The Gospel According to the Avett Brothers – Our Need for Redemption, part 4

The folk rock group the Avett Brothers are securely established among my most favorite musical acts. I wrote a series a couple of years ago about the echoes of the gospel of Jesus Christ in their music.  After seeing them in concert for a second time this past Friday, I felt inspired to add to that series a couple more lyrics analyses of some of their older songs, the meaning of which really hit me for the first time.

The Avett’s 2007 album Emotionalism explores the gamut of human emotions.  I want to look at the track “Shame.” The simple (and very singable!) chorus speaks to a deep longing present in every human heart:

Shame, boatloads of shame
Day after day, more of the same
Blame, please lift it off
Please take it off, please make it stop

Have we all not felt, even desperately so, the need for such emotional relief, after wronging or greatly disappointing someone?

The audience of this plea is ambiguous.  It’s likely a disappointed, perhaps jilted lover, who he has wronged.  The first two versus suggest this:

Okay so I was wrong about
My reasons for us fallin’ out
Of love I want to fall back in

My life is different now I swear
I know now what it means to care
About somebody other than myself

I know the things I said to you
They were untender and untrue
I’d like to see those things undo

So if you could find it in your heart
To give a man a second start
I promise things won’t end the same

He is clearly seeking a renewal of the relationship from his wronged lover. How can this happen?  Shame is an emotional response to being blamed for or accused of a wrong – to moral disapproval. For the shame to disappear, the blame must be removed.  While we might attempt to remove blame ourselves, through self-justification and rationalization, this fails because we achieve removal not by lifting it off, but by stuffing it deep down inside – suppressing it. The burden of blame is too heavy for us; it must be lifted off by the offended party.

This process is initiated by humble contrition.  The speaker admits, without condition or excuse, that he was wrong and needs a second chance (no argument here that he deserves a second chance).  In other words, he is taking the blame.  This is indeed ironic:  to remove the blame, one must first take the blame. The renewal must be given and received then as a gift.

Are his pleas answered?  There is a hopeful sign at the end that they were and that blame was lifted (this was the verse that hit me hard at the concert):

And everyone they have a heart
And when they break and fall apart
And need somebody’s helping hand

I used to say just let ‘em fall
It wouldn’t bother me at all
I couldn’t help them now I can

The sign of “lifted blame” is compassion for others living under its weight and an ability to be a blame lifter. Under the burden of blame himself, when others were ashamed (“and when they break and fall apart), he couldn’t help them.  Instead, he would blame them (“I used to say just let ‘em fall) for their own demise.  But stark change has taken place in his heart (“I couldn’t help them now I can”).  It is clearly implied that this newfound ability to help results from his own blame being lifted.  This is the language of a man who can forgive because he has been forgiven.

Now the question returns to “Who lifted it?”  It might be obvious that it was the jilted lover.  This is certainly possible.  But it seems that she is not the only one causing shame:

Okay so I have read the mail
The stories people often tell
About us that we never knew

The potential sources of shame from people who would blame and accuse seems endless.  How then can we hope for blame to be lifted completely, permanently?  Only when the One who knows all the wrongs that make us blameworthy and who all our transgression ultimately offend becomes the blame-lifter.

God promises to lift blame from our shoulders by taking our blame upon Himself.  This is what the cross of Jesus Christ is all about.  Without this accomplished in our lives, we would not only carry our own blame forever, but would only be able to cast blame on others, never being blame lifters ourselves.  But having been forgiven, we are then freed (in the sense of being empowered) to forgive others.  Thus, Jesus taught, “Whoever has been forgiven little, loves little” and ties our practice of forgiveness with others sins to his forgiveness of our sins.

On Christian Patriotism: What is the Proper Relationship of Loyalty to God and to Country?

There are at least two ways Christians tend to get patriotism wrong. One is to conflate loyalty to God and country, confusing one’s country with God’s kingdom and thinking that one’s country is uniquely favored by God. The other is to infer that ‘citizenship in heaven’ entails indifference to the well being of one’s country. In this helpful commentary, the late Chuck Colson explains how Christians can be appropriately patriotic:

Quick, what famous event do we commemorate on the Fourth of July?

