Saturday, May 31, 2008

Five Blogs that Make My Day and Make Me Think

Carmen at In the Open Space very kindly named me as one of “5 blogs that make my day and make me think” as part of the following meme:

1. Write a post with links to 5 blogs that make me think and/or make my day.
2. Acknowledge the post of the award giver.
3.Tell the award winners that they have won by commenting on their blogs with the news!
Since Carmen took the third point as optional, I think I will too, but I'm happy to recognize a few of my fellow-bloggers. In fact, I’d like to include Carmen herself in such a list (along with a couple of the five she listed: Barbara Nicolosi and James McGrath), but here are five more that I’ve especially appreciated lately, in no particular order:

ThinkChristian – a group blog which posts a lot of good stuff.
Catholic and Enjoying It – Mark Shea always has informative and humorous things to pass along.
Notes from Off-Center – Drew Tatusko is interested in many of the same things I am, and tends to be better read on every subject.
Rumblings – Ryan Duack doesn’t post often, but his work is always worth the wait.
Stuff Christians Like – Jon helps me laugh at myself, and think more clearly about how I live.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Selfishness and Sacrifice in LOST: There’s No Place Like Home

I only started watching LOST a couple months ago, but thanks to ABC.com generously offering all four seasons in HD – for free! – I’ve been able to catch up in time to watch the last few episodes live, and man am I hooked. Last night’s season finale reminded me why this has become my new favorite show (sorry Battlestar). “There’s No Place Like Home” had everything I could want in a TV show: mystery and revelation, action and suspense, character and charm, and one shocker of an ending. As Carmen Andres has noted, however, perhaps the best thing about it was its exploration of the opposites of selfishness and sacrifice (spoiler warning).

“There's No Place Like Home” included a number of powerful moments of selfishness – especially when Ben callously murdered Keamy, knowing full well it could mean the deaths of everyone on the boat – and ultimate sacrifice, as when Michael and Jin stay behind to give the others a chance to escape before the boat is destroyed. As for Ben moving, and leaving, the island, we don’t yet know if that was truly a sacrifice, or yet more selfishness. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this theme lay in the contrast between Jack and Sawyer.

Since the beginning, LOST has presented Jack and Sawyer as opposites: Jack has always been the selfless one, his only goal to ensure that his fellow castaways get home. Sawyer, on the other hand, has always been self-focused, concerned only for his own survival. Even their appearances reflected the contrast – Jack was always clean-cut and respectable, while Sawyer was gruff and uncivilized. But ever since Season Three ended with a drunk and bearded Jack, back in Los Angeles, actually hoping another plane will crash so that he might return to the island, their roles have been reversed. Throughout Season Four we’ve seen him descend from everything he stood for, most notably when he held a gun to Locke’s head and pulled the trigger in “The Beginning of the End.” Now in the two-part Season Finale we find that three years after escaping the island, he has not only become a drunk, but has abandoned Kate and Aaron, and is willing to do just about anything – even trust Ben – to get back.

Meanwhile, Sawyer has moved the opposite direction, and broken free from his old selfishness. Again, we saw a hint of this (though not the first) at the end of Season Three, when Sawyer turned back to save Sayid, Jin and Bernard in “Through the Looking Glass.” His newfound nobility has also been seen, for instance, in “The Shape of Things to Come,” when he risked his life to save Claire from the attack on the Barracks. Now in the two-part finale, his transformation seems to be complete. In the first half, he turned Jack’s signature line (“live together or die alone”) against him, by insisting that “You don’t get to die alone.” Then in the second half, he does what even Jack was unwilling to do: sacrifice himself to save the rest in the helicopter. While Jack remains silent, it is Sawyer who tells Kate he loves her then gives up his chance to escape. I love the symbolism too: his plunge into the water seems a kind of baptism, which leads to new life for himself (back on the island) and for the rest (who escape on the helicopter). Jack, meanwhile, is nothing more than a spectator to this scene, and as we have seen – he comes to dearly regret that he too did not stay behind.

In so reversing Jack and Sawyer’s roles, LOST has not only presented a powerful image of the nature and results of these two essential options – life-giving sacrifice or soul-destroying selfishness – but also emphasized the inescapably present choice between them. The decision between selfishness and sacrifice is not once for all, but a constant demand. It doesn’t matter how noble Jack was, unless he continues to be so. It doesn’t matter how selfish Sawyer was; for today he can make a new start. Virtue is never satisfied with the past, but awaits each new decision. No one can rest on their past deeds as proof of their character or hope, and no one is so far lost that they can’t find their way home. Sawyer seems to have learned that, as did Michael and Charlie and many others before them; I just hope that Jack, too, will remember it before the end.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Quote - Barth on God and Truth

Sorry posting has been so light this week; I've been engrossed in other writing projects, and will likely remain so for at least the next week. In the mean time, here's another quote that I find interesting, by Karl Barth, in his Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (no, Evangelicalism is not merely an American aberration!). I'm not sure what he means by appealing to the Greek aletheia here, but I like his emphasis on God's truth (or, I would say, our ability to know it) being necessarily historical and revelatory. It is only because God reveals himself in history that we can know him at all:

