Why Are the Best Books the Banned Books?

I am doing a “Banned Books” unit in my English 12 class this year.

The idea came to me when I heard that it was Banned Books Week (this year, September 22-28).  This is an annual religious festival in honour of one of our culture’s main deities–Freedom.   More particular, we celebrate the freedom to read.  Because, in some circles, to challenge a book is to challenge a god, the celebration can sometimes take on a “screw you” sort of tone.  But this is a worthy focus week, even for those for those who don’t bend the knee to freedom, for there are worrisome current and dangerous historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.  These are often attempts not just to protect the vulnerable but to limit thought.

Most of the books on the banned books lists were not, in fact, banned but challenged by someone somewhere about the use of these books in a classroom or their presence in a library.  I like to use the word banned because, sure, it’s more sensational, but mostly because it alliterates so nicely.  As in . . .

Banned Books or Bland Books

No, we are not reading Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, not only because the content is inappropriate for young readers, but because it isn’t very good.
That’s the interesting thing, most of the books on the banned or challenged book list are the same books that have been taught in schools for decades.  In other words, most of the banned books are the best books.
There’s a reason for this: the best books are often provocative.
Books that aren’t banned ask little of readers.  They affirm our values and fulfill in the end what they promise in the beginning.  Books that aren’t banned, are often bland books.
Books that make demands of its readers are challenged.  Books that challenge readers to look at the world differently are burned.   Books that startle and shock us out of our comfort zone are banned.  These are the books we should be reading.
The books that do this, are the best books, and they are the banned books.

A List of Banned Books

Here’s a list of some books that have been challenged, it’s also my recommended reading list.  Its a list of books that everyone should read before they die, or better yet, long before they die so that having read them may do some good.
  • To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  • Catch 22 Joseph Heller
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas
  • 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry

 

“Worship Christ the Newborn King” or “Coming King”?

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This weekend is the first Sunday of Advent. We sang some advent songs.  That was awesome.  Mine isn’t a liturgical church–it’s more of a Modern one–so there’s not too much attention given to the Church Calendar except the biggies like Christmas and Easter.  I like liturgy and The Calendar, so I like it that Advent gets some attention.

One of the songs we sang was “Angels From the Realms of Glory.”  But someone had changed the words.  Rather than singing “Come and Worship Christ the newborn King” we sang “Come and Worship Christ the coming King.”  Well, I didn’t sing that.  I stuck to the real lyrics, not out of stubbornness; each time we got to the line, I was already halfway through the familiar, so I just forged ahead.
I wondered why we changed this phrase.  It’s obviously a shift in focus from the Incarnation to The Second Coming.  The verses of the song are about the Bethlehem story, so perhaps the lyric-alterer wants to generate some relevance for the modern worshiper by also anticipating Christ’s future coming.  Maybe he thought this made the hymn a little more well-rounded.  This argument for breadth makes some sense, but if we sing about everything, aren’t we in danger of singing about nothing.
My view is that there is much to be gained by a focus on the Incarnation during the season in which we remember it.

The Incarnation Should Be The Focus

Advent celebrates the coming of Jesus into the world, when God takes human form.  We Modern, Western Christians often fail to fully grasp the significance of the Incarnation.  The ancient Hebrew faith was unique in that there was one God and he was outside creation.  He seemed to have a priority of being with his people, first as a pillar of fire over the Tabernacle and later in the Temple, but his holiness made approaching him problematic.  In the Incarnation, a wholly transcendent God took on flesh–he became one of us.  This is remarkable.  It redefines our relationship to God.  He’s accessible and present.  At it’s most basic, the Incarnation means that God is with us–Emmanuel, which has been his object all along.  The incarnation also reminds us of human value; when God takes on flesh and remains enfleshed, he’s telling us a little about his views on flesh.
Human beings were special in creation–we were made in the Image of God.  The Fall was a result of humanity choosing to become like God.  Why?  The serpent told Eve that if she ate the fruit, she would become like God.  The Fall was a result of not believing we were good enough–we wanted more, forgetting it was something we already had–the most elevated state possible–we were God’s Image Bearers.  In a real sense, the first sin was a rejection of human significance.  The Incarnation counters this lie and is an affirmation of our inherent value.  Something we naturally forget–to our peril.
In service yesterday, we also celebrated Communion.  We were reminded that it is a meal of unity–the officiant was referring to the relationship between believers; he invoked us to restore relationships before participating.  It is, of course, a meal of unity in another sense, the vertical one.  While the elements were distributed, I was meditating on the Eucharist as a celebration of the Incarnation.  The unity between spirit and flesh, between transcendence and immanence, are there in the elements.  The transcendent God meets his Image Bearers in the physical elements of bread and wine.  Like the Incarnation, communion contains God’s gesture of Grace toward humanity.

