It Is All About Presence

You may have seen a recent commercial that talks about all the wonderful uses of a pencil, as the screen focuses on one while the background changes to thematically coordinate with the narrator’s descriptions. After a few shifts, the background remains still and a hand reaches down to grab the new iPad Air that was hidden behind the very thin pencil, and the commercial explains that Apple hopes you will find just as many uses for their product. The advertiser’s idea is to convince the customer that, as essential as a pencil has been to poems and symphonies and even doing various things in space, so is the iPad Air. The electronic tablet is professed to be the next revolutionary step in writing from the old pencil and paper.

The 21st century has opened with exciting advances in cyber technology that lead us to debate between physical and digital modes of information. If a company keeps all of its files in electronic media, whether hardware or the cloud, they have more space for physical items like office furniture, and can quickly access their information by a few keystrokes. However, should the hardware break down or the ethereal storage get hacked, that information is vulnerable and, even with backup, possibly irretrievable. So, hard copies are usually prudent for the cautious business owner, though even these are subject to physical damage or loss. One cannot afford to fully trust one way or the other, and so must maximize the benefits of both.

The question becomes more pointed if no significant resources are at stake. When it comes to books, we can carry an e-reader that is capable of providing a small library in the same space that one book would normally occupy. Since producing paper gives people concern for the shrinking global tree population, it would seem prudent to just skip the hassle of carrying bound volumes. Even the book lover’s complaint that e-readers ‘just aren’t the same’ is ringing less true year by year, as technology provides page turning, bookmarks, and generally paper-like screens. As online shopping led to Borders going out of business, so the digital format could replace the last few centuries’ tome, like a new Gutenberg press.

Yet even so, there is a strong reluctance for many to make that final jump— dare I say a faith that things like physical books still offer us something that cannot be replaced. What we lose in technology is the presence of that material we interact with, since cyberspace occupies no real space, and whether connecting with people or writing, they are presented to us via electric signals that are translated into text and picture, not as a corpus or body. The physical element is sacrificed for the sake of efficiency, and that’s fine where efficiency is necessary. Technology can give access to those materials when a physical interaction is not possible.

The problem is Americans have the innate assumption that perfect efficiency will make things easier and life better, so we hardly ever stop increasing speed at the expense of those precious bodily experiences. A digital library cannot be strolled, and no e-reader lets the pages flip past your fingers or gives you the smell of ink and old paper. If electronic stimuli can ever provide those experiences, the point will not be that it feels real, but if it is real. The point is we might be tempted to claim that technology is the peak of communication, as if it can do away with all the inefficiencies and unwanted side effects from tangible thought and corporeal contact.  

The heart of it all is that humans are not complicated data processors, but physical and spiritual beings. Whether in business or leisure, it is harmful for a society to consider ease and productivity as their highest goal, as the primary means of achieving the elusive pursuit of happiness. We need those messy, untimely moments where life is best lived, as well as finding methods to get more things done more quickly. We still need to be able to touch people, and to have their words actually inscribed and close, not just quickly projected and quickly removed. There is more to life than getting the most out of a service, or being preeminent at providing one. When the holidays are about looking for the best stuff at the best price, rather than finding the gifts that bring true joy to our loved ones, including spending time with them (if possible), then they won’t be so holly or jolly.

To be fair, companies are aware of this presence factor and often incorporate into their commercials the notion that their products liberate the customer to take care of those moments, unencumbered by inferior, less handy products. The struggle lies not in those who take stock of what people are like and then advertise accordingly; rather, it lies with the individual from whom commercialism ultimately flows. Having an iPad is great, so long as it doesn’t stand in for love of our neighbor. Focusing on the physical beings around us, not the digital or even physical benefits we expect from the gifting season, is to be more human and, we shall find, gives us actual joy. In the same tradition where God came down to be present with mankind on Christmas morn, we should take time to put aside the fleeting intangibles in favor of those presently with us, who make life complicated and material.

Image via Flickr.

