X Marks the Spot

X marks the spot. And, my oh my, are there lots of spots about! There are Xes on the floors at Walmart. There are Xes at Target. There are Xes at Ingles, Kroger, Costco, QT, Dollar General, etc. When you approach a cashier to pay for goods and services, if you look down near your feet, you are probably going to see tape, paint, or another marker indicating the following: X marks the spot. I don’t know about you, but it gives me what my grandfather used to call the heebie-jeebies. In short, the creeps. The times are a-changin’, Dylan wrote. But this time it is a different kind of cultural revolution. It is not the Vietnam War now; it is not LSD and the hippies now; it is not feminism now. It is a cultural revolution in which the foundation is being dismantled and destroyed. Statue by statue, church by church, zip code by zip code, mayor by mayor, governor by governor, carnage fills the headlines. And one of the great questions to be settled is, What will the new foundation be?

To state what many believe, the West is undergoing a transformation. We are now in a place where an organization like Black Lives Matter has the world’s attention. And the buzzwords and catchphrases en vogue in today’s post-Christian, post-everything culture pervade their website. Here is a section direct from BLM’s website:

We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.

We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be      disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.

We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.

We practice empathy. We engage comrades with the intent to learn about and connect with their contexts.

We make our spaces family-friendly and enable parents to fully participate with their children. We dismantle the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work “double shifts” so that they can mother in private even as they participate in public justice work.

We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.

We foster a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking, or rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual (unless s/he or they disclose otherwise).[1]

Race, gender, “sexual orientation,” and “gender identity” and Communism comprise the majority of BLM’s worldview. As I have read through their website’s resources, it is filled with language of “oppression.”

Individuality is absent; what fills their writing is emphasis upon the group, upon the collective. You are valuable insofar as you are black. Race is key. And if you add certain sexual proclivities, then you receive bonus points, i.e., more value. To simplify it for those who will not do the reading on their own, the worst thing a person can be is white, male, heterosexual, Christian, married, monogamous, and politically conservative. Those are indicators of your status as “oppressor.”

To say that BLM illustrates “identity politics” is supreme understatement. In the absence of the transcendent worldview that teaches that all lives matter (from conception until natural death) because they are created in the image of the infinite-personal creator God, now we live in a world where pigmentation determines people’s worth.

Remember Rev. MLK’s words about the dream that all people would be valued by the “content of their character” rather than the color of their skin? Well, that is rejected by BLM. For BLM, color is what matters.

I wonder why the statistics of the millions of black babies murdered each year don’t find space on their website. Did those black lives not matter? What about the lives snuffed out by black on black crime in Los Angeles, in Chicago, in Oakland, in Detroit, in New York, in Philadelphia, in D.C., and other cities controlled by Leftists? Did those black lives not matter?

My wife and I lost a couple of children several years back. For those of you who have been through the same thing, you know the pain. It is almost indescribable. My wife’s pain through those seasons was horrible to watch. And all I could do was watch, cry, and pray. They remain terrible experiences that scarred us both. Our children’s lives mattered.

But why doesn’t the logic cut both ways for BLM? Where is the outrage at Planned Parenthood facilities being overwhelmingly in neighborhoods where most American blacks live, and aborting generations of black lives? Don’t those lives matter?

Again, look at the numbers: “Since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, abortion has killed an estimated 20 million black babies — more than the entire black population of 1960.”[2]

What will replace the foundation that is being torn down statue by statue? What will replace the foundation that tells people they are valuable because they are created in the image of God who redeems their fallenness through the gospel? What will replace the heretofore self-discipline and Judeo-Christian worldview that informed the Founding Fathers’ worldviews, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence? What will replace the traditional family where moms and dads raised children to honor their parents, to respect all people, to wrestle against their own sin, to think critically, and to honor those to whom honor is due?

Will the moniker be, X marks the spot? Will it be that the West destroys itself from casting off all moral restraint? Will the West degenerate to such a level that the arguments that carry the culture into judgment revolve around “gender identity,” “oppression,” and “identity politics”?

I do not claim to speak for others but I, for one, am long past being weary of wearing facemasks and using hand sanitizer while watching thugs vandalize private and federal property and wreak havoc—and yet, I am somehow the bad guy if I don’t don a mask and stand six feet from my neighbor?

In the biblical worldview, we are to love our neighbors and respect their property, not shame them for something they’re not guilty of. In the biblical worldview, we are to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. But in the godless Communist world of BLM and Leftism, you see paint being splattered across the nation, riots disrupting civilized life, intimidation, violence, defunding of police, “cancel culture,” and unleashed madness.

The foundations are being dismantled block after block across our land by mobs in black shirts, fattened on vitriol and talking points, but malnourished with regard to self-discipline, love for God, or love of neighbor.

X marks the spot used to mean, at least when I was young, the place signifying you’d landed upon the spot for treasure. This was where the goods were to be found. Now the Xes keep us “distanced,” and suspicious of one another, looking askance at each other, sizing one another up. Really? Has it really come to this—skin colors, critical race theories, gender identities, identity politics, and language of oppressors vs. oppressed? I hope not, folks.

