A Complicated Remembrance

The tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks snuck up on me. For one thing, we’re still calling them the September 11th attacks, as if it happened within the calendar year and all we need is the day and month for reference. Like many far more eloquent writers have said this week, the attacks radically changed my life in ways I never imagined. Here at Evangelical Outpost, to acknowledge the anniversary, we planned to reflect on one of the more difficult commands Christ issued to His followers: love your enemies. I signed up for the slot on September 8th. And I’m still waiting for something profound to say.

As a teacher, my first thought on an issue like this is always for my students. How are they really affected? How do they view this event, and is that view confined by their insulated experiences, or are they able to step outside adolescence and use it to further develop their fledgling worldviews? How can I help them keep asking questions? I teach juniors and seniors, AP US History and AP Government. How can I help them understand something that happened when they were eight years old?

One thing that has always fascinated me about history, and that my students are quick to identify early in the year, is the American tendency to name events in the way we wish those events to be remembered. The death of five rioters in Boston becomes the Boston Massacre; the murder of unarmed men, women and children is the Battle of Wounded Knee. Sometimes history rights itself. To describe the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry, we’ve jettisoned the inaccurate “Custer Massacre” and now refer to it as the Battle of Little Bighorn. But September 11th remains sterilely, elusively, named simply for its date. We haven’t sullied it in its naming, but neither have we identified it, as though we’re still reeling in shock from its existence. Perhaps we are.

We’re used to history. Names, dates, facts to memorize, causes and effects to trace… these are things that we know, things that comfort us as we look into the messy, tragic, violent stories of our past. They simplify things, give us categories to file away the confusion. But we’re too close to this event for a study guide. No wonder we can’t agree on how we should respond to it, even ten years later.

There is nothing sacred about September 11, 2001, no matter how much we wish there was. It was a day of tragedy, a day of injustice, a day of evil. But it was not a day of infallibility. We must examine the events of that day in their historical context. That context is ugly. The terrorists did not hate us for our virtues. If only it were so! The events were the result of a complex history of American interests, Middle Eastern politics, Islamic politicization, and the complicated interaction between the two regions. But that doesn’t fit a neat national narrative, especially in an election year, and it doesn’t make us feel better.

Which brings me back to my students. One thing I’ve noticed about the generation that grew up in the shadow of 9/11 is that we’ve done them a great disservice. We haven’t taught them how to respond to an event like this with anything other than a gut reaction. We feed them soundbytes, condemn those who question our reaction to the attacks or our part in setting the stage for them, and when it’s time to serve a grieving country, we encourage them to buy things to stimulate the economy. We carve out corners of mutual agreement on cable news networks and demonize anyone who disagrees with us as idiotic or unpatriotic, and thus cripple the rising generation to love its own country, much less its enemies.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying history, it’s that we are perpetuating a destructive cycle. It’s only when nations look to the global good for the sake of their citizens, rather than jealously guarding a sad national pride, that history moves in the direction of grace rather than the law of the jungle.

And so, all I have to say in remembrance on this somber anniversary, is that I pray we can break that cycle. I see the potential in my classroom, where students raised in a country that builds cathedrals to commerce, not religion, engage in conversation with fellow beings created in the image of God as if that sort of thing is still possible. This country could learn a lot from these teenagers. If it wants to survive and secure the blessings of liberty to itself and its posterity, it must.

The Four-Legged Mirror

Terrence Malick’s astounding film Tree of Life opens with Jessica Chastain’s breathy monologue, explaining that there are two ways in this life, the way of nature and the way of grace. No film embodies that dichotomy more practically than Buck.

You know who Buck Brannaman is, even if you don’t realize it. If you’ve seen Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, or Chris Cooper in Seabiscuit, you’ve seen the gentle cowboy who goes by Buck. It’s short for Buckshot, a stage name from his days as a child trick roper. He lost his mother at an early age and suffered through years with an abusive father until a kindly old, childless couple took in him and his brother, and on their ranch, he discovered his love of horses. It sounds like a plot worthy of a mid-century Disney flick, but it’s the true story of the man “God had in mind when He made the cowboy.”

In the past decade or so, new theories on animal behavior have seeped into the popular consciousness. Where we used to apply choke chains and physical punishment to train our dogs, we now use Gentle Leaders and clickers. Dog training is no longer about bending an animal to our will – it’s about forging a relationship with another being based on our species’ limited grounds of mutual understanding. The same is true in the horseman’s world, but the shift has been far more dramatic. In Buck, director Cindy Meehl’s debut documentary, Buck Brannaman shows us that the shift says much more about the people than it does about the animals.

If I treat animals this way, do I treat people this way, too? We all know the answer to that.

The mythos of the American West is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche, it’s hard not to thrill at the image of the cowboy, all leather, dust, and lasso, forging his way into the hostile wilderness and mastering it. There’s something in watching a cowboy bring a much larger, spirited beast into submission that satisfies our desire for dominance, and the struggle still thrills us so much that even James Cameron couldn’t avoid putting the image into Avatar. And yet, upon further thought, it’s an incredibly disturbing image (though, alas, not one inconsistent with human history). The way we treat animals says more about our own souls than the animals’ worth or behavior. And, using the history of the American West as a test case, it’s not a far leap from brutally beating mustangs into submission to the way we treated the native peoples of the land.

In Buck, Brannaman shows us another way. His motto is “gentle in what you do, firm in how you do it.” Following the footsteps of legends like Tom Dorrance and his mentor Ray Hunt, Brannaman revolutionized how we understand our interaction with horses. Where conventional wisdom tells us that the only way to get obedience from a large animal is to scare it, Buck reminds us that fear isn’t respect. His method isn’t based on forcing obedience, but neither is it based on letting the animal do whatever it pleases. He insists that as a rider, you have to teach the horse what is and is not appropriate behavior, but you can only do that by understanding each other. As horsewoman Gwynn Turnbull-Weaver says, “In this discipline, if you want to be great, you have to be a sensitive person.”

Brannaman comes by the sensitivity honestly. Physically abused by his father to the point that his life was in danger, Buck and his brother were removed from his home and placed with foster parents nearby. The typical pattern of abuse suggests that victims become abusers, but Brannaman brushes that aside. When asked how he escaped that cycle, he shrugs and says he just decided that’s not who he was going to be. He met Hunt, started learning how to train horses, and never turned back except to extend forgiveness to his aging father in later years.