Not sure? A little rusty on your 6th-grade civics? Well, you’re in good company. A Gallup poll reveals that one out of every four Americans does not know that the Fourth of July commemorates the Declaration of Independence.

And by the way, the same number can’t tell you what country we declared independence from.
It’s a poor patriotism that doesn’t even know our national history and traditions. Let’s take this Fourth of July and ask what it means, in the light of Scripture, to be an American citizen.
Patriotism used to be a simple matter. Most of America’s traditions were rooted in a Christian heritage. To be a good Christian seemed to be synonymous with being a good American.
And no wonder. Through most of our history as a nation, Christianity was the dominant religion. At the birth of our nation, the founding fathers declared a national day of prayer and thanksgiving—a holiday we still celebrate.

From that time on, many states required the Christian religion to be taught in colleges, prisons, and orphanages. Up until the 1960s, many states required Bible reading and prayers in the public schools. Textbooks referred to God without embarrassment. Almost all Americans agreed that our law was rooted, as John Adams said, in a common moral and religious tradition stretching back to Moses on Mount Sinai.

In a culture like that, it was easy for a Christian to be a patriot. Maybe too easy. Vibrant biblical faith often degenerated into a mere civil religion, where the well-being of the country was often equated with the expansion of God’s Kingdom. But today the dominant culture is certainly no longer Christian. Many of our cultural and intellectual leaders have come to reject the major values and institutions of American life—especially its religious values and institutions.
This movement is sometimes called the adversary culture, for it criticizes the American system while praising other political systems—even communism at the height of the gulag. During the Vietnam War, actress Jane Fonda told a student audience that if they only understood communism, and I quote, “you would hope, you would pray on your knees that we would someday be communists.”

Well, it’s a long way from the founding fathers declaring a day of prayer and thanksgiving to Jane Fonda urging us to pray for the overthrow of the American system. But where in this range of attitudes is true Christian patriotism?

The Christian position is beautifully balanced. On the one hand, we don’t deify our country. We don’t wrap the flag around the cross. For we know that our ultimate citizenship is in heaven, and that’s where our ultimate allegiance is.

But at the same time, the only place for expressing that allegiance is in concrete loyalties God has called us to here on earth—including loyalty to country. We can’t love mankind in the abstract; we can only really love people in the particular, concrete relationships God has placed us in—in our family, church, community… and our nation. The Christian has the balanced understanding.
So celebrate the Fourth of July this year by thanking God that while He has called you into His kingdom—that’s our ultimate loyalty—He has allowed us to live in—and yes, love—this land of liberty.

Assorted Reflections on the Nature and Mystery of Time

A few experiences this week got me thinking about time.  Someone wiser than me once compared thinking about time to a fish thinking about water:  as an inescapable part of our surroundings, it seems impossible to study it because we cannot step outside of it.  Yet, mysteriously, we can and have pondered time’s nature, though doing so feels strange (If you’ve never given much thought to the nature of time, start by trying to define what it is.  Hard to do, isn’t it?).

Managing Time –

Watching the World Cup the past two weeks got me thinking about how we manage time and about differences in cultural expectations of our ability to control it.  I would not describe myself as a soccer fan.  I only watch it intentionally during the World Cup, and only this year have I really begun to appreciated it.  One observation that has struck me this year is how imprecise the clock management is.  The game (or match?) clock runs continuously from the beginning, not stopping for injuries, timeouts, commercials, changes of possession, etc., and then additional time is added at the end to compensate for any delays (due just to injury?) at the end (clearly I do not have a clear grasp of the rules).  This extra time is added by whole numbers to the minute.  Contrast that with major sports of an American origin that are governed by a clock:  basketball and football.  In these sports, time is managed to a fraction of a second.  You have probably seen referees add or take away tenths of seconds to a play clock, such as when a ball goes out of bounds, by watching a replay to determine exactly when the ball crossed the in-bounds line.  At the end of games, coaches often must manage the time they use on offense down to the second to give their teams a chance to win.

