Archive for January, 2013

Suffering for the Cameras

Posted in Theater of the Absurd with tags , , , on January 17, 2013 by onlookerslowdown

I find myself at odds, quite frequently, with the evangelical establishment in which I was raised. There are a lot of wonderful evangelical people out there, but I’ve been trying to put my finger on just why the establishment rankles me.

One of my friends from seminary days is now a pastor in Missouri, and he recently put up a Facebook posting saying that John MacArthur’s Found: God’s Will was available for free on Kindles. I’ve respected this friend’s opinion for some time, and so I ordered it, and I’ve been reading it in the weeks since.

MacArthur lists five things that believers need to do in order to find God’s will: be saved, be Spirit-filled, be sanctified, be submissive, and be suffering. I get it — you have to believe, and you have to let the Holy Spirit infuse your decision-making process, slowly sanctifying (making it more likely that you will make morally correct decisions) you. You also have to submit to the authority of those over you, when that authority does not go against God’s teachings. It’s that last part — the “suffering” — where the evangelicals and I differ.

MacArthur defines “suffering” as the annoyance of living as Christians in a secular world. Standing in line at the grocery store and looking at magazines with the latest Kardashian outrage on the cover. Watching gay couples holding hands, walking in the park. Listening to the drunks sitting behind you at the football game. Turning on the television and having to choose between “Two and a Half Men,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Big Rich Texas,” while your kids listen to another round of sex jokes on “Big Bang Theory” upstairs. Enduring this sort of culture, to MacArthur, is the sort of suffering that Christians must endure to put up with God’s will. One must be willing to confront these sorts of evils, wherever they exist.

This sounds really good, until you look at what Jesus confronted. Was the woman who had been married several times, and was now living with a man who was not her husband, making the best choices? We don’t know. We do know that Jesus was kind to her. He saved his ire — his “suffering” — for the religious leadership of the day. The author Donald Miller recently blogged about what the real source of the world’s problems is.

MacArthur, and the other evangelicals in his camp, would say that the world has become godless. God might agree, but not for the reasons that MacArthur might think. Instead, Miller suggests that we each ask these four questions of ourselves:

1. Am I contributing to solutions that make the world better?
2. Do I really believe I’m part of the problem in the world?
3. Where do I see hope operating in the world?
4. How can I be in the world but not of it? And what does that even mean?

If you decide to engage in these questions, you don’t even have time to notice that the writing on television shows has descended, in many cases, to a choice between shock value and schlock value. You don’t have time to notice how lost everyone is, because you’re too busy trying to make the world a better place. The “suffering” comes not from annoyance at those who are not as clean as you see yourself, but from the realization that the world should be better. Not that others should be better — but that we should all be better; the hardest part of the suffering is realizing how much better I need to be. Jesus drew others to him simply by the love He showed others; those who were able to resist His love had steeled themselves against love with laws and interpretations and loopholes. They were too busy “suffering” in front of others to realize the true nature of the anguish that points us toward Messiah, yanks our arms to constantly remind us that there is a place of peace that God has made for all of us, and shows us how far our own world is from resembling that place.

A church that was too busy changing the world to stop and complain would be much more compelling than what we have now. There are enough people who gripe; engagement is a much better way to lead one’s life; as Donald Miller would say, it leads to a much better story.

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$39 In Your Pocket…To Go From Michigan to Texas

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , on January 14, 2013 by onlookerslowdown

The Dirty Parts of the BibleThe Dirty Parts of the Bible by Sam Torode
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a parent of triplets who are almost teenagers, I sometimes worry that they don’t have all of the information they need to make it smoothly to high school graduation — and beyond. But then I stop and remember that my parents spent quite a bit of time giving me a lot of information that I’m sure they thought I should use. It got filed away, somewhere, and a lot of it pops into my head, now and then. A lot of the conclusions I have come to, though, I have found on my own.

My aunt posed an interesting question on Facebook not too long ago — specifically, what the purpose is of an overarching moral authority, since we have to develop our own systems of morals as it is. It is this desire to provide some sort of moral authority that has led members of the evangelical wing of Christianity to start pumping out books that throw the Bible into a theological dryer and turn on the hot cycle, trying to shrink 66 books (more, if you have the Apocrypha) that include stories of God’s chosen people pretending that their wives are their sisters, and letting local kings have their way with them (Abraham), refusing to feed their siblings unless they can have the family birthright in exchange (Jacob), as well as passages that describe the erotic love between a husband and wife (Song of Solomon), into a pamphlet that has all of life’s questions answered with a series of bullet points.

These tinhorn theologians have also turned out some fiction as well, which tries to shoehorn as much of their doctrine as they can into the stories they write. The problem, of course, is that making theme run your story is kind of like letting egg be the dominant taste in your chocolate cake. The egg is an important part of the foundation, but it should work silently to produce the glorious taste of chocolate, not dominate the outcome.

The same is true with theme in fiction, a lesson which the Tim LaHayes of Christian fiction have yet to learn; the fact that the “Left Behind” series did so well is a testament to the fearsome power of the collective that drives the evangelical juggernaut, even today.

