Category Archives: Wrestling with Worldviews

Everyone is believing a story by faith. Everyone is letting that story shape their life. What’s the better story? Believe that one.

Mortality

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You always listen a little more intently when it’s a man’s last words. Sadly, Hitch didn’t have much to say.

What can be said when you are walking through death’s door convinced there is nothing on the other side? As it turns out, not much. Preparing to die without the anticipation of future hope is very gloomy business indeed.  One of the saddest lines in his book is:

“One finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less”

If all of us just return to dust when our time on earth is over, then, Hitchens observation here, is about as depressing as it can get. He genuinely feels the weight of hopelessness that his worldview brings him.

Death causes you to rethink your beliefs

As Hitch suffers he is forced to confess a truth about grave illness:

“It forces you to examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings”

One such confidant that withers under the scrutiny of Hitch’s suffering is Nietzsche. His famous maxim “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a load of bilge! Hitch’s battle with cancer had only made him weaker, not stronger. Maybe the solid bedrock of Nietzschen thought upon which countless atheist’s have build their systems has a few cracks? Hitchens is honest enough to point out a couple of them.

Christian people are jerks

But Hitchens is not ready to throw down the whole system. He still had plenty of spunk. He is at his best when pointing out the flaws of organized religion and he is very good at it. His criticisms in many cases should not be ignored, people have done terrible things in the name of religion. Particularly saddening at a personal level are all the people of faith, (and he quotes several) who gleefully informed the world that Hitchens esophageal cancer which took away his ability to speak, was a wrathful God’s vindictive justice upon this leading spokesman for the Anti-God point of view. Hitchens rightfully points out that these people are heartless jerks who care more about their ideology than people and of course if God is actually like this, than he is not interested.

Prayer: Not a fan

Even in death, the idea of prayer disgusts him. He mentions one statistic from some non-footnoted study about how prayer makes things worse – and then moves on. I guess I have to give him a pass for his poor scholarship since he was dying when he wrote it, but it is frustrating from a truth standpoint. Does prayer help? Countless legions of people from the beginning of time to this very day would enthusiastically say it does. The weight of all this counter evidence is dismissed in one opinionated stroke, and the matter concluded with Hitchens saying:

“Don’t trouble heaven with your bootless cries!”

Believe the better story

Hitchens above statement reminds me of Monsieur Thénardier’s line in the famous musical Les Miserables

“And the God of Heaven, he don’t interfere, cause he’s dead as the stiffs at my feet, I raise my eyes to the heavens and only the moon, the harvest moon shines down…”

That’s certainly one way to look at life, but why would you? “Because, it’s the truth!” is the loud bombastic response that Hitchen’s championed his whole life. It’s the cold hard reality of our existence, it might be unpalatable but it’s true. Is it? We are all of faith. Hitch believed his story of materialistic naturalism and reason alone seemingly to the bitter end – but we must all acknowledge that it was his faith story. In the Les Miserable classic there was another faith story, different from Monsieur Thénardier, different from Hitchens, it was a better story, It was Jean Val Jean’s story.

Come with me

Where chains will never bind you

All your grief

At last, at last behind you

 

Lord in Heaven

Look down on him in mercy.

 

Forgive me all my trespasses

And take me to your glory.

 

Take my hand

I’ll lead you to salvation

Take my love

For love is everlasting

 

And remember

The truth that once was spoken

To love another person

Is to see the face of God.

 

It’s the beauty of this story that has captured my imagination and my heart.

Eternity: A really bad idea

“With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives… sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.”

Isn’t there a better way of looking at this? Like an eternal family reunion without the weird uncle? Could we embrace a vision of infinite life by thinking in terms of all the joys that make up family life without any of its difficulties? It takes a special person to rain on heaven’s parade.

God is a jerk if he damns people for doubt

Hitchens curses any god who would punish “irreconcilable doubt”. To which I would say, God is not anti-doubt – he is pro-faith. The faithful enter in not because they are doubt free: they enter in because their hope manages ever so slightly to overshadow’s their doubt.

This is a sad story of pain and death with no hope beyond the grave. Interestingly, in the first part of the book, Hitch chews on the idea of Pascal’s Wager for a little bit, but then spits it out as distasteful.  However, towards the end of his book and his life, we see him becoming less and less critical of Pascal’s Wager. In one of his final musings, he says “Atheists ought not to be offering consolation… If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.” — Was he betting on God in the end? Was he throwing his chips in with the better story? Good for him if he did.

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Amazing Grace

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This was one of the few books I’ve read where I was genuinely sad when I turned over the last page. I had met someone special, a friend, a good man, a hero really. I had walked with him through his extraordinary life and I guess I just didn’t want it to end. Who was this guy? His name was William and he changed the world.

The idea of ending slavery was completely out of the question in the 1700’s. Slavery, it was thought, was inextricably intertwined with human civilization. It was the way things were supposed to be. Slavery was economically necessary and morally defensible. Wilberforce managed to destroy an entire way of seeing the world! He vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. Slavery does live on today but for the Western world the idea that slavery is somehow good is completely dead thanks in large part to this great Christian statesman.

The Great Change — William was not always so passionate for a noble cause. Before the “great change” as he called it, William was a man given over to selfish ambition and personal pleasure. He was charming, witty, and popular and he naturally used these personal assets for self advancement. That all changed when he invited the smartest person he knew to accompany him on a long trip to the south of France. Milner was brilliant like Wilberforce, but what Wilberforce didn’t know, and certainly didn’t expect was that Milner was a committed follower of Jesus. “Methodists” as they were called in that era were ridiculed for their stupidity and backwardness, and yet here was Milner every bit the intellectual equal to Wilberforce, but unyielding in his confidence in Jesus. All of Wilberforce’s objections to living faith, were met with stunning counter measures. Eventually this was the fork in the road for our man. Wilberforce became a Christian.  He naturally concluded that he must give up his political career, since he felt it was impossible to be a Christian and a politician at the same time. That assumption was called into question when he had a pivotal conversation with John Newton, the famous slave trader turned pastor. From Newton’s point of view, William was being uniquely positioned by God to change the world. The die was cast, Wilberforce would use his political influence to end the great wickedness of slavery.

