Thursday, January 31, 2008

C.S. Lewis on Worship

The always brilliant C.S. Lewis includes some further thoughts on worship in The Problem of Pain:

The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word 'love', and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. 'Thou has created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.' We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest 'well pleased'. To ask that God's love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled by certain stains in our present character, and because he already loves us He must labour to make us lovable....

Clashes of interest, and therefore opportunities either of selfishness or unselfishness, occur only between beings inhabiting a common world: God can no more be in competition with a creature than Shakespeare can be in competition with Viola. When God becomes a Man and lives as a creature among His own creatures in Palestine, then indeed His life is one of supreme self-sacrifice and leads to Calvary.... [W]hen God empties Himself of His glory and submits to those conditions under which alone egoism and altruism have a clear meaning, He is seen to be wholly altruistic. But God in His transcendence--God as the unconditioned ground of all conditions--cannot easily be thought of in the same way. We call human love selfish when it satisfies its own needs at the expense of the object's needs... [but] God has no needs.... God is goodness. He can give good, but he cannot need or get it. In that sense all His love is, as it were bottomlessly selfless by very definition; it has everything to give and nothing to receive....

Those divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshal us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted. He demands our worship, our obedience, our prostration. Do we suppose that they can do Him any good, or fear, like the chorus in Milton, that human irreverence can bring about 'His glory's diminution'? A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word 'darkness' on the walls of his cell. But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him (with that responsive love proper to creatures) and to love Him we must know Him: and if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces.... Yet the call is not only to prostration and awe; it is to a reflection of the Divine life, a creaturely participation in the Divine attributes which is far beyond our present desires. We are bidden to 'put on Christ', to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we think we want. Once more, we are embarrassed by the intolerable compliment, by too much love, not too little. [pgs. 40-43, 46-47]

New Look

As I wrap up my sixth month at C.Orthodoxy, I figured it was time to spruce up the place and add a picture to the masthead. I chose this image (I think it's London, though sadly I've not yet been there) because it highlights the contrast between modern society and the world beyond our own. It juxtoposes the sharp, hard facts of this present life with the expansive and glorious truths of eternity. It symbolizes how the line between heaven and earth is sometimes uneven and indistinct, but always beautiful and engaging.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Christian Carnival 209

Sunday's post on worship is included in Christian Carnival 209, up at Everyday Liturgy.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Why Worship?

The command to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5; Matt 22:37) is central to Christianity. But why? Is this merely a relic of an outdated worldview, a holdout from days when men would grovel at the feet of kings? Is not worship inherently demeaning, even dehumanizing? Worse, is not a command to worship inherently contradictory, an admission that God is not worthy enough to elicit spontaneous praise? Many think so, and view the Christian God as an egotistical dictator who demands worship on pain of (eternal) death. Even if such a God existed, it is sometimes suggested, worship would forever be a compromise, a betrayal of human dignity in the face of divine terror. Better to die a man (or woman), than live a slave.

Yet who among us hasn’t stood in awe of a waterfall or a sunset? Who hasn't cheered enthusiastically at a football game or concert? Is such a reaction “dehumanizing”? Hardly, more like an essential part of what it means to be human. How much more, then, ought we to praise the one who created every waterfall, sunset, mountain and valley, the one who dreamed up every star, planet, nebula and galaxy, the one who gave life to every flower, bird, tree and whale, the one who gives strength and skill to every athlete, musician, writer and mother?

If God truly is the source of all these good things, then what other reaction could possibly be appropriate but awe, wonder, praise and worship? Just as our rapture when listening to beautiful music means acknowledging something good beyond ourselves, worshipping God (the highest good) turns us away from ourselves to something better. As N.T. Wright notes, however, this does not reduce our humanity, but expands it:

You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship. Those who worship money become, eventually, human calculating machines. Those who worship sex become obsessed with their own attractiveness or prowess. Those who worship power become more and more ruthless.

So what happens when you worship the creator God whose plan to rescue the world and put it to rights has been accomplished by the lamb who was slain? The answer comes in the second golden rule: because you were made in God’s image, worship makes you more truly human. When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made, you do indeed grow. You discover more of what it means to be fully alive.
So why is it that not all who worship God become better people? Perhaps the answer lies in their vision of God. If you believe God is a cosmic dictator, and worship such a God, you will become more intolerant and harsh yourself. If, on the other hand, you believe God rules through self-sacrifice (cf. Rev. 5:6-14), and worship that God, you will be led to serve others in love.

