First a Fox and then a Lion

Sin first tempts—and then damns! It is first a fox—and then a lion! Sin does to a man—as Jael did to Sisera. First she brought the milk and butter to Sisera—then she pounded the tent peg through his head! Judges 5:26. Sin first brings us pleasures which delight and charm the senses—and then comes with its hammer and nail! Sin does to the sinner, as Absalom did to Amnon. When his heart was merry with wine—then he killed him, 2 Samuel 13:28. Sin’s last act is always tragic!

Thomas Watson, The Mischief of Sin

Sweet, then bitter; alluring, then destroying; enticing, then striking.

Looking for the Obvious Things that aren’t so Obvious: Smuggling Wheelbarrows

In The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village, Mark Federman tells an interesting little parable. Allow me to paraphrase At some obscure bordertown, for years, a man crosses the border almost daily with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. Each day border security digs through the dirt looking for contraband; and each day it’s the same story – it’s just dirt. He’s filling up a hole. Years later, a retired border patrolman runs into the wheelbarrow man in a social setting. He’s just got to know the real story behind the dirt. “There’s no way you were just bringing dirt across the border; what were you really doing?”

The reply: “I was smuggling wheelbarrows, of course.” ______________________________________

The point of the story is that the obvious isn’t always so obvious. I’ve heard someone say that the Father Brown stories of G.K. Chesterton point out much the same thing. Father Brown is always asking the most basic question that no one else seems to be asking. This is how he solves crimes when others can’t. A Christian critique of our culture, whether it regards social-moral issues or media ecology, is going to have to come to grips with the fact that we are often missing the obvious. We need to train ourselves to look for the obvious things that aren’t so obvious. Often we’re so busy rifling through the dirt that we miss the wheelbarrow. Federman’s solution, based on the work of Marshall McLuhan, is as follows:

The challenge in achieving the awareness to notice the formerly unnoticed – what we call achieving ‘integral awareness’ of our total environment – is to create an appropriate ‘anti-environment.’

The fish in the water doesn’t notice the water. He has to get out of the water. The church should provide the greatest of all anti-environments. Yet, as we engulf ourselves in worldliness, and manage simply to mirror the world, what we are really doing is crippling our ability see the obvious all around us. We cannot critique the music of the world because we are too busy humming along.

52 Novels (8): Choke

My goal is to read 52 novels in 2015. I’ve made it to 8…

-Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

Choke is not my favorite Palahniuk book (so far that would be Fight Club), but the plot is spectacular. The story is a prime example of what Palahniuk calls an ‘emotional scam.’ An emotional scam is basically what a person convinces himself he needs in order to be fulfilled or affirmed or secure. The main character here is a choker. He feigns choking in restaurants so that other diners will perform the Heimlich on him.

This serves several purposes: First, he will experience the embrace of arms wrapped around him. He will enjoy the moment of having others surround him with unwavering attention. He will be told time and time again, ‘Everything’s going to be alright. You’re fine. Don’t worry.’

Second, he is setting up a situation in which dozens of people can become heroes. For the rest of their lives, they will be able to brag about the moment when they saved another human being’s life. He is like a messiah who is saving people by allowing them to save him.

Third, they will inevitably take an interest in his hard luck life. They will send him birthday cards on the anniversary of his salvation; the anniversary of his new birth. And there will be money in those cards.

The problem with all of this is that it is an emotional scam that is bound to be found out eventually. What will happen when two of his saviors meet each other? And what will happen when he really does begin to believe that he is a legitimate sort of messiah? That’s the story in a nutshell. It’s one of the better concepts for a story I think I’ve ever come across.

I’m left asking about my own emotional scam.

Leave Me Alone

Anyone who has ever protected a little boy from being bullied at school, or a little girl from some childish persecution at a party, or any natural person from any minor nuisance, knows that the being thus badgered tends to cry out, in a simple but singular English idiom, “Let me alone!” It is seldom that the child of nature breaks into the cry, “Let me enjoy the fraternal solidarity of a more socially organised group-life.” It is rare even for the protest to leap to the lips in the form, “Let me run around with some crowd that has got dough enough to hit the high spots.” Not one of these positive modern ideals presents itself to that untutored mind; but only the ideal of being “let alone.” It is rather interesting that so spontaneous, instinctive, almost animal an ejaculation contains the word alone.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows

I just deleted the over 1,000 words I wrote about this quote. I don’t regret it. It’s difficult.

