Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Happy Asian Man

There’s an outside chance God will let me be a happy Asian man when I get older.

I had just changed lanes in a slightly less than orthodox manner so I could get into the turn lane, when I glanced to the right and locked eyes with the mirror image of this potential future self. We found ourselves so entangled due to his failure to cooperate with the nonchalant voyeurism that is a part of my engaged-detachment from a world in which I encounter glorious humanity at far too high a volume to process safely. In fact, the sheer number of people I see in a day cascades toward me at such an alarming rate; I have had no recourse but to erect a transparent, double-paned bullet-proof glass barrier for my own (and their) safety. And I am very much not alone in this. The result is a world in which we all seem to be free floating in our own bubbles, billions of us blown on the wind from some sticky wand in the hands of a careless child who just can’t seem to get enough joy from multiplying relatively identical free-floaters.  And we all gaze at one another as exhibits in the zoo, politely avoiding prolonged eye contact, taking turns playing animal and kindergartener, silent partners in a voyeuristic time-share pact.

All of us except for the happy Asian man: he made direct eye contact, smiled, and waved at me. Like some kind of escaped tiger. My ingrained response would have been to break eye contact without turning my head, so as to provide him with enough plausible deniability that he could safely allow himself to believe that I had only been facing the area of his general direction, and not generally staring directly at his face. Only the indiscretion was so shocking, time contracted and I was able to experience all five or so stages of grief before the light turned, thus enabling me to break tradition and respond in a most untactful way: I smiled and waved back, horrified.

I wouldn’t have, except that at first I thought he must be Joe, the nice older Asian man I had met last night, recognizing me out and about in one of those serendipitous moments that annoyingly removes people from the context in which you have grown accustomed to seeing them, where you last left them to stay until your return like good Labradors. But it wasn’t Joe, and my brain not only told me that fact; it then applauded itself for not being one of those racists who can’t tell the difference between Asian people. After a series of alternatives were considered and dismissed with equal vigor, I was left with only one alternative: this man saw a complete stranger and his response to that stimulus was to smile and wave, which, as it turns out, can be a highly and inexplicably contagious disposition, not unlike a yawn. Careless.

All of this in less than a minute, and then I turned left, and I assume he went straight, because for him to have done anything else from that lane would have resulted in something I would have heard about behind me. I’m worried for that guy because we live in a world where it’s not really very manageable to have unprotected connections with strangers. But maybe he’s worried about me, and I’d kind of rather gone in his direction than mine, so maybe God will let me be like that someday.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Vanity and Van Gogh

Inline image 1

On my way home for lunch today, my perpetually sullen NPR lady shared the following report:
On this day in 1890, Vincent Van Gogh died, two days after shooting himself in the chest in a wheat field. He made it back to his bed, where the doctor decided not to remove the bullet. His brother, who rushed from Paris to his side, was the recipient of these final words: “The sadness will never end.”
The jaded harbinger then moved on to her next bit of trivia while I weakly turned off the radio, pulled over, and wept a bit. 

Several years ago my friend Phil Tallon wrote a book called The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy. In the introduction, he allows Karl Barth to suggest to us that artists such as Mozart were masterful professors of a natural theology that they were somehow unable to rationally adopt. Mozart’s musical works, very much unlike his life, display a mighty triumph of light and hope over an ever-present darkness and despair. The truth cried out through opus after opus from his own genius, and yet he remained deaf to its message. What a tragic vessel. 

In my wallet is a Capital One credit card with Van Gogh’s Starry Nights emblazoned on its face, an ironic canvas for the work considering the man never saw a dime for his paintings. His wistful expressionism displays an iconic apprehension of the order, sense, and equity of the world that he simply could (would?) not translate to a working faith. It’s as though he believed in the swirling vision of colors and light and yet not in the mountain, stars, city, and wind themselves. Vincent died thinking he was nothing at all and that suffering was an indomitable force, tragically wrong about both of these things as even the work of his hands testifies. 123 years later, I choose to believe the proclamation of the man’s art over his life, forever affected by both. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Psalms as Political Propaganda

My good friend Jason Hood interviewed Peter Leithart a couple of years ago on Christianity and politics. This paragraph is revolutionary.

Worship is the leading political activity of Christians.  In worship, we sing Psalms that call on God to judge the wicked and defend the oppressed, and God hears our Psalms; we pray for rulers to rule in righteousness; we hear the word of God that lays out our alternative way of life, and we sit at the table where we who are many are formed into one body, an alternative Christian polis, by sharing in the one loaf.  The problem is that in many churches those things don’t happen.  Churches don’t sing Psalms, and especially don’t sing the hard Psalms that call on God to judge the wicked.  More churches are having weekly Eucharist, but in evangelicalism that is still more the exception than the rule.  The first political agenda for American Christians is to get worship more into line with Scriptural requirements.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


This is one of the greatest things about being a dad: 

Josh: Who is the King?

