surprisingly nimble for all his bulk.   “Watch your step, boy.  We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”  He tapped the butt of his revolver, as if to remind them both what ‘the hard way’ meant.  “Either way, the girl goes with me.”

Mordecai swallowed hard.  “Go with him,” he whispered, “I’ll find a way to be there for you.  Just keep yourself alive.  And remember who you are.  Remember where you come from.”

Esther swallowed hard, tensing her jaw and raising her head.  She would not let him see her tears.  She walked, head held high,  to the sheriff’s car, sliding into the back seat like a prisoner, and like a queen.

The preceding, despite being time-shifted 2,500 years, and despite the liberties I took with Mordecai’s social status and the secrecy surrounding Esther’s religion and ethnicity, was still a far more accurate and truthful retelling of how Esther came to be in King Xerxes’ Harem than the rape-apologist, misogynist “exegesis” Mark Driscoll posted and preached Sunday.  An “exegesis” so wrong, so dangerous, that refutations have sprung up like white blood cells at the site of infection.  Rachel Held Evans has a good one (and kudos to her for bringing this to my attention).  So does Sarah Over the Moon.  So does Can’t Catch My Breath.

Honestly, I think (and hope) there can be some value to seeing an old story in a different setting.  Maybe we can see Esther’s humanity and stop slut-shaming one of God’s heroes, a true woman of valor.

…On the Other Hand, America Isn’t Righteous Now (part 1)

I always heard it was okay to talk to yourself, that you should only really get worried when you start arguing with yourself.  Well, here goes…

Over the last three days, I’ve taken my shots at the idea that America was once a righteous nation, and that we’re now in a deep moral decline.  You can read the details here, here, and here.  And I still believe that’s true: we have the lowest violent crime rate in 40 years and the lowest abortion rate in 20 years.  Our violent crime rate’s been decreasing almost every single year for the last 20 years, even through the Great Recession.  Hatred and discrimination are fading like cancer markers after a round of chemotherapy.

That said, I would be a liar and a hypocrite if I didn’t point out the counterarguments.  Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely no time period in American history where “righteous” even comes close to fitting.  To be “righteous,” a man or nation cannot be blemished by hatred or greed or arrogance or corruption.  Tell me there was one minute since America’s founding where these did not apply.  Righteousness requires nothing less than perfection, otherwise it’s just filthy rags.

But it is also true that twenty-first century America has some real issues and problems that twentieth-century America didn’t.  I already mentioned easy access to pornography.  This danger can’t be overstated.

Filmed pornography is a powerful social evil not only because of its corrosive effect on its viewers, but because of the sometimes awful conditions its performers work under, as Chris Hedges highlights here.  Too many (though of course not all) porn performers have suffered sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence.  Many struggle with addiction to painkillers, which often have to be taken because of the … difficult and uncomfortable … feats they are called on to perform.  Some of the shiftier, “amateur” productions even use trafficked women as “performers.”

The commoditization of sexuality has seeped into our culture, almost subconsciously.  Just as women are achieving professional equality, and even exceeding men in college enrollment, objectification takes an ugly turn.  The motive may be profit, but the effect of making films of violent, rough group sex is to put women back in their place, not as equals, but as “sluts” and “whores.”

And I don’t think it’s just visual pornography that’s damaging.  Fifty Shades of Gray may be famous, but it’s just one example of a massively profitable written erotica business, aimed mostly at women.  While it’s true that no actors were harmed in the making of this novel, that doesn’t mean it isn’t spiritually dangerous to the readers.  Sadomasochistic elements aside, can there be any benefit from turning our sexual imaginations away from intimacy and toward spectacle, performance, and anatomical dimensions?

I wandered into this genre thanks to Laurel K. Hamilton.  Her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series began as paranormal noir, featuring a strong female character who was actually celibate.  Anita had been burned by her ex-fiance, and had decided to wait to have sex until she was really married.  That, combined with an interesting love triangle, provided an unusual and fascinating emotional backdrop for the supernatural crimes she investigated.

There were no sex scenes in the first five books.  The sixth had one relatively short scene, which was unremarkable for the noir genre.  Then, things changed.  Each book became more and more explicit, adding in elements of bondage, sadomasochism, group sex, etc. until the genre had utterly switched to erotica.  Not even paranormal romance, but erotica.

