Eugene Peterson and the Smell of Barbecue

The Christian world is this week awash with stories and reflections on Eugene Peterson, pastor, spiritual theologian, and author best known for his multi-million selling Bible paraphrase, The Message. In fact, not only the Christian world, but the New York Times and the Washington Post each published obituaries for this eminent pastor who was, by all accounts, very nearly the opposite of a ‘public figure.’ What was the appeal of this unlikely public pastor?

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I have only a limited personal encounter with Peterson. I attended Regent College from 2005-2009, where Eugene had been on staff, and while I was there his presence was still very much felt in what Regent did and the kind of place Regent wanted to be. He had become an inextricable part of the ethos of the school. For my part, I’d honestly never heard of the guy before showing up in Vancouver, and so I, quite naturally, began a program of reading some of his books, and listening to some of his recorded courses, available in the school library. I listened to Soulcraft (a study in Ephesians). I read Reversed Thunder, his book on John’s Revelation. I dabbled in The Message. And later, when I was in full time ministry, I read his The Pastor: A Memoir.

Peterson_Pastor MemoirAt this point, I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never really been able to connect with Peterson’s work. I found his teaching in Soulcraft lackluster and forgettable. With the exception of Reversed Thunder (which I hold to be one of the best books on John’s Revelation available), I simply don’t like his writing. The Message—ugh!—The Message reads to me like a car with one square wheel, all herky-jerky and awkward and nearly unreadable. I can’t stomach it. When I read his biography of the life of a pastor I couldn’t shake the lurking feeling that “this simply isn’t my story.” If Eugene Peterson’s pastoral soul represents one shape of gear, and my pastoral soul another, then, regrettably, we are tooled for incompatibility.

All the same, for scores and scores of my friends and fellow pastors, Peterson’s writings have encouraged, restored hope, challenged, and been a balm. To read their stories, for many of them Peterson’s writing saved their ministries, if not their souls. (Which, incidentally, makes me suspect that the problem of connection I feel in reading Peterson’s stuff might lie with me.) They look to Peterson like a father, a friend they’ve never met, a spiritual guide and rock of stability, uniquely situated in our time to provide a bulwark against the present darkness. He gave them hope. But why?

Peterson_Long ObedienceI can’t help but conclude that a portion of Peterson’s appeal lay in his retiring attitude. He wasn’t interested in fame. He didn’t set himself up to be a public figure, with a large ministry and wide range of influence. Instead, he sought faithfulness in the small plot of a church which he and his wife had planted. The affirmation of small church, small obedience, is very likely a key factor in his ability to encourage the pastors I know, for whom the allure and appeal of ‘big’ churches and ‘big’ ministries is a constant temptation. In an age of church growth, marketability, and relevance, Peterson championed small obedience and long faithfulness. Additionally, I wonder if part of Peterson’s appeal lay in his reticence to align with the political wing of modern evangelicalism. Sometimes, giving one’s allegiance to a Christian figure has meant giving one’s allegiance to a political position or party. But in Peterson we encountered a Christian figure who was deeply counter-cultural and yet starkly unlike the array of alternatives.

In light of this, I confess a further worry—what is it about people like Peterson that drives us, in the Church, to make of them heroes, public figures, and celebrities? Why, despite Peterson’s avowed desire to avoid such popularity, do we insist on giving it to him? One of my professors at Regent told me that once he was in line with Eugene to get a coffee in Regent’s atrium. Students would come up and stare at him, as if they hoped that some of the glory might rub off on them. At that moment, my professor realized one of the reasons why it was that Eugene was retiring: he felt was being made too much of. Why is it that instead of taking Peterson’s teaching as it was stated—to pursue a long obedience in the same direction—that we inveterately try to sidle up to him so as to catch a bit of the glory, to hasten our own spirituality through proximate encounter? Why, to the man who taught us to avoid all short cuts in spirituality, would we turn him into a short cut?

Regent_Well

Regent’s Bookstore/Coffee Shop is a lovely place to visit.

I can think of many reasons to answer that question, some of them less than complementary, but I will conclude with a generous one. When I arrived at Regent in 2005, language of Eugene’s presence, and stories of his teaching and life, were still fresh in the air. It seemed to me that he had only left the place a year before. It was only reading his obituary the other day that I realized he had retired from Regent in 1998! For seven years the memory of his presence had remained so fresh that when I arrived I thought he had only just left. That is an astonishing, unprecedented legacy. Upon reflection, it makes me think of Ephesians 5:1-2, where Paul writes the following: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Those closing two words, a “fragrant aroma” are in Greek the words οσμη ευωδιας (osme euodias). They are the words used throughout the Old Testament to describe the fragrance of a burnt offering to the Lord—it is the smell, in other words of barbecue. You know the smell, it wafts over the neighbourhood, and makes you wonder if, just maybe, you might gatecrash your neighbour’s dinner for a taste. It is alluring, and good, and calls you to goodness. In the same way, Paul says, Christ’s life is for us such a fragrant aroma, wafting over other lives, calling us to participate and join in. Furthermore, we are to imitate that life so that our lives become similarly fragrant. It seems to me that Eugene Peterson’s life gave off such an odor that seven years after departing Regent his aroma still brought life to the place.

I’ve been immensely blessed to know several people in life for whom this aroma is part and parcel of their walk with the Lord. Where they’ve been, you know it, because the vestiges of their presence hangs about. They are naturally attractive people—we want to be around them, to soak up their goodness, their perspective, to ‘catch’ some of the glory if possible. I never met Eugene Peterson in person, but it seems clear to me that he was such a person as well. And yet the very best thing that such people can do for us is to remind us that our lives give off an odor, too. To that realization, we can only ask, “What kind of odor will it be?”

Rest well in Christ, Eugene. You gave off a good smell. May we learn from that and, instead of turning to you as a proxy, seek to do the same.

