30 November 2016

Disrespecting the Flag

The American flag is a great and powerful sign. It symbolizes the American Revolution, that initial act of defiance to the unlawful tyranny of the British Parliament. It represents the brilliance of the framers of our system of government. It calls to mind the countless lives that have been lost in battle to defend, protect, and further one all-encompassing, dangerous, and revolutionary idea upon which our entire nation is based: liberty. Yet there are those in our country today who stand in fundamental opposition to this symbol, who spit in the face of those who have given their lives to defend it. I don’t say that they intend this by their actions. Like the Israelites who embraced the brazen serpent and forgot the reality for which it stood, these people embrace the flag as fetish or talisman while simultaneously committing treason against the very principle the flag stands for. This is why we cannot allow our flag to be disrespected by those who, like our current president-elect, wish to enact civil punishments for flag burning.

By now, everyone on the internet has read Donald Trump’s tweet from Tuesday, but in case you missed it here it is:

“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

Now on the face of it, many patriots who love America might agree. “Yeah, that’s right! If they hate America so much, why do they live here anyway? If they want to burn our flag, they can find another place to live that they like better.” I have more than once seen the sentiment that it is wrong that people in our country should use the very freedoms granted by the government to attack that very government. I understand that. I see the visceral reaction to people burning the flag. But there is one very dangerous assumption hidden in that line of reasoning.

Our founding fathers did not believe that the government granted rights to anyone. The Declaration of Independence makes it clear that our founders believed it to be self-evident, needing no proof at all, that God has given the right of liberty to men and that governments only exist to protect the God-given rights that men already have. Further, when a government endangers those rights, it is the right of the people to rise up and form a new government. Imagine a government that exists only to preserve the life and liberty of the citizens, that has no other function than to defend freedom and preserve life. That is what the American flag stands for.

Flag burning may be disrespectful; it may be deplorable; it may be the most irreverent, arrogant, wrong-headed, unpatriotic action imaginable. Let it be all those things. But as soon as you talk about putting people in jail for burning a piece of cloth, regardless of what the cloth is or what it stands for, then you are laying an axe to the very foundation of everything our flag means. In burning a flag, assuming the flag is the lawful property of the person doing the burning, is anyone’s life being endangered? Is anyone’s liberty being threatened? No? Then the government, if it wishes to be that free republic for which the flag stands, has no business prohibiting or punishing the flag burner. To do so is treason against the principles upon which our nation is founded.

26 November 2016

Martin Luther Description

When we think of Martin Luther, we often picture a fat man with a grumpy, pugnacious disposition. The second part of that picture probably comes from being familiar with Luther's polemic writings without putting them in the context of similar writings by other authors of that time period, and also from not being familiar with Luther's more pastoral writings and sermons. The first part of the picture, that Luther was a very fat man, comes from the fact that most of the portraits we have of him come from when he was an older man and had become portly through the good cooking and good beer of his wife, Katie.

But a witness of Luther's disputation with Eck at Leipzig paints a very different picture of Luther. Luther was 35 years old at the time, and this is how he is described:

"Martin is of middle height, emaciated from care and study, so that you can almost count his bones through his skin. he is in the vigor of manhood and has a clear, penetrating voice. He is learned and has the Scripture at his fingers' ends. He knows Greek and Hebrew sufficiently to judge of the interpretations. A perfect forest of words and ideas stands at his command. He is affable and friendly, in no sense dour or arrogant. He is equal to anything. In company he is vivacious, jocose, always cheerful and gay no matter how hard his adversaries press him."[1]
This is actually a downside in the two best known film versions of Luther's story, the 2003 movie with Joseph Fiennes, and the 1953 movie with Niall McGinnis. McGinnis's Luther is prophetic and Fiennes's Luther is angsty, but neither of them seem to be the vivacious, jocose, cheerful fellow of the description above.

[1] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Meridian, 1977), 87.

23 November 2016

Donald J. Osteen

If you haven't seen Tweet Mashup yet, go check it out. It's hilarious. Just put two twitter accounts into the machine, and, voila, you get an instant idea of what would happen if two people were merged into one. I was playing around yesterday wondering what would happen if Joel Osteen and Donald Trump were the same person. Here are a couple of the results.

God is counting on Floridians to vote the right way.

To be fair, I think there are some Republicans out there who probably pray this. 

