The End of the Pleasure Bar

To be all meat and raw nerve is to exist outside of time and – momentarily – outside of narrative. The crackhead who’s been pushing the Pleasure button for sixty hours straight, the salesman who’s eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner while glued to a video-poker terminal, the recreational eater who is halfway through a half gallon of chocolate ice cream, the grad student who’s been hunched over his internet portal, pants down, since 8 o’clock last night, and the gay clubber who’s spending a long weekend doing cocktails of Viagra and crystal meth will all report to you ( if you can manage to get their attention) that nothing besides the brain and its stimulants has any reality. To the person who’s compulsively self-stimulating, both the big narratives of Salvation and Transcendence and the tiny life-storylets of “I hate my neighbor” or “It might be nice to visit Spain sometime” are equally illusory and irrelevant. This deep nihilism of the body is obviously a worry to the crackhead’s three young children, to the salesman’s employer, to the ice-cream eater’s husband, to the grad student’s girlfriend, and to the clubber’s virologist. But the person whose very identity is threatened by such abject materialism is the fiction writer, whose life and business is to believe in narrative…

For Dostoyevsky – as for such latter-day literary heirs of his as Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, Irvine Welsh, and Michel Houellebecq – the impossibility of pressing the Pleasure bar forever, the inevitable breaking of some bleak and remorse-filled dawn, is the flaw in nihilism through which humane narrative can slip and reassert itself. The end of the binge is the beginning of the story.

– Jonathan Franzen, The End of the Binge, from Father Away, pp. 279-282

Humanity doesn’t shine through until we realize we can’t hit the pleasure bar forever.

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Should Christians Read and Quote Non-Christians?

John Calvin on Paul’s reference to a Cretan author in Titus 1:12:

12 One of themselves, a prophet of their own
I have no doubt that he who is here spoken of is Epimenides, who was a native of Crete; for, when the Apostle says that this author was “one of themselves,” and was “a prophet of their own,” he undoubtedly means that he belonged to the nation of the Cretans. Why he calls him a Prophet–is doubtful. Some think that the reason is, that the book from which Paul borrowed this passage bears the title Περὶ Χρησμῶν “concerning oracles.” Others are of opinion that Paul speaks ironically, by saying that they have such a Prophet — a Prophet worthy of a nation which refuses to listen to the servants of God. But as poets are sometimes called by the Greeks ( προφὢται) “prophets,” and as the Latin authors call them Vates , I consider it to denote simply a teacher. The reason why they were so called appears to have been, that they were always reckoned to be ( γένος θεῖον καὶ ἐνθουσιαστικόν)a divine race and moved by divine inspiration.” Thus also Adimantus, in the Second Book of Plato’s treatise Περὶ Πολιτείας after having called the poets υἵους Θεῶν “sons of the gods,” adds, that they also became their prophets. For this reason I think that Paul accommodates his style to the ordinary practice. Nor is it of any importance to inquire on what occasion Epimenides calls his countrymen liars, namely, because they boast of having the sepulcher of Jupiter; but seeing that the poet takes it from an ancient and well-known report, the Apostle quotes it as a proverbial saying. (228)

From this passage we may infer that those persons are superstitious, who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and, therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose? But on this subject the reader may consult Basil’s discourse (229) πρὸς τοὺς νέους, ὅπως ἂν ἐξ ἑλλ κ.τ.λ

Read the whole thing HERE. I came across this quote in an article by the Calvinist International a while back.

Calvin’s answer (to ‘Should we read and quote non-Christians’) is obviously ‘Yes.’

This is interesting to me for a number of reasons:

1) I like reading non-Christians and quote them regularly. It’s nice when Calvin has your back. (I decided to post this today because I am going to meet one of my own favorite ‘heathen’ authors today at a book reading).

2) It acknowledges common grace in non-Christian authors, which implicitly endorses the reading of non-Christian authors as a source of learning (rather than simply reading with a view toward critique).

3) Calvin explicitly says superstition is the only thing that keeps us from reading such.

4) Paul calls the Cretan a “prophet.” Calvin has no great explanation for this. But if you take G.K. Chesterton’s idea that a prophet is essentially someone who sees the world (under the sun) as it actually is, then there should be no quibbles about some non-Christians having a quasi-prophetic perception of the world. Chesterton put it this way:

…If we see what is the real trend of humanity, we shall feel it most probable that he was stoned for saying that the grass was green and that the birds sang in spring; for the mission of all the prophets from the beginning has not been so much the pointing out of heavens or hells as primarily the pointing out of the earth.

Religion has had to provide that longest and strangest telescope – the telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt…

So then, a worldly prophet is someone who sees the world, particularly the age, with insight, and therefore can accurately describe the state of the fallen world. We are called to learn from such.