Of course, this variability in degree of precision of time management is consistent with the nature of the contests.  Whereas the outcome of basketball or football games can be determined in just a fraction of a second, meaningful soccer plays take much longer to develop.  But I wonder what the fundamental differences in the structure of these sports that give rise to these varying effects of time say about the cultures in which they originated and evolved?  One of the most striking differences between cultures I have experienced while being overseas (Eastern Europe and East Asia) is the way time flows and is allocated.  I noticed that as an American I managed my personal time much more precisely (scheduling appointments and tasks in much shorter increments, for example) than people I met in these cultures.  I believe this same difference is reflected in these sports.  To offer a simple generalization, it seems that in Western culture we have a much greater sense of control over time – a greater confidence that we can manipulate it to accomplish our goals.

Valuing Time -

A second experience of time this week was viewing the new Tom Cruise film The Edge of Tomorrow.  I was drawn to it by its intriguing official synopsis:

The epic action of “Edge of Tomorrow” unfolds in a near future in which an alien race has hit the Earth in an unrelenting assault, unbeatable by any military unit in the world. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is an officer who has never seen a day of combat when he is unceremoniously dropped into what amounts to a suicide mission. Killed within minutes, Cage now finds himself inexplicably thrown into a time loop-forcing him to live out the same brutal combat over and over, fighting and dying again…and again. But with each battle, Cage becomes able to engage the adversaries with increasing skill…

This film profoundly disorients the audience by toying with our fundamental notions of time. Every time the main character dies, he wakes up in the exact same spot in the story, which then repeats exactly as it was before except for the actions he takes.  Sometimes he makes it further into to the narrative, other times he dies sooner, but each time he dies, he starts again from the same place.  This re-boot happens so many times that one eventually loses count.  Eventually, for any given new scene the audience does not know whether Major Cage has been here already, or whether he is having is first experience of it.  The closest analogy to this experience is an action video game where upon dying, the character you control starts again from the same place.  If you are paying attention to the patterns of the game, you will know it well enough to avoid the same mistakes, and with each ‘death’ progress closer to winning the game.

One reason why this experience is so disorienting is that time does not work in such a manner for us.  There is a permanent quality to our experience of the elapsing of time (lost time cannot be regained; it is gone forever) that this narrative contradicts.  We cannot go back and undo the past.  There are no repeats, no go-backs, no extra lives.  This quality is what makes time precious.

I am concerned about the ways our society tries to deny this quality of time.  As an educator, I have observed the effects on students of shielding them from the harsh reality of time.  Schools in America today commonly have policies that allow students to artificially erase their pasts.  These include allowing students to re-take tests until they pass them, do extra work to make up zeroes on assignments they did not complete, drop their lowest test grades.  Such policies create an environment in which students believe that how they spend their time matters very little because they will be allowed to undo its consequences.  Maybe this feels right to students because it mirrors a video game! Overall, I believe these policies and practices contribute to a devaluing of time in education, and thus in our society as a whole.

Integrating Time -

My last experience this week that catalyzed reflection on time was with family.  While my sister was visiting from out of town, we decided to visit some of the neighborhoods we lived in as children.  In one of these neighborhoods, there was a convenient store run by Asian immigrants that we used to walk to for snacks and other treats.  I convinced my dad to stop there to buy some drinks.  We wondered whether the same people ran it almost 30 years later.  I approached an elderly Asian gentleman working at the register saying that I often came there as a kid.  He said that he was there back then, having owned the business for 33 years.  When my dad approached, the owner said that he remembered my dad being a regular customer.  This not only surprised my dad, it made his day!  He couldn’t stop expressing his amazement and pleasure in this stranger remembering him from 30 years ago.  It was the highlight of his trip down memory lane.

Don’t we all love to be remembered?  I supposed it is a way of being honored when we are remembered, even in simple ways by seemingly insignificant people.  Perhaps this is why in the Old Testament the command to remember God and His past works is so frequent.

