27 July 2008

Since our bodies are doomed to death... -- Wisdom Sunday

We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. It is trampled by the party mob in the East, by the commercial one in the West. This is the essence of the crisis: the split in the world is less terrifying than the similarity of the disease afflicting its main sections.

If, as claimed by humanism, man were born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to death, his task on earth evidently must be more spiritual: not a total engrossment in everyday life, not the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then their carefree consumption. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one's life journey may become above all an experience of moral growth: to leave life a better human being than one started it.

It is imperative to reappraise the scale of the usual human values; its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President's performance should be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or to the availability of gasoline. Only by the voluntary nurturing in ourselves of freely accepted and serene self-restraint can mankind rise above the world stream of materialism.

Today it would be retrogressive to hold on to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Such social dogmatism leaves us helpless before the trials of our times.

Even if we are spared destruction by war, life will have to change in order not to perish on its own. We cannot avoid reassessing the fundamental definitions of human life and society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man's life and society's activities should be ruled by material expansion above all? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our integral spiritual life? -- Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, "A World Split Apart -- Commencement Address Delivered at Harvard University," 8 June 1978.
One of the beauties of this speech is how it highlights the materialsim inherent in both the western, capitalist society and the eastern communist. That same materialism governs both the global warming histrionics of the left and some of the equally histrionic contrarians. I think Solzhenitsyn would tell us that because the left is more consistently materialistic, they are the stronger. It is only a matter of time -- unless the right becomes more consistently...theistic.
24 July 2008

Obama runs for Mayor of Berlin

That’s how Nile Gardiner of the U.K.’s Conservative Home.com feels about Senator Obama’s speech in Berlin:

It is difficult to see how scenes of tens of thousands of cheering left-wing Germans will increase support for Obama back home. After all, Germany and much of Europe have barely lifted a finger to help the Americans in the war against Islamist terrorism and won't fight in Afghanistan.

The speech itself was well delivered but completely lacking in any policy ideas. Soaring rhetoric but thoroughly lightweight in content. Obama basically gave the Germans what they wanted - European-style mush.

It really was mush. I wish I had time….

How sweetly I recall as a young soldier stationed in (West) Germany, listening to Ronaldus Magnus telling Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”.

Obama speaks of “change we can believe in”. So did Reagan:

We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! (Emphasis on the word change is mine.)
People of the world -- look at Berlin! If Barak Obama's party had gotten its way there would still be, among other things, two Berlins.

Der heutige tag, es gibt nur ein Berlin. Try saying that, Senator Mercy Boo Koo. Pienso que no puede.

To Secure These Rights

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…. Declaration of Independence
Governments are instituted in order to secure those rights which we have as gifts from our Creator. Governments, furthermore, derive their conditional right to rule “from the consent” of those over whom these governments rule.

Properly, the governed are understood to be citizens of the geographic area being governed (inhabited by those seeking to secure these rights to themselves), not simply any Tom, Dick, Harry, or Maclovio who just happens to be in the area. In fact, if Tom, Dick, Harry and Maclovio happen to be foreign nationals, citizens, the governed, those who give their consent (which foreign nationals have not done) to the government, have a right to expect the government to which they have given their conditional consent, will protect them from foreign nationals. They might expect that the government to which they’ve given their consent will deport foreign nationals, especially violent offenders, who break the laws. They wouldn’t expect their government, to which they’ve given their consent in order to secure the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, would actually make it impossible to enforce laws enacted precisely for the purpose of securing the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But that is exactly what sanctuary cities do. That is what San Francisco, a city with a long-standing practice of shielding illegal immigrant juveniles who commit felonies from possible deportation, has done. Such is the case with Edwin Ramos, who is accused of three counts of murder in the June 22 deaths of Tony Bologna, 48, and his sons Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16.

They were shot near their home in the Excelsior district when Tony Bologna, driving home from a family picnic, briefly blocked the gunman's car from completing a left turn down a narrow street, police say.

Ramos, a native of El Salvador whom prosecutors say is a member of a violent street gang, was found guilty of two felonies as a juvenile - a gang-related assault on a [city bus] passenger and the attempted robbery of a pregnant woman - according to authorities familiar with his background. (Here)
You’re driving home, or to anywhere, and for just a few moments you block a street onto which the driver of another car wishes to turn. Normally, the driver will honk his horn at you, possibly even flip you off. Edwin Ramos is different. If he wants to turn onto a street and you get in his way, he can shoot and kill you.

It gets worse. This is not Ramos’s first “tangle” with the law in San Francisco. In fact, his previous entanglements made his immigration status deportable. But San Francisco’s government (instituted to secure the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness) which derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, does not allow its law enforcement officers to ascertain anyone’s immigration status.

