The five best books I read in 2015

In 2015 I set what I thought was a modest – but not insignificant – personal goal for reading: one book every two weeks – or 26 over the entire year (by comparison, Mark Zuckerberg set a similar goal for himself, and Bill Gates reads about a book a week; so I figured if those guys can carve out time then surely I can too). By the end of December I had finished 31 books, which I was pretty satisfied with. From those books, here are the five that made the biggest impression on me and were most worth my while.

1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

eastofeden

John Steinbeck called East of Eden “the first book,” and indeed there is something elemental about this masterful work. It aims for the moon and soars to the stars. Through the multi-generational story of several families who all cross paths in California’s Salinas Valley at the beginning of the twentieth century, it captures both a thousand stories of an era and that singular, timeless, origin story of human nature. At a time when many people still felt bound by fate, especially their own heritage, East of Eden proclaims the great freedom of human choice in a fallen world to break the moral trajectory of one’s lineage. The book finds its mythic roots for this in the Old Testament: Genesis 4. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s, to which Cain responded with jealousy and anger. God asked Cain why he was angry and challenged him to overcome his temptation to sin. Per the King James Version: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” The key word here, one character insists, is timshel – the Hebrew verb that means “thou mayest.” The “thou shalt” from the passage, he says, should be rendered “thou mayest.” The message for young Cal Trask, who poetically revives the part of Cain in the book’s retelling of the story, is that evil is crouching at his door, but he is not destined to repeat Cain’s sin (or the sins of his parents).

Steinbeck’s prose – his ability to portray characters, to delve into the great perversities and nobilities of human motives, and to craft scenes that deeply engage the reader – is some of the best I’ve ever read. East of Eden is a tome, weighing in at more than 600 pages, but it is well-worth the toil of reading it.

2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

zen_motorcycle

Before reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I’m not sure I had much of a propensity to connect road trips and motorcycle mechanics with philosophy, but I do now. Robert Pirsig’s account of a former college professor’s motorcycle road trip to the American northwest with his son alternates between the physical, concrete, and calculable to the realm of values and meaning. It moves to and fro from the task of keeping a motorcycle in top shape to abstract musings that probe all the way back to The Phaedrus, the ancient dialogue penned by Plato between Socrates and Phaedrus. These musings, conducted over long hours spent traversing America’s backroads, revolve around a deceptively simple question: what is quality? It eludes simple definition, but put two papers of decidedly differing quality in front of an undergraduate English composition class and nine out of ten of them will pick the same one as being of better quality. So quality is real, it shapes how we live and perceive and engage with the world, but is there any way to put a finger of what, exactly, it is – to capture its essence in words?

The book grows more and more philosophical as the narrator delves deeper into the troubled intellectual toils of his past, but as it grows in abstraction it also grows in tension and suspense as it is revealed that the narrator’s inquiry into values ultimately drove him mad. Will he return to the madness of the pursuit? Is there any other conscionable thing to do – any other way to stay committed to the truth? The book was published in 1974, but its subject remains timeless and profound.

3. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

denialofdeathcover

In The Denial of Death, the late Berkeley anthropologist and writer Ernest Becker works his way through the inherent tension of man’s nature, delving farther into the Nietzschean abyss than most modern, secular people have gone. As the title indicates, this book is about man’s struggle to reach the eternal and find meaning as a mortal creature – the result of this impulse being that we obsessively deny the impending reality of our own death. Sure, we have the head knowledge and pay lip service to the idea that we will die eventually (YOLO!), but most people go about their days without a deep existential realization of the dagger hanging over their heads by a thread. We long for greatness and transcendence and try to find it by investing all of our purpose in the nation state or existential act or romance or faith. We are gods, so to speak, yet we all end up as worm food. As Becker memorably put it, men are “gods who s***.”

The Denial of Death’s diagnostic of the human condition is spot on and much more honest about the secular worldview, I think, than most intellectuals are willing to be. It is bleak and concludes without any hope beyond some abstract notion of throwing oneself into the life-force of the universe. Reading it shook me up pretty bad and deeply disturbed me at times, but in a good way. It’s not beach reading, but for those courageous (and perhaps foolhardy) souls who can’t get past the most basic questions of what it means to be alive and who value delving into the ideas of guys like Freud, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, I commend this book to you.

4. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

this_side_of_paradise_dust_jacket

“I have sworn not to put pen to paper until my ideas either clarify or depart entirely; I have quite enough sins on my soul without putting dangerous, shallow epigrams into people’s heads…” This conclusion to the despairing rant of Amory Blaine, the young protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s freshman novel, captures the angst of the young, talented writer. It’s a conundrum I often run up against myself. How does one justify his own participation in a world constantly in flux, in which public opinion shifts with the winds of the media’s ideology, true love feels eternally elusive, and matters of life and death seem to be dictated by cold, impersonal happenstances of car accidents and stray bullets?

Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at the age of 23, delivering a quintessential coming of age tale as America entered the Roaring Twenties. It is a fictionalized memoir of sorts, drawing heavily from his own crash-and-burn experiences with women, attending Princeton University, serving in World War One, and moving to New York City as a young man. I don’t have an answer for all of his frustrations, but it’s nice to encounter a youthful, zealous personality whose ambition and optimism crashes on the rocks of vanity. It’s also refreshing to encounter someone who is aware of his own self-absorption enough to refer to himself repeatedly as “the egotist.” Millennials may be the self-absorbed generation, with our Instagram and smartphones, but This Side of Paradise shows that adolescence hasn’t really changed much since it first came into being a century ago.

5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X

autobiographyofmalcolmx

I don’t read many autobiographies (or biographies, for that matter), but maybe I should. Back when I was in college a writing professor once referenced the Autobiography of Malcolm X, so when I saw it sitting in a box of free stuff on the sidewalk I picked it up. My professor had recommended the book because of its account of the turning point that steered Malcolm X’s life away from a vicious cycle of crime and prison to standing as a ideological and political leader among African Americans in the tumultuous lead up to the civil rights era. Everything changed in prison, as Malcolm himself recollects. When he first went to jail he estimated he had a vocabulary of just a few hundred words. He got religion through a Black Muslim, and then he decided to teach himself English – proper English. His method was simple. He opened a dictionary and started meticulously memorizing it one word at a time, starting with “aardvark.” By the time he was out of prison, he had read a vast swath of literature, history, and philosophy, and his education rivaled that of any college graduate. He became an eloquent speaker and powerful societal voice. As my professor would have said, he “mastered the civilization in which he lived.”

The literary and intellectual prowess of Malcolm X is evident in this book. It thoroughly transported me into his shoes. Given the great disparity between our life experiences – me, a college-educated middle-class white Christian from California, and Malcolm, a black hoodlum who cut his teeth on all manner of unlawful dealings in Boston and then Harlem – that’s really saying something. Even though much of his career was marked by decidedly extreme, violent rhetoric, reading his autobiography gave me a fresh empathy for the African American experience that has expanded how I think about racial issues today.

Autumn’s death and the whisper of resurrection

It’d be a damnable shame to dwell on morality, as in my previous post here, without a subsequent meditation on the prospect of immortality. Namely, the hope of resurrection.

Autumn is like dying. There’s a reason we use the seasons as metaphors for the trajectory of life. We have the glowing, invigorating spring of childhood, the glorious summer years of adulthood and family life, the ripening of autumn and decay of old age (not without its own beauty of peaceful, resigned contentment) and finally the cold death of winter, the lifeless chill from which the fauna retreats into hibernation and the flora goes dormant.

Here we are in the heart of autumn. October is over, but November and December feel full of promise. The holidays bring with them the prospect of rest – most of us aren’t farmers these days, but even those working in today’s information economy need rest from the digital harvest of their labors. And so winter seems to me to offer a gateway to restoration, through time to retreat and reflect, to spend long hours in reflection and conversation under blankets and around fires with hot mugs of tea and coffee. Winter is a time to take stock of my soul, to descend into dark places so as to correct the awry trajectories of my heart, and to refresh my zeal for another year of adventure in a world of stories.

What I’m getting at here is that whispers of restoration and resurrection run everywhere through the fibers of the natural world. “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime,” said Martin Luther. From the falling of the leaves to the eclipse of the moon, we live in and among these divinely orchestrated cycles, mighty and mysterious. The rain falls down, waters the land, fills the rivers, and runs to the sea. What brings it back? Evaporation, changing from liquid to gas… you can describe the scientific process, sure. We might as well call it a miracle.