Also, when we are remembered, and when we remember others, this connects our past to the present in a way that adds meaning to our experiences.  In our live-in-the-moment culture, we increasingly experience life as a succession of disconnected moments, our present moment being dis-integrated from the past and the future.  Such disjointedness increases a sense of randomness in our experience that diminishes meaning.  We fine meaning when our past, present, and future are connected, integrated in patterned ways, the way a story would be patterned.

What insights would you add about the strange nature of time?

Reasons I Love the San Antonio Spurs (and You Should Too) in 3 Words

My love for San Antonio Spurs basketball has bordered on obsession. While I watched and admired their 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007 championships passively, it is only in the past 3 years, going back to their 2012 playoff run, that I have come to appreciate what makes them special in today’s sports landscape. Inspired by their dominant championship series victory over the Miami Heat, I have distilled the Spurs appeal down to three defining characteristics: selflessness, perseverance, and faithfulness.

Selflessness

Many have observed and discussed this past week how well the Spurs play together as a team. Their beautiful teamwork was vividly on display on their surprising evisceration of the Heat in Games 3 and 4. But these games merely epitomized the team-centered approach displayed throughout the entire season. Consider some statistics

  • Their leading scorer, Tony Parker (16.7 points per game), was not even among the top 25 scorers in the NBA during the regular season. 6 players averaged more than 10 PPG.

  • No player averaged more than 30 minutes per game; 9 players averaged 19 or more minutes per game.

  • They averaged 25.1 assists per game (3rd in the NBA)

These signs of team work – balanced minutes, balanced scoring, ball distribution – were magnified in the Finals

  • 6 players averaged double digits in scoring, with the highest, Kawhi Learned, scoring less than 19 per game.

    • All 13 players scored in Game 4

  • Assists per game – 25.5 vs. the Heat’s 15.5

  • These assists were the product of a pass first, pass often mentality that flummoxed the Heat, especially in the pivotal Games 3 and 4.

    • The Spurs passes per possession averaged 4.2 and 4.5 in Games 3 and 4, respectively.

    • In contrast, the Heat passed the ball a total of 267 times compared to 380 for the Spurs.

This selflessness, which I am defining simply as a team-first attitude, is also displayed off the court. Their stars notoriously say very little in interviews, and when they do speak, they are loathe to speak of their individual accomplishments, but quick to deflect attention to either the team, or their ”system” or the coaches. This aversion to not running their mouth indicates a cautious attitude toward boasting or to putting down an opponent, which are signs of true humility.

Perseverance

This quality is shown by how they respond to setbacks, the longevity of their success, and in how no-name, unwanted players often find success that eluded them elsewhere.

Last year’s Game 6 finals loss was as stunning as it was devastating. Up by 5 points with the less than one minute to go, and with a 3-2 series, the championship was virtually guaranteed (the NBA was already preparing the trophy presentation on the sidelines). But in an uncanny, almost impossible, sequence of events (described vividly here by Zack Lowe of Grantland.com), including two missed free throws and two offensive rebounds by the Heat resulting in two 3 pointers), the Heat tied the game, and went on to win Game 6 in overtime, en route to a final Game 7 victory . I almost cried. I had already typed “SPURS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” on my Facebook status update, a finger raised to press send. Such a loss would have decimated the confidence of most teams, making it psychologically impossible to recover and come back the next year. Coach Popovich confessed to being haunted by it every day since. But the Spurs embrace this awful letdown as an opportunity to improved and used it as motivation to become a more dominant team the following year. And dominate they did. There 14 + points per game margin of victory was the highest ever in for the NBA Finals.

I would not characterize them as persevering, though, if it were just a one year story. Consider the longevity of their success as a team. They have been in the playoffs every year for 15 years, winning 50 plus games a season over this stretch), winning 5 championships since 1999 (Duncan was in his 2nd year), but their last was 7 years ago in 2007. Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker were not on that first championship team, but were on the other four since. Together, the Duncan-Ginobli-Parker trio have one more playoff games than any three player combination in NBA history (and Duncan himself set a record for the most total playoff minutes played). The constant variable through it all, of course, is their coach Greg Popovich, who at 18 years with the Spurs, has the longest consecutive coaching tenure currently in all 4 major American sports.

