Saturday, October 29, 2011

Homily 33: The Courage to Do (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"I send thee unto them, and then shall thou say unto them, 'Thus saith the Lord God.' And they, whether they will hear or whether they will refuse..., they shall know that there hath been a prophet among them." Eze. 2:4b-5

As Christians, we cannot measure our "success" in any quantitative sense. Successful faith is not in numbers but in doing. Too many today have a subconscious business model of faith: "If I am going to trust God, then such and such must be accomplished." The only thing that "must be accomplished" is for you to trust God. Results are not your concern. You cast the seeds about like sparks. Another comes and fans the flames, but the success of the blaze is not ultimately up to you. It will increase in heat and power as the Lord sees fit. That is what He was saying to Ezekiel, and that is what He is saying to us: "Have the courage to do, and leave the rest to me."

The only true courage worthy of the name is the courage to do, a courage indifferent to controlling outcomes or hedging bets. Courage based on success ratios is opportunistic courage, which is just another form of cowardice. If we really knew what we were up against: all of the malicious, slobbering horror of Sin and the cunning, foolproof wiles of the Devil; in short, if we really knew the full scope of our adversary, then none of us would be opportunistically courageous. We would not (and do not) have the poisonous luxury of waiting for the right time to act. The only right time is the present, and the only successful action is the one done out of faith in God. Whether or not you succeed in human terms is irrelevant. Strictly speaking, we all fail in "human terms," for the preaching of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (I Cor. 1:18). The only terms that matter are God's terms, and His terms are simple: whether they hear you or not, go in faith, doubting nothing, and I will show you great and mighty things.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On Villainy (thoughts on characters and evil by an orthodox rebel)

A good villain must be powerful. Limpwristed villainy does not make for a good story. If they are not a sizable enough threat, then the hero becomes meaningless. The villain's villainy must be a true challenge so that the hero's heroism will count for something (both for the hero and those that he rescues). In short, pathetic villains make pathetic heroes, and both make pathetic stories.

Having said all that, we must not make the mistake of misunderstanding the nature of evil. A villain may be powerful, but that does not mean that evil is a source of energy and vitality. In fact, whatever energy that a villain has comes from those parts of them that can still be called (by themselves) "good": his natural-born strength or cunning, or his accumulated wealth, or his basic desires. This is because only what is good can produce energy. Only the good can produce life. And only the good can become evil. Evil cannot create. It only corrupts. It preys upon desires and talents, twisting them into what may seem energetic at first. Twisted desires conceive (a very vital activity) and bring forth sin; but when sin finishes, it brings forth death, not life.

A villain may be powerful, and in stories they must be powerful; but we must not leave off showing where their evil leads them: to the cold, wasted halls of death. Living death, if you will. Evil is vampiric. It drains away all life, even what it has corrupted to its purposes; and every villain, no matter how powerful, will be sucked dry, until even their very lusts wither away into nothingness.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Bare-Knuckled Gospel (a book review by an orthodox rebel)

Book: The World-Tilting Gospel: Embracing a Biblical Worldview & Hanging on Tight, by Dan Phillips. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2011. 315 pgs. (including notes, prefaces, introductions, afterwords, and indexes)

Introduction: There is a grave inconsistency marking the western Christian church. It is not (as some would muse) an inconsistency between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, between what we believe and what we do (though that does touch upon it). Nor is it (as others sagaciously theorize) an inconsistency between our overblown shadows and underwhelming substance (though that is addressed within it). The true grave inconsistency of the western church is historical, viz., between the church of the 1st century and the church of the 21st century. What did the world say about the 1st century church? According to scripture, we were the ones who had "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6). What does the world say about the 21st century church? According to author and pastor Dan Phillips, nothing good (if it says anything at all). The world may compliment us and occasionally grant us an approving nod, but never that we are the ones who are turning the world "upside down"; and for Mr. Phillips, that's a problem. A problem that has a very simple cause: we no longer view all things through the gospel, the whole gospel, and nothing but the gospel. It is that lack of a gospel-centric vision that Mr. Phillips seeks to address and amend in The World-Tilting Gospel.

Summary: Overall, this book is similar in scope (and even structure) to John Calvin's Institutes, viz., it unpacks Christian orthodoxy and explains (1) what it means and (2) why it matters, i.e., why it is "world-tilting". As such, it makes writing a summary of the book paradoxically both impossible and simple. "Impossible," because there is so much packed into such a relatively tiny space. "Simple," because all that it is is the Christian Faith unpacked, analyzed, and illuminated (and backed by tons of scripture references). In short, not only is its like Calvin's Institutes, it is also like Lewis' Mere Christianity. It is just the facts, though it is in no way either derivative or boring and unengaging (as you shall see below).