It wasn’t pretty – It’s easy for me to think of course this attack against slavery would gain momentum, isn’t it clear and obvious that this was a bad idea?” Wrong! The fight to abolish the slave trade and ultimately emancipate slaves was brutal. William was forced to endure threats, intimidation & character assassination. There were times when his very life was in danger. At one point the opposition was able to make Wilberforces anti-slave trade position unpatriotic. With skillful political savvy they connected Englands arch-nemesis, France, to the anti-slave position. For almost a decade anyone in Britain who stood to abolish slavery had to endure a violent pro-Britain patriotic backlash.  It is impossible not to see a correlation between that and what Donald Trump is doing in our age. The problem of in-equality as a result of race still exists even though slavery doesn’t. NFL players have been strategically placed to call our attention to this problem, but political savvy distracts us from the all important issue and instead makes it about patriotism. I guess I’m reminded that “there is nothing new under the sun”, but I won’t be fooled by it.

The power of media and the public — The abolitionist’s were convinced that if the public could actually see what the slave trade was, they would eventually lose the stomach for it. The media wing of the abolitionist movement was unprecedented. In graphic and discomforting ways they exposed the trade for the evil that it was. The common person in Britain had no idea, what all went into getting them their tea, sugar, and tobacco.  Eventually, the sensory bombardment worked, the general public was convinced. The trade had to go. In upressedented fashion the abolitionist movement mobilized the masses to speak. They captured millions of signatures protesting the trade, had rallies and pushed the common mans message into the halls of power.

Dead orthodoxy and really long titles — Wilberforce, was saddened by the deplorable state of the church of England. The church had left off following Jesus, and had become a stale institution for personal profit and worldly pursuit.  Wilberforce agitated tirelessly to wake the church up. Resurrecting the church was just one of many initiatives he laboured for. He worked tirelessly to help Britains poor, to educate women, to stop Englands pillaging of India, he advocated against cruelty to animals, something unheard of in the 1700’s. He wrote vociferously on all these issues. Basically, any moral issue of the day, he spoke on, wrote on, or created a society to assist in.  One such society he started was for widows and single women.  He aptly named it, the ”Society for Widows & Single Women of Good Character Who Have Seen Better Days” — that’s quite a title!

Put your money where your mouth is — Wilberforce was born into wealth, but he didn’t stay rich. Over the course of his life he gave all his money away to assist in all these great causes. He lived out the last of his days in a small room provided for him by his son.

Clapham, the vital role of community — For many years the Wilberforce family lived in a tight-knit community known as Clapham. Wilberforce and many of his friends simply shared their lives together. Their kids played, while they shared meals and stayed up late dreaming about the world they wanted to create. They weren’t just coworkers in a cause; they were dear friends. Without this relational bond stemming from a shared life, I wonder if they would have had the fortitude to do what they did.

Religious Freedom – Wilberforce was ahead of his time. Protestants and Catholics in the 1700’s were not exactly bosom buddies, even still he advocated religious freedom. No need to fight about religion, let both understandings of Christianity live in peace.

Playful spirit – Wilberforce’s house was full of kids and animals and visitors of all kinds.  Many times he was seen playing with children, or lost in his imaginiation or having a laugh about some oddity of life. He was fun and he enjoyed his life to the glory of God The kid in William never completely left. He was very serious about his life’s work, but the difficultly and struggle of it never forced the twinkle out of his eye, or caused him not to see and be amazed by the beauty of a rainbow.

On to India — is it good to disrupt culture? — Wilbrerforce said “Next to the Slave Trade, India is the foulest blot on the moral character of our country.” For years Britain managed to dominate the sub-continent emptying it of it’s resources, while at the same time, being careful to prevent Christianity from spreading. They were happy to have Indians carry on with institutionalized slavery, and caste abuse. They cared nothing for the female infanticide and the forced burnings of wives on the funeral pyres of their husbands. None of that mattered just so long as the flow of valuables continued. For Wilberforce, a “hands off” point of view on suffering was not possible. Christianity teaches the value of human life, and the East India Company of Britain didn’t want the Indians awakening to their own human rights and the objective standards of justice that Christianity provides. So they threw up the smoke screen that it’s better for the Indian to have his own culture and religion. Wilberforce wouldn’t buy it. Abuse and wrongdoing should be stopped even if it comes nicely formulated and justified in a pre-existing culture and religion. Thanks to Wilberforce’s efforts, missionaries were soon heading to India and the “turn a blind eye” strategy would be pushed aside.

Wilberforce was a man of small stature and for most of his life he was very sickly. He was everything you wouldn’t expect in a super hero, but a super hero he was. My desire is to emulate his life.

A House in the Sky

81WS5WQhg3L.jpgThis is one of those books where you have to stop every few pages, look at the front and back covers, searching for something that says “fiction” as you say to yourself, “This isn’t a true story – is it? No, it can’t be true!” Turns out it is true.

So what happens? A little girl from a fractured home grows up and gets the itch to travel. The story is about all of her adventures, which seem harmless enough at first, until her wanderlust brings her into dangerous places. Much to her family’s disapproval, she is able to spend significant time in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places, barely skirting death on several occasions.

High stakes adventuring is what Amanda wanted, and so it seemed to her that the ultimate prize would be Somalia. What better place was there to risk it all? This war-torn state is a veritable treasure trove of peril and uncertainty!