The perseverance of the team transfers to the perseverance of individual players through personal adversity. As an organization, the Spurs are masterful in picking unwanted, below-average players off the junk pile of other teams and transforming them into productive role players in their team-centered system. Boris Diaw, whose insertion into the starting lineup in Game 3 was arguably the catalyst for their 3 consecutive game domination, was released by the Charlotte Bobcats (who suffered the worse season in NBA history that year) in 2012. He was viewed as overweight, out of shape, and washed up. Shooting guard Danny Green, who set a record for 3 pointers made in last years Finals and was 7-8 from the field in their record-setting Game 3, was released by his first team, the Cleveland Cavs, in just his second year in the league, and was picked up by the Spurs, only to be cut that same year. But they brought him back and transformed him into a major contributor.

As a professional sports organization, this commitment to develop players and maximize their talent by putting them in niche roles that channel their gifts toward the success of the team is what I admire most about the Spurs. Their philosophy seems to be “If you are good enough to make it into professional sports, you are good enough to make meaningful contributions and are expected to do so.” This approach though requires trust between players and between players and coaches, which leads to my last quality.

Faithfulness

The norm in professional sports these days is that when teams’ seasons end in disappointment, heads must role: trading older stars in the name of ‘re-building,’ sacking coaches, paying hot free agents exorbitant sums. Whatever promises to bring the quickest results. Of course, the Spurs try to improve their team by adding better players, but the secret to their success is sticking with and developing the players they have, trusting in their system to bring the most out of individuals. Many franchises would have fired their coach, or launched a dramatic roster overhaul, after A) not making it to the Finals in 2012 after squandering a 2-0 series lead to the OKC Thunder and B) epically blowing a Finals victory last year. Management could have decided that their old stars just weren’t going to win again and traded them all away for the future. But the Spurs stuck with their core guys, modified their roles (the offense no longer centers around Duncan’s inside scoring), and developed their supplementary pieces (hiring a world famous shooting coach to work with Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and others).

Don’t get me wrong, the Spurs care about winning as much as any franchise, but they are distinct in the way of going about it. Instead of going for pragmatic, short-term fixes to problems, they stay faithful to players whose abilities they believe in and to the principles of basketball that define their ‘system.’

NBA comissioner Adam Silver, when handing the Spurs president the Finals trophy, summarized the global praise that has been heaped on the Spurs this week, “You showed the world how beautiful our sport can be.” Beauty is a word that has oft been used to describe the Spurs pass until you find the best shot available approach. But the beauty of this team is greater than that. The basketball only reveals the beauty of virtue that all of us should emulate. Indeed, these traits of selflessness, perseverance, and faithfulness, are characteristics of life lived beautifully.

When Is Change Good? Discerning between Progress and Regress

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I have an amazing job.  I get to teach 150+ students, most of whom are high school seniors on the verge of adulthood, about all-important questions such as how to know what knowledge is, where it comes from, how to get it, how to recognize its false substitutes, etc., in my Theory of Knowledge course.   Even the most amazing jobs, though, can become a mundane grind: in my case, grading papers constantly (many of which are disappointingly mediocre), writing tests, talking to confused parents about how their ‘brilliant’ child could possibly be doing so poorly.  In the mundane, it is hard to remember why what we do matters, and why we sought out to do this work in the first place.  Thus, it is important, for motivation over the long haul, to have our calendars punctuated by reminders (sometimes planned, sometimes unplanned) of the significance of our work, defined simply as the larger good our work contributes to.

I’m fortunate to know ahead of time that such a moment is coming annually at our Senior dinner for the students completing the intellectually demanding magnet program in which I teach.  This year approximately 100 students are graduating from the program.  The dinner might be what you would expect:  a time of reminiscing on the past 4 years (with plenty of laughs about the goofballs they all were as freshman), of celebrating their accomplishments, and of looking forward hopefully into the future.  Traditionally, the gathering also includes a time for teachers to give a message of encouragement, exhortation, and advice for living.

