In Germany, the asparagus harvest marks a national celebration. Whole restaurant menus center around asparagus, filling the hearts and stomachs of Germans thrilled by the wonderful harvest season. Asparagus has been an important crop in Germany, so the foundations of the festivities have economic and historic roots. In America, we have a similar celebration of the harvest of a particular vegetable — the pumpkin. Continue reading Pumpkins and Thanksgiving
Can we change the world? As often as modern young adults are regarded as entertainment seekers, today’s 20- and 30-somethings are also driven by a laudable desire to see the world become a better place. The modern Awareness Raising that “white people like” derives from that desire, and gets some things right and others wrong. Continue reading A Tale of Two Memes; or, Can We Change the World?
God be with Christian parents of non-Christian children. They are heroes of the faith. In their Bibles, the edges around Proverbs 22:6 have grown once frayed and untouched, again, with memorization. Once, they read those words daily, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” After years, it grew harder to read. It certainly seemed like they had raised up their children in the way they should go. And it certainly seemed their children had departed. It was in the Bible, and how could it be wrong? Suspicion drew shadows of self-doubt at the edges of thoughts and sermons with the question, Where did I go wrong? Continue reading Christian Parents of Non-Christian Children
Anthony Esolen’s book, 10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, probably has the best cover of any book published in paperback. Despite the old proverb about judging books by their covers, this modern In Praise of Folly could draw in even a reader who didn’t know that Esolen is a leading scholar on Dante who can quote the majority of Paradise Lost from memory.
In this book, Esolen turns a critical eye on the state of education and childhood in America. He points out that the adulthood awaiting our children really requires a deadened imagination. The best cog in the machine will be the unobtrusive one, rather than the truly unique and irreplaceable one.
Playing devil’s advocate, Esolen spends 10 chapters describing and “lauding” the modern stories we tell our children, the vices we present as virtues, and the portrait of the world that we paint for them. In Chapter 1, “Why Truth is Your Enemy, and the Benefits of the Vague,” he opens fire on the modern educational notion that rote memorization is a dried out husk of learning from when we didn’t know better. He points out that learning facts gives children the building blocks they can play with. In Chapter 2, “Never Leave Children to Themselves,” he turns the criticism from the schools to the parents, and their need to enroll their children in afterschool activities and organized sports.
This continues through 10 chapters, including, “Keep Children away from Machines and Mechanists,” “Replace the Fairy Tale with Political Cliches and Fads,” “Cast Aspersions on the Heroic and Patriotic,” and “Level Distinctions between Man and Woman.”
His discussion of the way America has come to treat history is especially poignant. Though we like to think that shedding light on the downfalls of those once called “heroes” is giving a balanced view, teachers and textbooks are more likely to present such individuals as frauds who were once praised for false virtue, rather than complicated people with shortcomings and sad lapses. It’s an excellent point, supported by examples from older books of history, which display a more balanced view of heroes than modern texts give of those heroes when they cut them down to size.
Now, the one failing of Esolen’s work may lay outside of the scope of that which is contained between those wonderfully decorated covers. The problem with his Erasmus and Screwtape style arguments is that, in this world, they happen to be sadly true. As long as we raise children who will be trapped in the 9-to-5 monotony of a normal job where they are disposable, they will be miserable if they have well-developed minds with no tolerance for deplorable wastes of human time and energy. What Esolen doesn’t tell us is how to create a world that children will be well-prepared for by having a healthy development as human beings.
Then again, in The Odyssey, Calypso offers to turn Odysseus into a god with no freedom. Later, one of his servants is turned into a pig with no freedom. Who is better off — the slave who is a pig or the slave who is a god? One is aware of his prison, one is not. Throughout his work, Esolen assures us that mankind is better off striving after god-likeness than settling for farm animal complacency.
And, though his hints don’t become chapters, it’s clear that he hopes that a generation of children raised to understand goodness, truth, and beauty could upset the complacent order of things.
