My Big Beef with Car Culture

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved cars.

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They’ve always been able to tug at my imagination, to capture my fascination, and I’m not sure why. Other people don’t seem to have this reaction at all when they encounter a motor vehicle. To them it really is just a collection of metal, rubber, and plastic. Perhaps the simplest way to describe what it means to be a car person is that a vehicle is more than the sum of its parts, and that it evokes something from within.

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A car, as a product of engineering and design, is not merely functional, but a work of art. It may be a poor work of art, or the art may be more in its functionality than anything else, but the shaping and moulding of panels, the calculating of proportions and angles and sight-lines, the tone and growl of the engine and exhaust, all require at least some measure of esthetic intentionality. It may look like a cross-eyed bullfrog but you know that someone somewhere presented that design to some decision makers who decided to make that hideous car.

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This is why we can begin to speak of a car’s personality, stance, face, rear-end, or ethos. Some cars exude power and aggression, others confidence and class, and still others just scream “I’m a Korean-made sub-compact from the mid-90’s and I’m utterly terrible.” Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got nothing against the Koreans – in fact they make some very fine cars now – but don’t ever buy a Daewoo, or a mid-90’s Hyundai. When you contact Daewoo to tell them that your driver’s seat fell through the floor of the car and the gear lever came off in your hand, they will simply laugh at you and say: “Hey! What you expect? You buy Daewoo!” Or that’s the rumor at least.

We all know that cars can be an endlessly fascinating subject of interest and conversation among men. The majority of those people who have an above-average interest in cars are indeed men. But like anything in which the majority of participants are men, there are some problems, and I’d like to talk about one of the major ones.

For a long time, I’ve wondered why it is the case that many magazines and websites which feature nice pictures of nice cars, will also contain sexualized pictures of women models. This is predominantly true of anything in the tuner culture, but is also more broadly applicable. If it isn’t outright portrayals of women in sensual poses, the same spirit is there in the sexist jokes and comments that presenters or writers make. Regardless of the form it takes, there is a pervasive attitude in much of this sub-culture that women, like cars, are pretty playthings that exist for men to enjoy.

This is done so casually and thoughtlessly, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to have some woman in her underwear standing beside a car. As the father of a daughter, I feel very strongly that this is not a natural thing at all. Say what you will about the decisions and career choices that these women have made, but I wouldn’t wish for any woman to have to take off her clothes in front of leering men in order to make a living, or to have worth in people’s eyes. I want my daughter to be valued for her character, personality, and spirit. For a long time, I didn’t really understand why this association between cars and women was so ubiquitous in car culture.

Then one day it hit me.

Men like cars for many reasons but one of the main ones is that they are good looking objects. Well then it only makes sense to have another good looking object to go with it.

Never mind that this second ‘object’ is a really a human being with a heart and soul and is of precious worth far beyond that of any Ferrari of Bugatti.

Never mind that all the men leering at the pictures of these girls wouldn’t want their own sisters, wives, or daughters displayed like that for all to see.

It’s just one of a hundred thousand ways in which our world doesn’t see or portray women as full and complete human beings, worthy of dignity and respect. It’s not right, and it’s not okay.

I’ve always told myself that I would love whatever my kids love and not try to get them to be interested in my own interests. So I don’t know if I failed at that or if my son really came to love cars by himself, but anyways he really loves cars and trucks. He’s only two and a half, and already (with a bit of coaching from me) he can tell the difference in his toy car collection between the ‘Porsche Nine Elebben’, the GT-R, and the Audi, as well as between the Jaguar E-Type and the Toyota 2000GT, which look quite similar at 1:64 scale. I want to be able to take him to the annual Auto Show when he’s a bit older, but it makes me sad to think that I will have to explain to him why there are women dressed in really small, tight dresses standing around in the modified cars section.

We need to do a better job of guarding the honor and dignity of all human beings, especially those whose honor and dignity and humanity are so often dismissed.

