Category Archives: Culture

A Quick DVD Review – Snowpiercer

snowpiercerposterI was initially intrigued about this film because of the highly unusual release it received. Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein wanted 20 mins cut and some other stuff inserted. The director, South Korean Bong Joon-ho, refused. So, Weinstein dumped the film in limited release and on Video on Demand the same day. That is the release pattern of very bad movies or high critical/low production value movies, i.e. art house. Snowpiercer has A-list talent, Chris Evans otherwise known as Captain America, and it has high production value, i.e. budget of $42M. For Mr. Weinstein to dump it this way would probably mean a loss. Say what you will about Hollywood, but money usually trumps ideology. When it doesn’t, hmmm. (Note, there are other answers that put forward other explanations, like this, but they all strike me as after the fact of the movie garnering attention.) So, I got myself a copy.

At a very basic level, Snowpiercer is an effective thriller. Someone looking for The Bourne Identity 10 could enjoy this film simply from an action standpoint. But to end it there doesn’t capture all the subtle differences. I say subtle because the differences are at the worldview level. This movie invites reflection that Jason Bourne just would never countenance. Even American “art house” flicks would not invite some of the contemplation of Snowpiercer. My guess is that it is exactly the type of interpretation I’m thinking of that caused the producer to first demand cuts and additions and then dump the film.

You can almost see the elevator pitch: global warming apocalypse creates Marxist class struggle in confined space – Hunger Games meets Aliens, hence the “Fight Your Way to the Front” tagline. The movie has that form, but it is actually quite subversive to it. First, the whole global warming part is a smoke screen. Fear of global warming leads to a human attempt to geo-engineer the climate. That double hubris leads to the planet freezing and the only survivors being the passengers on the super train. The trouble is what we think we know and what it causes us to do, not on an environmental screed. Likewise the Marxist class struggle is the form of the action, but the entire string of events is turned on its head by two revelations. The final meeting with the material “god” of the train and the immediately prior action spurred by the anti-hero form the basic choice – stay within the materialist universe or reach for transcendence. The final bit of subversiveness is the presence of an actual hero and a hero’s journey. The only heroes we get today are in Chris Evans’ Captain America spandex. Mr. Evans gets the chance to play a hero outside of the spandex. His journey even includes the rejection of comfort and the embrace of sacrifice.

Ultimately Snowpiercer is bound and limited by its genre, an apocalyptic thriller. It is a piece of pop-entertainment. But where the outcome of most such thrillers is how the anti-hero secures material comfort and security, how the world is made sane again. In this one the world, the entire rigged system, is rejected and transcendence in hope is chosen. It is not explicitly Christian, the transcendence is not even religious from the viewer’s perspective, but the themes are not ones allowed in pop entertainment. Snowpiercer is smart pop entertainment. Pop entertainment that instead of stoking materialist impulses asks questions of a new world and transcendence. No wonder Weinstein wanted to edit it. That is dangerous stuff for the American mind.

Paragraph to Ponder

For seeing that truth of itself has a bitter taste for most people, and that it is of itself a
subversive thing to uproot what has long been commonly accepted, it would have been
wiser to soften a naturally painful subject by the courtesy of one’s handling than to pile
one cause of hatred on another….A prudent steward will husband the truth–bring it out, I
mean, when the business requires it and bring it out so much as is requisite and bring out
for every man what is appropriate for him–[but] Luther in this torrent of pamphlets has
poured it all out at once, making everything public and giving even cobblers a share in
what is normally handled by scholars as mysteries reserved for the initiated.
– Desiderius Erasmus to Justus Jonas, May 10, 1521, in Correspondence, 8:203

You say po-tay-toe, I say po-ta-toe

For a long time the various church bodies shared more than they disagreed. The core of this really is the Nicene Creed. The various churches have different sacramental practices and ecclesial structures, but in beliefs, even the non-creedal churches, they believed the ancient creeds. The spillover effect of this in the West was that even if splintered the idea of Christendom was just observable enough to continue granting mutual recognition to each other’s ceremonies and rites. What this meant at a practical level was that one church never questioned the baptism of another church unless that baptism was by a clear cult like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Marriages were universally assumed to be valid. Yes, the argument could be heated and real, but they might have been so because the differences were so small.

Looking at the world today things are not as clear. What the state means by marriage is no longer what the church means by marriage. The church will have to deal with that in some manner. The first step in dealing with it is simply admitting it. Likewise within the church recognizing a baptism is tougher. It is not uncommon to find churches baptizing in the name of the creator, redeemer and sanctifier. Is that the same God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit that Christ told his disciples to baptize into? Of course there are the fringe churches within mainline denominations that substitute mother, friend and comforter. In each case the form of the triune God is hinted at, but is that the substance or is a different god and a different gospel at work in those waters?

