Sand in the Gears

Good guy or bad guy?

September 20th, 2013 Posted in The Art of Parenting, The Sermons | 15 Comments »

One of my sons asked about an historical figure, or maybe it was some living politician whom history will soon forget. My son wanted to know whether this man was a good guy, or a bad guy.

This is our most fundamental typology for strangers. For all others, it is blood and love. Are you in my family? Are you steadfast in our little platoon? Will you come when I call? Do you love me?

We’ll tolerate many evils from the ones who answer yes. Some of us tolerate evils long after that inward, knowing part of the heart realizes they are lying, that they are no more steadfast for our little platoon than the politician whose television ads claim he dwells in our communities, considers us family, loves us.

There are the people who share our blood, and there are the people we hope love us, and then there are the rest of them. And something in us or about us leads our children to ask: “Dad, is he a good guy, or a bad guy?”

And what do you say?

It was easier when I believed God had sorted all this out in advance. I may not have been able to discern who was chosen or damned (though I had my suspicions), but I could rest in the assurance that people were becoming, in the (sometimes misapplied) words of C.S. Lewis, “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

My answer, then, might have been: “We’ll know in heaven,” by which I would have meant that we would find out the truth of each person’s nature. Good people can do bad things, to be sure, just as bad people sometimes do good. But in each case, I believed, they are acting against their natures. There’s charity and hardheartedness in that view, in equal measure.

But that was just a peculiarity of a particular theological sect. It gave me reasons to embrace the inclination I think most of us harbor, which is to separate people by dark and light. A great many of us find ourselves asking: “Is he a good guy, or a bad guy?” Often I find my thoughts drawn to these words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

My answer to my son, then, is borne not so much from psychology or history or even theology as it is from confession. Is that man good or evil? Like the rest of us, child, he’s both.

My son nodded, considering this. I think he’s still considering it. I want to believe he’ll consider it all his days, while working out his own salvation with fear and trembling, which amounts to nothing more than pushing that line stretched taut across his heart steadfastly into the darkness, enlarging the space where sacrificial love resides, diminishing the malevolence that strains with all its might to make the whole human heart its cancerous domain. And which sometimes succeeds, which is why we believe in monsters.

Is that man good, or evil? Which am I? I am both.

And so are you.

But today we will try our best to live in the light.

How we talk about good and evil

August 28th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Those of you who caught my first essay, in which I argued that the layman no longer has adequate language to discuss good and evil, and who did not subsequently spit out your coffee while sputtering with outrage, might appreciate the second essay, in which I suggest how we might return to a language of good and evil, by returning first to a language of love. Here’s an excerpt:

Science can certainly give us the means to illuminate many corners of a darkened world, just as it can give us the means to sterilize a boy whose brain is not suitable to yield the happiness Richard Feynman equated with knowledge, and to ration organs so that only the mentally fit receive them. But can it tell us what to think of such acts?

You can read the rest here.

Words for Good and Evil

August 22nd, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life | 3 Comments »

The thing is, I’d rather write screenplays. Actually, I’d like to write novels that become screenplays. Or short stories that get spun into TV series. (Did you know that “Justified” is based on an Elmore Leonard story?)

The other thing—one of the other things—is that sometimes I’ll read or hear something that sticks in my brain like someone stabbed me with a bicycle-wheel spoke, and I’ll walk around trying to mind my own business, but I’ll keep brushing up against things with that spoke poking out of my head, and the more I try to forget it, the more things that are the regular traffic around my ears—news stories and my children telling me important things about their bottle-cap collections and voicemails from work and the sound of the air conditioning kicking on—well, all of it keeps slapping into that bloody spoke until I root it out by setting down some words.

This is why, often against my better judgment, I’ll write something about why our churches are a mess, or the lunacy of fashionable views on sexuality, or the precise trajectory of Western civilization’s descent into therapeutic suicide. It’s not that I think all of you don’t KNOW these things, after all. It’s just that I need to organize the thoughts collecting around the business end of that spoke, and give them some direction on a page, if only so I can extract it from my brain and be about the business of loving my children and earning a living and writing short stories that don’t have enough angsty 20-something post-abortion lesbian art-student protagonists to ever have hope of being published in fancy journals, but which someone, somewhere, might still appreciate reading.

All of this is to say that maybe some of you will appreciate my essay on a problem that perhaps you have noticed too, which is that when great tragedy strikes, or great evil is undertaken by people who pretend it is good, the average man doesn’t know, any more, how to talk about it. I think this is a bad thing. Do you?

Here’s an excerpt from the essay, which is at Good Letters:

We chatter about the psychological and sociological and political origins of school shootings and soldier suicides and the sexual deviancy of congressmen, our words neglecting a quiet truth that has no place in the conversation of the twenty-first-century West—because it is not a fact that can be measured like the weight of a carbon molecule or the earnings of Ford Motor Company—namely, that we are sick in our very souls, were sickened soon after we began, and will only grow sicker so long as we entertain the fantasy that we are each of us no more than watches that must be occasionally adjusted.

“The traditions,” wrote Viktor Frankl in 1962, “which buttressed [man’s] behavior are now rapidly diminishing.” We are falling, Frankl contended, into an “existential vacuum.” Absent traditions to guide behavior, man “either wishes to do what other people do or he does what other people wish him to do.” Man loses, in this vacuum, his sense of worthwhileness. Little wonder that he loses his sense of others’ worth as well.

It’s the first of two essays, and you can read the rest of it here.

The lost conservative mind

August 19th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

I recently read Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, and composed a thought about it in relation to the state of this country, which perhaps more than ever before mirrors the state of man today—outwardly self-reliant, inwardly flailing. My thought is that we are yanking free the anchors, worrying loose the cables, and where once this was effected with radical fervor, it’s now a consequence of indolence, of decay, of corruption.

Our politics are dominated by preeners who speak as utopians and govern as apparatchiks. Our news is delivered by people who understand little of what they attempt to relate. Our children are instructed by dullards. Our churches continue to splinter, our civil bonds disintegrate, and an appalling number of adults choose either to murder their children in the womb or abandon them at birth.

Russell Kirk’s book is important because it can help us understand why the institutions we no longer value are in fact critical to the survival of what we do still care about. He does little to explain, however, how they might be regained when they are shattered, or what is to be done when a majority of the populace neither understands, values, nor even longs for them. Perhaps this is because when he wrote, there was still hope of restoring reason and order to the U.S., perhaps even to England. What he didn’t anticipate is that the political and business leaders who rushed to the banner of conservatism in his time would be unworthy, and ultimately prove themselves venal, ignorant, and self-seeking.

“In every period,” Kirk writes, “some will endeavor to pull down the permanent things, and others will defend them manfully.” Even without the pulling at foundations daily attempted by our nation’s cold-souled bureaucrats and administrators, the permanent things have begun to collapse under their own weight. Who will build them again? That’s the question now.

Years ago I offered a confession that conservative Christians might benefit from praying, and earlier this year I offered political conservatives encouragement. Had I read Kirk sooner, I might have had a better sense to whom I was actually writing, namely the people who flit in and out of the tribe known as Conservatives (I include myself in that number) without understanding what we are for, and therefore what we must be against, and what all of this means for what must be done.