And more than a few of her long-term readers were left shaking our heads, wondering if anyone got the number of the bus that hit us.

I’m not saying this to condemn Ms. Hamilton: she can write what she wants.  Clearly, the market agrees.  Her sales numbers have not fallen off.  But I’ve read this stuff, and I know that for me, at least, it’s not healthy.  It’s not okay.  I’d wager that St. Paul would not call it  profitable or beneficial.

It’s also an example of how, as Pamela Paul wrote, “it is easier to get pornography than avoid it.”  I started reading a series with no sex scenes, no indication that there would even be explicit sex scenes, and after I’d gotten attached to the characters, things changed.

Not that I needed a book to swerve me.  After all, my Spam Folder is full of things I wouldn’t dare repeat here.  The hardest of the hardcore is just a Google Search away.  And, as the pornification of America progresses, “mainstream” movies and tv shows begin to push – not pornography itself, but a sex-as-commodity mindset that is the most damaging part of porn.

And how do we shelter our kids from this?  I have no idea.  I have a feeling our  computers will grow passwords and monitoring software before our (as yet unborn) child figures out how to turn them on.  That’s not a 100% solution, not even close.  Kids can get access at other peoples’ houses.  But I’m not sure there’s any way to prepare children for something like this.

I don’t actually have a solution.

One thing I can definitely try to do is be a part of whatever solution does exist, rather than part of the problem.  I will do my best to avoid even semi-pornographic material and to purge every vestige of sex-as-commodity thinking that has seeped into my brain.  That’s the first step.

Things I Don’t Understand: When America Was Righteous (Part 3 of 3)

Homeless Child

In Part One, I broke down how no era, no decade in American history could really be referred to as “righteous.”  In Part Two, I spoke about the information overload that destroys our ability to not know about the evil the world, and how it pushes us to yearn for a simpler, more sheltered time.

I really think that’s the main emotional and psychological driver behind the “return to a more righteous time” meme.  But I’m being charitable here.  If I were being cynical, I’d say it’s just that people are angry at cussing on TV, and at “the gays.”  Kids these days!  Get off my lawn!

The truth is, even yearning for a simpler time is callous an inhumane. I can’t condone yearning for a simpler time, when respectable white people could be sheltered from the suffering of the brown folk.  Suffering that was often caused by  the respectable white folk.  “Eat your food: there are children starving in Africa.”  And African-Americans like Emmett Till getting lynched in America.

If our national morality rests on Mayberry RFD and stopping gay marriage, then we’ve already failed.   If our hope rests on  turning back the clock to a time when we could pretend we weren’t living in a fallen, broken, needy world, we’ve really failed. There’s a world out there that’s crying out in need.

For the price of dinner for two at Olive Garden, you could provide mosquito netting or school supplies that could mean everything to a child in Sri Lanka or sub-Saharan Africa.

If you want to make America a moral nation again, think of someone other than yourself .  Go to Worldvision and donate – sponsor a child or give a one-time gift to buy seeds, mosquito netting, school supplies, medical help, whatever.  Then go to Kiva and make micro-loans to help build businesses in the poorest countries, to build up their wealth and infrastructure so (in time) they won’t need our donations.

Your vote won’t make America a righteous nation again.  It can’t.  America has never been a righteous nation.  We’ve never been the hope of the world, the city on the hill.  Jesus is the hope of the world.

At our best, America has been an example to the world.  Our constitution with its bill of rights, freedom of conscience, and representative government gave birth to the modern democracy.  Nations across the world have followed in our footsteps, and been much better for it.  But remember, when the revolution was won and the constitution written, it only applied to white men.

 

It’s true that America’s been the world’s police officer, stopping rogue states and defending weaker nations from aggression.  Stepping up to fight the Nazis during WW2 was not only necessary, it was virtuous.  But even then, our soldiers were segregated, and thousands of Japanese were imprisoned without trial or charges, just because of their race.  We may do righteous things as a nation, but we are not a righteous nation.

America is and has been a great nation, an exceptional nation, but we’ve never been a righteous nation.  No nation ever has.  Even ancient Israel wasn’t.  They failed God time and time again, turning to pagan gods that demanded terrible sacrifices.  Solomon, that great wise king, enslaved foreigners to built God’s temple [2 Chron 2:17-18].  He sank to the level of the Pharaohs who’d enslaved Israel just a few centuries earlier.