I love having this last time with them as a captive audience, all together in one place.  Striving for two years to impart to them wisdom and understanding, this is my last shot at driving home ideas that I hope will make a difference in the way they see the world and decisions they make.  I do not have a standard message that I recycle each year, but try to tailor it uniquely to my experience with that group.  The themes, though, are similar.  Given that their minds were already full of memories of the past and their hearts in awe and perhaps appreciation of how far they have come, I gave them a message about the nature of change.  I would like to share the gist of my message with you, as it is universally applicable.

Not all change is growth; knowing when change is true progress is essential to having a successful life.  A culture that elevates the here and the now, the gratification of the moment, tends to embrace change uncritically, naively equating the new with the good.  As musical artists The Avett Brothers decry, “It’s in with the new and out with the old; Out goes the warmth, and in comes the cold; It’s the most predictable story told; In with the young, out with old” (“Down with the Shine,” The Carpenter, 2012).  But how does one know that change is progress?  It might be regress; it might just be different.  How can one tell?

Intuitively, we know that judging whether change is good or not requires some kind of standard; something that is at least more permanent than that which is changing.  It is analogous to how we judge motion relative to a fixed point of reference.  When we travel, we judge progress with reference to our final destination; the concept of progress would be meaningless without a destination.  If our destination lies to the East of our current location, we can only know we are moving East by comparing our changing position to something that is not moving.

But what is the final destination toward which our lives are moving?  While there are multiple answers that are possible, our culture is increasingly skeptical and agnostic about these answers.  To some, the answer is determined by each individual (which is problematic because it results in loneliness and isolation, with no assurances that anyone is journeying with you); to others, the answer is a negation:  there is no destination because life is ultimately random and therefore purposeless (which is problematic because it renders the need for purpose and hope meaningless).  Both approaches make judgments about change unintelligible:  change is just different, neither really better or really worse.

The biblical worldview teaches plainly that in the end all people are headed to one of two destinations.  C.S. Lewis contrasts these ends vividly and explains their significance for how we relate to others:

The dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.

At any given moment, we, as creatures inhabiting time and space, are simultaneously being and becoming.  In other words, who we are has been realized to a degree in the present, but there is also a not yet aspect to our existence.  But the changes we undergo are not neutral: we are either become more and more glorious and complete (conforming to the likeness we were made to be) or more and more wretched and wispy (distorting further the likeness we were made to be).

As I exhorted my students, I likewise exhort my readers.  Be self-aware and observant of the ways in which you are changing.  And reflect often on whether these changes constitute true growth of your soul.  Who has God made you to be?  Who are you becoming?

Captain America: the Winter Soldier – Freedom or Security?

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The latest movie in the Marvel franchise, Captain America: the Winter Soldier, explores a timeless political question in a modern context. The question is whether people value freedom over security and whether we sacrifice our freedom for the sake of security or risk security for the sake of freedom.  The modern context is the increasing exposure of our private lives to the state through the information we reveal by our ubiquitous use of digital technology.  This information enables the state to keep an ever watchful eye on us, and ominously to use this information to identify ‘threats’ to the state.  The central conflict in this story is between those that are scheming to use this technology in the name of maintaining order and those who recognize it as a threat to freedom and fight to dismantle it.

This threat to freedom comes from Captain America’s original enemy, the shadowy terrorist-type organization, Hydra.  Hydra is portrayed as being the main agent of chaos in the world.  After their defeat in WWII, they learned that that the way to eliminate freedom from the world was not to take it by force, but to convince people to give it up willingly.  They would do this by making the world an increasingly dangerous place (the Winter Solider is presented as a hidden menace that has provoked much of the violence in the world) that out of fear man would relinquish his freedom in exchange for greater security. 

This theme raises the question of why there is a tradeoff between freedom and security.  Why does more freedom have to mean less security and order?  Conversely, why does more order have to result in less freedom?  Perhaps the origins of this tension lies in our modern concept of what freedom means.  The modern notion of freedom lies in the Enlightenment understanding of man as an autonomous individual.  ‘Autonomous’ literally means self-law or rule. There are two fundamentally different understandings of autonomy.  One assumes that moral laws exist and are revealed or discovered.  The other assumes that moral laws do not exist but are determined by individuals. 