An episode of Robin of Sherwood, a delightfully dated 1980s Robin Hood television adaption, begins with a broad-bodied fellow laid in the dust, fending off the blows of a vicious little knot of robbers. Before we have time to worry about his fate, the Merry Men enter with swinging fists and shooting arrows, and the ugly little band darts off to the shadows. As Robin oversees it all like a hardened watchdog, the hearty heroes take the fellow back to their Merry Mancave to eat and drink and, of course, wrestle. Before we know what’s going on, the chap lifts Little John above his head (?!?) and throwing him to the ground.
That’s when he reveals that he, himself, is King Richard the Lion-Hearted, come back from the East to restore England to right crown and rule and order. He shakes Robin’s hand, inviting him and the Merry Men to Nottingham, where there is feasting and song. That day, he issues the Sherwood gang a pardon and many praises.
Yet, something is rotten in the state of Nottingham. The universe of this particular Robin Hood is not the universe of the Robin Hood of the old myths. In all those tales, Robin Hood is just a man who does what he ought to do. His King being absent, the throne being usurped, Robin acts with a loyalty to the crown which makes him an outcast and a hero. However, in the universe of this show, it is Robin who has the Destiny.
From the first episode, it is clear: Robin is the hero. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when Little John begins to doubt the King’s sincerity. The other Merry Men follow, and even Maid Marian shakes her head. Their doubts are well-founded. When Robin is off screen, the King goes about angling for power, selling off titles and rights, and showing himself to be the equal to his evil brother. Loyal Robin realizes the truth last. He wants to remain faithful to his king, but his king fails him.
By the episode’s end, the King is just another bad man in authority.
The strangest part, perhaps, is how casually the screenwriters undo King Richard. This episode is not a series finale or a season finale or even a Christmas special. It is just another episode. It has no great consequence to the series.
How can Robin go on as though nothing has changed? What happens when you take a deeply Christian tale and pull Christ out of it? Absurdity. After all, King Richard presents a type of Christ, the king of a usurped throne, to which he is returning.
The tale of Robin Hood and Christianity have a common heart, and the long wait for Richard is not unlike half a dozen of Christ’s parables about stewardship and expectation for a returning master. And Robin, well, Robin is the faithful Christian who bears exile for the sake of remaining true to Christ. He continues to act virtuously and stand up against injustice, despite how closely it threatens his life. We, along with Robin, expect the return of Richard to be the coming of heaven to Earth. That moment will set everything right, because that is the effect of the return of Christ.
But long before the series exposed Richard, the writers created a different Sherwood than the one of the parables. By turning Robin into the man with the Destiny, rather than leaving Richard as the Destiny of all, they elevated the Christian above the Christ. When Robin got a destiny, he stopped being part of the greater story of King Richard. Without King Richard, who is Robin Hood? Without Christ, who is the Christian? At best, a nice guy trying to do nice things for the people around him. At worst, a law unto himself.
Moreover, the 1980s show unwittingly paints a dark picture of what Robin Hood becomes when he is the center of his own story. Rather than the joyful, often silly, Robin of the Howard Pyle stories or even the Disney movie, this show offers a broody, dark Robin pursued by a tiny rain-cloud visible only to his soul. This Robin is rightly depressed: the show has created a world where he can believe only in himself, which means that his greatest hero is not a King fighting for God and country, but a robber living in the woods. So it is that, despite the catastrophic implications of an evil King Richard, the show allows Robin to go on with his life in the next episode without reference to the royal disappointment.
The writers’ gesture suggests that the Christian can go on despite displacing the Christ, who does not have to be returning, does not have to possess the throne, does not have to be real; it poses no problem to Robin. Indeed, the underdeveloped spiritual philosophy of the show places deer-headed shaman beside God-fearing nuns with no sense of one being right and the other wrong. In this world, everyone can just believe what they like without it working itself into any of their actions or dispositions. So it is that the writers reveal that they lack an understanding of what it means to believe in anything. This is why they can’t imagine a Robin who needs to believe in a Richard.
While I was saying my morning prayers last Wednesday, God suddenly whispered, “Do you believe these are doing anything?”