Humanity Under Threat

There are tremendous forces loosed upon the world that are degrading human value at every point.  Contemporary idols, Choice, Freedom, Ease and Pleasure demand human sacrifice upon their alters.  Politicians continue to insist on hierarchies and institutions suppress dialogue.  Posthuman ideas whisper into our ears, as did the serpent in the garden so long ago–human beings are not special.  And don’t get me started on the dehumanization of social media.  We need every reminder as to our position in creation and the value conferred upon us by our creator.  We need to be reminded of our Hope.
So, at least for these weeks in December, let us worship the newborn king.

Prophetic Speech from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

I re-read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 this past week.  Montag, the protagonist of the story is a firemen.  In this futuristic world this job entails the burning of books and the houses that contain them.   How did the culture come to this?  Captain Beatty’s speech to Montag explains:

“When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when? Well, I’d say it really got started around about a thing called the Civil War . . . .  The fact is we didn’t get along well until photography came into its own. Then–motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass.”

“And because they had mass, they became simpler,” said Beatty. “Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?”

“Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations, Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.”

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet . . . was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors. Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”

“Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click? Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests.  Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”

“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

“Life becomes one big pratfall, Montag; everything bang, boff, and wow!”

“More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience.

“Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! 3 Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

“Yes, but what about the firemen, then?” asked Montag.

“Ah.” Beatty leaned forward in the faint mist of smoke from his pipe. “What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word `intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won’t stomach them for a minute. And so when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world (you were correct in your assumption the other night) there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes. They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors. That’s you, Montag, and that’s me.”

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.”

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Bum the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.”

…If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely `brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it. So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the Theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.”

Beatty got up. “I must be going. Lecture’s over. I hope I’ve clarified things. The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we’re the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dyke. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world. We depend on you. I don’t think you realize how important you are, we are, to our happy world as it stands now.”

“One last thing,” said Beatty. “At least once in his career, every fireman gets an itch. What do the books say, he wonders. Oh, to scratch that itch, eh? Well, Montag, take my word for it, I’ve had to read a few in my time, to know what I was about, and the books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They’re about nonexistent people, figments of imagination, if they’re fiction. And if they’re nonfiction, it’s worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost.” 

 

Best Dystopian novels in order of Awesomeness

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Here are my favourite dystopian novels.  I placed them in order of the pleasure I derived from reading them, and their signficance, and their literary merit:

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)​
  3. Feed by M. T. Anderson (2002)​
  4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
  5. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)​
  6. ​That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis (1945)​
  7. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  8. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008) ​
  9. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)​
  10. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957)
  11. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)​
  12. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  13. The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)​
  14. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)​
  15. The Running Man by Stephen King (1982)​
  16. A​nthem by Ayn Rand (1938)​

Next on my list is A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)​.

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Come From Away and The Book of Mormon

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This summer my wife and I saw Come From Away.

We also saw The Book of Mormon.

Completely different experiences.

Come from Away tells the story of what happened in Gander, Nova Scotia on September 11, 2001.  When President Bush closed American airspace all the US-bound aircraft needed to land elsewhere.  38 big jets landed in Gander, almost doubling the population of this small Canadian town.  This is a story about real people doing something beautiful in very difficult circumstances.

