Thursday, April 10, 2008

Who Are We Shouting to Again?

I think the only thing that could have surprised me more would have been the Great Doxology. When American Idol, the ubiquitously touted icon of reality television and American pop culture decides to have their top 8 contestants sing, in front of 70 million American viewers and a remarkably famous crowd of celebrities wearing their appropriately sober "fundraising for a worthy cause" expressions, a worship song to end the evening's solemnities, it seems to deserve some comment...

To keep the post as brief as possible, I will offer only two thoughts on this genuinely strange and confusing event - one negative and one positive.

1. To look at it negatively, the "Shout to the Lord" performance was an embarrassing travesty. When evangelical worship songs are SO inoffensive to American culture at large that a group of pop icons can sing them on national television without anyone noticing that something particularly religious was going on, then you really have to start wondering if the evangelical church is doing its job. The focus of the evening was certainly not "the wonder and majesty of God" or that "nothing compares to the promise we have in [Jesus Christ]", and the fact that the contradiction in messages - the utter oppositeness of focus between the song and the evening - didn't turn any heads or raise any flags points to a kind of terrifying numbness and/or obliviousness in the culture. I wanted to shout "hey people, you can't sing that... or even clap when other people sing that! It's making exclusive claims on your life! It's demanding that your sole object of adoration be the Lord and His glory! Believe me, I've been listening to you and you don't want that!"
At the large church I attended in Southern California, we used to sing this song after communion, and we would all move to the center and hold hands and sway back and forth as the lights dimmed and the song swelled during the key change. I used to remark back then that the song had more of a "we are the world" function than anything else... it inspired a happy sense of unity and good-feeling about our identity as a "blessed" family. It is saying something pretty sad about the state of our "worship" when there is no significant difference - no additional claim made or devotion asked of participants - between "sacred" services and secular charity events.

2. To look at the event positively, however, we could say that the striking feature of the song's utter awkwardness WAS its obvious alien-ness to the situation. It is impossible that very many of the people present (or even singing) could believe in the message of "Shout to the Lord". The sense of out-of-place-ness was fueled by the very strength of the claims made in the song - of the genuine devotion expressed in the words and passionately meant by the author - and I am reminded that anyone that really COULD sing that song, even on that night and on that stage, and really mean it, is a friend and fellow servant of the Lord, and has a great deal in common with me.
The Christian view of the world, with its radically extroverted priorities and its utter denial of self, is diametrically opposed both to mainstream culture and to popular monotheism. Any religion that allows the autonomous individual to remain at the center is little more than a fertility cult or a safe neo-paganism - an easy way to pacify the starving spirit of humankind without making it give itself up in sacrifice. Such "religion" is a travesty.

But maybe there is something to the fact that America is fine with hearing worship songs on national television... maybe, on the positive side of things, it is quite refreshing to know that, despite the message liberal hollywood is trying to force down our throats (that America is really post-sexual, post-feminist, post-theist, post-moral, post-modern), the majority of Americans, when they really get to vote about it democratically, would rather hear worship songs than "we are the world" after all...

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Give Lacan A Cookie

I've been reading Lacan as a part of a survey course, and I was quite amused to run into this critique of "evolutionism". I've thought something like this before, but it's interesting to hear it coming out of the mouth of a radically skeptical psychoanalyst:
"It is paradoxically only from a creationist point of view that one can envisage the elimination of the always recurring notion of creative intention as supported by a person. In evolutionist thought, although God goes unnamed throughout, he is literally omnipresent. An evolution that insists on deducing from continuous process the ascending movement which reaches the summit of consciousness and thought necessarily implies that that consciousness and that thought were there from the beginning. It is only from the point of view of an absolute beginning, which marks the origin of the signifying chain as a distinct order and which isolates in their own specific dimension the memorable and the remembered, that we do not find Being [l'etre] always implied in being [l'etant], the implication that is at the core of evolutionist thought." - Jaques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis
In other words, evolution implies a movement from "worse" to "better" - a system of valuation with a definite, preexisting goal. Such an austere philosopher as Lacan can hardly bear this kind of mushy, rhetorical nonsense. Far from letting his philosophical brethren have their cake and eat it too, he is only too eager to remind them that the choice must remain clear - either there is Meaning or there isn't. Either something came from nothing at some point (and of course he thinks it did, even if the only thing that came into being was the false perception of order due to an arbitrary and ultimately illusory function of our psyche), or there has never been anything at all. "Nothing exists" cries Lacan. "It's all a sham - a chain of chaotic representations that make 'objects' out of random fields of energy."