22 November 2016

Politicians Can't Fix America

J. Gresham Machen, in the 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism, makes a good point that Christians in America need to hear today.

"It is upon this brotherhood of twice-born sinners, this brotherhood of the redeemed, that the Christian founds the hope of society. He finds no solid hope in the improvement of earthly conditions, or the molding of human institutions under the influence of the Golden Rule. These things indeed are to be welcomed. They may so palliate the symptoms of sin that there may be time to apply the true remedy; they may serve to produce conditions upon the earth favorable to the propagation of the gospel message; they are even valuable for their own sake. But in themselves their value, to the Christian, is certainly small. A solid building cannot be constructed when all the materials are faulty; a blessed society cannot be formed out of men who are still under the curse of sin. Human institutions are really to be molded, not by Christian principles accepted by the unsaved, but by Christian men; the true transformation of society will come by the influence of those who have themselves been redeemed."[1]

[1] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 134.

21 November 2016

The Fall of Arthur

From the apparently inexhaustible depths of J.R.R. Tolkien’s papers comes another gem brought forth for the public by Christopher Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur. Being a longtime fan of all things King Arthur and a huge fan of Tolkien, I’ve wanted to read this book since it was published three years ago. I finally got my hands on a copy and here are my thoughts.

The poetry here is breathtaking. There aren’t many people who laud Tolkien as a great poet, though I think he is, but this poem by far exceeds any of his other verse that I’ve read. The first canto felt like a bolt through my heart, and I’ll admit to getting a bit teary-eyed at the description of the land and setting. Nobody does sehnsucht like Tolkien. The other thing that surprised me was the level of character development given to both Mordred and Guinevere in the second Canto. Mordred’s characterization at the villain was especially vivid.

So, here’s the downside to the whole thing. The poem is unfinished. Tolkien abandoned work on it when he became more deeply involved in his Middle Earth stories, and never returned to it again. It’s a real shame because it would have been one of the most amazing things he ever wrote if he had finished it. As it is, it really shouldn’t have been published as a standalone work. I can see this working better as a single section in a collection of other shorter or unfinished works. That said, I’d also like to comment on the things Christopher Tolkien used to pad this out to the length of a book.

“The Poem in Arthurian Tradition” is an essay that focuses on the Arthurian tradition related to the fall of Arthur. For those who have read most of the major works pertaining to Arthur, this is simply review. Christopher does talk about how his father’s poem followed and differed from the major strands of tradition, and, using various notes that his father wrote, speculates about how the poem would have ended up had it been finished.

“The Unwritten Poem and Its Relation to the Silmarillion” was very interesting. Most of this essay focuses on Lancelot sailing into the west to find Arthur and never returning; this is how the story would have ended in Tolkien’s poem. Christopher explores the relationship between Avalon in Arthurian tradition and Tol Eressea in the Silmarillion, which is also called Avallon. To what extent are the two interchangeable? To what extent did he keep the two worlds separate? This essay is the best of the added essays in the book.

“The Evolution of the Poem” was largely unnecessary, focusing on the various manuscript stages that various parts of the poem went through before the final form printed in the book. This chapter seemed like a self-indulgent exercise on the part of Christopher Tolkien, and is probably only of interest to someone who might be writing a thesis on this poem by Tolkien.

So overall, I would give 5 stars to Tolkien’s poem and the chapter on the poem’s relation to the Silmarillion. The rest of the material is less interesting and important. It’s still worth a read for fans of Tolkien and Arthur.

10 November 2016

All Relationships are Telelogical

It was the fall of 2003. I had returned to college from summer break, and I had exciting news that I had to share with someone. While volunteering at our church's day school that week, I mentioned to my pastor that I now had a girlfriend. I'll never forget his response. He didn't congratulate me or slap me on the back or even really smile. He looked me right in the eye and said, "So, what are you doing with this girl, Rick?" At first, I was a bit baffled because I thought he was asking if we were, you know, having sex. "Nothing!" I responded. But it turns out, he wasn't thinking anything like that. He was asking me what my plans were for this relationship. Was I just using this girl as arm candy, someone to have fun with when I'm not doing school? Or was I considering whether we were compatible for marriage? What was the goal? At the end of the conversation he said, "I expect that in a few months, you should have decided to either marry this girl or to turn her loose. She sounds like a sharp girl, and it would be wrong to ask her to limit her future options for you just because you want to have fun." Wow. That was heavy, and unlike anything I had thought of before. And within a year of that conversation, my wife and I were married.