Marilynne Robinson has some wonderful reflections on this question in her book “Housekeeping.” At one point the narrator, a young girl named Ruthie living in her deceased grandmother’s house, looks out and sees that two of the apple trees in her grandmother’s orchard have died:

“One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there as if expectantly, their limbs almost to the ground, miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it should be no great wonder. It would be a small change, as it would be, say, for the moon to begin turning on its axis. It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost.” (emphasis mine)

shutterstock_343082936Things perish. That is their nature in a universe of entropy. And even though they have a tendency to come back in new incarnations, what about when those cycles cease, as surely someday they must? Will they perish forever at the end of all things? Robinson doesn’t think so, for it would contradict our nature, our great expectations, our pesky, tenacious human impulse to cling to hope in the most wretched circumstances – especially, in fact, in the most wretched circumstances.

Indeed, for Robinson, desire and longing are a type of prophecy. As C.S. Lewis might say, we have cravings only because something exists to satisfy them. Here’s Robinson again (emphasis once again mine):

“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when does our sense know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

The darker life gets, the greater our craving for the light. Where evil and oppression proliferates, our cries and prayers for justice go up all the louder. Where the world is salt, there is greater need of slaking. In the valley of the shadow of death, the soul yearns for life abundant beyond the grave.

I’m at a loss to explain why, but the plain fact is that struggle, destruction, and lack are built in to the universe – often as a necessary precursors to some good end. Craftsmen labor for decades to hone their handiwork. Scholars study books without end in order to master a subject. The athlete trains with weights that make his motions more difficult and becomes strong. Salmon swim upstream against nature’s currents. Irritation turns grains of sand into pearls. Forest fires till fertile ground. Grapes are smashed, left to ferment, and become wine.

Back to the question. Does the autumn of life, the waning years, represent the final descent into vanity and death, or is it the path to new life? That’s the rub. Like Robinson, I can’t bring myself to accept and end of nothingness, of trees that never return with spring leaves. If autumn were followed by a never-ending winter (a la “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”), it would be a depressing time indeed – the last gasp of life’s pleasantries and warmth and joy. The sentimentality we experience during this season – harvest festivals and joviality, pumpkins and spices, flannel and friendship, bronzed foliage and wood fires burning through the nights – would become impossible. It would be the season of deepest despair and futility.

For those with a limited view of reality, it is a season of despair. Death is the last enemy, the one fate that we cannot defeat. We all fall to winter’s chill in the end, completing the cycle from dust to dust, and we cannot see past it, at least not with our physical faculties.

“Is there someone buried beneath this skin?” sings Jon Foreman. “Is he free when I am locked in my coffin?” Foreman finds a grounded answer first by looking back to the Maker, the one from whom all births spring, who ordained the seasons, turns the rain back into clouds, tells the trees to put out new green leaves, and who has himself passed through the great death of winter. From that old story we look forward, with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.

“Resurrection comes, but death comes first. All of our entitlements and rights drive the hearse. In the Maker’s death, death is unmade. And when I lose myself I’m saved – in my coffin.”

Ulysses and the Paradox of Freedom

Last year the band Switchfoot released an EP of songs they recorded for a documentary tour/surf film. One of the songs is called “Liberty.” As the title suggests, it is about freedom, but it begins with a metaphor that challenges our conventional understanding of what freedom actually is:

I tie myself up to the mast

Give up the semblance of control

The sirens sing, but I let them pass

‘cause only you can free my soul

The reference, of course, is from the classic Greek epic The Odyssey. At one point in his journey home, the hero Ulysses is warned about the irresistible song of the sirens, which entices men to chase after it to their destruction. Because he wants to hear the song, Odysseus has his crew tie him to the mast so that he can hear the song without pursuing its seductive beauty.

The songwriter Josh Garrels makes a similar reference in a song called Ulysses, in which he asks to be tied to the mast of the ship on which he is sailing.

But look at those first two lines from Switchfoot’s song: I tie myself up and give up control. What kind of freedom is this?

I had a professor in college who used to point out in his philosophy classes that anytime you are freed from something, you become enslaved to something else. In other words, you always freed into a new place of slavery. Any realistic talk of freedom must include this nuance because freedom cannot exist in a vacuum. The song gets this in the reference to giving up the semblance of control. To deny our “creatureliness,” as the late anthropologist Ernest Becker might say, is to live in an illusion.