The sequences that show Brannaman in action are breathtaking. As someone who has worked with horses all her life, I couldn’t believe what he could accomplish with a troubled horse in less than five minutes. There are echoes of Eden in the interaction, and it’s truly a wonder to behold. It’s also heartbreaking to see what happens when a horse has been so ruined by circumstance and bad training that he is beyond even Brannaman’s help.

That horse is a mirror—all your horses are a mirror to your soul. You might not like what you see in that mirror.

Buck is a perfect companion film to Tree of Life, worthy of many a long conversation over coffee with good friends. Both end with the same intriguing proposition: what if there is no dichotomy? Rather than the way of nature or the way of grace, is there merely the way of nature’s grace? Buck Brannaman seems a man whose life is determined to embody the paradox. His fury at the woman who so ruined her horse that she turned it into a predator that has to be destroyed is not simply anger over the horse. It’s anger at the entire construct, the way of force, a way that would have destroyed him if his foster parents hadn’t interceded. Brannaman transformed his pain into beauty, something that elevates him to the company of great artists, not merely great horsemen.

As with most great artists, what Brannaman’s doing isn’t itself revolutionary, but it looks like magic. Communicating with our animals like Brannaman suggests isn’t our first instinct. And, again, that says more about us than it does about the difficulty of training animals. Maybe that’s why we favor the old methods after all. Cesar Millan’s popularity in the dog training world is quite telling. It’s much easier to intimidate an animal into submission than take the path of nature’s grace. If we dominate the animal, we set ourselves apart, creatures of a higher order completely unconnected to the dumb beasts who serve us. If we follow Buck Brannaman instead and look into the mirror, we might see who we really are.

Beauty Will Save the World

Jeffrey Overstreet writes like Vincent Van Gogh painted. I had the opportunity to see some of Van Gogh’s finest works earlier this year at an exhibit at San Francisco’s De Young Museum. It was like walking through an explosion of creative beauty. Van Gogh’s use of color, his bold, even violent brushstrokes that leave great gobs of glistening paint on the canvas draw the viewer into the world as Van Gogh saw it, swirling with passionate beauty. I stood before Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888) for what felt like hours until it felt like I was outside looking up at the stars as Van Gogh saw them, and even in a city that fancies itself so artistically sophisticated that its residents practically view Van Gogh as pop art, people gasped as they spied the painting for the first time. That’s the power of his work. It grabs you by the throat, overwhelms you with beauty, and makes it impossible for you to look at the objects he painted the same way again. He created worlds that are at once utterly familiar and completely alien, worlds that beckon the viewer.

Overstreet is a literary impressionist, and his understated yet vivid narrative style overwhelms the imagination. The Expanse, a vaguely medieval world teeming with unusual fantasy elements is out in full force in the final novel of Overstreet’s Auralia Thread, The Ale Boy’s Feast. As in the previous installments of the series, it does not disappoint. Even for a loyal reader of the stories, Overstreet still has some surprises left in the complex world of his making that he reveals not through an overindulgence of description, but sharp, clear narrative that doesn’t waste an ounce of emotional impact. Overstreet’s gift is allowing the story and its characters to drive his novels, and the result is a fantasy series that feels authentic and new, both familiar and strange at once. The Ale Boy’s Feast does more than just tell the end of a story; it invites the reader into the world of the Expanse with a cast of beautifully complex characters to join them in pursuit of the mystery that calls us all.

For the uninitiated, the Auralia Thread tells the story of a young woman named Auralia, an artist who lives in House Abascar, a kingdom that has banned all color. Through her mysterious ability to turn the world around her into art that has the power to heal, she transforms those around her, makes enemies of the rulers of the Abascar, and suffers in its dungeons before being taken by a being called the Keeper. In the wake of her disappearance and House Abascar’s ruin, the story follows the journey of the people who met her, the two old criminals who raised her, the nameless ale boy who befriended her, the heir to Abascar’s throne who tried to save her, even a beastman who learned to love her. For two books they struggle, triumph, flounder, fail, and search for the girl who showed them a life better than their own. Overstreet’s stories are beautiful as rich, fantasy novels, but they also manage to transcend their genre and its tropes. Two themes recur throughout the stories that take them beyond fun fiction and into the realm of art.

The books don’t merely embrace the idea of mystery – they welcome it with open arms, invite it inside and make it a nice hot cup of tea while it warms itself by the fire. In a genre rife with sloppy allegory, the Auralia Thread glories in the fact that truth and beauty are so often hidden from us. Unlike most concluding chapters of an epic, The Ale Boy’s Feast, while it satisfies some of its readers’ curiosity, refuses to “answer” all the questions the previous books raised. Throughout the book, the characters must struggle with that hiddenness. Throughout the book Auralia’s whereabouts remain a mystery to most characters, including the ones who seek her most. The survivors of House Abascar seek the great hidden city that will be their new home, but even that turns out to be yet another gateway to mystery. The ale boy, once found, is then snatched away again by the Keeper, and when the veil of the mystery of the elusive Keeper is finally lifted, it reveals yet another hidden path to new mystery. In another author’s work, this could frustrate readers and leave them feeling cheated, but Overstreet crafted a series in which the reader journeys with the characters rather than watching them from afar, and he does not shrink from hard truths. In reality as in the Expanse, truth and beauty hide from us. Pursuing them is our life’s calling, and fiction that tells us they can be captured or fully known this side of Heaven is hollow. Their hiddenness is a delight; it is what makes our journey an adventure, and the hope that they are so wonderful that we can spend our lives learning and never plumb their depths is what makes the journey worth taking.

The pursuit of beauty isn’t just a search for pretty or pleasant things. The beauty in The Ale Boy’s Feast is sometimes a comfort, and sometimes a terror, but it is beauty that will save the world. It was beauty that showed Jordam the beastman a way out of the Cent Regus curse that made him and his kinsmen inhuman, and that beauty cost him everything but gave him more. Some of the book’s best moments are in the beauty of forgiveness and the transformation of the series’ worst villains. The beauty the characters chase in the Expanse is a beauty that won’t be contained, not even behind the walls of an ancient city or within the ideology that could inspire the broken people of House Abascar to rebuild. At each turn the truth of Auralia’s colors defies those who try to define them or use them, even for good purposes. It’s only in surrendering to the power of that beauty and humbling themselves before it that the characters have a chance to find redemption.

