At church today we celebrated the sixty-first wedding anniversary of two of our oldest and most-beloved members (and the only black couple in our disproportionately white suburban congregation). Five of their six children came from several states with their families to join us, and it was encouraging and inspiring to hear of God’s goodness and faithfulness throughout their lives, to hear of the kindness and love that they have shown to everyone, and to see the love of God pouring out of their very large family. One of the grandsons – now married with his own son – shared how much it meant that his grandfather had spent so much time with his children and grandchildren, even while building a successful business out of almost nothing, and how he was inspired to show the same love and devotion to his wife and son.
I love finding the story of humanity’s depravity and redemption hiding in unlikely places. Job’s friends, in their imperfect understanding of God’s justice, assumed that his suffering must have been caused by sin. We know they were wrong because God told Satan that he had incited Him to ruin Job “without cause.” (Job 2:3)
Yet as Job and his friends discuss Job’s situation, they keep hinting at a larger picture, and I can’t help but think that this story is peeking at something more fundamental about humanity. “Remember now, who ever perished being innocent?” Eliphaz says. “Can a man be pure before his Maker?” (Job 4:7, 17) “Does God pervert justice?” Bildad asks. (Job 8:3)
Wednesday night I saw The Dark Knight again (mild spoiler alert), and it was ten times better the second time around. I’m not quite sure if it was the fact that I didn’t have a headache and I wasn’t so close that I had to look up for two and a half hours, or if it was because I already knew the overall plot so I had a chance to pay closer attention to how things unfolded and pick up a lot more about the details, plot intricacies, cinematography…
Mainly, though, I came away with a greater understanding of the philosophical themes presented in the movie (as an aside, the political themes are worth an essay in themselves) and was blown away by the unabashedly honest portrayal of human nature.
As I watched the film the second time, I was thinking about the Joker’s character and why he’s so simultaneously likable and hateable. The mannerisms and nuances of Ledger’s acting makes every appearance by the Joker charmingly enjoyable, and he delivers several of the film’s funniest lines (although Fox’s “Blackmail?” taunt is my favorite), yet his diabolically cruel plans mixed with the casualness of their deployment makes you want to hate him for his evilness.
I also noticed – and I don’t know how I missed this the first time – that the Joker’s fight is not against Batman, but against the idea that people are inherently good. Batman has lent courage to the town of Gotham to flush out the mob and turn itself around, and that doesn’t sit well with the Joker’s paradigm that people are inherently cruel, selfish, and heartless, so he tries to use Batman to bring out the worst in people. He tells Batman that the laws and morals of the citizens is all just a bad joke. “I’ll show you, that when the chips are down, these uh… civilized people, they’ll eat each other.”
Thus the Joker proceeds to concoct “social experiments” to strip away the moral fiber of Gotham’s inhabitants. He tells everyone that if a certain character isn’t dead in an hour, he’ll blow up a hospital – instantly turning relatives of the sick and injured into would-be assassins of an innocent man. And his detonation scheme involving two ferries is downright ingenious.
I then realized the brilliance of making the Joker’s character so likeable – he doesn’t represent the typical magnificent but distant force of a Hitler or even a Sauron, such an extreme of stereotyped evil that no one can identify with or use to make philosophical comparisons. No, the Joker represents the simple potential impulse for evil inside of us – the bare, sinful nature of our own hearts, just as you can love yourself but hate what you find yourself doing.
The Joker corrupts the most honorable man in Gotham to prove his point, which Batman views as a defeat for the forces of good. With an epiphany, I viewed it as a vindication of the beginning of the most beautiful victory, because, in a sense, the Joker’s paradigm is correct – but only as the opening frame of a much more complete and fulfilling paradigm. The Joker’s corrupting of Gotham’s “white knight” represents the fact that all of us are sinners, acting for our own selfish desires, fulfillment, and feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. But that’s not the end of the story!
I’m reminded of a song by Shane & Shane called “Embracing Accusations,” where the duo sings about the devil accusing people of being horrible and selfish and tries to bring them down with dismay and despair. With a twist, the Shanes say the devil is actually telling the gospel story; he’s just stuck on the first part and has “forgotten the refrain,” where Jesus says, “Yes, you have sinned, you have done things only for yourself at the expense of others, but I have paid the price for that, and I’m offering you forgiveness. Follow me and I will teach you to love.”
It is Love that covers the Joker’s paradigm that people are cruel, and takes them and molds them into something better. It is this brilliant portrayal of the realities of human nature that thrusts The Dark Knight from greatness to a legendary film.
