Sunday, January 30, 2005
I had thought, if I were ever to get actual hate mail, it would be for the stuff on the website that is critical of Anti-Semitism; I have had a few, um, interesting interactions with Anti-Semites who took issue with what I had written. Although the interractions were depressing, I was never threatened, either implicitly or explicitly. The email I got today necessitated a call to the local police. They will investigate. I suspect its only a silly teenager spouting off, but, one cannot be too careful. Somewhat disturbing, but I'm not too worried. It seems very odd, but I suppose not really surprising, that in response to an article that argues for love, hate should be stirred up.
Friday, January 28, 2005
When bad things happen to us or to people we care about, we will ask the question, “Why did this happen?” We might word it, “What did I do to deserve this?” Or “What was God thinking?” In any of the manifold variations of the question, the substance remains the same. We are looking for something we did or didn’t do that might be responsible for our situation. We want to know what needs to be done so we can get out of the current bad circumstance, and what we can do to keep such circumstances from happening again. Like Job’s friends, we are convinced that bad things happen to bad people and good things to good people. It would be comforting if it were so, and would be a simple way to explain what goes on in the world. Unfortunately, Job’s friends were wrong and so are we.
Both Job’s friends and we are like the fictional scientists who asked the computer Deep Thought their question and get an answer that seemingly makes no sense. The problem for us as we look at suffering is that we don’t seem to actually know what the question is.
The reality is, the question we need to ask is not, “Why did this happen.” That’s the wrong question.
The real question is: “Do I trust God?”
We sent God out to get a bottle of milk six hours ago. When he finally comes back, he smells of perfume and there is lipstick on his collar. So. Do we believe that he still loves us and is faithful to us when he hands over the milk or not? That’s what we face when bad stuff happens. It is easier to believe he loves us when he brings us roses and gives us a hug and kiss. But we need to believe him during those times when he doesn’t. That’s when it is hard. But it is a choice we make, like all the other choices in our lives. Every day we make them. Do I get a second cup of coffee? Do I wear the blue socks or the brown socks? Paper or plastic?
Believing God is not a mountain top experience. It is not a once in a lifetime, earth rocking transformation. It is instead a daily occurrence: the stuff of which a day is built. It is mundane.
God’s love is not dependent on what we do or don’t do. The author of Ecclesiastes writes:
“I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)
So does that mean that you can do everything right, be a good person, follow all the directions and disaster can still strike?
On any given morning a whole lot of people will get up and eat their breakfasts. Some will kiss their spouses and head off to work. Some will beat their spouses. Some will beat their kids. There will be people who get up, take a deep breath, shower and then go out and murder someone, or have an affair, or embezzle money, or lie. On any given morning there are those who have been up all night drinking and using drugs and having unprotected sex with people they aren’t married to. Some people will be laughing, some people will be crying. Some people will be doing what they are supposed to do and some will not. Some are good Christians. Some are bad Christians. Some are not Christians at all.
But three thousand people out of the six billion on planet Earth one bright September morning went to work like they always did, but they never came home again. Terrorists chose to fly airplanes into their workplaces that particular day. Were they greater sinners than all the other people on the planet?
Bad things can happen without warning and without reason and it isn’t because God is mad at you or loves you less than those who didn’t suffer that day.
“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’ (Luke 13:1-5)
When you’re driving down the freeway and traffic slows in front of you and you put on your brakes to stop, is it your fault when the person behind you doesn’t and plows into the back of your car? Of course not. You may drive carefully. That doesn’t make your neighbor drive carefully. Were you a worse sinner than the driver in the lane next to you who went on unscathed? How about that crack dealer who was beating up his girl friend a block away?
So today, for this moment, choose to believe God. He loves you anyway, regardless of your choice. Why choose to believe something sad?
Thursday, January 27, 2005
Meanwhile, I have heard statements, particularly over the Christmas holidays, along these lines: “Christianity is under attack on the political, educational and media front.” So said one John Newby with NewsWithViews, an online site, on December 26, 2004. It was not uncommon this holiday season to hear report after report by religious commentators complaining about negative portrayals of Christians and Christianity in the media, and decrying the work of the ACLU to get Nativity scenes off of public property, and the like. A search on the web will find various sites devoted to “fighting back” and shouting about how religious freedom is under attack.
