Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Defense of the West

Self-flagellation is not dead. It is practiced today in the West, and in the church, with a diligence that would put a medieval flagellist to shame.

The flagellist of medieval times beat himself for sins he had committed. The Western flagellist of today beats himself for sins that someone else has committed.

And unlike the medieval flagellist - who no-doubt believed that others should beat themselves for their sins as well - the modern Western flagellist believes that he alone is guilty, and everyone else is innocent. Or, more correctly, he believes that his culture alone is guilty, and all other cultures are innocent.

Though he does not acknowledge it, the new Western flagellist beats himself because his culture kept records, while others did not. The Western flagellist beats himself because his culture was active while others were not.

Does it never occur to those of you who look into Western and church history and find nothing but fault that maybe we kept better records than most of the rest of the world? And that those records include our failures?

Does it never occur to you that a people or culture that actually does things is a culture that will make mistakes and commit sins? Rocks do not commit sins.

Do you who find a never-ending stream of faults with Western culture and the missionary enterprise find similar evils in any other culture? Or are those somehow sanctified because that is "their culture" or that is "how their faith is worked out?" Why the double-standard?

Do you have no capability of seeing the big picture? For all the sins of the West, for all the sins of the church and its missionary enterprise, do you really, truly, fail to see the amazing and overwhelmingly positive things that have come out of the last few hundred years of Western history and missionary endeavor?

You are insulters of noble, faithful and brave men and women who have gone before you! You tear down, you destroy, you find nothing but fault, and then you - those Christians among you - burst into tears that the church in the West is dying.

Foolish men! Why should anybody want to be part of the ugly faith that YOU have portrayed?

And you still don't understand.

The very criteria you appropriately apply to other cultures - that we should try to understand, that we should try to see the good - you abandon when it comes to your own culture.

Every other culture of the world gets a pass, but for your own culture you demand a perfection that nothing in human history or in your Bibles should lead you to expect.

You seem to think you need to adopt other people's sins because you haven't enough of your own, but let me assure you, flagellants, you have plenty of sins!

You want to flagellate yourselves? Then flagellate yourselves for painting a false and ugly picture of the West and of Christianity. Frederick the Great told his painter to paint him "warts and all." You go further; you just paint warts.

And flagellate yourselves for your double standard, for invariably accusing the West and excusing anybody and everybody else.

I'm sick of it. Go tell some other culture how evil the West is - perhaps you will find a receptive audience there.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jesus Calms the Storm (Mark 4: 35-40)

This is a "contemplation" on Mark 4:35-40, the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. I have tried to remain true to the text, but have tried to picture what it might have been like.

Like the other fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, I hoped that Jesus and some of his disciples would sail with me after he spoke to the crowds on the eastern shore, but I did not really expect he would pick my boat. It is hardly the finest on the lake.

And while I still don't know why, Jesus did pick my boat, and I remember being so pleased and honored.

I shoved the boat away from the shore just as the sun dipped below the horizon. In the afterglow the air was still warm and I could see Jesus was tired. He sat on a cushion in the stern and gave me a smile, but quickly I saw his eyes droop. Then he layed down, with his head on some netting, pulled a sailcloth over himself, and fell asleep. I was not surprised; he had spent the day speaking in the heat of the sun, much of the time while standing in another boat - my cousin Jonathan's.

A gentle breeze came up from the west, and we tacked into the wind. I looked on either side and in the dimming light saw the other boats, some carrying disciples and some, vering away to the northwest, carrying people going home to Capernaeum. We "captains" smiled and waved at each other.

I was so happy.

I stood in the stern just in front of Jesus and behind the disciples, who spoke quietly in the bow. I had one hand on the tiller and another on the line to the boom, pushing on the tiller and keeping the sail taut, the breeze in my face, the cool of the early evening on my cheek and the gentle but powerful tug of the wind swishing my little boat through the water. I felt very responsible!

Jesus' words went through my mind. I wondered about the mustard seed he had mentioned. We had a mustard plant outside my house, and it was very large, though, as Jesus said, it started very small. I guess he meant that big things have very small beginnings. I wondered if what he said was the beginning of something big, or if maybe He was the beginning of something big. Something big and good.

Also, he said we should put our lamp on a lampstand where everybody can see it.

What did that mean?