Cause and effect. I’ve “believed in it” since I was scrawling my homework in elementary school. I vaguely remember a fifth-grade lesson on it. And, in one way, it seeped into my life: when there were immediate effects, I completely understood the consequences of causes. However, I’ve always had a hard time with delayed effects. I took them as mystical matters. And, at the heart of it, I didn’t believe in them.
In the depths of my consciousness, I never thought that exercise would slenderize. That aspirin would stop pain. That Vitamin C would prevent illness. I did these things anyway, and the cause often came. But, somehow, all my life, I’ve failed to learn my lesson. There was this dark chasm between cause and delayed effect. When we read Hume in college, everyone else asked “How could someone live like this? Think like this?” as I silently wondered, “How could someone not?”
To my astonishment, the chasm is finally beginning to grow light. After a quarter century of acting as though actions produced equal and opposite reactions, I’m starting to actually believe it. Suddenly, the chaos is growing ordered.
It started with therapy. Therapy – in my struggle to understand delayed effects – was really just my admission that I was in trouble. It didn’t occur to me that it would actually make me feel better. To my astonishment, my utter surprise, I actually began to improve after three or four sessions.
It dawned, then. The future wasn’t some chaotic, uncontrollable series of events. I had agency. I could be proactive. I could use these delayed effects to actually be who I wanted to be in the future. Obviously, there would always be things outside of my control. But, I started to believe there were things in the future inside my control.
While I was saying my morning prayers last Wednesday, God suddenly whispered, “Do you believe these are doing anything?” My Calvinist high school Bible teacher had said effective prayer reconciled us to the will of God, but requests weren’t answered beyond that. I had cognitively rejected the notion, but it remained in my heart. Just like I used to exercise or take pain medicine without really believing it would impact the future, I was still praying without believing it would impact the future.
In my mind, praying for others was a way of modeling to those around me that God and I loved them. I would pray for them so that I could tell them I was praying for them and they would know they were loved. But do those prayers mean anything besides helping me be a loving person and helping them know they were loved?
Yes. They do. Cognitively, I can’t understand how my prayers have any effect on God’s actions. The idea that it changes my heart but not God’s mind is completely within my understanding. But, these failings of my imagination don’t necessitate ineffective prayers for two reasons: (1) it is reasonable to suppose that there are things about an infinite God that are incomprehensible to the finite mind, and (2) the Bible suggests we should think of prayers as effective. That’s enough for me.
So, I put a post-it on the front of my Prayer Book: “Think cause and effect thoughts.” I put a post-it on my door: “Do you believe prayers are effective?”
When I got home yesterday, I was still smiling at an interaction I’d just had with a friend. I had sent her an encouraging message, and she replied that she had just been praying very hard for encouragement. She said I’d been an answer to prayer. As I closed the door, I saw the “effective” note and realized. It went both ways.
I’ve never seen the Mona Lisa. At the Louvre, I shuffled in among the crowd and funneled down close to it. There, in my fear of the passing moment, I took a picture of the canvas. It must have been fifteen feet from me, but I never actually looked directly at the masterpiece. The photograph, a duplicate worse than I might have found online, became my only experience of the Mona Lisa.
Photographs create a permanence that can counter the beauty of the instant. However, they take as much as they give (no more, no less).
This truth we deny: moments pass.
And part of the glory of that passage is its proof that beauty will continue to wash over us after this moment goes. On the other hand, a dogged, desperate stranglehold of permanence closes us off from trust and peace. As Anthony Bloom wrote, “The moment we try to be rich by keeping something safely in our hands, we are the losers, because as long as we have nothing in our hands, we can take, leave, do whatever we want” (Beginning to Pray 41). To choose pictures at the expense of the present moment is to chose the image over the reality; an idolatry of blessings instead of a grateful reception.
By now, I have lost half my audience to the impossibility of the thing. Am I suggesting that photography is a vice? No; photography is a blessing and has its own role. Yet, the carelessness with which we adopt it into our lives concerns me. Instead of having experiences, we take pictures. I recommend that we might, by contrast, do both.