What should people do when their government, instituted to secure the aforementioned rights, goes out of its way to protect violent law-breaking foreign nationals? Cosmopolitanism is a nice idea, but at the end of the day, people institute governments for their own protection, to secure to themselves the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Most of us have no difficulty to extend protection to foreign nationals within our borders, but those foreign nationals should receive conditional protection. And that protection should be conditioned upon their demonstrated willingness to follow the rules. When they break the rules it is both foolish and dangerous not to ask whether they are here legally or illegal, and then to act accordingly. When governments won’t do that, it can no longer be justly said that they exist to secure to the people who formed those governments the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

…whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
23 July 2008

Oh, Magoo, you’ve done it again

Vice-President Gore asserts that starting to drill for oil now in order to lower fuel prices today makes as much sense as responding to an attack from Afghanistan by attacking Iraq. This is ignorance, dishonesty, or self-deception.

(1) The world oil market fungible. That means that, for all practical purposes once you sink a well, anywhere in the world, the world’s oil supply has increased. Increasing supply in response to increasing demand does lower oil prices. Observe: as soon as the President announced an intention to lift the moratorium off-shore drilling oil prices dropped at bit. They are still slowly dropping. And, what’s more, they could (could!) drop down to as low as $50 per barrel, $35 more than they were trading in May 1998. That’s just following the announcement of an intention to drill. Let’s start drilling and see what happens. No, it may not mean an overnight drastic drop in the price at the pump. The price at the pump is related to factors other than oil supplies. That oil still has to be refined. But since crude price is not irrelevant to the price at the pump, it could yield a price at the pump which is perhaps a little more bearable for people than the present price.

(2) Had we been drilling for this oil already, the oil supply would already be larger and it is at least arguable that prices would not be what they are. To speak like a Democrat (most recently Barak Obama), We’ll never know what prices could be if we’d never put a moratorium on off-shore drilling and if we’d started drilling in Alaska ten years ago. (That’s what Democrats say when the want to blame Republican policies for anything. We’ll never know what things would be like if Republicans had implemented Democrat policies. It’s a cute trick.)

(3) We didn’t respond to an attack from Afghanistan by invading Iraq. The war in Afghanistan began 7 October 2001, almost one month after the 11 September attacks. We invaded Iraq 20 March 2003. Whether we should have invaded Iraq or not, we responded to an attack from Afghanistan by – what do you know – invading Afghanistan. Arguing that the invasion of Iraq is logically pursuant to the objectives of the War on Terror, which began as a response to the 11 September attacks, is not the same thing as arguing that the invasion of Iraq was a logical response to the 11 September attacks.

Al Gore has the eyesight of Mr. Magoo. Sadly, like Mr. Magoo, he never ends up paying much of a price – if any price – for his blindness. There is an obvious difference: Mr. Magoo really can’t see; Mr. Gore isn’t interested in seeing.


21 July 2008

Pimp my tunes

Invader Christian -- Part 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Once a person has come to faith in Christ, he sets out on the path of holiness, to conform to the model of Christ, to wage a constant battle against the temptations of Satan, to acquire the Holy Spirit and to live a life that prepares him to be with God in His Eternal Kingdom….Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas
Of course, that last posting on this subject raises the question of what is the purpose of Christian music if not to evangelize and do outreach. How can a song which is not “evangelical” nonetheless be Christian? It’s an important question. Otherwise we might be justified in saying that there really should be no more difference between Christian art and non-Christian art than there is between Christian plumbing and non-Christian plumbing.

Consider a simple emendation which might make Rush’s “Subdivisions” (right click on the link and select either "Open in New Tab" or "Open in New Window" to listen) a Christian song, not an evangelistic song, but truly Christian.

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone

In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out
Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth

Drawn like moths we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction
Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly
Just to feel the living night

Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight
Somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights...

Truly, the only thing it would take is a stanza to the effect that “subdivisions” are the result of the ontological change – the perversion of “the whole order of nature in heaven and earth” (Calvin, Institutes, Bk. II, Ch. 1.5) – which occurred as a result of Adam’s sin (see e.g., Romans 5.12; 8.20, 22). It seems too easy, I know. But consider the single, minor change John Osborne required to make his play, Luther a twentieth century play. The play is very fairly accurate, historically – right up to the end. But then, at the very end of the play, the head of Luther’s monastery comes to visit him and his family, and asks him, “Martin, do you know you are right?” Anyone the least bit knowledgeable of the Reformation, should know how Luther would have answered that question. Despite the historical facts (like, for example, that Luther lived out the remainder of his days under the death sentence), Osborne has Luther reply, “Let’s hope so.”