Two generations ago if a church body expressed something it stood for the body. Today, that might not be the case. We have pretended it still held for a generation, early on it was a “no, they can’t really be doing that” while later it was more a conscious looking away like Sgt. Schulz (“I see nothing”). And that is simply within church bodies. What about the thousands of free standing “non-denoms”? You used to be able to assume they were Baptists, but today many of them are prosperity gospel-ers of various stripes. When the Nicene Creed which testifies to Christ “who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried” is replaced with health and wealth, are sacraments valid? Can they be?

These questions go beyond the ancient questions about sacraments performed by a priest who later caved to Roman persecution. The ancient church held those sacraments valid because their source was clear. The status of the preacher’s faith does not impact them. But what about when the God invoked is Christ, but not any Christ that the church has known for 2000 years?

Again, I think we are just waking up to a world where things that have been assumed can no longer be taken for granted. The first step is admitting the changes that have happened. I wanted to share some of the articles that spur these thoughts.

This is Ross Douthat bringing up the idea that the church could decide that marriage laws in many countries no longer fit the pattern for valid natural marriage.

This isn’t the church, but “What Happens when your Rabbi decides He’s Gay”? The work is a piece of assertion and propaganda attempting to state “this is what all good people will think”, but it places the fundamental question of identity. Do I find my identity in God (Christ), or are there other things that are allowed to take precedent, like my view of my sexuality? What is the place of the law in the life of the believer?

This is the inverse of that situation, a woman who believes in the Catholic teaching of marriage but finds herself outside. Here plea is don’t accept what I am, but continue proclaiming the truth.

The last two are political and religious poles that I think help point the way forward. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post calling marriage amendment backers “snake oil salesmen”. I think she is right. But accepting that means accepting that we the church must change how we act. And this is a call about one of the ways that parishes could be re-organized to address the problem.

The apostle Paul would write that we have no business judging those outside the church, but those inside are our responsibility (1 Cor 5:12-13). I guess I see the current moment as a Joshua moment. You do what you want, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. That starts with subtly and civilly declining to accept and use bad definitions of sacraments. The benefit of the doubt is no longer granted.

Paragraph to Ponder…

“In an uncertain universe, some things are still for certain: Dirty plates, if you put them on a plastic rack and push them into the machine and press the button, will come out clean–every time. If you work hard at your job and do it well, even if it’s a [bleep] job, there is some kind of satisfaction in that, whether you’re stacking plates, chopping vegetables, or just setting out a plate of food. There’s this magnificent moment before a plate goes out to the dining room, for instance, when you know, and it’s just for you. You think, Hmm, that’s a pretty good [bleeping] plate. And then it’s gone.”
– Anthony Bourdain, here

George Washington & Men With Chests

If you’ve ever read a good biography of George Washington you can’t walk away from it without a higher, if that is possible, appreciation of the man. Unlike Jefferson, who the more you read comes out pale in comparison to his foundational words, Washington grows. Ron Chernow has written the most recent “massive tome”, but I appreciated Richard Brookhiser’s shorter Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. That book’s purpose was not so much to recount the life but to understand what made it great. Washington, for the first 175 years of American History was the indispensable man. Even though Jefferson wrote the documents we quote, Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”. And per Brookhiser, the reason is not anything inherent in the man – not a first class intellect, not a great natural general losing more than he won, given to pomposity at times with a volcanic temper – but the developed character of Washington. Washington strived to be a better person than he knew himself to be, and his country took heart at his example. He became a man for which other men would endure New York winters dreaming of Virginia summers, as Washington, childless, would dream of his “distant posterity”.

I couldn’t help but think of Washington when I read a much different understanding from New York Times editorial columnist Charles Blow. Quoting,

I would slowly learn to allow myself to follow attraction and curiosity wherever they might lead. I would grant myself latitude to explore the whole of me so that I could find the edges of me…I wasn’t moving; the same-gender attraction was. Sometimes it withdrew from me almost completely, and at others it lapped up to my knees. I wasn’t making a choice; I was subject to the tide….I would hold myself open to evolution on this point, but I would stop trying to force it. I would settle, over time, into the acceptance that my attractions, though fluid, were simply lopsided. Only with that acceptance would I truly feel free.

For Washington, character and freedom were in exercising will over oneself. For Blow, character and freedom are in being subject to the tide. For Washington, one struggled against our natural natures toward something better. For Blow, the greater good is accepting what our natures want to be.