“We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives,” he writes in The Denial of Death. “We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us.”

Odysseus-003Becker is saying that our meaning and motives are contingent on forces outside of us; we simply must give ourselves away to something or somebody. If we don’t, we will despair, go insane, and generally cease to live in any meaningful sense. It is our nature to latch onto something bigger and better than the self because we are weak and live in the constant shadow of death. This greater object can be a lot of different things – an abstract ideal of virtue or heroism, a lover, a god, or even something as debased as a number in a bank account.

The pastor Tim Keller gives a practical example to explain how freedom must coexist with slavery. If you want the freedom to play the piano, he says, you must put in long hours of practice, forfeiting the freedom to do many other things with those hours. But it is only after you’ve enslaved yourself to the practice of the piano that you can sit down and play stunning pieces of music.

When I was in college, I saw this firsthand as I roomed with a number of music majors. Many days they would leave for the practice rooms early in the morning and not return until midnight. Sometimes they looked weary and miserable from the grind, other times elated because of a breakthrough in mastering a new technique or portion of a piece. Their spirit changed according to how the work seemed to be going in the moment, but at the recital at the end of the semester I saw the fruit of their labor. It was always wondrous to behold – both the magnificence of the piece they played and the raw elation they displayed from performing it.

As finite beings that can only exist at a single place and time, any meaningful sense of freedom must therefore mean a sort of enslavement, because as the example of practicing music implies, saying yes to one thing means saying no to everything else.

Now extrapolate that freedom-enslavement paradigm to the soul – the self, the seat of our core identity and deepest desires. What would it look like to free that? What would it take to free the part of us that has the longings of eternity written on it? Is there any one thing, any one person, to which we can subsume all of the lesser pursuits of freedom?

The philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard thought so. Becker summarizes Kierkegaard’s view thusly: “Once the person begins to look to his relationship to the Ultimate Power, to infinitude, and to refashion his links from those around him to that Ultimate Power, he opens up to himself the horizon of unlimited possibility, real freedom.” In other words, real freedom comes when one grounds his identity and purpose fundamentally in the almighty God.

Both of the aforementioned songs have two additional components to their understanding of liberty that shows us why nothing short of this infinite God will do. The first is an implicit understanding that our impulses and desires are fundamentally flawed.  Ulysses understood that even though he had been warned that pursuing the siren song would kill him, he still had to lash himself to the mast. He knew his own self-control would not be enough to stop him from throwing himself to his doom, and so he gave up control. He sacrificed his own volition, but he preserved his life.

This is profoundly instructive for us today in a world where similarly destructive comforts and pleasures are ever before us, singing a siren song that sounds damn good. When one embraces his own self-centered passions under the guise of authentic self-expression or self-actualization, he will inevitably find himself thrashing after the siren song to an end of bitterness, despair, and (perhaps literally) death. Individual stories of these self-destructive pursuits abound – just read some history or great literature, or look at the lessons of your past.

Thomas_Cole,_The_Voyage_of_Life croppedWe’re bent out of shape, but how can we be set straight? What’s the solution to disordered desires? You can lash yourself to the mast, but that won’t help in the long run unless that mast is on a ship and unless the ship has a destination. Therefore, the final component to this theology of freedom we see in these songs is the idea of the present journey and the hope of home.

Here’s another line from Switchfoot’s Liberty:

Mine is the story headed home.

And Garrels:

I’m sailing home to you and I won’t be long…

So tie me to the mast of this old ship and point me home

Before I lose the one I love

Before my chance is gone

Here we see the faith that our lives have a destination, an ideal home that this world only gives us a small foretaste of. These songs understand that the experience of lashing yourself to the mast is not the end goal of freedom, but a means of self preservation until you make it to your true home – the final resting place.

But how can we reconcile that hope with the siren song in the here and now? How can you be free at your current home when so many of our impulses and desires are misguided? I believe Kierkegaard rightly found the resolution in Christianity, a faith that holds forth a paradoxical freedom by proclaiming both our liberty and our enslavement. One moment, Jesus Christ is saying “come unto me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” And the next he says “if you would follow me, you must deny yourself and take up your cross.” The Apostle Paul says that “where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty,” but then he says “you are not your own, because you were bought with a price,” and it is therefore incumbent upon you to live for God’s glory.