I recalled this conversation recently while reading the book Scary Close by Donald Miller. In one chapter, Miller recounts an exchange he had with with a friend and counselor.

"The whole thing reminded me of a conversation I'd had with my friend Al Andrews. Al is a counselor with a practice in Nashville. We were driving once when I confessed to him I'd hung out the previous week with a girl I probably shouldn't be hanging out with. She was in a bad marriage and had leaned a little too much on me and I confessed I liked it. I liked playing the wise, kind counselor and yet at the same time it felt unwise and even wrong. Al sat there and nodded and didn't have the slightest look of judgment on his face. Finally, when  I finished rambling, he said, "Don, all relationships are teleological."

I asked him what the word teleological meant.

"It means they're going somewhere," Al said. "All relationships are living and alive and moving and becoming something. My question to you," Al said seriously, "is, where is the relationship you've started with this woman going?"

I knew the answer to that question immediately. It wasn't going anywhere good. Within months, I'd be this married woman's surrogate husband, the man she could talk to, and as a man, I'd likely turn that into something physical and then I'd be a best-selling author in an extramarital affair..."
There are many pastors who could have avoided a lot of trouble had they thought in these terms. Likewise, married people who have close friends of the opposite sex other than their spouses should take heed. Where are those playful conversations and cups of coffee together leading? In fact speaking of couples in general, it's important to remember that marriages are also relationships, not stagnant contracts. You and your spouse are either growing closer or growing more distant from one another. Realizing this fact should cause you to be more intentional about your interactions with everyone around you. All relationships are teleological. Where are yours going?

08 November 2016

Feeling Good About America

It’s easy to get cynical about politics. We live in an age in which rational adult human beings can’t disagree with one another’s political positions without demonizing each another. For example, it’s not enough for people to disagree with Hillary’s politics. The latest thing in the news apparently is that she is not only wrong, but also, literally, SATANIC. Probably offering virgins right now on some bloodied altar in the name of her dark lord, Beelzebub. And, of course, we know that Trump supporters are ALL RACISTS and hate women. And amidst all the purple faces, loud voices, and pounding veins in temples, it’s hard to hear anyone discussing any of the actual issues that need to be discussed. Also, those of us whose opinions fall somewhere outside the rigidly-structured, two-party system are weak, spineless, and ignorant.

It reminds me of what Thucydides wrote about Athens during the time of the Peloponnesian War: “Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, incapacity to act on any.”[1]

I would also like to direct your attention to the fact that no one ever, ever enjoys standing in line at a government institution. Think back to the hopeless, lost faces of the people in line during your last trip to the DMV. Think back to the Dante’s Inferno of doomed souls when you had to stand in a long line at the US Post Office in order to mail a package before it closed. Government doesn’t make people happy, but people are more than willing to spew the most vitriolic, poisonous rhetoric imaginable at one other on behalf of their preferred government candidates.

And that is why my trip to the polls today was such a magical event. My local polling location is the church down the street. It was more crowded this morning than I’d ever seen it for an election before. And yet, there was none of the soul-draining quality of the formal institutional government about it. The people working the tables were volunteers, serving happily to help people vote. The entire room had the feeling of a town meeting in Mayberry. People were smiling at one another, striking up conversations with strangers while waiting in line, and generally seeming excited to be taking part in this local expression of their civil government. And the diversity of people was astonishing, people of every race and social class. There were men in business suits who were clearly heading to the office right after they voted. There was a twenty-something guy in sweatpants and a t-shirt who looked like he hadn’t bathed in weeks and had probably just come from an epic Call of Duty marathon in his mom’s basement. There was an old lady in her eighties behind me, feebly holding her walker and chattering about her grandchildren, while being helped along by her nurse. There were young moms with strollers, bikers in leather jackets, respectable, churchy-looking ladies, construction workers, and all other manner of people. And there was a guy there with tennis shoes, plaid pants, and a green bow-tie; wait, that was me.

I talked to the guy standing in front of me, a college student voting for the first time. He was excited to be there, getting to cast his vote. All around, people were shaking hands, introducing themselves, and getting along marvelously. And here’s the thing: no one knew who anyone else was voting for, and no one asked! Here, standing in a government line, waiting to cast a vote about the thing that has been making Americans treat each other like Orcs and Zombies for the last six months was a feeling of community and goodwill that the world-weary among us think is only a product of Norman Rockwell nostalgia.