So if that’s all it takes to make Martin Luther a twentieth century man, making “Subdivisions” a Christian song by the aforementioned alteration doesn’t sound so incredible. Now, bear in mind I’m not talking about some CCM artist doing a cover of “Subdivisions”, with the suggested addition. What I’m getting at is that right now there are only two ways in which anything like “Subdivisions” could be a Christian song. First, for some twenty-something Christian artist to cover it, like someone recently did of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” , I believe. The other way, would be (in some possible world in which “Subdivisions” was not written and performed by Rush) for some Christian contemporary musician to write “Subdivisions” without, of course, the aforementioned emendation, which would earn him many accolades. In other words, he’d write an abortive Christian song and be rewarded for his efforts by an adoring Christian public which could not help but admire his social conscience. I say “abortive” because a song like “Subdivisions” without the connection to the ontological and anthropological implications of sin would be as “secular” as “Subdivisions” already is.

This is important because I don’t think the test of whether a song is Christian or not is whether it sings well in church on Sunday. (That would be the case if I thought we lived in a two-storey universe: Christian music would be limited to music one can sing in church, where for a few hours on Sunday we can pretend we are in the upper-storey, in front of the throne of grace.) However, a song like “Subdivisions” without the gospel connection (and yet at the same time without being “evangelical”) is the statement, the exposition of a problem with no adumbration of a solution, or at least the cause of the problem – our original estrangement from God. Separated from God we are estranged from each other, and also from ourselves. Some types of enforced conformity are attempts – weak attempts – at removing at least some sense of this estrangement.

In that light consider the irony, on a Christian view, of these lines:

Conform or be cast out
Here one group of humans equally estranged from God as everyone else commands, and demands, conformity to its self-selected, arbitrary norms, its self-selected, arbitrary mores. They set themselves up as God, to whose image all must “conform or be cast out”. On a Christian view this is a real problem: it is a form of idolatry. How does it come to be a problem on a modern, or even a post-modern view? On both of those views man is normal; so then are “subdivisions”. This estrangement is normal, and shouldn’t need fising. In other words, if these “subdivisions” do not constitute an abnormality then why complain? It’s just the way it is.

Lest you think I’m just down on everyone, I do just happen to think that some of the best, explicitly Christian lyrics have always been written by U2. Think of one of my all-time favorites, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (right click, etc., to listen).

I can’t believe the news today
Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away
How long...
How long must we sing this song?
How long? how long...

cause tonight...we can be as one

Broken bottles under children’s feet
Bodies strewn across the dead end street
But I won’t heed the battle call
It puts my back up
Puts my back up against the wall

Sunday, bloody sunday
Sunday, bloody sunday
Sunday, bloody sunday (sunday bloody sunday...)
(all right let’s go!)

And the battles just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart

Sunday, bloody sunday
Sunday, bloody sunday

How long...
How long must we sing this song?
How long? how long...

cause tonight...we can be as one

Sunday, bloody sunday (tonight)
Sunday, bloody sunday (tonight)
(come get some!)

Wipe the tears from your eyes
Wipe your tears away
Wipe your tears away
I wipe your tears away
(sunday, bloody sunday)
I wipe your blood shot eyes
(sunday, bloody sunday)

Sunday, bloody sunday (sunday, bloody sunday)
Sunday, bloody sunday (sunday, bloody sunday)
(here I come!)

And its true we are immune
When fact is fiction and tv reality
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die

The real battle yet begun (sunday, bloody sunday)
To claim the victory jesus won (sunday, bloody sunday)

Sunday bloody sunday
Sunday bloody sunday...
The song drips with allusions to the Psalms. But there’s more than that; it connects with the (abnormal) human condition as a Christian sees it (i.e., abnormal because all is not as God created it). “The trench is dug within our hearts/And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart” – in other words, humans estranged, alienated from each other as the ontological result of the corruption wrought by Adam’s broken fellowship and loss of union with God. “The real battle yet begun…/To claim the victory Jesus won” – in a song written as a response to The Troubles, in Northern Ireland. Here you have not only a song which expounds upon a problem, like Rush’s “Subdivisions”, but you also have the cause of the problem, estrangement, that “trench…dug within our hearts” (all of our hearts), as well as adumbration of solution, “the victory Jesus won”, that victory which restores us to union with God through Jesus Christ and sends the Holy Spirit into the world. Perhaps this, subliminally, is why of all the songs written about The Troubles, U2’s contribution is the most famous and most covered.

Getting back to the topic of motif, what separates U2’s music from much of contemporary Christian music is that most CCM, dominated by adherents to dispensational theology and thus expecting the imminent end to the church age, has been geared more towards evangelism-by-music. Groups like U2, on the other hand, while not unconcerned about the gospel and, clearly, explicitly Christian, are not trying to evangelize anyone through their music. But what they do musically, they do as Christians. (More than likely this is due to the fact that Roman Catholic theology is not dispensational.)