And so the Christian, looking beyond the limited possibilities of this present life, submits to a temporal, liberating enslavement. He entrusts himself to Jesus Christ, the freest man to ever live who, in his freedom as God-incarnate, submitted himself to the will of his Father. In being united to Christ, the Christian has hope that one day we will experience true freedom from our selfish, damning impulses in a new home – the Father’s house.

But for now we live in the tension of our depravity. In matters of the self and the soul, we only find freedom by denying our baser nature, fencing ourselves sin, cutting off hands and putting out eyes, tying ourselves to the mast and giving up the semblance of control. The sires sing, but we can let them pass, because only You can free my soul.

C.S. Lewis on the agony of coming to God

dragon dawn treader

Lately I’ve been stewing on what it means, as a Christian, to repent from sin and actually be transformed by God into His image. I have a heck of a time casting off certain vices, but I’ve found condolence in reading The Visionary Christian, a collection of excerpts from the more fantastical writings of C.S. Lewis. Three parallel scenes struck me for how they showcase what it is like to approach God as a flawed, finite creature. I’ve added italics for emphasis.

From The Silver Chair:

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answer this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion…
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion…and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted.”

From The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

Context: The boy Eustace has been turned into a dragon. The lion Aslan leads him to a pool that can help his injured leg, but first, the lion says, he must undress – take off his dragon skin. Eustace scratches off one layer of skin, but underneath it he is still a dragon. So he does it again, only to find another layer. After a third time, he is still a dragon.

“Then the Lion said—I don’t know if it spoke—You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…”
“Well, he peeled the beastly tuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeling switch and smaller than I had been.”

great divorce lizardFrom The Great Divorce:

Context: The ghost is a deceased soul somewhere in between heaven and hell in the afterlife. He has a lizard attached to him that acts much like a devil on his shoulder. An Angel approaches him and asks if he can kill it.

“Have I your permission?” said the Angel to the Ghost.
“I know it will kill me.”
“It won’t. But supposing it did?”
“You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”
“Then I may?”
“Damn and blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.”
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.
“Ow! That’s done for me,” gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.

The common thread in all of these stories is that any authentic approach to God is an utterly agonizing process. Casting off the sin that encumbers us (or rather, allowing God to cast it off) is the hardest, most painful thing that we can ever do. It will feel like a part of our essential self is being destroyed because our depravity is so ingrained in us that we cannot distinguish our actual self from it, much less separate ourselves from it.

But in the fact the opposite of death will happen – that is, death in any ultimately meaningful sense. The deep transformation that Lewis has in mind here purges the heart of evil and frees us to be our true selves as God intended us to be. And in the process – as the dragon scales are coming off or as the lizard is writhing in the throes of death or as we take those first tentative steps toward the Living Water that quenches all thirst – we experience even deeper within us a release, new breath, cleansing. And of course on the other side, once our thirst is quenched and the ugly skin is cast off and the reptile ripped off our backs, oh what joy await on the other side.

We see this idea echoed in the Bible. Jesus calls those who would follow him to deny themselves and take up their crosses – implements of torture and execution – and the writer of Hebrews notes that He suffered while being tempted. Paul describes a similar death-to-self experience in his letter to the Galatians, writing that “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” And Peter connects suffering to the purging of evil when he writes that “whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

If you would know your Maker in spirit and truth, you must be willing to suffer whatever it takes – any agony and any price. That means allowing God to carve out parts of you that seem integral to your identity, parts that may feel second-nature to you – those parts that you feel you can’t live without even though they keep you bogged down in a wretched mediocrity. There’s no other way to find true, unspoiled, unblemished life.

The heresy of Noah, and why it’s still a good movie

What happens when you take the Messiah out of the creation story.

Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah has been analyzed and debated ad nauseam by critics and bloggers in Christian circles. I suppose given its biblical source material, everyone felt a need to weigh in. Normally I wouldn’t presume to try to add another voice to a subject so thoroughly flogged (and now approaching ancient history, in internet terms). But there’s a simple way of framing Noah that I have yet to see presented.

It is this:

The film tells the story of Noah without Jesus.