And we also need to treat objects as objects. I did go to the car show this year, and although I really loved seeing all those gorgeous cars, pulling open the back door of a $500,000 Rolls Royce (I wasn’t supposed to, but how often do you get the chance?!), climbing into the trunk of a Toyota Echo to test out the emergency release cable they’ve installed in there in case of kidnapping, and pushing all the buttons and knobs in the Jaguars and Audis, I left the conference center feeling quite flat about the whole thing. At the end of the day, it really is just metal and rubber and really nice leather, and we would do well to remember it.

The sad reality is, for many people walking through that auto show, they had a far more human interaction with their dream cars than they did with the ladies who were put on display. They were far more conscious of the personality and soul of that new Audi than of the eternal value of each of those girls.

Dear car culture, you’ve humanized the object and objectified the human, and that is my big beef with you.

Just Keep Swimmin’

It’s been a few weeks of straight-piped no-foolin’ craziness around here. Kids and babies getting sick and spewing bodily fluids in every direction. Parents going down in tandem like tightrope walkers tied to each other with electrified bungee cords. Why gosh darn I tell you it’s a front-line field hospital that’s as messy as a school cafeteria after sloppy joe Wednesday and national food-fight day happened to be on the same day.

Just when you make it through one endless day and have some time to recalibrate your sanity-machine by injecting it with coffee and multi-syllabic ‘grown-up’ conversation, you realize you have less than seven hours before the one that can walk gets up and walks out of his room, demanding sustenance and entertainment. And those less-than-seven-hours are by no means guaranteed or uninterrupted – nooo – expect to be called upon more than once to get up, make a bottle, change a diaper, fill up a water glass, paint a picture, and wax the car. Well maybe not those last two. So with the prospect of not very much not very good sleep, here I am throwing an open-house pity party with free whine and cheese.

One does well in times like these to remember those words which alone can summon that superhuman level of commitment and perseverance:

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Alright I think I got it out of my system now. Some weeks are just like that, you know? We seem to be making a habit of taking about a month of winter around the January-February mark and just writing it off with a self-propagating cycle of sickness through mutual infection. We even took our little show on tour this year and went to Ontario and visited a whole bunch of our friends, making sure that they were left with something to remember us by such as laryngitis.

But although it’s been hectic, there have been many recurring evidences of profound blessing. Life is such that while you’re trying to tear your hair out you can also have your heart melted by the precious sweetness of family life. Love also shines a little brighter in dimmer circumstances: selflessness, service, hugs, life-giving words of affirmation, these things are that much more special when you really need them.

Friendship, too, is that much more meaningful in such times. I’ve had the words of author Tim Keller on the subject of spiritual friendship in my mind lately. He says that friendship blossoms out of commonalities, but that spiritual friendship in a Christian context can happen between any two believers. The strongest and most fulfilling friendships, however, are when those two aspects dovetail together so that not only is there a spiritual bond borne out of similar beliefs and experiences, but also that simply human connection that happens when personalities and passions agree. It is a rare gift but one that I have had the great fortune of experiencing repeatedly along our journey – foremost with my wife, who is my closest friend in all the world, but also with others. These kinds of friendships are worth nearly any amount of time or money required to keep them alive, and the dividends are not measurable in this life.

This post isn’t really about anything, so I’m having a hard time drawing any satisfying conclusions about it. But there you go, another life lesson: sometimes things just happen and the purpose is inscrutable.

That’s okay, some blog posts are like that too.

On the Writing of Novels

I joked about writing a novel a few days ago, but the truth is that I feel as far from writing a novel as ever before.

Seriously, just thinking about it makes me feel like this:

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It’s similar to a one-legged man who has always dreamed of climbing mount Everest. He arrives at base camp and gets a taste for the effects of high altitude and the difficulty of, well, climbing the world’s highest peak with half as many legs as is typically needed. In other words, he gains an appreciation for the immensity of the task, and the romantic glow which accompanied the thought in his mind is replaced by a stagnant dread.