Whether Christian contemporary music is mediocre or not, what seems to be missing in a lot of cases is a sense of what the purpose of music is. As I’ve already mentioned, there has been for a long time the notion that its purpose should be evangelism. To evangelize means, in a very real sense, to teach. When I think of the possibility of teaching anything by song I remember something I read of T. S. Eliot on whether poetry can be used to teach religion. He didn’t think that it could be used as fruitfully as more typical methods of instruction. What he thought poetry could do with regard to religion was teach how it feels to believe the religion. Think about that with reference to “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”. The Troubles are seen, and feelings described, from a Christian perspective. What would “Subdivisions” look like if written to describe the same feelings from a Christian perspective?

There is another possibility. The purpose of Christian music could be the same as most other, non-Christian arts: simply to entertain. The entertainment is Christian, of course, but it’s still entertainment. But I wonder if we really need to be entertained. Hmmmm. What would someone like John Chrysostom say?

As a Calvinist, and a Presbyterian, it’s easy for me to respond to the question of the purpose of Christian music by saying that it’s to glorify God, which is the purpose of a human being. Makes sense: if the chief end of man is to glorify God, then man’s music should do so as well. But too often this leads to vain speculation about whether – and how – this or that piece of music will glorify God. “To glorify God” is a bit over-broad.

One wouldn’t know that the same Confession of Faith which claims God’s glory as the “chief end of man” also tells us how we may glorify Him: it’s in the Scriptures; we need not speculate. (Well, not as much as one might like to think.) Not only that, the Confession also includes the enjoyment of God forever as man’s chief end. That very Confession, as most others, also teaches that one of the benefits Christians have both in this life and the next is union with God.

So rather than evangelize unbelievers and entertain believers, perhaps Christian music, whatever its style, should seek aggressively and explicitly to help believers enjoy God, glorify Him and live in union with Him, even here on earth. Even then, it need not be cast as something that “sings well” in church. After all, we are to enjoy Him, glorify Him, and live in union with Him at church and away from church.

Of course, that said, we might need to take note of the fact that glorifying God, enjoying Him and living in union with Him is not always entertaining, not always pleasant. Just read the psalms.

Perhaps the most we can say about the purpose of Christian arts (most particularly music, in this context) is that it is created by Christians and addressed primarily to other Christians. (Or, at least, most easily and properly assessed and appreciated by other Christians.) Christians are people in process of sanctification. To put that same idea in a form which non-Protestants might use (and which, in fact, Archbishop Dmitry does use), Christians are those who, having come to faith in Christ, have set out on the path of holiness and seek to conform to the model of Christ, waging a constant and vigilant battle against the temptations of Satan in the power of the Holy Spirit and living a life that prepares them for life with God in His eternal kingdom. Christian art ought to be art by people who are on that path. And it should inspire, uplift, and encourage others who are on that path.

[T]here is no sanctification without union with Christ….-- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. III.14.4

Christianity is not a philosophical school for speculating about abstract concepts, but is essentially a communion with the living God.-- Vladimir Lossky.

Part 5
15 July 2008

It's just chemicals, so why all the fuss?

Hugo asks, about this posting:

I understand symbols and rituals and have no problems with them.But in the end when it really matters in reality it is really just wine and bread right?And nobody should really be hurt for misunderstanding or even misusing such symbols, right?


He also includes these links (here, here, and here) as if to ask me to give account for the response of Roman Catholics ( including death threats) to one Webster Cook for lying to a priest and stealing a communion wafer from a Roman Catholic Church. Hugo may like to employ the euphemisms “misunderstanding” and “misusing”, but lying and stealing is what happened here.

I’m not sure why Hugo asks me about all this. It’s not as if I need to be called to account here. I’m a Reformed catholic, not a Roman catholic. Perhaps that’s it: Hugo wants to know that I agree with him that Roman Catholic response to Webster Cook is over the top.

No, Hugo, I’m not going to agree with you. It is true that I believe that bread and wine do not cease to be bread and wine. The fact is Roman Catholics believe that the essence of the elements change, even though the accidents remain unchanged. I respectfully disagree with them. But the key word there is respectfully. I have no sympathy for Webster Cook because I certainly would not have done what he did.

Atheists are rather amusing in many ways. In some ways there are just downright bothersome. (I know the feeling is mutual.) They are bothersome because in many ways they employ a double standard. When an atheist believes something like, say, evolution, if you question it, criticize it, argue against it, then they fee themselves entitled (before, during or after responding with a cogent argument) to speak to and of you as derisively, as spitefully and as hatefully as they please (but, thankfully, no death threats). They can call into question your intelligence, your education (even if they are the ones who educated you), and your mental health (because your beliefs are delusional).

If, on the other hand, you have certain beliefs which they do not share and, in fact, find “irrational” they are entitled to speak to or of you as derisively, as spitefully and as hatefully as they please. You deserve it. If you believe that some little piece of dried bread is the flesh of Jesus Christ not only are they entitled to disagree with you, but they feel no compunction about calling it a “god-****ed cracker”, especially if you have the audacity to act like you believe it’s the flesh of Christ.