This doesn’t bode well for those who would tell us we should only read books from ‘trusted sources’ that will surely never lead us astray. Holding such a position, Calvin says above, is from nothing other than superstition.

Anxiety from Lack of Stimulation

We are wired to crave the temporary satisfaction from writing e-mails, crafting tweets, returning calls, downloading music, playing games, checking out websites, sending text messages, and taking photos of our food. They are the hooks that enrapture us. They are the casino slot machines that keep us moving from one machine to the next, ultimately resulting in our anxiety when we are left to face the world unstimulated.

– Matt Knisely, Framing Faith, p. 13

I relate to this line of thought, especially lately. It is odd that having nothing to do can cause anxiety, but it happens. Boredom should be the least stressful thing in the world, but when you’re bombarded with constant light, constant bells and whistles, it’s hard to decompress. Can you face the world when you’re not stimulated?

Relational Junk Food

But our society has begun to treat our relational needs much the same way we’ve come to treat our physical needs. When we’re hungry, rather than take the time to cook a well-balanced, filling meal, we rush to grab something out of the freezer that we can quickly nuke and then eat while watching TV or finishing up some work. And when we’re relationally hungry, so often rather than sitting down with our children or spouse to hear about their day or setting up a dinner date with a good friend, we open Facebook or Twitter and peruse through the recent posts of the day, stopping to click ‘like’ or shoot off some quick replies. Or we look to see if a picture we posted on Instagram earlier that day has been commented on much – and if it was, that temporarily fills us…until we close our computer and crawl into bed with the same dissatisfied, empty feeling that we went to bed with the day before…

-Matt Knisely, Framing Faith, p. 12

I like the analogy of social media as the relational equivalent of a frozen dinner thrown in the microwave.

Living with a Reference Point

Sometimes the briefest moments capture us, force us to take them in, and demand that we live the rest of our lives in reference to them. What did my mother mean? Part of me knew then, and still knows now, that she was afraid for me. If somehow she could convince me not to be afraid, we could rally around the truism she had grown up with: there was nothing to fear but fear itself. My mother didn’t know how to conquer what I was afraid of, nor could she even begin to tell me how to do it for myself… As I made my way downstairs to my room, I resolved never to cry again.

-Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face, pp. 78-79

This may be the most famous quote from the book. Lucy’s mother told her not to cry. It affected her for the rest of her life.You have to know something of her life story for that to really have its full impact. The book gives you a sense of it, but there’s more beyond that.

I have used this quote three or four times in sermons already since reading it. This past Lord’s Day, I was preaching on Ecclesiastes 7:21-22, which begins with the injunction, “Do not take to heart all the things that people say…” Lucy took her mother’s words to heart. They captured her and demanded that she lived the rest of her life in reference to them.

Be careful what you take to heart. Be careful what words and moments you choose to live your life in reference to.

Let me also say that true empathy isn’t telling others not to cry; it is crying with them. This is part of what makes the gospel of Christ so wonderful: He doesn’t tell us not to cry. He cries with us. He doesn’t tell us not to cry. He promises to wipe away our tears.

Empathy Produced Through the Suffering of Another

Knowing that my father had his own burdens, his own failings, allowed me to continue through what would otherwise have been unbearable…

Perhaps it was something in her voice that day, maybe it was the way everything shone and vibrated with the heat, but for the first time in a long time I lifted my eyes from the still empty basin and looked at her. Her own eyes were filling with water, tears that would never fall but hovered there, only inches from my own.

Suddenly my perception of the world shifted. I wasn’t the only person in the world who suffered…My sense of space and self lengthened and transformed, extended itself out the door and down the corridor, while at the same time staying present with me, with my mother, who, to my profound discovery, was suffering not just because of, but also for, me.

-Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face, pp. 85-86

She had suffered. She had seen others suffer. Yet somehow she still didn’t feel empathy. It took her seeing someone suffer for her before she could feel empathy for others.

He Smoked Cigars and Drank Alcoholic Beverages

I was browsing through the church library Sunday morning and my daughter wandered in wanting to know what I was looking for. I was looking for biographies. I started pointing out some of the books I had already read, when I came across Arnold Dallimore’s biography of Charles Spurgeon. I remembered only one particular thing about that biography and I opened it up to the appropriate section and read it to my daughter. I got a few chuckles out of it, as I had when I originally read it.

Dallimore wrote approximately 178 pages of hagiography before coming to the point of levying some criticisms against Spurgeon. It’s spectacular:

This picture of Spurgeon as a man of unusual holiness is entirely true. Accordingly the statement we must now make will to many seem inconsistent. Nevertheless, it also is true, and we must make it. It is that Spurgeon both smoked cigars and drank alcoholic beverages.