The wind had begun to blow brisk and cool. The waves slapped against the side of my boat. It was dark now and I looked up, but could not see as many stars as a few minutes before. Clouds. It made me nervous. Then I looked back to see Jesus still sleeping peacefully. I was glad he was resting.

I guessed that when he told us to put our lamps on a lampstand he meant that we should let people see the good, so it inspires and guides them. I remember thinking that I should be a better man or I wouldn't be much of a guide.

The wind grew stronger - the tiller and the sail began fighting me - and I felt drops of rain on my face. It was what I had feared. Squalls come up quickly on the lake. I hoped this would not be a bad one.

But it was, and now we were far from shore.

The rain came down so heavily I could barely keep my eyes open, and waves slapped over the sides of the boat. Water swirled along the bottom, running to the stern and covering my ankles when the boat pitched up at the bow.

The four disciples were fishermen - they knew what was happening - and were already bailing, using a bucket and drinking cups.

I looked back. Jesus was still asleep, completely covered with the sailcloth. Perhaps he couldn't yet feel the water, but surely the pitching would awaken him.

But it didn't.

The wind became violent and John and I reefed the sail. The bare mast swung violently in the storm and the water was becoming deep in the bottom of the boat. It was hopeless to navigate, so I tied down the tiller and began to bail with the others.

We needed every hand, but as I looked back at Jesus, he slept. I couldn't understand how he could sleep in this storm, but I was afraid to awaken him. I glanced at the disciples and could tell they felt the same way. As they bailed they would glance back at Jesus.

The water was at our calves and I was afraid we would sink in minutes.

Then Andrew waded back to the stern. I could see he was angry and I knew what he was doing.

He shook Jesus' shoulder.

"Teacher," he yelled over the storm, "Don't you care if we drown?"

Jesus pulled the sailcloth from his face and blinked as the rain splattered in his face, but he sat up, then, holding the tiller, he stood and raised an arm toward the sky.

"Quiet!" he said, "Be still!"

I thought for a moment that he was rebuking us for disturbing his rest, but then - swiftly and quietly - the wind died down and the waves receeded. In seconds hundreds of raindrops became tens, then just a few, and then none at all. And my boat floated gently on the water.

I stood in astonishment, ignoring the water which swirled about my legs.

Jesus looked at his disciples. "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?"

I was glad Jesus didn't look at me; I was so close. And like the disciples, I just stared, even more frightened of Him than I was of the storm.

Jesus lay back on the cushion, pulled the sailcloth over his face and once again fell asleep.

It was silent in the boat.

I looked at Jesus for a moment and then at the sky, rapidly clearing, with the stars shining brightly. And at the sea, now gently lapping against the side of my boat. But as I looked down, the water was still cold around my legs.

Why I was so quiet I don't know, but I picked up a bucket and began bailing, pouring the water gently over the side of the boat. I don't know why I was so careful - if Jesus could sleep through that storm he could sleep through my bailing - but still, I felt I must be quiet.

I think the disciples felt the same way, because from the stern I could hear a whispered conversation. Just bits and pieces came to me, but I remember so clearly them saying: "Who is this? Even the water and the waves obey him!"

Friday, April 01, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: A Christian Perspective

For some reason I've been gravitating toward books on world disaster lately - maybe the state of the world is weighing on my mind or something. I have read Winston Churchill's The Gathering Storm, and Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower, and, most recently, Ayn Rand's classic, Atlas Shrugged, which describes the destruction of the United States purely through internal stupidity.

I came away from Rand's book with mixed thoughts. Since I'm a Christian, let me outline my thoughts below, grouped under "Things that are compatible with Christianity," and "Things that are incompatible with Christianity."

Things that are compatible with Christianity

~ Rand condemns the notion that "nothing is truly knowable." Amen to that! This is one of the scourges of modern society. That Jesus really lived, and really died for our sins, and really rose again are critical truths of Christianity, not mush. Though I'm sure she was an atheist, I applaud Rand for sticking up for truth.

~ She defends business-people making profits. One memorable passage is of a party in which academics of the "nothing is knowable" variety are at an industrialist's house stuffing their faces with hors d'ouvres that his work provided while all the time snearing at him and his "dirty" profits. Good for her!