Frankly, people who say such things strike me as being wildly out of touch with reality. If Tutu’s rights had actually been infringed, then that would mean he was arrested, his writings burned, and that he had disappeared into a jail cell. After all, that is what happened to him in South Africa during Apartheid. Frankly, I don’t think that’s quite what he faced in Jacksonville. He seems instead to be simply upset that someone disagreed with him and expressed that disagreement and that somehow his freedom has been infringed as a consequence of that. Freedom of speech, last time I checked, does not mean protection from having our speech criticized by those who disagree with us. If he was really being oppressed, I think he would not be allowed to give an interview in Newsweek, nor would we have been able to read his complaint.
Likewise, if Christianity were actually under attack in this country, that would mean I wouldn’t find Bibles and religious books weighing down the shelves in the local library, Walmart and Barnes and Nobel. It would mean that the Christmas wrapping, cards, and trees would not be available any longer. It would mean that the churches that one finds every few blocks would have been converted to museums of atheism and I would have to fear arrest if I muttered “God bless you” when someone sneezed. And I would not have spent the last week at the convention center in San Jose with the youth group from my church who joined with four thousand other Southern Baptist Youth listening to loud rock and roll and rap done by famous and relatively well-paid Christian bands.
What Tutu seems bothered by, and what some Christians seem bothered by, is that there are people who actually dare disagree with them. Or that someone made fun of them. Or that someone said a harsh word. Or that someone argued against their political or religious point of view. Those who are bothered by public criticism of their words need to grow thicker skins and realize that they are not gods giving pronouncements from Mt. Olympus.
To me, such public arguing sounds remarkably like freedom at work. If I hear someone say something that I don’t like or disagree with, I can speak up and tell them they are a bozo. If I don’t like what someone writes, I can write against them. I can create a blog, I can pass out flyers, I can write a book or letters to the editor. I can create a website and shout at the world. And the government will never intervene. If people are speaking in public, I can heckle them. That might be rude, but hey, rudeness is part of life. I think there’s a rather long tradition of heckling in this country.
The story is told of Calvin Coolege that one night as he was sitting at the dinner table, his young son called him a name. Calvin just sat quietly, a thoughtful look on his face. His wife glared at her husband in shock. “Aren’t you going to do something about that?!”
“Well,” said Calvin. “If he’s speaking to me as his father, then I should probably spank him. But if he’s speaking to me as the President of the United States, he’s got a constitutionally protected right to call me anything he wants.” Since it is improbable that the people of Jacksonville are Desmond Tutu’s children, I think they can call him anything they want.
Freedom is a wonderful thing. But I think that some people have forgotten or fail to notice that they are free, and that they are surrounded by a bunch of other people who are free, too, who might freely take issue with what they say or think or do. That’s kind of the nature of freedom. It means everyone is free, not just me.
Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Now the problem with a statement of faith, at least from my Baptist point of view, is that as a Baptist I had always been taught that the only authority for faith and practice was the Bible. One of the pillars of the Reformation was the cry “only Scripture.” And yet here, a doctrinal statement had to be abided by. In practical terms, what this meant of course was that the doctrinal statement was the actual source for authority and that the Bible had been demoted to second place.
Wherever doctrinal statements or creeds rule, the Bible has been subordinated and the Reformation ideal is dead.
The consequence of having that doctrinal statement at that school I taught at so many years ago was that I was constrained from thinking about or studying certain issues for fear that in my studying, I might arrive at conclusions opposed to the doctrinal statement and thus I would jeopardize my employment.
Wherever such statements are required, academic freedom, by nature of the beast, has been compromised. Only where one is free to examine everything, to think about anything, and move to any position that the facts might lead, can one be said to be truly free. Otherwise, there are shackles upon the mind.
I do not like shackles, and I am very thankful not to be employed at that particular school any longer. As the founder of Quartz Hill School of Theology, the statement of faith that appears on our website and in our catalogue is described as what it is: merely a description of what most who teach in our school probably believe at the moment.
Freedom is a good thing. As the daughter of a close friend commented, “God decided that it is more important for us to be free than for us to be good.” Reread the story of Adam and Eve if you think otherwise.
Sunday, January 23, 2005
Most of us know that we don’t get saved by doing good works. We understand that following the Ten Commandments will not get us into heaven. We realize that putting money in the offering box and attending church will not get St. Peter to look the other way so we can sneak through the pearly gates. On that level, most of us understand that being good has nothing to do with our salvation. And yet oddly, such knowledge seems to have so little practical impact on our day to day existence that it almost seems not to matter at all. We compartmentalize the good news to the few seconds when we mouthed the sinner’s prayer, but it has no effect on how we live today. We lock it away into a nice little box, put it up on a shelf, honor it, think fondly of it and memorialize it. But we live our lives as if it never happened and can’t mean anything to what’s going on now, with my bills to pay, and my wayward children, and tendency to pause too long on certain cable channels as I’m flipping toward the playoffs.