The fact of the matter is that we are made in the image of the triune God. God is one. God is three. We need to be alone. We need to be in community. Christianity, and only Christianity as far as I know, can truly account for the fact that we want to be alone and not be alone at one and the same time.

The fact is that, in our sinful condition, we have to encourage people to be both alone and not alone. We have to encourage the introvert to get out and the extravert to get in, realizing that both solitude and company are worthwhile. Neither is superior to the other. Both are vital for spiritual and psychological health.

The monk needs to get out of his cloister regularly. The social butterfly needs to lock himself up in a room from time to time. No hermits; no social complexes; no schizoids. No dependent personality disorders either.

The age is the issue. In some times and cultures, we must emphasize one over the other. But what about such a time as this? Hence the difficulty. We live in an age where we are never alone although we are often…well…alone. We need real community and real solitude. We lack both.

Mysticism is not the answer. Neither is a community group. We need balance…

The GOODS, the True, and the Lovely

Trade is all very well in its way, but Trade has been put in the place of Truth. Trade, which is in its nature a secondary or dependent thing, has been treated as a primary and independent thing; as an absolute. The moderns, mad upon mere multiplication, have even made a plural out of what is eternally singular, in the sense of single. They have taken what all ancient philosophers called the Good, and translated it as the Goods…

When God looked on created things and saw that they were good, it meant that they were good in themselves and as they stood; but by the modern mercantile idea, God would only have looked at them and seen that they were The Goods.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows

As I am transitioning from pharmacy life into the field of education, I see this more and more. We really are at a point at which we think education is simply about learning a trade in order to ‘contribute’ to society. We are more concerned about the goods than the good.

It is an absolute must in this environment that the church, and individual Christians, strive to be different. We must not look at creation and culture and simply see ‘goods.’

This is one of the reasons why I focus on technology to the extent that I do. Technology can kill the existential. I am not saying that it always does. I am saying that it is capable of doing so. It can rob the beauty of ‘being.’ It can turn a beautiful sunrise into a mere photo op. It can turn friends into icons on a screen. It can turn wonderful things into internet equity – that is, into goods.

It’s not just technology though. We can turn anything into goods. Spouses, kids, art, whatever. As we brush back against this, the idea is to see the innate good of things without seeing them as things to use as a means of gaining equity. Enjoy the world and life without putting it on our socially constructed eBays.

Anyway, it’s a great quote from Chesterton.

52 Novels (7): The Stranger, by Albert Camus

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to seven.

-Albert Camus, The Stranger

Meursault, the main character of this story, is indifferent to life for the most part. He doesn’t really care if he’s married or single. He’s not overly invested in a career. He is simply surviving. He places his mother in a nursing home. She dies. He never sheds a tear. He goes on about his business. It’s just life. He’s not in the business of analyzing himself. He probably couldn’t if he tried. He is what he is.

Then, due to strange circumstances, he finds himself in the position to kill someone who had threatened the life of a friend. He shoots him in cold blood. His arrest and trial commences. He has no explanation for why he shot the man.

Camus paints the picture of a trial in which those who would prosecute Meursault are constantly imposing arbitrary motives and demeanor to him. He’s the type of man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. He must be evil. He is sentenced to death – a martyr of indifference.

Camus, by all accounts, is displaying his idea of the absurd. People don’t necessarily know why they do what they do. Perhaps they are trying to construct arbitrary meaning to their lives by doing so. In reality, for Camus, there is no rationality; there is no meaning. When someone acknowledges this, and lives accordingly, society imposes its own meaning upon their lives. The ‘stranger’ is one who lives life in accordance with reality, which is absurdity and meaninglessness, and finds himself a foreigner upon whom society must thrust its artificial constructs.