On concession

August 7th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Some of you may like my latest essay on the Image “Good Letters” channel at Patheos. Others of you may hate it with a fiery burning hatred. Here’s an excerpt:

It was an offering. I understand why you are afraid of men who look like me. All he asked in return was an equivalent offering. Please understand how it makes us feel when you make no effort to hide what you think of us.

It wasn’t going to make the strident voices on either side happy, but it was the right thing to say. Admitting this doesn’t require you to endorse his policy on killing people with drones, or embrace Obamacare, or approve of how the National Security Agency amasses mobile phone information. You don’t have to agree with anything else he stands for to acknowledge the fundamental decency in President Obama’s statement.

You can read the rest here. There’s a curse word in it. Forgive me. It was apt.

Against being against epiphanies

July 16th, 2013 Posted in The Artful Life | 1 Comment »

Some of you may like my latest essay on the Good Letters channel at Patheos. It covers everything from Oliver Stone to a young Whittaker Chambers, with a slight dose of literary criticism mixed in. Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve been reading recently published short fiction—in journals, in anthologies. It seems that everyone took Baxter to heart. Perhaps I just got a bad batch, but it seems the order of the day is muddy ambivalence. How do I feel about my mother? My abortion? My boyfriend who is kind of there but kind of not? I don’t really know and I don’t know if I care.

Every protagonist seems medicated, every impulse dulled. I read one story that ended like that season of Dallas when they shot J.R.—this was all in my imagination. I read another that ended almost literally in mid-action.

I get it; I get it. Life is an accumulation of regrets. Your father probably will die before you set aside time to hash things out. Many of our deliberated actions arehalf-hearted or unsure or aborted. We stumble over ourselves and think we know things that later we don’t know and then we forget that we ever thought we knew them. Life is a big goddamned mess.

And yet…

You can read the rest here.

Gentle disagreement

June 25th, 2013 Posted in Theology | 1 Comment »

I’ve been wrestling for weeks with how to be at peace with fellow Christians who also happen to be harmfully heretical (and popular) teachers. On the one hand, we’re all supposed to love one another and get along. On the other hand, love doesn’t dictate that we pretend a donkey is a unicorn, at least not when we’re dealing with full-grown educated adults who ought to know better.

I realized that if nothing else I have to get my own heart, and the tone that proceeds from (and reveals) it right. I wrote some things about one highly popular Emergent Church fellow some months back, and I’m convinced that every word was true (in a nutshell, that his theology is that the only parts of the Bible that are relevant today are the parts Jesus said), but I know from some reactions that the words were strident and unloving, which means they fall flat with the very people I’d like to reach with them.

And maybe it doesn’t matter; the Relevant Magazine/Emergent Church/Sola Scriptura Rubra nexus will collapse under its own unrealized expectations of a brave new Christianity one day, and that day of dogmatic reckoning likely won’t be hastened by anything I have to say.

But this is something I’m trying to sort through all the same, if only to work out my salvation with more fear, more trembling, because I’m entirely too satisfied with being right, and the impetus to argue ought to be concern for the other, not esteem for the self.

All of which is to say that in my rumination I spent some time in the gospel of Luke, and ended up writing a little essay for my friends at Good Letters, and I thought you might like to take a look. Here’s an excerpt:

There are many ways to be with us, Christ says, but if you are not with Me, you are against Me. The us part is determined by the Him part. The unauthorized man waging war against demons wasn’t a disciple, wasn’t an official Christian, per se, but he had seen this God-man reclaim people from the evil one, and so with a heart of faith and compassion he was doing the same. The disciples wanted this to be about their exclusive club, whereas Christ made it about faith.

Abide with Me and you will be with us.

We are creatures prone to enmity, however, and so we tacitly subvert this guidance.Fit into our church if you want to be with Him. We make allegiance to our petty little tribes the standard for others, as if we control the doorway to heaven’s kingdom. We ask: “Are you with us, or against Him?” It’s far easier, you see, than answering the question put to each of our lives: be thou with Me?

You can check out the rest of it here.

Uninterested

June 5th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Finally, fiction from me that doesn’t involve death or melancholy or predestination or anything else likely to induce heavy drinking. It’s all dialogue, and I wrote it years ago whilst sitting utterly uninspired and bored in a large corporate bureaucracy. And the good people at Work Literary Magazine saw fit to publish it. Here’s an excerpt:

“But you don’t feel fit for work.”

“Exactly. That is precisely the problem, don’t you see? I feel fit, but I have absolutely no interest in my job today. The very thought of it numbs my soul.”

“Look bud, nobody’s interested. I double-majored in literature and philosophy in college. You think I’m interested in hearing about people’s sinus infections and divorce court hearings and parent-teacher conferences? You think I spend my spare time going up to strangers on street corners, and asking them about all the crappy little details of their existence? I get the dregs of people’s lives, my friend, and let me tell you, it’s sure not out of interest on my part. You want to know why I do it?”

“Actually, I am kind of curious.”

“Because it’s my J-O-B, pal. That thing I do to support myself. Interest has nothing to do with it.”

“But don’t you think it should? My God, you of all people should be with me on this. Shouldn’t your work hold some interest for you? Can’t you see what I’m getting at?”

“Yes, it’s all very charming and existential. But get over it. Being uninterested is just not a reason for not working. If you want to take a personal vacation day that’s fine, and I’m with you one hundred percent, but I’m not going to enter ‘uninterested.’”

“What difference does it make to you anyway? Why are you being so deliberately difficult?”

“Look, if I don’t assign you to a recognized category, then I have to type up a report and put it in our ‘Reconcile’ folder. Then in our Friday staff meeting I’ll have to explain to everyone why it didn’t fit into one of the existing categories. Then everyone in the meeting will argue about whether you took vacation, or ran errands, or had a sick day, until all the doughnuts are gone. In the end it will go into one of those categories anyway, because in my four years on this job, we have yet to add a fourth category. The only difference between me deciding right now versus them deciding on Friday is that doing it your way makes me look like an idiot who can’t make a decision.”

 You can read the rest here.

The difference between being blessed and being spared

June 4th, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life | 3 Comments »

Some of you may like my latest Good Letters post. Here’s an excerpt:

This quiet slaughter is perhaps the greatest perversion wrought by the devil after the fall. The most innocent among God’s most favored creation, cut down by a world in turmoil and rebellion, often by the hands of those who ought rightly be their protectors. Most of us are spared these horrors, and one shudders to think what would become of our churches, our sleeve-worn “faith walks,” if our society were as deeply penetrated by suffering and loss as those across much of the planet.

You can read the rest here.

Sheep and wolves

April 24th, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life, The Art of Parenting | 10 Comments »

Because I am a father I think about the parents of that boy torn to pieces, of his sister whose leg was taken. I think about those parents in Newtown, whose biggest Christmas purchases were coffins for their sons and daughters. I think on the parents of the killers, too, and sometimes I am afraid, because they always seem shocked, and maybe they really didn’t know what evil had taken root in their families, which means I may not know, nor you either.