Of course Noah takes minor liberties and debatable interpretations from a handful of verses to fill in a two-hour story, but it gets the major thrust of the biblical narrative correct. It places all the blame for death, evil, and abuse squarely on the shoulders of mankind. We are all depraved, Noah recognizes. He sees that the seeds of evil in the sons of Cain outside the ark dwell within him and his family too.

One critical omission, however, stands out most – the promise of a Deliverer. Notice that when Noah tells his family the creation story, he ends it before God expounds on the specific ramifications of the curse – man must work by the sweat of his brow, enmity is placed between man and woman, and God promises that Eve’s offspring will crush the serpent’s head. Noah leaves out God’s Messianic promise to undo and conquer the wrong that the serpent and mankind have done. He leaves out Jesus Christ.

This has profound ramifications for the philosophical trajectory of the film. Aronofsky’s Noah shows us that when you strip the Messiah out of the biblical narrative, only two options remain: despair (read: suicide) and humanism. If humanity is hopelessly depraved and fundamentally bent toward evil, as Crowe’s Noah understands, there’s nothing for it but to let the human race die out. Life has no point – better to cut it off now and avoid the future suffering that we will inevitably cause. So that is what he intends to do. As horrific as this plan is, part of me empathizes with him. Even in the ark we see how Ham nearly murders his father out of resentment, and it seems that Noah might actually be right in his bleak projection of the future should humanity continue.

In true Hollywood blockbuster fashion, the film is not cynical enough to leave us with the demise of the human race according to Noah’s plan. Sans the idea of a Savior capable of both forgiving and removing a person’s sin, it turns to humanism. Noah cannot strike down his daughters in the end because all he feels in his heart is love. He cannot help giving in to this righteous impulse. He concludes that God is giving humanity a new chance to rebuild and do better. And so we end in the hope that through love and cooperation and a renewed dedication to the Creator and creation, humanity will do better this time – we will do better this time.

It’s a rather ironic conclusion, because if you keep reading Noah’s source material, the tower of Babel is just a chapter away.  Even in the film itself, the way Cain and Able are portrayed in Noah’s story – flashing to silhouettes of soldiers with increasingly sophisticated weapons – suggests that the same impulse that drove Cain to murder his brother continues in the hearts of humanity until this day.

All of this makes for a heretical retelling of Noah, but the heresy occurs in an emotionally powerful and theologically instructive fashion. We should expect nothing less from Aronofsky, who knows how to craft a good story and understands a thing or two about human nature. Stripped of the promise of a Deliverer who will save mankind from its sins, he strings us out to the existential extremes. He shows us how without Christ, not much remains of the hopeful, positive themes of any Bible story.

Consider the biblical stories within the context of human literature. Out of all the stories ever told, the Bible’s depiction of humanity, from Genesis to Revelation, stands as one of the bleakest. It paints a sick, brutally realistic picture of mankind – even of many “heroes of the faith” – which Aronofsky’s Noah captures well. The problem in this world is us, and Noah presents us with the only human solutions.

If we’re honest with ourselves, neither of them is satisfactory.

Projecting the future – Big Data

control room

Read (or at least skim) this Politico article:

Commercial data brokers know if you have diabetes. Your electric company can see what time you come home at night. And tracking companies can tell where you go on weekends by snapping photos of your car’s license plate and cataloging your movements.

Private companies already collect, mine and sell as many as 75,000 individual data points on each consumer, according to a Senate report. And they’re poised to scoop up volumes more, as technology unleashes a huge wave of connected devices — from sneaker insoles to baby onesies to cars and refrigerators — that quietly track, log and analyze our every move. . .

At home, smart meters can tell whether you have a plasma TV and what time you cook dinner. (Or even, perhaps, whether you’re growing marijuana in the basement.)

If you take more conventional prescription drugs, your pill bottles may soon email your doctor to let him know if you’ve been taking your medication.

Your car may let your mechanic know that your tires need rotating.

Your TV’s set-top box may soon be able to sense what you’re doing while you’re watching a show — snacking? snuggling? mopping? — and broadcast ads appropriate to the situation.

 

My question: when is the Orwell or Bradbury of our time going to write the next great dystopian novel already?

The time is ripe. Big Data is watching. But perhaps we aren’t scared enough yet.

Book Review: “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World”

It was with great eagerness that I picked up James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.” As the title suggests, Hunter tries to tackle the contentious topic of culture changing as it’s understood and practiced by Christians. Given that Hunter is both a Christian and prominent sociologist at the University of Virginia, he seems to be a good man for the job.

