What dys?

A couple of writers I admire clued me in to the joys of dystopian literature,

…a genre of fictional writing used to explore social and political structures in ‘a dark, nightmare world.’ The term dystopia is defined as a society characterized by poverty, squalor or oppression and the theme is most commonly used in science fiction and speculative fiction genres.

They’ve also turned me on to the ability of some writers to use a dystopian setting to identify and even celebrate the light, whether secular or spiritual, that animates human beings to shine against the darkness.

Two recommended books that I found profitable:

 

station eleven

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel.  In this one, an out of control super flu wipes out loads of people all over the world.  The author makes the horror palpable not with the gross outs of the big screen, but with vivid everyday terrors – phone signals fading out, familiar places empty, an arrived airliner sitting inert at the end of a runway.

In the midst of it we meet an ersatz theater troupe wandering the upper Midwest.  Through them we encounter not only the frights of a dystopian world but the dignity of humanity enduring and seeking expression.

 

when the english fallWHEN THE ENGLISH FALL by David Williams.  When a – A what? A manifestation of divine wrath?  A solar flare? An all too human secret weapon unleashed? –  wipes out most power equipment and electricity, dystopian chaos sets in for “The English,” that is, those who are not the Amish protagonists of this novel.

But the chaos spreads out from the frantic urban jungles, and the agrarian Amish are not immune.

This novel searches the struggle of people with profoundly gentle faith and values to exist in a world gone mad (and getting madder by the moment.)

Neither novel gives easy answers to the struggles of its characters.  Fearful vulnerability and glimmering hope remain in contention at the end of both works.

But neither book is dreary on the one hand or happy-clappy on the other.  Neither is preachy with assertions or answers, and both are full of surprises, both terrifying twists and soul stirring responses.

What made both most powerful to me was their plausibility.  Much dystopian fiction verges into sci-fi, and so is frightening but much like a roller coaster ride.  You know it’s been designed to scare you and you simply get off at the end.  The Mad Max movies come to mind.  Other works are ideological tracts verging into paranoia – despite its creative flourishes I’d have to lump The Handmaid’s Tale in that category.

But Station Eleven and When the English Fall are a cut above.  They portray social destruction that could come to pass, at least here and there if not worldwide.  They leave questions open for the reader to search, not assigning tendentious blame to this or that group for the world’s ills, while searching for the good in struggling humanity.

The “dys” is real, but it faces push back, however small and fragile that might seem.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.  (Isaiah 42:1-4)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  (John 1:5)

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Rollin’ like a liar

OK, OK, I hate to cause controversy but here goes.

There’s this song on the Christian radio, which I think was from a movie soundtrack, called God’s Not Dead.

Now, there’s a recurring verse in it that says… well, if I Google it and go to lyric sites, it claims to say, He’s [God’s] living on the inside, roaring like a lion.

BUT, that’s NOT what the guy is singing. He’s saying,

HE’S LIVING ON THE INSIDE, ROLLIN’ LIKE A LIAR.

I swear to you, that’s what he’s saying. I know I know I know what the lyric pages say. But,

I’ve turned the radio up, and I’ve turned it down.

I’ve faced the speakers, turned my back to the speakers, faced the sunrise and the sunset.

I’ve listened while praying with my mind, and listened while praying in the Spirit.

And that dude is singing about how God is ROLLIN’ LIKE A LIAR.

Now, I assume this is some hipster phrase, probably appropriated from an ethnic community by skinny jeans wearing White evangelical millennials.

Why won’t you own it, and, more than that, why won’t you tell old, broken down men like me what it means so we can have cred when preaching?

I KNOW what you’re saying. So give up the meaning.

Lend me some sugar, I AM your neighbor!

 

Dan Brown Can’t Cite Me to Disprove God — Despite Dan Brown We Need To Continue to Seek To Understand God

A scientist (a professor at MIT, no less) shows the emptiness of the popular “science and reason eliminates God” crowd, who don’t seem to deal much with serious science or reason in their approach.

Peace and Freedom

The novelist relies on my research, but my literary doppelgänger makes bad arguments.

PHOTO: ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES

I recently learned that I play a role in Dan Brown’s new novel, “Origin.” Mr. Brown writes that Jeremy England, an MIT physics professor, “was currently the toast of Boston academia, having caused a global stir” with his work on biophysics. The description is flattering, but Mr. Brown errs when he gets to the meaning of my research. One of his characters explains that my literary doppelgänger may have “identified the underlying physical principle driving the origin and evolution of life.” If the fictional Jeremy England’s theory is right, the suggestion goes, it would be an earth-shattering disproof of every other story of creation. All religions might even become obsolete.