And redemption is the heartbeat of these books. It’s what pumps life through what would otherwise be just an exciting story. The power of beauty, beauty Auralia herself doesn’t understand, to redeem pain is the most profound part of The Ale Boy’s Feast. And again, it’s what reminds me of Van Gogh when I read them. Last year, the BBC series Doctor Who aired an episode called “Vincent and the Doctor” in which the Doctor and Amy met Vincent Van Gogh. In the episode, the Doctor asks an art museum curator (played spectacularly by an uncredited Bill Nighy) what he thinks about Van Gogh. The curator replies

“He transformed pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty.  Pain is easy to portray but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world… no one had ever done it before.  Perhaps no one ever will again.”

The Ale Boy’s Feast does the same for its characters, and in the process, for its readers. The journey into beauty through the Expanse, in all its mess and glory, is one of pain and joyful ecstasy. In his Auralia Thread, Jeffrey Overstreet has captured a piece of that journey and he holds it up to the light, like a window of colored glass for us to look through and catch a glimpse of the path that beckons us. The rest of the way, of course, is mystery.

The Ale Boy’s Feast, the final book of The Auralia Thread, will be released in bookstores and online on March 15.

Freedom Sunday 2011

March 13 was Freedom Sunday, an international effort by congregations around the world to raise awareness about the problem of human trafficking and organize efforts to oppose it around the world. Freedom Sunday coincides with the first Sunday of Lent in the western calendar for a reason. It was for freedom that Christ set us free, when we were slaves to sin and death, and our mighty Savior calls us to follow Him in pursuit of freedom for all.

At Saint Ann Chapel in Palo Alto, California, guest blogger Father Robert Kemp gave the following sermon:

2008 was a bad year for Berkeley, California.  First, the City Council told Army Recruiters they were “unwelcome intruders” in a motion expelling the recruiters from the city.  After 140 businesses threatened to leave the city and the Federal and State Legislative bodies took up measures revoking all Federal and State aid to the city, the City Counsel had to recant and publically admit that money is more precious than ideology.  After that embarrassing debacle, Lakireddy Bali Reddy, the largest and wealthiest landlord in Berkeley, was released from prison.  Lakireddy was caught in 2001 operating a sophisticated slave ring in the heart of Berkeley.  Between 1986 and 2000 he smuggled between 25 and 100 Indians into the United States.  Many of those imported were young women who were forced to work in Reddy’s prominent and well-liked restaurant Pasand Madaras Indian Cuisine for no pay while many others were forced to work as his concubines.  Some of the biggest and loudest proponents of fair trade, equality and work-force liberation were served by slaves. Sadly, slavery is not extinct.  Slavery did not end when English Parliament adopted the Slavery Abolition Act in August of 1833.  Slavery did not end on January 1, 1863 with Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation.  Nor did slavery end on December 18th, 1865 when the 13th amendment prohibiting slavery was enacted.  Slavery still exists, it exists in the United States, it exists in California and it exists in the Bay Area.

But why should we care?  Why should we care when Albanian parents sell their 3 year old to buy a color television?[1] Why should we care when 9 year old girls in Lima, Peru are bought by pimps and sold to highest bidder?  Why should we care when 12 year old Cambodian girls are sold to businessmen who want to bring good luck on their new economic quests by having sex with a virgin? Why should we care when thousands of children in the Ivory Coast are forced to work in the cocoa fields to drive down production cost so that we can buy cheap chocolate?[2] Why should we care when Cargill, a major cocoa importer, admitted it did not eliminate child slavery in its cocoa supply line because they did not have enough, and I quote ‘market incentive’ to do so? Why should I care when Nike pays a 10 year old pennies a day to make shoes, when it means that I can get a great deal on a new pair of running shoes? Why should I care when Nike admits to using child labor, but then says the problem is too difficult to stop.[3] Why should we care that there are roughly 27 million slaves in the world today and that there are approximately 218 million exploited child laborers?

In the days of Isaiah, the Israelites did not care about the plight of the widow, the weak and the helpless, they did not care that slavery and prostitution were all too common; they did not care about justice.  What is shocking is that while Israel turned a blind eye to injustice, they turned a microscope to worship.  They became deeply concerned with getting worship right, with saying the right things at the right time, doing the appropriate actions at the appropriate time and offering the correct sacrifice in liturgical precision.  In other words, they were just like the Pharisees who were so religious they forgot to love.  In the midst of this religious lovelessness, Isaiah proclaimed that fasting was pointless if not accompanied by love that was actively seen in feeding the poor and weak.  He told them worship was a waste of time if worship did not transform their hearts to love by breaking the chains of injustice.  He told them sacrifices were bloody abominations if they did not out of love set the oppressed and enslaved free.  Nor was Isaiah alone in this proclamation.  Years earlier God told the Israelites through the prophet Amos

I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

If we do not care about the 27 million slaves in the world, if our hearts are immune to love, then our worship is at best a waste of time and at worst, an abomination. We should care, because love demands it.

Does that make the church a mere social club for good works?  Does that make the Christian a religiousified social worker? No, may it never be for those who champion the church as a social club for good works have a fundamental theological error, they believe God operates on a quid pro quo, if I do this, then God will do that.  However, God, the one true God: Father, Son and Spirit, does not operate on a Quid pro Quo, he operates on a Quid pro Amor – This for Love. Everything that we do is originates from love.  That is why St. Paul said

If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

The point of worship is not to appease God, but become more like him through love, as St. John said,

Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (I John 4: 7)

The point of worship is not entertainment, but the transformation of a loveless heart to a love giving heart.  The point of breaking the yokes of the oppressed, the point of setting the captive free is not to simply do good deeds, it is to love others just as God the Father has loved us.

