Tentatio

struggle, spirituality, absurdity

Category: Inspiration in odd places (page 1 of 3)

Rick Warren, His Detractors, and the Body of Christ

The news that Rick Warren‘s son had passed away by suicide will undoubtably continue to be international news for some time, because the combination of tragedy and celebrity tends to be so tantalizing in our culture. Not that that’s healthy, but there isn’t much I can do about it.

Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church.

I did notice one oddly uplifting trend as the news spread… and I say “oddly” because it came from social media, which basically draws its dark life-force from vitriol, ignorance, and hate.

Among Warren’s many critics from within the Christian world (and any supremely public figure within Christianity will, by definition, draw a zillion critics), I have yet to find one that does not consist of pure grace and empathy. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’ve yet to find one (Westboro, I’m looking in your direction).

And there is a special beauty in that observation. Ever since the advent of Christianity, even in the months following Pentecost, disagreement and dissent has been a mark of Christian life. Dissent, regardless of appearance, is not a sign of weakness, but, rather, it indicates strength. Whenever an organization exists without any conflict, it is reasonable to assume that something unhealthy and dangerous lies beneath its surface.

In the wake of tragedy, we put aside the differences, theological disagreements, frustrations, jealousies (the guy sold, like, a billion books), and squabbles, to come together to offer support for the Warren family in the unifying center of who we are: Jesus. And if I know anything about Jesus, he does not shy away from tragedy, loss, and suffering. Actually, that is sort of his thing…

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Superhero Jesus

Everyone knows Spiderman. He flips around with web shooting out of his hands and beats up bad guys. But…if you ask how he gained all those superpowers, you might get different answers depending on the generation of the person you are asking. The older crowd knows that he was bitten by a radioactive spider, which, rather than giving him leukemia, made him a hero. However, the younger generations would answer that he was bitten by a genetically modified spider. Why the difference?

Stan Lee created Spiderman in the early 1960s. In the cold war era, when it seemed like nuclear war was both inevitable and imminent, radiation and nuclear fallout had Americans shaking in terror. Spiderman being bitten by a radioactive spider spoke to an underlying fear that resonated with many.

Spiderman’s popularity experienced a resurgence in 2002 with a new series of movies. This time it wasn’t radiation. A genetically altered spider bit Peter Parker, which makes perfect sense. In 2002, the Human Genome project was about a year from being completed, with rough drafts of the entire human genome already being disseminated. It was an amazing accomplishment. At the same time, our culture was becoming more aware of the possibilities and dangers involved with genetic modification. It wasn’t the radiation of the 1960s, in part because we were doing it to ourselves (and our food).

This is a small example, but it shouldn’t be too surprising. Artistic expression often works with themes that resonate in culture, even when those themes aren’t obvious. In fact, I have a hunch that literature (and I use this word very, very loosely) often speaks to a culture most powerfully when it works with themes that are under the surface. When an unexpected nerve is hit, it hurts worse.

Aside from interesting cultural analysis, the kinds of stories that our culture finds compelling can also tell us a lot about ourselves. Consider the biggest blockbusters over the last few years. What do they have in common? Have you noticed that there have been nauseatingly large quantities of superhero movies? You haven’t? Oh…I see. You live in a cave.

What kind of hero do we want? Let’s leave Spiderman behind and look at two of the biggest superhero franchises over the last few years: Ironman and Batman. Both movie franchises made gobs of money, and most of the movies were fantastic (except for Ironman 2 – that was awful). There are some eerie parallels between these two.

Both are the alter egos of wealthy billionaire playboys who use technology to gain an advantage over their enemies. And both commit acts of subjective violence, underscoring our deeply held belief that violence really can solve the world’s problems. This isn’t a commentary on violence per se, but it does show perhaps who we really trust in our society. We look to the billionaires and entrepreneurs, and especially to science and technology, to solve the problems that we face every day. We hope that through the use of money and technology we can actually even address the great evil that works its way through our world.

This really makes a lot of sense. To whom does our culture look up? We idolize people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, those wealthy, brilliant innovators at the forefront of technological advancement, and we hope that through their innovation our problems will be “solved.”