Let Us Pray: The Struggles of ‘Ineffective’ Prayers

Living in a world where typhoons kill thousands and tornadoes level neighborhoods, we often ask why we pray. In the midst of our frustration, there has to be a better justification than “prayer works”, and the answer must be more than just “Scripture says we should pray”. God gives us reasons to exercise this spiritual discipline, and these are best exemplified in the life of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

He prayed, and prayed often. Unlike the Pharisees, however, he made sure to pray alone in “desolate places” (Mark 1:35). Being alone in conversation with God is one of the many dimensions to the praying life, taking time every day to listen for His voice. Since we abide with the Father through Christ, it is essential to keep the lines of communication open. Jesus also demonstrates that prayer is about submitting our will to the Father’s, as He talks about in the Lord’s Prayer and as He enacted when He prayed in Gethsemane (Matthew 6:9-10, 26:36-44). Continual prayer will attune the believer to God’s plan, and habituate us to ask for the Father’s will instead of their own. Prayer ultimately becomes self-denial, in favor of relying upon God. Finally, Jesus says prayer is how we make our requests known to God, so that He may bless us and provide those things for us (Luke 11:9-10). As our Father through the adoption in Christ, God wants us to come to Him, even though He knows our needs, and ask with faith that He will not turn us away or give us bad things.

Now, it is that last promise, repeated in the epistle of James, which seems the most troubling. Most often, believers pray to God asking for something, and they have every right, by the covenant of grace, to do so. Jesus says “ask and you shall receive”, and James says, “let him ask in faith, with no doubting…for that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” and later “you do not have, because you do not ask,” (James 1:6, 7; 4:2-3). The promise, predicated that we do not ask for something that is sinful or unhealthy, is that God will give us whatever we ask, that we shouldn’t doubt He will give us that which we ask of Him. Yet, we know that God has His plans for the future, which He sees with the same eye that watches our present, being the eternal I AM; so He already knows what we will or will not receive. These two principles seem at odds, as if God writes us a blank check when the budget is predetermined.

Practically speaking, we know God doesn’t always give us what we ask for in prayer. It doesn’t take many years walking with Christ to find that praying for something and having faith of receiving, does not mean we will receive. Perhaps asking for a new bike as a kid wasn’t the best use of prayer. It seems obvious that asking God for material possessions makes Him too much like a banker, which doesn’t foster a good relationship with Him as a son or daughter. However, what of the case when, during the Civil War, both sides included godly men who fervently prayed for the respective preservation or dissolution of the Union? God cannot satisfy both of their prayers, but He promised His children, found on both sides, that if they ask they shall receive from Him, as their loving Father. The righteous’ requests are often turned down, and we shuffle off the difficulty of reconciling our expectation to His action by retreating to the conclusion we did something wrong.

The disappointment that southern Christians inevitably felt was probably not because they were all iniquitous. Even considering slavery, Jesus didn’t predicate ‘you can expect to receive if you don’t ask for things beyond your immediate person’. He simply said ask, and you shall receive. So, when we do not receive simply because God’s will did not permit it, what does that mean? God’s open-ended promises for prayer are so often met with a contradicting reality, which suggests error, though we as believers refuse to accept scripture as fallible. If we must abandon the promise of receiving when we ask, since God’s sovereign plan may not coincide with that request, why do we bother praying with expectation?

It would seem the answer lies in a redefinition of receiving, and a reminder of the third reason for praying, namely drawing near to God. Notice that Jesus did not say “ask and you shall have what you asked for”— He said you shall “receive” and then goes on to say that earthly fathers won’t give snakes when asked for bread. The point is that our heavenly Father knows how to provide good things for His children, which may or may not include what we pray to get or to happen. We shall receive good things, maybe even the good things we wanted, but the most important exchange is the trust we have that God will provide.

This is especially hard when we ask and we ask and God still doesn’t give us what we faithfully and righteously requested, which might be why God refuses the request. He wants us to rely upon Him in the midst of that disappointment, since He is the giver of every good thing, if not at our every convenience. We should pray with expectation of either the good we want or some better good that God chooses, but in both cases we receive. Being denied what we ask is frustrating, even disheartening, which is why God asks us to trust Him in those moments. If He doesn’t give us the object or result we prayed for, He will give us His perfect peace to endure the continued lack, if we abide in Him. Christians should pray in faith that, whether or not God answers our prayer the way we want, He is faithful to provide above and beyond what we need or ask, because He is our sustenance, not the things we ask of Him.

That is why we pray especially in times when prayer seems empty and hollow, because God is our salvation, not the circumstances in which we pray or that follow after our prayers. If faithful prayer can only exist where good things flow, how can we live a life of suffering as Christ did? He expected in Gethsemane that the Father would provide Him either with deliverance from evil or strength to pass through it. We should do the same. When culture turns against us, when it seems God is removing His hand from our prosperity and will not soon restore it, then it is the time to pray and draw closer to the Lord, in full assurance that He will answer and provide for His people.