She talks an ex-boyfriend into going with her and off they go. Things unravel quickly from there. After only 4 days, they are captured and held for ransom for 15 brutal months. During that time, Amanda is starved, beaten, raped repeatedly, tortured, and in every way abused. In the end, a ransom amount is arranged privately with the families of the two captives and a release is arranged. This book is troubling to read, so it would not be for the faint of heart or the squeamish. What did I learn?

  1. Just Business — From the very beginning, Amanda’s captors constantly proved their devotion to Allah through the vigorous keeping of endless rituals. They also exhibited a genuine care for their fellow Muslim brothers, but the trajectory of devotion to God, which should result in care for other humans, never reached Amanda. Why? Amanda was a business project. Her captors were actually apologetic at times, “Just business, Amanda, nothing personal – your family just needs to pay the ransom” ~boot to the head!~ How is it possible to see another human being in this less-than-human way? That question leads me to my second point.
  2. That Which Your Right Hand Possesses — Repeatedly, Amanda’s captors, almost in gentle ways, told her to get accustomed to the treatment she was receiving, especially the rape. What was their justification for such actions? The Koran. In it, it is ok for sexual relationships to happen with both one’s wives and any woman “That your right hand possesses.” “We possess you, Amanda, so there is nothing wrong with what we are doing to you.” Lovely 😦
  3. Nothing to See Here — At one point in the story, Amanda and her partner manage a daring escape. They flee to the one place they figure they will find a sympathetic and compassionate ear. They burst into a mosque full of worshippers, and cry out for help. In broken Somalian, they explain that they have been kidnapped and abused. The elders of the mosque confer with the kidnappers who arrive breathless and angry a few minutes later. After a short conversation they are handed back over to the kidnappers. Only one woman objects, but she is violently kicked to the side. How in God’s name would you not intervene if someone in such a deplorable condition as Amanda barged into your church service pleading for help? It is inconceivable to me.
  4. You’re Still A Woman and A Slave Even If You Convert — As a survival tactic, Amanda converted to Islam. But it did little to improve her situation – she was after all still a woman, and still a slave, Throughout her captivity, she was told repeatedly of her lowly status. As a good Muslim, she would have to make peace with her station in life. It is the will of Allah. The only improvement offered to her was the promise that if she married one of her captors, they would untie her, let her live in an upstairs room with a window, and have lots of babies.
  5. Ritual Is All That Matters — Amanda as a Muslim now needed to make sure she shaved her pubic hair, but not pluck her eyebrow hair. She needed to preform her daily ablutions. It was critical for her to learn the Koran and pray five times a day. Correct pronunciation of Arabic words in her prayers became critical. Her standing as a good Muslim or a bad Muslim depended on it. She must observe Ramadan, and keep her eyes lowered in the presence of men. These are the things that mattered. Not compassion or mercy or justice. Jesus bumped into a similar sort of situation in his day. He was not amused – see Matthew 23.

This is Amanda’s story. It is not a direct attack on the religion of Islam per se, but it’s impossible not to become skeptical of that particular religion after reading this book. Is what Amanda experienced just a perversion of Islam or just the way it is? Is this what Islam becomes if you are serious about upholding its beliefs? To me it seems like the more one devotes one’s life to Islam, the more justifications there are for what happened to Amanda. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.

What about Jesus? For my Muslim friends and indeed for all the world, I say follow him. The more one becomes devoted to Jesus the more the needy are helped, the more equality and value for all humans becomes the norm, the more captives are freed, and the more humanity flourishes. Whatever ones official religion, to follow Jesus is never a mistake. I just finished reading Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, the Christian statesman who in the late 1700’s fought for 40 Years to abolish the slave trade. If ever there was a dramatic counterpoint to this story, it is Amazing Grace. I challenge you to read both books back to back and ask yourself the question, which faith story is the better one to shape your life around.

Redeeming Sex

3639Debra comes out with the vision of her book right away:

This book is about the posture one takes not the position one holds. 

She isn’t interested in writing a policy manual for the Christian position regarding issues of sex, gender, and the gay lifestyle. Her book is really her own personal story and the stories of the many that she loves. Deb was abused early and often, developed same sex attraction, almost as a defence mechanism against predatory men, ended up being part of a communal lifestyle with both men and women, then found Jesus, after a while she stumbled into an ultra conservative seminary to learn about the Bible. It came as a shock for Deb to find out that people at the Seminary might frown on her more “free” perspective on life and sex. Eventually, Deb would graduate from the seminary marry a guy named Allen and they would become the dynamic and influential writer/speaker duo that they are today. If I had to to tell you about her book using twitter my description would be as follows:

  • Sex points you to God
  • Christians have really screwed things up
  • Covenant love is where it’s at
  • Human Sexuality is complex, stop acting like a know it all
  • What’s the Christian position? — Love, Serve, Pray

Sex points you to God 

Deb is convinced that sex is more than a biological function. Her contention is that sex is a deeply spiritual event. It reveals the deeper human longing for eternal connection, for transcendent belonging. As Christopher West says “The sexual confusion so prevalent in our world and in our own hearts is simply the human desire for heaven gone berserk.” We want to belong so badly, but we don’t know how to get there, or how sex plays a role in that. She quotes psychiatrist M. Scott Peck on this saying “Sex is the closest that most people ever come to a genuine spiritual experience.” She goes further saying that  “orgasm is a fleeting experience of transcendence — a way of loosing ourselves.”

“Whatever it is that one is seeking in sex, one thing seems clear — it’s more than just about momentary pleasure, as intoxicating as that can be. It seems that almost all the existential and religious aspects of human life are somehow mysteriously involved.” 

Every aspect of our sexuality: our capacity for relationships, our longing for love, our identity as male and female, all point to something beyond oneself, to the “Eternal Other” I have come to believe that our sexuality is so interlaced with longing for and experience of spirituality that we cannot access one without somehow tapping into the other.”

