Storybook Reversals

I still think that, for building a story which is all at once profound and hilarious, cogent and incredibly goofy, nobody does it like Terry Pratchett. In his Discworld novel Moving Pictures, a parody of the early film industry, the climax (SPOILER COMING, if you care to read Pratchett) presents a fifty-foot tall woman carrying a gibbering ape up the side of a ‘skyscraper,’ in a development which is entirely organic to the story. Fantastic.

A similar non sequitur occurs in the first (and only worthwhile) Shrek film. It plays on all our expectations for that kind of story: a valiant prince journeys forth with his sidekick, slays the dragon, rescues the princess, breaks the curse, marries her and lives with her happily ever after. But in Shrek, the hero is an ogre, the sidekick marries the dragon, and ‘love’s true form’ ends up being the form of an ogre for the princess. It’s full of that kind of dramatic reversal.

There’s something about the reversal of our expectations in stories which strikes us as hilarious, surprising, shocking, or profound. And it’s not limited to satire or comedy; examples abound in literature—and in Scripture, as it turns out.

At the beginning of the book of Ruth, the author tells us that the following events take place “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). Then, after the initial context, we find that this is a story about two widowed women, one of whom is a foreigner, living in Israel. You don’t have to have a degree in literary criticism to know what will happen next. The last few episodes of the book of Judges paint a vivid picture of what happens to women in Israel during this period of time.

So we’re on the edge of our seats, so to speak, when the story gets rolling. And then Ruth goes to glean, and catches the eye of Boaz. Yikes, we think. Is this a wife-stealing story, or a raped-to-death story? Either way, it’s not looking good. But then Boaz treats Ruth kindly, and makes sure his workers do the same. Whew! Scandal avoided. But then, in yet another twist, Ruth’s dirty-minded mother-in-law tells Ruth to go to Boaz alone, late at night, after he has been working hard and drinking. Not the best recipe for sexual purity, but we all know what a girl’s gotta do to get ahead in Israel these days. And then the plot hits yet another switchback, and Boaz doesn’t end up touching Ruth until they’re all legal and everything has been done up according to Levite marriage law, sandal and everything.

If you watch Shrek enough, you may cease to be surprised that Fiona turns into an ogre at the end (Sorry about the spoiler, but it’s been, like, 20 years). But you shouldn’t; the reversal is a key part of the story. So it is in Ruth, and Jonah, and Abraham, and so many other narratives in the Bible. When the disciples get to the tomb and see it lying empty, we should gasp in surprise.

Don’t forget that the gospel is a story—the best story. The “what?!” at the crucifixion and the bigger “WHAT?!” at the resurrection—these are a part of the story too.

Art as Discipleship Pt. 1

Every year, by some twist of fate, I find myself invited to give a lecture on the intersection between art and Christian faith/practice for our Media Summit. Generally, it’s the one time a year that I get to think about art and its creation and reception from a distinctly Christian point of view. One aspect of art I have been struck by every year that of narrative. Art tells a story, and whether the meaning of that story is to be found in the act of communication or the act of reception, some tale is being told.

For Christian art, the ‘tale’ being told needs to contain elements of the Christian story: good creation, ruin and fall, atoning sacrifice, and glorious restoration. In other words, for art to be considered ‘Christian,’ it must tell the truth about the world—not just as it is, but as it was and will be. We don’t live in a paradise; nor do we live in a hell-scape. We live in a world that was created good and has fallen into dark ruin, one which has received the promise and payment for restoration and is now waiting for the coming dawn.

It would be somewhat unrealistic to say that a Christian work of art must express all this in every lyric, line, or brushstroke. But good art will show an understanding of the context into which it is given, and in so doing speak volumes about the artist’s understanding of the metanarrative we creatures find ourselves inhabiting.

So art, as a story, must do what all good stories do—it must echo the words and the pattern of Scripture, and therefore of human history. Another way to say this is that the movements of the narrative found within Christian art mimic the movements of the life of Christ. He was born, he suffered under the futility of the Fall, he give himself as an atoning sacrifice, and he rose again to new life as the first fruits of the coming age. The story of Christ starts out as the story of history inverted and ends by sweeping up history in its wake, leading it to the end for which it was designed.

Good art tells this story in miniature. In this way, art follows Christ, and draws others along in its pursuit.

(Un)made

Last month I wrote about creaturely reception, and how the right embrace of our creatureliness can help us to act in accordance with our created nature, which is to say, in a godly manner.