Who Stole the Turkey? or Why Thanksgiving Should be Reclaimed

Merry Christmas! And it’s only mid-November. Or right after Halloween. Or maybe even mid-July. Sound familiar? This is the American commercial tradition, classifying and celebrating the season of late fall to early winter as the ‘holiday season’, but we really just mean Christmas for the most part. After all, we look forward to ending the year with that merry time of peace on earth and good will to all, which for Christians is just fine, so long as baby Jesus gets to stay in his manger on the church lawn without the secularists filing lawsuits. Almost any tension can be reconciled, in some form or another, in this happy time.

Meanwhile, the other major holiday of the season (before the New Year and besides ethnic holidays like Kwanzaa and Hanukkah) only gets remembered in the brief span of a week or two before it actually arrives. In that space, we think of turkeys and joyous/awkward family get-togethers where we stuff ourselves with magnificent feasts before rushing madly to the store for Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving afternoon. Not even the holiday itself is free from the looming lights and gifts, from thinking of what comes next instead of what is already here.

This is nothing new. After all, it’s difficult to give thanks when so much misery falls on us in the world, like being stuck with last year’s gadget. Or, more seriously, our lives could have been ruined by hurricanes, fires, tornadoes, and disintegrating health care laws. It’s also hard to get into the spirit of a holiday, beyond food and family, when the mythical side of it involves a group of Protestant white Europeans that over three centuries ago celebrated safely arriving to a wilderness continent, feasting for days with a group of Native Americans. Santa just seems more inviting than such distant history, which might not have happened anyway.

However, there is more to it than just the Pilgrims. After all, the actual holiday was not instituted until the time of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, like many of the Revolutionary Fathers (including Washington), often proclaimed that the nation should pray for God’s blessing. In Lincoln’s time, he encouraged prayer specifically for the endeavor to reunite the country and to thank God for the blessings He was giving in the midst of the sufferings, and even to ask His forgiveness for the sins that incurred the scourge of bloody war. Such language is totally foreign to a modern society that largely disapproves of being asked to participate in religious ceremony, unless they are allowed to follow whatever ceremony they choose.

While Lincoln certainly wasn’t one to compel a sectarian understanding of his holiday, he was expressing a generally Christian one. In the first proclamation (on August 12, 1861) among several that led to the official Thanksgiving, he declared:

…it is fit and becoming in all people, at all times, to acknowledge and revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to His chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offences, and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action…

All of which an average American living in 2013 will not readily believe. The idea that our nation celebrates a day to humbly come before God, to ask forgiveness of sin and recognize His superiority, would strike the casual observer as the most radical, fundamentalist, right-wing distortion of American culture.

That’s why we have turkeys and food, so that the giving of thanks turns into a general good will, spread among our loved ones, rather than the uncomfortable religious intentions of its founder, Lincoln. The spiritual overtone to Christmas is much easier to forget when the holiday results in receiving new possessions rather than striking a pose of contentment with what we already have. The focus of Thanksgiving may not be wholly stripped of a graceful posture, but it does seem particularly dimmed when Yuletide themed ads roll out the beginning of November, and Black Friday gobbles up more and more, until it doesn’t seem far-fetched if we just skip the formality altogether and end up with a Black Thursday.

More importantly, Thanksgiving was intended to bring people together, and our divisive self-minded culture is not inclined to find reasons, much less religious ones, for reconciling with fellow Americans, beyond the family. On October 3, 1863 Lincoln gave another proclamation wherein, speaking about similar objects of gratitude, he says, “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” He saw the holiday as a means to unify the people, one of his greater goals during the fractious war he navigated, but that need sounds hollow to the 21st century Americans who are bitterly divided on race, culture, and politics. The Macy’s parade might bring New Yorkers together, but the spirit of national union is far from Thanksgiving or even the festive ‘peace on earth’ conclusion of the year.

With that in mind, it may be the perfect time for Christians to reclaim Thanksgiving, for themselves and for their secular neighbors, as it was intended. Believers, in their own personal celebration, can remember the godly heritage of their forbears, supplanting the ambiguous reasons behind its holiday traditions. Furthermore, we can remind others that Christmas music shouldn’t start until December 1st, or Black Friday at the earliest. We can also use Thanksgiving to reach out to those whom we might otherwise avoid, because they are pro- this or anti- that, and by so doing begin to heal the cultural scars and pave the way for unbelievers to receive the hopeful message of that baby who comes next on the calendar.

What Are Our Rights?