They are entitled to act consistently with their beliefs, while you are not. They believe a piece of dried bread is a cracker; they can act like it. You believe a piece of dried bread is the body of Jesus Christ; you better not act like it.

Not only that. If someone goes into your church and acts like he believes what you believe; if he lies to a priest by receiving a host (which the priest gave only on the supposition that Cook would partake of it); if he steals that “god-****ed cracker” – they will cry, “Foul!” if you object in any strenuous terms by, for example, calling this lying and stealing a “hate” crime, or (if it really happened) making death threats. That’ll really get you on their radar. And the acts to which you object (i.e., lying and stealing) will be euphemistically referred to as “misunderstanding” and “misusing”, all the better to make you look even more unreasonable and “irrational” than you do. “All this fuss over a ‘misunderstanding’ or ‘misuse’ of a symbol?”

None of this is to say that I think Webster Cook should be harmed in any way for his lying and stealing – not “misunderstanding” and “misusing”. He shouldn’t be, not for any reasons which an atheist could give which I would find persuasive, but because I think that the One who told us to turn the other cheek when slapped would Himself do the same. But neither do I have any sympathy for Webster Cook. If he objects to the vitriol to which he’s been subjected he has only himself to blame. No one, so far as I know, dragged his ass to that church. No one, so far as I know, dragged his ass up to the altar. The priest, so far as I know, didn’t shove the “god-****ed cracker” into his mouth. The “god****ed cracker” was given to him because the priest thought he wanted to eat the god****ed thing. He should have done so. If nothing else he should have showed some respect for others’ property.

This raises another double standard which atheists employ. What an atheist values we all must value. Whatever an atheist does not value, we are not entitled to value. (If we insist one doing so, however, we shant be permitted actually to act like it; or we shall be permitted to do so only within boundaries he will set up for us.) If an atheist values the person of a lying thief over a “god****ed cracker” we’d better do so also. But if we attach a certain value to a “god****ed cracker” and an atheist (or anyone else) does not and even “desecrates” that god****ed cracker we’d better keep our god****ed mouths shut.

Of course, they are justified in all this because a human is more valuable than a “god****ed cracker”. Really? A couple of bucks worth of chemicals is worth more than a cracker, another couple of bucks of some other chemicals? Chemicals, in reality, are just chemicals, right? No one should really he hurt for misusing, or threatening to misuse chemicals should they?

12 July 2008

Invader Christian (3)

In this previous posting, I suggested that perhaps the alleged mediocrity in contemporary Christian artistic offerings is due to greater preoccupation with the packages of sensory assaults rather than with the truth being packaged. Giving the matter more thought I now wonder if it may not be the package of sensory assaults as much as it is the motif. After all, the aforementioned Byzantine culture adapted pre-existing cultural trends to produce explicitly Christian art. But there is a difference of motif. For the Byzantine east, especially when you consider icons, the motif is the Incarnation. In contemporary Christian art, especially music, it’s clearly something else; and that’s even if you could find a connection between any element of Christian dogma and the contributions to culture made by Christian artists.

Compare some of these offerings with something like the icon of St. John the Precursor, Beheaded:

This icon, which is supposed to depict a beheaded John the Precursor, depicts both the beheaded John and the glorified John. This single “package of sensory assaults” depicts two things apparently in the same time and place, which is an impossibility. But the purpose of an icon is to show the truth of the depicted saint in the truth of his life. In this icon we have two contrasting images in a singly icon of a single saint, but which really don’t make sense without each other. Consider that portion of the icon depicting only a headless John. All you have is a headless man, end of story. Consider the other portion, depicting a winged saint (we know ‘tis a saint because of the halo). Wow, a halo-headed guy with wings. Neat. The entire icon makes sense, only in view of the Incarnation and all that it entails, including the glorification of the saints, but only if you are familiar with the gospel and Christian dogmas.

I belong to a denomination which, to put it mildly, takes a dim view of icons. My denomination are inclined to dismiss icons of Mary and Jesus as productions of people threatened by the idea of a crucified and risen Lord of lords and King of kings, but not of a harmless little baby, unlike Herod who was terrified of a “harmless” little baby. In fact, the motif behind such icons is not fear; the motif, as I’ve already mentioned, is The Incarnation. The Incarnation, the “enfleshing” of the eternally-begotten Son, is perhaps the most important of Christian dogmas. (I say perhaps because I don’t like to oppose dogmas to each other, or arrange them in any sort of hierarchy.) Whatever our positions on icons, the importance here is the relation of truth to “packaging.” The “package of sensory assaults” which is the icon of John the Precursor, Beheaded is, if possible, smaller than the truth of his beheading and his glorification.

One gets the sense that the motif in much CCM is sensual gratification, giving people what they want, what Calvin would call “tickling the ears” with music. Sadly, what most people want (yes, even Christians) is pleasure-giving packages of sensual assaults. Of course, Christians’ sense-assaulting packages are “positive”, “family-friendly”, and seasoned with special salt distilled from the Blood o’ the Lamb.