Neither Washington nor Blow differ in their diagnosis of the human condition. Neither is actually that far from St. Paul’s lament, “I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Rom 7:22-23)” All three had an ideal in their minds to which they were not living up to. The real question is one of will. Is the proper course Washington’s – willing his recalcitrant self in line with his ideal? Or is it Blow’s – willing his ideals in line with his nature?

St. Paul’s answer accords with Washington. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (Rom 8:5-7 ESV)” This process is never complete until the resurrection when we will have the renewed flesh, but it is already starting now. It starts in our renewed minds and moves to a renewed will. Only in Christ can we actually be free, because only in Christ can we actually exercise our will. Collapsing our ideals to our nature is not a free choice, but a surrender of our freedom to the tides.

C.S. Lewis had an arresting image of modernity he called “men without chests”. Modernity produces lots of people with strong heads. Some who even know what is right. It also produces lots of people with strong guts. In the ancient world the guts were the seat of the emotions, so what is meant by that is lots of people with strong emotions. Some of them even right. What it fails to do is produce a Washington. It fails to produce men with chests, men who have hearts or wills that desire and put into action the best of the mind and gut while denying to bring into reality the worst.

This is what James meant when he would say “faith without works is dead (James 2:17)”. A sentiment Paul would agree with when he would say, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (Rom 12:2)”. Likewise Peter, “do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, (1 Peter 1:14-15)”. Do some cardio, workout your chest, your heart. In Christ, will to do the right.

September Newsletter – Pastor’s Corner

Book Reading I sadly came across the comic to the left after we went to press on this. It was the perfect piece to take down the pretension of the actual article.

It is August 28th when I write this which is the Saint Day of St. Augustine. One of the famous stories that Augustine tells in his confessions is of his conversion where a little childlike voice chants “tolle lege” or “Take and read”. He took it as the divine command or invitation to take up the Bible and read it. A book which the educated man had shunned for years. He opened to Romans and the rest is history.

September is a month where we put aside the diversions of sun and fun and summer and tolle lege, pick up and read again. Some of us (child #2 David) reluctantly and other with fondness. In that vein I thought that I might put together a short list. A challenge reading list (since I can’t really assign them) for you this year. These are books or works that have greatly impacted me. They are also books which I believe are worth returning to if just to dip in and remind ourselves. What you saw in them at 12 or 22 or 32 or (sigh) 42, and probably beyond, is different. The scars and lenses change. So here are five + one.

The Small Catechism, The Large Catechism & One Confessional Work
Everyone should read the catechism at least yearly if not devotionally in prayer. Luther’s small portion, like youth, is wasted on the young. There are six parts. Take one a day for a week and ponder the answers. Peruse the synod’s questions and see just how full the biblical basis is for this foundation. Then Challenge yourself over the rest of a month to read the Larger Catechism and either the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord or the Smalcald Articles. I’d challenge you to notice that even as the questions change and get stickier or more opaque, the fundamental question remains. How do we life faithfully where God has placed us? As Augustine might say how does the City of God reside within the City of Man?

The Freedom of a Christian
This is the crossing of the Rubicon work. Yes it includes an opening dedication to Leo X, but the offer reminds me of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace offer of peace to the English. Uncorking 120 proof grace and Paul’s letter to the Galatians – the inebriating joy of freedom comes through on every page. Written in German (vs. Latin) it was published and sold for pennies to the folk. And its final plea or prayer is for theodidacti – hearts taught by God as he promised. “Tolle, Lege.”

Surprised by Joy
This is C.S. Lewis’ semi-autobiography. I say semi because the main character might be Lewis, but the real main character is God. Lewis captures the constant presence of Joy in his life, even when he didn’t believe. He captures how this Joy exists mid toil and pain and still abounds and expands. And eventually he captures how this joy finds its fulfillment in the heart of God. “We are restless, until we find our rest in thee.”

Children of Men
Please don’t just watch the very bad movie. Read the P. D. James novel. We are swamped with dystopian novels and heroes from Batman to Katniss. James conjures up such a world that is all too possible, but also manages to hint at how this world actually works. We carry the treasure in jars of clay. The jars are always breaking, but life returns. And it is in the very weakness and loss that God is most fully seen. “Seek not to understand that you might believe, but believe that you might understand.”