Recently I discovered that my brother is into writing electronic music, and being musically inclined myself, I asked him to show me how he does it. I figured I could take a look at the interface and whip up something decent sounding in a few minutes. Well, not so much. He uses an online interactive in-browser set of tools that is as expansive as it is complicated and intricate, from mixing boards to effects pedals to wave synthesizers and loops, each with dozens of settings and adjustments. I didn’t even know how or where you could even start putting notes down, never mind putting together something with any more complexity than The Itsy Bitsy Spider in C major.

Even if I could manage to produce a sound that I liked, and wrote a little hook, to think of building upon that layers and layers of individually tailored sounds and beats and loops, each requiring a mastery of minutiae, is just overwhelming. The effort required to focus all your faculties on tiny details all while holding in your mind a vision of the entire piece so that each created section fits cohesively within the whole is simply staggering. And writing a novel is just like that. In that sense, even the most basic and formulaic novel is an impressive achievement, never mind creating believable characters that draw you in emotionally, scenes that play out in the readers’ minds with 1080p clarity, story arcs that are suspenseful and thrilling, and a depth of humanity and honesty that moves the work from mere entertainment to literature.

Maybe, I hope, I’ll get there someday. But for now I’m sticking with bite-sized pieces that my mind can wrap itself around. I’ll leave the grand weaving to others who feel so inclined, and heartily cheer when they do it. It is no small task. My humble goal this month is to submit a short story I’ve written to the CBC Canada Writes Creative Non-Fiction Competition. All the previous winners seem to be legit published authors with actual credentials so my expectations are low, but that’s not a reason not to try!

So here’s to you, novelists: well done, well done indeed.

*slow clapping*

Of Interrupted Date Nights and Spiritual Pathologies

We had it all planned out:

A stay-at-home date.

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Put the kids to bed at 8pm sharp, dress up a little bit (as in something you could wear to an upscale mall but which would make you look only slightly overdressed at Wal-Mart), throw some product in the hair, get out the coffee and chocolates and curl up on the couch to watch a mutually favorite show; which, I don’t know about you, but that in itself is nearly a miracle – usually there is some measure of compromise from one party which will be leveraged later when the viewing options are discussed anew. In this case, we were watching the HBO Sports special series 24/7 NHL Road to the Winter Classic, the fourth and final episode. The reason we both love this show is that it happens to feature both our favorite teams: The Toronto Maple Leafs (hers) and the Detroit Red Wings (his).

Things were just lovely for the first while, and then we heard our 3-month old daughter crying continually for a few minutes. Finally Kaitlyn got up to go and get her, but as these things go, the girl quieted down at that very moment and my wife stood listening just outside the door and then we looked at each other and shrugged and she came back to sit down. About 37 seconds later our daughter was screaming again and Kaitlyn went to get her.

Sit. Rep.: Extraction successful, but child #2 still fully awake and witnessed the entire scene. Given the child’s current mental capacity for comprehension, logical inference, and imitation, we have only a few minutes before child #2 attempts a re-negotiation of bedtime terms.

We resumed watching the show and then about ten minutes later we heard the kids’ bedroom door open. I got up quickly to intercept child #2 before he could come out and decide for sure that he was going to join us, but as I thought about how ridiculous this date was already, I decided to throw in the towel and bring him out with us too, to watch the last few minutes of the show.

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We all had a good laugh and then after a while we chucked those kids back into bed. That’s when we shut off the TV and really started talking. What a thing. It really is remarkable how long the substance of life and relationships can be kept beneath the surface by the tag-team of responsibilities and distractions. Run around for most of the day caring for two kids with runny noses and dirty diapers and empty stomachs and then when the few spare moments come you turn to a book or a computer or a TV show to relax and before you know it it’s 11:30pm and the whole thing is slated to start again in less time than it takes to be rested enough to face it all. It’s enough to leave you out of breath and begging for more punctuation.