We fear they will be slaughtered sheep and we fear they will become wolves, and we feel helpless.

Some of us celebrated the capture of a Boston bomber because now we get to kill him. We celebrate because our yearning for vengeance runs deep, and our desire to know that we are not ourselves monsters runs deeper. That boy is a monster and so is the one who murdered all those children in Connecticut and so is the one who gunned down people in a Colorado movie theater. Something in them is broken and they are not human.

We need to believe this. We need to kiss our children as they sleep, and know they are normal, that it’s the severely broken who do unspeakable things, and our own can’t be broken like that because even now we would know, we would peer into their eyes and see the deadness there and we would know.

Instead we see their eyes filled up with love and so they can’t be monsters, not now or ever, because monsters could never have loved anyone, not even their own mothers and fathers.

Their mothers and fathers. What hell must it be, to gaze at a picture of your child, and know it would have been better had you strangled him in his crib? What hell to wonder what you did wrong, to wonder if he was always broken or if it was you who broke him, to wonder if this blood is on your hands, if the fires of hell burn hot for the child you wrongly raised?

What hell, what hell, and if all this doesn’t keep you on your knees for your children then you haven’t considered what world awaits them, how it hungers to make them wolves and slaughtered sheep in equal measure.

This world hungers, and we parents weep, and we pray that our pleading is heard, that if there is something in us that can be altered so they can be spared, God will alter it; that if our flesh might be torn in place of theirs, God might rend it; that if sheep must be slain, God will pass over our own, because the cost is more than we can bear.

For years, his demons made the boy tear his own clothes, hurl himself into the fire, leap into the sea’s deep waters. For years, his father kept him close, no doubt despite those who hissed in his ear: “This is because of your sin.” Religious experts couldn’t help the boy, priests couldn’t save the boy. That boy was helpless and without hope and still his father persevered, even where others would have let him perish, or would have bound him in a graveyard like the Gadarenes.

Then comes this roving, raving miracle-worker, and the father says to him: “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” The father is weary and wary. He has seen miracle-workers before.

“If you can believe,” Christ replies, “all things are possible to him who believes.”

If. Who hasn’t lain awake at night, tormented by this if? We want to believe there is a good God who can spare our children the horrors of these recent days. Yet this same God allowed horrors for those parents, for their children. The gulf of if is wider than faith, sometimes.

“Lord,” cries the father, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

This is every parent, each of us believing our children will be safe, each of us struggling against the fear they will be anything but safe. We believe and we disbelieve and we pray the kingdom of heaven comes soon, for it belongs to such as these, and we who are no longer children have made such a wreck of it. We pray he will remember our children, that he will save them in spite of us. We pray in belief and we pray against disbelief, and we pray that he is listening.

Everybody dance now

April 18th, 2013 Posted in The Artful Life | Comments Off

Some of you may like my latest essay, “Art as a Common Gift.” Here’s an excerpt:

Imagine that. Millions of people, many of them knowing not the first words of orthodox praise, harboring scant knowledge of theology, yet all of them whispering back to the whisper within their spirits, imitating the God they may only know, many of them, as the urge to arrange words in verse, the craving to strum a power chord with the amp cranked up high, the yearning to dance because sunlight has come pouring through the windows in a slant that overwhelms our adult insistence on having a reason for joy.

What ought to make us weep are not scores of sentimental poetry blogs, but the crowds of teenagers who neither read nor write, who consume one another in gossip and scarcely articulate conversation, who create nothing and feel no yearning to create.

You can read the rest here.

The lies in truth

April 10th, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life | 21 Comments »

Michelle Obama called herself a “single mother” last week and we’ll probably be hearing about it years from now. Some Obama opponents consider it evidence the president is an absentee father, others that he’s gay, others simply that the Obamas don’t understand the plight of single mothers. Here’s proof, thousands told themselves, of what Obama really is.

Mitt Romney referred to “binders of women” considered for government positions, and it was proof of his latent paternalism, his sexist treatment of women as objects to be stored away until useful in the schemes of men. Now we know what Romney really believes.

We love this game. Maybe it’s an enduring fascination with detective stories, or the persistent influence of Freudianism. Maybe it’s the notion among journalists that real reporting is unearthing some reeking black secret, rather than learning enough about their subject to explain it well. Maybe it’s just that ugly little things buried in the souls of others make our own souls feel less sullied.

Whatever the impetus, we all know the game, which is to dissect a person’s words in order to reveal hidden truths. Journalists do it. Politicians do it. Preachers do it. Lawyers excel at it. If we can’t find an outright slip of the tongue, we’ll just yank some words out of their context, or extract them from a moment of weakness or anger.

When the opportunity arises, I show my sons how a lie can be told with the truth. “Your brother just called you ‘the worst brother in the world,’” I’ll note, “but he was smiling when he said it. Would you be lying if you told someone tomorrow that your brother called you that?”

“No. But also yes.”

“That’s right. We can report exactly what someone said, and be liars in the process.”

They nod. I tell them about Satan, using that favored method of modern theologians, prooftexting, to tempt Christ to hurl himself from the heights. Christ’s reply illustrates that when we offer a truth absent its counterpart, we are simply telling a clever lie.

In which case we’re all liars, every child of God and the devil, because we’ve all uttered, more often than we care to admit, truths without their counterparts.

My friend lied about me (and stood up for me when other people said I was a jerk).

My father ignored me (and kept food on the table and a roof over my head).

My daughter never calls (and she’s taking care of two toddlers day and night).

My pastor’s sermons are so judgmental (and he is the first one there when someone is gravely sick or dying).

There is ugliness in everyone, and there is the light of God, and maybe the part we choose to see says more about us than it does our target. We see the worst in people we don’t like because it’s not enough that they be wrong, we need them to be evil, because if they are evil then we are good, and each of us desperately wants to be on the side of the angels, if only because, deep down, each of us knows how often he’s aided demons.

Grace is in order. Would it make a man less wrong, or me more right, if I point out his error without making him the devil, too? No, but giving that up means I’m no longer coasting on the false sainthood called Not Being Them. It means I’m back to working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.

Which is probably where each of us needs to be, working out his own salvation, rather than searching for signs that his enemies have forsaken theirs.

Benediction from a bad man

April 1st, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life | 28 Comments »

I guess I stopped writing about personal things here because I didn’t like the person I had become. I felt stupid, the faith and family writer who gets divorced. This was compounded by coming to DC and finding myself—though alongside very decent and honorable people—exposed as well to a few ugly people for whom gossip and career knee-capping are sport. Aggravating this vulnerability was a confession gone awry, with details passed to people whose good opinion I often coveted but never earned.

Deadened by a toxic mix of drinking, self-pity, and stressful work, I felt too stupid and unworthy to speak. Maybe I still am. Someone like me doesn’t have any authority to hold forth on what Christ really meant, or how a life should be lived, or what it is to love rightly.

If you want to hear about failure, though, I am your man. I can tell you about days without shaving because I didn’t want to look myself in the mirror. About the gallons of whiskey. About a trail of women. About a gun in my hand and being too cowardly to pull the trigger, not restrained by love of my own children, even, just fear of what comes after the recoil and flash.