The story is a page-turner to be sure; more so than The Fall. Camus’ ideas are interesting. Though I believe firmly that his overall idea is ultimately wrong, I see truth in it. It is wrong ‘under heaven,’ but absolutely right ‘under the sun.’

“When the devil finds a person sleeping, he enters. But when Christ finds him sleeping…”

Sin brings one low in desertion. This is a deep abyss indeed. Psalm 88:6, “You have laid me in the lowest pit.” Desertion is a short hell. Song of Solomon 5:6, “My beloved has withdrawn himself and was gone.” Christ knocked—but the spouse was loath to rise off her bed of sloth and open to Him immediately. When the devil finds a person sleeping—he enters. But when Christ finds him sleeping—He is gone. And if this Sun of righteousness withdraws His golden beams from the soul, darkness follows.

-Thomas Watson, The Mischief of Sin

The Puritans (like Thomas Watson) and their ilk were not shy of bringing up passages from Song of Solomon such as the one quoted above and applying them to the Christian life. Octavius Winslow gives us another example:

I sleep, but my heart waketh.’ Here was the existence of the Divine life in the soul, and yet that life was on the decline. She knew that she had fallen into a careless and slumbering state, that the work of grace in her soul was decaying, that the spirit of slumber had come over her; but the awful feature was, she was content to be so. She heard her Beloved knock: but, so enamoured was she with her state of drowsiness, she gave no heed to it – she opened not to him…A believer may fall into a drowsy sate of soul, not so profound as to be entirely lost to the voice of his Beloved speaking by conscience, by the word, and by providences: and yet so far may his grace have decayed, so cold may his love have grown, and so hardening may have been this declension, he shall be content that this should be his state (Personal Declension and the Revival of Religion in the Soul, pp. 21-22).

By the way, I couldn’t recommend Winslow’s book more highly. It is one of my favorites.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was fond of saying that the fact that the Holy Spirit is likened to a dove points to his gentleness and propensity to be grieved and quenched. When he is grieved he withdraws. That is not to say that he withdraws in such a way as to remove himself wholly from the believer’s life. Rather, it is to say that he exercises less influence and offers less consolation and aid.

The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. And Christ says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). In the Context of Revelation 3, this was an offer/promise to believers.

The spiritual sleeper, the one who hesitates to answer the door of Christ’s calling, leaves himself vulnerable to Satan. That is Watson’s point. Jesus will not force himself on you. Satan is another story. So get up and answer the door.

I say all of this as a Calvinist of course. I am not saying that God’s effectual call can ever be resisted. It cannot. The point is that the believer who becomes a spiritual sluggard is asking for trouble.

Let’s say you’re married. Your wife is hinting that she needs some time with you. She has her ways of doing this. You should have learned them over the years. Maybe you should have read the Love Languages book. If you are not sensitive to her overtures and subtle pleadings, then your relationship is not going to flourish.

And so, be sensitive to Christ’s knockings. Don’t let sin and sloth put you in such a frame that you are blinded and vulnerable to Satan.

Lust, Fertility, and Freedom

Chesterton is dropping bombs.

1) Modern humanity shows itself less human than its pagan ancestors by exalting lust while disparaging fertility:

It has been left to the last Christians, or rather to the first Christians fully committed to blaspheming and denying Christianity, to invent a new kind of worship of Sex, which is not even a worship of Life. It has been left to the very latest Modernists to proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility. The new Paganism literally merits the reproach of Swinburne, when mourning for the old Paganism: “and rears not the bountiful token and spreads not the fatherly feast.” The new priests abolish the fatherhood and keep the feast-to themselves. They are worse than Swinburne’s Pagans. The priests of Priapus and Cotytto go into the kingdom of heaven before them.