She notes how the pressure has turned to women being expected to have sex with their men even if they don’t yet want to. When comparing advice offered in magazines of different ages, she reveals, “In 1905, a man who was too presuming wasn’t ‘fit to be welcomed’ in society, while in 1997 the problem is the woman’s. Now it is up to her to invent various arbitrary maneuvers to alleviate her discomfort, whereas before it was the man’s job to demonstrate he was worthy of her.”
In an earlier age, it was the man who had to prove himself worthy of a woman’s love and attention; now women have to worry about satisfying their men, many of whom who will without a second thought move on to someone else who’s more fun or who doesn’t start talking about marriage and commitment once she finds that she has an emotional attachment to this man she’s been sleeping with – an emotional attachment that cannot seem to be gotten rid of no matter how hard our society tries to promote casual sex. Perhaps there’s a reason for that, Shalit offers.
“Helps prevent heart disease?” exclaimed the mother behind me in Aisle 4 at Schnucks, reading from a bag of off-brand Cheerios.
“My child is two! He doesn’t need to prevent heart disease; he needs sugar! I had sugar when I was his age…”
I smiled, amused. In a culture marked by a growing obsession with healthy, organic, low-fat, low-sodium, low-carb, reduced sugar diets, this woman was bluntly determined to raise her child in the good old-fashioned American way. Sure, obesity’s a growing (sorry) problem, but that’s because people don’t have self-control. It’s not like you have to be a health nut to make it in this society; as long as you don’t go overboard and eat a variety of stuff, a fair amount of sugar and fat isn’t going to kill you ~ so why deprive yourself?
On the other hand, there are people like Jonathan, one of my new co-workers at Apple. Jonathan is a vegeterian. Vegetarians tend to invite a restrained aura of respect, partially because most of us simply can’t imagine giving up thickburgers, and partially because we admire their voluntarily strict adherence to their beliefs ~ there are few forced vegeterians. Whether it’s for animal treatment or just a desire to eat healthily, a typical vegeterian has personally chosen to forsake something that most of us admit we have not the fortitude to give up.
However, it has occurred to me that, just as we do for the mouth, we can identify people by what they consume with their eyes and ears. Most of us don’t concern ourselves too greatly with the quality of our intake; we don’t pig out excessively on the vulgar stuff, but limiting our diet to the noblest and purest ingredients is too bland and unnecessary and super-spiritual. We take in a variety of what comes our way and what we feel like at the time.
The fat couch potatoes are the ones who just fill up on junk food and never watch or listen to anything healthy. The reduced-everything health nuts are the paranoid mothers trying to protect their children from every potential bad influence. And, of course, the ultimate vegans are the monks who completely reject the meaty, fleshy, corrupted world.
There is nothing more pure we should be filling ourselves with than the immeasurable and mighty Love that presses us to continually draw nearer and to reflect it in everything we do. The world constantly tries to express love, and may succeed in some small part or shadow. But all too often it steals the name to make of it a mockery, wallowing in selfish pleasure and satisfaction that knows nothing of pure, beautiful, self-denying Love. Yet our diets tend to be full of this fake-love that is shoved at us from all sides.
Perhaps we feel that since we recognize it as fake-love, it will not corrupt our ability to take in the real Love. Strict cultural vegetarianism is not a requirement for a healthy spiritual life. Jesus said that it is not “what goes into a man’s mouth” that makes him unclean, “but what comes out.” How well we express Love is more important than how much Love or fake-love we take in. And yet how can we express that Love if we consistently allow ourselves to consume its selfish and corrupted impostor?
I’ve realized that I’m a bit of a cultural vegetarian. I was raised in a home with atypically stringent standards of visual diet, and I am still uncomfortable with shows and movies that encourage lust or display or joke freely about sex, a sacred act that has been reduced to an extremely pleasurable activity that happens to involve another human being, instead of the beautiful and anticipated culmination of the fantastic journey in which two become one. The crude expressions are something I do not need more encouragement to spend more time considering. I don’t disapprove of a friend with different dietary preferences; we are each abiding by our own standards. But in my pursuit of Love, I generally choose to avoid some of its coarser and baser counterfeits, whether in music or film or some other medium.
Do not mistake me for advocating an enclosed diet of strictly spiritual sustenance, although the monks doubtlessly lead healthier lives than we. Exposure to darkness can be integral to understanding, appreciating, and explaining the light. But there is a difference between exposure and acceptance, between tasting and consuming. Only you can decide how healthy you want to be. Paul tells us to set our sights on things above, and to think on what is true. Receive Love. Give Love. There is nothing more.