Even now, in this sober and prayerful place, I have been reticent to write of these stirrings in my heart, because my heart is such a faithless instrument.

A falsity I embraced is that only righteous men can say good and true things. This misconception was one vein of a deep-rooted arrogance within me. I believed I was righteous and enlightened and God-ordained to speak truth. I believed I was more worthy than others to speak of noble things.

Of course that’s nonsense, insofar as whatever is pure and lovely and praiseworthy doesn’t originate with man. The worth of benedictions doesn’t reside in the purity of the speaker, but in the holiness of truth’s author. We make ourselves gods at every turn, don’t we?

There is beauty within this shattered creation. There are true and good things, and our struggle, every day, is not the truth of them, but the truth of ourselves. The words aren’t made worthy by us, but maybe, by God’s grace, we can be made more worthy of the words, and even by them, because good words are a blessing, which is why the priest or preacher or rabbi sends us out into the world with them humming in our inner hearts.

Logos is a name for Christ because creation was spoken into being. Some of that power conveys to us as well, because with our every word we build up or tear down, we soothe our brother or we flay him, we call into this earth either a heavenly aroma or pungent brimstone. God knows, we need more good words.

Which means they warrant utterance, it seems, even when they come from bad men. This world needs words freighted with gravity and grace, and I suppose it would be a sin not to speak them, even if we’ve never once in our lives measured up to their fullness.

On feeling Godforsaken

March 29th, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life, The Sermons | 3 Comments »

Some of you might like my meditation on what Good Friday means to the parent of a dead child. Here’s an excerpt:

“It is a great mystery to me, how God can know what it means to be forsaken, and because he is three-in-one, know also how it is to look on your dying child, hear the breath rattle in his deflating lungs, smell the shit running down his legs, see him strain to find your face, the only sight that will comfort him, your face, which is denied him in this moment of greatest need, because his eyes and this darkening world itself have failed him.

After my daughter died, people tried to comfort me by pointing to the fruits of her suffering. My own mother came to faith, she said, in the funeral home. My pastor took my mother into a side room and when she came out she wept and told me she’d accepted Christ as her savior. So much good, people said. Your daughter accomplished so much through her suffering.

I suppose that fruit is good but this is not a deal I would have made. I am weak and I miss her and you’d think a hole running through you would be light as air but it’s such a heavy load sometimes.”

You can read the rest here.

White ashes

March 21st, 2013 Posted in Theology | 20 Comments »

Last I checked there were 36,000 mentions of Jimmy Fallon in the news, and 8,820 of Kermit Gosnell.

It’s understandable if you haven’t heard of Gosnell. He’s a Philadelphia abortionist on trial for, among other things, murdering newborns by snipping their spines with scissors. He did this after failing to murder them while some portion of their bodies remained in the birth canal—that practice, of course, being considered humane by organizations like Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights Action League, and the National Organization for Women.

Gosnell ran a slaughterhouse, and sometimes he kept the severed feet of his tiny victims in jars. At least one woman died under his ministrations. His defense alleges that his prosecution is motivated by race.

Not the sight of severed baby feet floating in jars, mind you, but race. How wonderful it would be, were Dr. King still alive, to give him five minutes alone in a room with this man.

There are four times more mentions of Jimmy Fallon not simply because Americans prefer entertainment to real-life horror. Had Gosnell been, say, a self-professed evangelical who murdered seven abortion doctors, instead of a profiteering abortionist who murdered seven babies, then I promise you, there is no way you would avoid hearing about it. There is no question about the morality of abortion for most journalists, only questions about the morality of people who oppose it.

It’s easy to blame journalists, and in this case they deserve blame. But I remember that in his heyday George Tiller, a late-term abortionist operating in Wichita, Kansas, secured from the city council a permit to expand his operations and add an incinerator to his facility. Tiller’s abortuary was located next to a car dealership, and if you talked to the guys working there, they would explain to you how every week they had to get out the hoses and wash white ash off the cars.

One day, a man walked into Tiller’s church and shot him in the head. That made the news, and it should have. But those white ashes? Reporting them would have been gauche. A journalist might get mistaken for some kind of religious nut, talking about those ashes.

History scorns the people who lived outside Auschwitz and Treblinka, with their weak protests of ignorance. How will history treat us, I wonder?

Sodas and guns and minimum virtue

March 20th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments »

On the radio I heard a shill for some agglomeration of sugary drink manufacturers inveigh against NYC mayor Bloomberg’s attempted regulation of soda sizes. “We believe New Yorkers are smart enough to make these decisions for themselves,” he said.

If you’ve been to New York, if you’ve been to America, then you might be tempted to question this praise. Most Americans watch many hours of television a day, most of our children rarely read, most of us are overweight. We are not a people who have distinguished ourselves, in the past two generations, by the smartness of our choices.

The right-thinking person doesn’t oppose a ban on gigantic sodas because he trusts the average American to make good decisions. He opposes it because he believes that if you give Mayor Bloomberg the right to regulate your Dr. Pepper intake, you invite him to determine what foods you may eat, and which vaccinations you can skip, and what is an acceptable height for women’s heels. Then, because this is government, you invite a host of well-connected companies to infiltrate the process with money, so that what is good for you miraculously begins to align with what is good for them.

This opposition to government power doesn’t assume that Americans will always make good decisions, but it does assume we won’t destroy ourselves. Freedom is predicated, in other words, on a capacity to live rightly. “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people…” wrote John Adams, “are necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”

Imagine someone came looking for wisdom, knowledge, and virtue in America today. Where might he find it? On our late night television shows? In the comments sections of newspapers? In the average high school classroom, where students read at a 5th-grade level, and admit to lying, stealing, and cheating on exams? In Congress, which might best be described as high school for demagogues?

But that’s a silly thought experiment, isn’t it, because who in his right mind goes looking for wisdom, knowledge, and virtue any more? We’re too busy searching for our God-given portion of self-esteem and happiness.

But if wisdom, knowledge, and virtue are scarce, what happens to freedom? Failing to instill in children lovingkindness, perseverance, and self-restraint eventually necessitates a mighty and merciless police state. Whether our feral offspring consume our substance and freedom, or we relinquish both in order to obtain protection from them, the equation remains undisputed—governance of the self is essential for political self-governance.

We have gotten ourselves to a place where we don’t even know how to sufficiently restrain evil and insanity from arming itself and slaughtering schoolchildren. Some people talk about restricting guns and others about distributing more of them, but the truth of things is that we grow sicker by the year, and so we face two unappealing options:  an armed populace increasingly unmoored from reason and virtue, or a populace disarmed by politicians unsavory enough to be elected by people who can’t be trusted with firearms.

The the thing is this: people talk about banning sodas and banning guns because we are destroying ourselves. There are good reasons to oppose both bans, but this opposition makes little sense unless we resolve to do our part to build up wisdom, knowledge, and virtue.

The difficulty is that these essentials are maintained in the institutions of community—families, churches, friendships, workplaces, schools—that we have allowed to become denuded. There are any number of causes for this erosion, and it can be quite pleasurable to sort through them, but I suppose when it comes to repairing these institutions it really just comes down to each of us picking up his allotted share of the burden.