I’m inclined to agree, but so what? What can this deeper meaning about sex actually accomplish? She jokes, but with seriousness, that spiritual people ought to be some of the sexiest people on the planet. This observation, serves to tee up her next major point which is:

Christians have really screwed things up

And have been for quite some time. The early church fathers were certainly not rejoicing in the mystical union of sex as a pointer to God. Origen thought his sexuality would interfere with his spirituality so he castrated himself.  Ambrose encouraged married priests “stop having sex with your wives” so they could focus on loving God. Jerome was utterly convinced that Mary the mother of Jesus could not have had a sex life, it would be dirt on her perfect reputation. Augustine, built an entire theology against the use of private parts by suggesting that original sin was passed on by having sex. The more sex, the more sin. Therefore sex should suppressed and avoided as much as possible.

Deb laments how fear has strangled a healthy sexuality out of so many Christians. Fear makes people create artificial boundaries, all the rules to make sure “it” doesn’t happen, actually back fires creating a forbidden fruit syndrome. Fear creates an over focus on sex. She quotes a popular Christian leader who recently wrote a tract entitled “12 questions to ask before watching Game of Thrones” All twelve of the questions had to do with the sexual content on the show, and none of the warnings were directed toward the greed, jealousy, deception, gratuitous violence, arrogance, or pride so prevalent.  Deb makes the incredibly poignant observation

“We worry about what people are doing in bed much more than making sure everybody has a bed to begin with… Boundaries are certainly important for life and sexuality, and the Bible does give us guidelines, but read through the lens of fear they can become the very prison form which we ourselves need liberating.”

No argument from me. Her longings for a fear free version of sexuality really resinated.

“What would our marriages, our friendships, our churches, and our communities look like if men and women were not afraid of connecting with each other in deep ways? What if men and women could really know each other without sex getting in the way? What if we did not have to be afraid of our own and others’ bodies that we cannot trust ourselves with them. I guess we would look a whole lot more like Jesus! In Jesus, the fully integrated human, the embodiment of spirituality and sexuality, we find our model. A man whose life was characterized by right loving, who navigated well both genital and social aspects of his sexuality.” 

Even still I’m afraid, I know my own heart, but I share her longing.

Covenant love is where it’s at

She doesn’t want to push anything on the reader directly, no dogmatic statements coming from this book, but covenant love certainly gets at least a gentle nudge in the readers direction. She describes it as “Abiding commitment to each other’s best interests, to the ongoing search for truth, vulnerability, the risk of getting hurt and the accountability of our community.” and contrasts it to its more intoxicating cousin, romantic love. She really isn’t a fan of our cultures efforts to send us forever hunting for the perfect romance, it’s an illusion, it’s a drug that wear’s off after a while. Our culture is intensionally misleading with it as well, because it assumes that once you’ve had “intense emotional connections” you’ve “fallen in love” and sex is the cultural expectation for those who experience these connections. This is neither right nor healthy. “Romantic love might get you down the aisle, but only the higher, more sacrificial love will carry you on till “death do us part” — Whatever human sexuality should look like, covenant love should be at its centre.

Human Sexuality is complex, stop acting like a know it all

In a way, she is calling her readers to chill out a bit, to stop talking and start listening. To realize that the world of black and white doesn’t mesh well with the complexities of human sexuality.

Regarding gender: She distinguishes the word from sex. Sex meaning the anatomical parts of the body, and gender being the non-physical aspects of being male or female that exist in a cultural context. Gender is also more internal, she says, it’s how we feel about ourselves. Gender “Is how we emotionally navigate the body we were born into.” It’s unhelpful for Christians to hang on to culturally solidified stereotypes of what it means to be a boy or a girl. She urges us to consider gender as more of a dynamic and fluid concept. The truth is expressions of masculinity and femininity change over time, and from culture to culture and that’s ok. She also doesn’t like the concept of “opposite sex” preferring rather that we understand ourselves as “neighbouring sex” since there is so much we share in common. To the Christian’s in her readership she says “The fruit of the Spirit doesn’t come in pink and blue” 

She is the first to say male and female are different, those terms aren’t meaningless, or unnecessary, She even quips “It seems men have a penchant for looking at people’s private parts, women for looking into people’s private lives.” but on the whole she hates generalizations and calls on us to be more broad when considering gender.

Regarding categorizing people:  Is this person gay, is this person not? Is this person trans is this person not? Her message on our never ending desire to categorize and label people is clear “Stop it!”

Deb says, “It’s ok to have intense same sex attraction and not have to view one-self as gay.”  She notes, “the gap between gay and straight is not often as clear for women as it is for men. Perhaps this accounts for the rise in women who identify as bi-sexual.” Feelings and attractions ebb and flow, people are different, people change, we all make choices, life happens.

“Simple binary categories of homosexual and heterosexual are not really good enough. They don’t do the job, everyone has a story and not everyone fits neatly into those categories. Given that everyone’e experience of sexuality is not only multifaceted but unique to their story, it’s almost impossible to place a generic label on a whole group of people and think you’ve defined them… Anthropologist Jenell Williams Paris says ‘try to define gay or straight and the words begin to slip through our fingers’.”

Hirsh says, “No one is simply born gay. No surprises here. Lady Gaga is wrong.” She goes on to confirm the complexity of human sexuality by quoting the American Psychological Association:

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles. 

Her point is clear, whatever you think, there is an excellent chance you don’t know it all, what is true is that all human beings want to belong and to be accepted. Christians must be more than accommodating when it comes to that. Sadly we haven’t been.

Whats the Christian position? — Love, Serve, Pray. This book is a worthy read, it’s provocative and poignant. If you want a book that won’t give you all the answers your looking for, but will at least make you think, this is it. Also Deb is a delight to read, she uses humour well, and her stories are fantastic. I think I will finish this review by sharing some good quotes from her book.