- She applauds "greed," which I would strongly disagree with if I thought she really meant it, but I don't. Her heroine, Dagny, for instance, turns in horror from the offer of a free factory. If she was greedy, she would have grabbed it. What Rand means is that people who build things should be free to own them and enjoy them and make as much money from them as they want without the government sticking its nose in. I don't think the government should have nothing to do with the economy, but I mostly agree with her on that.

- When one character, Francisco d'Anconia, began railing against the Bible verse about the love of money being the root of all evil, I thought I disagreed. But as I read I realized that d'Anconia meant that he loved money as a tool of exchange, which is fine with me and not at all what the Bible objects to.

Things that are incompatible with Christianity

- Adultery. Rand seems to think that an adulterous relationship she describes is okay because the relationship was between equals, not a relationship between a noble man and a streetwalker. Christianity does not see this as a relevant difference.

- It seems every interaction in the book is based on trade. This works great in business interactions, but stumbles in personal relationships. In one case a man tells his lover that he bought her an expensive gem for purely selfish reasons - he wanted to see her with it on solely to please himself. Riiiight. I don't think turning daily courtesies and personal interactions into business exchanges is in the spirit of Christianity.

- In John Galt's long speech, Rand has him condemn the Christian idea of the nobility of "sacrifice." Galt seems to mean that if I need "A" (or think I need A), that doesn't give me a moral claim to require someone else to sacrifice by giving it to me. And A, by the way, may mean that person's possessions, time or effort.

Okay, I see a few interesting things here.

First, Rand is taking an overly narrow view of the Christian belief in sacrifice.

Yes, we are commanded to give - Christ is our ultimate example of self-sacrifice - but the Christian idea behind giving is to HELP, not to encourage dependency.

For instance, when I was in the Army, a guy in the barracks - "Rambo," I'll call him - was talking about another guy, "Bill," who had gone to the hospital from a drug overdose and was threatening to overdose again. Bill wanted out of the Army.

Rambo was furious that Bill might kill himself and as he headed out the door, going to Bill's room, he said, "I'm going to smack him upside the head!"

"Hit him one for me, too," I said.

The guys were surprised because that didn't sound like a very Christian thing to say, but it seemed to me then (and now) that a smack upside the head was the most loving and helpful thing to do for Bill.

Second, as I was reading Galt's speech I began to think of Paul's admonition that if a man won't work, he won't eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

I think the key here is the word "won't." In Atlas Shrugged, Rand portrays those who are perfectly capable of working, but won't - and these are exactly the people Paul is saying can just go hungry.

Even so, I think Christians need to give even to those people who won't work, but I think the very best thing we can give them is this message: Get up off your lazy butts and get to work!

For those who can't work, the "widows and orphans," as the Bible would describe them, those are the ones we Christians need to help with gifts of money or food or training, or whatever.

Having said that, I think Rand is right that giving is probably best left out of the government's hands. There is nothing noble about giving when the government forces you to give, and the opportunities for governmental corruption are innumerable, and even with the best of motives the way the government spends the money you "gave" often makes matters worse, as she describes so well. Simply put, I don't think people are so incompetent that they need the government's assistance to help the poor.

- Through Galt, Rand also objects to the Christian doctrine of original sin. She doesn't like it. Well, I don't either, but it's there. Reality has sharp edges. If you are interested, I have written more about it here.

- She condemns anything "spiritual," or "mystical," but spiritual and mystical mean something beyond the mere material, something you can't really touch or see or taste or sense on measuring tools. But this made her praise of logic and reason (with which I agree) rather confusing because logic and reason are just as intangible as the spiritual and mystical that she condemns.

- Rand seems to think Christianity (and every other religion) has been a hinderance to industrial development. I call "hooey" on this one, at least in regard to Christianity. Modern banking arose in the monasteries of the Middle Ages (The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark); the term, "The Protestant Work Ethic," certainly gives no credance to the idea that Christianity breeds moochers; and there have even been whiney books written, such as one I tried to read, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, lamenting Christianity's role in founding capitalism. Even in Atlas Shrugged, when Rand has a character insult a hero, she slips and has the woman call him a "Puritan."

In conclusion, setting aside the gratuitous atheism and contempt for altruism, Atlas Shrugged is a very interesting but lengthy book with timely and valuable things to say about economics, governmental corruption, and freedom.