But, it will still be objected, if God is so great, why should he need to command worship? Doesn’t the very fact that he does so (or rather, that people command worship for him) prove that he doesn’t really deserve it? Not at all. For if God truly is who Christians believe he is, then seeing him in his full glory would without a doubt bring us spontaneously to our knees. But we do not see the full glory of God in our everyday lives. At best, we get glimpses of it in the glories of creation and in the story of redemption, but we easily miss these things as we shuffle through life. Perhaps we need to be commanded to worship, because we need to be reminded of something bigger and grander than ourselves, and we too easily forget.

BSG - The Last Supper

This is brilliant:

Notice there is no Peter. The "hints" given here suggest this is because the final Cylon has not been revealed, but given Lee's position, I wonder if it doesn't also present an ambiguity about his destiny: Will his betrayal end in death (as Judas) or in redemption (as Peter)?

Galactica Station also notes that the season premier will be titled “He That Believeth in Me” (referencing John 11:25-26; HT: Church of the Masses). I’m more than a little concerned (though not surprised) that the Six is in the position of Jesus (and Baltar is the Beloved Disciple), but they have certainly caught my interest!

Friday, January 25, 2008

My So-Called Second Life Article

Since Salvo 4 is finally wrapping up (you can read a few of the articles here), it seems a good time to post my article from Salvo 3, focusing on the social impact of virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft. It's much too long to include in the post itself, so click here for a text-only version, or here for the full-color PDF (this is a large file). I'd love to hear your comments, whether you've tried anything like Second Life or not. Here's an excerpt:

The truth is that, more often than not, I find Second Life depressing. Perhaps it’s just my introverted personality (if only I could change that with a click of the mouse; I must have missed that section of the character creation page), but most people I meet here are wandering aimlessly, shopping, or sitting quietly in one of the many casinos that pay you to occupy their chairs. Regardless of when I log on, the world map always looks the same: a mostly abandoned landscape, speckled with pockets of a dozen people or so. Teleporting to one of these gatherings, I usually find everyone "dancing" to pre-programmed moves—another activity for which you can earn a small fee—not saying a word to each other. The picture of a meaningless existence? Well-to-do adults pole dancing in an empty bar for 25 cents an hour.

In our culture, we tend to think freedom is the highest good, but the empty cities of Second Life suggest otherwise. It’s not freedom we crave, but rather purpose. More even than the absence of physical sensation, Second Life proves surprisingly dull because there’s no goal—nothing needs to be done, so the freedom offered is meaningless. Game-focused MMOs, such as World of Warcraft, are better populated, in part because they have more constraints. Completing quests and winning battles provide a semblance of accomplishment. Compared to our world of dead-end jobs and unending housework, the possibility of being a hero, even if only in some artificial reality, can be enchanting. Sure, it may just be the illusion of meaning—the world is no better off afterwards than it was when you started; indeed, the very same quests await the next player—but it can be surprisingly addictive.

One additional note: Since this was published in August (and written in May), it is likely that some of the facts and figures are out of date (e.g. subscription totals), but hopefully my overall impressions and conclusions remain valid.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Battlestar Galactica Season 3

Battlestar Galactica, which will begin its fourth season in March, has long been one of my wife and my favorite shows. I absolutely loved the first season (see here for why), and the second was also excellent, but I was not so sure about the third season. Like the first two, it continued to force its characters into uncomfortable moral quandaries and beg its viewers to decide for themselves whether the right choices have been made. It also continued to weave together intriguing storylines, leading up to a fantastic season finale (e.g. I loved the whole music-Cylons subplot; if you’ve seen the show, you know what I mean). Even so, at times the episodes weren’t as exciting as I had come to expect, and I felt like some of the theological undercurrents had disappeared.

In an excellent pair of posts at Church of the Masses, here and here (spoiler warning!), Catholic screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi provides some engaging discussion of these issues. She admits that she also found herself disappointed with the third season, but upon second viewing she realized that the problem wasn’t the show itself, which was as brilliant as ever. Rather, she had allowed herself to look for a Cinderella/soap-opera kind of story, in a show that admirably refuses to provide one. Looking deeper, Nicolosi points out an impressive theological trajectory to the season’s central plot-line (centering on Kara and Lee). Perhaps I’m not as bright as she is, but the “obvious bunch of connections” she describes were anything but obvious to me. Fascinating!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

35 Years of Abortion

As you may already know, today marks the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal in the United States. Since that fateful day, an estimated 40 million abortions have been performed in this country alone. That's 40 million Americans, killed before they even had the chance to take a breath - 40 million unique individuals, human beings just like you and me, whose lives were cut tragically short, by another's choice.