On September 28, 2013 a judge struck down a Texas bill restricting abortion. The judge ruled that parts of the law violate the constitutional rights of women, by placing undue strain on doctors performing abortions. Pro-abortion groups praised the decision as giving private decisions back to women and their doctors. Conservative voices vowed to continue the fight to preserve the unborn life. Then, three days later (on Halloween), an appellate court reinstated most of the parts of the law previously struck down. The two sides, based on the same respective criterion, switched their tunes accordingly.

This is just one small skirmish in the ongoing civic conflict over abortion’s place in American culture, a battle allegedly over fundamental constitutional rights. Regardless of the issues in this bill about health standards, the effect will be to permit or shut down abortion clinics that cannot or refuse to comply. It comes down to whether abortion is advanced or hindered, bringing us to the basic debate over the procedure itself. Those who support abortion argue that women have the right to decide over their own bodies, and thereby choose whether to keep a pregnancy or terminate the fetus before or during birth. Those who are against abortion argue that the fetus in the womb has the right to be protected, that ending the pregnancy is simply murdering an unborn child.

Both argue they have constitutional grounds, but technically that’s not the issue. The United States Constitution was not originally written, nor has it been subsequently amended yet, to describe what the rights are in the case of abortion. It is highly arguable that the Founders, most of them religious, would not be on abortion’s side; but such conjecture, even if true, is not binding upon the current population. For now, the Constitution is not the authority on abortion. Rather it is state law and Supreme Court rulings (as yet the latter has only allowed abortion, not defined it as constitutional or not).

With such ambiguity, it would help to go back to the, not legally binding, yet unspoken father of all our liberties, namely the Declaration of Independence. In Jefferson’s words, it is self-evident “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Immediately, the anti-abortion crowd would think ‘Aha! See we’re right!’ and point out God’s creatorship, scriptures that describe life in the womb, and the obvious glaring right to, well, Life. Yet, the problem is that the other two rights, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness, are equally invoked by the pro-abortion group, since they say abortions are a liberty that is part of making them happy (and you would be ‘anti-woman’ to say otherwise).

What is self-evident, here, is that contrary to the Founders’ rather simple and clear vision of what things are universally considered agreeable and essential, humanity has reached an age (or perhaps has re-entered an age) where things like Life and Liberty cannot be simultaneously sustained, or at least without being revised. Protecting the life of the unborn child means sacrificing the full ‘liberty’ of the mother to end the pregnancy, and protecting her right to do so sacrifices the unborn child. I ignore the abortion advocates’ sophistry that they are not violating life, claiming the fetus isn’t human— every fetus, if un-aborted, will become a human, and if a fetus that the mother wanted to keep terminates before delivery, it is considered a tragic loss (this is why in most cases criminals can be prosecuted for double homicide). There is no way around it: in the case of abortion, if we want to advance both Life and Liberty, we must redefine one or the other, or give up on one of them.

Clearly, we have to decide which of these two Rights is more essential in its current form. Notice the unforeseen implications in choosing undiminished Liberty. If abortion is a right of free society, that purely by a woman’s decision, a potential human being can be considered no longer human (or not human enough to have a voice), isn’t that a few steps away from saying we each have the right to decide whether a human remains human? Some argue this is extenuated by the intimate connection between a mother and fetus, but the option to carry the fetus to term and give it up for adoption counters that abortion is the selfish way out, especially when the high demand by infertile couples could benefit from those millions of abortions. When Life does not need to be sacrificed to absolve women of the inconvenience, when Life is amendable in the name of unrestricted Liberty, what bond keeps us from redefining Life, wherever it is, as an inconvenience to be removed? Justifying abortion in the name of Liberty opens up frightening consequences that make Liberty a very terrifying, rather than freeing, privilege.

It is a deeply ingrained flaw of American culture that we assume for ourselves all kinds of actions as our ‘rights’ without recognizing that Liberty is not an unchecked loosening of all restraint. Likewise, the Pursuit of Happiness is not unrestrained in the balance of preserving Life. The murderer certainly has no right, in our eyes, to spend his life outside jail (in some cases even to live) which means a very unhappy future for him. Yet, the same lack of respect for a class of human beings, who get in the way of our convenience, on the part of abortion is colored as an entitlement to which the law, so restrictive of the criminal, should give consent. We have lost the understanding of what our freedoms mean, of how they were fashioned by constructing the right boundaries, not simply let loose from English domain.

And the damage goes beyond whether abortion is constitutional. If, for the healthcare well-being of women, religious founders of companies must violate their personal beliefs, then every religious individual can thus be forcibly subjected to whatever the public decides is for the common good. If, to advance the civil rights of homosexual couples, pastors of churches or religious wedding photographers are forced, by law, to perform their services for weddings they believe are immoral, where will the invasion of public policy into citizens’ faith end? There are priorities to freedom, and when they shift our true rights become endangered. If Americans do not realize what their true liberties are, that having rights necessitates preventing others’ ‘rights’ to injure the former, then we shall surely lose all the unalienable, God-given freedoms our Founders fought to preserve.