It would be easy to criticize my fictional self’s theories based on Mr. Brown’s brief description…

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The 5 Things Your Church MUST Do

Ha ha, made you look.

Ever notice how social media has multiplied experts in “church”? And how those experts spin endless lists, usually of fives or tens, telling us what the church MUST do in order to be… what?  Usually, it’s to preserve its buildings, budgets and by-laws or find its justification in the eyes of the culturally favored.

In the face of that tsunami of wisdom, my morning my readings found higher ground in 1 Corinthians 15, which is the New Testament’s most elaborate teaching on the resurrection of the dead.  You know, mysterious background creedal stuff having nothing to do with the 5 or 10 things your church MUST do.

To start the chapter, the Apostle Paul shares what might be part of an early hymn or germ of a creed,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,  and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.  (verses 3-8)

“First importance” is not rules, causes or programs.  It’s not a demographic that MUST be reached or retained. It’s not institutional churchy stuff or politics. The death, resurrection and new life of Jesus in his people is the core “agenda.”

His death was “for our sins” and, as the chapter spells out, and his resurrection from death is a reality in which his people will share.

There is a new existence on the way, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power (v. 24). A church busy currying favor and justifying its existence via those “rules, authorities and powers” will go down with them.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again is the summary of first things in one of the Communion prayers.

The Apostle says, so we preach and so you believed (v.11).  

No Savior no saves

A Facebook friend posted,

This would be a great time for someone close to Harvey Weinstein to share the gospel with him.

Some will flame up, and probably from all kinds of hot spots.  For some, sexual harassment will be a kind of unforgivable sin and the idea of hearing about mercy in Jesus will be pious treacle.

Others will call the Christian notion of forgiveness through Jesus too easy, and insist that Mr. Weinstein “balance the scales” by giving gazillions to virtue signaling causes.

Some will take the cynical tack – He just did what everybody does in that vile business.  Repentance is meaningless because… well, it isn’t necessary when you accept the idea that everybody is trashy so we don’t need to change.  Or something like that.

I think that my friend’s post is deceptively deep.  Because he is announcing that we need saving and that only the Savior can accomplish it.

Think about Mr. Weinstein’s behavior and maybe your own.  We all set in motion ripples of evil that keep going out in the world.  We have no metrics for how many people are impacted when we abuse another person.  If you have two minutes of life experience, you know that wounded people go out and wound others, who wound others, who wound others.

If a lover dumps you, you go out and look for any easy mark to use and discard to restore your ego.  Or you put up walls and deny affection to those who do love and need you later, when you pretend that things are “normal” again.

How do we “make restitution” or atone on our own?  Sure, we can seek out those we recognize that we hurt and apologize or, in the case of some offenses, make material restitution.  And that’s good and right.  But by the time we get to that our victims have probably worked out some of their hurt on others.  We have no way to catch up with it all.

And just how does one atone for Mr. Weinstein’s particular behaviors?  How do you “ungrope” someone?  How do you remove the image after you unzip and expose yourself to unwilling eyes, minds and hearts?

The answer is, You don’t.  You can’t.  Because even your most sincere apology can’t undo all the damage.

If it is some kind of moral balancing act, we are all headed for a fall.  Our rebellion against God is such that we traipse through life inflicting all kinds of hurt, most trivial, some significant, all enough to send ripples of evil through the world.

Because when we are hurting, we go out and hurt others.

And so the gospel says that God was willing to be hurt to save us.  The perfectly innocent victim suffered the greatest cosmic injustice and indignity on behalf of all of us, who justly deserve wrath – not only from our human victims but from the Creator whose order we deface with our evil antics.  We can’t clean up the mess, but we can be made clean in the midst of it.

We need saving, and we can’t save ourselves.  No Savior, no saves.

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.  (Romans 5:8-9)

El Greco Christ Healing the Blind
Jesus Healing the Blind, El Greco, c. 1570.  Notice that many in the crowd are unimpressed.

Put the Fire Out

An excellent reflection by a Christian sitting miserably in church. Our arid seasons might be gifts from God rather than personal flaws – after all, Jesus didn’t blunder into the desert. He was taken there by the Holy Spirit.

BeautyBeyondBones

I have a confession: one that I’m really not proud of.

But tonight at church, and really for the last couple weeks, I honestly have just felt…nothing.

It’s like I’ve been spiritually numb.

But tonight was different. I was actually getting angry.