There is a better way. It is not utopian. It is not “progressive.” It tells us that we are all (all!) created in the image of God, but that we have fallen through sin. Yet grace has come in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And glory comes on his terms because of him, to all who respond in repentance and faith. Creation, fall, grace, and glory. How is that for X making the spot? You can stand there and if you do, you will find the foundation whose builder is God, and you will finally be home.

[1] https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/

[2] https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/op-eds/since-roe-abortion-has-killed-more-black-babies-than-the-entire-black-population-of-the-u-s-in-1960

 

Hospitals for the Fallen: Chris Adrian’s Sardonic and Sad Fiction

Sardonic and sad. Those words describe Chris Adrian’s tone in the short story collection A Better Angel. I finished reading the collection this week. Adrian is a doctor in real life, so it should not surprise readers that his writing is replete with scenes set in pediatric units, emergency rooms, hospitals, operating rooms, and on and on. And there is a motley crew of maladies, too–physical, psychological, existential, and spiritual. Especially spiritual.

Adrian writes with a keen eye for what’s wrong with the world (read: people, our systems, our relationships, our governments, etc. are all broken, flawed, fallen, and in need of redemption).

From the short story “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death” in the A Better Angel collection, here is a sample:

It’s not safe to confide in people here. Even when they aren’t prying—and they do pry—it’s better to be silent or to lie than to confide. They’ll ask you when you had your first period, or your first sex, if you are happy at home, what drugs you’ve done, if you wish you were thinner and prettier, or that your hair was shiny. And you may tell them about your terrible cramps, or your distressing habit of having compulsive sex with homeless men and women in Golden Gate Park, or how you can’t help but sniff a little bleach every morning when you wake up, or complain that you are fat and your hair always looks as if it had just been rinsed with drool. And they’ll say, I’ll help you with that bleach habit that has debilitated you separately but equally from your physical illness, that dreadful habit that’s keeping you from becoming more perfectly who you are. (187)

The speaker here is a girl hospitalized and separated from the “healthy” people. In her imagination, which is where she and the other kids in this story live their “real lives” due to the sicknesses keeping them from “normal” people, she and the other patients think, according to Adrian’s characterizations, in these terms.

They have to think and express themselves in crass and tragic ways, Adrian’s tone suggests, because their lives are so sad. They are freaks; they are isolated from most of the world; they are like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, alienated and invisible. The world is a horror show.

Adrian excels in forcing readers to see uncomfortable truths. He seems to want us readers to grapple with the ugliness and sin in life. His medium for doing this? Parade sickness and depravity throughout each story. Make the ugly sympathetic. See how we react.

I was initially shocked at some of the scenes I read, at least at first. Then I got used to them. And I think that is part of what Adrian is driving at. His view may be that we become coarsened to depravity, to the sinful, to the vile, but we learn to ignore it, to live with it, and become comfortably numb. The problem with that? Nothing changes for the better. We resign ourselves and say, That’s just the way things are.

Adrian is a fine writer, very fine. I am reading through his other works now, because I want to see if this worldview is in his other fiction. My hope is that he is open to the possibility of redemption. It does not make sense to complain of the ugly and depraved in life and at the same time exclude the alternatives. Does not the ugly imply the beautiful? Does not the depraved imply the sublime, the exalted, the divine? And what if this universe is not a closed system? And what if people, though fallen and sinful, are fearfully and wonderfully made, but rebelling against their author and means of redemption? These are questions I hope Adrian’s other fiction addresses.

 

 

 

 

 

Questions of Empire and Barbarians with J.M. Coetzee, All While Hiking with My German Shepherd

I stumbled on to the fiction of South African-born novelist J.M. Coetzee recently. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He has won the Booker Prize, the Jerusalem Prize, and several other high-profile awards for his fiction. Over the last week or so I have purchased several of his pieces and am working my way through reading his body of work. I completed one volume recently entitled Waiting for the Barbarians, a novel he published in 1980 when he was forty years old.

Coetzee is, again, new to me, so what follows may be too elementary for seasoned Coetzee readers. The following reflections I offer in a form I use when reading literary fiction:

  1. Overview
  2. Quotation(s)
  3. Main Idea(s)
  4. Questions Raised/Connections

 

Overview:

J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, published in 1980, explores the meaning of empire and barbarians, and what that model may suggest about man’s basic nature. I think Coetzee’s presupposition is that the “other” (political adversary, nation, tribe, culture, etc.) is the person, country, group, or demographic we label “barbarian” in our thinking so that we may justify acts of violence, conquest, and power.

The protagonist in this novel is a magistrate, a judge of some ilk. The importance of that, if I am correct, is that the book explores ideas of justice. What is justice? How do we define it? Where does the concept come from? How does one anchor the concept of justice? Is justice universal? All of these questions, of course, assume a worldview. What worldview offers coherent definitions with regard to justice? Does atheism? Does Christianity? What worldview has allowed for justice to blossom? Has it been atheistic regimes or has it been the Christian worldview?