That might explain the marketing techniques often used by CCM marketers, and to which I alluded in a previous posting. By gratification, I mean giving consumers of music, whether Christian or not, what they want, especially stylistically. If Nora Jones is “in”, then CCM needs to provide a CCM Nora Jones sound-alike. Here, the secular culture sets the agenda because the “they” whose wants we are seeking to fulfill are consumers of music in the secular culture, the culture which Invader Christian thinks he wants to see reformed. If these consumers like Jane Roe, “secular” artist, we’ve got Jane Doe, CCM artist of the order of Jane Roe. If the culture you think you are trying to reform (Christ as Transformer of Culture) is setting your agenda, then you are simply following it around.

There is a connection with Calvinism here. In a previous posting I mentioned the Calvinist denial of a distinction between the secular and the sacred. The Incarnation, in Eastern Orthodox thought, implies – necessarily – that we live in a “one-storey” universe. Much of contemporary Christian thought and art employs the image of a “two-storey” universe, just like the secularists. Like our Eastern Orthodox brethren, Calvinists also deny the “two-storey” universe.

This is important because much of what we experience as mediocrity in Christian arts, especially music, is rooted, I believe in Protestant evangelicalism’s obsession with evangelism and outreach as motifs – when there is any hint of motif, of course. Evangelism and outreach are fine; but what is ignored is art’s role in spiritual formation, indeed spiritual formation doesn’t seem to make it on the radar. The music is designed, one gets the feeling, to get people saved, and them to help them hang on ‘til Jesus gets back, or simply to “uplift” them. That is, they serve the image of a two-storey universe in which the purpose of evangelism and outreach is to get people here in the lower storey to make a commitment which will reserve them a place in the upper storey, when the lower storey is destroyed, or to help them wait it out here in the lower storey until the rapture, if you believe in that. (I, for the record, do not.)

Spiritual formation? (How many evangelicals even have heard the term?) Why bother about all that? We need to get people saved and to encourage the people doing the saving (which should be all of us: there’s no time to enjoy anything because it will probably all be over tomorrow). So it has to be all about evangelism, missions, outreach and so forth.

It would be relevant to discuss what is the purpose of spiritual formation, as opposed to evangelism and outreach and how the difference between the two important is important. Sadly, I haven’t the time. Alas. Actually the truly relevant question is about the purpose of Christian music, if not to evangelize and do outreach. I don’t have time for that one either right now.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 4
06 July 2008

The fundamental reality of Christian experience

(from the Eastern Orthodox perspective)

[O]rthodox theology does not fit in the category of liberalism or conservatism as developed in Western Christendom. Direct communion with God rather than external authority, sanctification rather that justification, personal experience rather than intellectual poof, consensus rather than passive obedience – these are some important Orthodox intuitions about the nature of the Christian faith. In stressing such contrasts, I do not mean at all that the Orthodox church does not believe in authority, that it rejects the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, that it does not respect the power of reason, or that dogmas are accepted through democratic referendums. But…the mystery of the Holy Spirit, present in the church, is the fundamental reality of Christian experience, [and] this experience is a personal and free one, and …authority, reason, and formal hierarchical and conciliar criteria are meant to protect it, not to replace it. In any case, the Spirit guiding the faithful is also the creator of church order, the bestower of the charismata of teaching and governing, as well as the inspirer of the prophets. Thus the personalism of the faith does not result in charismatic subjectivism or individualism; it initiates each person to think and to act as a responsible member of the body, seeking the truth within the communion of the saints.” John Meyendorf, “Doing Theology in an Eastern Orthodox Perspective,” in Eastern Orthodox Theology; a Contemporary Reader, Daniel B. Clendenin, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2003), 93-94.
03 July 2008

Invader Christian -- Part 2

[A]fter birth, man is nurtured with physical pleasure. Throughout the early years of childhood the power to reason is not developed, and the mind is unable to use the senses of the body in order to activate its own energy and be preoccupied with its own rationality and spiritual delight. Consequently, only the body uses these senses, not merely for its necessary nourishment but also for its passionate pleasure. And to make things worse the body even draws the mind itself, being still imperfect and indiscreet, to the same physical pleasure, thereby enslaving the mind to physical pleasure. -- Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, Handbook of Spiritual Counsels
I’m still pondering the matter of cultural reformation and the failure – the inability, even – of Christians to have any lasting effect on American culture. I hinted at the reality of the evangelical right’s becoming like the left in the sense of its becoming rationalistic.

Too often, the Christian’s engagement with culture amounts to little more than entering into the culture, almost chameleon-like, in order to participate in its reformation. But, of course, the last thing a chameleon wants is to destroy its surroundings. This is an important consideration because it strikes me that not very many Christians have adequately reflected upon the fact that cultural reformation requires the death of the culture to be reformed. (Opponents understand this all too well, hence their militant animosity.)