I don't have much to say on a day like this, but Julie Grisolano has written a moving piece on the subject over at Signs of the Times. By all means, read it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

More Harry Potter and Christian Morality

Over at Mere Comments, S.M. Hutchens has an interesting post on Harry Potter's Christian trajectory:

The Rowling fantasy, for those who are able to see it, is a very typical moral tale of the Judeo-Christian west: it is the story (I have said elsewhere that this is the only real Story there is) of the hidden prince born in troubled obscurity, who finds it in himself to love good and oppose evil, and who, aided by a rather motley lot of companions, destroys at the forfeit of his life the kingdom of the Evil One, finally coming into his own and living happily ever after. It is the story of the Gospel; it is our story. To love it is to love the story of Christ and his church. Harry Potter is an imperfect Christ, to be sure, but what reasonable person would confuse the thing itself with its image?

Read the whole thing.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Glamorized Magic and Harry Potter

I finally convinced my wife to watch one of the Harry Potter films this week. She enjoyed it more than she expected, but remained concerned that these are marketed to children. Echoing a common Christian objection to the series, she asked: What if, by glamorizing magic, it leads kids to the occult? As adults, she admitted, we can see that this is fantasy, but kids are impressionable. I pointed out that the magic in Harry Potter bears no relation to any kind of real-world sorcery (no gods or demons are invoked or manipulated; they merely wave wands around and speak in Latin!). Then it occurred to me: If a movie’s effect on kids is truly one’s concern, Harry Potter ought to be much further down the list than it usually is.

If kids really are liable to copy what they see in their favorite films, shouldn’t we be much less concerned about magic, and much more concerned about glamorized violence? After all, a kid can practice waving a stick around all week and he’s not going to do any harm, but how many times does he need to see his heroes solve their problems by beating up or killing “bad guys,” before he considers trying that? If, on the other hand, a story can legitimately employ violence as a metaphor for the battle between good and evil, why cannot fictionalized magic be used in the same way?

Surely I’m not the first to have thought of this.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Christian Carnival 207

My previous post is included in this week's Christian Carnival. Thanks to Diary of 1 for hosting!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Of Sin and Judgment (A Dark Dream)

A man finds himself in a dark place. Skeletons line the walls, each bearing a name with a list of sins. The man starts to walk, confused and frightened but unsure where he is or how he got there. He soon finds a space without a corpse, just a name—his name—and with it another list: dishonesty, selfishness, theft, adultery. Stumbling back in horror, the man suddenly realizes where he is.

“No, this is a mistake!” he shouts to the empty room. “I may lie occasionally, but I’m no thief! If I’m self-focused, how is that worse than anyone else?” He turns his back to the charges as his voice grows louder, “I’m no adulterer!” But the empty room gives no response. “I don’t belong here; this is a mistake.” He repeats, and begins to run.

Racing through room after room, he sees that each is filled with the dead, and each space bears a name and a list. Other passages lead off in every direction, but he does not turn or slow. Soon the skeletons are replaced with bodies—perhaps they died more recently?—but he cannot stop to wonder. Further and further he goes until, with a start, he finds himself among the dying. Checking his pace, he notes the lists have gone, but they are hardly needed here. All around him people lying about helpless, or hunched up in corners, but even in their pitiful state, they are arguing, cheating, lying to one another. Some are crying in pain, others complaining, familiar words:

“I don’t belong here, I haven’t done anything wrong. Help!”

The man shudders, but offers no aid. All he wants is escape, and he again he begins to run. No longer looking around, he charges on for what seems like hours, until his legs ache and his breath a dry rattle. Finally taking in his surroundings, he sees finds himself in a dingy town filled with cold and lonely houses, their windows shut and doors barred. Hearing voices ahead, he sees a bar and hurries in. Exhausted and parched, he stumbles into a chair and begins to look around. The place is filled with people. But these are not dying like the others. Some are talking loudly, two are fighting, several are drinking, and most seem to be enjoying themselves, the couple in the corner—perhaps a bit too much. In truth, this scene confuses him more than anything else he has seen, but before he can think too long on it the bartender’s uncomfortable stare reminds him of his thirst and he hurries to the bar.