One of the acts we see the magistrate engage in is washing the feet of a “barbarian” girl. He uses oil. He massages her feet and calves and legs. The biblical allusions to oil and of washing the dirty feet of sinners by the Teacher are overt. But Coetzee may be upending the meaning by asking us readers, “Who is the good one here? Is it the one washing the feet (the magistrate) or the one being washed (the barbarian girl)?” In other words, who is barbaric? Preliminary kindnesses may be mere camouflaged avenues towards conquest.

Because it is not long before the washer of feet in the novel alters his cares. Soon he patronizes women for his own sexual gratification. In sum, the caretaker becomes the predator. Ostensibly civilized and belonging to the cultured empire (he’s a magistrate, after all), he is shown also to be a fallen man with basic desires. The girl, then, becomes seen somewhat like a “noble savage” trope common in some schools of literary fiction.

Man’s natural state, in this novel at least, is bellicose. It’s Hobbesian. Scene after scene is nasty, mean, brutish, but not necessarily short. We witness rape and torture several times throughout the narrative. Cruelty pervades the story. Scores of novels explore man’s fallen nature so thoroughly that it comes across as a truism: A Clockwork Orange, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, etc.

This novel was different from hundreds of others I’ve read in this sense: it is unclear where or when it is set. If clarity of setting is a fundamental element of narrative, this book ignores that tradition. We readers don’t know where it is set–not the country, not the era, not even the hemisphere. The boundaries simply seem to be only set by an Us vs. Them paradigm. Because I could not locate when and where the story is set, it read to me like allegory.

Quotation:

 The children never doubt that the great old trees in whose shade they play will stand forever, that one day they will grow to be strong like their fathers, fertile like their mothers, that they will live and prosper and raise their own children and grow old in the place where they were born. What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation. (133)

Main Idea(s):

 Who defines the terms of what is “barbaric”? Whose empires will last? What is “cultured”? And how do people define justice? Is it simply the prerogative of the victor, the last man standing? These are serious questions Coetzee explores.

He did not leave this reader with optimism if his worldview is the true one. (Coetzee is an atheist, if what he has said in his many interviews is true.) But I do not ascribe to his worldview in this novel. Yes, empires rise and fall. Rapes occur—of land, of people, of dignity, etc. Countries rise and fall; leaders come and go. Nebuchadnezzar and Herod the Great, just two examples, thought themselves omnipotent. They weren’t.

Questions Raised/Connections:

 As I read through the book, and as I hiked several miles recently and tried to think through issues Coetzee raised in the novel, I came up with several questions I hope he addresses in his other books:

 

  1. On what basis is anything good or bad in an atheistic worldview? Seems to me things would only be preferences if the objective standard (God) is removed.
  2. Define justice in an atheistic worldview.
  3. How do ideas of justice, of barbarianism, of empire, of conquest, and of dignity objectively exist in a materialistic universe?
  4. If Thomas Hobbes was right, why write novels?

Postscript:

 I hiked miles upon miles of hills this week, my hiking stick in my right hand, carved and given to me by a friend from south Georgia, my German shepherd, Brewster, by my side every step—through the woods, in the creeks, over the rocks, and finally back home. I thought much about the novel over the several hours we walked, of what it means to walk upon this earth, of how empires come and empires go, of how leaders are propped up for a bit and then fade, of how fickle we people are, of what worldview really does explain deep questions of justice, of why one would wash another’s feet, and I kept coming back to the One who said: “He has told you, O man what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, ESV).

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for the First Time

I do not remember how old I was the first time I watched The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Probably it was before I was twelve, maybe even ten. Maybe earlier still. I remember being scared by the Wicked Witch, and even by the old Wizard himself. Both overwhelmed me. They seemed too big, too powerful. I identified with Dorothy. I longed to return to my own Kansas where, cyclones aside, life was ostensibly safer and certainly simpler.

But to be cast out of one’s known environs, well, that terrified me. And Toto, though Dorothy’s loyal dog, offered no large degree of protection from the dangers awaiting the child-protagonist Dorothy, and her soon-to-be new circle of friends: the Scarecrow (in need of brains/wisdom); the Tin Woodman (in need of a heart/compassion); and the Cowardly Lion (in need of courage).

If you were like I was, the Wicked Witch’s aquiline nose, bony structure, and eerie voice frightened you, too. She was comprised of sharp angles and harsh manners. She dressed in black and hunched over as if from mysterious and malevolent causes.

And cast into a new world of powers and forces to which she had hitherto been unaware was little Dorothy, from the American heartland, Kansas. Uncle Henry, the farmer, and Aunt Em, the farmer’s wife, made their humble way in their little farmhouse on the massive Kansas prairie.

And of course there was Toto, Dorothy’s little faithful black dog, always at her side. (In the novel, he is small and black. In the movie, I think he was a brown Yorkie. But I have not seen the film in many years now.) Having read the novel now, I may watch the film again, just to see if my views may have changed.