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Grace, Truth, and Kavanaugh

“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” ~ Proverbs 18:17

Whenever big public hearings take place, whenever big political kerfuffles dominate my newsfeed, I am reminded of the Proverb above—that the first to speak seems right. Our media world is dominated by first impressions, and the first to speak, to get the scoop, to tell the story, has an ongoing advantage in public discourse. We humans are also, as a rule, quite bad at impartiality—when we tell a story we weight the evidence in our favour. But these first impressions always get a little rattled when “another comes and examines him.” We get to hear the other side of the story, and, the more we listen carefully, as often as not, that other person begins to sound plausible.

All of this has, of course, been rattling about in my head as I’ve witnessed the nightmare Senate hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Christine Blasey Ford has accused Kavanaugh of attempted rape from 35 years ago. Brett Kavanaugh has categorically denied the allegation. And at this point, things have boiled down to what amounts to a fairly straightforward he said/she said. What that means, in the briefest possible sense, is that the only sure conclusion we can draw from this stalemate is that somebody isn’t telling the truth. Either Blasey Ford, or Kavanaugh, is deceiving or deceived. And in such a climate both Grace and Truth are the real casualties.

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Before we wade into these complexities, let’s outline, for a moment, what I think are the only six options for what has happened. We’ve got three options each for Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford:

K1) Kavanaugh is innocent, and ignorant of this attempted rape because he didn’t do it.

K2) Kavanaugh not innocent, but is ignorant of this attempted rape because he doesn’t remember it.

K3) Kavanaugh is not innocent, and is consciously lying about it.

BF1) Ford was assaulted by Kavanaugh as described.

BF2) Ford was assaulted, but has misidentified her attacker.

BF3) Ford was not assaulted, and is accusing Kavanaugh out of malice.

In each case option one presumes honesty, option two considers the possibility of some form of self-deception, and option three presumes a kind of malice. I think it’s fair to reason, given their vivid public testimonies, that neither party is here engaged in malicious denial or accusation. The cost of leveling a false accusation (socially and politically), or of perjuring oneself before the court, is too high and improbable. That means that, most likely, some combination of options one or two for both Ford and Kavanaugh are probably the case—in other words, either Kavanaugh is telling the truth and Ford as misidentified her attacker (K1 and BF2), or Ford is telling the truth and Kavanaugh doesn’t remember (BF1 and K2). But how are we to determine the truth? What evidence will we gather that can effect a change one way or the other? And, in this politically supercharged scenario, does anyone even care about the truth at all?

Scale

An impartial scale doesn’t weight evidence unfairly ahead of time.

What has emerged, instead of a sincere desire for the truth of what happened, is a welter of politically motivated partisanship and of culturally motivated virtue signaling. Viewers, failing even an attempt at impartiality, have entered the foray of opinions with their pre-judged conclusions in hand, little ready to listen and readjust their thinking to the other who “comes to examine.” On the political right, Democratic tactics look suspiciously like a purely political smear campaign. On the political left, Republican tactics look suspiciously like a hastening to get Kavanaugh in place before mid-term elections (potentially) swing key votes in the Senate. On the conservative side, a good man is being destroyed because of his pro-life stance and what that means for the Supreme Court. On the liberal side, the ‘rights’ of women are being threatened by a man who appears to be himself the embodiment of white, privileged male power. On both sides, tribalism reigns, impartiality withers, and the truth suffers.

In this maelstrom, the tribalism of #metoo emerges as a particular threat to impartiality. For those of you who read this blog, you will know that I have been, generally, supportive of the aims of the #metoo movement. There is something vital, and deeply Christian, about listening to the voices of people who have suffered and seeking justice on their behalf. But in the present public displays we see some of the real ugliness of the movement as well. There is in its accusations an immediate presumption of guilt, a guilt by association, a condemnation by gender, and an abandonment of due process. The hashtag #believewomen is itself emblematic of this trouble. Women can be deceived as well as men. Women can be mendacious as well as men. Women can be malicious as well as men. An accusation is never in itself definitive proof of guilt, and the supposition that Ford, because she is a woman, ought to be believed outright is a distortion of the very justice #metoo claims to seek. In fact, these kinds of single-declaration accusations are not the stuff of American democracy, but of Maoist “Struggle Sessions” and of Stalinist “public denunciations,” where politically unfavorable persons may be publicly destroyed, without recourse, simply by the accusations of their peers.

Struggle Session

Struggle sessions, like this one, were a crucial factor in social control during the communist regimes of Mao and Stalin.

At the same time, as conservatives double down on their narrative of liberal obstructionism (whatever its political merits) they communicate to a host of women that women’s voices don’t matter. In the minds of many Republicans the primary story here is about the Supreme Court and the Democratic hatred of the Republican agenda. In their minds, #metoo has nothing to do with that process, and yet by ignoring its subtext Republicans appear to be callous and uncaring. These are the horns of the dilemma.

On both sides of the political divide, the truth plays a secondary role. Political or social aims are primary, and in the battle for the Supreme Court I think it fair to say that both Ford and Kavanaugh are reduced to pawns in other people’s fights.

But let’s imagine that we could, definitively, discover the truth. (This is, for the record, highly unlikely.) What if we discover that, indeed, Kavanaugh attempted to rape Ford in 1982 when he was 17 years old. Of course, if such a thing could be proved, Kavanaugh’s perjury about the incident would render him unfit for a seat on the Supreme Court. But laying that aside for the sake of argument, a bigger lurking question pertains to what is to be done about the past. Where is grace, accountability, and transformation? When the allegations about Bill Cosby became more than allegations, and as the scores of women emerged to accuse him of serial sexual assault, it was clear that in Cosby’s case there was a habitual pattern of predatory sexual behavior. The same was true of Harvey Weinstein, as the stories about his life emerged. But with Kavanaugh we have a different story. We have a lifetime of admirable service and (so far) impeccable character. So how do we judge a person’s past when the past is truly ‘in the past’? What do we do with the Jean Valjeans? With the Apostle Pauls? With the Chuck Colsons?