The Book of Mormon is about a couple of young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints going on their missions trip to Uganda.  They are naive and unprepared to face the difficulties in Africa including HIV/AIDS, famine, female genital mutilation, and hostile warlords.  It was considerably more offensive and blasphemous than I expected, and I regretted being there almost immediately.

Why go to The Book of Mormon?  I love live theatre and I try to see the good ones.  It won nine Tony Awards and was called “the best musical of the century” by the New York Times.  I also consider it a bit of a responsibility to understand the culture and this play is hugely popular.  And The Prince of Wales theatre was reputed to have airconditioning and it was the hottest day in London’s recorded history–we needed to go someplace cool.

As expected, the show is brilliant in so many ways–the singing, dancing, acting, and production are as awesome as any of the big blockbuster musicals.  But I walked out of it–I don’t know–horrified?

It wasn’t just that it was irreverent and offensive–I understand that art will sometimes challenge our sensibilities.  I don’t mind being challenged, and I certainly don’t mind it when the sensibilities of others are challenged.  The play does satirize the hypocrisy, naivety and even silliness of Mormons, and by extension Christians and all religious people.   Fine.  But when you ridicule good things that you’ve made no attempt to understand . . .  well, then you’ve gone beyond satire.  I was offended by the mockery of good things.  Good things that everyone knows are good.  Things writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone know are good, but they deride them just the same.

And then there’s the laughter of the audience.  It was a completely sold-out show.  And everyone in the audience was apparently delighted by the ridicule and mockery.  As I walked out of the Prince of Whales, which by the way didn’t have very good airconditioning, I was horrified by the laughter.

Four Kinds of Laughter

In the eleventh letter of C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, senior demon Screwtape instructs his nephew, junior tempter Wormwood, about how to use laughter to win his patient’s soul to what they call “our Father’s house.”  According to Screwtape, there are four kinds of laughter, only one of which is truly effective for demonic purposes.

The first kind of laughter arises from Joy.  Screwtape and fellow devils don’t understand this one any better than they understand music.  They usually observe joyous laughter “among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday.”  But they are puzzled by this kind of delight because the laughter is disproportionately bigger than the “smallest witticisms” that produce them.

Fun generates a second type of laughter.  It too is useless to the demonic powers in that “it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils.”

The Joke proper, “which turns on sudden perception of incongruity” will cause the third kind of laughter.

Before we get to the fourth kind of laughter, let’s talk about the laughter of the audience at Come from Away.

Come From Away and Laughter

The audience of Come From Away laughed. We laughed often. We laughed long. We laughed hard.

We also cried, and winced, and clapped our hands with delight.  The laughter occurred in the context of a wide range of human emotions.

The theme of this whole story is that life can be very difficult and what we do as individuals and communities can make a  significant difference in the lives of others as they navigate life’s disappointment and challenges  It shows us that by giving of ourselves, we can be profoundly blessed.  The play shows us what it means to be, and experience, good neighbours.

The laughter came from joy and fun and jokes; it came exclusively from the first three of Screwtape’s three forms of laughter.

And though it all, Come From Away praises what is good.

Flippancy and The Book of Mormon

The most useful form of laughter to the minions of hell is Screwtape’s fourth–Flippancy

One reason flippancy is “the best of all” is because of its economy.  “Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue.”  Flippancy requires no cleverness, for it assumes the joke has already been made.  The laughter arises not from delight or fun or an incongruity, but from the mockery and ridicule itself.  Thus, the good can be laughed at as easily as can something which is actually funny.

I experienced each show with audiences of hundreds of people, but the feelings I carried for my fellow patrons through the exits were very different.

In Come From Away, we had shared in the celebration of something good–something we want more of, something we need.  We shared a commitment to be better people.

The only thing we shared in The Book of Mormon was derision for someone else and a twisted delight in our own superiority.