My discovery last week that I could not hear the same pitches as each of my peers inspired some philosophical thoughts about our senses and the nature of our existence. It is well known that intense exposure to sound can permanently damage hearing. In fact, the greater the sound, the greater risk of greater damage to your ears.
My ears were designed to take in sound, but every time I expose myself to too much pure sound, I risk further restricting the range of my hearing ~ the more pure sound I receive, the more impure my ability to take in sound becomes.
Light works in the same way. My eyes were designed to take in light, but if the light becomes too bright, it hurts my eyes. The closest thing to pure light in our experience is the sun, and if I stare at it for too long, my eyesight could be damaged or I could go blind.
What does this say about ourselves that the more we exposure ourselves to a pure quality, the more impure we make our ability to receive it?
Our corrupted bodies simply can’t handle pure light or pure sound, and the more they try, the more they destroy the limited capacity they have.
Why then do we wonder at our inability to reach God on our own? For what light is more pure than that which emanates from him? And what sound is more pure than his voice? Why do we wonder that our finite minds cannot comprehend the infinite love of God? Should we not be in complete awe that it is only his infinite grace that cleanses us to even allow us to be capable of receiving it?
Then sings my soul
My Savior, God, to Thee
How great Thou art!
I vividly remember a high school chapel service in which Scary Mark read a verse about Christ’s power over death and was upset that a rousing cry did not ring out among the students. After a chastizing sermon about being passionate for Jesus, he read the verse again, receiving his shouts from a few students who hoped he would then leave us alone. I believed in Christ’s resurrection and thanked God for it, but I would not fake such emotion.
Emotion is a tricky thing when it comes to our faith, and it is often ridiculed because it is so easily mistaken, misled, and misused. Many times we look at those who break into tears at every special service or abandon themselves in worship and condescendingly think, “I just don’t worship God like that. I don’t feel all that emotion which will be gone tomorrow or the next week. My faith may be quieter, but it is not so superficial.”
Because it often receives so much focus (especially in my charistmatic-ish neck of the Christian woods), emotion is often feared and avoided when it comes to our God.
Yet I feel this is a terrible mistake.
Do lovers, resting quietly in a park on a sunny day, gaze at each other and proclaim, “No. We shall not touch. That is all emotion. It is not real.”
Of course not!
Yes, it can be dangerous. It is easy and convenient to focus only on those emotional satisfactions, and a relationship that relies on such experiences may falter without them. But when the relationship has been built on a solid foundation, those emotions are the pure expression of complete joy!
I do not always feel ravishing emotion towards my God. Some days I read the Word and feel like I’ve received nothing; sometimes I pray only crying out for help. Sometimes I believe all the truths about God but feel nothing stirring inside me.
But when God reveals some facet of his unfathomable mercy and grace and power, some direct answer to prayer or some direct speaking through a verse, some hidden insight into his glorious, unconditional love that covers us completely and eternally ~ O my soul, Rejoice! How can we not be overcome! When that lyric plays across my iPod or verse plays across my mind and that emotion fills my being,
I cannot hold it in and remain composed
Love’s taken over me
So I propose
The letting myself go, I am letting myself go
You are my joy
You are my joy
You are my joy
YOU ARE MY JOY!
In that moment, I don’t care whether I’m getting caught up in an emotion or stop to ponder the theological significance of my feelings ~ I just want to smile and laugh and sing and shout and dance because of the consuming joy!
Does this mean I believed any less in God’s love and power on that emotionless chapel day than I do on this day when the simplest lyric cannot keep a smile from my face? Of course not. Religious emotion is a curious thing, nearly as fleeting and unreliable as its romantic counterpart. Perhaps tomorrow, or next week, there will be no smile.
But that does not make today’s emotion, or the emotion of any genuine “mountain-top experience,” any less real than that of the lovers in each other’s arms. In fact, it is probably part of something infinitely more real than anything in this world.
Originally Posted: December 21, 2006 (Age 18)
Yesterday, I saw Will Smith’s movie The Pursuit of Happyness. His character Chris Gardner brings up an interesting point about the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson said we should each have the right to life and liberty, but not happiness. The pursuit of happiness. “How did he know to put the pursuit part in there?” Gardner wonders.
Life and liberty are easily given and taken away, but happiness is something more elusive. It cannot be promised. We can only be promised the chance to pursue it.
And, in fact, we spend most of our lives pursuing it. Everything we do is an attempt to find some kind of satisfaction ~ in love, in money, in hobbies, in addictions ~ something to make us happy.