For we were once slaves; we were slaves to sin and the wages our slave master paid was death.  Jesus, however, took our wage upon himself and purchased our freedom with his blood and through the death and resurrection of Jesus we have been set free and given the gift of life. Thus, a failure to love those who are now enslaved is a failure to understand to love of Jesus that accomplished our own salvation.  A failure to lovingly take upon ourselves the cost to free those who are now enslaved is a failure to understand how much our freedom cost the Son of God. In other words, a failure to love in thought, word and deed the least of all people is a failure to love the greatest of all persons, Jesus Christ.  Why should we care about the 27 million slaves in the world today? Because once we too were enslaved and while we were still enslaved, God loved us and sent his Son to purchase our freedom and now that we have been loved by God we are to shower this love upon others.

My dear Sisters and Brothers, there are two religious roads in life.  One road is wide and smooth.  It is the Quid pro quo road and it is the road of mere religious duty that demands nothing more than occasional piety and liturgical observance.  It is the road that Isaiah and others warned not to take for it leads nowhere.  The other road is narrow with steep switchbacks up to the pinnacles of life, but it also plunges into the darkest valleys.  It is the road of love and it demands our life, our soul and our all, but in end it leads us into the presence of God.  All those who walk on this road through faith are not alone, for they walk hand in hand with Jesus.  It is not a road we can walk through our own strength, but the flesh and blood of Jesus will sustain our weary legs, his grace will upload our tired heads and his love will maintain our beating heart.  Therefore, let us pray that through the grace of Jesus Christ, we will walk on this road of love and break the yokes of oppression that are enslaving our fellow brothers and sisters.

ALMIGHTY God, who hast created man in thine own image; Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil, and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice among men and nations, to the glory of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/9-29-2003-45984.asp

[2] http://www.newint.org/columns/currents/2009/04/01/corporations/

[3] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/nike-admits-to-mistakes-over-child-labour-631975.html

An Affair to Remember in Words Soon Forgotten

An entire year of planning goes into the brief, televised announcement. A network of hundreds of experts vet every point. Presentation is everything.  The words, carefully chosen, have the power to define the successes of the last year and set expectations for the next. But after countless hours of wrangling decisions, the audience gathered, the cameras turned on, and the show began. At 5:30am Pacific time, Mo’Nique and Tom Sherak announced the nominees for the 83rd annual Academy Awards.

Oh, and another big event happened Tuesday, too: President Obama’s State of the Union Address. At first, I thought Tuesday was merely a serendipitous convergence of the outlying regions of my geekdom. A film snob policy wonk who dreams of running away to the White House anytime she watches the West Wing can’t ask for a better news day. But more than just the sheer fun of it, Tuesday taught me something about the two events. They are more similar than you’d think.

Both events began as relatively small affairs. Article II Section 3 of the Constitution mandates that the president

shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.

George Washington delivered the first on January 8, 1790, though then it was called the President’s Annual Message to Congress. It was 1, 089 words long, delivered to 81 members of Congress in New York City. It probably took seven to ten minutes for him to read it. Until 1923 when Calvin Coolidge’s became the first address broadcast over the radio, the address was a low-key speech between the president and Congress that laid out the president’s legislative agenda for the coming year. As in so many things, the advent of telecommunications changed its nature entirely.

Likewise, the Oscars began as a modest brunch in the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood in 1929. Douglas Fairbanks and William C. deMille hosted the event. It was a private affair (tickets were $5 per person), and fifteen people were honored for their work from 1927 – 1928. Everyone knew who’d won because the winners had been announced three months earlier. For the next few years they withheld the names until the late edition newspaper the night before, and in 1941 they introduced the sealed envelope to increase suspense (and attendance).

Both events scarcely resemble their modest origins. I had the chance to attend the Oscars last year, and it’s a machine worthy of the most robust entertainment industry in the world. An Oscar nomination means millions in DVD sales, an Oscar win even more. The entire gathering is a showcase for studios, a runway for designers, fodder for the gossip mills, and the best networking opportunity of the year for filmmakers. Try as other awards might, they don’t compare to Hollywood’s big night.

Not that the Oscars mean much when it comes to the quality of the winning films. Though there’s plenty of pomp and circumstance about the value of the craft and prestige of the selection process, any organization that would nominate James Cameron’s Avatar for Best Picture has left artistry and cinematic excellence off its priority list. They may be bigger than ever, but the Oscars are just advertising with a black tie dress code.

The same could be said of the State of the Union Address. Every year since Woodrow Wilson set the precedent of delivering the address in person, presidents have had the annual chance to lend their voices and charisma to their legislative agenda, and for most of the 20th century it has been more for the benefit of the national audience than Congress. The event has become a campaign stop in our bloated campaign seasons that force politicians to start running for reelection before they’ve had a chance to move in to their offices. As such, it’s nearly impossible for the State of the Union to transcend mere branding of the party in power.

President Obama’s State of the Union was more of the same. I seriously considered running my review from last year’s address because so much of the speech was, point for point, repetition. That’s hardly the president’s fault: at best, a great State of the Union Address is a laundry list of policy achievements and goals sprinkled with sparkling rhetoric. It’s a pep rally for the presidency, and like the Oscars, has lost most of its true significance over the years. For the next few news cycles, pundits and politicians on the right will try to follow Representative Ryan’s example and paint the president as a leftist radical bent on the financial ruin of America, while in reality this speech was even more fiscally conservative than last year’s address (which didn’t seem possible). Left-leaning commentators will tout the bold proposals of a successful president and try to remind voters of Representative Bachmann’s nonsensical, bizarre response to downplay Ryan’s points. And so it goes.

But like the Oscars, the real story is much quieter. This was a good year for President Obama. He’s accomplished an extraordinary amount of items on his agenda, the Recovery Act and Affordable Care Act both seem to be helping Americans while both are still in need of some tweaking to increase their effectiveness. Despite some fairly paranoid focus on competing with China, the speech reminded its audience that America remains strong and is likely to continue to be despite doomsayers on both sides. But the best moment of the speech is from its beginning.

What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

If we can manage that in the midst of vigorous debate, we’ll be fine.

Well, that and if True Grit wins Best Picture.