The object of evangelical theology is God in the history of his deeds. In this history he makes himself known. But in it he also is who he is.... The God of the Gospel, therefore, is neither a thing, an item, an object like others, nor an idea, a principle, a truth, or a sum of truths. God can be called the truth only when "truth" is understood in the sense of the Greek word aletheia. God's being, or truth, is the event of his self-disclosure, his radiance as the Lord of all lords, the hallowing of his name, the coming of his kingdom, the fulfillment of his will in all his work. (pg. 9)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Dilbert Comic

This is great (HT Telic Thoughts):

Quote - Theology and Metaphor

I was reminded of this while reading some of James McGrath’s recent discussions of theology and metaphor (e.g. here); here’s Hans Boersma, from Violence, Hospitality and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition:

Although there are indeed differences between what we call “literal” and “metaphorical” language, this does not mean that we can understand literal language as “more rational” and hence “more real” and therefore giving better descriptions of reality.... No matter how carefully we try to analyze and unwrap the meaning of the metaphor, we can never quite give a literal description that conveys the exact same sense as the metaphor. Just as an explanation of a piece of art can never quite capture the full richness of the artwork, so also every attempt to unpack the metaphor will be only partially successful....

Colin Gunton argues that because the world can be known only indirectly, metaphor is really “the most appropriate form that a duly humble and listening language should take. In all of this, there is a combination of openness and mystery, speech and silence, which makes the clarity and distinctness aimed at by the rationalist tradition positively hostile to truth.” (pgs. 102 and 105; citing The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality, and the Christian Tradition, pgs. 37-38)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Christian Carnival CCXXV and Prince Caspian

This week’s Christian Carnival is being hosted by Parableman and includes my review of Prince Caspian.

I’d also like to point out Carissa Smith’s piece at Christ and Pop Culture, which very helpfully extends my suggestion that faith in Caspian is trust rather than belief.

Finally, if you’re familiar with the original Narnia books, you might find this Letter to His Imperial Majesty Aslan funny (though it’s a little crude; HT: ThinkChristian). Excerpt:

In the course of talking-animal events, it may become necessary for one animal—or human—or divine being—to come and rescue Narnia from its deepest, darkest hours. We're cool with that. We're just saying ...

Why does it have to be kids?...

Frankly, we'd be less concerned were it not for our understanding that your true intentions are less to help us and more to help these children understand their own religion, which, we admit, sounds pretty confusing. End result: the kids get a deeply transforming religious experience, and we get left with @#$%. Excuse our language, but we're basically animals here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Quote - Chesterton on The Permanent Miracles

G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross:

It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles.

Monday, May 19, 2008

"Disaster Fatigue"

In 2004, the South East Asia Tsunami killed around 225,000 people; Americans responded by donating 1.92 billion dollars in aid. In the last month, the cyclone in Myanmar (130,000 dead or missing) and the earthquake in China (60,000 dead or missing) have combined to kill nearly 200,000 people; Americans have responded by donating… 12.1 million dollars:

Charities know this as "donor fatigue," but it might be more accurately described as disaster fatigue — the sense that these events are never-ending, uncontrollable and overwhelming....

Compared with disasters like the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, those in China and Myanmar have generated just a trickle of aid. As of Friday, Americans had given about $12.1 million to charities for Myanmar, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. The group said on Monday that it was too soon to count contributions to China....

This problem came up after the 2004 Asian tsunami, an event that brought an avalanche of $1.92 billion in charity from the United States, according to the Giving USA Foundation. Hurricane Katrina eight months later generated even more, $5.3 billion.

But then fatigue seemed to set in. The earthquake in Pakistan that killed nearly 80,000 people generated just $150 million from Americans. And the Guatemala mudslide shortly thereafter that killed at least 800 was virtually forgotten.

If one disaster can be galvanizing, several in a row can be paralyzing.

I don't want this to be a guilt trip, and I know money is tight for everyone right now, but please consider giving anything you can (for instance, through World Vision); we can do a lot better than this.

Quote - Art and the True Hero

From Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts, by Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin:

Truthfulness demands complexity. It requires that our biographies, novels and screenplays have flawed heroes. In fact it is impossible to create or portray a convincing 'good' character unless they do come complete with warts, failure and sheer bloody-mindedness. Equally important is to remember that even the worst villains are made in the image of God. Even murderers love their mothers, as Dead Man Walking memorably portrayed. In fact, the very best stories are those where the hero sees in his nemesis a reflection of himself, and we, the audience, see reflected in both of them the warring contradictions of our own nature. (pg. 53)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Prince Caspian Review

I have something of a strange relationship with books and film. I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, but I’m simultaneously a product of our visual culture. This means that whenever I read a good novel, I find myself wishing I could see it on screen, yet whenever I see a film based on a book I’ve read, I’m almost always disappointed at what it leaves out. The first PG-13 movie I ever saw was Jurassic Park; I was 11 but my dad took me to see it as a reward for just having finished reading the book (I did say I was an avid reader, right?). I hated it. All I could think about was how they had butchered the characters and left so much out. It wasn’t until I saw the movie again years later, when the book had become a distant memory, that I could really enjoy it as a movie, rather than see it as a poor representation of the book.