Cosby Mug Shots

I’m a pastor, and that means I’m in the forgiveness business—I believe in change, I testify personally to change. I am not (thank God!) the same person I was in high school. I am not, of course, a candidate for high office, but nevertheless I can’t help but feel that we’re in the grip of a world that is high on vengeance and knows little of forgiveness and change. John 1:17 records that “the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” The law, with its dictates and death penalties, was the old order. The law provided a courtroom where the truth could be a thing that was distorted by the lack of impartiality in its witnesses. But with Christ we encounter both truth and grace—truth, in that Christ reveals the secrets of our hearts, the secrets of our actions, of our self-deceptions, of our sins omitted and committed. But in Christ we also encounter grace, the gift of a saving God who takes of our imperfect flesh and transforms it into something new, something fresh, something that restores.

We may never find out what happened in 1982 to Christine Blasey Ford, and we may never achieve full satisfaction with regard to the character of Brett Kavanaugh. If we listen only to our newsfeeds, then we will likely be mired endlessly in partiality, vengeance, and partisanship. I would hope, however—and speaking as a Christian—that we might take this opportunity presented to us as a Church and rise above our political and cultural turmoil to advocate for truth, justice, grace, and forgiveness. They are things for which our world deeply hungers. They are gifts that Christ has entrusted to us for his world.

The Sidekick and the Sexpot: “Decoding” Asian Stereotypes in Media

If you didn’t know, for about nine years I was a pastor to two Asian churches in Western Canada. Naturally, my time among those churches funded me with a lot of insights into Asian thinking and practice, but also, and perhaps more importantly, gave me an abiding concern for the issues that affect my many Asian friends. One of those issues is the issue of representation, especially in media. All too commonly, Asian characters in media are reduced to two stereotypes—that of the sidekick or the sexpot. Asian men are made sidekicks—they function as the friend, the asset, the teacher, or the comic relief. Rarely are they cast as the lead, and even more rarely are they viewed as objects of sexual desire. Asian women are made into sexpots—submissive, wild, and sexy, they are envisioned as the ideal prize to be conquered by the Western hero. The net effect of this distorted representation is that it distorts not only our (non-Asian) perception of Asians generally, but also distorts their perception of themselves.

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With this in mind, I recently watched with interest a six-minute video, produced by MTV Decoded, claiming to explain the nature of Asian sex stereotypes. While the video is certainly right to draw attention to the distortion, and indeed injustice, of Asian representation in media, I also think it failed to account, accurately, for the phenomenon. To put it briefly, their account was long on history, and short on anthropology. Let me see if I can tell you what I mean.

MTV Decoded_Weird History

“The Weird History of Asian Sex Stereotypes” begins by noting that on dating websites Asian women are the highest sought after, while Asian men are commonly ignored. Asian women, because they carry a cultural impression of “submissiveness” and “hypersexuality,” are ripe for a kind of fetishization. The roots of this, according to the video, begin in early trade between the West and the East, and is quickly shaped by the immensely popular story “Madame Chrysanthemum”—a story which features fetishized Asian women. In turn, this ‘narrative’ is reinforced by American occupation in East Asia (Japan, Korea, Vietnam), and the ready availability of Asian prostitutes for American servicemen. To quote the video, “The first interaction that three generations of American men had with Asian women was as submissive sexual objects.” Decoded concludes that this (combined with a passing mention of porn), is why the stereotype continues to exist so strongly today.

By contrast, Asian men are historically disenfranchised. Not only were they prohibited from owning property, they were forced to take on various “feminine” jobs such as cooking and laundry. These factors combined to make them appear more feminine. Added to this, various exclusion acts kept Chinese men from brides, and laws proscribed marriages between Asian men and white women. To seal the case, Decoded observes that this “history of emasculating Asian men lives on in Hollywood”—noting, as we did above, that Asian men are rarely viewed in romantic roles in media.

Dating Stats

I don’t know how these stats were calculated, but I’ve seen versions of this data before. Asian women are commonly the most desirable, while Black women are the least desirable. Perceptions of ‘submissiveness’ may determine how these stats rank.

The video is slick—watching it is likely to make you feel you’ve learned something. And yet I think it’s left out huge parts of the story. The first thing I want to note is that the argument Decoded makes focuses almost exclusively on events. The history of Eastern and Western encounter in trade, American military presence in East Asia, the Exclusion Acts in American history, and so on. All of these things happened, of course, and surely they contribute to the problem, but declaring the fact that they happened does not explain why they happened. Put differently, nothing can be done to change the history of Asian and Western interactions. We can’t undo the exclusion acts, or undo Japanese prostitution during the occupation. If we’re going to do something about how Asians are treated in media, then that something must target the heart of the matter. That ‘heart’ must give an accounting of human nature more generally. What is missing is an account of anthropology.

Orientalism_Cover2Let’s begin by taking a broad view of the matter. There is a discernable and oft-repeated pattern to what happens when one group encounters another group as an ‘other.’ Edward Said in his Orientalism has made this pattern abundantly clear. When I, from my comfortable sense of self, encounter someone who is sufficiently different from me, I begin to ‘other’ that person. I focus on the differences, and I do this in such a way that my awareness of those differences serves to reinforce my sense of self. This is fairly natural, and in many senses othering is a natural consequence of any two cultures meeting at the boundary. It’s a human property. But othering introduces difficulties that must be navigated carefully. A key example of this is in how Said describes the history of fetishizing. He notes that it begins in Orientalist literature, specifically, how Flaubert envisioned his relationship to an Asian female. For him, “The Oriental woman is an occasion and an opportunity for Flaubert’s musings; he is entranced by her self-sufficiency, by her emotional carelessness, and also by what, lying next to him, she allows him to think. Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity…” (emphasis added). The Asian female, in other words, by virtue of her otherness, can serve as a kind of blank canvas for the projection of sexual desire. This (if Said is correct), is the key origin of the myth of the submissive Asian female. She is perceived as submissive because she is different, because she cannot communicate with me, and that boundary of communication creates a space for sexualization. I can project on her my desires without needing to worry about those nagging features of her own, pesky personality.