Our nation runs on money and power, like every other nation in history.  The kingdom of God runs on faith, hope, and active, self-sacrificing love.  The best we can hope for is – as Christians, individually, and together – to be instruments of God’s grace and mercy within our nation, and beyond.

We can use our unearned favor, the wealth and power we have as Americans, to help those who suffer in abject poverty every day.  Whole families’ lives could be radically changed for the price of our cable TV fees.  We can use our time to reach out to our neighbors – our literal neighbors, not the circle of friends we have because they’re just like us.  We can take risks and build relationships with people who think differently than we do, look different, vote for the other side, are different ages, religions, and races.  We can try to love the world as Jesus loves us.

Maybe, just maybe, if we do all that, the world will look at us and say, “Hey, those Americans, they’re not so bad.  They actually take care of each other.  They even help the poorest of the poor, people who can’t pay them back.  I guess those Starbucks-drinking, McDonalds-eating, Wal-Mart-shopping folks maybe they are onto something.”

If we’re really lucky, they’ll say that about us as Christians.  No matter who you vote for, your vote won’t glorify God.  But your actions can.  Where your treasure is, there your heart is also [Matthew 6:21].  Will you put your treasure in the ballot box?  Will you store it in an idealized and inaccurate view of the past? Or will you give it to those who need it most?

The choice is yours.

Things I Don’t Understand – When America Was Righteous (Part 2 of 3)

Howdy Doody display.  Photo by Volkan Yuksel, Creative Commons

Howdy Doody display. Photo by Volkan Yuksel, Creative Commons

In Part 1 I deconstructed American history, briefly giving reasons why no decade could really be considered a time when America was “righteous.”  Today, I want to know why the “recapturing our more righteous past” and “moral decline” memes persist.  Why are they so powerful?  Do we really think there was a time of real goodness and Christlikeness in our nation’s past?

I think I can answer that.  When I was a child, when the Internet was just a tool for scientists and military techs, the world really was simpler.  I was a white, upper-middle class, heterosexual, boy from the dominant religion (Protestant).

I had the great outdoors, my toys, my friends, a lot of books, and three TV channels (ABC, PBS, and a  UHF station that later picked up the FOX programming, but mostly showed Star Trek, The Three Stooges, and black and white westerns).  If the weather was perfect, we might get CBS or even NBC, but generally not long enough to watch an entire show.  And on those five channels, the rules were strict.  MASH was about as risqué as it got.  I hardly even knew any swear words until elementary school.

I never thought of it as that idyllic – I was an only child with a high IQ and mediocre social skills.  On the first day of first grade I asked the teacher why Great Britain was apologizing to the Falkland Islands when they’d started the whole thing.  Not a question she was expecting, and not one that endeared me to my classmates.

I remember childhood as fighting bullies (almost constantly) and worrying about inflation, terrorism, and the waning Soviet Union.  I knew far too early that Mommy and Daddy couldn’t stop the bad guys.

But I was the exception.  Most of my friends and acquaintances weren’t only children.  They had brothers and nearby cousins to socialize them early.  Likewise, they didn’t notice world events, didn’t feel the Sword of Damocles that was the Cold War.  They were sheltered.

My parents’ generation?  While they were playing with their dolls in 1955, Emmett Till, a black child not much older than they were, was being lynched for talking to a white woman.  But they were sheltered.  They were children.  Their world was innocent, and they didn’t know.

And today?  Today the Internet brings massive amounts of information, both good and bad.  I still remember a man telling me that his grandson had been looking at Internet porn, and how shocked he was at the content (he found out because his computer got a bad virus, and the computer repairman told him.  I guess computers get STDs, too).

He said that boys of a certain age will want to know about the opposite sex, to find out what they don’t know, so to speak.  But that in his day they might find a Playboy with some nudity, but not full video of graphic (and sometimes really rough, demeaning) sex acts.  So in the past, even in adolescent transgressing, we were sheltered.

That shelter is gone.  And the danger, especially from pornography, has multiplied tenfold.  I won’t argue against that at all.  Kids can easily find ways to get into much more damaging trouble that they could even twenty years ago.

Information overload has made it hard for us to believe in the things that are going well.  Sure, here in America we have our lowest violent crime rate in 40 years and our lowest abortion rate in 20 years.  But we hear about everything, every crime that’s flashy enough to be newsworthy is played and replayed endlessly.  And it feeds our fear, creates a moral crisis.  Something has to be done!  But crime rates have been falling for 20 years, why don’t we keep doing what we’re doing, and watch them keep falling?