It is as Screwtape said, the fourth kind of laughter “deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”

In Come From Away, we had shared in the celebration of something good--something we want more of, something we need. The only thing we shared in The Book of Mormon was derision for someone else and a twisted delight in our own superiority. Click To Tweet

Liberal or Conservative: How does the Devil vote?

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Does God want us to be liberal or conservative?

How do the demons vote?

We get a pretty clear answer to the second question in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.   The book takes the form of a series of letters that have been written by a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew and junior tempter, Wormwood, on the best means by which to bring a soul to dwell for all eternity with “Our Father below,” as they refer to him.

In the seventh letter, Screwtape explores the question of whether to make Wormwood’s patient an “extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist.”  This was the question on everyone’s mind when the Letters were published in 1942.

Screwtape is quite clear that the devils are not interested in whether Christians support or oppose World War II.   Neither side is inherently Christian, it seems.  As a matter of fact, Screwtape seems to see more possibilities to lead him astray through pacifism.

Today, the specific circumstances are different, but Christians are still struggling to answering the same general question.  The contemporary question has us wondering between liberal or conservative, Trudeau or Scheer, Democrat or Republican, Trump or someone else?

If Lewis is correct, the minions of hell can use our conservatism just as easily as our liberalism to gain possession of a soul for all eternity.

If Lewis is correct, the minions of hell can use our conservatism just as easily as our liberalism to gain possession of a soul for all eternity.Click To Tweet

Screwtape explains the process:

Step 1:

Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion.

It is clear that the position the Christian takes is of no consequence; the goal of the forces of hell is to erroneously connect our position on the political spectrum with our faith.  From much that I read from Christian writers on the internet, it is apparent that the devils are having a very easy time of it.  We are very willing to take the first step.

Step 2:

Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part.

Again, it doesn’t appear as if we are having the demons work very hard.  I’ve heard many stories of people who can no longer associate with, let alone fellowship with, brothers and sisters in Christ who occupy a different position on the political spectrum as they.  The “camp” to which we belong is so obvious and it is not coloured by any qualification involving all the other dimensions of the Christian faith.

Step 3:

Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism.

C. S. Lewis never read a single blog post or online article, and yet it is as if he’s read the same religio-political diatribes and tirades that I can only escape in the shower.

But there is hope.  Screwtape reveals the means by which we might reverse our steps toward the eternal flames.

The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience.

This is Lewis’ real point.  Whether left or right, we ought to treat our political positions as primarily material for obedience to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Our position on the environment, taxes, deficits, size of government, guns, immigration, abortion, LGBTQ, education, is secondary to obedience.  In the fifth letter, Lewis makes this point, through Screwtape:

The Enemy [God] disapproves many . . . causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.

It is more important for us to be obedient than it is for us to be right.  And yet, because we have allowed the faith to be slave to the cause, we find it easy to hate our political opposites.

Back to the seventh letter:

Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours-and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here,

And here we have it.  This is a dire warning for those who have made faith a means to an end.

God Shaped Hole?

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A lot of Christians talk about a void in every person that can only be filled by God.  We are compelled to fill it, but we will never achieve peace /fulfillment /wholeness unless this space is filled with God.   This “God-shaped hole” is an innate human desire to connect with the transcendent.

It’s a cliché.  And like most clichés, it’s an oversimplification, but it carries some truth.  Human beings have desires.  Besides physical needs and desires–we were created for relationships, we were created for community, and we were created to be in relationship with God.  To say that all we need is God is to deny the other good things he created us to desire and enjoy.  These ought not to be tossed aside, but understood as good gifts from a loving Father.  But, yes, our most profound desire is to know and be known by God.

For this post, I am borrowing from Tim Keller, particularly his book Counterfeit God’s and a lecture of the same name that he delivered at Cambridge Passion.

In his exploration of idolatry, Keller differentiates good things and ultimate things.

Good Things and God, The Ultimate

God created everything, and he declared them to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  The list of good things is obviously very long and it includes:

  • work,
  • romantic love,
  • family,
  • pasta,
  • baseball,
  • acclaim,
  • reason,
  • beauty,
  • self-expression,
  • justice,
  • pleasure,
  • and cherry trees.

