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.

Broken and Beautiful

Broken but beautiful. Ever had the experience of seeing the same pattern over several days? I don’t mean patterns like traffic or how we arrange silverware in our kitchen drawers. No, I mean patterns that speak to something deeper. If you have experienced them, what follows may resonate with you. If patterns are lost on you, skip this altogether. I write as one convinced that patterns are important. Why? Because confluence, convergence, and the coming together of ideas may serve as presages. Patterns exist for several reasons. One of those reasons is to act as messengers. Let me explain.

Last week I read a short theology book. The author wrote of how all people who are honest admit that our world is broken, and that we all are broken people. We know intuitively that the world is a fallen place. And we know that we’re fallen, too. Witness the current destruction of statues and monuments to America’s history by angry mobs. Witness the targeted slaughter of law enforcement officers. Witness the rancor among pundits who seem to have relinquished reasoned debate and replaced it with ad hominem attacks. Most of us would admit that the world we live in is hostile, rancorous, and well—broken. This brokenness is not just external to us. It is not merely “out there.” If we are honest, brokenness is part of the way we see ourselves. No pattern yet, right? Hold on. It is coming.

So I kept reading the book and thought, “Yes, this rings true. We are broken.” But then the author did something else. He used the term “beautiful” to describe us, too—amidst our brokenness. For many readers, that term might not signify much. But for others, that term denotes that a lot more is going on; namely, there is beauty in this broken world. There is an aesthetic to the universe. Yes, there is ugliness, deformity, depravity, etc. The list is long of how brokenness manifests itself in some people’s cruelty to one another. However, humanity is still beautiful. Then I put the two words together—broken but beautiful. That was last week.

Now to this week. In a Sunday school class, a teacher was leading us in an examination of some of what Scripture teaches about how Christ-followers will—not may—but will suffer. We looked at Peter’s words: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13). And then we read James’ words: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2). Do you see the pattern? The world is broken, but beauty abides still. These broken people are beautiful in the crucible.

Then we looked at Paul’s words from prison: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear than I still have” (Philippians 1:29-30).


Then the teacher said this: “We are broken but still beautiful.” I almost slid out of my chair. The same terms, the same truth, the same pattern—broken but beautiful.
The pattern asserted itself through experience, through a book, then through a teacher at church—with its simple message: broken but beautiful.

When we had eaten lunch and returned home after church, and changed into comfortable clothes, my son said, “Dad, let’s throw the football.” Even though I had a thousand other things to do to prepare for the week ahead, the pattern emerged. Excuses came to my mind: I need to work in the basement; I need to wash my truck; I need to prepare for the course I’m teaching, and on they ran. But here was my son, asking to do what is beautiful to him.

As we threw the ball to each other, I watched him run the hill and sprint for passes. I saw the white laces spin round as the football arced towards him. I heard the sounds of his cleats on the earth and watched the way sun fell in patches on our driveway and through the overhanging white oaks. And the pattern whispered—broken but beautiful.

Post-truth: A Bridge to Folly

“Post-truth” is the 2016 word of the year, according to Oxford Dictionaries. Post means “after.” However, we are not to understand the post in post-truth in that sense. Rather post here is to be understood as indicating that social media and personal opinion carry more influence than facts. Stated another way, some people’s preferences influence them more than objective reality. Subjectivity trumps the objective/external.

The effects of pervasive social media are incalculable. No matter how loony one’s views are, there’s a website that’ll foster your opinions. People may gorge on the newsfeeds of their choice. Preoccupied with the instant, the traditional cannot compete.

Constant information (not wisdom, just information), injections of breaking news, and what’s “happening now” have dethroned the antiquated as monolithic. “Post-truth” indicates that “the establishment” (whatever that is) is tainted, that any meta-narrative is dead, and that our opinions are valid, simply by virtue of their existence. Objective reporting is gone with the wind, leaving tweets in the breeze. Why? Because thoughtful analysis does not get many “likes,” and research is whatever a Google search turns up.

But is this really so? Nothing quite concretizes ideas like literature. Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” written in the 1800s (you know, old poetry), what some term one of the first modern poems, highlights what “post-truth” leads to—namely, a continued departure from reason and wisdom, an embrace of folly. It ushers in something, but not progress. On the cusp of the modern era, Arnold wrote:


The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath,

Of the night-wind, down the vast edge drear

And naked shingles of the world.