So when my wife and I had the opportunity to see The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian last night, I chose not to reread the book first. In fact, it’s been a few years since I’ve done so, and I’m glad of that, because it allowed me to enjoy the film on its own merits before worrying about how it compared to its source. By most measures, this second Narnia far surpasses the first. I’d even go so far as to say that it was nearly as entertaining, though not quite as grand, as any of the Lord of the Rings films. But as I’ve thought about it further, it’s hard to ignore all the changes it made to Lewis’ book. That being the case, if you're anything like me, you may want to see the movie itself before reading on, especially if you hate spoilers (I should also note that I have no idea how this movie got a PG rating. It is quite violent, including an improbable degree of bloodless death and even a decapitation; it should definitely have been rated PG-13).

Prince Caspian follows the four Pevensie children’s return to Narnia, called back when Prince Caspian (the rightful heir to the throne, but currently hiding from his murderous uncle Miraz) blows the magical horn that was given to Susan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As they attempt to win back Caspian’s throne and free Narnia from Miraz’ oppression, we are treated to a film which is at once better acted, more humorous, and much more exciting than its predecessor. This is because, while the first Narnia was careful to keep the themes and plot of C.S. Lewis’ book intact, this film almost completely abandons the attempt.

On the positive side, this meant the addition or modification of several scenes which, I thought, greatly enhanced the plot. For instance, I appreciated the way they modified the first act of the story: The intentionally ambiguous significance of the birth with which the film begins was clever and revealed the threat to Caspian’s life in a concise and interesting manner. Then, when they parallel the Pevensies trying to adjust to life as children again (a nice addition, in my opinion), with Caspian’s flight from Miraz, I found it a much more engaging introduction than the way Lewis described this sequence of events. More substantially, they add an entire battle in which the Narnians attempt to capture Miraz’s castle, which not only adds interest, excitement and some important emotional depth, but also makes better sense of the events which follow than the original book did. I also liked the expanded scene involving the White Witch, which I was shocked to see in the previews, but think worked very well.

If most of the additions are good, however, there are also a number of unfortunate omissions. Much has been made of the fact that Lewis’ book centered on the triumph of faith over skepticism, while the film totally obliterates this theme. The story takes place 1300 years after the events of the first film (though only one year later for the four children); the great castle they once ruled lies in ruins and Aslan seems long absent. The film almost completely leaves out the fact that few Narnians still believe in Aslan or the old stories. In the book, this is seen especially in the dwarf Trumpkin, who is a convinced skeptic who only slowly comes to recognize Aslan’s reality and authority. In the film, this arc is substantially diminished, as Trumpkin (who is played with a lot of humor) never really disbelieves that the old stories are true; he only doubts their present value.

But, personally, I’m not as troubled by this as others have been, as I think real faith has a lot more to do with trust than with belief anyway. Thus Trumpkin’s (and others, including Peter’s and Caspian’s) lack of trust in Aslan is actually a more realistic, and troubling, form of doubt than his simple disbelief in the book. If the movie gives less ground than Lewis’ original for letting us cheer the comeuppance of the disbelieving materialists, it provides a more nuanced exploration of the danger of lack of trust - in each other and in Aslan - among the “faithful.” To me, this seems of greater value in our postmodern context than the attack on modernism that Lewis intended.

A much less fortanate change was the diminished portrait of genuine faith. The strange thing is that this actually made for a worse movie, not only thematically, but also narratively. In the book, we have an extended sequence in which Lucy alone is able to see Aslan while the others only slowly and painfully come to trust that she knows what she’s doing in following his lead. Though this element is not completely omitted, it is passed over very quickly in the film, which then leaves out entirely the fact that Aslan also appeared to the rest of them - one by one, as they come to trust him - during the course of the story.

In place of this, we get a nice exchange between Susan and Peter where it is asked why Aslan hasn’t proven himself to them, and suggested that perhaps they are the ones who need to prove themselves to him. This does add emphasis to the need to trust even when Aslan seems absent (that is, when God seems absent, though the film subtly diminishes Aslan’s divinity). But in doing so it modifies Lewis’ point that faith precedes sight, and leaves a substantial plot hole which is never adequately filled. Despite what the review I quoted in my last post claimed, the fact that Aslan doesn’t really appear until the end (except in a dream to Lucy) does make him more like a dues ex machina than he should have been.

In the book, Aslan’s appearance in the last battle is but the culmination of a series of previous ones, so it not only brings closure to all conflict but also enables the realization that he had actually been with them all along. In the movie, however, his sudden arrival feels forced and out of place. Though Lucy facing an army with naught but a dagger and a lion is cute, the audience hasn’t been adequately prepared for the significance of this event. And if this is true of Aslan, it is even more so of the tree spirits and (especially) the water god which he brings with him to fight for the Narnians. To suddenly see a great river god attack Miraz’ army, when (unlike in the book) we’ve never even been given a hint that such a being exists, is as clear a case of dues ex machina as you’re likely to find. The result is an otherwise entertaining film which suddenly falls flat at its climax.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Good Stuff From Here and There

I don’t often do summary posts, but I keep running into great stuff today and I want to hurry up and go watch LOST:

First, check out Barbara Nicolosi’s excellent interview with Salvo editor Bobby Maddex (excerpts of which will be in Salvo 5).