How can this be? What accounts for this paradox? It’s because that… there…what was happening at the polls…that was America. America can’t be found in the endless bureaucracies inhabiting drab buildings like parasites. It can’t be found among our elected dictators and petty tyrants in Washington, D.C., that Leviathan entity that presumes to call itself “Government”. It’s here among the people. Because despite being weak, foolish, sinful, and often confused, human beings can somehow usually figure out how to treat each other like fellow humans, fellow partakers of the imago dei. Without our political handlers on talk radio, on CNN, and in public office reminding us of who we’re supposed to be hating right now, it seems like we often default to treating each other like people. And when community volunteers take the lead instead of a government monopoly organization, waiting in line doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.

And in the end, this is why America is not ending tomorrow. Whether your candidate wins or loses tonight, just remember that what we let our politicians get up to in that capital city of theirs doesn’t make up the biggest part of human life. You still have the freedom to treat others with dignity and respect. You still have the freedom to love your community. You still have the freedom to be a part of “We the People”. Sleep well, America.

[1] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, Robert Strassler, ed. and Richard Crawley, trans. (New York: Free Press, 1996), 199.

Election Day

It's election day, everyone! So if you haven't already done so, listen to this song by Switchfoot and Lecrae, and then go vote your conscience!

31 October 2016

Halloween Fun

Well, folks it's Halloween time again. Time to watch the Great Pumpkin and that Garfield special with the scary old man in the chair. It's also about time for me to remind my fellow Christians that Halloween is in no way a pagan holiday. Here's a great article that I had never run into before to add to the list as well. Halloween: More Christian than Pagan.

I also wanted to take this time to make mention of how awesome my kids are. Not only did they decide to go for nerdy Halloween costumes, they also zeroed in on a particular episode from Doctor Who as their theme. They are dressing as "The Day of the Doctor," the 50th anniversary special.

The Day of the Doctor

L-R: The Eleventh Doctor, Queen Elizabeth I (or the Queen Elizabeth Zygon imposter. She would never tell us for sure.), and the Tenth Doctor.

28 October 2016

On Not Voting for Trump

I was recently asked how I, as a Christian, could condone not voting for Donald Trump this election cycle. After all, no third party candidate has won a state in an election since George Wallace in 1968. Surely, as terrible as Hillary is, it is my duty as a Christian to do anything in my power to keep her from being elected and ruining the country. And even if Trump is not a good guy, he’s surely better than Hillary. This is an issue that many people are wrestling with this year. For my part, I would reject this entire line of reasoning, and I think that this way of thinking can lead people in some dangerous directions. As a Christian, I feel completely comfortable voting third party in this election, and I propose to show five reasons why this is the case.

1. To begin with the main question: Why vote third party, since no third party candidate has ever won? The answer to this is that I don't think anyone voting for a third party candidate has any hope at all that their candidate will win. I know that either Trump or Hillary will win, and, the way the polls are looking now, I'm pretty confident that it will be Hillary. So if I vote third party it will be simply as a protest vote. It will not be a vote made in hopes that my candidate, whoever that might be, will win. Ideally if there is a much lower Republican turn out this year than in previous years it will send a message to other Republicans that a candidate like Trump will not be supported. People won't tow the party line for a Trump. And in my case, I haven’t voted for a Republican candidate for sixteen years. If I didn't find Bush, or McCain, or Romney good candidates, I certainly won't find Trump a good candidate. Maybe someday the Republicans will run someone who truly believes in conservative principles, and I'll happily vote for them. Until then, there is nothing particularly tying me to the Republican Party or to the idea of a Republican win.

2. Secondly, I don't buy into the doom and gloom that surrounds the idea of a Hillary presidency. Every election cycle we are told that this is the most important election in the history of ever and that if the other candidate wins, it will mean the end of America and possibly of civilization as we know it. For the most part, this just isn't true. Obama's presidency hasn't destroyed America; Obama isn't a good president, but he’s not the worst president we've ever had by a long shot. A Hillary presidency won't destroy America either. The bottom line is that presidents don't have the power people seem to think they have. They can't make laws. They can't start wars without the approval of Congress. They can't raise or lower taxes. The only thing that might really make me consider Trump in this election is the fact that this president will make at least one Supreme Court appointment. I can see that might be something that people would be concerned about, and I don't hold it against anyone if they vote for Trump for this reason. However, this leads me to my next point.