Review: Dan Phillips is angry. Very angry. He is angry at the church. Angry at its pathetically weak-kneed and limp-wristed approach to the world. Angry at all the slipshod shenanigans that have been dumped on top of the gospel. Angry at the protestant pseudocelebrites that perpetrate and bulwark those shenanigans. Angry at the fads and fashions that attempt to shanghai the gospel to their fading lunacies. And angry at the evangelical culture that unquestioningly absorbs all of this and proceeds to saturate you and me with it. Therefore, Dan Phillips is an angry man. But it's a righteous anger.

Every since I began reading his blog posts a couple of years ago (at both his blog and Pyromaniacs), I became quickly aware that Dan was a fighting blogger. Not mean or brutish, just a fighter. "Bare-knuckle," as he put it once. He is (as he himself admits) the least nuanced of the contributors to Pyromaniacs, and I mean that in a good way. He's the one with the sleeveless, hairy arms and grim expression with a sledgehammer slung over his shoulder. When he steps up to the mike, his voice is a chainsaw, making postmodernists raw. Whether that is a proper rhetorical strategy or not, one thing is crystal clear, and that is him: you always know exactly where he is coming from and what he is after. No doubts. No questions. No way to effectively obfuscate. You have been punched squarely in the jaw, and you know exactly from who and why; and just like "the most interesting man in the world," when he punches you, you have to fight the urge to thank him.

The book is the same. It is a fighting book. From page one onwards, it comes out swinging and doesn't relent. This can make for exhausting reading, and yet you will never find yourself moved to put the book down. Even during parts that you already know backwards and forwards (thanks to prehistoric Sunday School lectures), you will find yourself engaged and engrossed. Often his tone and candor will irritate you, but then he will smack you with a truth you were unaware of or refresh you with a truth you had forgotten. It's like being constantly doused by oscillating bursts of hot and cold water: an annoyance, sprinkled with the threat of drowning, and yet you are more awake and alive than you have ever been.

It's that oscillation that makes the book great. You will find yourself equally astounded and aggravated from part to part, chapter to chapter. Your results will vary on which parts/chapters astound/aggravate you, but one constant theme will garner the most responses (whether positive or negative), and that is the theme of the entire book. The World-Tilting Gospel is not simply a primer on Christian belief (though it could serve as that). It is a primer on why Christian belief (as a whole: from Genesis to Revelation) is necessarily counter-cultural on an ultimate level. It is by its very nature and creed not an accommodater or compromiser; rather, it is the straight shot to the jaw of the world, meant to leave it dazed and amazed.

Make no mistake: you will disagree with Dan at times. I did (and still do), especially in regard to his Calvinism (e.g., his incorrect view that regeneration precedes faith), a theology that I find as equally "close-but-no-cigar" as Arminianism. To that virile declaration of mine, I add this: So what? Dan may not be nuanced, but he is wise; wise enough to know that no-one is 100% right except for God, and that is his point: God is right. We are wrong. Jesus saves. That is world-tilting. That is the gospel, given once for all time. I will proudly and staunchly disagree with Dan all day, everyday as long as we are both standing on that firm foundation.

Recommendation: Get this book. It will stir you, inspire you, aggravate and offend you. Like all good books ought to. The only truly bad review that a book can receive is that it is too uninteresting to take seriously. This is not that book. At some point (perhaps multiple times), it will hit you hard. You may even feel the urge to thank it (or hit it back); but whatever you do, you won't say that you can't take it seriously.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Homily 32: Solitary Confinement (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! [...] Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore, she has become a wanderer." Lam. 1:1a, 8a

There is something isolating and destabilizing about sin. At bottom, it is attempted independence from God, attempting to set up your own will as central and dominate. Such an action has only one result: not independence from God (for every breath you take belies your dependence), but rather independence from all else. To be the god of your own universe is to be alone. When all else and everyone else live to serve your ends and means, they all become dust in your mouth and shadows to your eyes. The Fall infected us with a perpetual madness that tells us that rebellion against God brings freedom. It does not. It only brings a cage whose iron bars cut us off from the land of the living. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), for sin steals all life, leaving you alone in the deathly void. Furthermore, the more you rebel, the more you actually begin to enjoy the cold silence of your self-erected dungeon, and soon its doors will be locked from the inside rather than the out.