Where’s the bright future? The “naked shingles of the world” are scant fare if the soul hungers for answers.

Lamenting what he envisions as a bleak world ahead, the narrator ends the poem thus:


Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! For the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Arnold was honest enough to admit that the best he could hope for was “be[ing] true to one another.” But why? And what does it mean to “be true” in a post-truth world? The “ignorant armies clash[ing] by night” are the result of jettisoning the author of life and of moral reasoning. When the creature purports to evict his maker, man’s folly is manifested, as is God’s judgment.

A degenerate culture is certainly post-truth, because it cannot appreciate the true, good, or beautiful. It forfeits the lens by which truth and falsehood are discerned. Beauty is discarded and dross is embraced. It exchanges truth for a lie and spirals into solipsism and despair.

If tweets are taken to be acumen, distraction wins. But facts are stubborn things, and just because post-truth garners much usage, objective truth nonetheless abides.

When Pilate summoned Jesus, he (Jesus) confronted Pilate with the fundamental issue: truth. Jesus said to Pilate: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37b ESV)

Do you remember what Pilate did next? He mocked and walked out. He didn’t want truth, because he’d have to acknowledge himself as a sinner and Jesus as holy God incarnate. Rather than acknowledging God as the objective standard of truth, Pilate scoffed. When truth stood in front of him, Pilate hated it, and sought refuge in his own morality, where he purported to be the arbiter of right and wrong.

Pilate didn’t want truth. It was easier to let the mob rule. He played to the crowd. He had Jesus flogged, spat upon, crowned with thorns, crucified, and buried. But Jesus was not a post-truther.

Reality is like that. You can mock at it, deny it, and even murder it. But it rises again to meet you—even in your world of pretend post-truth.

Is that All?

There is danger in familiarity. This morning at church, the pastor taught from Mark 14. I suppose millions of people worldwide know the story of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anointeimgresd Jesus with her flask of oil. And Jesus paid her one of the highest compliments possible: “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk 14:8-9 ESV). The pastor reminded us of several things. One precept, in particular, abides with me: Mary did all she could. And this convicted me about how superficially I can treat others, especially those with whom I’m familiar.

There is danger in familiarity. And nothing quite rouses me from the slumber of familiarity like the reality of death. Let me explain.

This morning in the Sunday school hour, the pastor stopped by the class I teach. He shared with our class that one of the elderly ladies in the church family had died in the early hours of that very morning. And as soon as he said her name, her face appeared in my mind’s eye.

We all have certain facial expressions, or nuances of demeanor, that mark us as unique. And this lady’s ways became almost palpable to me. But I grew more and more convicted. Why? Because I’d not spent quality time in conversation with her the last time I’d seen her at church. I was too familiar with our standard “meet and greet” time. Of course, I shook hands, and hugged, and engaged in small talk with some folks. But had I known that I’d not have another chance in this life to speak with this lady, I would have done things differently.

That is part of the danger of familiarity, at least for me. I grow accustomed. I develop a routine. The routine becomes superficial. I can atrophy as a human being. I don’t attend to my neighbor. Instead, I take her for granted. This is a danger of familiarity. We are easily habituated to feigned courtesy. Until death shakes us from our torpor.

As the church service progressed through its order, we sang and prayed and sang again. And then there was the “meet and greet” time that I have sometimes dreaded. (Like my grandfather, I’ve never excelled at small talk, so I can be ungainly at times, at least with this sort of thing.) But this morning was different. No, I didn’t suddenly become gregarious and go around backslapping and talking of the day’s news headlines. Instead, I stayed in my pew, and spoke at length with a dear couple in front of me. They talked of their many years living in southern California. The husband spoke of being a firefighter in San Diego. The wife spoke of her childhood in Colorado. They spoke of their children. I could see their eyes sparkle as they reminisced about certain events in their past. Why is all of this important? Because rather than going through the motions of caring, I did care. And they cared. We talked. We listened. We fellowshipped. I learned from listening to them, and by having watched their lives for years, that they know what it means to give all.