When his smoking began is not known, but in Spurgeon’s time the practice was believed to be beneficial to one’s health. Robert Hall, the famous preacher of the St. Andrew’s Street Baptist Church, Cambridge, had been ordered by his physician to become a smoker, and since Spurgeon lived at Cambridge and attended that church in his teens, he was undoubtedly familiar with this event. Moreover, there were no qualms whatsoever about the practice in the minds of many ministers in the Church of England and the Church of Scotland and in the churches of France and Holland.

Of course, Spurgeon made not the slightest attempt to hide his practice. One press reporter described him as he drove to the Tabernacle each morning, and his account closed with the words ‘enjoying his morning cigar.’ While out on a jaunt with his students one morning, when several of them had lighted pipes or cigars Spurgeon said, ‘Aren’t you ashamed to be smoking so early!’ And they immediately put out their fire. Then he produced a cigar and lit it, and both he and they laughed at his little joke, but his point was that he was in no way ashamed of the practice. It must be emphasized he saw nothing wrong in his smoking and that he did it openly.

But he received a sudden shock.

In 1874, Dr. George F. Pentecost, a Baptist pastor from America, visited the Tabernacle, and Spurgeon had him sit on the platform for the evening service. Spurgeon preached strongly and plainly upon the necessity of giving up sin, in order to success in prayer, and he spoke against the seemingly unimportant little habits many Christians practice that keep them from true fellowship with God.

After concluding his sermon he asked Dr. Pentecost to speak, suggesting especially that he apply the principle he himself had declared.

It is probable Dr. Pentecost did not know that Spurgeon smoked. At any rate, he applied Spurgeon’s principle by telling of his own experience in giving up cigars. He said, ‘One thing I liked exceedingly – the best cigar that could be bought,’ yet he felt the habit was wrong in the life of a Christian and he strove to overcome it. The habit, however, proved so strong that he found himself enslaved, till after much struggling he took his cigar box before the Lord, cried desperately for help, and was given a complete victory. He told, with much praise to God, how he had been enabled to defeat the habit. Throughout his words ran the idea that smoking was not only an enslaving habit, but that the Christian must look on it as sin.

We must assume that if ever in his lifetime Spurgeon was embarrassed it was now! He arose and stated:

‘Well, dear friends, you know that some men can do to the glory of God what to other men would be a sin. And, not withstanding what brother Pentecost has said, I intend to smoke a good cigar to the glory of God before I go to bed tonight.

‘If anybody can show me in the Bible the command, “Thou shalt not smoke,” I am ready to keep it, but I haven’t found it yet. I find Ten Commandments, and it is as much as I can do to keep them; and I have no desire to make them eleven or twelve. The fact is, I have been speaking to you about real sin, and not about listening to mere quibbles and scruples…”Whatsoever is not of faith is sin,” and that is the real point of what my brother Pentecost has been saying. Why, a man may think it is a sin to have his boots blacked. Well then, let him give it up and have them whitewashed. I wish to say I am not ashamed of anything whatever that I do, and I don’t feel that smoking makes me ashamed, and therefore I mean to smoke to the glory of God.’

During a considerable portion of his life Spurgeon also used alcoholic drinks as a beverage.

In his day pure drinking water was difficult to obtain, and in order to avoid contamination most people used beer and ale at their meals. This had been human custom since time immemorial, and there can be little doubt that Spurgeon had been introduced to it as a boy in the homes of his grandfather and his father and that he had grown up accustomed to the practice. In turn, he had not long been in London when we find him using such drinks as beer, wine, and brandy, though in very moderate amounts. And this practice, like that of smoking, he did not in any way attempt to deny or hide.

In these two practices we see that Spurgeon was very human – a man of his times. Moreover, he was not alone in the indulgence. For instance, though John Wesley totally opposed the drinking of tea, hence the term ‘tee-totaler,’ he was something of an authority on the taste of ale. Charles Wesley also indulged, and the picture seems rather incongruous when we see the grand old Methodist warrior during the last years of his life listing his expenditures for drinks for the guests attending his son’s musical concerts. Whitefield’s practice was similar; we find him writing, ‘Give my thanks to that friendly brewer for the keg of rum he sent us.’

I reported these matters regarding Spurgeon with much reluctance. They seemed sadly regrettable in the life of so righteous a man, yet in the name of either Christian honesty or scholarly accuracy they could not be omitted.

-Arnold Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography (Banner of Truth, 1985), pp. 179-183

Some Forgotten Name

Five percent. I felt obliged to say something, but no one was there, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to say anyway. Placing my hand on my neck, feeling the pulse there, I stood for some minutes on the verge of moving or speaking or sitting or something. Then the impulse passed, and I was on the other side of it, feeling as if I’d forgotten something, some name or object or emotion I’d meant to take note of but had carelessly allowed to slip by.

-Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face, p. 68

Lucy Grealy describes her response to finding out that the survival rate for her form of cancer was only 5%. Who was it she needed to talk to, and what name had she forgotten?