This is very peculiar. Especially given the sorts of lives we are given record of in the Bible. We know that no one was ever saved by keeping the law, and we know that our righteousness is in Christ and we know that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, and yet we get completely confused when we read something like the story of Lot in Genesis 19.
As the story opens, we discover that Lot is living in the city of Sodom, where he has risen to a position of some authority. Two of his daughters are still living at home with him. One night, he noticed a couple of strangers had come to town and he invites them to spend the night.
A crowd gathers at his door soon after he has taken them into his home, insisting that Lot send them out so they can have their way with them. Lot refuses to turn over his guests, but he tells the mob that they can have sex with his daughters instead.
The crowd refuses, but the strangers, whom we now realize are angels, intervene and get the crowd to abandon their quest by making them blind. The angels then insist that Lot and his family must leave Sodom so that it can be destroyed. He talks to his sons-in-law, but they just laugh at him. He is very reluctant to leave his city, but the angels eventually grab him and force him, his wife and both daughters out.
After negotiating with the angels about just where they might flee, Lot is granted permission to go to a small town named Zoar, not too far away.
On the way, his wife is turned into a pillar of salt when she looks back, in disobedience to the angels’ warning. Lot is too terrified to stay for long in the city of his choice and so he winds up setting up house with his two daughters in a cave.
The daughters are lonely and decide to get Lot drunk so that they can have sex with him, get pregnant, and preserve the family line. They succeed in their plans and give birth to boys who are simultaneously both his sons and his grandsons.
We read that story and we shake our heads and we think of the contrast between poor Lot and his righteous, upstanding uncle Abraham. And we might not be overly puzzled, but for Peter’s comment on Lot’s life:
And if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)... (2 Peter 2:7-8)
Lot is a righteous man? How? He didn’t want to leave Sodom and Gomorrah, his sons-in-law had no respect for him, he offered his daughters to a mob to be raped, and finally his daughters get him so drunk that he has sex with them and gets them pregnant. How can a man like this be considered righteous? What was Peter thinking?
I’ve seen Christians fall all over themselves trying to make sense of something that shouldn’t be the least bit confusing at all. Most Christians try to explain away his bad behavior. They’ll say he wasn’t so bad, really, and in the context of his culture, maybe giving his daughters to that mob was actually a good thing. And so they wind up sounding like God has a scale and that somehow there must be some hidden good deeds in Lot’s life that will get things to tip in his favor so that then he’ll in fact be the righteous man Peter says he is. With that all too common reaction, I realize that most Christians still think that righteousness means good behavior.
The real answer to the problem of Lot comes from a consideration of the well known passage in Ephesians: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10; one might also consider such passages as Galatians 2:20-3:5, Romans 3:21-28, and Romans 8:1-2). Lot’s righteousness is not in anything he did or didn’t do. No one is righteous on the basis of how they behave. His righteousness was the consequence of the work of Jesus on the cross.
We are saved by grace, not by works. We know this, but we keep on forgetting it and so the life of Lot confuses us when it shouldn’t at all. Our own lives in the same way confuse us, when they shouldn’t. Being good is not the path to salvation. It is not the definition of righteousness. Our righteousness is in Jesus. We should know that. Being good is also not the path to prosperity. We should know this too.
But how many people continue to insist otherwise? Like Job’s friends, they remain of the opinion that good things come to good people, bad things to bad people. They want to think that God rewards the righteous and dumps garbage on the guilty because that would so neatly solve the question of suffering in the world and in their own lives.
It seemed obvious to Job’s friends, since Job was suffering horridly, that surely he was a sinner who needed to repent. And if he took that simple step, then all would be well. Job’s insistence on his innocence infuriated and terrified them. In their minds, Job was obviously hiding his sin. If he wasn’t, if he were really innocent, then the world simply no longer made sense to them.
Remarkably, despite the fact that we are told that Job is blameless, that Job was right in everything he said and that Job’s friends were wrong, many Christians will still try to argue that Job was somehow being “disciplined” or “chastised.” They thus miss the whole point of the story, a point that should be obvious! And what is that point? Our behavior has nothing to do with how much God loves us or blesses us. It is superstitious to think that it does, on a level with thinking that if I rub a rabbit’s foot just so, and hang a horseshoe just right, and avoid black cats that I’ll have good luck instead of bad.