In addition to ‘othering’ and its byproducts, we must remember also that humans are almost excessively tribalistic. We retreat to groups that are like us. We congregate around our similarities, within our comfort zones. I am reminded of the story from Trevor Noah’s fascinating autobiography where he describes a few days spent in prison. There, each inmate was expected, tacitly, to gather around his own tribe (literally, in South Africa). Trevor, as a multilingual half-white, half-black man, had trouble finding the right group he was supposed to join! The homogeneity principle, as this is sometimes called, operates heavily (right or wrong!) in Churches. With respect to this, all the data shows that churches grow along lines of homogeneity—are you composed of white, middle-class families? You’re going to grow as white, middle-class families. Are you composed of Asian, second-generation Canadian students? You’re going to grow as Asian, second-generation Canadian students. Simply put, people naturally gather to what they are familiar with—which means that it takes immense (and occasionally questionable!) effort to break the bonds of homogeneity. What makes a mess of this concept of homogeneity is the way it interacts with our cultural narratives of aspiration. Humans desire things, and they desire certain things more than other things based on their presentation in marketing and media. We want to live in certain neighbourhoods, and drive certain kinds of cars, and inhabit certain kinds of careers. Unfortunately, we merge these narratives of aspiration with our love lives as well, and so we pursue and marry people who fit our (subconscious!) narrative of what is desirable. What happens then is that our sense of homogeneity infiltrates our cultural desires—we, as a culture, can come to desire the same kinds of things in the same kinds of ways. One of the things our culture tells us to desire is submissive Asian females.

Diverse Small Group

Churches often advertise the diversity of their small groups, but such diversity is much more difficult to achieve in fact. (Note: I’m sure the people pictured in the small group above are lovely.)

But this opens the door on a final, grave human consideration: sin. It is a sin to treat a person (such as an Asian female) as an object of desire in herself, because this is to reduce her to not only her appearance, but also your perception of her submissiveness and sexuality. Sin infiltrates our othering and makes it corrupt and go wrong. Sin infiltrates our sense of tribalism and homogeneity and makes us retreat and become insular. Sin infiltrates our aspirations so that we crave things not as they are, but as we would have them be. And throughout all of this, the nature of sin in sexual relationships cannot be separated from the issue of pornography. MTV’s Decoded makes a passing reference to porn as part of the problem, and yet we must note that the nature of pornography has the same characteristics as the nature of othering and fetishization—here are the images of women, they are available, they don’t speak, if they do speak they speak only in hyper-submissiveness. They are beautiful blank canvasses on which men are given permission to spill their every desire. When that recipe is applied to the pre-existent preference for a conception of a “submissive” Asian woman, then the result is a toxic and sinful reinforcement of the existing stereotype.

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She has no agency or identity, no personality or will. She exists for another’s pleasure.

So far I’ve focused on Asian women, and while this might be because I feel that the greater injustice has been done to them, it is also because I think that the relegation of Asian men to the sidekick role is a product of the hypersexualization of Asian women. After all, if for an entire race of persons the females are viewed as highly desirable, then you have a cause and motive for trying to relegate the males to a second-tier status. They’re in the way. Their existence frustrates my fantasy of Asian-female availability.

Tales of Old Japan

A lovely and entertaining book so far!

Of course, the stereotypes are false. And yet they’ve been around for a long time. Not long ago I purchased a copy of “Tales of Old Japan” by A.B. Mitford, Lord Redesdale. Written in 1871, it contains the first version of the 47 Ronin story which has been so famous in cinema over the years. In one section, Lord Redesdale tells the story of a Japanese woman who becomes a prostitute. But at the end of that story, he stops the narrative to instruct the reader on the real nature of the Japanese woman. He writes, with fascinating foresight in 1871, that “The misapprehension which exists upon the subject of prostitution in Japan may be accounted for by the fact that foreign writers, basing their judgment upon the vice of the open ports, have not hesitated to pronounce the Japanese women unchaste.” In other words, don’t mistake the ladies of the night for the rest of the Asian women you meet! Oh that his warning had been heeded! And it is worth saying, aloud, that nobody who actually knows Asian women thinks of them as submissive—they are tough, smart, hard-working, clever, ambitious, and determined. Ask any Asian man if he ever thinks of his mom as ‘submissive’ and you’ll find out quick enough that it simply ain’t true.

The Hypersexualization of Asian women is a real problem, as is the de-sexualization of Asian men. Both groups, in North America, feel a lack of agency—I am not permitted to be who I am, I am who the culture around me tells me I am. The representation of my race in media distorts my agency and my sense of self in the eyes of others. Certainly, at least part of the existence of this problem today can be seen as a factor of our inherited colonial mindset in the West. At the same time, these problems cannot be simply explained, or explained away, by means of appeals to historical events. Decoded’s emphasis on the history of events consistently neglects human nature. The real problem lies in the human heart, and if we’re going to address it we’ve got to target our changes at the heart. To do that, we’re going to have to take a long look in the mirror of our tribalism, our othering, our aspirations, and of our sin, and within that we’re going to have to start listening to people who don’t look like us.

What’s in a Name?