The Christian Life in Disney

Anyone who boldly claims that they know some meaning within a work of art, must clarify whether they mean to tell us what the artist meant, or what they mean they find in the artist’s work. This theory is wholly my own. The Disney films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King present, in their respective order, the story of a believer’s life from conversion, through lifelong repentance, and end with the return of the Lord to restore His people and His world.

In The Little Mermaid, Ariel lives in an unsatisfactory world, longing to walk beneath the sun in that unreachable world above. This desire has precedence; in chapter seven of Moby Dick, Ishmael says, “Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thin water the thinnest of air.” He is echoing the Platonic idea that earth is not real in comparison to the next life, where we shall be more substantive and see clearly—a sentiment familiar to Christian theology. Ariel longs to walk in sunlight, much as mankind has been prevented from walking with God, since Eden. Likewise, her attempts to learn human language mirror the pagan’s grasping to understand the Word.

Ariel’s story is ultimately one of faith, love, and forgiveness. Among all of Disney’s princesses, she is the only one who by the movie’s end has not changed. She remains a rebellious teenager, not sorry for her disobedience (only the painful consequences to her and others), and yet she gets what she wants. Her father gives her the dream of being human. Triton recognizes that Ariel loves Erik, which he blesses because he loves her. His decision depends upon his reciprocal and unconditional love and forgiveness, moving him to undergo the sacrifice of his precious daughter leaving home for good. Ariel prefigured this happy ending by her own declaration that, though she knew not how, she believed that she would reach her dream. Herein is fallen humanity, while still in sin, having faith that God loves them enough to redeem them, a faith that comes because they choose to love Him.

The next step, repentance, is central to Beauty and the Beast. As set forth in the opening sequence, Beast must learn true kindness, after concerning himself with mere appearances and professing penitence only when facing the consequences for his folly. Ultimately, Belle moves him to begin this change, after having no such inclination the whole of his bestial life. His love for her causes him to realize what it means to care for another person, not just himself. He even learns to let go of Belle, to give up control in complete humility and self-denial, and satisfy her needs, even when his own are in dire jeopardy as a result. Beast is like the believer who walks with Christ, learning to purge the fleshly desires and become more human, more like the godly image from before the Fall and the true lover of God.

Beast makes the ultimate sacrifice, to conclude his journey, because this life of turning away from sin is a kind of death. Walking with the Lord, while secure in eternal blessings, is painful because it is not free from death. Beast has to die, to his bestial self and literally, before he can be transformed in Belle’s love and receive the consummation of his redemption. He has become human in spirit, but by death and resurrection (take the final scene of transformation how you will), he becomes human in body. Sappy as it sounds, this is a tale as old as time, of God bringing His people back to Him through the painful earthly life of obedience and into the glory of new, heavenly life.

Finally, the future restoration of God’s kingdom on earth, as He returns to raise the dead to eternal life and judge the wicked, undergirds the sweeping story of The Lion King. This grand savanna epic, arguably the artistic height of Disney animated film (due to no small similarity to Hamlet, except with a happier ending), is about a usurped kingdom, a prince who forgets himself, and a cycle of life to death and to life again. Mufasa is the best example of a loving father and of majestic kingship in the Disney canon, such that his death is the hardest scene to watch, young or old. While Morgan Freeman has played God, James Earl Jones touches closer, in my opinion, to representing God in this role. After he dies, is separated from his son and his people, Simba runs into unknown territory and blinds himself to his princely heritage, while the murderous uncle begins a ruinous tyranny. Echo the Fall, when death takes over and humanity loses its divine image.

Simba needs to reclaim his identity, and then he will bring righteous wrath against Scar and wage ware to reclaim the savanna. Visited by Mufasa, he remembers who he is, and from then on takes up the kingly mantle, a type for Christ and for the restored believer. The direct consequence of this new identity is challenging Scar. As God promised that He would save mankind from death, He has also promised to return someday and give Satan battle for His creation (except He will wipe out His foes without much effort). Heaven comes to the fight at Pride Rock, since the flames that consume the wicked Scar and his hyena minions, now turned against him, were started by a lightning strike.