We Need a Darker Christmas

Tis the season to be trite: twinkling lights, evergreen branches, sentimental images of multigenerational gatherings, and the ever-present stars.  Everywhere you look it is happy, gleeful, giggly, cinnamon-sugary.  All is bathed in warmth and light, with no room for darkness.  And few of us think to question it.  Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christ Child.  Everyone knows births are happy, and if He was the most important child to be born, how much happier the celebration!  Christmas escapes the darkness that surrounds the other great Christian holy festival looming in the spring. On Good Friday we must stand at the foot of the Cross before we can revel in the joy of the empty tomb on Easter morning.  Christmas, on the other hand, is the all-happy holiday.  Sure that trip on the donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem must have been dusty and the whole “no room at the inn” part of the story seems like it was a bit inconvenient.  But it makes cute slogans for a Hallmark card and we need a little Christmas, so haul out the holly, right?

There are two dangerous errors in the way most of modern American culture—especially the modern American church—chooses to celebrate Christmas.  First, particularly destructive for the church, is that it completely negates the original intent of the ancient celebration of Christmas.  As cozy as the wintry image of Christmas is, Christ wasn’t born in the bleak midwinter.  According to historical records of Roman census, they seem to have taken place in the spring or summer, a time more conducive to the widespread travel that such an order would have demanded.  But there’s a good reason why the early church moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to December 25th.

It’s easy for those of us living in the age of indoor heating, grocery stores, and electricity to forget, but December is the bleakest time of year in the western hemisphere.  With the arrival of the winter solstice, it is literally the darkest time of year.  It’s cold, too, and in the years before globalization and the local cornerstore, the hungriest.  The timing of the celebration of the Christ Mass was by design.  The early church made sure we’d remember in the year’s cruelest moment that Christ came to us.

But we’ve Thomas Kinkaided the beauty of that stark contrast to death.  Now it’s all glowing cottage windows and twinkling trees, presents under the tree and luxury cars with bows atop in the driveway.  We’ve wiped any trace of discomfort from the holiday, eradicated any hint of darkness, so that now even the light seems dim.  The sorrow Simeon said would pierce Mary’s heart has become nothing more than a Precious Moments frowny face.

It’s no wonder we’ve done this.  How else can we expect to survive a world that is unremittingly vicious?  We numb ourselves with trinkets.  We distance ourselves with promises of nice and happy.  But God doesn’t want us to have nice and happy, because He knows it will never satisfy.  He offers Good, True, and Beautiful and knows our souls, made in His image, can settle for nothing less.  Nevertheless, we hunker down with flocked trees and smiling wise men, watching our kids unwrap the toy that will be the best thing they’ve ever seen for a grand total of one week if we’re lucky, and we tell ourselves that if we just make enough gingerbread men together, maybe we can stave off the darkness a little longer.

And that’s the second reason why modern Christmas is killing us.  Linus knew it all along.  All the toys we want to buy won’t give us Christmas—because it’s not Christmas.  And the longer we pretend our tinsel and candy canes can make us happy, the more people we’ll lose along the way.

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the coal industry around the world boomed.  With “progress” the god of its day, demand for the black mineral soared, sending hundreds of thousands of lower class workers into treacherous mine shafts fraught with cave-ins, suffocating gases, and threatened explosions.  To defend themselves against disaster, miners would take a delicate creature with them into the mine – a canary – whose sensitivity to changes in heat and atmosphere turned the tiny yellow bird into a portable early warning system.  If the canary keeled over, the miners knew it was time to get out.  But that was little consolation to the canary.

Our culture, like all those that came before it, is a coalmine of a different sort.  Surrounded by materialism, apathy, and exploitation in the name of self-interest, our souls are in danger of being crushed under the debris of our own distraction.  We don’t even preach against gluttony any longer.  Churches run diet groups that rely on getting participants to focus on God’s love for them just as they are to motivate themselves to put down the brownies and pick up the carrots.  No one ever mentions that the chocolate from the brownies probably came from child slave labor plantations where children are beaten with bike chains if they don’t pick cacao beans quickly enough.  Where Christ would rush in, we’d rather that He assures us that He loves us even if we have no self-control.  We don’t want Him to tell us we don’t need our Christmas presents.  We want Him to assure us we deserve them because He loves us.  That will let us stay distracted from the painful beauty of the world around us just a little bit longer.

The trouble with this attitude is that we are surrounded with what Dr. John Reynolds calls canaries.  There are people all around us who haven’t learned to pretend as well as we have.  They are the artists and poets.  They can’t look away from what we refuse to look at, the overwhelming awfulness of this existence.  Their words are hard to hear, and they threaten our carefully constructed worlds of nice and happy.  We want to sing “I’ll be home for Christmas” with Bing Crosby and ignore the millions who will mourn when loved ones don’t come home this year.  We want to watch Disney’s latest nature adventure with anthropomorphized penguins, but don’t want to think about the fact that the polar bear cubs will starve to death if they don’t eat the cute seal pups.  We love to quote John the Baptist when he proclaims the coming of Christ, but we end the story long before his grisly, senseless death.  We wrap ourselves in the happy part of the story and try to ignore the rest.

We need to stop.  We’re losing the people who can’t pretend right along with us, and not just figuratively.  Every year, people take their own lives because they think they must be crazy to see what the rest of us pretend we can’t.  The carnage wrought upon our own souls isn’t inconsequential, either.  The more we train our souls to hide from the reality of our cursed world, the more we dull it to the radiance of the Light of Light who descended from the realm of endless day.  We needn’t dwell on the darkness, but we need to recognize that we live in the midst of darkness, for it’s only the people who walked in darkness who have seen a great light.  Only then can we distinguish the true light of Christ from the cheap thrill of a string of lightbulbs, and only then can we begin to bring the wonder of that Light to a dark world.

Social Justice and the Cross: A False Dichotomy

Something’s rotten in the state of Christendom.  In the third century, Cyprian was bishop of Carthage.  The church had recently survived the Decian persecutions and Cyprian controversially urged his congregants to welcome back into the body of Christ those who had denied their faith under duress.  Then plague struck North Africa.  As the collective personas non grata, Christians found themselves blamed for the devastation.  In 257, Emperor Valerian opened new persecutions against Christians, including the execution of Pope Sixtus, the exile of Cyprian, and the ordered execution of all Christian leaders.  In the midst of this chaos and persecution, Cyprian did the unthinkable: he ordered all Christians of Carthage to do what no one else in the city was willing to do.  He ordered them to take on the suicide mission of caring for plague victims.  These were people who actively supported the murder of Christians, and the believers faced nearly certain death by tending to the needs of the victims dying of plague.  And yet under Cyprian’s leadership, they did so willingly.