In C.S. Lewis’s essay on criticism, he distinguishes two ways of reading which might just as well be ways of photographing. In one way, the reader “uses” the book, perhaps for entertainment, for class, for instructions, for posturing. Those who use books are utilitarian in their approach. The other way of reading is “receiving” a book, such as one reads spiritual or classical literature. This reader puts himself under the tutelage of the book. In the same way, we might create photographs for purposes akin to these two ways: we might create them to use them later or we might create them for the beauty of the photograph, itself. Instead of the photograph being utilitarian (for instance, by anxiously nailing down a fleeting moment), a “receivable” photo might strive to be beautiful in itself. Such is the best way of photography, and some uses are legitimate, as well. Others, less so.
The sober realization that I had never seen the Mona Lisa is matched by a friend’s tale of forgetting to charge her camera before a trip to the MoMA. The first half of her experience was carefully chronicled in images. Then, the camera died and freed her from her enslavement to the permanent. The second half of her visit, she saw art.
Moments are like floral gifts. A wife never wants fake flowers from her husband, but real flowers. Real flowers have this distinct advantage: they die. They offer radical and astonishing beauty for a short time. They leave her on the edge of her seat as they curl up and brown – now, he has the opportunity to bring her flowers, again. To desire fake flowers is to mistake flowers for jewelry. The entire function of flowers – and of moments – is to kindly step aside, giving way to the next.
There is something astonishingly refreshing about the acceptance of the impermanent for what it is. As Annie Dillard puts it, “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.”
This post is not to suggest that photography is evil, any more than fake flowers are evil. It is simply a call to question our stranglehold on moments. As with anything to which we apply a deathgrip, holding onto them too tight ultimately means having none at all.
From the depths of a tearful throat, Digory Kirk’s words tumble from his lips in addressing the Great Lion: “Please, won’t you give me something that can cure my mother?” Then, he looks into Aslan’s face.
“Up till then, he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now in his despair, he looked up at his face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared to Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his mother than he was, himself” (The Magician’s Nephew).
There are theological conversations, particularly ones of relation and vocation, which frequently collapse into, “Well, I think God doesn’t really care about that.”
Take, for instance, the choice of a spouse. “God doesn’t care what woman you marry,” you may hear men say to one another. Perhaps there may follow some qualifications, “God doesn’t care what woman you marry, so long as she’s a Christian, so long as she’s compatible, committed, etc.” These statements match others, like, “God doesn’t care what your job is” or “God doesn’t care where you go to school.”
It’s sloppy phrasing, though it usually only means roughly, “God will not count as wrong any of these legitimate choices within your range of options.” But, phrasing is not a neutral thing, and this God doesn’t care business is wicked, wicked phrasing.
I want to argue that the three words “God doesn’t care” cannot be reasonably strung together. You see, God cares about everything. That God which is love, is relationship, is utter wisdom and holds infinity, cannot but care about everything. Care – that posture of attentive love – is what binds the parent to the children, the artist to the sculpture, the boyfriend to the girl’s ramblings on about her harrowing shoe-shop venture.
Does God care who you marry? Yes! We can quibble over whether He’s selected an individual or not, but one thing is certain: He cares (more than you do, in fact). What woman could say that her loving parents don’t care who she marries? Of course they care! Without preselecting her spouse, her parents deeply lean forward in a posture of love. Further, it would be hurtful if they were apathetic about the selection rather than appropriately emotional. In the same way, without determining anything in opposition to our free will, God does care.
“God doesn’t care.” Nonsense. The leaning of the language implies that there exist realms of our hearts and our lives toward which God feels neutral. It suggests that God does not attend to us in our entirety. Heaven forbid! Man is the only one who doesn’t care about a single aspect in his heart and experience; even Satan feels neutrally toward nothing in our lives, and God cares infinity more than does our Accuser. God is more deeply invested in every aspect of us than we are, and even more deeply invested in the areas the demons linger than anywhere else. You can eat a crouton to the destruction of your soul, and you can fold your clothing to the glory of God, and God cares about the croutons and the laundry more than it occurs to us as a possibility.