Next, and speaking of Barbara, she links a great review of Prince Caspian which comes out tomorrow and sounds to be better than the original:

The Christian theme is not only stronger in Caspian than in Wardrobe, but integrated more naturally into the story — slowly building with events until it perfectly climaxes at the end for maximum emotional effect. This is not some new-age Christian allegory where if you fall to your knees in some sun-dappled field and raise your hands to Jesus all your problems will go away. As in life, God is not a deus ex machina. There’s a bigger picture at work — a master plan — and it’s up to us to find our place within that plan, not the other way around. What Would Aslan Do? No. What Would Aslan Want Us To Do.

On the other hand, others are concerned that the film takes too many liberties and misses much of Lewis’ point (HT: Christ and Pop Culture).

Stuff Christians Like has an insightful post on measuring the true value of one’s time.

Finally, I caught Hellboy on cable again a couple nights ago (I love that movie, and the sequel looks promising too). I was especially struck by the closing voice-over, which sums up the plot (and my worldview) very well:

What makes a man a man? A friend of mine once wondered. Is it his origins, the way he comes to life? I don’t think so. It’s the choices he makes. Not how he starts things, but how he decides to end them.

The Real Life Impact of Second Life Confirmed

Last summer I wrote an extensive article on Second Life for Salvo 3 which, among other things, argued that probably the most important aspect of such virtual worlds (or “metaverses”) is the fact that who we are inside them will inevitably influence who we are in real life. According to a new article in TIME, I seem to have been right. Recent research being done by Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has confirmed that one’s appearance and activities within Second Life can have a direct (if only short term) impact on one’s real world attitudes and activities:

Jeremy Bailenson, head of the lab and an assistant professor of communication at Stanford… has found that even 90 seconds spent chatting it up with avatars is enough to elicit behavioral changes offline — at least in the short-term. "When we cloak ourselves in avatars [that is, virtual representations of ourselves], it subtly alters the manner in which we behave," says Bailenson. "It's about self-perception and self-confidence." But researchers are still trying to figure out the psychological mechanisms at work, and which way the effect flows: "Do you consciously wear your power suit to feel confident, or is it that you're in this suit and you're feeling up, but you're unaware of the reason?" says Bailenson.

The article goes on to describe a series of experiments where groups of people were each assigned either an attractive avatar or an ugly one, then allowed to interact with one another in Second Life. As expected, those with more attractive avatars showed more confidence, approached others more closely, and spoke more freely than those with less attractive avatars, quite regardless of their real world appearance. Then, an hour after they had signed off, the participants were told they would be participating in a separate study which required them to choose a potential date out of a group of photos. Once again, those who had recently inhabited an attractive avatar showed greater confidence in their choices than those who had less attractive avatars.

In other experiments, people given taller or shorter avatars were found to display greater or lesser confidence respectively – both in Second Life and after leaving – and people who spent five minutes watching an avatar version of themselves exercising were more likely to exercise in the next 24 hours than those who spent five minutes watching “themselves” lounge around. The article concludes:

"The most stunning part is how subtle the manipulations are and how difficult they are to detect," says Bailenson, "but how much it affects real life later on."

Of course, the effect could potentially work both ways — for good or for bad. "In a therapy setting, we could use these virtual environments to get people to become more confident," says [Lead researcher Nick] Yee. "But they can also be used in advertising and as propaganda."

Yet the most significant conclusion that one ought to draw from such studies goes unmentioned: If even short-term exposure to virtual appearances and activities can have such an impact, how much more of an effect must our long-term virtual choices inevitably hold, for good or ill? If we choose, as so many do, to treat these worlds as a “safe” medium for expressing our darker fantasies, can we really be surprised if our virtual lives begin to spill over into our real ones?

Bumper Stickers for the Megachurch Generation

From The Wittenburg Door:

Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be slightly irritating.

Given God's aversion to sin, it's probably best to limit visitation hours.

Boredom is a form of sacrifice.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Quote - On Christian Tradition

The recent Evangelical Manifesto's recognition of the importance of the early Christian creeds reminded me of D.H. Williams' book Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants, which argues that Evangelicalism's "historical amnesia" is a primary cause of its present disarray. The following quotation refers specifically to the extra-biblical tradition of the church (including the creeds), but it occurs to me that with very little modification, it could just as well describe the Bible itself:

If the Christian Tradition functions in any normative way at all, it is not simply because it lies in the past or because it is an accepted way of doing things. It has a normative role because it represents the corporate voice of the faithful, very often in moments when the faith was being tested by some controversy, proclaiming what it has received in light of what it must confront. The Tradition of the church is just that, the outcome of a testing and sharpening process by which the Spirit moved through the worshipping, praying, baptizing and confessing community of believers, or what can be aptly called a consensus of faith through time. (pg. 207)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Abortion and Miscarriage

I just stumbled upon an interesting post by Timothy Mills (HT: James McGrath), which claims the pro-life movement is inconsistent to argue so vehemently against abortion, while ignoring that more (far more, according to him) conceived embryos die of miscarriage than are aborted intentionally:

About 10-20% of pregnancies that the mother knows about miscarry. In studies that use detailed detection techniques, about 30% of clinically-recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. (In this case, "clinically-recognized" means "exhibiting the hormone produced on uterine implantation of the embryo".) Extrapolating to those fertilized eggs that never get implanted and so are currently impossible to medically detect, 75% of conceptions may fail to carry to term.