The face of Christian charity in America is somewhat different.  Today, we find ourselves embroiled in modern entanglements of post-Enlightenment theology and the ever-present problem of greed disguised as self-interest.  When books like Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger find serious challenges from books like Successful Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulation, and a prominent Mormon with several daily talk shows on TV and radio instructs Christians in the theological legitimacy of social justice, Christians have strayed from the radical charity of the early church.  While most thinking Christians thankfully dismiss both anti-biblical extremes, we still find ourselves drawn into a debate that bogs down radical actions of Christian charity.  Humanitarian and theologian Christian Buckley argues

Just as the masses left Christ two thousand years ago when His call became difficult, His ways became unpopular, and His perspective became detested, we are being challenged to walk away from Christ’s humanitarianism.

We draw Christian charity battlelines and accuse each other from across no man’s land.  We obsess over one question: Should we serve people in order to share the Gospel with them, or is service sharing the Gospel with people in need?

In Humanitarian Jesus: Social Justice and the Cross, authors Christian Buckley and Ryan Dobson present the answer to this modern quandary by examining the Body of Christ, both His physical incarnation and the actions of His followers.  In the first half of the book, Buckley lays out the main points of both arguments, service for evangelism and evangelism as service.  He marks the major turning points in each movement and presents biblical support for both and exposes the weaknesses of each approach.  But the argument culminates in the obvious conclusion: you can’t have one without the other.  Evangelism and charity must be united for either to be authentic.

Dobson and Buckley interviewed dozens of Christians who serve as exemplars of how to act on our Savior’s instructions.  From missionaries to social workers, surfers to abolitionists, the interviewees make a compelling case for the futility of the false dichotomy of service versus evangelism.  Jerry Wiles, president of Living Water International, says it best:

It is more effective, and, to paraphrase an African head of state, “You can’t minister to dead people.  You can’t do health care to dead people.  You can’t educate dead people.  You’ve got to have them alive first.”  The first thing is to bring physical life.  It is true that if you just bring the water without the message, you just extend their physical life.  It’s not a matter of either-or with us.  It’s both – and in every case.  It’s not a choice… I don’t think that’s ever the option – the gospel or good works.  I don’t think we have to make that choice because God’s going to provide a way to bring the gospel when you engage people and meet their physical needs.

It’s hard to argue with a man who’s dedicated his life to ensuring access to safe drinking water for people around the world.  It’s even harder to do so from a country that uses hundreds of millions of gallons of safe drinking water to fill our swimming pools.  Interview after interview in the book comes to the same conclusion: There should be no division between evangelism and service.

During His ministry, Christ didn’t divide evangelism and service.  Neither should we.  Buckley and Dobson didn’t need to write a book to make this argument.  This isn’t an argument that needs winning; it’s an argument that needs living.  Being right isn’t enough.  We must, as Saint Paul exonerated the church at Ephesus, “walk in a manner worthy of our calling.”  As my priest, Father Matthew Weber says,

We cannot be whole Christians without both these things.  We cannot be whole human beings without both these things.

Followers of Christ brave enough to dive into the trenches of radical Christian service understand that truth.  Those of us who sit comfortably in the industrialized world continue to bicker.  We need to sacrifice our greed on the altar of grace, take up our cross and follow Him, proclaiming His name all the way.  We’ll then find then that there is no division between evangelism and service.  We’ll find there is only Christ.

Scott Pilgrim vs. Reality

Full disclosure: I have never read one of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s popular graphic novels about Scott Pilgrim and his epic of epic epicness.  But my students insisted last week that I had to see the film adaptation because it was, well, epic.  And really, you should do something fun after you’ve survived the first week of the school year, so it didn’t take much convincing.  Giant Coke in hand like all good movie consumers, I settled down for a good ride as Scott Pilgrim battled seven evil exes for the heart of Ramona Flowers.

Epic’s a good word for the film.  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has a stunning visual style that draws upon recent innovations like Speed Racer, Stranger Than Fiction, Kung Fu Hustle, and the classic live-action Batman tv series.  Although it borrows from many sources, it managed to use those tropes to create its own aesthetic.  It’s a graphic novel in motion, far better than earlier attempts like Ang Lee’s ghastly adaptation of The Hulk or Bryan Singer’s far more successful X-Men series.  Rather than rely purely on comic style framing like Singer, or creative editing like Lee, director Edgar Wright embraces all aspects of the comic realm, from the cheesy to the dramatic, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World crackles with the energy of a great video game and sparkles like a new purchase from ThinkGeek. Wright infuses every moment of the film with this new hybrid reality.  Scott Pilgrim’s world feels like Street Fighter met the Powerpuff Girls, duked it out, then went to the nicer parts of Sin City for several thousand shots of espresso while listening to Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist.

The film winks at itself in every frame.  When visual cues don’t let the audience in on the joke of Scott Pilgrim’s ridiculous video game life, sound effects from classic Nintendo and arcade games stand in for them.  Every high schooler I know is head over heels for Scott and his Herculean labors.  His lion skin cloak might be a Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt and his club a Rickenbacker bass, but Ramona, the girl whose seven evil exes he must defeat, is definitely a feminine Eurystheus.

And that’s the problem with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.  All its flash and dazzle can’t hide the fact that Scott and Ramona are jerks.  It’s admirable that Scott’s willing to take on Ramona’s super-powered jilted lovers to win her heart, but it’s hard to believe he’s doing it for any reason other than the rush of beating a great video game.  And Ramona’s hardly on screen enough for us to know why Scott’s willing to go to such great lengths for her.  She’s fickle, from her loves to her hair color.  All of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s charm can’t break through Ramona’s disregard for anyone but herself.  She seems to be playing her own video game, but it’s a slow RPG with her as tragic, lovelorn heroine.