It wasn’t long ago that my newsfeed was graced by two provocative image macros, each shared by a variety of different people. I want to share them with you today in order to reflect, critically, on what they mean, and to comment on a way that they are strikingly similar. The first image features a description of the “real” meaning of the Confederate flag. The second features the image of a priest describing a nonthreatening use of “Allah” in Christian worship. Here are both images now:

Confederate Flag Meaning

God-is-Allah_Palestinian Christian

You may be wondering why it is that I think these two images are strikingly similar, and the reason lies in the logic they utilize to make their case, a logic I find deeply troubling among many of my fellow Christians. There are two components to their similarity.

1) Both images consciously ignore the fact that names have history. There is a reason, today, why we don’t name our children Adolf or Judas. There is a reason why Chernobyl and Hiroshima continue to make us shudder. These names, for varying reasons, carry with them the baggage of their narratives—baggage which distinctly inflects the meaning of the names. And herein lies the key we must remember—names point to a history, point to a heritage. The history of a name is the unveiled history of its character. They don’t exist in abstract; they carry narrative baggage.

This is what is so very crucial about the unveiling of the name of God in the Old Testament. Previously, He was a kind of idea—an El, a God, possibly among other gods. But after Moses He was known by His own self-designation, YHWH, I am that I am, I cause to be what is. From that moment on the dealings of the Israelites with the being named YHWH constituted a developing narrative of character. No longer would general terms be as suitable, because God had taken control in a striking way of His own self disclosure. Want to know about god (el) generally? You’re going to have to get to know YHWH.

Burning Bush

So, when our priest claims that “Allah is just our name for God” there is a two-way sleight of hand. On one side, he is consciously neglecting the importance of God’s self-revelation in time through the narrative of YHWH’s actions. On the other hand, he is consciously side-stepping the narrative identity of Allah. Allah may have once meant ‘God’ in a vague and nondescript sense, but it can do so no longer, for in the machinery of Islam it has gathered to itself its own narrative baggage. Allah no longer means simply ‘god’ anymore than Baal means simply ‘god.’ As soon as it became a name it took on an accretion of historical data.

2) Both images consciously ignore the fact that symbols have a life beyond their etymology. I can describe in great detail the etymological meaning of the word Negro. I can talk about its links to the colour ‘black,’ how it represents a basic description of encounter between Caucasian and non-Caucasian persons. But no amount of explanation can overcome the fact that, within living memory, the word “negro” was used to exclude and marginalize, often visibly on signs like this one.

No Dogs Negroes

Decoding symbols and defining terms is important, crucial work, but we mustn’t neglect the fact that their use and application in history adds levels of meaning and determines their interpretation. No matter how one describes the Confederate flag (and, for the record, the description in the image macro is false), its use in rebellion, in the defence of slavery, and in the narratives of white power, render it ultimately reprehensible. The flag, like the word “negro” is an object of thought that, whatever its origins, now carries a symbolic weight beyond its ‘meaning.’ It is irresponsible, if not dishonest, to ignore that symbolic aspect.

The flag has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. Allah has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. No amount of equivocating can sidestep these difficulties. And yet both these images operate from the same basic premise: if I explain a thing a certain way, all its troubles disappear. The rhetorical claim is something like this, “Here. This is what this thing really means. So relax, it’s no big deal, right?” Formally, this is logical fallacy called “Cherry Picking”—it’s where you point to one data set (favourable) and consciously ignore or neglect the rest of the data (unfavourable). In the cases above, the authors point to certain data sets (re: Allah, Confederacy), and neglect significant other ones (history, symbology).

Muggeridge5For me, this takes on an even more grievous slant, because in the hands of Christians—who are supposed to love the Word and what it means—it becomes a form, if you will, of exegetical abuse. I am reminded of something once said by Malcolm Muggeridge,

In the beginning was the Word, and one of the things that appalls me and saddens me about the world today is the condition of words. Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically then rivers and land and sea. There has been a terrible destruction of words in our time. (Muggeridge, The End of Christendom, 2)

Muggeridge’s words haunt me, echoing through my mind as I read, and listen, and observe the world. And nowhere do they grieve or astonish me more than when the Church, that great steward of the Word, participates in the destruction of its own sacred trust. Granted, it’s hard work to be faithful to the Word. The truth is that there’s enough cherry picking and equivocation in the world that, very often, the Christian message must begin with a proper definition of terms. But when we participate in these kinds of equivocation we discredit those places where we really do have a point to make about interpretation and misinterpretation. Abuse in one rhetorical field discredits us in others.

So let’s be critical of what we post and read, and let’s use our sacred trust—the treasury of the Word—wisely, faithfully, and with piercing clarity.

The “Church of Social Justice” and the Inner Ring

Years ago, my wife read Boundaries, that classic book on interpersonal relationships by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. As often happens in marriage, my lovely bride wanted me to understand her more fully, and so she asked me to read the book as well. The opening chapter described a “day in the life” of an un-boundaried person, and I will never forget my incomprehensible response to that description: “Why would anyone live this way?” I was overwhelmed with a tragi-comic sense of disbelief that anyone would struggle to say ‘no’ in a way that so catastrophically inconvenienced his or her life.

I recall that experience because I had a similar reaction to an article I encountered this past month, called “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice.” The piece, written by one Frances Lee, a self-identified QTPOC (Queer Transgender Person of Colour who prefers the personal pronoun “they”), documents the angst and anxiety of life within the social justice movement. That piece had, to me, the same tragi-comic flavour—tragic, because the account of the insider life of a social justice advocate sounds horrible; comic, because I simply can’t imagine ever choosing to live that way.

Mexican Vegetables_Rogaz Gugus

Photo by Rogaz Gugus, from Flickr.