Like Mary, who anointed the Lord with her costly perfume, these saints in front of me have taught me (whether they know it or not) what it means to give all, to invest eternally. And so much of that investment comes, not by way of the extraordinary, but by way of the ordinary, by the familiar feel of another’s handshake, through the recurring scent of a woman’s favorite perfume, or the grin of an older wiser man, who says much in few words.

For Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, she never became so accustomed to the Lord Jesus that she atrophied spiritually. She gave all. And now she’s remembered.

There is a danger in the familiar. And I think it’s failing to appreciate beauty that surrounds us. God’s providence is displayed, not just in the beautiful sunset or poem, but also in the saints on the pew in front of us.

Cut in Half

Three fire trucks, five cop cars, and three ambulances. Onlookers lined both sides of the road. Policemenimgres unrolled yellow tape and erected orange barrel barricades to keep the onlookers at a distance. Still, the number of onlookers grew. Huddles of Latino families lined both sides of the four-lane road. EMTs and paramedics loaded what appeared to be two bodies on gurneys into one of the ambulances. Blue lights from the police cars, and red lights from the fire trucks and ambulances, lit the onlookers’ faces. The facades of business buildings facing the road reflected lights from emergency vehicles. The rain had just stopped. Wisps of steam rose from the hot wet asphalt. Shattered glass.

One of the vehicles was a four-door Ford Lincoln from the early 1980s, a massive car by today’s standards. It was now in two pieces. The vehicle that had T-boned the Lincoln was unrecognizable. It was now smashed into what resembled a steel accordion. I could have fit it in the back of my pickup. It sat immobilized in the center of the four-lane. Steel, plastic, and fiberglass bent in upon itself in horrific shapes. The Lincoln was in two pieces. The front half was in the middle turn lane. The rear half was downhill about a hundred meters, steaming on the sidewalk. It had been cut in half from the impact.

I’d come upon this scene on my drive to Publix. I was on my way to purchase sandwich meat and bananas. But as I topped the hill, I instead encountered this. Lights from ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars that that had amassed over half a block of South Cobb Drive. We drivers who’d come upon the scene were being rerouted, as South Cobb Drive was now closed. But the crowd of people grew. They gathered on foot along the four-lane. To do what? To pray for the families of the dead? To offer help to the EMTs, policemen, and firefighters? To gaze, like vultures on a wire, upon human carnage?

My stomach began to hurt. I realized I’d lost my appetite. I’d been looking forward to a turkey sandwich and banana after my run. Now I felt sick and ashamed of my selfishness. James’ words flashed in my mind: “yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14 ESV).

I watched the red brake lights of the car in front of me, as we inched our new way past the crash site. Wisps of steam continued to rise from the blacktop. James’ words burned my brain. A mist. These men or women, or perhaps children, who may’ve been running errands, too, had lives of mist. Now some of them lie dead in ambulances. And other people lined the sides of this four-lane like vultures, gawking over glass-ridden blacktop, as if other people were prey. This had become a spectacle of life’s brevity.

We do not know what tomorrow will bring. We do not know what today will bring. “For my days pass away like smoke,” (Ps 102:3a). As a husband, father, uncle, teacher, chaplain, soldier, etc. let me not forget. May I use my mind for that which matters, and not waste the days appointed.



The Self-disciplined: A Vanquishing Breed?

Self-discipline is out of fashion in our time, at least for some folks. Just in this week’s headlines, an elected political representative was again disgraced after his latest “sexting” surfaced. His wife is separatiimagesng from him, and the world yawns. Where’s the self-discipline we should hope to find in our elected officials? Was it ever there to begin with?

Other headlines are consumed with demographics of race, gender, and carnality. We have “safe spaces” now wherein free speech is curtailed under the guise of sensitivity and the favorite system of silencing dissenters and thought not aligned with militant secularism–political correctness. And infamous athletes boycott the national anthem; some people burn our nation’s flag; yet others support the murdering of police, etc. The list is long of people who seem to lack self-control/self-discipline. And where self-discipline is absent, somebody else’s discipline will step in—usually in the form of a growing government.

How should the Christian view this? Should he capitulate to political correctness? Should she renounce the obvious distinctions between the genders? Should Christians give in to being exiled from the public square? Should Christians throw up their hands in postures of despair and exclaim, “Well, we know it’s going to get worse!”? (I have heard Christians say this.)