So that’s why it was remarkable to have long uninterrupted conversation with my wife on the couch. We talked about life, our goals for this coming year, and our feelings about where we’re at as a couple and as a family. We talked about faith and our relationships with God, the striking difference between the palpable intimacy we felt after our conversions and now. It was good, very good.

And then Kaitlyn said that she had read something yesterday on facebook that had been oppressing her ever since, and as she said this, tears came to her eyes. It was a quote from that venerable 19th century theologian, J.C. Ryle, that I had also read. It is basically a clarion call to fight against any spiritual apathy. It is an excellent quote from an excellent teacher and preacher of the Bible, but – and this is where I’ve been going with all of this – in my wife’s case it was being used to beat her down and condemn her. Here’s a woman who sacrificially loves and serves her children and husband from dawn til dusk and has a profound love for God and the Bible, but who is also seriously sleep-deprived, prone to processing things emotionally, has a tender conscience, and is still recovering from a severe burnout in ministry. All that to say, she is ripe for discouragement.

She shared with me that she had recently been enjoying a measure of peace, learning to rest in God’s grace, and that through this quote she felt she was being told that all that peace and grace she was enjoying was not rightfully hers because she wasn’t fighting enough. But as she told me this, she also realized that the voice was one of condemnation, not loving conviction. It was life-robbing accusation, not life-giving correction. And with that distinction clearly made, the source of it all was evident.

When I first became a believer, I devoured books, articles, and sermons like a Grizzly bear with a glandular problem devours salmon; or, apparently, like I devour White Cheddar Quaker Crispy Rice Cakes when I’m writing a blog post at midnight. I just could not get enough, and the more intense the better. My kindred spirit during this time was my cousin Joel, and we were always on the hunt for the next hammer-dropping, pride-shattering sermon to rock our worlds. After a while we came to see that there was an imbalance in our pursuit. He put a name to it and called it an addiction to conviction.

It was a pathology born out of a personal zeal for growth and a love for good teaching, especially reformed teaching which places a heavy emphasis on the holiness of God and conviction of sin (and rightly so, I might add, for these are the necessary preconditions for spiritual renewal). At that point in my life, one of the main ways that I felt assured of God’s working in me was when I felt convicted, guilty, and humbled. The problem was that I was exposing myself to so much conviction-inducing teaching that it was really impossible to even begin to process all of that truth, internalize it, and make the necessary course corrections in my heart and life. Make no mistake, that is hard work.

I can imagine that to many people this would seem like a strange problem to have, but from what I’ve seen it’s not as uncommon as we might think, especially among younger people.

There is something in the desire to have a teachable heart that can make us vulnerable to the evil one’s ministry of accusation and condemnation, especially if we have a lingering insecurity about God’s unconditional love for us.

Many a Christian has been brought low to a state of weakness and defeatedness that was neither born of the Spirit nor led to growth in grace because the whole thing wasn’t rooted in the gospel. If feeling convicted and guilty is a way to ingratiate ourselves to God, then there can be no fruit in it because in its essence it is works, it is meritorious, it is anti-gospel, and it calls for that searing insight from the apostle Paul: “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Let the seeds of conviction and zeal and sanctification be planted not in a dry bed of insecurity and doubt but in that fertile soil of a heart fully resting in the irrevocable forgiveness we have for all our sin and the unimpeachable righteousness which is counted as ours. 

3 Things I Have Learned Since Graduating From Bible College

 

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1. It turns out the professors were right.

There is really something unique about setting aside a time in your life, and I mean a time measured in years instead of hours, to focus almost entirely on studying the Word of God and developing a solid worldview. We heard this over and over from the professors (and also from visiting pastors and alumni) who said that we would likely never get another season like this in our lives. It’s been true for me that since graduating, life has kept me very busy. Marriage, children, and other responsibilities make it difficult to make anything the singular focus of my life the way I was able to at Bible College. On top of that, for young people in their late teens and early twenties, there is still a malleability in one’s character and convictions and a still-forming personality that tends to harden and petrify with age.