So three quarters of conceived (and thus fully-human, by the anti-abortionists' lights) embryos miscarry - die without anyone setting out to kill them. And of those that survive this natural winnowing, 25% are then aborted intentionally (about 6% of total conceptions).

The vast majority of pre-birth deaths are miscarriages - twelve times as many as are aborted. If abortion is genocide, miscarriage is a plague unparalleled in human history, claiming 75% of all human lives.

So if [pro-life advocate] Matthew and his colleagues are indeed pro-life, and not simply anti-abortion, what obligation does this knowledge place on them? Isn't miscarriage a more immediate and profound problem than the relatively minuscule one of abortion?

I have to admit that this is not an aspect of the abortion debate that I had ever considered before, but I have serious problems with his argument. First, notice how he introduces the 75% figure as a possibility ("may") but then immediately employs it as a certainty. More basically, however, I fail to see how he justifies this number at all. How exactly can he "extrapolate" from a clinically established 31% rate of miscarriage (based on a small trial at that – the study he links only involved 221 women) to a 75% rate based on a variable that no one even knows?! The link he provides gives no source or justification for this figure of 75%, and I’ve been unable to find anything like it through Google (most sites I’ve seen suggest that somewhere between 20-30% of pregnancies end in miscarriage).

If we instead accept the 31% figure given by the study he cites, that still means that nearly a third of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. I’ll be the first to admit that this is indeed a terrible thing; my wife and I have lived through two of them ourselves and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But this figure certainly does not dwarf the number of abortions. His 6% figure (which he does not explain) seems to be based on the assumption that 75% of conceptions miscarry, which allows him to divide the actual ratio of abortions to live births (23.5% in North America) by four, but as he has given no proof that we should accept this 75% figure, I don’t see why we should accept this calculation either.

The truth is, we simply do not know what percentage of conceptions miscarry before they are detectable. What we do know is that today in North America, more pregnancies that are detected are aborted as miscarry on their own. Timothy himself notes that only 10-20% of known pregnancies miscarry, whereas in the USA and Canada about 23.5% of known pregnancies end in legal abortions (and other developed nations have much higher abortion rates; Russia's is over 50% relative to live births). Miscarriage is a tragedy, so how much worse is abortion, which despite Timothy’s claims, appears to take many more lives, and unlike miscarriage, is almost entirely preventable?

But for sake of argument, let's assume he’s right and far more fetal deaths are "natural" than intentional, I truly don’t understand what he thinks this proves. Consider an illustration: If murder were suddenly to become legal (but no more prevalent than it is today), would we be unjustified in loudly condemning the practice despite the fact that far more people die of natural causes? Would a group that sought to publicize the evil of murder be suspect for not spending a greater amount of their time advocating better safety regulations or health care? If not, why should abortion be any different for those who believe that no innocent human being should be killed for the benefit of another?

Timothy, however, does not accept that human beings have innate dignity:

To me, human rights derive from those properties of human existence that we most value: consciousness, sentience, free will.

Personally, I have some sympathy for this view. After all, human dignity is not arbitrary nor unrelated to these features of our nature, but I’ve never understood why people think this should make abortion acceptable. Unless he is suggesting that only those who currently possess these properties deserve to live, what difference does it make that an unborn child is not yet conscious, sentient, etc, when if left alone it will naturally become so? Don’t all of us lack these properties from time to time (while asleep or under anesthesia), yet killing a person is still murder even if they are asleep. What’s the difference?

Yet once again, let’s assume he is right and, since a fetus lacks these properties, it cannot be murdered. Even in that case should it not still concern us that literally millions of people every year now choose – often for no better reason than convenience – to actively deny one of their already conceived children from attaining those capacities, that is, from living the life they would otherwise have enjoyed? This was not always so, and quite apart from any inherent human dignity, this seems a profoundly tragic state of affairs.

For the Love of Chick Flicks

I have a confession to make: I love romantic comedies. I’d never admit that in person, but don’t be fooled; it's true. I’ve been married for five years, and any time my wife wants to watch one of them I moan and roll my eyes and only grudgingly give in, but I almost always enjoy them. She sees right through me, of course, but thankfully she’s nice enough not to rub it in – well, most of the time anyway – and lets me make up for it by renting science fiction movies she truly dislikes, so I guess I’ve got the better end of that deal.