What does Scripture actually say about these things? In short, Christians are to be above the aforementioned follies. Christians ought to be the ones who exemplify self-discipline. They ought to be the ones whose examples the undisciplined world envies. Jesus did not obfuscate. He said Christians are to “let [their] light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16 ESV). Just as Jesus was the light who’d come into the dark world, his followers are to be lights amidst this darkness. And being light entails self-governance/self-discipline.

I am currently studying through Peter’s life and writing, and one text from Peter often cited as a ground for Christian apologetics (a reasoned and reasonable defense of the Christian faith) comes from his first letter. The text to which I refer follows: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Pt 3:15-17 ESV).

It’s true, of course, that Peter teaches Christians the importance of being able to articulate what they believe and why they believe it. (May God bless the many faithful Christian apologetics ministries we have.) But what is easily overlooked in those same verses cited from Peter is his emphasis upon “having a good conscience” and knowing that Christians will be slandered for . . . “doing good.” That’s the battlefield of being a living sacrifice. Obedience is manifested via living a good life amidst an evil culture. This is why Peter writes that it’s a blessing when you’re reviled by the unregenerate. In other words, Peter’s echoing Jesus: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:11-12 ESV). But “doing good” demands self-discipline, not unrestrained impudence.

The ancient Greek world birthed the Olympics, of course. And in the New Testament, Paul uses an athletic metaphor about self-discipline in 1 Corinthians: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things” (1 Cor 9:24-25a ESV). What’s the hinge upon which Paul’s argument turns? Exercising self-control.

Just in case readers could misinterpret Paul’s emphasis upon self-discipline, he reminds them, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27 ESV).

Paul’s emphasis as a Christian was of course the gospel–the life-giving truth centered in God’s work in history concerning Jesus the Christ, his birth, life, substitutionary death, and physical resurrection. Paul’s metaphor of disciplining the new nature in order to receive the prize for a ministry led with faithfulness is analogous to disciplining one’s body as part of athletic competition. How appropriate, therefore, for Christian pilgrims, who ought to be the exemplars of self-discipline, to strive for the prize, to serve with distinction. In short, for a world that often lacks the quality of self-discipline, let the world behold in Christians lives worthy of the One who called them to himself.



Tyranny of the Temporary?

“Back again so soon?” That’s what the attendant at the oil change station asked me as I sat in my truck with the window rolled down, waiting to have my truck tires rotated and engine oil changed. “Yes,” I replied. “Been a busy few days.” Indeed. Busyness as usual. Might I (and others) be so busy that we forfeit the most important things? In only a few days I’d amassed another 3,000 miles of road time, and was again back at the oil change station.

The apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament that Christians are to seek eternal things rather than spending our affections on temporariness: “For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corintimageshians 4:18b ESV). So what are eternal things? What does Paul mean? The context is one wherein Paul contrasts the “light momentary affliction” (v.17) of physical sufferings to the eternal glory that awaits Christians. How much more encouraged and faithful, therefore, ought Christians to be in laboring for the truth.

Believers are not to “lose heart” (v.16) because we know that our labors (if not wasted upon the tyranny of the temporary and mere busyness), our fatigue, our weariness, and even our exhaustion that result, are worth it. In fact, to spend oneself for the sake of the truth should usher in sweet rest. “Sweet is the sleep of a laborer” (Ecclesiastes 5:12a ESV).

Moreover Jesus taught how we’re to expend our energies on matters of substance. We’re to use our minds for things that matter eternally. Frittering away our time on the temporary is sinful.

Too much is at stake: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the           kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to                       you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be                                  anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:31-                              34 ESV)

Indeed. Sufficient is any day’s trouble. I suspect you’re like I in that you tend to worry about things, at least at times. I have to take breaks from the media deluge. I’m weary of hearing of Hillary’s decades of lies and of Donald’s boasts. I’m weary of hearing how secular government continues to grow and of how individual responsibility and freedom proportionately shrink. I’m weary of hearing of Islam’s continuous bloody conquests across nations. I’m weary of people assuming just because someone’s exceptional in one area (movie acting, e.g.) that he is necessarily qualified to speak intelligently about philosophy, theology, history, or literature.

