Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cultural Apologetics 101 (as demonstrated by an Original Orthodox Rebel)

Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' Hill and said, "Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription: 'To the Unknown God'. Whom therefore ye worship in ignorance, Him I declare unto you.

"God, who made the world and all things therein, seeing that He is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands. Neither is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, seeing He giveth to all life and breath and all things. And He hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation, that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might feel after Him and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being, as also certain of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring.'

"For inasmuch, then, that we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver or stone, graven by art and of man's devising. The times of this ignorance God overlooked, but now He commandeth all men everywhere to repent, because He hath appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath ordained. Of this He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead."

-The Apostle Paul (Acts 17:22-31)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Dark is the way, Light is a face (the personal confession of an orthodox rebel)

I'm single (for those who didn't know). There are plenty of advantages to being single. Your time is more or less your own, and your focus and energies are much freer for your family, friends, career, hobbies, and God. There is, in truth, a certain levity to not being tied down. Perhaps then the only real drawback to being single is that you're...we'll, you're single. Relatively speaking, you're alone. And that is not fun.

This was brought home to me recently.

I had a dream. In the part of it that I actually remember, I was with my friends. At least, I believed that they were my friends. I didn't recognize anybody, and their voices seemed just vaguely familiar. But somehow I knew (as you can only know in dreams) that these were my friends. They acted cordial and goofy and free-spirited, just like my real friends. We were all hanging out somewhere enjoying ourselves.

There was someone else there, too. Apparently, she was my wife. Or fiance. Or girlfriend. Whatever our relationship, it was obvious that we were "together". I didn't recognize her at all. Her face seemed to be an amalgam of every girl I've ever known, at yet she was none of them. In short, she was everyone and no one. And, as I said, we were together.

Now at some point, we got really close. Face to face, actually. I don't remember the face exactly (again, it was both everyone and no one), but I do remember two things: the eyes and the smile. The eyes were hard to describe literally, and only true lovers could understand what I am about to express. Those eyes knew me. Not in some vague factual sense, but in a closer than close, intimate sense. The best way I could think to describe it was that I knew (beyond a shadow of any doubt, accepting it with the simplicity of a child) that I was hers and she was mine. That's really all I can say.

The smile was easy to describe. It was just a smile. Not a goofy grin or slight smirk. Just a good, solid smile, like you give to someone you truly, deeply love. That smile and those eyes converged into a single understanding that was dual-edged like a sword: "I know you, and I love you." Nothing to hide and nothing to fear. I cannot describe the feeling that this knowledge awakened. For one moment, I was just plain happy, immersed in joy unspeakable. I was known and loved. It was so simple and so powerful, and it was all wrapped up in a face.

Then I woke up.

After taking a moment or two to assess the situation, the only thing I felt after that was sadness, and it stuck with me all day. It wasn't some angst-ridden melancholy. I wasn't mopey or depressed. Anyone who saw me that day would have thought that I was fine, and in truth I was fine. It was just that the sadness was there, like an aftertaste in the back of my brain. In moments of silence or deliberation, it was very strong. I got to thinking long and hard about it: what did it mean and why did it linger? It wasn't until the late evening, while driving home from work, that I arrived at a question that spun the whole thing in a different way: "Father, is that face what Heaven is like?"

I remembered how in I John the apostle talked about how "when we see Him we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is," and how the apostle Paul gave the Galatians this strange admonition: "now that ye know God, or rather, are know of God". I remembered how somewhere in one of the gospels, God is casting out those who will not enter the kingdom, and He put their rejection in rather peculiar terms: "Depart from me. I never knew thee." He didn't say, "Depart because you're a sinner," nor, "Depart because you never met the standard," but simply, "I never knew you." Somehow, someway, being with or without God involves a kind of knowledge (or lack thereof), intimate in its nature and startling in its consequences.

After all this consideration, I began to wonder: when our faith at last becomes sight, will it be like my dream? I say that it seems so. When the gray rain curtain of this world rolls away, and all turns to silver glass, we will not simply see white shores and a green countryside rolling on into a swift sunrise. We will also see the face, the face of God, with knowing eyes and a loving smile. "I know you, and I love you. There is nothing more to hide, and nothing more to fear." Only this time we will not awake from it. Instead, we will awake to it.