Before a seed sprouts, it dies. It seems like an obvious fact, not even worth pointing out. But the Calvinist teaching that there is no sacred-secular distinction has really worked out in a manner contrary to what it should be. Instead of “redeeming” the putatively secular, that secular ends up being baptized and chrismated. The culture really doesn’t need to be reformed; it just needs a bit of cleaning up. Rather than be always scandalized by the absence of Christ (note that I did not say “Christian values”) we look for the truth conveyed in contemporary, mythopoeic, artistic offerings. This is because Christians, especially Christians of the Reformed stripe (in contrast with fundamentalists) are all about truth, wherever it shows its ugly head. (After all, all truth is God’s truth.) If there is some grasp of truth in Seneca, then one can surely take note of it, as Calvin did on several occasions. If there is some grasp of truth in a movie like Pulp Fiction or V for Vendetta, then one can surely take note of it.

So goes the advertisement, anyway. But how does it really work out? Let’s take Pulp Fiction, for example. On one hand we can note with some satisfaction that it is a bit of pop culture, produced by pop culture and which takes critical aim at pop culture, calling its moral relativism into question. So far, so good. Reformed people are, or should be, all about calling culture into question. (Whether we ourselves should produce works of pop culture in order to do so is another question.) Of course, in viewing this cultural critique, the viewer is treated to racial slurs, graphic heroine use, close-ups of what bullets do to human heads, and a man raping another man. Do scenes such as these accord with truth? Certainly they do. And, besides, they’re fake. Should we, for that reason alone, rationalize our viewing of them?

Yes, these things are fake. But consider the implications of the fact that producers of movies try very hard to make the fake seem real. Why do they do that? They do it because we want them too. “Realism” is one of the properties we judge in appraising a movie. We judge as being of poorer quality movies which contain scenes that are obviously fake. We know it’s fake; we just don’t want to see that it’s fake. We need “realism”. Realism – from a movie. (No, let’s not go there just yet.)

What feeds this need for “realism”? If we can rationalize our viewing of movies like Pulp Fiction on the grounds that the otherwise-objectionable is fake, why then is it that a film purportedly depicting real deaths attained some popularity when I was young. (Actually the movie was full of faked deaths. Pretty darn good faked deaths, though.) Why would people who excuse violence in moves on the basis that it is fake be eager to view a film supposedly filled with “faces” of real deaths? My friends and I, happily excusing violence in movies on the grounds that it’s all fake, snatched up Faces of Death eagerly. And we were disappointed – felt robbed! – when we found out it also was fake.

What gives?

St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1749- 1809) said that truth is everywhere, but it’s often covered in slime. For that reason we each must learn how to discern truth and, at the same time, carefully handle the “package of sensory assaults” it sometimes comes in. The problem with our rationalizations is that they do not account for something which humans who have attained to adulthood ought to know about themselves: humans can easily become addicted to pleasure. And if the “package of sensory assaults” which (perhaps!) convey truth to us is pleasurable, we can become addicted to, and obsessed with, viewing, or hearing, the packaging rather than devoting our attention to discerning the truth carried by that packaging.

Think about food. Food is a sort of packaging, conveying nutrients to our bodies. We need the nutrients, so we consume food. What our bodies do not need for nutrition is eliminated. But note that humans can become addicted to food – no, not to food: addicted to eating. And this, not because of the nutrients but because of the pleasure involved in consuming the food, the pleasure provided by the package of sensory assaults on the taste buds.

Like those who become consumers of food out of love for the package of sensory assaults it brings, we can become consumers not of truth but of pleasurable packaging in the forms of the movies we watch, or the music we listen to, the books we read.

Of course, we may very well tell ourselves that we are “meditating on whatsoever things are true” (Philippians 4.8). But are we meditating on anything? Or are we simply indulging a package of sensory assaults to which we’ve become addicted?

As an example of how package obsession may look when it comes to movies consider another movie, Christiane F (1981). It was broadcast on (then-West) German television in 1986 or 1987. For some reason the different reactions of two people have always remained with me. A fellow soldier took particular delight in describing for me a scene in which Christiane catches her boyfriend, Detlef, engaging in sodomy-for-heroine as if it were a play in a football game. Then there was Rita, wife of a friend of mine: watching the movie made her “very, very sad” – for days. She wondered what could be done, which, get this, was the intent of both the book and the movie! Amazing.

Out of curiosity I wanted to read various people’s reactions to the movie posted online at various websites. Given the subject matter of the movie, especially since it was based on the biographical book, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo(We Children from Bahnhof Zoo), this reaction, from Mae was a bit disappointing: “I…like the film a lot!”. Translation: “I like the package of sensory assaults a lot.” She doesn’t comment on the truth contained in this package. In fact, very few people do.