No one who knows me would ask me to do algebra, for good reason. However, I might be somewhat more helpful if you wished to discuss the 20th century novel or Charles Dickens’ contributions to the world’s greatest literary characters. In other words, it’s important to know where one fits, and where one’s knowledge extends/does not extend.

“Being busy” is often a near neighbor to waste. John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life is vastly popular with good reason. One of the great lines from American writer Henry David Thoreau’s Walden expresses what I’m after here: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I disagree with Thoreau on several things, but on that principle, we would’ve agreed, and could’ve shared his simple cabin in Concord, Massachusetts any day.




What Makes a Hero: A Glimpse into Contrasts

This week I resume teaching World Literature to college students. I adore this course. Among the early topics is a section exploring the question, “What is a hero?” We begin the term by readingimages sections of Homer’s epics—the Iliad and the Odyssey. If the classics are the great books that everyone should have read but few actually have read, then I hope this course mitigates that lamentable state.

We examine the Greek and Roman pagan views of what makes a hero and discover therein that they were created. They were gods that came to be. Unlike the God of the Bible, Greek gods are not eternal. Moreover, they were created out of chaos. And the Greek gods deceived wantonly. To be a Greek god required duplicity. Olympus, e.g., exalted gods of treachery.

But what strikes me each time I read and teach through Homer’s epics is the destruction wrought by their pride–the gods’ and warriors like Achilles, Agamemnon, and Hector. When the Iliad opens Homer sets the epic initially as a bloody struggle of wills between Achilles and Agamemnon. Both warriors boast and taunt the other. Women have been captured and each man feels slighted vis a vis the spoils of war. When Calchas prophesies to Agamemnon, notice the pettiness and pride of Agamemnon, as he excoriates the prophet:

You damn soothsayer!/ You’ve never given me a good omen yet./ You take some kind of perverse pleasure in prophesying/ Doom, don’t you? Not a single favorable omen ever!/ Nothing good ever happens!/ And now you stand here/ Uttering oracles before the Greeks, telling us/ That your great ballistic god is giving us all this trouble/ Because I was unwilling to accept the ransom/ For Chryses’ daughter but preferred instead to keep her/ In my tent! And why shouldn’t I? I like her better than/ My wife Clytemnestra. She’s no worse than her/ When it comes to looks, body, mind, or ability./ Still, I’ll give her back, if that’s what’s best./ I don’t want to see the army destroyed like this./ But I want another prize ready for me right away./ I’m not going to be the only Greek without a prize,/ It wouldn’t be right. And you all see where mine is going.” (I, 112-128)

What traits of a Greek hero do you see here? Pride, wrath, petty jealousy, a preoccupation with glory for oneself.

Contrast this with the Bible’s pictures of what constitutes the heroic. In World Literature, I contrast the Greek and Roman views of heroism with biblical examples of the heroic. Joseph, whose story is recounted in Genesis, is one of our case studies.

Rather than being exalted as a boasting warrior like Achilles or Agamemnon, Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and sold by them to Ishmaelites for so many shekels of silver (Gen 37). Joseph was then taken down to Egypt and sold to Potiphar. He was imprisoned. And yet he entrusted himself to God. He did not exalt himself, his strength, or his wisdom. Even when others recognized his wisdom, Joseph ascribed it to the gift of God (Gen 41:16; 45:8; 50:19-20).

Even students with only a cursory knowledge of the Bible have often heard the words Joseph recounted to his brothers: “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:19-20 ESV).

The contrasts between Greco-Roman pagan views and the biblical view of heroism are nothing if not ample and stark. The Greek and Roman gods were finite, dependent, moody, petulant, fickle, self-absorbed, and prideful. As Francis Schaeffer wrote, they were amplified humanity. In short, they were like we are—sinful.

In glorious contrast, however, is the biblical view of the heroic. And the God of Scripture is instead infinite, transcendent, righteous, and altogether holy. And as to human heroes, rather than exalting themselves, readers see men like Joseph–men who suffer due to others’ sin, men who overcome evil with good, men who bore the wrath others deserved.

As my students will see through the Joseph narrative, the ultimate author of Joseph’s narrative pointed to a later Joseph who would likewise, but in an infinitely superior way, not exalt himself, but do the will of his Father. He would suffer for others’ sin, and even be made sin for them. And he would overcome evil by exiting his grave. He would bear wrath so that others would escape it. This was a different hero indeed.