What do I like about “chick flicks,” you ask (apart from the attractive women, eh hem). Surely, you’ll say, it’s not the plot; most of them follow the same predictable story-line: Guy and girl are each seeing (or at least dreaming of) other people, they meet but one or both dislikes the other until something happens and they fall for each other, but then one does something stupid and almost blows the whole thing, before finally they realize they love each other anyway - wedding bells, happily every after, and oh look, six of the supporting characters hooked up too! Nor, I'm sure, could it be the moral tone of these films. After all, nine times out of ten the proof that this is “true love” involves passionate sex. Right, since we really need to be told again that love = sex....

In fact, I should note that I don’t love all romantic comedies. I hate the ones where the big conflict involves one of them being caught cheating, or still married, or secretly transgendered (ok, I made that last one up, but I wouldn’t put it past them). Such things are fine when it’s the sleazebag she’s leaving for Mr. Right, but not when we’re expected to accept this about the protagonists themselves. It makes my skin crawl when the main character is the one who is lying all along, and you spend the whole movie waiting for the other shoe to drop.

When such things are avoided, however, all good romantic comedies get several things right. First, and most obviously, they all center on love, which may seem cheesy, but it's a lot less so than the special effects in half the sci-fi films I enjoy. Sure they’re often shallow and clich├ęd, but these stories always center on people who go out of their way to make each other feel special and loved, and I for one can never be reminded of that too often.

Second, and more significantly, all good romances force the main characters either to forgive or to give something up for their true love. This act of self-sacrifice almost always constitutes the climax of the film, and takes countless forms – from Wesley facing torture and “almost” death for Buttercup in The Princess Bride to Jane forgiving Kevin in 27 Dresses (which I “reluctantly” rented for Mother’s Day). No matter how often these films try to reduce love to an emotion, in the end they almost always affirm that true love requires sacrifice, forgiveness and the commitment to take each other back even when we fail.

Finally, I love these movies because they’re always hopeful and life affirming. Of course, a “feel-good” ending is simply required of the genre, but I’m not just talking about the happily ever after, roll the credits kind of hope. What I appreciate is how they always affirm that real love should bring out the best in people. The couple, usually without realizing it, finds that in love they can truly be themselves, and love each other for who they really are (unlike their previous relationships, which are usually shown to involve some degree of mutual or self-deception). More importantly, they find themselves driven to be better people because of their love. Thus, as often as not the difference between the “right” guy and the wrong one is that the true love recognizes the way he has been living is wrong in some way, not because he fears he’ll be rejected for it, but because he knows he deserves to be. The wrong guy, on the other hand, tends to thinks he’s entitled to the girl’s affections even when he acts like a jerk. Most of the time, Prince Charming's noble act is hidden from the heroine just long enough to create conflict, but it’s always there, and it’s usually the turning point in the film.

However predictable, sentimental and over-sexualized these movies tend to be, they rarely fail to get these central truths of love right. Watching them, I sometimes feel they set the bar too high, creating an imaginary ideal of romance that no real guy could ever attain (least of all, me). But more often I’m encouraged to work harder to love like this myself. In my relationships with my wife and daughter – in my relationship with God – I need constant reminders to sacrifice, forgive, hope and grow. That’s why, however I may roll my eyes in mock distaste, I’ll continue to rent chick flicks, for my wife, of course!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

An Evangelical Manifesto

I’ve long been unsure whether or not to consider myself an Evangelical. As I have been an active member in no less than five very different denominations, and have worked with a couple dozen more, I usually just called myself a “Christian” and avoided any further labeling. But my roots are in Evangelicalism, and I’ve never completely lost them. Even as I’ve developed a deep appreciation for other Christian traditions, including Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, this is still where I feel most at home. I have many times felt shame and disappointment over the actions and beliefs of those who bear the name Evangelical, but always with the sympathy of an insider, not the derision of an outsider. And yet, as my views have changed, I’ve wondered whether I still qualify as an Evangelical, or whether my rejection of inerrancy and other popular views exclude me from their ranks.

Thus it was with some trepidation that I read the Evangelical Manifesto which was published yesterday by a group of Evangelical scholars. The media is reporting it as a response to overly-politicized segments of Evangelicalism, and to a certain extent it is that, but it is also much more. It is a wide-ranging attempt to clarify what it means to be Evangelical, an affirmation of how Evangelicals have often failed to live up to this, and a proposal for living it out. In spite of myself, I’m impressed, and can find very little in it with which to disagree. Though this document represents just one view of Evangelicalism, it provides a compelling vision of what the movement could be.

A detailed summery is provided by Justin Taylor, who also has an interview with Os Guinness (who helped write it), but I recommend taking the time to read the whole 20 pages (available in pdf here), as I’ll only be highlighting a few points for comment. First:

Nothing is more natural and necessary than the human search for meaning and belonging, for making sense of the world and finding security in life. When this search is accompanied by the right of freedom of conscience, it issues in a freely chosen diversity of faiths and ways of life, some religious and transcendent, and some secular and naturalistic. Nevertheless, the different faiths and the different families of faith provide very different answers to life, and these differences are decisive not only for individuals but for societies and entire civilizations. (pg. 3)

I especially appreciate this recognition of the inevitably pluralistic nature of a free society, combined with a firm affirmation that what choices we freely make nevertheless have profound consequences not only for ourselves but for society as a whole. Freedom demands that we respect the rights of all people to choose what to think and how to live, but it also requires open and civil discussion of the truth and value of these beliefs and actions. The Manifesto’s repeated emphasis both on the important separation of church and state (against those who would seek to impose a theocracy, or who would equate Evangelicalism with any one political party or issue), and on the importance of public religious discourse (against those who would relegate faith entirely to the private sphere) is precisely correct.