The list goes on and on.

Above all these good things, God places humanity.  Humanity occupies this place above the good things because we alone were created in God’s image.   Here’s the text which articulates humanities special position in creation, above all the good things.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

–Genesis 1:26

Innate value has been conferred onto human beings by God.  Our value is linked to God.  In a properly ordered life or society, God is the Ultimate thing.  Human beings occupy a position above all the good things because they were created in God’s Image.  All the other good things are good, but they do not have more value than God or humanity.

“Disordered Loves”

Augustine called sin “disordered love.”  Sin is, in essence, replacing God with something else.  We take a good thing and make it the ultimate thing; we replace the Creator with the created.  The good thing in the ascendant position is an idol.

Career advancement is a common idol in our culture.  There’s nothing wrong with career advancement–it is a good thing–but when it becomes an ultimate thing, all other things must give way to it.  The marriage and the children will be sacrificed to it.  “Friends” becomes a name for those who can be used to aid advancement while others will be treated as rungs on a ladder.  Idols are very demanding overlords, they take and they want it all.

Beauty is a good thing.  And it is another common idol.  it demands huge amounts of money and often ones dignity, and it always fails those who worship it–we cannot stop beauty from fading.

Family is a good thing, but it is a terrible master.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is one of my favourite books.  It could only come from a brilliant and tortured mind.  His “This is Water” commencement speech to Kenyon College class of 2005, presents some of the wisdom Wallace has aquired through his struggles.  In this passage he explains the problem with false gods:

You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship… Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship-be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles-is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already-it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.  Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.

(If you listen to the whole speech, you will hear Wallace come dangerously close to pointing to a realignment of our loves under the transcendent god, for our sake and for the sake of others around us.)

Whatever your idol, it will eventually eat you alive.

God-shaped hole?  We should maybe stop using the phrase, but behind this cliche is the idea that everything you desires will destroy if they are put into the position of a god.  Conversely, if you subordinate all your desires to Christ’s Lordship, you will achieve the peace and fulfillment and wholeness you seek, because it was for Christ you were made.

Monkeys Don’t Get Music

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Human beings like music.  Macaques don’t.

This is not simply because monkeys are a bunch of uncultured louts.  Apparently, it’s a brain thing. Researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Maryland studied the difference between macaques’ and humans’ ability to hear things. They discovered that humans have areas in our brains that respond to music. Macaques don’t have these.

Scientists observed people brains and monkey brains as they responded to sounds. Sounds came in two groups: pitch without noise, like a sung note and noise without pitch, like a whisper. The auditory parts of human brains lit up much more when tones were played than they did when noises were played at the same frequency. The macaques showed no preference for to pitched sounds, even when they were based on their natural calls.

The ability to enjoy music seems to be structural to the human brain.

The big question for the scientists is “Why?”  Why have human beings evolved the ability to love music?  We might expect a rudimentary response to pitch in monkey brains, for what would have been an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors would also be an advantage to the macaques.  Why would we get Mozart and Kenny Chesney and monkey’s get squat?

I have an idea.

Perhaps music is not an evolutionary necessity, but a superfluous gift.

Perhaps music is not an evolutionary necessity, but a superfluous gift.Click To Tweet

The Gift of Music

Perhaps there is no evolutionary advantage to having brain structures that allow us to appreciate music.  Maybe we were given the ability to create and enjoy music as a gift of Grace.

This is problematic for some because it would imply a transcendent gift-giver.

The gift of music touches us so deeply that even if a satisfactory evolutionary explanation for the human ability to hear music is someday found it would be difficult to explain the universal power, depth, complexity, and diversity we find in humanity’s experience with music.

Our natural response would be wonder and gratitude.

Real Presences

George Steiner says that music tells us that there is “something else,” that music is “the great force, the hope of a transcendent possibility.”