Difference as a Key to the Sacred

Long brown hair. Tawny skin. Jeans. Black sandals. That’s how she appeared when we met. And I was hooked. She was dressed simply but femininely. I’d driven to south GA, where some of my family lived, to meet her. She had met some of my family already, as they’d recently moved to what was her hometown. We’d agreed over the phone that I’d meet her at my family’s house for our first date. She was pretty in a girl-next-door kind of way.

But in the politically correct universe being imposed upon America by liberals/Leftists, I would’ve been called narrow-minded and parochial. I’d be labeled as a male who limited her, who forced her into a Western stereotype. According to the Left, I should not have looked for a woman to be feminine, because that’s a demeaning, misogynistic category imposed by the powerful male-dominated culture, of which I’m supposedly a representative. I should have not wanted her to be, well, what she was—feminine, pretty, and traditional.

The forced erasure of the male/female distinction is yet another indicator of America coming apart morally. And it’s being done via the very means liberals/Leftists say they oppose—by force, by limiting, by demeaning.

The liberals/Leftists are the ones forcing an erasure of the male/female distinction. I’m about as traditional (a nasty word in liberal/Leftist circles) as folks come, I suppose. I think a married man should work, provide for his family sacrificially, lead his family, protect his family, etc. I think the married woman should respect her husband, care for the home and children, in ways for which she’s uniquely designed.

But all of this further alienates me from the political correctness undermining traditional marriage, male leadership, and history.

How? Consider this example from today’s headlines: “NC school to teachers: Don’t call students ‘boys and girls’.” Yep. True story. Google it yourself. Charlotte, NC. To call a boy a “boy” is now, per the Left, hateful. To call a girl a “girl” is now, per the Left, hateful. The system wants to force you to call them “students” because they might “identify” as a boy on Monday but a girl on Tuesday, and then a boy again on Friday.

Now ask yourself this question: Who is behind this? It’s not conservatives or traditional people. It’s liberals/Leftists. Why? Because the inconvenient truth is that if there’s one thing liberals/Leftists are not, it’s liberal/freedom loving.

Who is forcing, limiting, and demeaning those who oppose this sort of statism? It’s liberals/Leftists.

And to further infuriate any leftist readers out there, I’ll tell you what’s at the root of their rage: Leftism hates  the God of the Bible, and his design of difference as a key to the sacred. Leftists seek to deconstruct and destroy the image of God from humanity, erase binary distinctions, force new paradigms upon the obvious differences between men and women, and silence conservatives/traditionalists. If you don’t believe me, look at who’s leading the charge to force, limit, and demean. God help us. (But that is the one voice liberals/Leftists abhor more than all others.)

Friendship: A Key to Resilience

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves,” Jane Austen wrote. There is a paradox in today’s culture—namely, while we are more connected than ever via social media, we are often lonely for true friendsthhip.

The spiritual connections that come through true friendship are worth more than thousands of “virtual” friends.

Like you I’m “friends” with people on social media that I rarely if ever spend quality time with. No, not the friends who live hundreds or thousands of miles away, that’s understandable. I refer to people that would be more accurately defined as acquaintances or peers.

I’m not a Luddite, one opposed to technological advancement. I’m not opposed to social media, obviously. I e-mail, blog, have a Facebook account, etc. These media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al) allow communication to broad audiences instantly.

But social media alone, if divorced from deep relationships, cannot satiate the hungers met in true friendships. They cannot satisfy the spiritual hunger that’s implanted in us.

I have taught literature and/or composition for much of the last 15 years, in addition to serving in the military. A recurring theme I witness when I observe my students each term is the longing they all have for meaningful connections and true friendships. Some of them share details of themselves online that they’d be loath to share in otherwise public ways. Why is that? I think it’s often this void, this friendlessness void, they’re attempting to fill.

“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). The contrast is clear. We may have many folks around us, but feel alone. But a true friend is not just around, or on the periphery. A true friend “sticks closer than a brother.”

Might we take the time to invest in our relationships and cultivate friendships? Resilience, a concept we strive to cultivate in the military, is no less important in our civilian lives. The practice of bouncing back and recovering is immeasurably more likely when built upon a foundation of friends:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 ESV).