We call for an expansion of our concern beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage, and a fuller recognition of the comprehensive causes and concerns of the Gospel, and of all the human issues that must be engaged in public life. Although we cannot back away from our biblically rooted commitment to the sanctity of every human life, including those unborn, nor can we deny the holiness of marriage as instituted by God between one man and one woman, we must follow the model of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, engaging the global giants of conflict, racism, corruption, poverty, pandemic diseases, illiteracy, ignorance, and spiritual emptiness, by promoting reconciliation, encouraging ethical servant leadership, assisting the poor, caring for the sick, and educating the next generation. We believe it is our calling to be good stewards of all God has entrusted to our care so that it may be passed on to generations yet to be born. (pgs. 13-14)

If we can take seriously their earlier rejection of using state power to impose it on those who disagree, this platform is sensible and biblically sound (including even the more “partisian” views on abortion and marriage, so long as these are not allowed to overwhelm the rest).

Finally, I would like to discuss briefly the two issues I was most nervous to see how they would handle: the doctrines of scripture and creation. Regarding the first, they include among seven defining features of Evangelicalism an affirmation that:

Jesus’ own teaching and his attitude toward the total truthfulness and supreme authority of the Bible, God’s inspired Word, make the Scriptures our final rule for faith and practice. (pg. 6)
While I am not entirely comfortable with this statement, it is better than I expected. I’m especially glad they chose not to expand this into the extreme view seen, for instance, in The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, nor claim that the Bible is the only “rule for faith and practice.” More directly, “Total truthfulness” seems a much better term than “inerrancy” (which defines scripture as a negative), though I'm not certain precisely what they mean by it.

As for creation, I’m thrilled that they did not include creationism (much less the young earth variety) among those seven distinctives of Evangelicalism. I could not expect them to reject creationism outright, but I’m thankful they neglected to embrace it, and I fully agree with their rejection of those who would pit faith against science:

All too often we have disobeyed the great command to love the Lord our God with our hearts, souls, strength, and minds, and have fallen into an unbecoming anti-intellectualism that is a dire cultural handicap as well as a sin. In particular, some among us have betrayed the strong Christian tradition of a high view of science, epitomized in the very matrix of ideas that gave birth to modern science, and made themselves vulnerable to caricatures of the false hostility between science and faith. By doing so, we have unwittingly given comfort to the unbridled scientism and naturalism that are so rampant in our culture today. (pgs 12-13)

In short, in firmly rejecting the extremes of both fundamentalism and radical liberalism, I find this Manifesto very encouraging. Indeed, the only significant objection I’m tempted to raise is that it presents a vision of what Evangelicalism should be but often isn’t. There are plenty of people who call themselves Evangelicals who embrace views this Manifesto explicitly rejects (James Dobson, who explicitly chose not to sign it, is an obvious but influential example). But the document’s authors are not ignorant of this, and take pains both to affirm that, as Evangelicalism is inherently non-hierarchical, they can only speak for themselves, and to admit that Evangelicals often have not lived up to these ideals.

Of course, like all attempts at balance and moderation, this Manifesto will be attacked from both sides (for instance, see opposite critical responses here and here), but if such a perspective can win the day, I may find myself proud to be an Evangelical after all.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Christian Carnival CCXXIII

This week's Christian Carnival is up at Henry Neufeld's Participatory Bible Study Blog. It includes my post On Sin and Atonement.

On a side note, the Carnival accepts submissions from any Christian blog. If you're interested, just go here and enter the information for any post from the previous week (deadline is each Tuesday night at midnight), then post a link to the Carnival when it appears. You can see more information and an alternative submission method here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Human Face of Abortion

I’m currently working on an article on the societal impact of contraception, for Salvo 6, and I’m particularly struck by the connection between the rise contraception and abortion and the long history of oppression and abuse of women, particularly poor and minority women (cf. Rickie Solinger’s Pregnancy and Power: A Shorty History of Reproductive Politics in America). Too often, those of us who oppose abortion on moral grounds fail to grasp, much less address, this tragic history, and ignore the real social struggles that still lead to abortion. Since long before Roe v. Wade, countless women have sought contraception and abortion because they saw them as their only defense against destitution or abuse. No amount of moral condemnation has changed this fact, for it only addresses the symptom without solving the root problem.