The Aeneid
Augustine’s Confessions to scholars have always carried a striking relationship to this Latin Epic. Pious Aeneas carries Troy and the household gods to Italy stopping in Carthage with Dido, descending to the underworld, taking up his fate written on a shield, and founding the Eternal Empire. Instead of reading glory from a shield, Augustine takes and reads the scriptures. In the collapse of that eternal empire, Augustine would point to the City of God. Augustine would transform Roman piety to Christian, but it is worth understanding the original. There are two great modern English translations (Feagles and Rudin). “It was pride that changed angels into devils, it is humility that makes men as angels.” Or maybe, “the good man, though a slave, is free; the wicked, though he reigns, is a slave, and not the slave of a single man, but — what is worse — the slave of as many masters as he has vices.”

Plus One
And now for the plus one. All theology ends in doxology; all meditation turns toward prayer and praise. Pick up a poetry book. The hymnal was traditionally the layman’s book. A book full of verse. If you want a modern, try Dana Gioia. He has a good selection on his website. Your great-grandkids will be reading him. Try Litany and Planting a Sequoia for a start. Shakespeare’s sonnets are always free. Then come back to the Psalms.

“Tolle, Lege.” And do let me know if you take any of these up.

HT:Elizabeth Bruenig

Apologetics vs. Proclamation – Attempting to Write Again

I haven’t written much here recently. I think that has been for three reasons. First, I’ve been recording the daily lectionary. One of the phrases of the early reformation was ad fontes – to the sources. Emphasizing the habit of daily bible reading and reflection seems to be a prime pastoral example. Second, the stuff that I’ve felt it necessary to write has either been longer in nature or just doesn’t fit in a blog type post. I could write 500 words that might get read, but all they would do is form two camps – those who have the background to understand what I would write and those who would reject it simply because it assumed too much. I’m sure that sounds terribly pompous, but I’m starting to understand Jesus’ phrase “to those who have more will be given, those who have not even what they have will be taken away (Matthew 13:12).” Having just preached through the parables in Matthew 13, the staggering heartbreak contained in that phrase resonates. I could write 1500 words, or a booklet as I did over the winter that starts at the footings of the foundation, but seeing that length would be immediately ignored – TLDR. The division happens anyway – either by hard soil or thorns. Third, writing is expenditure. I felt that I needed to put something back in the account. I needed to do some reading and some thinking.

Part of that thinking was simply about a fundamental choice in pastoral practice. When teaching the faith or in evangelism efforts, what amount of time is put on argument or persuasion verses simple proclamation – call it apologetics versus proclamation. When you don’t think you are far apart, when you think the same Spirit might be at work, love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Apologetics is perfect. When you think it might be a different spirit (2 Cor 11:4, Gal 1:6-8) the apostolic example is not bearing with but rebuking and simple proclamation – here I stand. More and more I have felt that the simple proclamation is the necessary medicine, that apologetics are falling on deaf ears and hard hearts.

Why I’m writing today is that I read a piece of recent research that captures this feeling directly. This is Dr. Mark Regnerus highlighting some of the results from His Relationships in America study. I’m going to post in one of his telling results tables.

Regnerus Data

Among the survey questions, asked of Americans between 18 and 60 years of age, were positions on the seven activities listed on the left. Orthodox Christian teaching on all seven of these activities is clear. Pornography is a sin. Premarital sex (I take Premarital cohabitation as a euphemism) is a sin, likewise sex outside of marriage (i.e. no strings attached) is a sin. Marriage is to be for life. It would be acceptable for a Christian to separate, but separation does not imply re-marriage unless the first marriage was to a pagan. All of these are actually basic applications of the sixth commandment and Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:1-12 or Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16.