“It is a terrible thing,” Lee writes, “to be afraid of my own community members.” Why the fear? Lee is formally an insider by virtue of his/her/their gender and sexual identity. Furthermore, Lee is clear about his/her/their formal alignment to the critical list of modern causes, expressed in a desire to “obliterate white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism.” What is the source of the fear, then? Lee writes:

It is the fear of appearing impure. Social death follows when being labeled a “bad” activist or simply “problematic” enough times. I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical.

It is, then, the fear of inadequate radicality—the fear of misalignment at the core of a given issue which is, de facto, defined by the experience of the other who holds all of the markers that define the cause. It is, presumably, the fear that generates strings of letters like LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual)—which seem grounded in the horror that a category might possibly be left out. In response to this fear, Lee writes, “I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate—no questions asked.” This is a horror to me, simply because it doesn’t describe a relationship so much as a tyranny—the tyranny, in this case, of the self-identity of the offended which produces not so much a relationship as a hostage situation.

Neglecting these declarations bears real repercussions, such that “Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing.” You are either in, or out, and this is primarily because, Lee suggests, “dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do.” The end result, Lee reflects, is that “The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included.”

Wild Swans CoverAs I read—and as I’ve thought about it over the past few weeks—my mind has gone to two places. The first was to remember Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, which is the story of her life, her mother’s life, and her grandmother’s life as they span the events in China from before the revolution to the present day. Poignant in my memories from that book are her descriptions of her mother’s life during the Cultural Revolution, when everyday citizens had to labour to prove themselves sufficiently proletarian, to mask all vestiges of bourgeois identity. She documents how Chinese under Mao plucked grass by hand from outside their homes because grass itself was considered excessively bourgeois. In the midst of these horrors Chang recounts the system whereby one citizen could denounce another with an accusation of bourgeois sentiments or activities and destroy that person’s home, family, and livelihood in the process.

The second place my mind has gone is to C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring.” There, Lewis describes the social phenomenon of insiders and outsiders, and especially insiders and outsiders where the key identity markers of a group is that “we” exist by virtue of a “them.” And yet within this the boundaries for what marks inside and outside are not necessarily clear. A given individual has a clear sense that certain people are “in the know,” that he is not one of those in the know, and that he must do all he can to get himself in the good graces of those in the know so that he can be part of the inner ring himself. And yet even these boundaries are unclear, because there is always a ring within the ring, a circle within the circle, where the mystic source of true power lies. It is an image of community that is in fact a pure expression of hellish divisiveness. It is also a picture that Lewis puts to powerful effect in his novel, That Hideous Strength.

The correlation between Mao’s China, Lewis’s Inner Ring, and Lee’s “church of social justice” are hopefully clear. They are also ironic. In all three situations, groups with the ostensible purpose of coming together for some greater good (political, institutional, social) by virtue of their subjective nature in fact perform the opposite of that good. In the process, the mechanics by which humans collaborate are utilized hellishly, so fellowship collapses into fear, understanding gives way to uncertainty, and identity into fractiousness. To further this irony, Lee’s title suggests that his/her/their experiences of insider activist life correlate to an experience of the church, and this is teased out with references to dogma, purity, and the like. However, if you read the article (and I think you should), I think you’ll find that the metaphor simply doesn’t play out. Lee’s experience correlates to no church that I’ve ever known or experienced, and perhaps only marginally to some churches I’ve heard about in certain horror stories. And yet, Lee’s experience within social justice activism (as testified by comments on the piece) appears to resonate strongly with a broad range of likeminded people. Lee’s experience, while apparently normative for social justice, is abnormal for the church (and when it does happen the church has recourse to call it out and correct it).

Fractured Glass_Brenda Gottsabend

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend, from Flickr.

I suspect that the key difference between the church of social justice and that of Jesus Christ is one of subjectivism and objectivism. On a subjective scale of values, the “other” always holds the cards of self-definition, issue-definition, and, of course, authority on a given narrative of pain or injustice. On an objective scale of values, a given thing external to both you and me becomes the standard by which actions and persons are judged. For Christian communities, this external thing ought to be the Scriptures and Tradition, and it seems clear that when churches slip into the kind of aberrant inner-ring, witch hunting relationships, it does so by ignoring the objective standards and projecting a subjective one on others.

“This is what the Lord says,” cries Jeremiah (6:16), “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.” For a given issue, I have my marching orders—seek the ancient, godly path and walk in it. I need no anxiety, no nail-biting, no fear that I am conforming to the subjective projections of my peers, because, fundamentally, they too are called to seek those ancient paths, and, in fact, we are called to walk them together. In that mutual walking, we have common recourse to our text and tradition; these sources help us to adjudicate any and all disagreements. Of course, we can always ignore God’s ways—something that Jeremiah goes on explicitly to say in the very next phrase. He finishes (or rather the Lord finishes), “But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’”

I’m grateful, for what it’s worth, to have been given the opportunity to see the inside of Lee’s world for this short time, if only because our world is increasingly divided and siloed. In this, my intention has not been to pass judgment, but simply to reflect upon and identify what is the tragic, strange world which many of my more liberal friends appear to inhabit. I find in them an admirable, rich desire for justice. And yet, to their desire, a question remains: “Which Justice?” If you give an objective answer—one that stands in judgment over both you and I in equal measure—then that objective judgment has become in that moment tyrannical and oppressive, if only in regard to the injustice of our previous thoughts and actions. There can be no justice, in other words, without power, some kind of domination, and without an objective standard with which to negotiate these activities. And this, for my liberally minded peers, may be the greatest tragedy of all—that the further they move from the Author of justice, the further their desire extends beyond their reach.