On my Facebook page, I have listed for my "Religious Views" the oddly invigorating phrase "Dark is the way, Light is a face". It's the title of a CD by a band called Anberlin. The only difference is that I changed the word "place" to "face" because I think it is more theologically true. The way is dark indeed, filled with sorrow and toil, "troubles and trials". The light, however, is not merely a different location, the point "B" to the dark's point "A". It is a face, a person. Capable of knowing and being known in the most intimate of senses. It is the ultimate Other by which our identity is at long last restored and made manifest. It is a face. Not an abstraction or location, but a face. A face.

What really is astounding about all of this is that this moment of being known is not a future event. Not really. We are known of God right now. That face with those knowing eyes and loving lips is turned towards us even now, right here in this very room where you sit and pass the moments in bliss or fear or indifference. Whether you are single or married or widowed, you are always betrothed. You always belong. You always are known and loved, and you are never truly alone.

The dream made me sad because it was a dream. But the dream speaks to a reality that is, and that has made me glad. I hope it makes you glad, too.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Friday, June 10, 2011

"We all go into the dark...." (critical engagement by an orthodox rebel)

This article by The Wall Street Journal was very interesting. Read it carefully before proceeding.

I wish to divulge a certain truth about myself: when it comes to fiction (and even real life), I like dark things. I like well crafted villains and situations of true peril. I like watching the hero struggle (victoriously, of course) through a dark night of the soul, culminating in new strength and resolve. I like evil, death, sorrow, and the like treated with a sense of respect and maturity. As I've pointed out elsewhere, the more seriously you take evil, the more seriously you take the good. The inkier the darkness, the more brilliant the light.

On the other hand, as Mrs. Gurdon points out in her article, dark things (like all good tools) can be abused. What I want to assert, however, is that what she has pointed out is not true "dark" fiction but rather a childish parodying of it. What she is pointing out is not darkness; it is depravity, and the authors involved ought to be ashamed for exposing children to such things. I applaud Mrs. Gurdon for exposing these travesties of fiction and their collective assault on the moral character of young adults and teenagers. However, for the sake of all things truly "dark," I feel compelled to try to offer (in a limited way) some parameters for what truly defines something that is "dark." I believe it involves at least two things.

First of all, anything that desires to call itself "dark" must have a sense of gravitas. I do not mean mere weight, nor do I mean boredom or pretentiousness, but rather a sense of seriousness. As mentioned earlier, there is a certain sense of respect and maturity given to the content of the story, all of the content (both the good and the bad). It is treated with gravity, not levity, nor is it treated flippantly, as though it didn't matter. The mark of any great piece of fiction (whether it be dark or not) is that it treats its content like it matters. It knows nothing of shock and titillation; only seriousness. When an author writes about our protagonist seeing a wall "covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, hearts, feet, ears, penises," I cannot take such a sentence seriously. It has no gravitas; it is simply gross. Gruesomeness does not equal seriousness, and anything that is truly dark has first and foremost a sense of seriousness about its contents.

Second of all, anything that desires to call itself "dark" must have a sense of somberness about it. If my first point stressed gravity, then this point is stressing tragedy. This is where most so-called "dark" stories miss the mark. They focus on the disgusting and the gross rather than the tragic; they expose the depravity rather than contemplating the tragedy. The problem with this is that depravity (aside from being repulsive and corrupting) has only superficial narrative power. Tragedy, however, has fundamental narrative power. It strikes deeper and last longer and is far more meaningful. Going into graphic detail about how some poor girl has sliced her arm "to ribbons" has no lasting power over the reader. It may shock and disgust you. It may haunt your brain as an image, but it has no fundamental effect on you. It has not changed your mind about anything, nor has it stirred you towards any physical or moral action (except, perhaps, buying a different book). What has been missed is that the cut arms of the girl are not nearly as potent as her cut soul, the latter being a far more universal (and thus relevant) reality than the former. Not everyone cuts their arms when they are sad, but everyone has been sad; and that which is truly "dark" focuses on that universal quality of sadness, on the underlying tragic elements of our lives.

A clarifications is in order. By "somberness" or tragedy, I do not mean merely a perpetual state of angst or ennui. A morbidly depressed character is not "dark"; they are just morbidly depressed. For a character to be "dark," they must be caught in the grip of tragedy, and either are struggling against it towards catharsis (if they are the hero) or have succumbed to it (if they are the villain). Sadness can never be the end unto itself, for that is the way of the villain. There must be a light at the end of this dark tunnel, but you have to go through the dark tunnel first.