I’m not intending simply to browbeat our culture and tell them that they’re putting their trust in the wrong thing. In fact, humans of been doing that for as long as there have been humans. But I do see some interesting parallels between our desire for a superhero and Jesus’ experience of the people he encountered in the Gospels. Everybody was looking for a hero to save them from the Romans (they called that hero “Messiah”). And so Jesus had to confront the people’s expectations while at the same time reshaping their desires. God was going to do something very unexpected.

The kingdom of God, after all, was not something that was going to be achieved by military force. Instead, a new reality invaded the world, bringing God’s presence in and through the work of Jesus himself. Or, to put it another way, God’s presence was returning to Earth. While I’m sure nobody would have objected to God’s presence, it’s hard to imagine that this is what the people thought they really wanted.

The same goes for us in the modern 21st-century. Our culture desires billionaire superheroes to bring innovative technology and scientific advancement, and we think this is going to actually save us from both ourselves and the evil that we encounter in our world. However, that hasn’t worked so far, and I really don’t think it’s going to work in the future.

Jesus is not a superhero that is here to solve all our problems. Instead, he is God’s presence that has come to confront evil and actually take the full force of that evil onto himself. This goes far deeper than merely solving problems. It actually cuts right to the core of who we are as individuals and as communities. The problem is that the line between good and evil is drawn down the middle of each of us. Neither a superhero nor Google can save us from this reality.

Theological Reflections on the Death of bin Laden

For starters, I’m irritated with the fact that it was under Obama’s command that he was killed. This isn’t a political statement or a revelation of my allegiances; It all comes down to grammar. About 6 times now I have been in conversation with someone about the death of Obama, at which point I feel like an idiot. I seem to remember John Stewart joking about the same mistake.

On a more serious note, I feel very ambivalent about the whole thing. One the one hand, a dangerous man responsible the deaths of thousands of people all over the world is now dead. That is justice.

But a Christian is called to forgive. We believe that all humans bear God’s image (Imago Dei is the fancy-pants term), and thus we affirm the sacredness and dignity of all human life. I think this applies to issues of war, sexuality, human trafficking, business practices, ethics, and everything in between. The more I think about it, humans-as-imagesbearers is a pretty deep rabbit hole that too few venture down. That’s a different matter, I guess.

It particularly disturbs me, though, when the killing of bin Laden is labeled a victory. The taking of life is not a victory; at best it is a necessary evil – and I use that word specifically.

Jesus made a cryptic statement when he was on trial before Pilate, the governor, who was attempting to assess whether Jesus is a threat to the peace and security of Roman interests in Judea. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would have been fighting…” Sounds simple, right? It is, but it also goes very deep into the heart of the matter for today.

Palestine had a reputation of violence for hundreds of years before and after Jesus’ life. Jewish revolts were relatively common, often beginning in the context of the great Temple in Jerusalem. Or to put it another way, the many revolts that took place against the Romans were messianic in nature. The Messiah, it was thought, would lead the great war to kick the Romans out and reestablish an autonomous Jewish nation. These were incredibly bloody affairs, and they rarely ended well for the Jews, especially around the 1st centuries BCE and CE.

So Pilate had to decide whether Jesus was yet another violent revolutionary leader. As it turns out, he was not. Jesus recognized the futility and evil of violence and taught his disciples the same – not that they always understood. His kingdom was not of the world because it operated under a different set of values, but it was still very much for this world.

And this is where we get to the heart of the matter. If read with this background in mind, we can come to understand a deep truth regarding the nature of evil. Namely, that one of the tools of evil is violence, and fighting will never really eliminate the problem. It might contain it, but it will always resurface. This is why thoughtful and courageous non-violent resistance can be wildly successful, especially when the enemy is much more powerful: it strips them of their power.

Giving into violence might make the situation better for a time, but it will never make evil go away. Since all human life is sacred, even those responsible for incredible evil, Osama’s death is still a tragedy. Necessary, but tragic. It is better that he is dead? Probably. Is it a cause for celebration? No, never. We defeat our enemies through forgiveness, not by killing them, and we do not celebrate the death of anyone.

Thoughts on Remission

I have no idea where I am going with this but feel compelled to write. So bear with me. Or don’t, it’s your choice. That’s the danger (from my perspective) of blogging.