Having said that, I want to stress that it is never too late (or too early) to have profoundly shaping encounters with the Word of God and good teaching. For me, there was a period of time between my spiritual new birth at the age of nineteen and stepping onto the campus of a Bible College at the age of twenty-one that was, in hindsight, a time of dynamic personal revival. A time when the Bible spoke with a kind of irrevocable power into my life, when good teaching not only blessed me, it changed me. I look back now and realize that this was extraordinary, and sadly, not the norm. Bible College is an environment that fosters these kinds of experiences, but God is more than happy to turn a life upside down, soften a hard heart, and pour out his Spirit on people of any age, at any time.

That is why it is so worthwhile to pray for this to happen, to set aside time and make the effort to read good books and to expose yourself to good teaching in a setting where the distractions of normal life are not competing for your attention.

 

2. Life is not meant to be a never-ending summer camp

One of the ironies of Bible College is that one of its greatest strengths can turn into one of its most pernicious dangers. Anyone who has been to a Christian summer camp, especially as a youth, knows about the summer camp high. It is the cumulative effect of a number of factors: a setting removed from normal life, excited leaders, lack of parental oversight, close proximity with people of the same age and interests and beliefs, enthusiastic singing many times a day, lots of sugar, and frequent dynamic teaching aimed directly at young people. Add a campfire to the mix and the result is an experience that is unforgettable for most and life-changing for some.

Bible College is similar in a lot of ways, especially if you live on campus. But the difference is that it doesn’t stop after one week or two, or even a whole summer. It lasts all year and for those taking full degree programs, it goes on for many years. At the start, the intensity of this environment is really wonderful. Not only are you being stretched intellectually, academically, and spiritually, but there is also a depth of fellowship and friendship that is new and exciting. But as time goes on, it’s not uncommon for people to start to feel like they need to get away for a bit, especially those who are more introverted. This phenomenon hints at the fact that, while wonderful, these so-called mountaintop experiences are not sustainable.

After three years on campus, the sheen had worn off completely. The constant exposure to the Bible and theology and the blaring impossibility to personally apply or internalize the majority of what I was learning had the effect of dulling my receptivity to those things. Where once I had been thirsty ground happily soaking up any drop of rain, I was now a flooded garden unable to absorb anything, and tragically I somewhat lost the taste for it. Not only did I feel this sense of spiritual disillusionment, but I felt a lot of guilt for feeling that way. After all, how many pastors in less fortunate parts of the world would love to have this kind of opportunity to study the Bible and theology? I know that my experience was more severe than most, but it was different in degree, not in kind; it is extremely common for people in Bible College and Seminary to feel like the Bible has become dry and academic, and for them to go through a period of disillusionment.

But what I have learned is that these seasons are not meant to last forever, and I think I stayed longer than was beneficial for me (all told, I was there for about 6 years!). Real life is full of gloriously gritty, imperfect, confusing situations for which there are no easy answers. Time at Bible College is most valuable if you eventually pack up your theology books and move back into the mess of the real world.

 

3. Childlike faith is a rare and beautiful treasure

Knowledge puffs up. It really does. It takes a special dose of the Spirit to keep a young theologian humble. I saw this over and over during my time at the school. Young men full with equal measures of knowledge and pride, and sometimes not that much knowledge. Conversations and debates teeming with bravado; a stench in God’s nostrils surely. The only thing more depressing than seeing some of these young men, these supposed future leaders, full of arrogance and pride was realizing that I was no better at all, for I was not only guilty of the same things as they but I also had the gall to look down on them too. God help us.