“What do ya want?” the bartender demands.

“Water, anything!” the man gasps.

“Water? How ‘bout a real drink?” comes the gruff reply.

“You don’t understand,” he responds, reddening, “I don’t have any money. I don’t even know how I got here!”

“No money, eh? Then what are ya doing in my bar?”

“Please, all I want is a glass of water!” the man begs.

But the bartender will not budge, “I don’t know you and you don’t know me, now get out of my bar before we have a real problem.” The place seems a lot less friendly now, as everyone turns to look.

Realizing nothing he says will help, the man turns to leave, but then sees someone’s mug on a table near the door. Without a thought, he grabs it and runs, diving out the door and around a corner. As he hides in the alley, a dozen angry men follow into the street, though they quickly give up the chase and return to their drinks.

Fearful and despondent, the man collapses against the wall in resignation. In all the commotion, he managed to spill the drink, and the few remaining drops only mock his thirst. With a sigh, he mutters: “What kind of town is this?” and is surprised to hear an answer.

“The only kind left,” says a voice behind him.

Turning with a start, the man sees a mournful looking woman standing in a doorway.

“What is this place?” he asks.

“Hell, I suppose, or maybe purgatory.”

“No, that can’t be! I don’t belong here!” he shouts for what seems the hundredth time. “I’m not a bad man; I’m no... thief,” he repeats, abruptly remembering the mug in his hand. Disgusted, he throws it aside and mutters, “I was dying of thirst.”

The woman just laughs and invites him in for a drink. Happily accepting, he follows her into a small apartment and sits down at the kitchen table. She brings him a glass of water, and he drinks greedily as he tries to wrap his mind around all that has happened.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” he finally concludes, “I was a good man. Maybe not a great one, but what did I do to deserve hell?” The woman attempts no answer. “And what about you?” he asks her, “You seem nice enough, what are you doing here?”

She just shrugs, “Maybe it’s not just what you did, but what you would do?” That brings him up short. “Did you ever steal before today?” she asks.

“No, never! Well, nothing serious, anyway. A pack of gum when I was a kid, or maybe some office supplies....” but he trails off, the words feel hollow now.

“Did you ever want to steal more, and only didn’t because you feared being caught?”

Feeling uncomfortable, the man changes the subject, “So what now? Is this it? You die, show up here, and then what?”

Again, the woman shrugs, “If this is hell,” she replies, “then what does it matter?”

“What do you mean if?” he retorts.

“Maybe it’s just a test,” she suggests, “you first found yourself among the dead, right? What sins were listed by your name? Since you left there, have you tried to avoid them?”

The man shifts in his seat, thinking first of those dying whom he ran past without a care. Selfishness, he mused, then he thought of the bar, and theft. And the next item on the list? Adultery, surely I wasn’t thinking of that! But he feels himself getting warm. It wouldn’t be the first time you'd wanted such a thing, a voice inside him mocks. Looking around this little apartment nestled behind the bar, he suddenly wonders what this woman does for a living.

As if reading his thoughts, she offers: “It seems to me you have a choice: Live as though this is the end, in which case nothing you do matters.” Did she just glance at the bedroom door? “Or live as though there is something more, in which case everything you do matters.”

And with a shock, the man awoke.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Blog-Level Ecumenism

Per Christum has some interesting analysis of the phenomena of “blog-level ecumenism,” which is well worth reading (HT: ThinkChristian). David argues that the rise of the blog has fostered a broad-based (though mostly unconscious) ecumenical movement which holds great potential for mutual understanding and cooperation among diverse Christian denominations. Though I rather doubt this will ever result in an institutional unification of Christianity, it is certainly capable of building bridges at an individual level. Indeed, my own awareness and appreciation of the diversity of Christianity has been vastly enlarged as a result of the time I have spent blogging, and I know I am not alone.

Though it is rather embarrassing to admit, not that many years ago I was a stereotypical fundamentalist Protestant, convinced that all Catholics and “liberal” Protestants were far from the truth and thoroughly lost. Though four years of college did a great deal to widen my perspective, it wasn’t until I began blogging that I ever really interacted with people from outside my tradition, nor realized how deeply my misconceptions went. That today I can enthusiastically link to a Catholic, writing on ecumenism, is supremely ironic considering where I started, and this change is largely due to the people I have met online. Indeed, my very blog-title is another irony; I had never even heard of Chesterton (a Catholic) until someone mentioned him on a blog. Such was my sheltered youth.