2) Our hatred of fertility comes from a failed notion of freedom, which is actually a form of bondage:

Perhaps the nearest to a description of it is to say this: that my contempt boils over into bad behaviour when I hear the common suggestion that a birth is avoided because people want to be “free” to go to the cinema or buy a gramophone or a loud-speaker. What makes me want to walk over such people like doormats is that they use the word “free.” By every act of that sort they chain themselves to the most servile and mechanical system yet tolerated by men. The cinema is a machine for unrolling certain regular patterns called pictures; expressing the most vulgar millionaires’ notion of the taste of the most vulgar millions. The gramophone is a machine for recording such tunes as certain shops and other organisations choose to sell. The wireless is better; but even that is marked by the modern mark of all three; the impotence of the receptive party. The amateur cannot challenge the actor; the householder will find it vain to go and shout into the gramophone; the mob cannot pelt the modern speaker, especially when he is a loud-speaker. It is all a central mechanism giving out to men exactly what their masters think they should have. Now a child is the very sign and sacrament of personal freedom. He is a fresh free will added to the wills of the world; he is something that his parents have freely chosen to produce and which they freely agree to protect. They can feel that any amusement he gives (which is often considerable) really comes from him and from them, and from nobody else. He has been born without the intervention of any master or lord. He is a creation and a contribution; he is their own creative contribution to creation. He is also a much more beautiful, wonderful, amusing and astonishing thing than any of the stale stories or jingling jazz tunes turned out by the machines. When men no longer feel that he is so, they have lost the appreciation of primary things, and therefore all sense of proportion about the world. People who prefer the mechanical pleasures, to such a miracle, are jaded and enslaved. They are preferring the very dregs of life to the first fountains of life. They are preferring the last, crooked, indirect, borrowed, repeated and exhausted things of our dying Capitalist civilisation, to the reality which is the only rejuvenation of all civilisation. It is they who are hugging the chains of their old slavery; it is the child who is ready for the new world.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows

So then, we have progressed, right? We know what people once worshiped Ishtar, the goddess of fertility. How laughable. We’ll cut down the idol of fertility. Pay no attention to the fact that we will exalt Lust to that primary position.

Give us freedom. Babies are like so many balls and chains. Forget the fact that it is a ball and chain that makes us not want children to begin with. We’ll replace the living and breathing kind with the shiny pixelated kind; with the career ladder kind; with the go on extra vacations kind – with the kind that doesn’t breathe. Maybe we can buy a new Prius. Freedom!

On Killing Adjectives and Thought Verbs

After listening to one of my sermons, a good friend pointed me to an article by Chuck Palahniuk on Thought Verbs (hence my current binging on Palahniuk’s books). The application to my own preaching was clear.

For example, Palahniuk writes,

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

Don’t tell your reader:  “Lisa hated Tom.”

Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.  Present each piece of evidence.  For example:

“During role call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout: ‘Butt Wipe,” just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”

Another example:

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

And it should include:  Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them.  Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

All this reminded me of something I had read from C.S. Lewis regarding adjectives. Lewis writes,

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.” (Letters to Children, p. 64)

The application is simple for the writer and the preacher. Stop simply telling and start showing.

In a college literature class I got into a (friendly) kerfuffle with a professor over Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. He said it was graphic to the point of being unhelpful. I said Edwards was doing precisely what Lewis and Palahniuk are talking about. That was a great part of the effectiveness of Edwards’ preaching. He was relentlessly imaginative and descriptive. The two go hand in hand after all. Palahniuk gives examples for the writer, let me share a few for the preacher.

Instead of saying, ‘God is sovereign,’ say something like, ‘all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”

Instead of saying, as I’ve heard so many preachers say, ‘The correct response is faith,’ say, ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.’

I heard a preacher dealing with Exodus say, ‘You cannot be a Christian and live like an Egyptian.’ Wouldn’t it be better to show us what an Egyptian looks like rather than simply making the assertion? Thomas Watson described them this way: ‘The Egyptians were not a warlike but a womanish people, imbecilic and weak, yet these were too hard for Israel and made a spoil of her.’ That says a lot more about what we are not to be.

One of my great problems as a preacher and a writer is that I tend to unpack the things that don’t need unpacking while failing to unpack the things that actually need it. If you have similar issues, perhaps it’s time to work on killing thought-verbs and adjectives.