  • The only thing wrong with being an atheist is that there’s nobody to talk to during an orgasm. 🙂
  • Beneath the search for genital sexuality is a longing to be loved. One seeks it where one can.
  • I accepted Jesus into my heart but how do I get him into my penis?
  • None of us are “healed from our sexuality” none of us are flawless. Most heterosexuals are actually polygamous in their orientation. We are all sexually broken
  • Avoid stereotypes, think well of others. Love the sinner, hate your own sin
  • Our business is to love, pray and serve and let God sort out the rest.
  • Be a listener not a teller
  • I have never been one for developing specific church policies on homosexuality. If we have a policy on homosexuality, why wouldn’t we also develop policies about every other ethical issue? For instance, what is our policy about greed? Jesus seems pretty concerned about this, yet I don’t know a single church who has a formal policy on it. The problem with writing policies on a particular issue is that you make that issue more important than the others
  • Acceptance precedes repentance
  • In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love.

Man’s Search for Meaning

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Victor Frankl was no stranger to pain suffering and death, even before the war as a successful neuroscientist and psychologist in Vienna, his practice led him to spend the majority of his time with suicide patients. In his research among these troubled souls, he found that 100% of them could not answer the question “Why am I here?” The absence of any ultimate meaning in his patients lives was the common thread in their suicidal perspective. Further, he discovered that alcoholism, drug abuse and most forms of neurotic behaviour were connected to the absence of meaning in a persons life.

As his research broadened he was startled to find that as much as 78% of German/Austrian young people in the mid 1930’s would rather have a clear transcendent meaning to their life than just making lots of money, or living for themselves. Sadly, Hitler capitalized on this “existential vacuum”  as Frankl liked to called it. According to Hitler there was a transcendent reason to live and die. He was the Saviour to follow and the Third Reich was the heaven to build, and brutality was the necessary equipment needed for the project. This was better than the boredom and despair that a meaningless existence was bringing to the youth of the nation of Germany.

The Nazi’s took over Vienna. Victor was Jewish, so that was a problem. First he faced the indignity of being terminated from his post at the university and hospital. Second, he and his wife suffered through the forced abortion of their pre-born child. Third, his grief was multiplied when he witnessed the arrest and deportation of all of his extended family members, including his elderly parents, his bereaved wife, and his brother. Finally, his own arrest and internment at Auschwitz, the most notorious of the extermination camps came. By the time it was all over he was the lone survivor among all his family and friends who went to the camps.

His discoveries at the extermination camps agreed with his earlier findings on the importance of transcendent meaning being critical to the health of a persons life.  The prisoners that survived clung to some meaning, some reason to carry on — those who were not able to grasp any kind of meaning to the madness of their existence simply gave up and died off.

Of course even those who had a greater purpose to their life died with ridiculous efficiency as well. Greater purpose did not mean you would survive, in many cases living by transcendent scruples just got you killed quicker, but somehow even the deaths of these meaning filled creatures were different. Frankl observed:

“They marched upright into the gas chamber with the Lords prayer or kaddish on their lips, offering whatever help they could to others.”

Their grasp of a “super meaning” as Frankl liked to call it gave them a confidence that there was meaning in suffering and meaning even in death itself. This confidence, allowed them to cope, to be at peace even as their lives were taken from them in the most despicable of ways.

The whole point of the camp was to dehumanize, to turn people into animals, it worked for many, but those who could hang onto meaning retained their humanity.

When Frankl was liberated it took him just 9 days to write the book for which he is most famous. “Mans Search for Meaning” has sold 10’s of millions of copies world wide, and has been translated into some 40 different languages.  Is Frankl on to something when he says we need a “super meaning” beyond ourselves to truly flourish a human beings?

Yes.

He gives several suggestions for how we as humans might be able to find greater meaning to our lives:

Finding meaning through a life’s work — Frankl stayed purposed during his time in camp, by secretly re-writing on tiny scraps of paper the manuscript for his book that the Nazi’s destroyed with his entry into camp.

Finding meaning through deeds —  Frankl turned down an opportunity (albeit a risky one) to escape in order stay with some of the sick in the camp that he had been charged to care for, it was the right deed to do.

Meaning through love — For Frankl the ultimate purpose for existence is love. In his own case, as he suffered, there were moments in the midst of it all, where his mind was transported to Tilly his wife. She spoke to him in his distress, and he dreamed of better days with her. He carried on, for her.

This is why things were even more difficult for him when he finally got out and discovered that she and everyone else he loved were dead.

“The best have not returned (also, my best friend [Hubert Gsur] was beheaded) and they have left me alone. In the camp, we believed that we had reached the lowest point—and then, when we returned, we saw that nothing has survived, that that which had kept us standing has been destroyed, that at the same time as we were becoming human again it was possible to fall deeper, into an even more boundless suffering. There remains perhaps nothing more to do than cry a little and browse a little through the Psalms.”

Frankl says ultimate meaning makes you human (animals don’t probe the depths of their own suffering) we do. Somehow that meaning becomes fullest when it’s connected to true love. The best reason for living, for suffering, for overcoming, and even for dying is love.

As a follower of Jesus this book, though entirely secular in nature, made me appreciate with renewed clarity the grand story of Jesus that I have come to love. The Christian story fits perfectly with Frankl’s findings. Love forms in us our greatest meaning which makes us truly human. To love, however, has it’s risks, for when that love dies or is somehow extinguished, we become susceptible to great despair. However, if our love is attached to a person who even death cannot vanquish, how then can despair conquer us? in a word, it cannot!

Guns, Germs & Steel

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Jarod Diamond is an evolutionary Biologist who spent some 30 years in and out of the jungles of Papua New Guinea. A question asked by an indigenous tribal person sparked a decades long research project that culminated in the writing of this book. The Tribesman asked Diamond why the white people came to his Island with the big ships and amazing inventions, and not the other way around.