Take, as another example this comment in which the writer commpares Requiem for a Dream with Christiane F. (here) :

Style... Rarely will you see a film so evocative of a certain time/place as Christiane F... It could almost be viewed as a period piece... It is a raw, dirty film when compared with Requiem -- both deal with raw/dirty subject matter, but Christiane F. is not tricky and that's the difference. I fear that Christiane F., were it to be made today instead of 25 years ago, would look a lot like Requiem and that would be a shame. Christiane F. feels like the camera crew, lighting technicians...everybody is either on dope or has done dope. The film feels like the producers reall [sic] got it.

This one also enjoys the package of sensory assaults as a package which evokes “a certain time/place”, as a “period piece”. And the children from the Bahnhof Zoo? Christiane F., herself, who has continued to struggle on and off with drug addiction? And Detlef, whom no one seems ever to have heard from again? And Axel, whom Christiane and Detlef found dead in his apartment from a drug over-dose? And Babette, another of Christiane's friends, also dead of an over-dose (which Christiane learned by reading the newspaper)? What about them? Oh, yes, a real period piece.

Who cares? What we’ve got here is a package of sensory assaults which is a brilliant period piece, man. Lighten up, Francis.

Never mind all that for the moment. There is another matter, another issue raised by the movie, as a movie this time. What follows is a ten minute clip from the movie. There is a scene which begins at about seven minutes into the clip in which a guy makes, shall we say, unwanted advances, very aggressive, unwanted advances on Christiane. (Not the kind to willingly take, “No” for an answer.)


An artistic depiction of a probable historical fact. But this isn’t some guy behaving poorly with Christiane. This is an actor, a real person, placing his real hand on a real actress’s thigh, a fourteen year old actress named Natja Brunckhorst. Thought experiment: That is your 14 year old real-life daughter on the movie set. Do you want her to play that part? (Well, maybe if you’re Billy Ray Cyrus.) They may be depicting a truth. But in real life, does anyone have any business depicting that sort of truth in that particular way?

A rationalist, the same sort of person who looks at bread and wine and sees only bread and wine and is unable to see anything else looks at a scene like that and sees only a movie. Many Christians are like that with most of the movies they see. They watch a movie with scenes like I discussed above and see the “truth” depicted in it, not the reality on the set.

So, in reality, therefore, because of what they are willing to accept in the name of and for the sake of the arts, most Christians end up simply connecting with the culture. And by connecting with it, they imbibe it, absorb it and are transformed by it, rather than the other way round. Because they contain some truth or truths, the packages those truths come in are irrelevant; there is no harm in suffering those sensory assaults. To object to viewing or hearing those packages of sensory assaults is to ignore the important truths they purvey; it is to bury one’s head in the sand. We can’t do that. (I’ve been there. I was once accused of burying my head in the sand when I informed a friend I had no intention of watching the short-lived television series “Nothing Sacred”. But really now, the show’s theme – “the complexity of faith in the modern era” – was for me yesterday’s news, a theme I myself have been dealing with since 1988. And besides, I prefer non-fiction. More importantly, I prefer reading to television-viewing; for me it’s more time-efficient. Besides I think anyone who believes he’s going to learn something – i.e., not burying his head in the sand – from a fictional TV series needs to have his head examined. Art may do many wonderful things for us, but in the end there is no propositional content, only images.)

Consequently, Christian contributions to the stream of culture may be nothing more than yet more packages of sensory assaults. If our packages resemble their packages (with the idea that this will provide a hearing for the truths our packages contain) the fact of the matter may be that our packages get lost in that already-crowded stream of packages. (Where’s Waldo?) It may also be that, in a culture addicted to and obsessed with packages of sensory assaults, rather than the truth within the packages, Christian packages may say nothing that non-Christian packages don’t. Why? Because the content is being ignored (if it’s even noticed) in favor of the pleasure provided by the packaging itself. That is the danger. And when that sort of thinking is extended to other areas of culture, it may also explain the failure of "Invader Christian".

So, the question may not be, “Can we not package Christian truth in the same sorts of sensory assaults in which non-Christians package theirs?” but rather, “Does the truth to be conveyed dictate anything about the 'packaging'? In other words, should the sensory assaults be different? I well remember my professor of linguistics saying repeatedly, “Language is a vehicle for communicating culture.” As I have meditated upon that over the years I have learned that sometimes language can be transformed so as to make it difficult, perhaps even in some cases impossible to communicate certain ideas. One wonders if the same is not true of certain sensory-assault packages.

It could very well be that certain Christian truths don’t package very well because it would require a regenerate heart even to care about, much less to notice the packages’ contents. If that be the case, then there may be very little point in our employing the same sorts of sense-assaulting packages as non-Christian artists.

To be fair, then, to contemporary Christian artists, perhaps the mediocrity some of us think we see and hear and read is due to our own dulled senses and hardened hearts.


Part 3

About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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