I was sitting in the pew, and just inexplicably fuming, being critical of every little thing: the priest seemed arrogant. The pace was too slow. I was literally shooting daggers with my eyes at the elderly woman leading the songs. (A capella, I might add.) Who is this monster I’ve allowed in my thoughts and heart?!

But I was just checked out. And the more I thought about it, the worse it got.

I’m going to be honest: growing up, I had a few episodes of… the silent treatment.

I’m not proud to admit that passive aggressive low blow, but I have been known to give my…

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More field, less fence

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.  (Matthew 21:43-46, part of the Gospel heard from the Revised Common Lectionary on October 8, 2017)

Jesus angers the chief priests and the wider religious movement known as Pharisees.  Their emphasis was the strict application of laws governing every aspect of life.  They were so zealous for this approach that they created what they called “a fence around the law,” that is, make more and more rules to prevent people from even getting close to the rule you don’t want them to break.

In contemporary Israel, this found expression in ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing rocks at cars driven on the sabbath.  It wasn’t that driving the car was forbidden work  – it was that the car might get a flat tire and tempt you to fix it, or tempt you to tempt a tow truck driver to come and fix it.  (Still not sure how gathering and throwing rocks didn’t count as work).

The problem with this approach, according to Jesus, is that makes it harder and harder for sinners to experience and respond to the mercy that God wants to show.  The legal system builds fence upon fence to keep sinners away, treating them as disposable rather than souls of such great value that God would suffer to save them.

Jesus warns that the kingdom of heaven will not be achieved by rigorous laws and systems built by human beings.  He says that the kingdom will be given (that is, by God, the only one who can create the kingdom) to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.  Jesus calls for the fruit of the field more than for a fence to contain it.  What does that mean?

First, it means repentance.  In Matthew 3:8, it is recorded that John the Baptist prepared people for the coming kingdom with the warning to Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

Repentance is to turn from one way of life into a new way.  Christianity calls people to turn from current priorities to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).  This is to place any identity or agenda to which we cling on the chopping block and be baptized instead into the identity and agenda of Jesus Christ, who IS the righteousness of God.

(That Jesus is himself the righteousness of God is why he speaks of himself as the rock that breaks and crushes – he is the final judge of what is right).

Then, after this rebirth into the life of Christ, bearing fruit is to let our life flourish with Christ-like qualities planted and nurtured in us by the Holy Spirit,

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  (Galatians 5:22-26)

In Christ, the fences fall and the field flourishes.  Humans live together in loving commitment, voluntarily tempering private passions and desires so that all can grow toward the kingdom’s light.

The contrast between field and fence is obvious in our national outpouring of horror at the mass shooting in Las Vegas.  Enough Americans to be significant have made politics their faith, and so there are calls for laws and for public demonization of various groups of people we should see as neighbors.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In an editorial in the Washington Post,  researcher Leah Libresco explains how her research on gun violence led her from a legal approach, advocating various forms of “gun control,” to a different set of insights.

What she found was that American gun violence would be most effectively reduced by attention to three groups of suffering neighbors:

The suicidal.  Two thirds of annual America gun deaths are suicides.  We know this is an affliction here on South Dakota’s Reservations; it’s also becoming a disturbing trend among middle aged white guys like me as our familiar cultural expectations fade.  I have a friend on the East Coast whose church is managing to engage very troubled neighbors.  It is exhausting and not always successful work – he’s done over 100 funerals in the last three years.  But his church is tearing down fences to connect with suffering neighbors as souls precious to God.

Young men in drug and gang subcultures.  They account for 1 in 5 annual gun deaths.  This statistic gets into our uncomfortable American racial divides.  The Pew Research Foundation stats on gun crime, filtered for race, show that this kind of gun violence is disproportionately high in the Black community.  How do we cross longstanding fence lines together to bring life where death has so much power?  What in our own attitudes might have to be confronted and repented of to help that happen?

Domestic abuse victims, predominantly women.  Again, a shameful reality which most of us would rather ignore.  Again, an aspect of life that might expose some of our own sinful attitudes or hardness of heart.   How do we pull down fences so that what is hidden is brought into view for both justice and healing?

It’s easier to build a fence.  It’s easier to pass a law and pretend, with great conceit, that it is necessary only to control “those” people over there with “their” problems.

But in our Gospel, Jesus warns that that kind of thinking is what can cost us the kingdom.  Our fences can trap us in our own wasteland of sin and keep us out of the flourishing field that is the prophesied kingdom of heaven,

And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.  (Ezekiel 47:12)