Forget about the Fall for just a second. Adam wasn’t created as a tabula rasa. He had a nature, and concomitant with that nature was a set of ordered desires, an ordo amoris. His response to Eve, for example, was ordered, non-arbitrary, part of his design. Adam and Eve were, in the words of the Confession, “good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God.” This was a part of their essential makeup, their nature. In the Fall, that nature was injured, impaired, damaged, but not entirely changed. Adam’s desires changed, became disordered; what did not change was that he was made for holiness.

What I’m getting at is that this is still part of our makeup. Here’s what I said in that earlier post:

We have a nature, and we have ends. By embracing our creatureliness, we thrive, grow, flourish. By rejecting it, we betray our nature, and we will wither and die. To exist well is to exist as a creature.

If it is true that we have a nature, that human happiness and thriving depend on embracing that nature, and that holiness is attendant with that nature, then it must also be true that pursuing holiness is the way to human happiness and thriving. The flip side of this is that sin is necessarily contrary to our nature, and that sin can never make us happy or fulfilled. This probably sounds like I’m saying something simple and saying it in the most complex way possible, but I think there’s some benefit to this train of thought.

Remember the last time you sinned deliberately, because you really wanted what you thought sin would get you? Happiness, fulfillment, justice, significance? Can’t happen. Sin is an unmaking. It’s only ever destructive and ruinous. Sin is faerie gold, promising everything and giving nothing, and by the time you escape its lies (if ever), you’ve given the best of your years to the cruel.

If all this is true, then God is not arbitrarily demanding and callous in his forbidding certain actions and requiring others; just the opposite. Here’s how John Webster puts it:

The unholy is that which lies beyond the will of God. The unholy is the absurd affair in which the creature seeks to be creature in a way other than that which is purposed by God; it is, therefore, a way in which the creature– precisely by trying to cease to be a creature and to make itself– seeks to destroy itself. To this unholiness the holiness of God is implacably opposed.

John Webster, Holiness

When creatures sin, they attempt to enact their own unmaking. In redemption, we are not being torn away from our nature, and stripped of anything that gives us significance; we are being remade.

Lessons Learned from Josh Harris

Though its hard to imagine, someday I’ll tell my children the story I’m writing with my life today.

Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye

I found this line, near the end of Harris’ book, to ring sadly, ironically true in light of this week’s announcements.

Of course we don’t rejoice when a (supposed) brother falls, or falls away. But learning from a cautionary tale is an example of sagacity, not schadenfreude. Without claiming to know more than what has been clearly said, I think there are some important lessons to be learned from Joshua Harris’ apostasy.

First, theology matters. I think it’s fair to say that Harris’s theological and sexual progressivism has made it far easier for him to apostatize. I know, I know—conservatives go off the deep end, too. There have been clear and devastating examples of this in the last years, and we should all be careful when we think we stand, lest we fall. But when someone with orthodox theology apostatizes, it’s like jumping off a cliff. When someone with a watered-down faith apostatizes, it’s like walking off a pier. Both may drown, but the second was much closer, much less shocking, and much less likely to see the danger to begin with. None of us should be surprised when a person claims that God doesn’t care as much as we thought about pure religion and holiness, and then proceeds to chuck pure religion and holiness out the window themselves.

Second, repentance matters—specifically, a right view of repentance. I can’t help but to think that ingredient in Harris’ fall has been his response to the harm his books have perpetuated. Here’s what I think happened: Josh Harris publishes a book, and fundamentalists and conservatives go wild over the precepts concerning relationships it holds forth. Because those precepts are poorly considered and often poorly executed, many young people are badly hurt in the process of trying to have the perfect courtship, with the result that many of them jettison their marriages, and some, their faith. After years, the reality of all this comes crashing down on Harris, and he goes to his former readers to hear their stories. They demand that he repent of his hurtful views. Ultimately, he can’t repent of his views concerning courtship without repenting of his views concerning sexuality, and therefore holiness, and therefore God.
I’m sure that’s simplistic, and of course I could be wrong, but it isn’t as though this hasn’t been tried before. As soon as I admit I’ve hurt you in a culture like ours, then I need to give in to your demands. It’s only fair. What Harris needed to realize was that acknowledging a wrong committed does not give the ‘victim’ license to demand whatsoever reparations they may choose. Repentance is before God before it is before men, and it is God who determines the right limits of that repentance.

Third, mentorship matters. I have no idea what relationships Josh Harris has or has had in the way of mentorship, but from what’s been going on, it sounds like he could have used some. Sin is like fungus: it grows best in darkness. We all need godly men and women to tell us when we’ve stopped shoveling dirt out started shoveling crap in. Most of the time, lies that come from outside need to be packaged and delivered well to be received. Lies that come from my own mind, on the other hand, don’t even have to be coherent; the lie just has to expose a bit of ankle, and suddenly I wake up three days later in a cheap motel with a hangover and an STD (that’s an analogy made up for the purpose of creative expression, by the way, not a personal anecdote).
Godly mentorship helps to expose lies before they get a foothold, and to confirm the truth of God’s word more deeply. Cautionary tales like Harris’ should make us reevaluate the strength of our relationships both as mentor and mentee, and make changes where necessary.