The battle won, the ruined kingdom is made whole again. Once evil is vanquished, the rains purify the deadened plains as Simba, in the image of his father, walks up to proclaim himself the rightful lion king. In celebration, the faithful herbivore subjects return to a budding savanna, after the fiery perdition had purged its evil and sent the wicked to their rightful deaths. The circle of life turns again, but so far as the movie is concerned it isn’t a perpetual cycle as the animistic theology of Africa might maintain— it is an image of a dead world being resurrected. The King has returned; life springs forth again. When Christ comes, He promises to judge evil once and for all, and to recreate His world as it used to be, perfect and eternally alive.

Ariel represents the life of sin that gets forgiven, and the sinner, by faith, being promised security of heaven as fulfillment of lasting happiness. Beast signifies the believer habituating real change from wickedness while in this earthly life, ultimately embracing the death of Christ as their final dissolution of sin. And Simba embodies both the believer reclaiming their princely nature and God’s returning wrath and resurrection of this world, through Christ the one true king.

Of the Flesh: Zombies and Vampires

On Sunday October 13, the AMC television show The Walking Dead premiere drew in 16.1 million viewers, topping out the ratings for the 18-49 demographic, which even beat out Sunday Night Football. This is one of the many instances of the growing fascination with zombies, paired with a similar fascination with vampires. Whether the zombie waves multiplayer mode in Call of Duty, or the upcoming Dracula show airing on NBC, Americans relish the undead. But these legends go much farther back.

Zombie was originally a Haitian term for a corpse reanimated by witchcraft, and with the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, the zombie appeared in its modern, recognizable form of an ambulatory, animated (yet still dead) corpse. It came to be used as a symbol of conformity to an establishment, usually eats the living or turns them into zombies, and is often depicted in a mindless (and causeless) pandemic. Hence, the sub-culture warily expects an apocalypse for which we must always be prepared, when the undead will begin to spread and infect the planet.

Vampires, on the other hand, are a far older and more global legend. Tales of vampiric beings were spread among the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans, though the lore as we know it today originated in early 18th century Europe. Usually “vampires” were evil spirits that inhabited corpses and devoured the living. They were viewed with horror and often hunted by the panicking public, much like witches in Salem. Authors began to delve into the vampire lore, and from this came Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula, establishing the current idea that vampires need blood to survive, their fear of daylight and garlic, and also the image of sensual, seductive characters that charm and kill their victims.

When Dracula became a movie sensation, right around the same time that the proto-zombie stories were emerging, vampires steam-rolled into the popular icon they are today. Playing up their immortality, and the unfortunate blood-sucking habit, we finally arrive at the angst-filled depiction of romantic vampires in the teen-favorite Twilight stories. No longer malicious, vampires are seen as pitiable people and, since it really isn’t their fault they got bit by other vampires, we are asked to look past their natures. In the zombie culture, there is potentially a similar trend emerging: the recent film Warm Bodies depicts a male zombie who falls in love with a non-zombie girl and the two try to work out their awkward relationship across the lines of dead/living.

Two types of creatures, whose origins were associated with demons and death, have become a normal subset of our popular fictions, whether as something we fear or as something we misunderstand. The stuff of Halloween is fabricating the terror of things like vampires and the undead, and the successful movie is about surviving their attack, or sympathizing with them as victims. Their mythos, both then and now, centers on being dead but not dead, on being immortal by stealing the life from others; they are unending flesh and unending bloodlust.

I point this out because the things we imitate or enjoy shape us and resonate with what is already inside of us. Regardless of the particular changes in taste, stories have usually followed the beautiful things that give hope to the reader and set an example. Even if historical knights were wicked noblemen, who started wars without cause, at least the knight in shining armor was an ideal of courage, a figure we could look to for timely rescue. We strive to become like the knight, and encourage others in the quest to be truly noble and heroic. Quaint or silly, traditional myths look to the good for their entertainment.

But what can be praiseworthy in zombies and vampires? The conformity metaphor is promising, and the connection of blood to immortality has, for Christians, a great potential for the gospel. However, these are not the things we look to in this sub-culture. More troubling even than the cases of ‘good’ zombies and vampires, is the traditional reveling in the ‘badness’ of the undead. Horror haunts are replete with gory corpse-like walkers or smartly-dressed fanged figures, meant specifically to scare the living daylights out of us. Popularity with zombies is precisely the fear they engender, and the best zombie narrative is when the living have no chance to defeat the undead, only to escape. Vampires get the most ratings as seductive bachelors, or as back-stabbing, rather than neck-biting, teenagers.