Why did some people groups remain locked in the stone age while others advanced into the modern era, ultimately using their superior technology to dominate, displace and in many cases all but exterminate less developed peoples?

It’s not biology — The gap in advancement between Eurasian peoples and the primitive cultures they conquered should not not be explained by means of slower evolutionary development, or anything that might construe biological inferiority. He cited all sorts of scientific data to push the reader away from such superior race conclusions, he also used many personal anecdotes from his time with tribal peoples. Diamond is absolutely convinced that “primitive” peoples minds are not less evolved than his own, in fact, he argues, to the contrary. The real question to ask, according to Diamond, is how intellectually inferior Europeans managed to invent so much stuff! Time and time again in the jungle it was the natives intellect, know how, and savvy that kept him alive. But even still, why hadn’t they figured out how to move beyond the use of stone tools and hunting and gathering as their way of life?

Location, Location, Location — Diamond is convinced that Eurasian peoples, were predisposed for success because of their environment. Diamond realizes that many a judgmental finger will be raised at this point, cursing him for his  “environmental determinism”. He is quick to point out that geography is only the primary cause. Many other less deterministic causes played roles as well, but those roles must be considered secondary.

Domesticate or die — To advance, a society must be able to domesticate seeds and learn to mass produce food. Having regular crops allow a society to settle down into permanent places. Sedentary life-styles with reliable food supplies mean more population, more population increases power and the potential of invention. The domestication of animals also provides a huge leap forward in productivity and sustainability, all creating more space and time for innovation. The cold hard facts, according to Diamond, is that South and North America, Australia, and Africa simply did not have the same number of domesticable seeds available to them. In some cases, like Australia, they didn’t have any domesticable seeds at all! It also turns out that some animals can be domesticated and some can’t. The above mentioned continents just had bad luck with animals. The Eurasian horse can be tamed, the zebra cannot. The Asian bovine, from which all modern day cattle come from is domesticable, the African water buffalo and the North American bison are not. All large possibly domesticable animals went extinct in Australia giving the early inhabitant’s only the kangaroo to work with! The llama in South America was domesticated but it use pales in comparison to that of the horse. Diamond imagines how history would have been rewritten if African tribes had managed to domesticate the rhino and use it with mounted shock troops to wreak havoc all over Europe, but, alas, a rhino doesn’t take kindly to being mounted and will not be mastered.

Germs are nasty! — The possibility of sickness through germs increased as populations grew and began to cluster into cities in Europe and Asia. Natural trade routes established themselves on Eastern and Western lines and germs were free to travel. The germs that caused black death and countless other plagues ravaged Europe and Asia in the middle ages, but the old adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” certainly proved true. The unprepared immune systems of largely isolated populations of North & South America and Australia were vanquished by the germs inflicted upon them by European explorers. In some cases entire populations of indigenous people were exterminated.

Belief does impact behaviour — Indeed, one of the greatest misfortunes of the wide acceptance of Darwinian evolution is the assumption made by industrialized countries that they must be farther along in the evolutionary process and thus superior. Just like Cro-Magnon exterminated, the Neanderthal, so to must those of the modern age, destroy those of the stone age. In the last 250 years countless millions were subjugated to unspeakable atrocities on the slippery footing of these evolutionary assumptions. Diamond halts to speak of right or wrong because as an evolutionary biologist it is really difficult to speak of morality with any sort of authority. For him things must remain a matter of fact. But the facts, according to Diamonds research, prove there is no connection between intelligence and industrialization and thus any sort of racial or developmental superiority should be done away with. The harsh conclusions of inferiority levelled against less developed people have happily fallen out of favour in the main stream, however, Diamond laments that even so, these prejudices remain deep in the psyche of many moderns.

As a Christian person this is one of the reasons I am not overly thrilled to embrace wholesale the origin theories of evolution. Whenever, “lesser humans” factor into our story, there is precedent to destroy them. This of course, become more difficult, if one has the perspective that all humans are created in the image of God and thus intrinsically valuable.

The sad story of Christianity’s conquest — Unfortunately, not all who claimed Christianity as their world view developed a perspective that valued human life regardless of the state in which it was discovered. Such was the case with the conquest of the Incan empire by Pizzaro.

The story is remarkable: With brilliant trickery, superior weapons, and incredible bluster for being so totally outnumbered Pizarro and 168 soldiers defeated over 30,000 Incan warriors in one day. On that day of battle they managed to capture the Incan king and kill thousands of his soldiers without sustaining a single fatality of their own.

Several of the first hand accounts of the events remain. In them we discover a spirit of gratitude, there is  thanks to God for his grace and mercy in allowing such a miraculous conquest. They sincerely believed a great victory for Jesus had been won that day. Why? Because now the infidel hordes would have a chance to learn about the love of Jesus. They would be prevented from carrying out their terrible human sacrifices, and they would learn their place, for no infidel should be in a position of authority over a Christian. What happened to Atahualpa the Incan King? After using him to extort vast amounts of gold from his people. They condemned him for conspiring against Spanish rule and sentenced him to death. However, if he converted, he would avoid being burned at the stake and receive the lesser sentence of strangulation. He converted, was baptized, and then sent to his reward in heaven. Somehow, there had to have been a better way to bring the “good news” of Jesus to South America 😦

The curse of unity — European city states, constantly fought each other, constantly competed. This forced them to innovate, to develop, to incorporate new ideas. China on the other hand was unified and authoritarian. The emperors word was law. One or two bad idea’s by a Chinese emperor could prove to have enormous negative consequences such was the case with shipbuilding and iron smelting, China was the world leader in these two areas long before the Europeans were. But the emperor decreed that nothing good could come from the outside, so he had all of China’s ocean going ships burned and all designs destroyed. As far as iron development was concerned, the emperor, didn’t like the burgeoning middle class that was resulting from iron innovation, so he decreed all iron developments to cease and so it was. In Japan a similar situation happened. Thanks to early Portuguese exploration, Japan acquired guns. Immediately Japan saw the potential, and quickly developed advanced weapon technology, that is until the ruling class Samurai, offended that commoners could wield such deadly power, outlawed guns. An so it was.