In transcendent experiences, such as those encountered in good music, lies “a presumption of presence” (214)—the real presence of God.  Through them, we experience “the unassuaged, unhoused instability and estrangement of our condition.  We are, at [these] key instants, strangers to ourselves, errant at the gates of our own psyche” (139).  Steiner suggests that when we encounter the transcendent, we become aware of our alienation from ourselves.

So he laments the replacement of many forms of good music with “the deafening folly,” and “barbarism of organized noise.”   I’m not sure exactly what Steiner means by these aspersions, but I can guess.  We might say that degraded music degrades our humanity by making us deaf to the transcendent, a condition leaving us little more than macaques.

 

 

God’s Good Gifts

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We ate dinner in an Italian restaurant in the United States of America.  I ordered a manicotti with meat sauce.  What I got was a plate of efficiency and profit.  And it tasted like crap.

I ordered a manicotti with meat sauce. What I got was a plate of efficiency and profit. And it tasted like crap.Click To Tweet

As we were ordering, I asked the server if the pasta was freshly made.  He had a physical reaction to the question–incredulity?  “No,” he said.  “It’s delivered.”  He named the supplier.  None of the ingredients were made at the restaurant.  The back kitchen was merely the cite of assembly and reheating.  The essential stuff was made in some factory somewhere and delivered frozen or refrigerated through the back door.  I can see the one-gallon plastic buckets filled with sauce, the frozen bags of manicotti and ravioli, the one-gallon bottles of salad dressing, and the machine-made frozen pizza crusts.

I  ordered a baked manicotti and my wife the spaghetti.

Before I took a bite, I ladled a couple of tablespoons of red-amber grease off the top of the melted slab of rubbery mozzarella.   Beneath it, I found two small manicotti.  The pasta was limp and the ricotta cheese had that processed-frozen flavour.  The sauce was plentiful but tasted like it came from a plastic bag.  And, it was exactly the same sauce as that on my wife’s spaghetti.

By his grace, the Creator has given us the ingredients and the mandate and the will to innovate.  The Italians have discovered all kinds of sauces for pasta.  These include:

    • Acciughe, 
    • Aglio e lio,
    • Alfredo, 
    • Amatricana, 
    • Bolognese,
    • Burro,
    • Cacciatore, 
    • Frutti di mare, 
    • Funghi e iselli,
    • Marinara, 
    • Noci, 
    • Pesto, 
    • Pomidoro, 
    • Romana, 
    • Tartufata, 
    • Umbria, 
    • Vongole.  

With all these sauces, how can a restaurant use the same one on two different dishes?  The whole point of different dishes in an Italian restaurant is the variation in the sauce; the pasta is a secondary consideration.

Variety is one thing, but using fresh quality ingredients improves the dining experience exponentially.  In that Italian restaurant, there was no attempt to offer a quality product.  The industrial kitchen that produced the sauce used the cheapest ingredients it could buy in bulk.  The cheese, too, was produced from inferior products on an industrial scale.  Efficiency and profit were the end goal; a good tasting meal wasn’t even a consideration.  The United States has long valued efficiency and profit, and these are not evil in themselves, but they do not belong as the primary motivation in a restaurant, perhaps in a cafeteria.  That’s it! This meal would have been barely adequate in a cafeteria.

The ingredients were cheap.  There was no chef, only assemblers, and they come cheap.  The meal was worth $7.99, but I paid over $20 CDN for my cafeteria manicotti.

Where I live in Canada, I can get freshly made pasta and quality sauces for just over $20.

Is Tim Keller Under God’s Curse?

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I chanced upon a post in which the author, Michael, says that Tim Keller, in his book, The Prodigal God, is preaching a “different Gospel.”

This is serious stuff because if he is, Keller is under God’s curse according to Galatians 1:8.

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!

Is Tim Keller under God’s curse?

In response to a comment on his post, Michael says, that Keller is “redefining the key parts of the gospel.”  If this is so, then Keller may be under God’s curse.  The parts of the gospel that Michael claims Keller is redefining are “the gospel [of] sin” and the gospel of repentance.