I read several reviews of the story by literary types who purported to be experts in fairy tales and/or nursery rhymes. Some reviewers alleged Baum’s story was primarily political allegory. The Tin Woodman, for example, was a symbol for Emperor Wilhelm of Germany and the Cowardly Lion was a symbol for England (Boston Review). I don’t know about all that. Possible … maybe.

When I was reading it, it kept occurring to me that Dorothy and her friends were each missing something. Their shared concern was, in sum, longing. Each longed for something. The Scarecrow longed for brains; the Tin Woodman longed for a heart; the Cowardly Lion longed for courage; and of course Dorothy longed to return home to Kansas to reunite with her family.

But they also shared some things. They were honest with one another. They were trustworthy. They grew to increasingly depend upon one another in their journey down the road paved with yellow bricks to the City of Emeralds, and to hopefully meet the Wizard, who could grant each one’s wish.

I suppose that the novel could have allegorical categories. But as one who read what the author himself said of his novel, that it was a story “in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out,” I take him at his word. I read a delightful story of a girl thrust upon a journey by forces bigger than she understood. She grappled with her familiar surroundings being stripped away. She learned to adapt. Toto, her beloved dog, was her only visible reminder of home. She made new friends. She learned who was trustworthy and who was not. She learned the values of honesty and courage and persistence. She learned the importance of home and hearth. She learned that good and evil are unavoidable categories. She learned how to press on amidst overwhelming odds. And she learned that joy is greater when we have loved ones with whom to share it.

Most of all, I’d say, Dorothy learned that what she wanted now was what she had before but didn’t appreciate. The Tin Woodman had a heart of compassion all along; the Lion had courage in the face of fear; the Scarecrow had a mind throughout. There were no magical spells to instill these qualities; they constituted virtues they had only to use.

Say what you will, but that is no small set of accomplishments for a story most of us encountered first as children. In my view, those accomplishments and ideas are important not just for childhood but all of life.

Joker, Delillo’s novel Falling Man, & the Gospel

$1.1 billion and counting. That is how much money the movie Joker has earned worldwide so far, at least according to one website. I watched the movie recently with my family. Visually spectacular, psychologically terrifying, and propelled by the superb acting of Joaquin Phoenix, Joker was both hard to watch and hard not to watch.

The amount of violence was almost unbearable at times. Yet the sadness and alienation of the main character made him, at least insofar as the evil done to him, a sympathetic character. He suffered much at the hands of an uncaring and burned-out government counselor, a lady who was in Joker’s life to, ostensibly, help him. But that was not to be. She was a poor listener; she relied on platitudes instead of connection.

And Joker’s employer was not much better. The company suspected Joker rather than giving him the benefit of the doubt, when a backstabbing peer lied about Joker. The result? Joker was dismissed. He was then essentially penniless, too. He was a failure even in his counselor’s eyes; he was now fired from his job as a dancing clown; he could not afford his prescribed medications; he could not support his mentally unstable, old, and frail shut-in mother, who lived with him.

The irony is that his “job” was to make people smile, forget their troubles for a while, and laugh. But Joker’s life was unspeakably sad. At least until he succumbed to a particular worldview wherein he would become his own god, and he would set himself up as ground zero of a violent reign. He would don the mask of Joker—literally and psychologically—and avenge the system that had crushed him. And another irony? Crowds quickly followed, drawn to the charismatic avenger who seemingly smiled via his mask while murdering others in cold blood. Murder, death, carnage, and violence became celebrations for the mobs. Crowds lost any sense of self-discipline and became mobs. Destruction had become fun.

I completed reading Don Delillo’s novel Falling Man recently. He explored a cast of characters in New York–just prior to and following–the 9/11/2001 Islamic terrorist attacks wherein thousands of people were murdered. The characters Delillo follows throughout the book try to piece their lives together in a world where they think—at any moment—another attack may come. One woman leads a group in journaling their lives, as a way of trying to cope. One man has an affair. Another character loses herself in art. An Islamic Jihadist reassures himself he doesn’t have to think anymore in life because he will, he has decided, die a martyr for Allah. And yet another woman tries to explain her life in scattered, disjointed, theological and artistic terms. Below is a passage where Delillo describes the woman’s thought life:

     But isn’t it the world itself that brings you to God? Beauty, grief, terror, the empty desert, the Bach cantatas. Others bring you closer, church brings you closer, the stained glass windows of a church, the pigments inherent in the glass, the metallic oxides fused onto the glass, God in clay and stone, or was she babbling to herself to pass the time? (234)

In Joker we viewers witness the celebration of violence. The moral foundations have been destroyed in Joker’s world. Moral nihilism is the assumed worldview. Destruction is the result.

Yet in Delillo’s novel, the author probes the question of how people can actually live in a world where moral nihilism is the dominant philosophical worldview. Either Islamic terrorists were noble martyrs in the cause of jihad or they were evil, and their murders were wrong. Or, if you are consistently nihilistic, there is no grounds on which to make moral pronouncements; morals are reduced to preferences and wills. But if moral nihilism is to be consistently applied, any objective standard of evaluating morals, values, ethics, and human behavior is unjustifiable. As Dostoyevsky penned it in The Brothers Karamazov, if God is dead, everything is permissible.