Why Sex is Making us Morally Stupid

C.S. Lewis, writing on June 3, 1956 to a man who asked him about masturbation, offered the following striking and relevant advice:

For me the evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself. Do read Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell and study the character of Mr. Wentworth. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination. [Emphasis in bold added]

Obsession with the sexual life is obsession, in the end, with the self—it is a pure expression of the incurvatus in se, what in George MacDonald’s thinking is “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” When my sexuality is the measure of my life and relationships, then I am also removing from influence those people who would challenge me into real mortification. I have elevated my flesh in such an idolatrous way that any call to the willed death of the body is viewed with horror and suspicion. But the deeper danger of such lust, according to Lewis, is what this process does to my imagination. If my job is to extend beyond the prison of myself, and if my faculty of imagination is one of the key areas of my mind given to my by God to accomplish this task, then imaginative activity which corrupts and retards this process is a profound danger.

Claustrophobic Man Sitting

When the pursuit of bodily pleasure dominates a life, that person’s intelligence becomes suspect, and in time inevitably crippled. I was struck by this clearly while recently reading through Josef Pieper’s A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. He writes that “an unchaste will to pleasure has the tendency to relate the entirety of the sensory world, especially sensual beauty, to only sexual lust.” The unrestrained desire for pleasure begins to work its way through the perceptions of the individual until the sexual appetite defines all other appetites. Lust becomes synonymous with pleasure. Pieper continues, “Only a chaste sensuality can achieve true human capacity: to perceive sensual beauty, such as that of the human body, as beauty and to enjoy it, undisturbed and unstained by any selfish will to pleasure that befogs everything, for its own sake.” The mind which is dominated by porneia [the Greek word for sexual immorality], by pleasure, sees in bodies only objects for consumption, sees in women only opportunities to express itself in lust. Pornography’s unique power is in its ability to render the irrational rational. The consumer of porn maps onto his or her mind not only a set of images, but a certain way of thinking, and those pathways are carried away from porn and applied in the rest of life. Lust in this way inevitably cripples moral knowledge.

Why should this be the case? Because the eyes are the organ that perceives beauty. When the eye is no longer searching for beauty itself, but seeking to map onto the world an expression and application of its own lust, then that lust in time warps perception of the good. What is best, and what is preferable, become enslaved to my personal desires. Pleasure makes subjectivists of us all. In turn, with beauty and good both soured, the capacity to apprehend truth is also corrupted. In this way, a man or woman who is led by his or her sexual desire is engaged in a process of dehumanization. After all, who would fail to agree that a crippled capacity for beauty is dehumanizing? He who suffers porneia to thrive in his life is being reduced to brutishness and eventual stupefaction.

Disintegration_Cyril Rana

Flickr: Photo by Cyril Rana

Lest you think this simply academic, this diminished capacity for moral knowledge has been on vivid display in churches which have chosen to affirm what is traditionally, and Scripturally, considered to be sexual deviance. The general convention of the Episcopal Church, after the US Supreme court ruled Gay Marriage to be the law of the land, immediately introduced new services and prayers to bless such unions. One such prayer, introduced at that time, is recorded by Robert Hart, writing in the March/April 2016 issue of Touchstone Magazine:

An Episcopal priest named Kimberly Jackson, of the Diocese of Atlanta, read a prayer to begin their version of communion: “Spirit of Life, we thank you for disordering our boundaries and releasing our desires as we prepare this feast of delight: draw us out of hidden places and centers of conformity to feel your laughter and live in your pleasure.”

God, then, conveniently affirms our choices and “releases our desires”—He gives us what our warped imaginations desire. The result, today, is not only that such unions are blessed, but churches have paved the path for openly gay clergy to rise to the highest ranks of church office. Moral corruption is pervasive, and the capacity to see such corruption is curtailed. It is doubtful that the Church has faced since the days of Arius a crisis of moral knowledge more serious than the one which confronts it now.

Church_on_fire_Credit_butterbits_via_Flickr_CC_BY_SA_20_CNA_8_3_15

Pieper concludes his argument about purity and vision with the following phrase, “only he who looks at the world with pure eyes experiences its beauty.” Purity of sight is a necessary precondition to the apprehension of beauty, and thus by proxy of both goodness and truth as well. And yet, in a very real way it is impossible for humans to achieve perfect purity of sight, if only because, as Jeremiah says, “the heart is deceitful above all else, and is desperately sick” (17:9). The wickedness which corrupts my capacity for beauty, goodness, and truth, is born from within me. From whence will we find help to resolve this dilemma? Jesus’ words in the sixth beatitude come to mind—“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Purity precedes the vision of God—but purity is impossible on my own. Therefore I must request help from outside myself. In this, I think Jesus has also spoken an irony—it is not only that the pure will see God, but those who set their gaze upon God who will be rendered pure. The solution is to get our eyes off of ourselves and onto the ultimate source of goodness, truth, and beauty.

For too long we have allowed ourselves to imagine that there is a divide between our sexual purity and our capacity for moral intelligence, between our sexual conduct and our pursuit of knowledge. Silently, as we allow ongoing and unrestrained life to our lust, we are also strangling our awareness of the beautiful, the true, and the good. Only a sight that is reaffixed on the beauty and holiness of God will be able to rescue us from the horror and stupefaction of our own persistent and self-serving inward gaze. Only a renewed commitment to God as He is, and not God as we want Him to be, will rescue the Church from its frightening trajectory towards apostasy.

The Crisis of Masculinity and “The Way of Men”

The Way of Men_Cover

It’s a right manly cover, innit?

There is a genuine and ongoing crisis in masculine identity. “What does it mean to be a man?” is a real and troubling question for a host of struggling men—old and young alike. Blogs, books, and men’s ministries alike attempt to present a semblance of answers into these critical questions, and yet it seems that the need for identity continues unabated. Men crave the fulfillment of their masculinity. Men are struggling to achieve it. I, ever curious to expand my understanding of these issues, recently on recommendation checked out from my local library a copy of Jack Donovan’s The Way of Men (Dissonant Hum, 2012). The experience of reading the book might be best described as unusual, because while I spent the majority of the book feeling mildly unsettled, there was one insight which neatly encapsulated one of the key problems in the current crisis in masculinity.