We can only thank him for making the stakes clear, and remember our dear friend Puddleglum, whose words, as timely now as they were when Lewis wrote them, always seem to make the choice clear:
"Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand for the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper... we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say." - C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

Thursday, June 28, 2007


This past Sunday we celebrated the miraculous birth and the prophetic ministry of St John the Forerunner (John the Baptist). Though many topics seem to come to mind when thinking of St. John, perhaps the most striking to me on this particular Sunday was the one most directly in front of my nose (though it took me a while to notice it). When Fr. Wayne started into his homily on "owning up to the self that we are and that we are becoming", I have to admit that I was a bit puzzled. "What does this have to do with John the Baptist?" I thought to myself. Though I am never one to knock a homily on the topic of self-reflection, I couldn't see the connection to the scripture reading.

Only then did I notice the text on the scroll that St. John is pictured as holding in the large icon at the front of our church. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" it reads. And at once it struck me that John's message on this earth (like the message of so many Old Testament prophets) was pretty much entirely bound up in the call to repentance.

I think that it is interesting that repentance almost always seems to be the response of people that come into contact with God. No matter who it is that you are reading about (even men described as righteous and/or blameless before the Lord), an encounter with God seems to bring about a rapid confession of worthlessness and a cry of repentance.

In their own encounters with God, John the Revelator cried out that he was a "man of unclean lips", and Job went as far as to say "I despise myself utterly, and repent in dust and ashes". Listening to Fr. Wayne's homily on conforming ourselves to the likeness of Christ, it was interesting for me to note that the process of becoming Christlike almost always starts with this kind of crises. I had thought often before about the fear of those that encountered the holiness of God, and a lot even about the terror of those that were allowed to experience a small bit of His awesome power. I never had trouble imagining the terror of such situations... but it never struck me quite so frankly that the flavor of this particular fear was an acute and overwhelming recognition of the true image of God - an image always confused, smudged, distorted, broken, twisted, and blurred in our own souls (though still present) when viewed through our own petty self-reflection, but perfect and glorious and convicting when witnessed in the perfect image of the Son of God. Before meeting Jesus we might be tempted to think, through the decay of His image in ourselves, that we are doing pretty well in our sanctification... or we may not even think about our sanctification at all, and instead wander around in frustration, wondering why our lives have become so miserable. But both of these feelings - both ignorance and apathy, pride and sloth - become impossible the moment we behold the face of God.

"Oh!" we say as our heart leaves us, and we turn pale and hit the floor as though dead (indeed, we feel dead in comparison with the energy of that life), "that is what it is supposed to look like..." and a rush of repentance floods quickly to our lips, because no matter what me might have made of ourselves on this earth, we have not made that... and we realize that we have failed in our stewardship. Whether we were given ten talents, five, or even one, we have not made a profit with it... indeed, we have not even managed to return the initial gift undiminished.

"So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, `We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.' " (Luke 17:10). These are sobering words from our Savior and Lord, and they lead me to dread more than a little my own immanent encounter with God. As far as the verse goes, I'm still working on the "do all the things which are commanded you" part... and it doesn't look as though that will be done any time soon.

May our Lord have mercy on us...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Suprised by Skepticism: Our Amazing Capacity for Misery

I am always shocked when I come face to face with a real, well-spoken, committed atheist, like Mr. Adam Gopnik over at the New Yorker.

I guess that after living for so long in a small community of Christian friends, I just begin to suppose that everyone lives and thinks the way that I do! I find it hard to believe that there are people out there that have read the works of Christians like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis and have not been moved by their articulate faith and convicting common sense... I find it hard to believe that someone could come face to face with such robust representations of the truth and find the strength to be skeptical, and I have to thank the boys over at lex orandi for reminding me that such people do, in fact, exist!

Of course my experiences with half-hearted agnostics have been far more plentiful than my encounters with such atheiests. The average American seems to have a kind of vague hostility toward serious religion that is based more upon the fear that we might try to take their toys (and tiny pleasures) away from them than on anything else. But every once in a while I meet an atheist that is really committed to being miserable when faced with the alternative, and it slaps me back into an awareness of just how serious our spiritual battle is... and how lightly I have tended to take the plight of the earnest doubter.

There are people out there that have looked at the best evidence and simply refuse to believe that it points to God! It is not so much that the arguments of these "serious" atheists are any more compelling than those of the half-hearted agnostics - both stances ultimately boil down to a kind of preference in the end - but rather that these arguments are very articulate in their slight of hand... they lead a person that is not listening very closely (or doesn't want to listen very closely) into believing that religious people are just "up tight" dreamers who obsinately fight for the truth of a metaphysical reality that works just as well as a personal fantasy. The mystical, they argue, can make people just as happy when they "know" it to be false as when they believe it to be true... so why argue about it?