In the former view, free individuals govern themselves according to natural moral law.  By natural, I do not mean scientific laws of nature, by moral laws that are intrinsic in human nature and known innately, revealed by God to men everywhere.  A free individual does not need the threat of force from the government to compel him to live a righteous life.  Rather, he does what is right because he knows rationally that this is what is best for himself and his community, or perhaps for religious reasons that this will please God.  This approach limits the power of the state by rendering it largely unnecessary for preserving order.  Order is established by individuals within local communities governing themselves. 

In the later view, free individuals throw off the constraints of moral law that they themselves have not chosen, rejecting the idea of a moral law that they receive and must submit to.  Instead, moral codes are fashioned according to what suits the needs, or more precisely the desires, of the individual.  Right and wrong is a matter of what he chooses, and enables ‘authentic’ self-expression and unrestrained satisfaction of desire. 

This approach, ironically, enlarges the power of the state by increasing the distrust individuals have toward each other.  Trust in a society requires a shared sense of meaning, which is developed through a commitment to common moral values.  Individuals may enjoy the freedom of only looking out for themselves, but they despise when others do the same at their expense.  When individuals are not governing themselves according to a common moral code, distrust breeds fear, and fear demands that force be employed to regulate behavior that is viewed as threatening.

In the first view, the government has a limited role in providing security.  A sense of security arises from the trust individuals have with each other when they believe that others are governing themselves according to intrinsic moral law.  In other words, when people are freely governing themselves, not according to the laws of the state, but according to the laws of God, the need for security and order is also fulfilled (the government still has a role because evil exists and there are always some who will not govern themselves rightly).  In the second view, the government has potentially an unlimited role in providing security.  This view of freedom produces ever growing chaos which invites government power to provide the order that individuals are failing to provide for themselves.

 

Lessons on Responding to Sexual Brokenness from the Dallas Buyers Club

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This is the time of year when, for entertainment, my wife and I explore Oscar winning films that we missed (or had never even heard about) from the year before.  Our first foray into this round of award-winning films was the Dallas Buyers Club (2013) for which Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor, and Jared Leto Best Supporting Actor.  Based on a true story, it tells about the plight and triumph of Ron Woodruff, a blue-collar Texas electrician and devoted Rodeo hobbyist, whose diagnosis with AIDS and struggle for survival transforms him from a self-serving homophobe to a courageous advocate for the gay community, as he fights to start and protect a business that imports experimental HIV treatments that were not yet approved by the FDA.

While the movie is disturbing (and shocking) in its depiction of lewd sexual activity (both hetero- and homosexual), it does not portray these in a way that glorifies or trivializes sexual deviancy, but rather shows vividly its potentially destructive effects.  And though Ron Woodruff is not portrayed as a Christian, his response to sexual brokenness – his own and that of others – is in some ways quite Christ-like.

Here are some lessons people who take seriously the Bible’s teachings on sexual morality can learn on dealing with sexual brokeness from this film:

1. Loving ‘the sinner’ may be very costly

Christians often employ the distinction ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ to explain how one can accept a person while rejecting their sin.  While I believe this distinction is valid (because of the belief that a person has a core identity that is deeper, more fundamental than his desires) and possible to put into practice, I also believe that it entails a greater obligation than many people realize. Loving a ‘sinner’ is more than just passive tolerance (not harming, not excluding, etc.) but an active seeking of their good, which often requires sacrifice.

After experiencing for himself the benefits of experimental AIDS treatments, Ron Woodruff initially sees an enormous business opportunity in importing and selling these to AIDS patients, and profits tremendously at first (charging $400/month for membership to the “Buyers Club” to avoid the charge of illegally selling unapproved drugs directly).  But as his business encounters resistance from powerful corporate and government interests, his battle becomes much more than about the money: it becomes about justice for his clients, most of which are powerless and destitute.  He risks his own health and treasure to ensure that the AIDS patients get the help they need to prolong their lives.