Another thing the flood of information has done has made it much harder to pretend that just because things are going well for you, that they’re going well for everyone.  Now we know, thanks to the Internet and media, about all the suffering in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East.  We know about eleven year old girls facing execution for “blasphemy,” and nine year old brides.  We know about brutal crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations in Syria and Iran.  We know about “vanishings” and torture and terrible things even our own government has done.

We know, if we bother to look, that the factories preparing our food torture the animals mercilessly, confining pigs in cages they can’t even turn around in, and leaving them there all their lives, cramming chickens in, stacked on top of each other, fed a constant diet of antibiotics to keep them alive.

A half dozen huge corporations get over 80% of all farm subsidies, and they treat their livestock horribly.  The proof is not for the faint of heart.   This includes a video that is definitely not for the faint of heart.

And we know that children whose parents live on $2,500 a year (less than I make in a month – not our household income, just my paycheck) struggle to find fresh water, die of malaria or dengue fever because of mosquitoes that merely annoy us here, and, if they live, end up as child brides, prostitutes, or slaves working to gather the cocoa that feeds our sweet tooth.

Meanwhile, we live in unearned wealth, granted by the good fortune of being born in the industrialized world instead of the developing world.

So, yeah, the fallen-ness of our world hits us like a jackhammer now.  We can’t sit, shielded by our white, wealthy, American privilege, immune to the pain of a suffering world.  Well, we can, but we have to actively tune it out, harden our hearts like Pharaoh, and lash out in anger at anyone who breaks the illusion.  It’s a defense mechanism, true, but it’s not one that our faith allows us.  Matthew 25 tells the story.  Are we Christ’s lambs, or the world’s goats?

On the other hand, it could just be that people are angry at cussing on TV and the gays.

Things I Don’t Understand: When America Was Righteous (Part 1 of 3)

Signers of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy

Signers of the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940

I hear a lot of people talk about America’s moral decline.  There’s a real sense of lost innocence and yearning for a (morally) better time.  I even hear that America was once a Christian nation.  As a student of history, I’m wondering when? 

When Was America Righteous?

(Bear with me.  This next part may sound harsh, but I promise, I’m going to be kind again soon)

At its founding, when chattel slavery was written into the Constitution?

During its expansion, when American armies slaughtered thousands of indigenous people in the name of Manifest Destiny?

After the Civil War, when the Ku Klux Klan rode across the south, terrorizing and freed men who tried to vote or learn to read?  When the sharecropper system substituted economic slavery for legal?

During the Gilded Age, when monopolies like Carnegie Steel and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and massive political machines bought and sold laws?  When immigrants and workers in unsafe factories, when children worked twelve hour days in mines?  When the U.S. Navy was sent to Latin America to defend the interests of American corporations?

During World War I, when a generation of young men was sent to die for England in a war we had no share in?  When those who opposed the war openly were jailed?  When we let England and France force Germany into a peace treaty so odious it set the stage for Nazi rule and World War II?

During the “Roaring Twenties,” the time of the flappers and speakeasies, when organized crime rose to heights never seen before, setting the stage for fifty years of American mafia?

During the Depression, when national relief efforts openly discriminated against minorities, when the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced, when Jim Crow ruled the South?

During World War II, when Italian-, German-, and Japanese-Americans were imprisoned for the crime of their ethnicity?

During the fifties, the age of Ozzie and Harriett, Emmett Till, and the bombing of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home?  When Governor Orval Faubus uses the National Guard to block the integration of Little Rock High School?

Maybe the sixties, with the Viet Nam war, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy?

Or the seventies?  Watergate, Viet Nam, the drug war?  The days of disco and tearoom trades?

Was it the eighties?  “Greed is good?”  “Cocaine parties?” Iran-Contra?  “Just Say No” and the crack epidemic?  Well, we did have Republican Presidents, so maybe that was it?

The nineties?  Surely not.  Gangsta Rap.  Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski.  The birth of Internet pornography…

Well, that brings us to the 21st century.