To state that God doesn’t care is to assume that some things border invisibility in the eyes of the infinite Lord. This is a misunderstanding of His majesty. The general wonder gleaned from contemplating the vastness of God’s care provides inherent benefit, and the fallout from failure to recognize it is equally powerful. If there are aspects of our lives which we believe do not feel God’s gaze, we may begin to categorize those aspects in ways convenient to our desires. “God doesn’t care where I work” relates to “God doesn’t care where I go to church” and how many steps lay between that and “God doesn’t care who I’m sleeping with”? God cares. Either with a father’s joy at our triumphs or a doctor’s sorrow at our illness, God cares about these things and all things.
And, so, Digory Kirk’s Lion stands there with tears in his eyes, proving that he cares about whatever matters to us even more than we. I end with a story: since I become quite, quite jolly at Christmas, a friend once laughed that she thought I loved Christmas even more than Christ did. I replied, with thoughts of Lion heartbreak, “I think God’s love is of such power that if He feels even the slightest affection for something, He loves it infinitely more than I can love the thing I love most in my life.” To that I hold. Whatever else can be said about God’s will for our lives and His relationship with our choices, it cannot and should not and must not be said that He doesn’t care.
Any Christian who can’t think of a fistful of sins he or she is struggling against is probably not in a good place.
In the war against hell in our hearts, there exists a continuum of three possibilities: our defeat, our struggle, or our perfection. We lazily assume perfection is our default disposition. Subconsciously, we believe we have two or three things we’re struggling with, but the rest of the seven deadlies or the ten commandments are probably in good shape in our souls.
Rarely does the modern Christian challenge herself with the possibility that the areas of temptation with which she struggles are the areas in which salvation is being enacted. This is working out salvation with fear and trembling. This is sanctification.
Kneeling down at bedside with hands clasped in prayer, we will confess those little things or big things, once again or for the first time. We label pride each time, if we’re honest. We say anger or despair or this or that. And, we ask God to deliver us.
If we believe that the fight against sin is worthwhile, we might lean in a little further and ask an uncomfortable question at this point in our prayer. Instead of only telling God our sins, we might add a request that God tell us some of our sins, too.
That suggestion terrifies me, of course. After all, there’s a great, unexplored chasm between the sublime glory of my God and the festering evil of my heart. I am not virtuous enough to summon the faith necessary to save me from the despair of really, truly seeing the state of my soul in entirety. There may be things I’m not ready to start struggling against. God in His mercy veils even myself from myself, disclosing a little bit at a time. By breaking it into manageable chunks, He helps us build the faith necessary to avoid unbearable sorrow as the next little cloudy wisp of evil floats out of our hearts.
So goes the lesson. So goes the movement from bored defeat to struggling toward perfection. The little temptations against which I am not struggling are likely to be the areas of my soul which bear the fewest of God’s fingerprints.
The areas of our soul that seem bright and shiny are suspect. The areas that seem noxious attest to God’s presence in our lives, because without God we could not have identified their rankness. A moment of pause and numbness or a day in which one can remember no wrong action smells less of perfection than stagnation.
This is because perfection, sadly, is not our default disposition. We live in a state of perpetual stumbling, and the height of Christ is the most visible to the man who knows his face is flat on the ground. All men’s faces are, of course, flat on the ground from our stumbling. But, it is only the ones who realize it that can cast their eyes upward and perceive the great bridge of the cross and the lowest of the heights of heaven. (These men are the happiest.)
These men are capable of realizing the lowness of their state and their utter need for God. And, from there, they can see the first roots of temptation. They can immediately call on the Holy Spirit to rip the sin away. And, who with the knowledge of his position, with the view of God’s glory, could possibly hesitate to cry for help at the instant of temptation’s onset? Who can be proud with his unworthy face in the dirt and his loving, glorious, all-powerful God stooping down to lift him up?
At the heart of Christianity are absolutes. There are virtues which all Christians at all places at all times have known to be virtues. Then, there are the shifting sands around those virtues – areas of moral neutrality to which our culture may, at a given time, ascribe erroneous moral significance. When the pastor explains the shock surrounding the camel-through-needle remark, we think how foreign the ancient view is to our own. “In that age,” the pastor tells us, “the rich were assumed to have favor with God. People in that culture believed that their riches were a sign that they stood in God’s good graces. It was a shock to hear that those were the people in the most danger of hell.” This view of wealth is not our own, so the flaw is easy enough for us to see (unless you’ve fallen in with the prosperity gospel crowd.)