This seems to be the trend for the new hipster romantic comedy genre.  Make Scott Pilgrim less of a visualized video game/graphic novel and more like Amelie meets Enchanted, and you have last year’s hipster smash, (500) Days of Summer.  Like Scott Pilgrim, it was a visual feast, and featured characters who possessed such levels of self-engrossment that by the end, it’s hard to care at all whether either of them ends up happy.  In the climactic battle of Scott Pilgrim, Scott realizes that he doesn’t need love to defeat his enemy, he needs self-respect.  After we’ve spent two interminable hours watching Scott hurt everyone around him because he’s obsessed with himself, the ending feels hollow.  It’s like that girl everyone seems to know who cries that she’s no good and it’s better if guys just stay away from her because she’s so unworthy that she always ends up hurting people she loves, while she clings to the nearest passing nice guy.  Her problem isn’t self-respect, it’s selfishness.

It’s no wonder these films are getting made, and it’s really no wonder they find such huge audiences.  CNN published an article last week about a new book called Almost Christian.  Author Kenda Creasy Dean argues that teens are being offered what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism” rather than authentic Christianity—and they are rightly rejecting it.  The great exodus of this generation from the God-as-self-help-guru faith is much more the churches’ faults than the apostates’.  In the same month, the New York Times ran an article about the mystifying trend of prolonged adolescence in twenty-somethings.  My guess would be the secular world has its “moralistic therapeutic deism” equivalent, just without all the “Jesus is my girlfriend” worship songs.  And, if our generation was raised by the generation drooling over Eat Pray Love, the ideological trajectory makes sense.  No wonder hipster characters like Scott’s Ramona Flowers and (500)’s Summer Finn are so angry all the time.

While Scott Pilgrim is a visual feast, it’s the kind that makes you feel full, by making you feel hollow.  It’s no Twilight, thank heavens, and a discerning viewer can enjoy the kitsch without buying into Scott’s delusions.  Wright seems to want us to do just that.

“I tried to make it seem … like an unreliable narrator. In film, I like this idea that [Scott Pilgrim is] the hero of the movie inside his own head. A life of gaming brought him up to be somebody — he’s not selfish, but he’s definitely kind of thoughtless. He’s the hero of his own story, and he’s quite single-minded. In the film, he doesn’t think about the feelings of the characters around him, or the consequences of some of his actions. He sort of views Ramona like she’s a shiny object in a game. I like the fact that the movie is about, to some extent, him getting his comic comeuppance.”

Hopefully, the cumulative effect of these hipster rom coms will be to give this generation a way to move beyond the shallow bonds of self-actualization.  In the meantime, though, at least we get some great soundtracks for our ipods.

What Decided Perry v. Schwarzenegger

Everyone’s talking about the wrong thing.  The Prop 8 trial Perry v. Schwarzenegger recently concluded in a flurry of punditry that had little if anything to do with the case.  While most media personalities spent their time aimlessly speculating or just provoking controversy, anyone who wants to understand why and how Prop 8 was overturned should read Judge Vaughan Walker’s decision.  Walker writes with such clarity and elegance that anyone seeking the details and conclusions of the trial can easily gain a working understanding of the issues involved.  And if our country is going to address this complex legal issue, more people need to do so.

Perry v. Schwarzenegger rests on three plaintiff claims, all of which hinge on the Fourteenth Amendment.  The prosecution charged that by amending the state constitution to restrict marriage to opposite sex couples, Proposition 8 violated the due process clause, the equal protection clause, and qualified homosexuals for heightened scrutiny, elevating their status as a persecuted minority and requiring the justice system to intervene.  The defense had to address these charges and, as Judge Walker ruled (and I can verify, having been present for part of the trial), did a pathetic job.  To be fair, proving that Prop 8 wasn’t religiously motivated is probably impossible.

The three charges rest on each other.  First, the prosecution had to prove that homosexuals had been singled out for persecution on non-secular grounds.  Thanks to the literature, websites, and mass emails disseminated by groups such as Protect Marriage, NARTH, and 1man1woman, this was easy to prove and impossible for the defense to refute.  Most information these groups spread during the 2008 campaign for Proposition 8 linked gays (discreetly at best, overtly at worst) with pedophilia.  Never mind that pedophilia, by definition, is adults preying upon children who have yet to develop a sexual identity, and therefore the sexual orientation of the adult is irrelevant to the situation.  Ironically for the proponents of Prop 8 who were willing to say whatever it took to convince a slim majority of Californians to vote for the proposition, given the hyperbolic nature of the opposition’s arguments, Walker had no other option than to grant that homosexuals qualify for heightened scrutiny as a group singled out for religious or moral, but not secular reasons, for government-sponsored discrimination.

From heightened scrutiny, the other charges naturally follow.  The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the U.S. states says

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Because the facts of the case allowed the court to consider homosexuals under heightened scrutiny, Walker found that Prop 8 denied same sex couples equal protection under the law.  Heterosexuals may marry, but Prop 8 denied homosexual couples the right to choose and marry a spouse.  From there, the due process violation logically follows.  As Walker writes

Due process protects individuals against arbitrary governmental intrusion into life, liberty, and property… When legislation burdens the exercise of a right deemed to be fundamental, the government must show that the intrusion withstands strict scrutiny. (109-110)

The defense asserted four main points: Prop 8 maintains California’s current definition of marriage as opposite sex only, it affirms the will of the voters to exclude same sex couples from marriage, it promotes stability in relationships because opposite sex relationships usually produce naturally-conceived children, and it promotes “statistically-optimal” child-rearing households.  As Judge Walker states on p. 10 of the decision

The state does not have an interest in enforcing private moral or religious beliefs without a secular purpose.

Therefore, the defense had to prove that the state had a secular purpose in enforcing Prop 8.  They primarily relied upon the procreative argument, that the state has a vested interest in promoting relationships that naturally produce children.  However that claim crumbled quickly, especially when one of only two witnesses the defense produced (neither of whom was admitted as an expert witness) admitted that though it may be ideal for a child to be reared by a male and female parent, recent research supports the theory that two loving parents, regardless of gender, provide a healthy environment for a child.  From start to finish, the defense paled in comparison to the prosecution in terms of factual information, expert testimony, and consistent argument.