Yet the truth is that abortion is not a solution to this history of abuse and oppression; it is a short term “fix” that perpetuates it. This is well illustrated by a heartbreaking piece at The New University (HT: Mark Shea). It’s the story of a college student forced into abortion by just such circumstances – fears for her future, an abusive boyfriend and father, a mother who doesn’t understand – yet it doesn’t solve them for her, it only adds to them. For the real problem that needs solving is not the girl’s pregnancy, but the abusive system in which she feels trapped.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Cabinet Meeting

If you've ever been on a local church board or Consistory, you'll find this hilarious (HT: Mere Comments).

Saturday, May 3, 2008

On Sin and Atonement

Last night my wife and I rented Atonement, starring Kiera Knightley and James McAvoy. It is well made and has generally been well received, nominated for seven Oscars and winning one. It wasn’t my favorite film in the world, but the acting was quite good, especially Knightley as Cecilia Tallis, McAvoy as Robbie Turner and Saoirse Ronan as the young Briony Tallis, Cecilia’s sister. The cinematography was excellent, including picturesque views of the Tallis family estate on the one hand and a devastating four minute shot of the British retreat from Dunkirk on the other. The score was just about perfect, particularly its haunting use of the sound of a typewriter, which underlined the tragic power of words which the film explores. But the real interest lies in the story Atonement tells, so that is where I will focus (minor spoiler warning; also note that this film is rated R for good reason, including some strong sexuality - though no nudity - and graphic images of the aftermath of war).

Jumping backwards and forwards in time and even repeating scenes from different perspectives, the film explores the lifelong impact of one day’s terrible events. In 1935, thirteen year old Briony witnesses a series of incidents involving her adult sister Cecilia, the family gardener’s grown son Robbie, and (separately) her cousin Lola Quincy (played by Juno Temple). First Briony sees a minor incident between Cecilia and Robbie – a vase was broken and fell into the fountain; Cecilia stripped to her underwear and retrieved it – which Briony mistakenly believed that Robbie had forced her to do. Latter, she reads a sexually explicit letter Robbie wrote to Cecilia but never intended to give to her. Then (after Cecilia has read the letter), Briony finds them having sex in the library – which she misinterprets as attempted rape. Finally, she stumbles upon her cousin Lola actually being raped by an unseen man in the garden. In a flurry of righteous indignation, she accuses Robbie of the crime and provides his lust-filled note as evidence. Robbie is sent to prison (and eventually, the army), and all of their lives are changed forever.

Without giving too much more of the plot away, the rest of the film explores Cecilia and Robbie’s longing for a future free of the shame that Briony’s lie has brought upon him, and her own attempts to find atonement for that sin. As the title implies, the second of these themes is central, and the film seems to emphasize the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of truly repaying one’s sins. For nothing Briony does can undo the damage she has caused. While she rightly seeks reconciliation, it is unclear that she is able to find it in any real sense. There is little redemption in this film – though at Dunkirk we do overhear a hymn referencing “the still small voice of God” – this story focuses on the consequences of sin.

Near the beginning of the film there is a scene at a formal dinner (watch it here), in which the misdeeds of several of the guests are hinted at, especially the infelicity of Cecilia and Robbie and an earlier attack by the soon-to-be rapist. As the story focuses on her sin particularly, only Briony is explicitly asked “what sins have you committed today?” and she denies that she has done anything wrong. Of course, she is mistaken, but I think the consequences of her lie can only be properly understood in light of the other misdeeds alluded to in this scene. These in fact provide an important subtext to the story, and help elucidate the corporate nature of evil:

Briony’s lie has terrible consequences, but it would not have had the impact it did if not for the sins of the others. Foremost among these, of course, is the rape itself. Briony was wrong to accuse Robbie, and worse for insisting she was certain when she was not, but she was not wrong that a rape had occurred. At the same time, Cecilia and Robbie’s own sins that day, while less patently evil than rape, were just as responsible for what followed as anything Briony did. For instance, she could never have misinterpreted the scene at the fountain the way she did if Cecilia had not decided to strip down in front of Robbie. The broken vase surely could have been retrieved in another way, and this immodesty was not purely innocent. Similarly, though Briony was wrong to open Robbie’s letter, she was not unjustified in finding its contents scandalous (even if he didn't mean to send it), nor were he and Cecilia innocent in how they responded to this - that is, the sex that Briony interpreted as attempted rape.

Immodesty, sexual innuendo, pre-marital sex, these things are not considered wrong by our culture, which treats rape and pedophilia (and perhaps infidelity) as the only real sexual sins. Indeed, the filmmakers themselves may well accept this common assumption, but even if so, the story they tell rightly implies that together, such lesser sins can have almost an tragic as effect as rape itself.

For as long as Briony’s sin is taken alone, it might seem surprising that she proves unable to atone for it herself, but once we realize that she is caught in a web of evil beyond her control, this becomes understandable, without excusing her own part in its outcome. Her sins combined with those of Cecilia, Robbie, the rapist and many others (enough to drive a World War, in fact) and all of them together led to the tragedy this film portrays. It is not just her one lie which needs atonement, but our whole world trapped in a cycle of evil beyond any of our control. What Atonement does best, then, is to show first the dire consequences of sin – consequences that can never be fully undone – and second to emphasize that humanly and individually, we can never atone for them ourselves.