When Christians say they need to ‘love the sinner,’ they should consider that doing so truly, in the manner of Christ, may require enormous personal sacrifice.

2. One’s own sexual brokenness should shape one’s relationship to ‘the sinner.’

When Woodruff learns of his condition, he denies it and is outraged at the doctor because he believes the doctor was insinuating that he himself was gay. He explodes with all the incendiary language used to describe gay people. language that was acceptable in the mainstream at that time.  As he researches the disease, believing at first that it only afflicted gays and drug addicts, he discovers that it can also be spread through unprotected, heterosexual sex.  His memories of his own reckless sexual dalliances flood his mind and in a dramatic moment he cries out in despair, suddenly recognizing the awful consequences of his sin. This awakening to his own sin represents a turning point in his attitude toward homosexuals.  Soon after, he begins to experience cruel treatment from his heterosexual friends, as they make ignorant inferences from the fact of his disease to his sexual orientation.  Clearly, his understanding of his sin, which was acceptable to him and his friends, helps him to identify with and have compassion for the sin of others, which was not.

Christians should not be ashamed to proclaim what the Bible teaches about sexuality.  They should not cave to the pressure to deny or change the meaning of the Bible’s content to make it suitable to the norms of the times (otherwise how could they maintain reverence for the Bible as an authoritative book?).  Doing so erodes the foundations of the religion and thus threatens the religion itself.  At the same time, they should not regard other forms of sexual brokenness, as classified in Scripture, as somehow tolerable, or rationalize their own sexual sin by comparing it to others forms they consider more heinous.  The gay community is right to call Christians out on such hypocrisy.  While some Christian communities are consistent in their condemnation of all kinds of sin, others are not, turning a blind eye to adultery, pre-marital sex, etc. The result is a form of sexual self-righteousness where, like the Pharisees justifying himself by comparison to the tax collector (Luke 18), religious people justify their own sin by saying, “Well, at least I’m not like that other person.”  The right response to others’ sexual brokenness is to have a deep self-awareness of one’s own that generates compassion towards others as ‘fellow sinners’ and humility with regards to oneself.  This is the only way to avoid the kind of judging that Jesus speaks against in the Sermon on the Mount.  This is not, as some misconstrue it, a warning against discerning between good and evil, and calling evil for what it is (not doing so is the opposite problem of hypocrisy – tolerating all sin including your own), but is about not condemning others as sinners, because we ourselves are under that same condemnation, apart from the work of Christ.

3. Defining the meaning of ‘morality’ is foundational

One of the main reasons, I believe, that the conservative religious community is losing out in the public debate over sexual orientation and ‘rights’ is that they have allowed the other side’s basic conception of morality to prevail and largely go unchallenged.  That concept, simply put, is this:  morality is that which does no harm (or in an inversion of the Golden Rule “don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you).  This simple dictum is used to justify all manner of sexual deviancy with the logic that any kind of sexual behavior between two consenting adults is moral (or not immoral) because it does no harm.

I do not have time to deal with this comprehensively in this post, but to say that the Bible offers a much richer, powerful, beautiful concept of what makes something good, right, and just than simply avoiding hurting people.  The main problem with this view of morality is not its basic assumption that immoral behavior causes harm, but that none of us are objective or honest enough to admit all the harmful consequences of our immoral behavior, especially when we enjoy said behavior. This is one of the moral lessons of the show Breaking Bad.  While we the audience see plainly how destructive Walter White’s drug making enterprise is, he is blinded to it by his own pride, rationalizing it by imagining only good consequences coming from it.  The AIDS epidemic is unmistakable empirical evidence that even sexual behavior between consenting adults can do much harm, but virtually no one will admit that their own sexually immoral behavior has detrimental effects.  And if another tries to point it out to them, they can simply retreat behind skepticism (‘that’s didn’t happen because of what I did; you can’t prove that, other things caused that!).

If you end up watching this film (and I’m not necessarily commending it; it certainly does not fall under the category of ‘edifying’), and you happen to be a Christian, I hope that these lessons will be clear to you as well.  If you have seen it, please critique or add to my commentary.