Every now and then, though, a book comes out that has ideas that resonate with Christians — all the while telling a compelling story that also resonates with other readers. This is how the gospel originally worked, you know: Jesus did not have a ready-made audience prepared to listen to his theology and nod, almost automatically, with each sentence.

Instead, his message shocked, surprised, rang true. So it was with Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River,” which tells a story that shows the power of faith and prayer in a lyrical and beautiful way — and lets the story have its head, instead of whipping it and driving it along a predetermined path.

And so it is with Sam Torode’s “The Dirty Parts of the Bible.” The plot is a modern retelling of the apocryphal book of Tobit — set in the Great Depression. Tobias Henry is the son of Baptist preacher Malachi Henry, who has wandered far from his seminary training in Texas to the town of Remus, Michigan, where he preaches hellfire and brimstone in the cold of the American north. After talking down once too many times to his wife (and getting a frozen chicken to the head as a result), Malachi ends up drunk on apple cider and crashes his car into the side of the church, disgraced — and no longer the pastor. A hail of bird poop has rendered the old ex-pastor blind, as well.

Given 30 days to get out of the parsonage, Malachi sends Tobias to Glen Rose, Texas, with a map that has directions to a dry well on the old family farm — where Malachi has hidden a satchel full of cash from his days in a band — before he went to seminary. This is the story of Tobias’ wrestling with his beliefs, with the black-and-white theology that makes many Southern Baptists so unhelpful when it comes to showing others the love that made Jesus compelling to all who met him, with his own sexual awakening. Tobias leaves with $39 — enough, back then, to take the train to Texas. Of course, as with anything that seems so easy, so black-and-white, Tobias learns much more along a way that becomes so difficult. Along the way, he becomes a person whom the Lord might well watch with a smile, because of the gifts of the storyteller.

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A Theme In Search of a Plot

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , on January 12, 2013 by onlookerslowdown

The Miracle InspectorThe Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The worst parts of human nature have been on display in literature since the very beginning. The cruelty of Agamemnon, the selfish envy of Cain, and the folly of Creon are three of the oldest impressions of human nature in the canon.

However, it took the progress of the twentieth century to take the darkest parts of our nature and make them the defining tenets of our future. Writers like George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury made us wonder what the world would actually turn into if the same forces that brought us the Holocaust, the nuclear bomb, mustard gas, and the pogrom were given free reign to run the world.

These writers brought us tales about the settlement of Mars, life under the constant surveillance of Big Brother, a society in which all of us were segregated into different biological and psychological groups from birth, and a new America in which women were assigned as property, rather than free agents in their own existence. The works of these writers shocked their readers — first, by their writings; second, by the elements of their tales that would come true, in their own way.

Dystopia now, of course, is still popular. If you turn on the program “Supernatural” or “Revolution” or “Fringe” — if you go see movies like “The Box” or “The Adjustment Bureau — you can see that we still enjoy looking at how awful we could become.

The problem with dystopian literature is that it loses its shock value over time. Helen Smith’s “The Miracle Inspector” would have been an amazing story in 1960, or even in 1980. Lucas is the Miracle Inspector, in charge of going out into London, after an apocalyptic series of attacks that has seen the world partitioned and under tight UN control, to verify the existence of miracles. Usually these take the form of religious images appearing in odd places, like recently baked cakes. His wife is Angela, who is chafing under the burden of being forced to stay at home all day, all the jobs having been reserved for men, in order to eliminate unemployment. She is not sure what she wants in life, because she has never thought to want anything more than what she has. She and Lucas both have a vague desire to leave London and go to Cornwall which, in their minds, is an oasis where there would be none of the oppression, none of the randomly disappearing men — just a place to start a family.

But then Lucas comes across Maureen, and her daughter, Christina. Whether you view the miracle girl, with her name a letter away from representing one of the world’s major religions, as a picture of the ideal or not is strictly up to you. Maureen did nominate her daughter as a miracle, but other than an ability to smile when someone she likes is in the room, it is unclear why Maureen nominated her daughter; other than the fact that she is a child, it is unclear why Angela feels such an attachment to the two of them. Given that Lucas is trying to sneak himself and his wife out of London, it is also unclear why Lucas would take the dangerous step of taking his wife on a forbidden trip to visit Maureen every day.

The interrogations to which Lucas is necessarily subjected (this IS a dystopian novel, after all, in which the government operates a bunch of shadowy ministries) have the finality of Orwell’s Room 101, but none of the thematic resonance. We do not know why Lucas’ world is the way it is; we just know that we never want to end up in a prison like his. The beauty of the novel comes in its final chapters, and in the epilogue, even as the plot winds up in a way that is as unpredictable and inexplicable as it is lyric.

This novel is written on an interesting idea — namely, that the governments of the world’s superpowers are slowly discrediting anyone who opposes them, and that it is only a matter of time until the blanket of oppression covers us all, especially since the blanket is of our own knitting. However, the idea never populates the spirits of its characters to the point where they have a new story to tell us. Yes, we can be depraved; yes, we will do awful things to one another. Orwell had the advantage of surprise, though, when he told us this; before, we hadn’t quite thought of it. For new dystopian works to be worth our time, though, they must plumb new ground. They must, in other words, confront the miracle — not simply drag us through the same sandboxes that the writers before them have already plundered.

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