That last sentence may strike some as odd (or old fashioned), but I claim it as the undeniable truth of true "dark" fiction, i.e., it is meant to offer us hope. As stated earlier, the darker the dark, the more stunning and sudden the light becomes. "Dark" fiction (perhaps more than any other fictive style) has this potential to make the light explode before us like a thousand symphonic stars, and it does it in this way: by taking us honestly and seriously through the dark. In perhaps the wildest of paradoxes, the authors that Mrs. Gurdon cites focus so intently on the dark that they cease to be dark at all; they become disgusting and depraved, mere repositories of vapid shock and titillation. For without light, darkness loses all meaning.

Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Great Inscape (a commentary by an orthodox rebel)

"[There is] the notion that I have to be something; [the truth is that] I have not. I have to be absolutely abandoned to Jesus Christ, so one with Him that I never think of myself apart from Him. Love is never self-conscious." -Oswald Chambers (from Biblical Ethics, p. 97)

Ultimately, there are only two philosophical positions in the world: either everything is all about our self, or it is all about God. When it is about our self, we can never truly enjoy anything or anyone because we are never truly seeing them. We have warped their mirrors to reflect ourselves, and we have no light to illuminate either them or us. When it is all about God, however, then we can finally enjoy all things, for we finally see them for who and what they are in the light of His glory and grace.

Do not misunderstand. This is not about unconsciousness, nor is it about treating people and things as no better than tools. Rather, it is about making God (His presence, promises, and power as revealed in Christ and the Word) the absolute center of your life. Once that happens, everything and everyone else are not lost. On the contrary, they (like us) have finally found their place, and thus we are finally able to enjoy them (and they us) for all the unique ways that they alone glorify and enjoy God.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Thursday, June 2, 2011

On the Necessity of Sanity to Ministry (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

"It is not fitting that we should leave the Word of God to serve tables." Acts 6:2b

There is a certain balance and sanity to Christianity, mainly because there was a certain balance and sanity to Christ. He knew nothing of our frenzies and hysteria, where we are moved along by fashionable sentiments and good intentions. In recent years, we have seen such madness. An extra devious madness, because its good intentions make it seem so right. Certain individuals (with initial clean hearts and hands) have perceived in the Church an apparent inordinate focus on doctrine, a focus that has created a kind of doctrinal intellectualism: cold, passionless, compassionless, and dead. In short, the thinkers continue to think, the bible-thumpers continue to thump, and meanwhile the poor and needy and all-alone continue to suffer.

In response to this real (though not nearly as great as they supposed) crisis, the best efforts of those certain individuals have yielded opposite yet equal problems. The Church has turned from a cold-hearted academic hall to a vapid therapeutic hospital, where doctrinal clarity has been so far jettisoned out of all preaching and practice  that Christianity's very identity often dissolves into a vat of ambiguous religious goo. We provide medicine, education, and social justice for many, but the truth that Christ died to save sinners from the just wrath of God is lost in transmission, if it is in the transmission at all. In short, in attempting to fix a broken leg, they have shot themselves in the foot.

All these things (from cold-hearted dogmatism to bleeding-hearted secularism) are the direct result of our innate insanity, i.e., our constant, furious drives to make the whole of the Church about one thing, ministry, or virtue to the detriment of all else. We trumpet the primacy of urban areas, and thus the rural and suburban are forgotten. We cry for the oppression of the poor, and thus leave the rich and middle-classes to damnation. We merrily reupholster people's furniture and plant trees in their parks, and yet we leave their souls to die. In fleeing from a pit of vipers, we have fallen into a den of thieves.

In Acts 6, it is clear that the disciples knew nothing of our mass manias. When widows were truly being neglected, the disciples did not halt everything and make the whole of Christianity about them, but neither did they ignore them. Rather, they said it was "not fitting" for them to help them, because they already had a ministry: "the ministry of the Word" (vs. 4). Apparently, it was the duty and calling of others to serve the ministry of the tables, and these others were found and their ministry made a part of the whole.

That is the balance and subsequent sanity of Christianity, of Christ. Everyone and everything finds its place. The body is many members, with many different gifts meant for many different issues (Rom. 12:4-6a). As long as those members see Christ as the head (Eph. 4:15-16), then what does it matter what they have been given to do (John 21:21-22)? If they are preachers and the gospel is preached, then rejoice! If they are intellectuals and the gospel is preached, rejoice! If they are doctors or volunteers and the gospel is preached, rejoice! If they are artists and the gospel is preached, rejoice! The one needful thing is Christ, and as long as He is the one constant, everything else will find its place in Him.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011