The exercise reminds us that we have similar lenses of our own. As Lewis notes in an introduction to St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Like the ancients that attached virtue to wealth, we attach moral weight on occasions of moral neutrality more often than we realize.
This is my attempt to guess a few morally neutral qualities you treat like virtues if you’re an average American.
As a disclaimer – I’m not saying that these things are secretly vices; I’m only suggesting that they may be more neutral than we tend to treat them. If it ever comes down to either upholding one of these or pursuing a biblically mandated action, and we choose these, we’ve entered choppy waters.
1. Correct grammar is not a virtue. I’m a writing professor, now, so I get to say with authority: a misplaced modifier is not a character flaw. The rules of the English language were not penned on stone tablets by the finger of God. Grammar is fluid, language is human. (Yes, that was a comma splice; no, I won’t repent.) That isn’t to say that correct communication lacks advantages. Correctness allows people to know your meaning more certainly. Yet, I firmly believe that the student who says “should of” is using language better than the grammar nazi who shuts him down. After all, how is battering people over the head with a red pen until they are so afraid they cease to write at all going to improve communication – the sole purpose for which grammar exists?
2. Promptness is not a virtue. There’s a kernel of morality to it: punctuality shows care for those who could be affected by your lateness. Promptness helps the gears of commerce and culture turn more smoothly. It displays respect and preparedness. In fact, when I read that successful learning is not highly correlated to professors holding students accountable for due dates, I was shocked. Surely, encouraging promptness is the same as encouraging goodness, truth, and beauty – isn’t it? Apparently, not. Now, I’m trying to comply by the research. Like good grammar, being on time can be pragmatic. It can even be, according to occasion, loving. But, it can also be a way of simply saving face. And, we can hold others to it with a certain ruthlessness, treating a human being like a cog rather than a body and mind and spirit.
3. A good GPA is not a virtue. A professor said on the first day of class, “For some of you, getting an A in this class will be morally wrong. There will be something else in your life that requires something of you; to neglect it for the sake of this A would be a sinful choice.” Icky, but true. If your roommate is having a crisis of faith while you’re studying for a test, stop studying, love your roommate, and take the C+. We often assume our GPA and virtue are directly correlated, possibly even identical. The tendency we have to prize school accomplishments at the expense of other accomplishments is concerning. I value education, and believe grades demonstrate some good character qualities, yet they are not identical with those qualities. The GPA doesn’t always reflect the learning, and the amount of moral weight our culture ascribes to these arbitrary little points is a little creepy.
4. Wit is not a virtue. The ability to produce one-liners propels modern heroes into the spotlight. Steven Colbert is among the wittiest people on television, but his truest statements are rarely his zingers. It is a sign of my own folly that G.K. Chesterton, for all his virtuous quotations, regularly leaves me writing down those of his clever turns of phrase which lack substance (nothing against him – if a man writes that much, sometimes he’ll be saying nothing). Memes that smartly debunk strawmen make people who agree with them haughty, while the people who disagree remain oversimplified, maligned, and unheard. When we hear a witty phrase, we often feel a little ashamed if it supports the side opposite our own, even if there is no substance to the claim. But the clever shall not inherit the earth. The slow to speak may have just as much to contribute, or more.
5. Politeness is not a virtue. Like promptness, politeness can be a genuine way of demonstrating love. But, it can also be our cotton candy way of making others like us. This is an insidious one, since it shuts us up and makes us feel good about ourselves as we float gently toward the abyss of the status quo. Yet, our greatest example of good Christian behavior frequently throws politeness to the wind. Christ calls people vipers and tombs and Satan and ye of little faith. It’s simply not very polite. Why? If Christ is rude on occasion, there can be only one reason – because being rude can be more faithful and hopeful and loving than being polite.