The most interesting part of Walker’s decision for the larger debate over same sex marriage is his argument about marriage’s identity.  Until the early 20th century, most states in the U.S. operated under a legal marital practice known as coverture, which meant that the state viewed a married couple as legally one person, and by default, the husband.  The woman’s legal rights such as property ownership, the ability to enter legal contracts, even the right to retain wages she earned outside the home, were all ceded to the man.  With the abolition of coverture, as well as the introduction of no-fault divorce, Walker argues, marriage became a union of co-equals whose gender was legally irrelevant.  Given that the defense failed to prove the state’s exclusive interest in naturally procreative relationships, Walker concluded that the state need not differentiate between opposite sex and same sex couples when it comes to marriage.  Rather, Walker argues, the state’s interest is in legally fostering the establishment of stable households, regardless of how children are produced or whether children are included in those households at all.  Unless the state requires couples to be able to procreate, there is no reason why it should deny same sex unions when gender roles in opposite sex marriages are indistinct.  Because marriage is a fundamental right (Walker cites cases from Griswold v. Connecticut to Loving v. Virginia to Turner v. Safely), and fundamental rights cannot be subject to a vote, Prop 8’s voter support is not cause enough to maintain it.

This is only just the highlight reel of what is an intensely fascinating case.  I highly suggest that you download the pdf and read it for yourself if you’re interested.  I don’t have space here to cover even half the legal issues it raises, much less the cultural impact of those decisions.  And, as fascinating as this case is, its scope is far too narrow to capture the real constitutional crisis behind same sex marriage.  Article IV of the Constitution contains two clauses, known as the full faith & credit clause and the privileges & immunities clause, both of which make it difficult to know where the states’ constitutional right to define legal and social contracts such as marriage ends and the federal government’s duty to ensure that citizens in each state are afforded the same civil rights and liberties as fellow citizens in other states begins.  That will take another court case, and another trip through the federal system to see what the nine members of the Supreme Court think.

Regardless, this controversy isn’t over.  It really won’t matter what any state or federal judge does until the Supreme Court rules on Article IV.  So settle in for the long haul!  It will be a fascinating, bumpy, constitutional ride.’

What I Did For My Summer Vacation

Most working adults don’t dream of spending a week of their summer tromping through the mountains with 150 high schoolers and a copy of Plato’s Meno.  But the staff of Wheatstone Academy are an odd bunch. Wheatstone Academy is the brainchild of Dr. John Mark Reynolds, founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, inspired and made possible by Mike Kiley and John Siefker, and perfected by Executive Director Rebecca Fort.  Founded ten years ago, Wheatstone is as fantastic as it was in 2000, but no easier to explain.  That’s what makes Wheatstone a week that will change your life.

Wheatstone is not an academic camp, though the students spend most of the week discussing Plato and learning from professors of various disciplines.  It’s not a typical summer camp, though the students have mentor-counselors, go rock climbing, and stay up far too late each night.  It’s not an arts camp, though we go to the Getty, dive into Shakespeare’s plays, attend classical music concerts, pursue artistic skills in artisan-led workshops, and follow a film professor through a guided viewing.  Wheatstone is at once all of these things and none of them, because at its core, this program is an introduction to the examined life.

It’s not just about thinking.  Many of us live a bifurcated life, as though we’re brains living inside bodies that are mere “earthsuits,” or animal desires conflicted by an overdeveloped cultural consciousness.  Our modern culture perpetuates this divide, urging us to interpret morality in purely rational terms divorced from biological desire.  The Church, in opposing it, far too often overcompensates by negating the body entirely, casting it in the role of biologically sinful tempter bent on thwarting our sanctification.  Neither view accurately describes the complex relationship that makes us what CS Lewis called spiritual amphibians, bodies intertwined with souls.  Therefore, neither view is particularly helpful, especially as we try to understand the world around us and cultivate virtue.  And when it comes to knowing a being as complex as God, this confusion can be fatal to our faith.  No wonder over half of students who claim to be Christian at the end of high school leave the church before they finish college.

For a week this summer, Wheatstone students and staff pursued the life of the head, heart, and hands—what Plato would call the whole soul.  In Plato’s Meno – the text for the week – Socrates tries in vain to get the young, handsome Thessalian general Meno to explore a question with him: What is virtue?  Meno is intent on finding out if virtue is teachable, but Socrates insists the question is unimportant if they don’t know what virtue itself is.  He spends most of the dialogue proving to the stubborn Thessalian that he doesn’t know what virtue is, but Socrates cannot convince Meno that it’s a problem.  As Plato knew his readers would remember that a few years after this dialogue was meant to take place, Meno betrayed Thessaly in battle against Artaxerxes, was captured, tortured for a year, then executed.  Even Socrates couldn’t save Meno.

Socrates’ attempt at intervention came too late for Meno.  In the same way, most of our attempts come too late for Christian students who, like the thickheaded Thessalian, think they have the answers they need until harsh reality exposes the inadequacy of their faith.  We usually try to stuff information into the cracks of their belief—apologetic techniques, creation/evolution debates, platitudes and word studies to deal with the problem of pain.  But the problem isn’t a dearth of information or conviction.  The problem is that we segment our emotions and rationality into separate spheres that never intersect and we view our bodies either as enemies to be fought or spoiled children to indulge.  Thus dividing our own reality, we render ourselves incapable of comprehending the greater reality of a Triune God.  Through this broken system, most of us end up worshipping an idol, created from half-formed notions of God as father, teacher, disciplinarian and Santa Claus.  It’s no wonder that bright young adults raised in the church reject from this false vision.

This is why Siefker and Kiley created Wheatstone.  It’s a difficult week for student and mentor alike.  We spend hours in discussion of ancient philosophy and end up with more questions than answers.  We spend a day in the outdoors challenging ourselves on ropes courses and scaling cliffs to remind our minds and hearts that we have a body that must be incorporated into the life of the soul.  We watch Othello in Griffith Park and spend hours staring at paintings in the Getty to try to catch a glimpse of Beauty.  We realize that maybe Plato understood virtue better than we do and worry about what that means for those of us who have a relationship with the Living God.  Most important, though, we learn to see each other as we really are.  If we could truly see how the souls and bodies of our fellow humans bear the image of God, we might be tempted to fall down and worship them.  We learn that love, whether we can adequately define it or not, is the key to becoming whole souls, and a whole community with other beings made in His image will draw us closer to Him.  And we follow Plato’s Socrates in agreeing that we probably don’t know anything we think we know, and instead we try to ask the right questions.’