Which is to say: loving one another less selfishly, serving one another more fully, training up our children more faithfully, praying more fervently. I know I stink at all those. Maybe some of you do, too. The good news is that there isn’t a whole lot of competition out there making us look bad. The bad news is that this means it’s up to us.

It’s hard work and it’s generational work and the people who call themselves conservatives used to understand that, though now they busy themselves with agonizing over how to “get their message out,” as if the problem might be solved by marketers and election consultants. The problem can only be solved, however, by each and every one of us, and that is because each and every one of us is the problem.

On the separateness of preaching and healing

March 13th, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life, The Sermons | 2 Comments »

Preach and heal. This is what Christ asked of his apostles, before sending them out in pairs:

“And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matt. 10:7-8)

Churches struggle to conjoin them. People struggle, don’t we? You want to love this self-destructive person you happen to care about, which is a miracle in itself because it can be so hard to love, and yet you love him all the same, in his brokenness, in his need, and surely this love must come from God, for you are just a sinner, after all, selfish and fallen. But how is it love to tell him the pain-filled truth, which is that in his lust or sloth or despair he is deeply, unrepentantly rebelling against God? How can a loving person even believe such a thing?

Preach to him? No, I’ll just love him. He’s already heard plenty of preaching from those whose hearts are shrouded by doctrines, by self-righteousness. I’ll love him, and my love will be my witness.

But this, even though it is borne of an earnest desire to show compassion, is arrogance. Christ, who is God, who is love, labored himself to preach, even to the point of driving away the bulk of his amassed followers. If Christ, who was first described as “the Word” by John, who later declared himself a sword dividing families—if the Savior who is God did more than witness himself through loving acts, then who are we to imagine we can shirk that duty?

But we are tempted to do so, especially when the one we love has been hurt—we know this because he recounts it to us in tears and fury—by others who have preached at him. We’re even tempted to tell ourselves that his troubles stem less from his rebellion, his refusal to submit on this one small point that should hardly matter to a God who is so big and loving and mysterious, than from the people who judge it sin. Love must rule the day. Love.

Some broken people you want to love, and other judgmental people (even though we know in our hearts that this, too, is a form of brokenness) you want to give a double-barrel of exegesis. They’re too literal or too narrow or too expansive, they are too . . . something, the chief characteristic of which is that they disagree fundamentally with you about what the Bible means, you with your great love for God and your many years of study and your membership in a church that really pursues Jesus.

Some we want to shield from preaching, and others we want to scorch with it.

In our omissions born either of selfish affection or angry righteousness we neglect the fullness of the commission itself, which is to preach and to heal. Worse, sometimes we confuse one for the other. We imagine healing comes solely from preaching the Bible’s truths at someone, or we imagine that a testimony of the truth can come solely from our compassionate care and acceptance. We make ourselves Christ when we do this, and more even than Christ, who himself submitted to the need to do both.

A question all we who seek to be doers of the word and not hearers only, then, is how we might both preach and heal. Sometimes this means we will cause someone to feel wounded and angry, which hurts us in turn, because it appears to be living proof that we have been unloving. Other times it means that we will let dirty, sinful, awkward people into our lives and homes and churches, which means we’ll confront our own ugly feelings towards them, which means confronting the ugliness that dwells within our own darkened hearts.

All of which is why, I suppose, Christ said to take up a cross rather than a party hat.

On false compassion

March 4th, 2013 Posted in Theology | 7 Comments »

The challenge when debating a liberal Christian is that he is bound by neither Scripture nor tradition but sentiment. He is therefore free to embrace both sin and sinner, and thereby appear more loving, more magnanimous, than his opponents.

This magnanimity carries a subtle condescension, as in the first sentence of Dave Barnhart’s recent essay, “How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking on Homosexuality:”

“I managed to make it through college, seminary, and grad school with most of my prejudices intact. I won’t overstate my bigotry: ‘I had gay friends,’ but I was the kind of person who would use that phrase when defending my prejudices.”

The implication is that if you disagree with Barnhart about the pliability of gender, the acceptability of homosexual sex, and gay marriage (something he only tacitly admits supporting in the midst of ingratiating himself to one of his commenters), then you are a bigot. It’s a forgivable error, given that hostility toward gays is the trait most commonly associated with Christians.

It’s highly problematic all the same, at least insofar as we might expect a pastor to understand Christian dogma to the point that he does not bless what God condemns. But perhaps that is too high an expectation these days. Now you are deep if you quote a few lines of Scripture to support your heartfelt point. Barnhart, for example, quotes the 23rd chapter of Matthew to argue that Christians have, like the Pharisees, bound their brethren with the overly heavy burden of refraining from homosexual sex and marriage. The implication is that these burdens are unbiblical, though in the very same passage Barnhart cites, Christ says: “Whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do…” Christ’s point, in other words, is not that the Law is invalid, but that the Pharisees obeyed it only as show, and did nothing to help their flock live righteously.

No matter, because Barnhart is making a point here, the totality of Scripture be damned, and his point is that, if Jesus said “My burden is easy and my yoke is light,” that must mean, when we put it next to those isolated verses from Matthew 23, that he aims to decrease the rules. And if Jesus himself diminishes the law, well, we fussy Christians who want to hold to all that stuff about homosexual behavior in Leviticus and Romans and elsewhere are being like the Pharisees.

It all makes sense if you want it to make sense, regardless of the reality that Christ also said that He came not to change an iota of the Law, regardless of the traditional understanding that when He speaks of the light yoke He doesn’t mean that the Law is obliterated, but rather that He bears it, and He therefore bears us, and strengthens us to live rightly.

All this is problematic because both Scripture and Christian tradition are remarkably clear about homosexual sex, and only heroic semantic acrobatics can cast doubt on this reality. Homosexual sex is condemned in Old and New Testaments (every Christian should humbly pause and remember, at this point, that gossip is likewise condemned), and at no point before modern times has any church within shouting distance of orthodox shores ordained homosexual marriages.

Christians who would alter (or bow out of the dispute about altering) this tradition have taken two routes. One is to cast doubt on the Scriptures themselves. Science progressively reveals, they say, the falsities of the Bible. Tossing out Scripture, we are free, in the words of Bishop John Spong, to achieve “a new humanity.”

The other method is to evoke the serpent’s question: “Did God say?” We see this in the response of popular Christian writer Shane Clairborne to a question about homosexuality:

“I think we have to begin by acknowledging that part of the reason this is a difficult topic, and part of the reason we have disagreement on it, is because Jesus never really talks about it directly.”

This is a refinement of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, in which the red words are preeminent. Sola scriptura rubra. Its proponents seem to imagine themselves closer to the original Jesus than all we fussy dogmatics, though in imagining as much they commit the further dogmatic error of forgetting that Christ is a member of the divine Trinity, of one will with the Father, who breathed out to us the Scriptures, according to St. Paul and the councils at Constantinople and Nicea.