The hole in this argument is, of course, obvious to any religious person when it is stated in this way! People like C.S. Lewis who, in finding the Faith, have found what they had been searching for their entire lives do not experience their conversion as a kind of compromising wish-fulfilment... the encounter is greater than any other experience before it, and it reveals all of their little hopes and dreams to be mere echoes of their adoration for the true love of their souls. The new convert, likewise, is not fooled into believing that his religious experience is important primarily because it is a fantasy that makes him happy. Such arguments may be plausible to skeptics in their dark caves of isolated thought, but one of the really surprising things about our daily encounters with the average "man on the street" is that the Faith really does ring true to created ears. As many times as I forget this when I flinch at sharing my faith, most people (including myself) are able to put up with very difficult doctrines when they finally come into contact with the solid reality of Christ - and they would never buy the idea that the objective truth of God's existence is an unimportant factor in their belief! To the great consternation and confusion of ardent atheists, our faith is such that we feel it must be obstinately asserted, because the tangible reality of our claim is exactly what matters about it!

So why do these "serious" atheists persist in downplaying our experience, and why do so many people seem to scoff and excuse their way out of dealing with real religious conversion? It is, I fear, not so great a mystery! Each of us have an astounding capacity for enduring misery in the name of maintaining control of our own world. If the skeptical atheist is right about anything, it is this very tendency in human nature to ignore reasonable solutions in favor of clinging to a personal hope. We have all been victims of this kind of pride to some extent or another, and lest we start to point fingers we should be reminded of exactly how widespread this kind of sickness actually is!

How many of us have given up happiness at one point or another in order to settle for a world that we can control? How many have ended a healthy, helpful relationship by trading a friend's offer of forgiveness for the personal control of staying angry? How many have endured addiction and poverty of all kinds rather than submitting to the kind of help that would make us call these things wrong, admit our defeat, and give them up for a better life? We are proud creatures! And as complicated, educated, refined and articulate as our excuses become, we cannot avoid the ultimate reality that our choices are often motivated by this very tendency to reject what is good in favor of what we feel we can control.

So are we right when we say that there is a God? Mr. Gopnik will tell us that we simply like this story because it makes us feel safe, and he will go on to recast every Christian experience in this light. A free mind can choose to compare the wonderful fantasy of C.S. Lewis and the robust faith that he holds and decide that the fantasy is the real part and the faith is just an awkwardly tacked-on fabrication. He can read the wild stories of G.K. Chesterton and smirk in the belief that it was natural human enthusiasm that inspired this joy in spite of his forgivable religious delusion. But what he cannot honestly claim is that this conclusion is any more accurate or less subjective than that of his religious opponents... and in the end it is he, and not the religious person, that the burden of proof falls upon.

An atheist like Gopnik refuses to accept the witness of millions of Christians throughout history, who have all claimed to experience a level of communion with the supernatural. While Christians are able to acknowledge all of the skeptic's experiences of earthly happiness and joy as valid, Gopnik's principles will not allow him to acknowledge the Christian's claims as even possible. Such a dilemma forces the atheist into a tight spot... he must either hold to his personal belief and choose to ignore or explain away experience, or he must give up his personal belief and entertain the idea that the world may not be completely explained and under control - that he may be subject to a being that he cannot overpower and that he may never come to fully understand!

May God have mercy on the souls of us who are faced with this dilemma! We are all capable of extreme denial in such cases, when our pride is on the line. We are all vulnerable to the kind of skepticism that would rather be master of our own small, dead world than except the reality of that which we cannot master. As much as we would like to believe it impossible, there are many, many people (even people who call themselves Christians) that will willingly take hell over Heaven when they realize what it really means for Heaven to require the death of self. If sin is a sickness, it is a sickness that we can learn to love as we love our own being.

The devil originally dwelt in the presence of God, and the demons still know that Christ is king... but all of these beings found it in themselves to choose to turn from this knowledge for a chance at their own kingdom. Whatever ignorance there is in such a decision, we cannot downplay the role that real choice plays.

C.S. Lewis himself writes, at the end of his Narnia chronicles, of such severe skepticism when the dwarves are faced with heavenly realities at the end of time. Like our own Mr. Gopnik, these dwarves sit in the middle of Aslan's country and obstinately deny that they have left the little tent on their own world. Where there is light and beauty they see darkness. Where there is luscious landscape they see canvas walls. All the beauty is, to them, merely tricks of their imagination, and all of the joyful calls of those around them are merely jealous mocking or deluded fantasy. Their presuppositions will not let them see the promised land or the goodness of Aslan, so they are bound forever by their own delusion to sit on the ground and miserably assert that they are great and wise to see through all of the silly talk of "Aslan's country". They are confident that they know all there is to know about the world, and they content themselves with the thought that even if they are not very happy, they are at least very right!

May God save us all from such delusion!

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Dark Arts: Or, Why I Still Don't Like Depressing Poetry

It seems to me that, after my last post on John Mayer, I might take a little time to fill out one of the concepts that was assumed in the post (and a lot of my criteria for judging art), but wasn't argued for very persuasively.