Cecily: DADDY!!!

Josh: And who's the King of Daddy?

Cecily: JESUS!!!

Josh: Who's Jesus?

Cecily: God. AAAAAAAAAAND He growed up to be big and strong and HIS Daddy the ooother God chooseded him to be the King.

Josh: That's right, and do you know how Jesus became King?

Cecily: [incredulously] NO

Josh: He died on the cross

Cecily: But Daddy, kings don't die on a cross.

Josh: You're right, they don't usually, but Jesus died because of all the times we disobeyed. And then do you know what happened?

Cecily: Noooo [smiling]


Cecily: YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!! [dancing around]

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Beating a Dead Philosopher

[Lest one believe I fancy myself equal to sparring with the great Bertrand Russell, let me assure you that I only challenge the man with arguments I learned from far smarter men, borrowing confidence from the fact that he's dead and can't defend himself. Think of me here as the philosophical equivalent of a lion cub playfully pouncing on mortally wounded prey.]

Bertrand Russell said of God and the afterlife,  “If it is true you should believe it, and if it isn’t, you shouldn’t. If you can’t find out whether it’s true or it isn’t, you should suspend judgment.” This seems like a reasonable posture on a purely intellectual level, until one considers a more practical illustration.

Let’s say you find yourself in a dark room. You have slightly less reason to believe there is a man-eating tiger in this room as not. One does not simply suspend judgment - at this point one acts based upon other interests. Sure, you might end up seeming a fool if it turns out there was no tiger, but when the stakes are as high as life and death, useful caution wins out over Occam’s Razor.

Russell rejects Pascal’s Wager (try Christianity on and see if it works for you) on the principle that "one ought to believe something because it is true and not because it is useful." This is absurd. You cannot refrain from dubiously founded actions in this (not merely theoretical) life. I’ll bet Bertrand Russell wouldn’t suspend judgment in the above scenario. “Live to postulate another day,” and all that...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Idle Hands

"Labors [are] valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good." - Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

Bertrand Russell was a brilliant man. If you can give this kind of writing your sustained attention, read the article linked above. His argument is insightful on a worldly level, but I wonder how much more robust and nuanced his view would be if he were committed to the Biblical assertion that man was created for royalty and not slavery. Russell divides work into two categories. The first is what the Bible calls toil: "altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter." I can attest that this is not what I feel I was made for, and yet it is often a necessary occupation of my life (though not nearly as much as my feudal ancestors'). On the other end of the spectrum, which Russell calls "the second kind," is the concept of lordship. This work is having dominion over lesser creatures with responsibility for their care. It is a kind of royalty. Adam's initial work was of this second kind, and part of the curse was his participation in the first.

Russell's intuition is that our praise of toil as a virtue is vestigial of a feudal mentality and ought to be abandoned in favor of a more civilized ethic. This is his argument: a) Idleness is more pleasurable than work. b) technology and philosophy are such now that hard work is less and less necessary for survival. c) therefore, we ought to reorganize our society so that we work less and play more.

Of course, his argument falls flat for me because of his a priori commitment to hedonism.  Unfortunately, if the chief end of man is merely to enjoy himself forever, then the system will always lean toward those with power, thus perpetuating the unsavory proportion of the few lords over the many workers. (Not to mention that I reject the hedonistic notion that all pleasure is qualitatively neutral and the only concern is to maximize its quantity and equity.) His intuition may be right, but his worldview is powerless to provide a sufficient argument to get him there.

If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, then toil may be a necessary means to His glorious ends. One of these ends is that we might be transformed with ever increasing glory into His royal image, having become lords of all creation who will enjoy God's Sabbath rest forever. (See the New Testament, particularly 2 Corinthians and Hebrews). I fear for those who would repeat the Babel Heresy by attempting to circumvent God's means to arrive at a cheap substitution for His ends. For now, we ought both to work and rest with equal vigor, knowing that the Day is near.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Marriage as a Means of Grace

The most beautiful thing about marriage, (and certainly the most important), is not that two people enjoy one another so much. That is sweet and is sometimes true, but making it the touchstone is actually the downfall of marriage [no citation needed]. The primary reality (ontology) of marriage is that is that male and female enter into, faithfully mimic, and and are therefore shaped by participation in an integral part of God's life. He has made covenant with a Bride, which frames his interactions with her and everyone else for the rest of their lives. When we do likewise we are beholding, in a prolonged and intimate sense, the glory of God from the inside. 2 Corinthians says that this kind of activity, (in whatever form), is powerful to restore the image of God to humanity. Our religious symbolic gestures are not merely shadowy reminders of a higher, disembodied spiritual reality (I'm looking at you, Greeks). They are deep entrance into and participation with the kinds of embodied activities that remind us how to live and move and have our being in Him and on earth. That's not just supernatural; it is preternatural. It's sacramental.