But these are small matters, these days. American Christianity is, like the market economy in which it is rooted, a matter of personal choice. And to be fair, it is Christians—I number myself among them—who have enabled the popularity of ear ticklers like Dave Barnhart and Shane Clairborne. Too many of us, too often, have acted in hatred toward homosexuals, or treated them with cold indifference, or failed to denounce widely followed church leaders who acted with hatred and indifference. We failed to distinguish actions from persons, and to remove the planks from our own eyes first, and in demonizing homosexuals we not only sinned grievously, we strengthened the standing of men who are so swelled with self-serving compassion that they happily alter “tired theology,” as Barnhart calls it.

It’s a false compassion. It’s not a “suffering alongside,” but a denial of the faith. It offers its intended beneficiaries neither the fullness of the Church nor of Christ, and it misleads a generation of young people who have enough love and good sense to reject the hatred they’ve detected in too many of their elders, but who have been no better trained in doctrine. Its corrosive effect will not be limited to this one small corner of Christian dogma.

Phantom limbs and other lost things

February 22nd, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life | Comments Off

Some of you may like my essay at Good Letters. An excerpt:

“Sometimes this broken world hacks away at our flesh. Other times it hands us the blades, and we sunder ourselves. Drink down whatever forgetting medicine invites you and the stump will stop hurting, but as God is my witness, you will not move from that place of loss. You’ll lie on the floor, raging at the sky for taking your legs, raging at God, raging at anyone who offers to help. You’ll rage and you’ll drink the numbing draught and then, one day, you will be alone.”

You can read the rest here.

The scandal of the evangelical intellectual’s mind

February 21st, 2013 Posted in Theology | 1 Comment »

A reasonable response to the accusation that the evangelical mind is insufficiently expansive is to ask to what dimensions its critics would like to see it expanded. That question springs to the lips when considering Biblical scholar Peter Enns’s contention that evangelical minds are not only confined, but are required to remain in confinement. “The real scandal of the Evangelical mind,” Enns writes, “is that we are not allowed to use it.” Evangelical scholars, he claims, must come to “predetermined conclusions.”

On its face this is wildly untrue. An evangelical poetry professor is free to conclude, contrary to popular opinion, that Emily Dickinson was not so original. An evangelical metallurgy professor is free to conclude that two metals bond at lower temperatures than previously believed. Most evangelical scholars have freedoms identical to those enjoyed by Catholic and Jewish and Buddhist and atheist scholars.

What Enns means is that evangelical scholars will be censured if their research impinges on evangelical dogma. This is not entirely accurate either; several members of the Jesus Seminar were members of evangelical congregations, and their careers were only aided by their collaboration in that heretical enterprise.

So what Enns really means is that evangelical scholars are expected to conform to evangelical dogma if they wish to teach in institutions that require dogmatic adherence as a condition of employment, or if they seek the approval of evangelicals who are not willing to subject dogma to scientific proof-testing. Which sounds a bit like the sailor complaining that his duties don’t include mountain-climbing.

Enns’s underlying complaint (alongside many others who conflate rebuttal with censure, and who collectively fill the internet and bookstores and who are not, as a movement, suffering from paucity of audience) is that most evangelicals refuse to adjust their dogma when confronted with putatively contradictory scientific proof.

In this Enns represents a narrow-minded view, however, borne of a strain of anti-intellectualism, ironically, birthed during the Enlightenment. The Western intellectual’s devotion to reason seduced him into reductionism, and ultimately, the crude materialism that is the thoughtless proving ground of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other surprisingly unoriginal “new atheists.” Reductionism informs the verse-parsing that is the domain of modern evangelicals: Let’s take another look at the 97 verses that prove predestination/free will/adults-only communion.

Materialism, meanwhile, animates modern evangelical intellectuals embarrassed by their brethren who oppose teaching evolution in schools, or who aren’t adequately troubled by God’s wholesale slaughter of heathens in the Old Testament: We can’t ignore archeology and anthropology and a whole host of ologies that appear to contradict our theology.

It makes sense that Scripture would be relevant to one’s understanding of God, and that nature’s ordering can reveal things about its author. The problem is that Enns and his comrades teeter over a trap that ensnares the atheists who despise them, in that they elevate reason from God-given tool to arbiter of what is God, while sublimating mystery to a more socially acceptable, arms-length wonderment.

You have to understand that the Old Testament writing about the destruction of the Canaanites has a certain socio-political context, don’t you see, and really we must get beyond all this “God-breathed” business, but let’s not forget that God is big and wonderful in that you still have to be pretty awesome to set the forces of evolution into motion.

Enns summarizes his bind well: evangelicalism (used to, at least) connote an ambition to sustain dogma “by intellectual means.” Bible studies, sola scriptura, throwing off rituals for the steady reason of the Reformation fathers, and all that. But here’s the rub: “These intellectual means are circumscribed by Evangelical dogma.”

But this has always been at the heart of the Christian enterprise, and it’s surprising to find Christian scholars who are surprised by it. The knowing of God, a fundamental element of our faith tells us, extends beyond the senses. This is the rebuttal to atheist materialists, namely, that it is unimaginative and irrational to conclude that nothing exists beyond the senses simply because one’s senses cannot detect it. Once you accept this conclusion, the door has been opened to miracles, to dualities, to the heart of a father who says to Christ, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” It is open to a God-breathed book that sometimes seems to contradict the evidence man thinks he has scratched from the tombs of the ancients.

And so the Christian intellectual lives with mysteries. Further, he doesn’t find these onerous, because his intellect is expansive enough to contain seeming contradictions, to leave to God what is God’s domain, and to toil in the fields assigned to man.

Winton’s Children

February 15th, 2013 Posted in Faith and Life | 2 Comments »

In case anybody ever tells you that one average joe can’t make much difference: Winton’s Children

 

UPDATE: If you’d like to see someone deserving win the Nobel Peace Prize for a change, you might consider signing this petition.

Cheaper by the dozen

February 13th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

There is a difference between being anti-intellectual and being anti-intellect, and this is where Russell Jacoby foundered, in his essay last year about the lack of intellectualism among conservatives. As Peter Lawler notes, it’s shoddily done for want of defining terms, which is a frequent flaw in Chronicle of Higher Ed essays about conservatism.

There is, however, an important grain of truth in Jacoby’s essay, one with which conservative thinkers will need to grapple. The truth is that politicians who claim to lead conservatives in America are by and large an embarrassment morally and intellectually. Even now, on the heels of a sound beating, their chief concerns are with positioning and branding, fine-tuning their polling operations, improving their media presence. The country does not take the ideas they espouse seriously because they themselves cannot be taken seriously.

Last night, if you watched the State of the Union address, you saw two men behind the president. Each has been widely—and rightly—ridiculed for his instability, his vanity, his vacuousness. Given a choice between two fools, it’s unsurprising that voters prefer the one who promises them bread and circuses at no charge, who soothingly assures them there’s plenty of money to pay the tab should it ever come due.

Conservative ideas will not be taken seriously until they are set forth by serious men and women. Only someone with gravity, with a moral center, can begin to undo the damage wrought by both parties, whose operatives have excelled at character-assassination rather than governance, at kicking the can down the road rather than rallying the nation to pay the bills for our own poor judgment.