Of course we eat humans — Diamond is so matter of fact in his writing style. In Papua New Guinea we discover cannibalism. This is easily explained. There is a lack of protein because there are no large mammals so naturally humans would eat each other. So there you have it. And so it is, with the natural world. We do what we must to survive, some people win and some people lose. Gun’s germs and steel came to Europeans and Asians because they were able to domesticate seeds and animals quicker. Asians & Middle Easterners fell behind for secondary reasons, so Europeans took over the world.

In my heart I long for more than just naturalistic explanations for what is and I find myself wanting to believe in something that transcends the natural world and gives ultimate hope. Why do I feel that way? I won’t find that answer from Diamond, but even still his explanation for why New Guineans didn’t colonize Europe, is very convincing.

 Dinner with a Perfect Stranger: An Invitation Worth Considering

A workaholic, and sub par husband and father get’s an invitation to dinner.  The invitation is signed by Jesus. It must be some kind of a joke, but it intrigues Nick enough to go to the high end restaurant in search of dinner with Jesus. Sure enough Jesus is there.

I settled in for what I thought would be a humorous, intriguing and provocitive conversation. The whole idea seemed so creative to me. However, by the end of the book I was not sure if Nick had sat down with Jesus or Josh McDowell. Essentially, after that first chapter had set everything up so nicely, the booked devolved into an overly simple and straightforward apologetics textbook. Nothing wrong with that of course, I have loads of those kinds of books on my shelf, but I was hoping for something more, like a real story where I could be drawn into the characters lives, where genuine wrestling for faith could happen through a compelling story line.

Instead Jesus effortlessly slices and dices through all of Nicks objections to God and Christianity. In almost bullet point form Jesus solves all of Nicks struggles with faith. By the end of the night Nick has learned from Jesus that universalism is a bad idea, Buddhism and Islam are bogus, Christianity is not about keeping the rules, hell is a good idea, suffering has a purpose, and that Scripture is reliable.  The bullet point argumentation is only broken up by brief descriptions of the food and drink they are consuming as they chat.

It’s an ok book, if you want to learn basic ways of arguing apologetics with someone who might be easily convinced. Since that’s not what I was looking for, the book was more a disappointment than anything.

The Shack

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I already know that the theology police are not super happy, their citation pads are out and they are furiously scribbling down infractions. What has them so upset? The Shack is now a movie. It’s not just the theology police either, I imagine the theatrical police have their issues as well. It’s always difficult for actors to depict convincingly for the screen spiritual struggle. I will leave the varying theological and theatrical policing blogs to do their necessary work. As for me, I only want to comment on how I believe the movie managed to capture powerfully the big ideas of what it means to be a Christian person connected to God in the midst of grief.

A Christian person — To be a Christian, is to get to a point where you agree with God that he is good and to be trusted. Jesus, God in the flesh, is the vital link in getting us to that place. We are told, that when you’ve seen Jesus you’ve seen God. You must walk with Jesus to avoid sinking into the black abyss of guilt, shame and bitterness. In this movie Christianity is portrayed simply as being friends with Jesus, trusting him. It’s not about religion, or keeping a list of rules, or paying for past sins. Both Mack and his older daughter blamed themselves for the death of Missy. The older daughter was fooling around in the canoe. In her mind it was her irresponsibility cost Missy’s life. For Mack he was sure that this unspeakable tragedy was the result of his own past sins. Both their lives became stuck in the quicksand of guilt and shame. Because of Jesus’ love and sacrifice they both came to believe that the time for blame and guilt was over. Bad stuff happens, our hearts break, we suffer, great sadness occurs, but we don’t get stuck, we trust that through it all God will do what is good and right and true. That’s what it means to be a Christian.

Connected to God — God is depicted as a trinity so that we can see that the Christian God is fundamentally relational. Love is possible only in relationship and the Father, Son and Spirit have that in bucket loads. God’s invites us into this love. In the movie God reminds Mack regularly that he is especially fond of him and all humans. That was a tough one for Mack to accept, and it’s a tough one for all humans to accept. We all must suffer and we all must die. Reconciling human suffering with God’s goodness is not a new conundrum, and this movie offers nothing new in resolving that tension, except in this movie God gets to answer directly the charges levelled against him. I found God’s explanations in the context of this movie powerful and helpful.  All three persons of the trinity, are shown to feel our pain. That’s the reason all three have nail prints.  God changes his appearance in order to help us understand that he knows what we need when we need it. God is portrayed as all knowing, but yet keenly interested in our lives. And though God loves all his children, he is not disinterested in justice either. In the end we are told that God will make right judgements upon his wayward children, however, we are also told in compelling fashion, that this job of ultimate justice is better left with God. The perpetrator is never caught, justice never served in the movie. Even still Papa wants Mack to “remove his hand from the throat” of this terrible predator. Forgiveness is the only way forward, but by forgiving Mack is also entrusting himself to the judge of all the earth who will judge rightly.

In the midst of Grief — When we suffer, we have to realize that we don’t have the complete perspective. We can only see through the “knothole of our own grief.” The garden in the movie is an absolute mess from Mack’s perspective, but when the shot pans out and you see the garden from the air, mess turns into beauty. God is not the ultimate source of evil, human free will prevents that conclusion, however, God is actively working in and through evil to bring about a greater good, good that we can’t always see, but must learn to trust is there.

I think if every person walked away from this movie, having taken into their hearts the above conclusions about Christianity, God, and grief. The world would be an infinitely better place.