What I’ve learned since then is how beautiful it is to see simple trust and love for God. I don’t believe at all that theological and Biblical knowledge and childlike faith are mutually exclusive, but I do believe that my heart and yours will grab onto anything to feel superior to others. It does my heart so much good to see what I affectionally call ‘normal church folk’ sharing what God has been doing in their lives, overflowing with simple thanks and praise. It helps chip away at the layer of cynicism that has encrusted itself over my heart. It gives me hope that I can cultivate that in myself.

Guest Blog Post: The Uncommon Blessing of Common Grace

My friend The Grace Guy invited me to write a blog post about grace, and I decided to reflect on some aspects of common grace. Here are a couple of snippets.

Ah, grace. At once a solid cornerstone and as slippery as an eel. Just when you think you have a handle on it, it slips through your hands and hits you in the back of the head all at once.

Some time ago I was reading a well-known Christian leader’s blog, and once a week he would put up some funny or interesting video that was largely unrelated to the usual fare of heavy topics such as sin and salvation. In this case it was a video of Eric Clapton performing some mind-blowing guitar solo during a concert.

I enjoyed the video but then scrolled down and started reading some of the comments. Now, in case you don’t know, there are few places in the vast interweb as un-grace-full as the comments sections of Christian blogs. I should have known better, but there I was reading the comments.

One person commented something along the lines of “Why would you put up a video of this unbeliever performing this song that almost certainly glorifies sin? How can watching this video glorify God in any way?” Clearly the commenter was disappointed by what he or she perceived to be a compromise, a slipping of standards; and, I suppose, he might have a point. Many Christians struggle with similar feelings of unease when dealing with a wider culture that is so comfortable with sin; and for those in the more conservative circles of Christianity, that unease extends to Christian groups that are any less conservative than themselves.

It is a fearsome reality that grace can rattle around in our songs, creeds, and conversations without the actual substance and essence of grace truly seeping down deep into the nooks and crannies of our hearts – our innermost thoughts and affections.

Click here for the whole shabangand check out the rest of the site. A unique and fascinating site to be sure.

Remembrance Day and Three Good Books

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It’s Remembrance Day.

Which is both good and bad. Good because in and of itself, Remembrance Day is a good thing. Bad because some people just have a knack for taking a good thing and kind of ruining it.

While there will always be some who use it as a platform to further some political agenda, and others who wear a poppy out of nothing more than peer pressure, one thing is clear: Remembrance Day as experienced by many is often pretty far removed from the original intent of the whole thing.

But before I say another word, I do need to stop and realize that I am free to sit here and wax eloquent about this or that because a lot of people have made incredible sacrifices over the years, men and women to whom we all should be profoundly grateful. And I am.

I’ve always been fascinated by combat and war. Over the years, this fascination has matured from a kind of juvenile interest in guns and military hardware to a sombre and heavy-hearted appreciation for the incredible reality which is war. It is a place where the best and worst of humanity is seen in stark relief; and I don’t mean that one side is good and one side is bad.

The truth is that on the ground, despite the noble or evil actions and intentions of those far-removed leaders, courage and atrocity are not relegated to one side or the other. Moral and ethical ambiguity seems to overwhelm the idealistic black-and-white notions of many who enter these conflicts. And I don’t really know what to do with that.

At the end of the day, Hitler was still a tyrant and Churchill still did the right thing sending in the boys, even if that kind of moral clarity seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Nevertheless, one of the ways to really cut through the fluff and empty sentimentality that surrounds Remembrance Day is to take the time to read good books about war and combat. Allow me to recommend three books that I’ve read this year which deal with war and conflict in a deeply human and thought-provoking way.

1. Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley and Ron Powers

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I picked up a used copy of this classic for a dollar in a sleepy little town called Winter Harbour, Maine, while vacationing there this summer. It is the story of the six men who raised the American flag in the iconic picture seen here. It is written by the son of one of these men. It was engrossing, horrifying (literally nauseating at times), and a catalyst causing me to reflect on mortality and the brevity of life, on the nature of courage and bravery, and many other things. I highly recommend it.

2. Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes

matterhornThis is a novel of the Vietnam war. It is written by Karl Marlantes, who is a Marine veteran. It really is a masterpiece as far as war fiction is concerned. It is about as different from a Tom Clancy-type thriller as you can imagine. It is gritty, real, and deeply human. Widely touted as a modern classic, I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

 

 

3. The Translator, by Daoud Hari

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It’s a bit of a stretch to include this book on Remembrance Day, since as far as I know neither Canada nor the US is actively involved in the Darfur region, but one of the dangers when considering the wars of the past is to forget how many wars are going on right now. This gripping book is the incredible personal story of Daoud Hari, a young man from Darfur who became a translator and guide for various foreigners during the genocide in Darfur. While emotionally devastating at times, this sombre tale is peppered with humour and glimpses of the beauty of the human spirit – that outpouring of common grace.

 

What about you? What are some books that have changed the way you see war and conflict?

Thoughts on the Silence of God

The silence of God is deafening. A great, insufferable poison cocktail of blinding, putrid, stinging vapidness. The child is concussed, disoriented. His arms are outstretched, but they reach only coldness where warmth faithfully met them once. Walk in this direction, guided by faith, reason, and experience, and walk on into nothing. Walk on and reach nothing. Confused, he turns to another direction. Try any direction you like and walk your strength and nerve away, until only raw neurosis is left. What is this abandon? 

The Word will set me back on a right path. It will help me keep my way pure, will be a lamp unto my feet. Surely. It will be a light for me in this darkness. Show me again the great vistas, the mountain ranges and rolling hills and unbelievable sunsets that came alive to me as I took in this Word. But what trickery is this? Even the great Sword is become dull to me. It does not cut through this thick skin, does not separate bone and marrow and lay my heart bare. The words all run together and melt on the page, pooling together in tasteless soup. Even my beloved passages, my broken cisterns, my heavy laden and weary heart, my great redemption, are so intolerably familiar, so utterly known and not to be rediscovered. Every word has been read, and nothing shines forth anew. “You may as well turn away because the longer you wait the more emphatic the silence becomes,” as Lewis so properly put it.

If ever I have been thirsty of soul it is now, but nowhere can I find that which satisfies. If the preaching is good, I grow frustrated at my unaffectedness, my hardness and blindness of heart. If it is bad, I grow frustrated at the dispensers of such thin spiritual gruel, such shallow platitudes pretending to be balm for the aching soul.

The silence is screaming now with lies, voices not His but the others, the pestilence which stalks us in the night.

Atheism doesn’t scare or attract me, really. Maybe it is different for others, but for me it would only be a thin veil excusing my indulgence in every imaginable craving my heart ever had. A great justification, no not that one, for sin and rebellion. No, the fear is not of atheism but of flat, lifeless Christianity. Never revived, never renewed, just tired and fat and comfortable, suspicious of “all this excitement” in others. God, kill me first. But rather, be true to yourself and meet me in my distress. 

1984… and the Gospel

Ever since we moved into our new apartment here in Cambridge, we’ve been reading a lot more. I think it has to do with how comfortable and at-home we feel here compared to the place we were in for the summer. Knowing we were only there 3 months made it really hard to feel settled. And it was dark with small windows and cold floors – not exactly the kind of place that lends itself to quiet, comfy evenings on the couch with a book.

I just finished reading the political classic 1984 by George Orwell. If you’re not familiar with it, check out the wikipedia article, which aptly describes it as a “dystopian novel about the totalitarian regime of a socialist Party.” As far as politics go, I am a self-labeled cotton-headed ninny-muggins, so I don’t have much to say about Canadian politics or “how an offshore corporate cartel is bankrupting the US economy by design,” nor how a “worldwide regime controlled by an unelected corporate elite is implementing a planetary carbon tax system that will dominate all human activity and establish a system of neo-feudal slavery.”