Any talk of transforming culture inevitably involves politics, and that’s the thing about “To Change the World” that piqued my interest. My understanding of the intersection of Christianity and politics has evolved quite a bit over the past several years (along with my convictions about what that intersection ought to look like). Given that I just graduated from a Christian college and started a fledgling career in politics, I could hardly have chosen something more relevant to my life.

That’s because Hunter sets out to answer the big question: how do Christians go about changing the culture in which they live? Or more generally: how ought we to go about living out our faith and engaging with the world? It’s a timeless subject that Christianity has wrestled through since it’s inception, starting at least with St. Augustine and continuing until today with organizations like Focus on the Family.

Hunter responds to this question in three parts. He first explores the substance of the question: What is culture? How and why does it change? What is it like today and what kind of influence do Christians currently wield? This part of the book is mainly analysis that lays the groundwork for the rest of the book, clears up some misconceptions about world-changing, and defines key terms—what exactly is “culture,” for instance. How do ideas have consequences? Why doesn’t society always reflect the beliefs of the majority?

Whether or not you’ve thought through these questions, it’s well worth the read. Some of Hunter’s answers may surprise you. For instance, changing culture isn’t as simple as “changing the hearts and minds, one person at a time.” Rather, those at the top of elite power structures have far more sway in the movement of our ideas and beliefs than whatever the masses say. Only 15% of America at the most is secular, yet our society–the public square, our classrooms, and so on–is intensely secular.

The second part of the book explains and critiques, in a self-admittedly very broad fashion, the three main movements or “models” that American Christians have adopted over the past several decades in their mission to change the world—the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists. He sums them up in the terms “defensive against”, “relevance to”, and “purity from”, respectively.

In the third part, Hunter goes on the offensive, offering a new model for cultural engagement that he terms “faithful presence.” Continue reading →

Commencement Speech: “You Are Not Special”

I know the graduation fervor has died down since earlier last month, but this might be the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard.

There’s a reason that David McCullough’s address to Wellesley High School has racked up more than 1.5 million views  since being posted on YouTube a month ago.  Finally we have a speaker who is willing to be a straight shooter for a change—witty but honest—someone who will say what everyone has always wanted to hear at graduations.  It amounts to something to the effect of: “Guess what kid, it’s been a good run having you here at school, but when it comes down to it, you’re not really all that special.  There are thousands of graduates in this country in the same shoes as you. And they think they’re pretty awesome too. So what are you going to do about it?” Forget the “reach for the stars, you can do anything” crap. “If everyone is special, no one is,” says McCullough, “If everyone gets a trophy, trophies are meaningless.”

I think it goes to show that our society, despite all the superficiality and political correctness that we put up to shield ourselves from reality, still longs for authenticity. No one wants to live under a delusion or lie, and McCullough, though hopeful, doesn’t shy away from reality in his speech. “Statistics tell us that half of you will get divorced.”  When you think about it, that’s an awful reality. It means that hundreds of kids sitting right in front of him will one day experience horrible regret, conflict, and heartache. Yet that is the world too, is it not? It’s full of opportunity, but it’s also full of pitfalls, failures, and disappointment.

Better still, McCullough hits on several critical points that I did not fully grasp until well into my college education.  Namely, he tells the graduates: “I also hope you’ve recognized how little you know—how little you know now.” If you’re no more than a tiny, finite, speck in a world of millions of people and a universe of unfathomable length and breadth, how much can you really expect of have figured out? Not much, of course, so how do you deal with it? McCullough gives them the one simple remedy: “Read. Read all the time. Read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life.”

If you watch the speech, take some time to think about it. Think about the principles; then find ways to act. Meditate on what it means to truly live. Agonize over what it means to truly live. Question the purpose of your life. Pray, doubt, cry. Inspiration quotes and speeches are a dime a dozen. Seriously, for the most part it’s true. But the things that change lives—and it may not be one specific moment, phrase, or speech, but dozens of books, a deep friendship, extended meditation and prayer, faith expressed in concrete action–the things that let you look back through life and say, “I’m not who I was back then.” Those are truly priceless.

McCullough echoes New York Times’ columnist David Brooks’ reminder to graduates that it’s not about you. Sure, you may have potential, but you are not the end. You must not make yourself the end. The fulfilled life only happens when you think on things more important than yourself.