Friday, January 21, 2005
I once receieved a rejection letter from an editor who told me that I obviously have a lust problem and went on about his psychoanalyzing skills in ferreting this sort of thing from the attitudes expressed by my characters. Obviously, Larry Niven’s description would fit this editor well.
And frankly, that expresses a big problem in the Christian fiction market place as a whole. There is an enormous reticence to actually embrace fiction. It is not that Christians don’t read fiction; it is just that most Christians probably don’t read Christian fiction for a very simple reason, that some editors in the Christian publishing world have admitted both one on one as well as in keynote addresses at Christian writer’s conferences: the Christian fiction mostly being published by Christian publishing houses is incredibly bad.
And why is it bad? Very simple: fear of reality. Instead of the characters in Christian books being real flesh and blood people, living real lives, with the real conflicts and problems that real people have, instead, the Christian publishing world seems enamored instead of characters that are “inspirational”. The good guys are all good, lack doubt and struggle and certainly never notice the women around them the way actual men notice the women around them, just as an example. Sorry. If you’re a man and you never entertain inappropriate thoughts about the pretty women you see every day, and never find yourself looking at their legs or cleavage or whatever skin happens to intrigue you, then you’re probably not alive.
Temptation is not sin. It seems to me that a lot of Christians seem to miss that point. They will quote, "if you lust after a woman in your heart, it's the same as if you've slept with her." If their take on that passage is correct, then when it comes to sex, temptation IS sin. And I just don't think that's right. It's an absurdity. Jesus was without sin, we are told, and yet we are also told, he was tempted, just like we are.
And what is temptation? Being enticed to do something we'd really like to do. If you wave fried liver in my face, I'm never going to feel the least temptation to taste it. But if you have a nice pepperoni pizza, I will definitely want a piece.
So what did Jesus mean when he talked about lust in the heart? In context, he's dealing with legalists who were serial adulterers, even though they were technically just divorcing and remarrying. To avoid committing adultery, they were very careful to divorce the woman they had become bored with, and to marry the woman that seemed so much better. Jesus is merely pointing out that they are a bit, well, jerk-like regardless of the legal niceties. Their motives, what was inside of them, was a bit askew, and not exactly consistent with the first two commandmenst (you know, loving God and loving people) and I think that's Jesus' point. Just because you avoid breaking the letter of the law, it doesn't mean that you have avoided breaking the law anyhow. It all has to do with the inner attitude. After all, Jesus pointed out that it's what's inside us that causes sin, not what enters us. Sin is merely a symptom of the fact that we are sinners. But Jesus died to solve that problem. Beating people up because they feel temptation is incredibly wrong-headed I think.
Shoot, if it weren't for the temptation, I don't think marriage would ever happen and the species would die out. Probably not quite what God or Jesus had in mind.
Thursday, January 20, 2005
"I know what a painful feeling it is when you've been working on something forever, and it feels done, and you give your story to someone you hope will validate this and that person tells you it still needs more work. You have to, at this point, question your assessment of this person's character and, if he or she is not a spouse or lifelong friend, decide whether or not you want them in your life at all. Mostly I think an appropriate first reaction is to think that you don't. But in a little while it may strike you as a small miracle that you have someone in your life, whose taste you admire (after all, this person loves you and your work), who will tell you the truth and help you stay on the straight and narrow, or find your way back to it if you are lost.."
Thankfully, I have a very close friend who is able to do this for me. I send her all the stuff I write and let her go over it. She is always good about telling me what is okay, and what needs work. She is always helpful and gives me lots of good ideas and insights. She is honest and thorough in her criticisms and I can count on her to always tell me the truth, not just what I would like to hear. "This sucks and here is why" is much more useful than being told "it's the most wonderful and profound thing I've ever read. My life is forever better because of reading that." Certainly the latter feels good, but the former is what I really need. My friend gives me that and if she ever says the latter, then I have confidence that it's the truth, not flattery. All writers need to have someone like my friend in their lives. But she's my friend. Go find your own.
Monday, January 17, 2005
Unfortunately, most Christians in my experience seem to have forgotten everything they know about reading when they approach the Bible. They do things with it that they'd never imagine doing with anything else they read. Instead of reading it, they approach it like lawyers approach depositions. When I listened to Bill Clinton's deposition several years ago, my first thought was, "I've heard sermons like this." What is the meaning of "is?"