So I got the news that I have achieved a 3-log reduction in the presence of the Leukemia mutation. Or something like that, but I was never great with Biology. Suffice it to say, this is the goal for treating my kind of Leukemia (CML), and within this threshold the disease is considered well under control. My next step is for the mutation (actually it’s the presence of a protein, or something like that) to be undetectable by the machines that do the detecting. That won’t necessarily mean the mutation is gone, but rather that it is so low that the machine can’t find it (we are on the molecular level at this point).

It’s strange, though, because I still sense that I have a ways to go in terms of dealing with the emotional side of having leukemia. For those of you that know me well, this summer has sucked horribly. I’ve been sick and injured for most of the season, and then I was forced to try a different leukemia drug because the original one was no longer effective. Not to mention that I struggled with the side effects of that original drug.

Now I feel better than ever, and I actually have more energy now than I know what to do with. But this morning, a friend of mine mentioned in passing that he had had some blood work done and the doctor said he wanted to run another, more specific test. It ended up being nothing (except that my friend needed to lose a little weight), and yet when I heard this story being told, I almost had a small heart attack at the idea of him needing more blood work. I’ve been down that road, and it didn’t go well with me.

It was like a small panic attack induced by PTSD, or something like that. I can be a little dramatic at times.

But it did tell me that I have a ways to go. I still get depressed, and who wouldn’t? After the leukemia, the multiple deaths of loved ones, the car wreck, my cat that died, the million kidney stones, and a few other things, this shouldn’t surprise me.

It all reminds me of how messy life really can be. I get impatient with movies that have nice, black and white, neatly wrapped endings. How is that anywhere near life-like? Real life has real struggles, real joy, and everything in between – and often at the same time.

I am in remission. That’s incredibly good news, but it isn’t the end of the story, nor is it the beginning of another. My good news simply is. I will carry this damned mutation all my life, and my life will likely be long.

Learning to live in that tension takes serious chutzpah. I pray that God grants me some of his…

Review of “The Narcissism Epidemic…”

You can check out the book here. I’m not associated with Amazon, I don’t get a kick-back, and I have no idea if that’s the cheapest you’ll find it. I do, however, recommend this book to everyone. If the authors are right, and I think they are, we as a culture are in a lot of trouble.

The authors’ main concern is narcissism – the belief that you are more special, more valuable, and more entitled than other people. These are the obnoxious types that decide they can park wherever they want, regardless of silly things like “laws.” They tend not to care about other people’s feelings, because they are their number one priority. They rack up insane amounts of debt, because they deserve that house they can’t afford! And they like to talk about themselves. Not surprisingly, destructive relationships haunt them like ducks following someone with bread.

But that’s not why this book is important. I could have learned about narcissism from wikipedia (I think – I don’t feel like looking it up right now).

The Narcissism Epidemic opens its readers’ eyes to the shallow, dangerous levels of narcissism that that have infused our culture. For example, did you know clinical data suggests that telling kids they are special and emphasizing that they should love themselves most (ie, self-esteem) actually leads to less success later in life? I sure didn’t. Now I’m angry that I was forced to take a “self-esteem” class in the fourth grade.

I blame that class for all of my failures in life. Actually, a classic narcissistic trait is the tendency to blame others for your own failures. Oops.

The authors present a great little crash course in current pop-culture trends, which is helpful for those that might be a little behind the times and don’t have ready access to high school students. But that isn’t why you should read this book.

They also give a fabulous twist on the current financial crisis, proposing that the narcissistic tendency to feel entitled to things and materialism without having actually earned anything has led to our current mess. Their point didn’t surprise me, because it makes so much sense. Instead, it scares me. We as a culture are so willing to kill ourselves with debt because we have a fall sense of entitlement – I deserve that new/bigger/faster <insert here>, even though I can’t actually afford it.

Scary stuff. But that still isn’t why you should read this book.

Read this book because you care about our future. The authors give advice for how to manage the lethal levels of narcissism swirling around our lives, and what they have to say is important.

Or read the book for yourself, for the sake of helping you manage your own narcissistic tendencies. Treat it like a self-help book. That’s part of the reason why I read it, but then again, I’m a narcissist.

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