I despise a certain kind of depressing art. Agree with me or call it a fault if you like, but I have always had a bone to pick with artists who feel good about foisting their morbidity upon us without giving us a way out... and I think that I have good reasons for feeling this way!

Quickly, let me clarify that I DO NOT MEAN that I don't think there is a place for stories with darker themes or sad subject matter. My distaste isn't as simple as not liking to mourn with those who mourn (I actually believe that this kind of charity is vital in a culture with as much heartache as ours, and those of us who, for reasons of maintaining their own personal happiness, refuse to comfort others in pain or to deal with the real problems that exist in the world have a serious problem of their own). Pain and sadness are a real part of life, and as creators we make art about these experiences too.

What I AM talking about is a certain tendency in all of us sub-creating beings to "modify" our stories in order to make ourselves the heroes of our own tragedies... and also a certain kind of weakness that seems to let us prefer to wallow in our pain rather than to seek a way out of it.

I am melancholy all the time. Nothing is more painfully apparent to me than the problems of the world, the gravity of my sin, and the terrible plight of those born into bad circumstances. But it is Hell that chooses to dwell on these things because it has nothing better to expect. It is Satan that chooses to be satisfied with becoming the hero of his own tragedy rather than allowing himself to humbly assume a supporting role, and I guess that I always tend to find a slight tinge of this false martyrdom in every melancholy artist I have met - not the desire to cope with the pain that is experienced, but rather the kind of pride that would give up Heaven in order to cling to their claim of injustice. Though I often struggle with pride, I cannot imagine the sort of sickness that would move a person to "love" their own brokenness enough to choose "authenticity" over the humiliation of healing. The kind of artist I admire is one who can look at all of this filth and mire in the face and refuse to give up on hope. The kind of artist I admire has an inexplicable joy that just cannot be crushed. Is there anything in the world more poetic than this?!

The kind of hero I want to follow is one that can go to the cross "for the joy set before him". If our hearts cannot hold within them the hope of glory even as we walk through the valley of death, then we are souls better fit for condemnation than for Heaven. The great saints chose to give themselves up for the life of the world and laughed for joy as they did it. It was not because they were sick and grieved, or because they preferred the company of sombre people, that they visited the sick and comforted the grieving... it was the deep and all-pervading joy of their hearts - the truly supernatural life of Christ within them - that moved them to tend to the pain of their brothers and sisters in need.

I have nothing to speak against people who suffer genuine, undeserved pain. These people deserve all of our genuine, earnest help and charity. But as storytellers, we have the responsibility to lead the way toward life and truth. The devil may sulk and pity himself, but we must be beacons of the very real hope that we possess (by no merit of our own). If we tell dark stories, let them be about the shallow futility of our sin, the patiently enduring goodness of saintly men and women, and the ever-available redemption of Christ that bashes its way through even the darkest parts of our nature.

More than anything, I love the hero that is able to say "peace be with you" before he goes into battle. There is nothing more "real" than this hero, even if he doesn't seem to fit in our world. The melancholy artists will sneer and barely be able to stomach such a sentiment... and they have good reason to feel this way. They are sick down to their very core, and the world that they live in does not operate on such principles of hope as we have described above. They think that we are cheating in our analysis, and by the rules of this sick reality they are right! The feeling of nausea in the face of hope is a "natural" one, given this sickness... and the only thing we can hope is that this sickness will eventually lead to death - unto the death, that is, of this so-called "natural" state of decay and corruption, knowing that the core of our being, after all, does not belong to this world we have described.

If we feel a little queasy when redemption is mentioned, perhaps it is an indication that we have yet to fully realize the life of Christ within us. On earth, the most "real" things we experience may in fact be pain and suffering... but let us not be fooled into thinking that these are the most real things that exist! I feel the thrill of other-worldly intrusion every time I read Christ saying "blessed are the poor in spirit"... not because it makes sense in our world, but because it bears witness to an intruding and redemptive truth. It is only in a Christian world that an artist can make the story of a tiny hobbit that takes the One Ring to Mordor. Though Nietzsche would scoff at this "pitiful" case of "wish fulfillment", I wonder could he stand to look into the eyes of the martyr and to see the beatified smile on his face - a smile not of desperate delusion but of knowledge, love, pity and blessing - or would he be undone by the reality of otherworldly joy?

I will take this kind of storytelling over merely natural morbidity any day. I despise the small artist that desperately clings to the little glory of his own decay... and I bless the artist that is willing to admit that the natural result of coming to realize the utter bankruptcy of one's own being (as well as the utter mess that one has made of one's world) is not to justify it or to glorify it or to "accept it" (may God curse that terrible modern conclusion) but to eagerly look for the hope that first preached to us the resurrection of the dead and the supernatural life that we can find in Christ.

John Mayer... that's what you're missing, bro... and even if you don't realize it yet, I'm glad that you aren't letting yourself be satisfied with less.