The total sample representing that population, again Americans 18-60 years of age, was 15,738 represented by the “Population Average” column. Regnerus splits out four subsets out of that group. He finds 233 non-christian gay and lesbians. He finds 191 gay and lesbians who report as Christian. He finds 990 people who attend church regularly (churchgoing for this survey means at least 3 times per month) who support SSM. Dr. Regnerus writes, “In order to ensure this is not just an exercise in documenting the attitudes of Christians “in name only,” I’ve restricted the analysis to churchgoing Christians—here defined as those who report they attend religious services at least three times a month and who self-identified with some sort of Christian affiliation. And I’ve restricted the analysis to those who report a position either for or against same-sex marriage. (I’ve excluded the one-in-four who reported they are undecided.)” He also reports the responses of the 2659 church-goers who don’t support SSM.
Now let me attach this to what I was thinking before about apologetics and proclamation. I don’t know how this is possible but there are 5.1 percent of folks who attend church at least three times per month and oppose SSM but never-the-less think that no-strings-sex is OK. Now I’ve got to believe this might be a butterfly ballot and hanging chad problem akin to those Palm Springs Jews who voted for Pat Buchanan, but if not this is a group that you would use apologetics with. They might go to their grave with a wrong belief, but we all do that in some ways. Love covers a multitude of error. When you look at the response of the gay/lesbian cohorts this is clearly in the proclamation territory. This is the teaching of the church, when you are willing to give it a listen come back, but the first step is repentance. The troubling case is what do you do with the 33% of church-going Christians who support SSM and also agree that key parties are just groovy? The church has said apologetics for decades.  This is not what that word actually means, but it has been issuing apologies for clear teaching for a long time.  I think what this research shows is that apologetics is the wrong answer. The right answer is a clear call to get your thinking in line with that of Jesus.  (It might take longer to get practice in line, and we struggle with the sinful nature entire lives.  But it starts with orthodoxy, having the open heart to admit the truth comes first.  If I say I have no sin, then the truth is not in me – 1 John 1:8-9.)
Now we turn to the effects of such a turn. The good news, my guess is, is that a large majority of folks in the first column would feel heartened if the church stopped being a squish. But let’s explore the bad news. First, only 17% of the total population is with you. There is another 6% of the total population that are church go-ers. Some portion of that group would repent, but some portion would stick around and “fight” ala the Catholic Spirit of Vatican 2ists and the agitators that have lead the ELCA and the PCUSA off the cliff, and some portion would just melt into the non-churched. You would have dissension for a time within the church itself until it sorted out and the majority learned to ignore the agitators on simple questions of the moral law. (I think some of that is what has already happened, so that may not be as big a concern.) The second implication is that the reduced Christian church would be dramatically at odds with the society around it. Now maybe God is merciful and grants repentance, but it is just as likely that the simple proclamation leads to clear polarization. Good news is that the population at large is not completely with the non-christian gay/lesbian worldview depicted. But what those numbers also indicate is that at current course and speed there is a lot of ruin still possible. Imagine a world where roughly 80% had no qualms about porn vs. 31%. Instead of being late-night Cinemax it would be on NBC prime-time. PBS would be staging Masterpiece Theatre that had the refined take on what I shall not write.

What part of my thinking has been about is just how does a church that is 17% (or less in some places) work? And maybe just as importantly, how do you talk about that emerging reality when, for those say 60+ to match what the survey left out, this is not their experience nor the answers they attempted?  There are some very hard choices to be made.

Paragraph to Ponder

Economist Tyler Cowen interviews Ralph Nader. Prof. Cowen always asks interesting questions typically from two buckets: 1) the hard truth questions and 2) the questions no one else is asking. This falls into the second camp mostly but it is an insightful question and Mr. Nader gives a very interesting answer with a good deal of theological sophistication.

TC: If someone cited to you religion and American churches as the sector of our society
that has best resisted corporatization, would you agree or disagree? And if you disagree,
what would you cite instead?

RN: They’re resisting less. They’ve given up on gambling, and the main bulwark against
widespread gambling—outside of Las Vegas—and against government-run lotteries, was
the churches. But then Bingo started in church basements, and the gambling interests
went to work on the churches. They claimed that their businesses in Atlantic City would
help the elderly throughout New Jersey. The churches lost their credibility.

A society riven with gambling is one that bets on the future rather than builds the future.
So what countervailing force is there? Labor unions are weaker. We have a tremendous
disruption of the community civic values that used to hold commercial values in check. I
only see this emerging left/right alliance against the corporate state that I wrote about in
my book, Unstoppable. It’s the only political realignment that is possible over the next
ten to twelve years. It has the support of public opinion and sentiment. You see bipartisan
reform of the juvenile justice system; a dozen state legislatures are beginning to challenge
the extension of these global, corporate-managed trade agreements in Congress; and
there’s growing opposition to more wars of choice overseas. You’re beginning to see 70–
80 percent support for an inflation-adjusted minimum wage. You can’t get that kind of
poll result without a lot of conservative workers. And the poll results come in at about 90
percent in favor of breaking up the banks that are too big to fail because we fear that their
speculative octopi will get us into another recession.

Stanley Hauerwas – Paragraph Worth Pondering

From an interview here

Mohler: I get the impression that when you look at American Christianity in general, and American Evangelicalism in particular, you appear to see a church that is looking less and less like the church.

Hauerwas: I have great admiration for evangelicals for no other reason than they just bring such great energy to the faith and I admire that. But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is meditated faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church. So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church. So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations.

Feast Day of St. Athanasius

It is also my anniversary. Do you think Mrs. Parson would be upset if I told her I just figured out a way to always remember my anniversary date? Every time I see this guy, “hey, that’s the day I got married”. You should google image Athanasius Icon, I wonder why that semi-scowl is a required part of the iconography. I suppose if it is you against the world, we can grant you a scowl. As for the anniversary…
AthanasiusIcon