In short, these legends are mostly enjoyed for their darker side, not as examples to avoid or evils to be redeemed. Zombies and vampires lose their appeal when they can be defeated; then the apocalypse ends, and the cat-and-mouse game is over. We want them to scare us, not to tell us what our fears mean and how we can overcome them. When a culture enjoys being scared, by reliving an incurable despair, can it be good for their future dreams? When a generation is raised on stories of unexplained fears that offer no hope of being overcome, only of being outrun, can we expect those people to ever be heroic?

For disciples of Christ, this culture of fear is particularly troubling. These undead are mockeries specifically of the crucifixion, faith in which brings salvation. Zombies rise from formerly dead bodies, not imbued with eternal life but with eternally extended death, tortured into an inhuman animus that relentlessly haunts the living. Vampires do not give eternal life by sacrificing blood, but steal the life-blood to make themselves immortal; remember the strict Mosaic commands against consuming any creature’s blood.

The undead bring death, not life. Whereas Jesus offers peace, these demand, and have their mythic life, through fear. They are of the flesh, the worldly system that is our bitterest enemy and seeks to prevent souls from finding new life in the Savior. How much better can Satan cloud the central theology that we have eternal life through Christ’s death and resurrection and through ‘drinking’ His blood, than to support legends of terrifying blood-suckers and dead-walkers? I cannot say what future Christian myth-makers might be able to do to redeem this genre, but I can say that, currently, the undead sub-culture is a huge, subtle slap in the face of everything we believe.

Don’t Call Me That

Leading up to the legislative stalemate that caused the government shutdown, names were flying about, mostly in the direction of Republicans. Since they controlled the House and were sending bills which did not fund Obamacare to the Democratic Senate, the Democrats were frustrated; they were being given no alternative but to defund or delay the healthcare law, or let the federal government shut down. They angrily demanded the House come to their senses and send a continuing resolution without that poison pill of hindering or potentially killing the President’s favorite enacted law.

In that endeavor, they had some choice words. Senator Harry Reid said they were anarchists. Representative Pelosi called them arsonists. Some said they were catering to Tea Party ‘extremists’. Many said they were taking the American people hostage, though it seems the only hostages in the matter were our monuments and national parks. Finally, the senior White House adviser said that the president and his party, while being open to a fair debate about the issue, would not deal with people who have bombs strapped to their chests and Tom Friedman went so far as to say Republicans in their tactics are exactly like the terrorist group Hezbollah.

Politics are messy, and always have been. Name-calling and personal attacks, for all of our rhetoric about ‘keeping it clean’, are nothing new. Adams’ Federalist campaign against Jefferson claimed, if the famous author of the Declaration were elected, that wives and children would die and the country would be destroyed. So much for the innocent times of the Founders. Edward Stanton, running against Lincoln, called him the original gorilla. Hardly classy. But then Stanton became Lincoln’s secretary of war, because Americans usually get past the pettiness. Insults last only as long as the political cycle that engenders them, after which nothing permanent remains of such ugly hostility.

However, it should be apparent that equating one’s domestic political antagonists with enemies of the state, who continue to kill our fellow Americans on the battlefield, crosses a line. Unlike the similarly inappropriate but clichéd insult of Nazism, this threat is real, and linking it to those who disagree with us is disrespectful to real terrorist victims. It is also a dangerous precedent, should the affinity be repeated often enough to blur from slander into belief.

Since the Tea Party embodies much of what the established opinion makers despise (such as absolutist religion, distrust of authority, and defending gun rights), they have already and continue to be seen as “extreme”, which has now morphed into “extremism” when their representatives stand against the established system. Political strategies, like using funding bills to force the opposing party to compromise, are a healthy part of federalism and have been legitimately used by both parties before; but because this touches the issue that the intensely disliked minority cares about most, the establishment and the media that follows their narrative readily accepts the idea that this is extremism. It’s easy to paint them as crazy, so crazy that they remind us of the crazy terrorists.

This callous use of rhetoric is potentially a grave threat to the stability of a society like ours. If it becomes a norm to legitimize these attacks, we will face a culture where disagreement can be seen as treachery. Already there is a sentiment that the promoters of the second amendment are sheltering mass murderers behind their ‘rights’ to easily access weapons. Never mind the constitutional law, never mind the arguments which have maintained the second amendment through centuries of murders, and never mind the majority of normal citizens who don’t abuse that amendment; look at the dead children and wake up to the fact that the gun-party is a menace who must ‘see reason’ and give it up already.