It is often said, usually to make a contrast with joy, that happiness comes from our circumstances. The closer that our circumstances match our ideal circumstances, the happier we are.
The Rubix cube in The Pursuit of Happyness is symbolic of this. The colored squares are positioned all over the cube, but they are supposed to be placed together, one color per side. Chris Gardner is not happy because he is struggling at his job, he can’t pay the rent, his wife is angry at him, he can’t support his son ~ nothing is lined up. But even if you can get all the blue squares on one side, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re closer to happiness, because to get all the white squares on the other side, you first have to rearrange some of the blue ones. Because our circumstances are constantly changing ~ the squares are constantly being rearranged ~ it is often impossible to tell if we’re moving forward or backward in our pursuit.
The first truth to recognize is that we are not in control of the rearranging. We often have choices about which way to turn the squares, and sometimes we choose what we think will make us happier because it puts more red squares on one side, but at the same time it puts green squares all over the cube.
And have you ever noticed that some rows are harder to turn than others? Sometimes we have no choice at all, and the squares are simply turned and tossed by others, or by the laws of nature and society, or by God, or by all of the above.
The second truth is that we are not entitled to happiness, only the pursuit of it. Often the reason we are so unhappy is because we think we’re supposed to be happy. Thomas Jefferson only said we’re supposed to be able to pursue it. God never promises it, either. The Bible says many things about happiness being caused by wise actions and various circumstances, but these are only factual statements, not commands or promises. “Thou shalt be happy” is not a commandment.
The problem occurs when, in our pursuit of happiness, we forget each of these truths. We think that we are entitled to it, and we think that we can control it, so we try to manipulate things to bring about that happiness. Sometimes we might get a few colors lined up, but all too often we only end up further disorganizing them across the cube.
It is much better to recognize that we are not actually guaranteed happiness, and to let God do the rearranging. On the other hand, this does not mean that we do nothing. God will not solve our Rubix cube for us. But we will never find happiness by twisting the squares without his guidance.
You may never have all of your squares lined up the way you would like them to be. But that should not be your goal. Look at your Rubix cube. Change what you can. Learn to live with what you can’t. Besides, it may soon change apart from your control. Instead of wasting time trying to figure out how to line up all your colors, do something to help others line up theirs.
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests,” Paul tells the Philippians, “but also to the interests of others.” Because the less you pursue your own happiness, the more you will find it.
Originally Posted: August 15, 2006 (Age 18)
You might want to sit down for this, folks. Everything you learned in grade school is about to be turned upside-down. Well, not quite. But the International Astronomical Union is having a huge meeting to decide if Pluto should still be considered a planet.
See, it turns out that Pluto’s not the only little chunk of rock going in circles at the far end of the solar system. There are a bunch of other chunks, some of which are even bigger than Pluto, and they’re not called planets. So it only seems fair to make it an all-or-nothing. Either demote Pluto’s favored status among the nine members of the Fellowship of the Planets, or include all of its friends and just make it a big party.
This is simply too shocking for some people. After all, we’ve grown up learning that Pluto is one of the nine planets. To say that there is only eight would be preposterous! Astronomer Mike Brown said in The New Yorker, “I felt as if there [is] a public sentiment that you couldn’t get rid of Pluto. If you did, you were a mean person… I wondered why there appeared to be an emotional attachment to an inanimate object that most people who are arguing had never seen.”
So why are people so adamant about retaining Pluto’s planetary position? Because that’s the way it’s always been, and we like it better that way.
A month or two ago there was a big fuss about the government’s recent report that it now costs them more to make a penny than it’s worth. The solution to that problem is rather simple: stop making the penny. But 65% of Americans want to keep it. Why? Because that’s the way it’s always been, and we like it better that way.
And it’s not just with Pluto and pennies. Don’t forget that America is practically the only country that still uses miles and gallons. We know that using meters and liters and their units of 10’s makes a lot more sense and makes easier math for everyone, but we don’t bother to change it because that’s the way it’s always been, and we like it better that way.
It’s not that we Americans are averse to change itself. We happily trade CD players for iPods, dial-up for wireless, VHS for DVD. Upgrades, breakthroughs, improvements ~ bring them on, and we’ll pay whatever you charge. But ask us to accept something that will change our way of thinking? Bah. Go somewhere else.
It is really quite ridiculous. At least it’s understandable that folks want to keep old measurements, even if it doesn’t make sense, or to keep old pennies, even if it doesn’t make cents. But to insist on keeping the status of an object about 6 billion kilometers ~ excuse me, 4 billion miles ~ from the sun, that’s when you know our culture has an issue with comfortability.