Redefining the Gospel of Sin?

Michael’s beef with Keller is he thinks Keller is calling the elder brother’s obedience a sin, that the elder brother needs to repent from doing good.

I’m not sure what to say.  Keller asserts nothing like this.  It’s baffling that someone could walk away from The Prodigal God with this notion–Keller is such a clear writer.  This is like mistaking the moral failing of the nine ungrateful lepers as having leprosy.

Michael has misread Keller for some reason and he writes three long posts explaining Keller’s “egregious errors.”  Of course Keller never says that the older brother is condemned for his obedience.  He says that the elder son is lost because the motivation behind his obedience is sinful.  Michael seems to struggle to wrap his mind around this idea saying that “Obedience, whatever the motivation, is never wrong.”

I suppose Michael is right in a sense.  If you can isolate the act from the motive, the act itself is not inherently wrong.  But Keller is not condemning an isolated act of obedience, he’s talking about the foundational motivation, which is inseparable from the act.

I won’t go so far as to say that acts of obedience are insignificant, but the motivation behind them is far more important.  With an obedient act, you can cover up wickedness.  Polonius from Shakespeare’s Hamlet said as much.

T’is too much proved, that with devotion’s visage and pious action we do sugar o’er / the devil himself.

We need not rely on Polonius an authority on Truth.  Let’s go to the Bible.

In Genesis 4, both Cain and Able brought a sacrifice to the Lord, but Cain’s was rejected.  There are several ideas as to why God did not look upon Cain’s sacrifice with favour; one of the most likely reasons has to do with Cain’s motivation.  He may have been sacrificing as an act of appeasement–they pagan motivation.  The foundation of Canaanite worship was appeasement–bribing the gods to bring fertility and to protection.  Cain’s sacrifice may have been an obedient act, but God saw his heart an rejected the sacrifice.

OK, perhaps motivation was not the issue with Cain’s sacrifice.  It could have been that God didn’t like vegetables.  How about Deuteronomy 10:12-17:

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.

The Lord requires obedience; verses 12 and 13 couldn’t be clearer; but in verse 16, it clearly states that the Lord requires more than just obedience–he wants the circumcision of the heart. Obedient acts are fine, but God really wants an obedient heart.  In verse 17 we learn that God will will take no bribe.  God is clearly saying that he doesn’t want the motivation of obedience to be love and not appeasement.

Let’s go to Jesus  himself.  In Matthew 5-7 we have The Sermon on the Mount.  Again and again, Jesus says that righteousness is not achieved through mere obedience.  To be considered righteous, not committing adultery will not cut it–we can’t even look at someone with lust.

Keller is not redefining the gospel.  Keller’s condemnation of the elder brother is completely consistent with the gospel.  He is not condemning the older brother for being obedient.  He is saying that the elder brother is lost because he merely obeyed.  He was good so that he could have the inheritance.  The father wanted his love.  He wanted the elder brother to wash the dishes after the party.

My Eldest Son

To get my eldest son to do the dishes after dinner was almost always a battle.  He didn’t think it was fair that on his day for this duty we I had dirtied a huge roasting pan.  He didn’t think that it was his turn, because he did it last Thursday and he deserved to skip his turn tonight.  The variety and complexity of arguments never ceased to amaze me.  It wasn’t always a fight, but even when he obediently set about doing the dishes there was always a grudging attitude.

One Thanksgiving he came back from college.  I had prepared a huge meal for nearly 20.  At the end of the meal, he got up and did all of the dishes, refusing any help.  I was shocked.  What happened to my son?  He was living on his own, going to school.  Because he had very little income, he had been eating cabbage cooked with olive oil. salt and pepper.  When he lived under my roof, he had no idea how much money and effort went into feeding him.  Now he knew and he was grateful.  His gratitude led to behaviour far beyond obedience.

This is the behaviour of the youngest son.  This is the behaviour that the father wants from his eldest son.