Anyways, one thing that struck me was the part where the main character, Winston Smith, first has a sexual encounter with Julia. Any such relationship is strictly forbidden in that society. He asks her if she has done this sort of thing before, and she says that she has done it many times. Orwell writes, “His heart leapt. Scores of times she had done it: he wished it had been hundreds – thousands. Anything that hinted at corruption always filled him with a wild hope. Who knew, perhaps the Party was rotten under the surface, its cult of strenuousness and self-denial simply a sham concealing iniquity.” Winston then tells Julia, “I hate purity, I hate goodness! I don’t want any virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone to be corrupt to the bones.”

An early edition of 1984 by Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell

Now why does he hate purity and goodness? Does he have a devil-like hatred of purity and goodness, where his soul is so distorted and evil that he just hates anything which is right and good? I don’t think so.

All through the book he deeply rejoices in all kinds of things which are truly good and right – the beauty of nature, the song of a bird, a good cup of coffee. No I think the reason he hates purity and goodness is because of the hypocritical veneer of purity and goodness that the “Party” had.

I couldn’t help but see the parallels between this and some Christian environments. When Christian ‘righteousness’ is represented, taught and demanded by a hypocritical leadership, those under that leadership grow sour to such ‘righteousness.’ Having been exposed to a diseased version of righteousness, they then become allergic to anything which smells of it.

Can we be surprised by statements like “I hate purity, I hate goodness!” when the only supposed purity and goodness they have seen has been the impure, bad version of it. Likewise, can we be surprised when scores of people are turned off of Christianity when some of the most prominent and well-known leaders of Christianity turn out to be living lives so crazily out of line with the most basic teachings of Christianity?

From the extreme examples like evangelical super-pastors in sex scandals and Catholic priests involved in systemic child sexual abuse to the more mundane hypocrisy of legalistic church-folk, it all contributes to this effect.

The world of 1984 is a world run by the legalistic elder-brother (of Jesus’ parable in Luke 15) where younger-brother tendencies are illegal and punished by death. The problem is that the younger brothers can see through the fake facade of the elder brothers.

Without the gospel, all the state-enforced morality in the world can never produce an ounce of true goodness.

Without the gospel, the elder brother is lost in his morality, religion, and self-righteousness; and the younger brother is lost in his immorality and rebellion.

The sad part is when the younger brothers reject Christianity because they only know the Christianity of the elder brothers – and who the heck wants that?

Once again, the gospel breaks through every human system and offers the only true hope for humanity.

Watching Out for the Wrong Thing

“The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.”
This short paragraph in letter 25 of the Screwtape Letters made me realize that I often watch out for the wrong thing, or guard against the extreme that I am in the least danger of falling into. For example, I am by nature a bit timid and reserved. I don’t like confrontation at all. If I’m honest with myself I’m far more often a coward than a bully, and yet I am usually far more worried about not being ‘too bold’ or ‘too forceful’ than being a coward. The error I’m likely to fall into is lack of boldness and yet I usually guard against excessive boldness. This seems backwards.
Likewise, in my spiritual life I tend to avoid structure, discipline, and rigid plans. I like my freedom. I guess I tell myself I’m guarding against legalism, but let’s be honest, I am far more likely to fall into laziness and complacency than ritualistic legalism. On top of that, one of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit is “self-control” (Gal. 5:23).
I think this is true corporately as much as it is individually. In some churches, worship times seem to be emotion-free.
“Leave your affections at the door please.” Worship is more of a cognitive assent to propositional truths. They say they are guarding against emotionalism, but let’s be honest – their danger is not emotionalism but intellectualism. The opposite is true of other churches of course. It seems that when there are two groups who emphasize opposite ends of a given spectrum, the effect is to polarize both towards extremes as they react against the other, which frankly leaves each one worse off than before.
We all land at different places on a number of continuums like this. I find it helpful to zoom out a little bit and gain some perspective on the whole.