Lamb — The Gospel according to Biff Christ’s childhood Pal

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Christopher Moore in his afterword reminds his readers  “The book you’ve just read is a story. I made it up…I am not trying to present history as it might really have been, I’m simply telling stories…This story is not and never was meant to challenge anyone’s faith; however, if one’s faith can be shaken by stories in a humorous novel, one may have a bit more praying to do.”

The book is definitely irreverent, which is why Moore feels compelled to make the above statements. I wonder if Moore will ever decide to write a book about “Hank the childhood pal of Mohammed” — not likely, the life insurance policy would be to expensive. The religion of grace is always easier to pick on.

What is the book actually about? Biff takes Jesus on an epic trip of self discovery for about 20 years through Afghanistan, China, and India. On this trip there are Yeti’s, Monks, lots of wisdom learned, evil spirits vanquished, daring escapes, people rescued, discipline learned, miracles practiced with varying degrees of success, and lots and lots of sex, not for Jesus though, his father in heaven had told him “no sex” and he was going to obey. Biff had no such prohibitions coming down from heaven however and so was free to indulge. The benefit to Jesus with having such a promiscuous friend is that he was able to learn all about sex through Biffs detailed recounting’s but yet still remain blissfully pure as the son of God. — Lovely.  I’m not sure if there was a single chapter that was free from this tireless crusade to educate the son of God on all things sexual. Eventually Biff and Jesus make their way back to Judah just in time for Jesus to gather up a bunch of misfit disciples, bring in the kingdom of God, rekindle old romances with Mary Magdalene and die on the cross. Biff is not at all for Jesus’ death, and tries to prevent it, with all manner of cunning and deception. He fails, Jesus dies. In a fit of sorrow and rage, Biff tracks down Judas, kills him, then commits suicide. This inglorious end is the reason why the disciples of Jesus wrote Biff out of the official story recounted in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Is sin real? Moore never excuses or justifies the actions of Biff. Biff is impulsive, careless, foolish, proud, and selfish but Jesus loves him anyway, but not with an “It’s all good” kind of false love. Jesus, with masterful patience genuinely speaks into Biff’s life with authority. There is a right and a wrong, and Biff finds himself regularly on the side of wrong, but Jesus’ ever faithful arm is always there gently pulling him back, but yet giving Biff the freedom to make his own choices.

Who is Jesus? Jesus’ humanity comes out strongly in this book, Jesus is confused at times, unsure of himself, unsuccessful, and wanting to hear from God more than he actually does, however the author without hesitation communicates Jesus to the reader as God in the flesh. This was one point that I was surprised at, through all of the twist’s and turns of this story there is never a doubt, Jesus is God enrobed in flesh here on earth to save the world through his own death and resurrection. This beautiful high ground that has actually changed the world is present in this book! One just has to wade through a lot of swamp land to get there.

Who is man? Biff loves Jesus with all his heart, his fierce loyalty is commendable but his constant use of unwholesome traits to protect and shield Jesus from the dangers of this world, not so much.  Biff is decidedly human, all of us can relate to him, but we are not left feeling comfortable with that. Sure, Biff’s escapades create lots of laughs, and at times leaves the reader shaking his head saying “really?” But in the end, It’s obvious that Jesus’ life not Biffs is the life we should long for.

Do all paths lead to God? Not hardly. Moore does not present a universalist understanding of the worlds religions. I thought for sure as Jesus traveled into the Buddhist and Hindu worlds I would be told that the Jesus way that was being developed would essentially be a repackaged version of what already existed. The tired old mantra that “all religions are the same” would inevitably come forth. It didn’t. Instead Moore has Jesus carving a new way forward in contrast to the eastern religions. Moore’s Jesus is radically anti caste. He is at his most aggressive in resisting the scourge upon humanity that has Brahmans on one side and untouchable’s on the other.  He is very critical of karma and the justification of doing nothing to help your fellow human as a result of it. Jesus is gracious but firm, meditation is over rated, and the perceived wisdom of nebulous guru’s is fraught with hypocrisy and pretension.

The book is entertaining, and it contains some food for thought. Moore is certainly a clever writer, but sadly he resorts to the familiar “must use sex and sensation to sell” motif. I wish Moore would use his talents to produce a substantive work of literature.

Pray, but also be ready to Punch?

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But we prayed to our God and guarded the city day and night to protect ourselves. (New 4:9)
“Let’s just pray about it.” was not quite enough for Nehemiah. They were going to pray about the danger, but also arm themselves and be ready to protect themselves should the enemy show up. Their prayers to God were backed up with immediate human action. They believed that God would protect them, but they also believed that they themselves would be the means through which God would do the protecting!
“God we need your protection, but I have my sword here straped to my side, so that you can answer my prayer through it’s blade.”
What enemies do Christian people have in the western world today, and what possibly could be the application for a text like this? Regarding enemies I would have to say it would mostly be hostile world views and wicked philosophies of life, as far a actual people as enemies, well, there are many tempter’s out there both computer generated and real and smooth talking charlatans abound.
So whats the application? It’s certainly good to pray about those dangers but it’s also just as important to take drastic action against them. What exactly that looks like I’m not even sure. My faith tradition is against violence of any kind. So punching out a smooth talking charlatan is probably not the right course of action, (though, I must confess sometimes the thought is appealing) but it would seem according to this story that in some cases we will need to push back aggressively against real enemies. Prayer is part of the pushback but so to is action.
Does this contradict Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies and pray for them? Maybe. But in some cases I wonder if the best way you can show love for someone is to resist them, to fight against them and their beliefs. Was it not the best thing for white people when Martin Luther King resisted them? The entrapments of racism and superiority had blinded white people for centuries. It was a soul eating cancer. Kings active resistance against it not only liberated black people but it also freed many whites from their blindness.
Christian people will always need to be praying but sometimes they will also need to stand up, raise their metaphorical sword and say “No more!”