Support for the Righteous Elder Brother

Michael believes that the elder brother was never lost.

His argument rests on the context of the Parable of the Prodigal son.  It is preceded by two other parables about lost things being found–the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.  Michael says that in these parables, the lost sheep and coin represent “a sinner who repents.”  The other sheep and coins that did not go missing represent “the righteous persons who need no repentance.”  The third parable must be understood in the same way.

Michael correctly understands the importance of reading verses in context, but to get the context he only went back to verse Luke 14:3.  He should have gone back to verse 1.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus’ audience is really important here–we have sinners and Pharisees.    But Luke doesn’t just say that the Pharisees where there, he tells us what they were thinking.  Jesus has something to say to both of these groups.  To the sinners, he wants to say that God earnestly seeks them.  Simple. He does this with two and one-half parables.

What does Jesus want to communicate the Pharisees?  Michael would have you believe that Jesus wants to tell them to keep up the good work.  If you are at all familiar with the Bible, Jesus never tells the Pharisees to keep up the good work. As a matter of fact, he frequently tells them that they are less righteous than the sinners.  The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14 is one example.

In his telling of these three parables, Jesus wants to address what the Pharisees are thinking.  That’s why Luke tells us they were muttering to themselves.  It’s the same thing that the older brother is muttering as he stands outside the party.

Michael insists that we must view the third parable as exactly parallel to the first.  I’m not sure why we would impose parallelism on the third when an extended application to the Pharisees makes so much sense given the audience.  Jesus and/or Luke are reinforcing the joy at the recovery of the lost with the parallel to the first two,  then extending the story to the condemnation of the Pharisees.  Bam! Brilliant!  This is a mike-drop moment that reinforces not just what our heavenly father is doing sinners, but what he’s doing for the self-righteous.  He’s inviting them in.

The father says, “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”   Come in an enjoy it.  The elder brother refuses.  If this isn’t lost, I don’t know what is.

Redefining Repentance and Salvation

According to Michael, Keller is also under God’s curse because he, Keller, claims that the father of the prodigal son accepts him before he repents.  He claims that Keller writes “that repentance is not needed for forgiveness, but rather comes after forgiveness.”  He says that

“Keller incorrectly teaches that salvation precedes repentance, while also changing what we are to repent from.”

Tim Keller believes there is nothing that we do to earn our salvation–not even the act of repentance.  This idea expands God’s Grace.  I understand that there are some Christian denominations that place more emphasis on human agency than others.  Keller does not belong to one of these denominations.  It seems as if Michael does.  The God’s Sovereignty/Human Free Will debate has gone on for a long time and, these days, the general consensus from both sides is that both are true, it’s just that but one is a little truer, and it’s not a  salvation issue.

Michael seems to be saying it is a salvation issue.  If he is, he is also claiming that most of Christ’s church, both past and present, is, along with Keller, under God’s curse.

Let’s look at the parable to see the relationship between repentance and salvation.

Where is the turning point in this story?  According to Glen Skrivener over at the Gospel Coalition the “real change in the prodigal—both his change of status and of heart—happens in the arms of the father. That’s where repentance occurs.”  This is consistent with Romans 5: 8.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

The father runs to the lost son with open arms and joyfully embraces him before he can even get a word of repentance out of his mouth.  I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to say that salvation comes to everyone in exactly the same way–the way presented by this picture of the son wrapped in the father’s arm.  The younger son is repentant; he is saved.  Where is the elder brother?  He’s standing outside.

I’m actually baffled that someone can see the picture of the elder brother standing outside the part muttering, furious with his father and brother, and say that the guy is just fine.

Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful story “Revelation” is about an elder brother who receives a vision where she sees all sorts of people moving up toward heaven.  There’s a large batch of elder brothers who

were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal God, was such a blessing to me.  I was much more like the elder brother than the younger.  I was good.  Reading it I had a whole new appreciation for the heights and depth and breadth of God’s Grace.  I would wish the same experience to Michael and his readers.

 

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