When man becomes God, the winner is the most ruthless.

But to posit anything as right or wrong, well, those are judgments that demand an objective standard. Morals, if not rooted in the objective God who is himself eternal, immaterial, transcendent, holy, and unchanging, are up for grabs.

Joker, the movie, celebrates moral nihilism; Falling Man explores the morning after the moral melee and holds forth the hope that man might see the inherent destruction of moral nihilism, and return to the true Author of life wherein God—not man—is the center. If man chooses not to return, he continues to “fall” and forfeits the means of redemption. Joker is about, at least in part, the madness of crowds, how easily they are led by the ruthless. Falling Man, at least in part, is about how crowds camouflage the emptiness their people live with. Crowds–and the mania they enable and often encourage–are often facades that serve poorly as cosmetic for sin sickness. In the gospel of Christianity, there is a Redeemer who is the Author of life, the One who is eternal, the One who is goodness incarnate.

Choices are clear when you see them manifested: Joker and the glorification of mob violence; people muttering to themselves and “falling” on multiple levels in Delillo’s contemporary world of paranoia, crowds, and terror on every side; or the gospel of Christianity, with the righteous Redeemer who became sin so that we unrighteous sinners are remade righteous. How? Through Him we are called, adopted, and blessed in the Beloved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fog, Don Delillo’s White Noise, and Clarity

Morning. About 8:30. We were in my truck. I was driving. My son was in the front seat beside me. No one else was with us. I drove slowly—very slowly—because of the fog. Thick and dense fail to describe sufficiently that fog. I don’t remember fog that formidable before. The irony is that it was in the fog I saw something clearly. The fog had not just descended upon us; it had taken over. We were its captives. Follow me.

My son was on his phone. He was streaming YouTube videos of piano riffs he likes. After he watched one several times, he said, “Dad, look at this,” and brought his phone towards me. “Goob, I can’t right now. I’m driving.” And he watched the video again and narrated what he thought of as the highlights.

I had spent the week before that morning reading the novel White Noise by American literary fiction writer Don Delillo. It was my first time reading this novel despite its reputation as one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Underworld and Libra are probably the other two of Delillo’s novels that have earned the most critical attention.

Technology affords countless luxuries, for sure. Obviously, I use the internet like millions of others do. However, I am not alone in thinking that we have forfeited something in that exchange. Because we can use the search engine of our choice, if we have a question or just want to get lost in entertainment, we can browse for it online. No matter how inane, insipid, vile, etc. we can find it. There is no end to the distractions. If distraction is your aim, the internet is your weapon.

But there are a few of us who engage in an antiquated means of understanding the world: we read. As some nowadays quip, it’s the old-school way. You know, books. Actual bindings with stories of boys like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; women like Elizabeth Bennet and Tess and Lady Macbeth; killers like Raskolnikov and Anton Chigurh.

But now we have YouTube and countless other means of distracting ourselves, and we can use these to such a degree that we lose the ability to see, to think, to use our imaginations, to dwell upon the deep things of life that enrich us by way of reading.

I am not blind to the irony: I am using the internet to partly write about the dangers of the internet. But my goal is not to be legalistic here, only to suggest that if we as a culture forego and forsake reading deeply–if we think that surfing the Web is learning, we have lost a lot. Which brings me back around to the fog.

As my son and I descended from our house onto a state highway, the fog had not thinned at all. We could see only a few feet beyond my front bumper. It was so captivating, my son even remarked, “Dad, I need to take a picture of this.” And he did. He used the same phone he was using to formerly watch YouTube videos of piano riffs. But he had noticed something out there—something that he and I were experiencing together that didn’t involve the internet or a video. We were seeing life unfiltered. We were descending the mountain; we were bathed in fog; it was ghostly and ethereal; it was like, well, something from a book. It was like what Delillo was aiming at in White Noise.

It was a moment where I realized that sometimes the most meaningful moments of our lives are not dependent upon the Web. This one came as I drove slowly in the morning fog, a novel about the costs of distraction and the emptiness and shallowness of contemporary life in the back of my mind. My headlights were two white lances laboring to slash through the fog. But my boy noticed. He noticed. He saw the beauty, felt the mystery, lived for a few moments without the artifice of a video.

And yes, he took a picture. But it does not do that morning justice. I guess, in other words, you had to be there. It was so good, so important–well, it was like something you experience in a book. Because of the fog, I saw clearly what I think Delillo explores in White Noise. Because of the fog, my son and I both focused on the strangeness and mystery that fog engenders. Because of the fog, I saw my boy look up and out at the world and our place in it, instead of down at his phone. And I was glad that I had to drive slowly. I was thankful to be there. I was thankful that simple things like foggy mornings, driving through the hills, seeing a boy’s eyes register that this was not just a video to stream but a real moment to live—yes, it was like the beginning of a good story, when there’s fog, mystery, but then clarity.