3. I don't buy the idea that Hillary will be significantly worse than Trump. Bottom line, I don't trust Trump. I think he's a power hungry man who will say whatever it takes to energize his fan base. Based on what I've seen from him, I don't think he's guided by principles, and, once in office, I think he would probably be a very different man than the one we see campaigning. His history shows that he is very unstable in his viewpoints. I don't think that he would appoint a strong conservative to the Supreme Court. Like many of his Republican predecessors, he would probably promote someone who is conservative in name but lacks the backbone to stand up to other members of the Supreme Court on important issues. Even aside from that issue, there are many things about which I strongly disagree with Trump. I don't like his immigration policy; I think immigration is good for our country and that immigration to America needs to be much easier than it currently is, not harder. I don't agree with his foreign policy or his trade policy either. I think we need free trade with all nations and no protectionist tariffs, and I think we need less military involvement overseas, not more. Trump is just a big government kind of guy, and I don't support most of his ideas.

4. Following along from that idea, I don’t like the fact that Trump seems to believe that interventionism is our duty as a nation. We don’t need a president who will lead us in righting wrongs all around the globe. Most of the problems we have in the Middle East today can be traced to our previous interventions into the area, beginning with Wilson in WWI all the way through the time the CIA gave weapons to Osama bin Ladin and the Mujahideen in the 1980s. I think the best thing that we can do is to bring home all our troops stationed in foreign countries and cease our involvement in foreign conflicts except in those areas in which a foreign country specifically asks for our help. Even in those situations I think there would have to be good, compelling reasons for thinking it was our moral duty to get involved. (For the record, as a matter of history I don't believe America should have been involved in WWI, the Korean War, the Vietnam War or the more recent war in Iraq. I definitely don't think we should involve ourselves in the current conflict with Syria in any way.)

5. Finally, and here is the thing I most object to, the line of reasoning that says Christians should vote for Trump simply because Hillary is worse encourages consequentialist thinking, the idea that the ends justify the means. When making a decision, the only question we should have in our minds is "Is it the right thing to do in and of itself?" I don't believe in the argument that we should do something that may be wrong in hopes that good will come of it. To use another related example, while William Wilberforce ending slavery through legislation in England was a good thing, Lincoln ending slavery in America by going to war with the Southern states was morally reprehensible. The end was good in both cases (slavery ended), but the means used were not uniformly good. Wilberforce was right; Lincoln was wrong. We should never buy the argument that we should choke back our conscience and do something we think we shouldn't because some good will come of it. Also, the argument that those who don't vote are responsible if Hillary wins only assumes that those people think Trump would have been any better.

I’ll make one more point by way of conclusion. My theology probably has something to do with my political stance as well. First of all, I believe that God, not the President of the United States, is in control of the movement of the world throughout history. God uses means to accomplish His goals, and the actions of the characters in God's story do have real consequences. However, those actions themselves are part of the story. God wanted Joseph's brother's to sell him into slavery, God wanted Babylon to conquer Judah and carry the people away, and God wanted Jesus to be crucified. None of these things seemed good at the time, but in retrospect we can see how each fits perfectly into God's plan for the world. If Hillary gets elected, it will not be the end of the world. It will be part of God's plan. It might not mean pleasant things for us right now, but it also won’t mean that God’s plan for the world has gone awry. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t vote or make decisions. It does mean that whatever ends up happening will be nothing other than what God has planned to happen. In addition, of course, I should also point out that I believe God is currently in the process of converting the world to Himself. I don't believe in the idea that the world is just going to get worse and worse until Jesus comes back, and that Christians are like numerous little Dutch boys sticking their fingers into the dike. I think that Jesus is winning and that events that look like setbacks to us do not hinder God's overall plan to save the world. Granted, the world in the end might not look just like it does now. The United States of America may at some point cease to exist as a political nation and something else may replace it. However, the kingdom of God in the world will not be conquered. It will continue to grow until it fills the earth. So in conclusion, voting is a privilege that Americans have in our system of government, but I don't think it can be called a duty. I don't see any commands in the Bible about voting. No Christian has a duty to vote for Donald Trump or any other political candidate. This is especially true if that political candidate seems morally compromised in some big ways. Ultimately Christians make the decision of whether to vote and which way to vote with the underlying knowledge that God is in control and that we can rest in the wisdom of His plan.