Ugh. God tells us stories and we turn into lawyers. He must just shake his head in wonder.
Sunday, January 16, 2005
Rowling has written fiction. They are stories of good and evil, with good being triumphant. No one in their right minds would take them as how-to manuals or imagine that they describe reality. They are stories, designed to entertain. That's it. Rowling doesn't believe in magic; she believes she was telling stories.
She no more imagines she is describing reality or that magic is real, any more than Jotham in his fable that he relates in Judges 9:7-19, imagined that the various trees and bushes were looking for a king and conversed with one another on the topic. He was telling a story with a moral purpose. There is nothing remotely evil in telling stories of fantasy; it's kind of the nature of stories. They tend toward the fantastical sometimes and that's part of their charm. That's what makes them fun, and fun is okay.
Thursday, January 13, 2005
Sharon was angry.
This is the right way:
Sharon growled, yanked the dishes from the dishwasher, and slapped them down one on top of the other. Then she she kicked the dishwasher closed with one foot, making the plates rattle.
Now, in nonfiction, if one is relating an incident, then the tools of fiction, the showing rather than telling come into play. But if one is doing exposition, explaining something, giving a sermon as it were, then one must explictly tell. Showing isn't enough. One must connect the dots, and do it carefully and clearly. And then you must tell your audience what your point is, not expecting, as with fiction, that they will puzzle out that Sharon is angry.
Wednesday, January 12, 2005
And of course, there's the fact that writing a book seems never to end. I write the book. Then I rewrite. Over and over. I let my friend who reads all my stuff read it. Then I rewrite some more. Then I write a proposal, which consists of a summary of what I wrote and a chapter by chapter outline and the first two chapters. Then I rewrite that and my friend looks it over and I rewrite some more. Finally, it goes to the editor who, even if he or she likes it, will want "some changes" and so the whole process continues. I rewrite, I talk to my friend, I let my friend read what I've written, I change it some more: back and forth, rewrite after rewrite and finally back to the editor. Sometimes it feels like a book is never done. But, that's the nature of writing. Glamorous it isn't. It's just hard work. And most of the time, McDonalds pays better and the work is easier.
Monday, January 10, 2005
Sunday, January 09, 2005
This, despite the fact that the venerable KJV has the word "piss" in it twice (2 Kings 18:27 and Isaiah 36:12) and "pisseth", six times (1 Samuel 25:22, 34; 1 Kings 14:10, 16:11, 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8). Certainly no modern translations would dare do that.
But despite the best efforts of translators to obscure certain unsavoriness, some things just can't be hidden. Check out Ezekiel 23:20:
"There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission waslike that of horses."
Of course, there are other interesting passages. In fact, Ezekiel 16 and 23 quite graphically describe Israel and Judah as prostitutes. Ezekiel's purpose was to shock his listeners, so that they would understand just how hurt God was by their lack of faithfullness to him by their chasing after idols.
Strangely, it would be hard to do anything similar in modern Christian fiction. This strikes me as both hypocritical, and shortsighted. The fear of allowing characters to be real people, to struggle, and to sometimes be unpleasantly vile, makes for very bland work most of the time.
Saturday, January 08, 2005
Oddly, characters in too much of Christian fiction turn out to be black or white, with no grays, and the good characters tend to be wholly good and bland and even the evil characters are either thinly drawn or not so awful. Will we ever see a Hannibal Lechtor in a Christian book? We see such people in the Bible, but the fact that something is done in the Bible seems not to matter for Christian fiction. This blandness and lack of true conflict or real people is so unlike the people in the Bible, who are alive and fully defined. The biblical authors showed us their characters with all their warts and flaws and cringe from nothing. The chances of getting a piece of fiction published by a Christian publisher which shows the life of Lot, for instance, or Jephtha, seem slim. Lot lived in Sodom, offered his daughters to a mob to be raped and later committed incest with them. Jephtha sacrifices his daughter as a burnt offering. In fact, I think most of what happens in the book of Judges would make most Christian publishers uncomfortable. Frankly, too often real life seems to be uncomfortable to a lot of Christians, not just publishers. Too many Christians are afraid to confront others and themselves as they really are and instead behave as Elinor Rigby, the woman in the Beetles song who kept her face in a jar by the side of the door. Apparently she put it on whenever she went outside. A lot of Christians seem to wear masks, both in public and even, sadly, when they look in a mirror.
Friday, January 07, 2005
The sad reality is, that most of the Christian fiction that is published is really, really bad. Why? What is the difference between good fiction and bad fiction?