 

 

Numbering Our Days

Preparing for festivities? It is New Year’s Eve. Last night I saw a lady load a shopping cart full of liquor and roll her buggy—bottles clinking against one another—up to the cashier at the register and prepare to spend hundreds of dollars on alcohol at one of the shoppettes here on Fort Benning. No one seemed surprised. The lady was just an ordinary customer, I suppose, and this is what is expected as New Year’s Eve arrives, right? No, I’m not sanctimonious about alcohol. That is not my concern here. I am thinking more about time and how we spend it. Do we often think of our amount of time? Do we not sometimes pretend that death is something that happens to other people? Do we not sometimes distract ourselves so that we do not have to face the ultimate issues, at least not right now? But are not ultimate issues called ultimate for a reason?

Unfortunately, I will be separated from my loved ones all this week, so I am not preparing anything festive, unless black coffee qualifies. I may get a bit wild with an espresso later. But earlier today I was reading and thinking through Psalm 90.  It is one of Moses’ writings in the Psalms. Verse 12 reads this way: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, ESV). To number our days. In the biblical worldview, this means to live our lives with the conscious awareness that our lives are lived before the face of God, Coram Deo. It is a way of saying, live your life knowing that you are in the presence of God. Wisdom, therefore, involves our dwelling upon ultimate issues. That does not mean that festivities are by any means wrong. Scripture is replete with festivals, parties, fellowships, etc. But they are to have their places within a larger theological framework. They are not to be ends in themselves.

But to number our days, that is no small matter, right? Examples help me to think, and here are a few that stirred some reflections on this theme of numbering our days.

In 2019, I was able to take a trip with some of my family to a place near Destin, FL. The beaches are beautiful there. But to get there, we drove through parts of FL that had been devastated by a hurricane earlier. Mighty trees were reduced to sad-looking twisted and snapped timbers. Their boughs were gone. Leaves had been stripped from them during the deluge. Some roads had washed away. Entire restaurants had been washed out to sea. Just like that, as the saying goes, all was gone. And I thought, Do I have a heart of wisdom? Am I numbering my days?

A second weather-related catastrophe got me thinking, too. In the small town where my family and I lived for years, a town where I taught English and pastored, a tornado had recently struck. I viewed pictures online of the devastation. Again, trees were ripped from the earth or left bent into ghastly contortions. Rooftops had been sucked up into the sky. Just like that, gone. And I thought, Do I have a heart of wisdom? Am I numbering my days?

I saw a friend of mine undergo multiple surgeries, and still press on with his responsibilities. I saw another friend run off (that is, he was run off by an oligarchy within the congregation) from a church because of unregenerate church members, small town politics, and power struggles. I watched my wife have to raise our children while I was away in Iraq for nine months. After those nine months, I was still not able to return home to her because of an injury I sustained in Iraq that is still keeping me at Fort Benning. And I thought, Do I have a heart of wisdom? Am I numbering my days?

I have had more than enough reasons to reflect. Many will load their carts with beverages, chips and salsa, finger foods, etc. and ring in another year. That is often the plan. But I have aged some and hopefully learned a few things about how quickly man’s plans can be interrupted by bigger plans. One might even go so far as to say they are plans of the Sovereign. With a goal, too: to teach us to number our days.

 

Three: Theology, a Novel of the Miniscule, & a Tome by Joyce Carol Oates

This week, I read three very different writers: John MacArthur, Nicholas Baker, and Joyce Carol Oates. One is a Christian theologian and pastor; one is a postmodern fiction writer whose style departs from almost anyone else I have read; and Oates is an American writer who has been prolific since the 1960s.

Below are some thoughts on each book, its main concerns, examples from each that illustrate said concerns, and some questions for reflection.

In Reckless Faith by John MacArthur, published in 1994, MacArthur introduces his theme up front and unpacks it throughout the next 200 pages. He explains how existentialism, subjectivism, relativism, and mysticism have undercut the very foundations of logic and reason. The result has been widespread poverty of proper biblical interpretation:

. . . to say that people can’t reason their way to the truth of Scripture is not to imply that Scripture itself is irrational. The Bible is perfectly reasonable, consistent with itself, true in all its parts, reliable as a foundation for our logic, dependable as a basis for good judgment, and trustworthy as the definitive test of sound doctrine. Because it is pure truth, it is perfectly rational (xii)

And another gem:

We cannot simply flow with the current of our age. We cannot elevate love by downplaying truth. We cannot promote unity by repressing sound doctrine. We cannot learn to be discerning by making an idol out of tolerance. By adopting those attitudes, the church has opened her gates to all of Satan’s Trojan horses. (81)

But the various isms resulting from suppressing God and his revelation of himself in Scripture have led to abuses and misinterpretations that are embarrassing. In his trademark fashion, MacArthur does not pull punches. He quotes from primary sources in his many analyses of existentialism, mysticism, neo-orthodoxy/liberalism, fundamentalism, Roman Catholicism, and more. He traces the trajectory of how many people wound up with such reckless faith.