I’m not glad that Joshua Harris has apostatized, and I hope that this disillusionment with the forms of Christianity he had embraced is a step on the way to true faith in Jesus Christ. However, the deceitfulness of sin is not an uncommon malady, and so cautionary tales have their place just as much as heroes of the faith do—’be not like Cain’ and all that. Josh was right, after all. We’re all telling our story to those who follow us: we’re either Marley’s Ghost, bemoaning too late the consequences of sin, or Ebenezer Scrooge, happily proclaiming the joys of repentance.

Sex Talk

Words are powerful. As the vehicle of thought, language can be used to challenge the perspective of an entire culture. Who controls the language, controls the people. We can see cultural battles over ideas and values happening in language today, such as with the debate over abortion—are we pro-life and they pro-abortion, or are they pro-choice and we anti-choice? The distinction matters.

Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic; they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.

Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich

For every battle of words, and therefore ideas, that Christians have been fighting, I think that we have been blind to some subversive wordplay which has been damaging to a Christian concept of marriage and sexuality.

If a person has normative sexual desires for members of the opposite sex, what do we call that person? Straight, heterosexual, cissexual (that last term is just about as subtle an attack on Christian views of sexuality as a rodeo clown at a mime convention). And if a person experiences (non-normative) sexual desires for members of their own sex? Gay, homosexual. Why?

From a secular viewpoint, the language of orientation can only be beneficial, normalizing. Orientation establishes identity in a way that behavior doesn’t. It’s a lot easier to condemn the action of sodomy than it is to condemn a person for being gay. The first is an attack on a certain moral standard, or lack thereof; the second is a personal attack. As a side-note, this is also why gay characters in your favorite TV shows are fairly non-sexual (think Oscar from The Office)—the important thing to remember, the screen tells us, is who this person is, not what they do.

And so the Church has, by and large, adopted the language of orientation, because how else can we join the conversation? We’ve allowed the world to be divided into gay and straight, and then sought to convince those on the gay side to come over and join our team, or at least sit on our sidelines.

But the language of orientation can never reinforce God-honoring and biblical norms of sexuality. When the world is divided this way in our language, our emphasis becomes a certain kind of attraction—that’s what we want our sons and daughters to have.

The Bible doesn’t deal with sexual attraction very much, and doesn’t even recognize sexual orientation, let alone sexual identity. What the Bible is concerned with is sexual behavior, and what it authoritatively proclaims as normative is sexual behavior within a loving marriage covenant that can only exist between one man and one woman. So there is no “at least he’s not gay” for the young man sleeping his way around his college campus, or for the husband with an addiction to porn. The Adam who treats his wife as a substitute for his hand rather than as a woman to be loved and served and protected and pleasured ought not to look down his nose at the Adam at work because he goes home to Steve every night.

Sexual orientation is a smoke-screen, and it produces an inappropriate way of thinking. Married men shouldn’t declaim their straightness as though they still consider attraction to Lucy at work a legitimate object of sexual desire. In terms of orientation, the married man should be oriented toward his wife. Any sexual desire or expression outside of that covenant relationship is non-normative. Single men, obviously, exist in a state of sexual potential with more than one woman, but even so, the reality is that sexual normativity, sexuality that pleases God, is sexuality that only reaches its fulfillment with one woman. This is true for the single man who experiences attraction toward women, and it’s true for the single man who experiences attraction toward men. To claim that because a person has a so-called homosexual orientation, they cannot find sexual fulfillment in a biblical marriage covenant is a lack of creativity and love, and shows a failure to understand sex as a gift within marriage.

Sex is a gift of love and self from husband to wife, and vice-versa. A wife can give herself to her husband even if he is a poor example of virile masculinity. A husband can give himself to his wife even if he finds himself, because of the reality of sin, in possession of desires he knows to be non-normative.

Sex is a gift from God; if anyone is to be the authority on gifts, their reception and use, it is not unbelievers. After all, God created marriage “to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3).

Feynmanian Virtue

The man himself.

Supposedly Richard Feynman, the great 20th Century physicist, used to give advice on how to be a genius. His recommendation? Keep a dozen or so problems constantly in the back of your mind. Every time you meet a new trick or result, test it against each of your problems. Eventually, something will click, and people will think “How on earth did he do it? He must be a genius!”

Continue reading “Feynmanian Virtue”