The anti-intellectual stance of leading conservatives, which Jacoby rightly identified, isn’t the problem. It’s the underlying lack of intellect, in the classical sense, what the Greeks called the nous. It’s a lack of understanding, perception, reason, and intuition. Intellect implies thoughtfulness, attention to the fullness of things. It is as far from tribal allegiance and democratic mob rule as one can get, and in their haste to obscure their own academic pedigrees, putative conservative leaders have abandoned intellect as well, in favor of smooth political machinations.

In the process they’ve cheapened and belittled themselves, which is fitting reward, except that they’ve cheapened the ideas they borrowed from their betters. Which means that now the task of rehabilitating those ideas must fall to serious, thoughtful, inspiring men and women.

And where they are is anyone’s guess.

In defense of The Hobbit

February 7th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Inside_a_Hobbit_hole

Look, it’s not like The Hobbit is Holy Scripture. It’s not even, last I checked, part of the Apocrypha. It seems to me that the standard for judging Peter Jackson’s film rendition, then, ought to be whether it succeeds as art, rather than its faithfulness to Tolkien’s book.

If we view the film as an action flick, in other words, it’s not half bad. Yes, Jackson’s desire to S-T-R-E-T-C-H the story across three segments, thereby extracting triple the ticket revenue, leads to irritating delays. I’ve fed my four children, given them dessert, cleaned the kitchen, bathed the little ones, shouted and cajoled them all into bed, and had my evening Scotch faster than the dwarves take to finish their meal at Bilbo’s. But this is annoying precisely because there’s no action. Once the swords start swinging, the movie is more fun, and far more profound, than most action fare these days.

But there’s no white orc in The Hobbit! The trolls are all wrong! That’s not the Goblin King’s rightful personality!

Yes, and in Jaws the shark expert has an affair with Chief Brody’s wife, in Dracula the vampire is a horror rather than a hunk, and in The Bourne Identity every action sentence is an embarrassing cliché. Movies often differ from the books that inspire them. We don’t normally complain, we simply ask whether the story works within its medium. (Answer: Benchley and Spielberg render Jaws masterfully, Coppola’s Dracula is abhorrent, and illiteracy is preferable to reading Ludlum.)

Not so with Tolkien, however. I don’t know if it’s because he’s been adopted as patron saint of the latest, seemingly interminable war against anti-Semitic fascism, or inducted into the unofficial Christian canon, but folks seem inclined to view his work as unalterable. If Martin Luther had been held to the same standard, the Protestants would be reading a different Bible right now.

In short, if you want your children to imbibe the aesthetic feel of Tolkien and embrace his theology of mystery and grace, then read Tolkien to them, for crying out loud. If you want to watch a bunch of orcs get their heads handed to them, on the other hand, then go see the movie. There’s no need to constrain one with the other.

Gays, Boy Scouts, and dogma

February 4th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized | 19 Comments »

The Boy Scouts of America is considering an end to its prohibition against homosexual troop leaders, deferring that decision to local councils. Sexual molestation! cry opponents, and so into the breach rushes the conscientious journalist, whose moral obligation is to remind readers of the evidence that homosexuals are no more prone to molestation than heterosexuals.

I’m not acquainted with research comparing the rates of child molestation between homosexual and straight men, but I’m certain it doesn’t matter; this is about dogma, not data. That is why we shouldn’t expect a journalist to state the obvious, which is that if it defies good sense to send teenaged girls off into the woods with heterosexual men, it likely defies good sense to send teenaged boys off with homosexual men.

This is no aspersion against homosexuals, except insofar as they are men, and we know enough about men to understand that some of them find teenagers sexually attractive, and the older and more mature-looking these teenagers, the easier it becomes for seemingly decent men to violate them while pretending the act is consensual. It’s no slander, except that it disputes ground that is within the grasp of homosexual activists, and hence must be proof of homophobia, and therefore unreason, and should thus be disregarded.

That’s the norm in American modern politics, of course: don’t debate your opponent, paint him as fraud, troglodyte, hypocrite. Which is all well and good; it certainly isn’t fair to expect homosexual activists to show more decency than, say, homeopathy activists. What’s troubling is the cowardice of people who ought to know better in the face of the name-calling. One can only hope that local councils won’t cave to the political and economic pressure likely to follow in the wake of the BSA’s abrogation of duty.

Slippery words

February 1st, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

You might like my latest post at Good Letters. An excerpt:

“We are used to words not meaning anything, you see, and so who cares if foot-long is not supposed to mean eleven inches, that cheese is not supposed to be a vegetable oil and whey composite, that deli meat is not supposed to be shaved from animals shot through with growth hormones and antibiotics, and that salad dressing is not supposed to be a blend of high-fructose corn syrup and chemicals contrived (doubtless in New Jersey, food additive capital of the United States) to stimulate vague memories of how real things once tasted.”

It’s not about food alone—there’s unemployment, universal health care, the Oxford comma, the increasingly comical governor of Pennsylvania, liability insurers, Penn State football boosters, and Pontius Pilate. Don’t miss it. You can read the rest here.

Literally small-minded

January 30th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Granted, playwright turned conservative-screed artist David Mamet lately comes across like that kid in philosophy class who just got hold of Atlas Shrugged and believes everyone should read it immediately. Still, he’s not an idiot. Which is what makes Ta-Nehisi Coates’s critique of Mamet’s recent gun rights essay so, well, idiotic. Consider the paragraph that particularly offends Coates:

The Founding Fathers, far from being ideologues, were not even politicians. They were an assortment of businessmen, writers, teachers, planters; men, in short, who knew something of the world, which is to say, of Human Nature. Their struggle to draft a set of rules acceptable to each other was based on the assumption that we human beings, in the mass, are no damned good—that we are biddable, easily confused, and that we may easily be motivated by a Politician, which is to say, a huckster, mounting a soapbox and inflaming our passions.

Coates actually believes that Mamet is claiming the Founders didn’t hold political office. What Mamet meant, of course, is that the Founders were not like today’s politicians, neither in worldview, career uniformity, nor behavior. No matter to Coates; this is evidence of a powerful man working “violence against language.” It’s an excessively literal view necessitated by Coates’s desire to be uncharitable. Excessive literalness is rarely distinguishable from small-mindedness.

Coates inadvertently raises a point worth remembering, however: violence against language can work both ways. Writers must endeavor not to be foolish, but then again, so should readers.

Hell and Christmas

December 16th, 2012 Posted in Faith and Life | 23 Comments »

There is nothing to be done but weep. Cry out for the children with bodies shattered, for the ones covered in blood not their own, for the ones who didn’t die instantly. Cry out for those who fell protecting them. Cry out for the parents in their waiting. Cry out for sisters and brothers. Cry out for the little ones who heard the popping, who were led down a hall and told: close your eyes, childrenhold hands and close your eyes.

We weep not nearly long enough, and then we give ourselves over to anger. May the boy with the guns roast in eternal agony. May the entire membership of the NRA follow close behind. Throw in every quack psychiatrist and libertarian who facilitates loonies walking our streets. There’s still room in hell—there’s always room when we are the gatekeepers—so stuff in behind these the political opportunists, the blow-dried journalists interviewing traumatized children, the father of the boy with the guns, his brother for good measure, the man who sold the guns, and whoever designed the school locks. Burn them all, burn them all.