One example I found particularly helpful was his analysis of mysticism that has infiltrated much of the professing Christian church. Many people are chasing feelings, chasing experiences:

The faith of mysticism is an illusion. “Truth that is true for me” is irrelevant to anyone else, because it lacks any objective basis. Ultimately, therefore, existential faith is impotent to lift anyone above the level of despair. All it can do is seek more experiences and more feelings. Multitudes are trapped in the desperate cycle of feeding off one experience while zealously seeking the next. Such people have no real concept of truth; they just believe. Theirs is a reckless faith. (30)

He ends this book as he ends every book I have read from MacArthur—with a call to the gospel as revealed in Scripture. Scripture is the authority. Many profess that, but deny it in practice. Say what you will about John MacArthur, but I have never seen him equivocate on that: Scripture is the only objective standard—not traditions, not feelings, not “being led,” not visions, not “looking within,” and certainly not popes, bishops, or councils. If you seek clarity, and want an apologetic resource calling you back to living out, not just the sufficiency of Scripture, but also the authority of Scripture, this is a valuable resource. Isms come and go, but the Word abides forever.

A second book I read was a first for me. More precisely, the book and the author were new to me. Nicholas Baker is an American postmodern writer, and The Mezzanine, a short novel about a businessman’s trip up an escalator, and his mental activity during that trip, is, well, amazingly detailed in its attention to the banal, the quotidian, and the everyday. The author’s goal? To show us the superficial ways we so often glide through contemporary life without thinking through things.

Baker’s forays and footnotes (yes, lots and lots of footnotes, even footnotes about footnotes) serve to focus the reader on the things right under our noses and under our fingertips (like the handrail on an escalator, like the feel of a stapler on your office desk, like why shoelaces break at nearly the same time, etc.). Here is an example:

Presently the metal disk that drew near was half lit by sun. Falling from dusty heights of thermal glass over a hundred-vaned, thirty-foot-long, unlooked-at, invisibly suspended lightning fixture that resembles the metal grid in an old-style ice cube tray, falling through the vacant middle reaches of lobby space, the sunlight draped itself over my escalator and continued from there, diminished by three-quarters, down into a newsstand inset into the marble at the rear of the lobby. (103)

 Baker is new to me. I admire his precision in description. I admire his raising the issue of how the quotidian may teach us if we would but pay attention. But, I think Baker suggests herein, we suffer the illusion that we will be happier if we skate along life, carried escalator-like, unbothered by serious contemplation of our mortality. Baker is, in my view, important. He is not, I admit, easy to read; it can be work. But that, I believe, is part of what makes him important to read. If I had to summarize Baker’s aim, it is this question: What happens if we pay attention–stop entertaining ourselves to death–and just stop and pay attention?

The Oates novel I am (still) reading is her 2001 tome Blonde. It is nearly 800 pages, so it is not one I can finish in a day or two. Marilyn Monroe, as most of the world knew her, was really Norma Jeane Baker, and she is the subject of the novel. As readers, we meet her mother, Gladys, her grandmother, Della, the actors at The Studio in Los Angeles during Hollywood’s golden era, and on and on.

I said the subject was Marilyn Monroe. The more I read this novel, I would say the subject is not Marilyn so much as it is the question of what it means to act, to fulfill a role, to don a façade, and what costs are involved.

Norma Jeane Baker lived roles. And I think Oates is exploring that theme, not a small one. Stay tuned.

7 Worth Your Time

I had several blessings this year. I returned from a military deployment to Iraq that I deeply appreciated. I worked with some fine Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and civilians for whom I am grateful. Each deployment brings together diverse personalities, and several people stood out via their unique giftings and particular strengths. We were a diverse group, a motley crew. Because of chaplaincy’s unique inroads, I was able to work near engineers, Marine infantrymen, pilots, mechanics, electricians, fuelers, budget analysts, accountants, cyberspace gurus, logisticians, and more. The diversity of those with whom I labored found a counterpart in my reading life. I discovered several new authors. That is, they were new to me. Some of those have become new favorites. (More on that below.)

What follows is a list of seven books that particularly stood out for me. Some refined my thinking. Some convicted me. Others confirmed my deeply held convictions. If you are a fellow reader, I hope you benefit, too, from my reflections on some of my reading. This is part one of several installations as I look back on some of this year’s reading. More reviews are forthcoming. Tolle lege: Take up and read.

You’ve Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories that Held Them in Awe This 1994 volume is edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard and is my favorite volume of short story collections I own. The selections include masterpieces by Isaac Babel, Borges, Raymond Carver, Cheever, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dickens, Welty, Munro, Joyce, Updike, O’Brien, O’Connor, and more. I am a junkie for short story collections, but the fact that these masterful short pieces are introduced by such impressive writers as Charles Baxter, Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, Ron Hansen, and Annie Dillard deepens this volume still more.