I like the irreverent twist on the famous Latin phrase near the end: “carpe the heck out of the diem.” It takes a certain energy, an initiative—a violence, if you will—to truly live. McCullough says “The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap.” Although I would nuance this by noting that sometimes the greatest joys in life are things that happen to us—things that just seem to fall into our laps–the basic point is correct. Genuine living demands that we choose. It requires a distinct act of the will whereby we actively do things for the sake of Something greater. It is in our nature to let the universe revolve around ourselves, but it is a temptation we must resist. As Brooks said: “The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

Book Review: Meaning at the Movies

I’m sure many of my readers will agree that Christian books about movies–and culture in general–are a dime a dozen. Especially now, with all of the blog posts and sermons that evangelical Christians have delivered on the subject over the years, few bring much to the table. Professor Grant Horner of The Master’s College, with his humble contribution, “Meaning at the Movies,” realizes this. He takes a different tack toward movies by trying mainly to help readers understand and appreciate films in light of what the Bible says about being human.

And he succeeds.

“Meaning at the Movies” stands out because of a simple, yet powerful, thesis. Horner builds his book on the notion that culture, and especially the arts, are fundamentally a result of mankind suppressing the truth of God. As he says, “We all know, deep down, certain things, and we all, deep down, have certain expectations about the world and the ways we think things ought to be.” Some things, Horner would say, we know and refuse to disbelieve, other things we know and refuse to believe, but in either case, certain truths about ourselves, as image bearers of God, tends to come up in the movies we make.

This happens because mankind was made to be in relationship with God and worship Him, Horner says, yet we have sinned and fallen away from God. The result is that we are left seeking to fill a void in our souls. His key support for this comes from the first chapter of the book of Romans. Verses 16 through 23 in particular are worth quoting here, where St. Paul writes:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

This is a direct, open, evangelical approach rooted in the Bible. Horner believes that the Bible is God’s word and therefore the only pure truth we have. As divine revelation, we can trust what it says about God and about humanity. Therefore, it ought to shape the very fabric of how we think about and analyze film.

As “common” as this approach may be–pretty much every Christian book on movies would purport to go by “biblical principles”–the idea of suppressed truth that Horner appeals to over and over again throughout his book strikes me as pretty unique. Horner isn’t out to say which movies are good and which ones are bad. He’s not out to give us a guide to what we should and shouldn’t watch, even though he does have a sizable section on discernment. Rather, he’s out to teach us a radical theory about human nature and cultural production.

Continue reading →

Purpose, Hope, Vanity and Death

Disclaimer: I mean no disrespect to my grandmother in all of this. I am, after all, indebted to her for my own life, which has been quite good thus far, and for that I am deeply grateful. She was a great blessing and joy to me at times, and for that I am also grateful. There is much I can learn from her life, but not all of it is positive. That is why I am writing this post.

My grandmother passed away just more than a month ago–the day before Thanksgiving. Her health had been in sharp decline the past several years, so it did not come as a huge shock, but it was difficult nonetheless. It was not so much the loss of the relationship that devastated me as much as the harsh reality of death, of a life ceasing to exist in this world, and knowing that we all are destined to the same fate. I spent some time meditating on it, and as I looked through the Bible, I soon found my way to the book of Ecclesiastes. Chapter 7 in particular caught my attention. It opens as follows:

A good name is better than precious ointment,
and the day of death than the day of birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning.

(Ecclesiastes 7:1-4, 8a ESV)

When the funeral was held a week later, I was thoroughly depressed. And I had every right to be, for one thing about the whole situation continually impressed itself on my mind–there was nothing in which to rejoice. Nothing about it merited one bit of goodness, happiness, joy or peace.

If that seems overly bleak, yes, I know that death is part of the course of life. From dust we came and to dust we shall return. As a Christian, I believe that for those who know God, death is even precious in His sight, but I had no clear indicators about my grandmother’s spiritual condition, and the prospect of divine justice left little room for hope.

Furthermore, on an even deeper level, I believe death is a horribly unnatural phenomena. It is the great unknown, the void that we must continually face but can never experience. The absurdity of it drove existentialists mad. The terror of it has driven many more to a similar desperate insanity.

Continue reading →