God is the only God, and Jesus is the only Lord. That is not an arbitrary truth or assignment; it is the very way that the universe is made (Ps. 24:1-2; Col. 1:15-17). To submit to that great order is not weakness or impotence. It is the only way to find your strength, your song, your place in the Dance; for all that truly lives dances to the love song of God's will, by which the stars sing and worlds whirl. Those who refuse to partake in the triumph song of Life fancy themselves strong, but they are weak and dying. They are poor, miserable, and blind. They have not the strength of God's joy nor the power of His life, and all that they can do is sit in the dark by themselves and sneer.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Myth of Postmodern Community (as argued by an orthodox rebel)

One sure thing you can say about postmodernism is that it loves "community". At least, it loves its idea of "community". Whether or not you've heard of "postmodernism," and whether or not you believe that the term has become irrelevant and outdated, if you've lived through the past thirty or so years of western history then you've been influenced by its ideas (whether or not you know it). You have been influenced by the notion(s) that there is no ultimate, overarching idea or "narrative" that explains everything away. You have been influenced by the notion(s) that since there is no overarching narrative that explains everything away, there is now only our individual narratives. And thus (the aged postmodernist sage says triumphantly) we are now free to share our individual "stories" (i.e., subjective experiences) in the great "dialogue" and/or "conversation" of humanity. Hence, postmodern "community".

For the average postmodernist (again, whether they call themselves that or not), all outer forces or influences are a threat to the individual self. Governments, institutions, traditions, cultures, customs, families, and even other people are all conspiring against you to try and "write" you, i.e., conscribe you into some predetermined role or identity made up out of their own nefarious (or simply different) intentions and agendas. We have all (says the aged postmodern sage) been victims of this conscription in the past (esp. minorities and women), and it is our joy and glory to break off these meta-narrative chains and dance in the limitless sunshine of our subjectivity.

The problem is this: dancing is something that you do with others. Yet "subjectivity" is a necessarily particular and individual thing, belonging solely to an individual subject. Now, dancing is surely a communal thing (at least when your dancing with someone rather than at them), but how is subjectivity communal? How can something so fundamentally individual be a basis for communion with someone else? The truth is that it can't. It's like having a "dance" where everyone danced with their own style, to their own music, at their own speed. The result would be a hilarious and pathetic mess.

Our aged postmodern sage (bellowing deeply from his decaying lectern) tells us that we must cast off all of the oppressive narratives of every outer stimuli and assert our own self, our own identity. Then he tell us the reason why: all that those oppressive narratives did was to teach us to hate others (because they were "different," "foreign," etc.) and ourselves (because you aren't keeping "the rules," "the norms," etc.). Once we finally cast off those oppressors, we can finally come together out of love and mutual respect and understanding. In short, we can finally have real community.

The postmodern sage can say that if he wants but it does not change the fact that you cannot build community around self-assertion. Community is about being a part of something bigger than yourself, based around a common, unifying factor. Self-assertion, however, cannot be that factor. It has only the power to fragment, not unify, because it is all about the self, not the group. The all-powerful "I", not the tertiary "we". It is the unconquerable will that has the courage to never yield to any outside force, and it is the center of the postmodern universe.

You see, postmodernism is fundamentally a hyper-individualistic, self-centered philosophy: it asserts the self against all comers. The "I" must necessarily be all-powerful for the individual subject because the "we" is necessarily a threat to the subject. Remember: every narrative that is not your narrative is out to conscribe you into itself, to define you, to demarcate you, to load you with the heavy burden of its set identity for you. That means that everyone who is not you is necessarily a threat to you. What community is there is such a worldview as that? There is no community. No real one anyway. Every assembly of postmodern types (both secular and religious) is not a community. Rather, it is a gathering of unconsciously narcissistic people using others as an audience to their own self-aggrandizement. It may have something like "dialogue" and "conversation," but it does not have community. All that it has is merely us talking about ourselves for the sake of ourselves, and that is not community. That is the lonely "I" gnashing its teeth in the dark. Perhaps postmodernism did in fact free us from hateful, scheming oppressors; but in doing so it has left us in the void, with only the echo of our own voice to comfort us.

Community, real community, requires humility. The humility to see all "others" (including governments, institutions, traditions, cultures, customs, families, and other people) as not a threat to the self. The humility to not live and die on the hill of self-assertion,  self-creation, self-aggrandizement, self-discovery, self-knowledge, self-love, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, and self-satisfaction. The humility to die to self and live for others. It is true that we must use our heads when surveying those others; after all, not all dance partners are equal (and only One is perfect). Yet we must live and breath in the truth that there is no love or satisfaction or knowledge or identity without others. That is why postmodern "community" is a pipe-dream. Their hyper-individualism, treating all others as a threat to the self, creates only a lonely isolationism that becomes the greatest oppressor of all.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Desire vs. Differance: A Debate Bewteen Lewis and Derrida (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

Satisfaction is fleeting. No matter how hard or how long we search hither and thither across this good earth, amassing knowledge upon knowledge and experience after experience, we never seem to "find" whatever it is that we are "looking" for. We've been often fooled. Many times we think that we have found the thing that has been driving us forward, calling us out through the various wasted realms of this world, from decadence to deprivation; but each time we reach what we think is finally the thing, the drive and the call remains. Thus, we are perpetually restless, fluttering our wings from one nest to the next.