A Long and Happy Life This novel by North Carolina writer Reynolds Price was published in 1962. I read it for the first time last month. It captivated me such that I read it in a day and a half. The story of Rosacoke and Wesley, poverty and ignorance in Dixie, honor, sacrifice, loneliness, longing, and love, this story explores all of these and more in less than 160 pages. If you enjoy literary fiction set in the South of days reflected in the worlds of Eudora Welty, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, this is a great place to camp. Price has become a new favorite for me.

Pathway to Freedom: How God’s Laws Guide Our Lives A 2003 book brought about by hearers encouraging Reformed Christian pastor-theologian Alistair Begg to put his preaching through the Ten Commandments into book form, this volume is chock-full of biblical wisdom delivered by a winsome wordsmith and faithful pastor. Our lives invariably demonstrate our theological beliefs. Begg excels in connecting God’s words to our ways in the world. An excellent resource for the Christian church.

Why One Way? Defending an Exclusive Claim in an Inclusive World This book was published in 2002. Written by pastor-teacher/theologian at Grace Community Church and The Master’s College and Seminary, John MacArthur elucidates in 75 pages what few other men dare. In a time when many high-profile so-called Christian teachers have caved to the “social gospel” and being “woke” to the culture, MacArthur is one of the few who holds the line. Perhaps it is because I appreciate clarity so much, but MacArthur demonstrates how the gospel always offends the unregenerate, how sin is essential to diagnose, how Jesus himself confronted the world, how Scripture—time and time again—outlives its critics, and how the Christian church needs to grow up and endure the battles we were warned of long before, and engage the emptiness of secular worldviews with complete confidence in the power of God as revealed in Scripture to accomplish God’s purposes.

The Doctrine of Repentance This is a classic of Christianity. Written by Puritan Thomas Watson, it is no wonder that Banner of Truth continues to find a market for these profound writings from the deep biblical minds and pens in the Reformed tradition. My copy is now highlighted and underscored such that one would think I had had this volume for years. Wisdom on every page in this volume.

Words made Fresh: Essays on Literature & Culture Larry Woiwode is a wordsmith, fiction writer, and thinker that merits faithful reflective reading and thought. He has become one of my favorites over recent years. He writes not only moving fiction and essays, but also of other areas with the same deftness. This is my favorite collection of his essays I have read so far. Herein he writes of Shakespeare, Reynolds Price, Wendell Berry, and more. A fine book by an important writer.

Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought Of all the theology/worldview/”history-of-ideas” books I read in 2019, this 2007 volume, edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker, is exceptional, not just in this year’s reading, but in my library as a whole. If you are a big picture worldview thinker like I am, I cannot think of a better worldview book to have at hand. An invaluable resource.

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny Cash and Thoughts on Vocation

Over the last few days, I completed reading Johnny Cash’s autobiography cash (ibid.) and I respect him and his music even more now than I did before. It has to do with his determination to follow his vocation with simple (not simplistic) truthfulness.

Vocation—(n.) a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action

I remember sitting down with a professor when my family and I moved for me to attend seminary several years back. We met with a scholar from the church history department. My wife and I went into the professor’s office and exchanged pleasantries for a bit. He asked me which writers and thinkers most influenced me. Then he asked me to describe my vocation. It was then I discovered his aim. It was for me to understand what I really valued. By whom and to what was I called?

I relearned through that conversation years ago something I again appreciated in Cash’s autobiography. It is this idea of vocation.

This idea of vocation/calling shapes Cash’s music. He is not glamorous. He is not flashy. He is not adorned. He is simply (not simplistically) “the man in black” with his black Martin guitar, his black boots, his deep Arkansas-Tennessee voice, his simple lyrics about love, loss, self-destruction, rescue, redemption, Jesus’ work on behalf of sinners, marriage, forgiveness, restoration—all with ever-present focus.

His country music attests to his worldview. It bears witness to his efforts to answer and follow his vocation.

There were dark times, of course. He battled amphetamine and opioid addiction. He battled the bottle. He battled lust. He was not a perfect husband or father. But he pressed on; he followed his vocation. He did not sell out to style over substance.

When he saw that much of so-called country music had degenerated to donning a cowboy hat, wearing tight jeans, boots, and speaking with a southern accent … well, he stayed true to what he knew—the old gospel tunes, Hank Williams Sr.’s tunes, the Carter Family mountain music, Bill Monroe, and the other pioneers.

He kept to the timeless truths he had learned the hard way … from growing up poor in the South, picking cotton, listening to the panthers screaming at night in Arkansas and to the whistle of the trains as they cut through the farmlands.

He stayed close to his heart for telling the truth musically. He fought to maintain his allegiance to his vocation. Towards the end of his autobiography, Cash writes about his awareness of his own mortality:

Not that I believe you have to “grow old gracefully.” I go along with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s idea that it’s okay to go out screaming and scratching and fighting. When death starts beating the door down, you need to be reaching for your shotgun.

And when you know he might be in your part of town, which is true for anyone my age, you should be taking care of business. Quit gazing out the window at the lake and start telling your stories” (p. 273).

 Cash died in 2003, but I think his contributions will endure due in large measure to his faithfulness in following his vocation, and not losing his soul to this world. I am grateful.