Jesus Christ. I said this all day long. Jesus Christ. All those children. Christ have mercy. I said it as a curse and as a plea. I was driving and I wept until I could barely see the road. What else can you do?

I know something of burying a child in the frozen earth. I knew it was coming, and I could be there when she died. These mothers and fathers sent their babies off to school to color pictures and learn the alphabet. Many of them can’t even see the bullet-torn bodies now. Christ, what a world. Jesus Christ.

Twenty children will go into the ground there this week. How does the earth receive them all, and not cry out? Sweet Christ, come soon. We weep because there is nothing else to be done but weep and wait.

Perhaps I am wrong. Maybe the politicians and pundits will fix things up nicely. We’ll pass laws and issue proclamations. We’ll imagine that what’s gone wrong here was a glitch in the machinery. We’ll fix the system and then we can stop our weeping, because something has been done. Something had been done by the hands of man and so man can tell himself that he is well, that his heart is not sickened unto death.

The world has come undone, and you and I know it. Maybe our politicians and professors and even our preachers have forgotten how to talk about it, but we know it all the same. This world is coming undone because it is a world of men, and because there is something more to man than sinew and synapse. There is a soul, and it is a darkened and dying thing.

It’s a hell of a thing to happen so close to Christmas. Then again, we used to have enough wisdom to prepare for Christmas with mourning. Whether it’s truth or myth to you, the story of a baby born for slaughter ought to give pause. The truth or myth of man is that his heart has turned black, and the blood of innocents is spilled as a consequence. Christ have mercy.

Greet your Christmas, then, with mourning. Mourn for those poor, godforsaken parents. And take hope, if you will, from a vision of twenty little ones entering heaven. Take hope in the hope that there is a world coming that even man cannot defile.

Elect art

December 7th, 2012 Posted in The Artful Life | Comments Off

Image 74My latest short story is in the current edition of Image, for those of you with a literary bent. And for those of you bent theologically, in this case, because in my story John Calvin attends a writing workshop so he can learn to craft Christian romance novels. That’s not what the story is about, mind you, but I had fun with it all the same. And I think I treated him better than he deserved, if that’s any consolation to my Reformed friends. The story is titled “Elective,” which was practically foreordained, if you think about it.

If you’re so inclined you can order a copy here, or even better, get yourself and someone you love subscriptions to Image. Modern Christian churches have done so much—largely unconsciously but sometimes purposely—to destroy the great traditions of literature, hymnography, and painting bequeathed to them by their Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox forbears, and so it is encouraging to see this journal quietly insist that, as Image founder Greg Wolfe says, beauty can save the world. The art they nurture and promote stands as a direct counterpoint to the vapid, feel-good, Precious Moments style that has ruined too many palates. So go encourage them back with a subscription.

Problem-rushers

December 4th, 2012 Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

We’re trying to find an office manager, and so I’ve had to articulate what makes for a good employee. This is a treacherous and particularized endeavor, because the people who appear to be good employees for other bosses would likely drive me crazy to the point of pushing them from a window, and this is bad for morale, not to mention illegal in many states.

The truth is that I’m far better at listing the things I can’t abide, like not-my-jobitis, or an abiding need for frequent affirmation, or an inability to hear criticism, or blame-shifting.

Any one of these can make me apoplectic. But what makes for a good employee?

I suppose there are many attributes one could list, but a distinctive one—a sum-it-all-up kind of trait—is simply this: a willingness to run to the problem.

You know that person. She dives in when a process isn’t working right, or a deadline has been moved up, or something is broken. She makes things work right again because it’s not in her nature to look the other way when something needs doing.

There are all manner of problem-rushers. There’s the nuanced consensus-builder, and the manpower-commandeering crisis manager, and the coach who fires players until he has a winning team. Some are better suited than others to specific challenges, but inside them all is the instinct to converge on the problem.

I like these people. I like them a lot. I hire them and do my best to keep them.

Now, most of us probably imagine we are one of these people. My experience is that most of us are not. Many of us are not because we like to fall back on the complaint that we simply don’t have the requisite authority. Stupid upper management, you see, hasn’t recognized our innate brilliance. The Man is keeping us down.

Washington, D.C. is filled with smart young people, and I’ve lost count of how many I’ve encountered who fit this description. They mutter and mumble and keep their heads down, except to complain when someone even less experienced, who happens to be a problem-rusher, gets promoted. They are experts at cataloging for you all the dysfunctions of their organization. They excel at this because it is the critical linkage between two otherwise conflicting beliefs: 1) their tremendous personal talent, and 2) their relative inconsequence to the performance of their organization. It’s not lack of courage, initiative, and persuasive ability that has them stymied, you see, it’s the messed up place they work for.

Others imagine they are problem-rushers, and in a sense they are right, but they don’t converge on the problem to fix it, they converge to complain about it. You know this person too, don’t you? He’s the one who’s always ready with an opinion about how the new system is a disaster, how the incentives are all screwed up, how upper management is forging ahead without getting buy-in. This is the guy who is a font of wisdom, yet he doesn’t seem to know where the boss’s office is, because you never see him screw up his courage to walk in there and present a workable solution.

Finally, there are the people who ignore the problem, because they are lazy, or comfortable, or out of touch, or, quite simply, because they ARE the problem. We all know a few of these people too, don’t we?

Give me people who rush a problem like firemen to a burning building, and who have the competence to douse it with water instead of gasoline. Problem-solving ability and guts. That’s all I’m asking. Small order, right?

Childlike

November 30th, 2012 Posted in Faith and Life | 5 Comments »

Back when I thought I knew something about God, I sought arguments. God is this, and God is not that, and those scriptures you think say one thing actually mean something else, don’t you know. I thought her simple and silly, though good-hearted. Hers was the Sunday School God, the “Jesus Loves Me” God, a God unsuited to the intellectual nuance I mistook in myself for faith. She was too simple to understand God, I reasoned, but good-hearted enough to get to heaven.

Her Bible was at the funeral. It was filled with notes, acquired after she’d filled the ones before it to the brim. Plenty of people make notes in their Bibles. In my own I’ve underlined passages that substantiate treasured theological points, and crafted marginalia exploring connections between verses.

Her notes were much simpler. No abstruse ruminations on the nature of predestination, or the essence of the members of the Trinity. Her notes were sentences like, “Thank you, Lord,” and dates marking the dozens of times she returned to certain verses, and names of people for whom she prayed. Each page—like her life—was filled with thanksgiving and prayer.

She was simple but not simple-minded, and good-hearted through and through, and only now that she is gone does it occur to me that I might labor a lifetime and still not be worthy to be mentioned in the same breath with her name. Even if every word that comes from my mouth until my dying day is a kindness for someone, I won’t come close to the benedictions she gave to all she knew, even the likes of me, her sometime antagonist, who hadn’t the good sense to know that heaven is not filled with scholars but with saints, and that a lifetime living “Jesus Loves Me” is a life well-lived.