Donovan’s intention is to attempt to bypass all the expressly cultural influences into masculinity and arrive at an absolute, genuine core of what it means to be a man. He does this first by framing masculinity within two special conditions, those of biology and the survival scenario. Viewed in light of these conditions, he proposes that true manhood is defined by what he calls “tactical virtues”—strength, courage, mastery, and honor, each of which is given a special, nontraditional definition and treatment in light of the two conditions. The result is an interesting, if deeply flawed, exercise in examining the roots of masculinity, and while there was certainly something masculine about the book, it nevertheless read as a kind of caricature, a cartoonish and distorted picture of manhood. A certain measure of this distortion comes from the two conditions that limit the experiment, which in turn might account for the failure of the overall project. First of all, the survival scenario cannot be practically necessary to manhood. The vast majority of civilized man has lived outside of the survival scenario, and even those civilizations which lived at the edge longed in themselves for peace and security. To put it more succinctly, survivalism is not an end in itself, but a means toward a deeper security. In this, Donovan in focusing on the “tactical” side of the matter omits the deeper desires for peace and security. Men may wish to dominate others, but only as a means to secure some other end, and few but the most severe tyrants ever crave dominance for the sake of dominance. Plus, I might suggest that any book that has to appeal to a zombie apocalypse to give definition to manhood is bound to produce a manhood as unreliable as the zombie apocalypse. Second, by focusing on evolutionary biology, Donovan neglects the reality that humans—men—are more than our biology. Yes, I have an animal portion—a survival instinct, passions and desires—but I also believe that my humanity is something that transcends my biology. I think we might agree to this even independently of the Christian witness to which I ascribe, but Christianity reinforces this further. A real man is never expressed purely by his biology, but by his biology as it is made to serve some other end or purpose. I express the apex of my gendered humanity when I have learned how to make my body serve other ends—not when I serve the ends of my body. Donovan’s masculinity in many ways reduces me to my instincts, and I find this inadequate and troubling.

DaVinci's Man

It is more than simple biology that makes me a man.

When I had completed the book, in curiosity I looked up some reviews online. There I discovered, much to my astonishment, that Donovan is himself a homosexual but one who is highly contemptuous of any effeminacy. Another of his books, titled Androphilia, outlines his core philosophy of man-love (I haven’t read it). In some ways this explained some of the dissonance I felt while reading the book—Donovan’s perspectives are born from a radically different starting point than my own, and it is not unreasonable to deduce that Donovan’s love of a kind of “pure” manhood is indicative of a form of idolatry—worship of the image and likeness of maleness. In many ways The Way of Men is the thoughts of a man who worships biological masculinity.

However, sandwiched in the midst of some 150 pages of self-confident but troubling masculinistic rhetoric is about 20 pages that focus on a really compelling question. The section was in fact so compelling that it might have made the whole book worth reading. In it, Donovan attempts to outline a difference between “being a good man” and “being good at being a man.” As I read, and reflected on this, I came to think that the distinction is terribly important. “Being a good man” is something, in fact, that any human can do. The virtues asked of good men are virtues that can be asked of women and children alike (honoring commitments, telling the truth, etc.). There is nothing particularly “masculine” about being a good man. However, being good at being a man is a different idea altogether—one we should note is also more culturally defined. We understand this difference most clearly in contrast. There are good men who are not good at being men (we might note virtuous men who cannot light a fire or set up a tent), and there are men good at being men who are not necessarily good men (survivalists who murder). Naturally, being an outdoorsman is not the only way to be good at being a man, although at our present cultural juncture it is one of the characteristics of “masculinity” which we identify with being good at being a man.

Phil Robertson and Sons_2

It is possible that some of the appeal of the Duck Dynasty men is that they are both good men, and, in a very specific cultural sense, good at being men.

Donovan’s contrast is useful because it gets to the heart of the present crisis in masculinity. What does it really mean to be good at being a man? My Christian faith is very good at telling me how to be a good man—simply a good person, in fact—but it has struggled to define with the same clarity what it means to be good at being a man. Donovan’s overall thesis is alluring precisely because his answer to the question of masculine identity answers at the area of need. He is, in other words, attempting to answer the right question, and that sets him on a different kind of ground than other thinkers. Nevertheless, I disagree with his conclusions, not only for the aforementioned reasons, but also because I ascribe to a theological outlook. Whatever it means to be good at being a man, it needs to mean this in the context of a Creator God who created manhood for His own good purposes. Being good at being a man means for me to be good at being a man after the pattern of manhood that He desires. Biology thus submits to purpose.

I plan to write further on this issue, but for now I want to observe that books which treat of masculinity and spirituality are often fraught with difficulties. One of these difficulties is in starting from the wrong place—the books answer the wrong questions about masculinity. A further difficulty is in discerning the boundary between culture and revelation. Because the exercise is so challenging, and because there is such a deeply needy gap felt by masculine identity, almost any thought which rises to fill the space can be given weight and appear meaningful simply because there is so little to offer meaning. Proverbs 27:7 says that “To the starving man even what is bitter tastes sweet,” and books like Donovan’s offer an answer to the crisis men feel about masculinity. Because of the intensity of the need, even a false or misleading answer to the question of masculinity is regarded by men as superior to no answer or the answers offered by culture. Men are hungry to know what it means to be a man, and there is a significant need for Christian men to examine and explore this question from the right starting point. Donovan is right that goodness in itself will be insufficient to answer our biological summons to masculinity. Beyond that, there is still much work to be done in discovering and expressing a truly Godly manhood.