As for those standing against abortion or homosexual marriage, their motivations are likened to minority persecution of the pre-civil rights era. That subtle hint of prejudice, like the kind so hatefully demonstrated in the last century, marginalizes any disagreement on these issues. When the Supreme Court cites an ‘animus’ in the proponents of heterosexual marriage, and when those who believe abortion is a moral evil are seen as misogynists, how can anything but the opposing view advance the American cause? How can one be allowed to hold those opinions if society deems these views as illegitimate and dangerous?

While rhetoric is appropriate for any cause, words that take such a toxic turn lose the power of persuasion and become the tyrannical instruments of overpowering the opposition. Calling legitimate governance terrorism and other citizens’ values bigotry can only lead to diminished liberty. Social stigma could eventually become political censure, so that what we label today will get targeted tomorrow; the IRS already did so against multiple conservative and religious organizations. When any group can be so persecuted, everyone is vulnerable. We must be sure to keep discourse within the legitimate spheres of free speech, lest our speech take freedom away.

In Whom Do We Place Our Trust?

For certain, most Americans today do not trust the federal government. Whether it is the recent scandals revealing widespread abuse of power, the standard gridlock between two parties on important legislation, or the uncomfortably massive bureaucracy, the average citizen has a healthy suspicion that elected politicians do not act in the public’s best interest. This cynicism has dramatically climbed, as the present age is lamentably untrustworthy, and the nation feels out of control.

While our current lack of faith is caused by unprecedented breaches from the Obama administration, a distrust of government has always been part of the American political system. When the Founders proposed the Constitution, many feared that it would re-install tyranny under a domestic title. But the Founders shared those fears: they sought to spread power among many to prevent tyranny and maintain effective government. They believed free society functions best when the people refuse to easily give their consent and power to their leaders, guaranteeing the continuance of their liberty. At its best, the system must expect disappointment and prepare for it.

This distrust of political power, however, should also have its limits. Our alarm at having such a fidelity crisis is a fear that suspicion will become limitless. It is depressing when reality checks our patriotic ideals; despite our ability to elect whomever we chose, the greedy allure of Washington eventually and inevitably turns them into partisan self-seeking power brokers. The Jimmy Stewarts belonged to a different age, and they’re not coming back. Nevertheless, we hope sometime this disappointment will end, that leaders will rise who reliably enact our ideals and the American dream of lasting freedom is not beyond redemption.

If a certain faith in government cannot be restored, we are subject to greater danger than disillusion. As a republic, it is not feasible for the American people to self-govern directly, at least beyond the issues relevant to our immediate communities. For national and state problems, we must delegate authority to the chosen few, unless we want to lose the benefits of the many wonderful cultures and societies within the United States. We have to trust somebody, but we don’t always have the time to rebuild trust with established politicians, or to build it anew in candidates. This means we always elect with the possibility that the leader will disappoint our aims in some form or another.

That gets us back to the initial question: can we trust those to whom we give power? It is a civilized necessity, beyond the constraints even of our form of government, to reach the point of trusting another person to lead. If we never believe in someone, we leave ourselves open to following anyone. Unchecked skepticism leads to gullibility, because people must have someone to believe in; we refuse to remain in the anarchic terror of unbelief.

In such an unstable environment, it is obvious why many Americans still cling firmly to their belief in God. When many popular movements regard religion as oppressive, why do so many Americans still believe in a God they cannot see or hear? Perhaps the better question to ask is why they continue to believe in a God who loves them enough to die for them. Regardless of whether deity exists, such promises are more than what any legislative or executive official has given Americans to believe, faithful or not. Lincoln comes close, but his legacy cannot promise resurrection or eternal providence.

Some consider the slogan “In God We Trust” written upon our money and monuments to be a bygone phrase, the continuing existence of a violation to the institutionalized divide between official business and personal faith. One should likewise consider the benefit in having faith that, above the mortal squabbles which can only give us doubt, a supreme benevolence guards our nation from injustice and seeks the happiness of her citizens. We shall believe, so is it not better to trust a benign Creator and Savior, for the nation’s ultimate fate, than to trust in politicians who have and who will lead us astray?

Christian theology won’t solve the debt crisis or navigate the balance between national security and individual freedom, but it gives Americans a hope that bolsters their ability to let politics naturally unfold, without fatally mistrusting their temporary leaders. The Founding Fathers were at least deists, because they could only reconcile the rights of men if there was a sovereign God ruling the world, and could only hope for the success of federalism if people remembered the fallibility of their leaders. Jesus gives peace that passes understanding; human leaders are often tone deaf beyond patience. Americans would do well to trust in God as their sustaining liberty, and trust the government only as their conditional.