Exactly what this phenomenon (if it even is a "phenomenon") is has preoccupied the minds of many. Two in particular have addressed it: one perhaps indirectly, while the other definitely directly. The former was French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and the latter was British scholar C.S. Lewis. Both seemed to notice the same phenomenon (in slightly different forms), and both theorized about what it could possibly mean. Exactly what their conclusions were have shaped the minds of many (whether they knew it or not) that have come after them.

The smoke-and-mirrors of words.

Derrida is famous (or infamous) for being the primary architect of the critical theory of "deconstruction," which famously asserts, "There is nothing outside the text." In the world of language, Derrida noticed that the meaning of words seems to be continually postponed: words are simply described by more words, which in turn are described by more words, which in turn are described by more words, etc. There seems no way to escape the webbing of language and get at any sort of stable, abstract meaning (i.e., an absolute reference of value) for language. Every time that we try to move past words towards their meaning, we stumble into more words. Every dictionary is filled with words describing words, while any true connection between a word and its meaning/value is not present.

This endless postponement of meaning/value in language is what Derrida called "differance" (a play on the fact that the French language uses the same word for "to defer" and "to differ"). Every word is different from its meaning/value, and thus its meaning/value is deferred; but the meaning/value seems to always be deferred. Thus, it is never reached. This raises the question of whether it is even reachable (or even exists) in the first place. Is there any way outside of "text"? Differance thinks not.

Though Derrida's point was (arguably) purely textual in nature, those that he influenced took his ideas out of the realm of language and into the realm of actual existence. All things are "text" because all things are described/defined/shaped by language. You are a person because we have a word called "person"; there is a God because we have a word called "God". Any attempt to further define either of those words will lead us, not to real personhood or the real God, but more words. In this sense, all is text; and if all is text, then there is nothing outside of that text, viz., there is no (or no knowable) stable meaning/value to existence. Any meaning/value we create is just that: a creation of our own that is simply and endlessly deferred to something else. We do not have beauty; all we have is the word "beauty" and whatever other words we use to define it. We do not have love; all we have is the word and words for "love". There is no God; there is only the word(s) "God". If things such as beauty, love, and God actually exist, they exist forever beyond us, because we cannot rise above the netting of language and reach them. We are trapped in a never-ending hall of mirrors and smoke, ever fooled and ever restless for what can never be attained, if it even exists at all.

The sting of sweet desire.

Lewis is famous (or infamous) for several different apologetic arguments across his career, such as "The Argument from Reason" and "The Trilemma". There is one, however, that often slips through the cracks, even though it was fundamental to his own conversion: "The Argument from Desire". The argument can be found in Mere Christianity, but its most fully expanded version can be found in the "Afterword" to the third edition of The Pilgrim's Regress.

Lewis noted that every human being has desires. Many are relatively simple, such as hunger or thirst or sexual drive. Other, however, or more complex (or "Romantic," to use Lewis' term), such as desires for beauty or love or God. For each desire, however (no matter how simple or complex), there is an object that satisfies it. We hunger, so there is food. We thirst, so there is drink. We have sexual urges, so there is sex. The object of satisfaction does exist. It is simply a matter of finding it.

It seems, however, that only the "simple" desires have immediate objects of satisfaction. What, then, of the more "Romantic" ones? These we seem to search and search for but never actually find. We seem to catch a glimpse here or there, but never the real thing. The object(s) of our more "Romantic" desires are always fleeting and fading away, only to be picked up again at some other point by some other object. Yet though the object seems to continually change (from this man or woman to that painting to that moment in time to that piece of music, etc.), the desire itself never leaves. It is always there to sting us awake and leave us restless and running.

Lewis believed that all human desires have an object that satisfies them. He also believed that "Romantic" desires seem to transcend our immediate context: nothing on earth seems to satisfy them. What does this mean? For Lewis, the answer was simple (yet profound): if we have a desire that this world cannot satisfy, then obviously we are meant for another world. When a creature is where it belongs, they do not feel these "Romantic" desires. As Lewis himself put it: "A man feels wet when he falls into water because man is not a water animal. A fish would not feel wet." Therefore, if we are feeling the sting of "Sweet Desire" (another one of Lewis' terms), then we are obviously not where we belong. We do not belong in the tangle of the text. We belong outside, where sweet desire is at last satisfied.

Both of these positions ("Differance" and "The Argument from Desire") have their different strengths and weaknesses (from a purely philosophical point of view), and they have their various proponents and detractors. For my own part, I'll only say this: Looking at the two positions (two of many, I'm sure), which one truly satisfies you; not in heart only, but in mind as well. Which one seems to answer more (though perhaps not all) of the questions of your reason and experience? I think the answer to that will be very telling indeed, not only about yourself but also about the arguments themselves.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011