The point here is not to be sarcastic, or to be unpatriotic.  I truly believe America is a great nation, even an exceptional nation.  But we have never been a righteous nation.  Nations run on power and money, and we all know that nobody can serve two masters [Matthew 6:24].  Maybe that’s why God was so reluctant to give Israel a king [1 Samuel ch. 8].

As Americans, we can be righteous and merciful.  We can steer our nation to be more godly, to sow peace and life, rather than greed and death.  But we should never forget that we are a nation of power and wealth, like all other nations (including Israel, ancient and modern).  We should never forget that America is not the hope of the world.  Jesus is.

 

 

(In part two, I’ll give my theories as to why the “America’s righteous past” meme is so persistent and powerful.)

 

The Art of Vulnerability

Nietzsche Quote

As Christians, we have to be willing to step outside our comfort zones, something I’m not very good at.  I’m not a naturally outgoing person.  I tend to prefer books and numbers and art and ideas to people and social gatherings.  Of course, I get as lonely as anybody else if I do not get enough social interaction.  I’m incredibly thankful that I’m married to a woman who not only understands this, but feels very much the same (though she’s more focused on music than on books and numbers).

But I think that going outside our comfort zones almost by definition means doing things we’re not so good at.  Don’t get me wrong: I think God made us the way we are for a reason.  I think our talents and temperaments are not accidents, but gifts.  And so I will probably never be called to lead a Billy Graham-style crusade, preaching to millions, or even work as a pastor, dealing with an entire congregation in groups and one on one settings.  But if I ever am, I know I’ll have to step up and do it, trusting that God will give me the strength to fulfill His call.

So, what does that mean here, in the written word?

I think, for me at least, it means vulnerability.  Nietzsche famously said, “of all writing, I love only that which a man has written in his own blood.”  I think that (if I may be so bold as to speak for Him), God may feel the same way.

Vulnerability goes beyond honesty.  A person may be completely honest, as far as it goes, while writing about topics that never require him to lay himself bare, to intentionally make himself look weak or foolish or flawed.  But only by appearing weak and foolish and flawed can we really glorify God.

And this goes for fiction as well as blogging and memoir (those who know me know I’ve always written fiction, and I’ve always struggled with being truly happy with what I create).  It’s hard, when trying to juggle plot, character, character voice, and prose style to really be vulnerable.  It’s not easy to let an ugly, doubt-ridden, questioning, disappointed, vulnerable part of myself spill out into the characters, especially not a character I like.  It’s not easy; in fact, it hurts.  But it is, I believe, necessary.

So what do you think?  Should our brokenness before God show through in everything we write?  Is there a place for confident, even didactic prose?  What about didactic, prescriptive fiction?  And are we ready, as Christians in an often-sanitized culture, to confront each others’ vulnerabilities?

The Danger of Being Right, Part 1

One of the worst temptations I’ve ever had to fight was the temptation of being right.  Let me explain.

 

When I’m right, when I really, truly believe I’m right, I am without doubt.

When I am without doubt, I stop asking questions.

When I stop asking questions, I start telling other people the answers.

When I start telling other people the answers, I argue with the ones that disagree with me.

When I argue with the ones that disagree with me, I really want to win the argument.

When I really want to win the argument (for Jesus!) I pull no punches.

When I pull no punches, I hurt people and bring shame to the cause of Christ.

 

And that’s why it’s dangerous to be right.

Chick-Fil-A day?  A great day for “freedom of speech,” but a bad day to be gay in America, and a terrible day for anyone who actually wants to bring gay people into the Church.  You want uglier examples?  The Crusades.  Slavery.  Manifest Destiny.  Guantanamo Bay.

Show me one place where Jesus or the apostles operated like this.  Well, Paul did, but back then, they called him Saul.  But one encounter on the road to Damascus changed all that.  When we’re right, and we really know it, we’ll roll over anybody who stands in our way, and we’ll do it in the name of Jesus.

Because if we’re right, and they’re not just like us, they’re wrong.  And if they’re wrong, then we have to defeat them.   And if we have to defeat them, we need to take the gloves off.  And when we take the gloves off, we hurt people and bring shame to the cause of Christ, whether it’s Guantanamo Bay, Chick-Fil-A, or arguing on Facebook.

Doubt is our friend.  Not doubt of Jesus’s resurrection, or God’s love and grace, but doubt of ourselves, doubt of our own rightness, our own righteousness.  After all, didn’t the prophet Isaiah say our righteousness is nothing but filthy rags?