Saturday, January 30, 2010

Quest for Fire

Rule #1: You do not talk about Pipe Club.

Rule #2: You DO NOT TALK about Pipe Club!

Rule #3: If you absolutely love Pipe Club... you have to write. (The last one is self-imposed).

The Pipe Club at Holy Trinity has a mysterious and elusive "inner circle" comprised of "charter members" of the Pipe Club. It has never been explained what the benefits are to being a "charter member" other than the obvious bragging rights. Nevertheless, such is the status of charter members that those who are not "charter members" seek how they might become one. Unlike most clubs wherein the status of "charter member" is bestowed only upon those present since its inception, the Pipe Club is much more inclusive, with the charter members willing to receive into their ranks a candidate that has offered an acceptable bribe.

Among the grand tails carried on and recounted by the old fellows, stories of past bribes hold the importance of tribal mythology. It was suggested once that these be collected in a written anthology, so that they might be remembered accurately. This, however, was quickly dismissed as a misunderstanding of oral tradition in primitive cultures. Indeed, each time the charter member spins the proverbial yarn, how they presently tell it is as important as the kernel of history behind what is told. The hearer is not to so much be curious about what "actually happened" as they are to be enthralled by how the "elder tribesman" recounts it now. For this reason, last night's "bribe" will undoubtedly find its place in the canons of charter membership lore - the event swelling in grandeur upon each subsequent telling.

On this occasion, the "bribe" was an outdoor, portable fire pit. While it had the pragmatic benefit of warming those scooted up close (temperatures had dropped considerably last night), its value was far greater than could be detected by outstretched hands. It had the effect of gathering men into one circle than normally might stand around in several. We sat facing one another, the dancing flames illuminating the wide eyes and full smiles. One man thoughtfully nurses his "Manhattan," considering the words of the peer to his right, while another man throws his head back in boisterous laughter due to the joke told across from him. This indeed was a good "bribe," and the one that brought it was inducted by unanimous agreement of the charter members present.

Consider how much deeper meanings of the oft misunderstood term "fellowship" are on display when encircled around the open flames. Is it merely the heat on a cold night that draws the men into such a tight ring around the fire pit? Can the temperature alone account for the shoulder to shoulder dialogue, the raised glasses and nods in agreement? I question whether the need to warm up can solely explain why the fire pit became the center point of the gathering.

As the flames perform their hypnotic "dance," the men gather around to pay homage. Mesmerized by the beauty of it (and perhaps aided only slightly by our drinks), the stories spill forth with manly exuberance. There is something ancient, primal and attractive about the fire. People groups of all times and places have found it a center piece of community. From the prehistoric hunter-gatherer to the Texas Aggie (No, Longhorns. Don't even say it! They are not the same), there is a drive, a quest, to build the fire that gathers the tribe, the fraternity, the community. The medieval bardic fires share common dynamics with the fire pits of the camp retreat. Such fires are lit even on hot summer nights when the heat is not necessary. The light attracts. Its "dance" hypnotizes.

Consider the roles of fire in biblical literature. Yahweh calls Moses to hear from him as he speaks from a burning bush. The Lord later will call the Hebrews to follow him around the wilderness while appearing as fire. Fire is his response to decisively settle the issue on Mt. Carmel. Fire consumes the sacrifices offered in worship. It's departure signals to the Israelites that the Lord has "left the building." It's return over the heads of the Apostles sends the corresponding signal of his return to them. Rightly do we adorn the church with red cloths, and our clergy with red vestments to celebrate matters pertaining to the obvious work of the Spirit. Fire is a motif so frequently used by God to perform his work to, for and among people, we are left with the reasonable conclusion: fire is spiritual.

Whether it activates something mystical in the human spirit, or it conducts some mysterious work of God's Spirit, fire is spiritual. For this reason and more, the "bride" offered to the Pipe Club this time was deemed "worthy." In our quest to capture and celebrate all things so inexplicably masculine, fire was good - fire was our friend. It was a gift that will reap untold future benefits as the men gather around the dancing flames to relate in elemental fashion once more.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Speaking about Groups

Among the worst instincts that can be observed in our society is the habit of speaking about people through artificially constructed group designations. In order to mask the intellectual laziness inherent in one's broad sweeping statements about society, arbitrary demographic categories or occupation groupings must be used in rhetoric. Seldom does this advance more understanding among people. Instead it has the unintended (and at times even intended) consequence of pitting people against people so that the ensuing discontent will serve to the speaker's benefit. It is a sinister practice of the pseudo-intellectual attempting to persuade the unreflective to their cause.

There are many ways this is seen in present society. Whenever I am conversing with someone and they say that "African-Americans feel that....," or that "Hispanic-Americans think this way....," or that "White-Americans assume that...." My instinct is to ask them, "really? You know someone who thinks/feels/assumes that, and they told this is so because of their group?" The assumption is that what can be said about the group will correspondingly be true about anyone who appears to fit into that group. Supposedly, this practice of speaking about groups can be used to better facilitate understanding among groups, combating ignorance and hate historic felt between groups. At this time it therefore seems honest for me to confess that...

I hate this practice of speaking about groups.

Some may think that this practice can be used to reverse the effects and legacy of racism. On the contrary though, by borrowing this rhetorical practice from classic racism it instead perpetuates the same only with different labels. Take, for example, the practice of speaking about people that would identify themselves in the African-American demographic on a census. It is a horrific reality that some in history have pre-judged such people in negative ways simply because of skin color. An entire set of uncomplimentary assumptions were entertained of people whose skin color, cultural history and expressive habits differed from the one talking about "those black people." This was an evil that was more abundant in America years ago than it is now, but still can be found if one looks hard enough.

But consider the other side of that same coin...

If someone tells me something complimentary about "African-Americans," or something informative meant to help facilitate my understanding so that I will appreciate "the African-American experience," though the intentions might be considered less sinister, they nonetheless perpetuate the myth of knowing anything about a person by means of the group I have decided they fit into. Suppose that I read a book that expounds the historical-cultural experience of African-Americans in 1960's Mississippi. Am I to also assume that the next person I speak to that shares that common pigment also shares in that experience? To what extent should I think I "know about" someone simply because I have read about their "group?" Is this not also a racist practice? Can it be labeled any less racist simply because my intentions seem less sinister that the Klan member who also claims to "know about black people?"

I once had a shocking experience at seminary. The "adviser to African-American students" told me in a conversation (after I objected to the notion of thinking we "know about" people without actually getting to know them), "...but I DO know you. I know all about you." When I countered, "How can you say that?" He asserted, "Because the race in power is always easier to know than the race out of power." I was shocked, and dismayed. That such racism can be entertained at a theological graduate school was disconcerting, to say the least. Is racism made any less destructive simply by shifting the categories? I say, "no." The practice of judging groups, and assuming that any given person fits in that "group" by mere virtue of skin color or accent, is a scourge of society and a symptom of universal depravity. I experienced it at seminary, just as others who look different from me have experienced it in history as well.

Yet this practice of judging by the group is not restricted merely to racism. "Class-ism" also is used as a political tool to pit Americans against one another as well. The groupings are not racial as much as they are vocational. Consumers are pitted against producers. Bank customers are pitted against bank executives. Health care patients pitted against health care providers. Workers against employers. The discontent created by pitting this group against that group is an old tactic that the swarthy politician can exploit for acquiring power. Historically, this method of "surfing the wave" of social angst has been skillfully executed by many a fearful despot. How alarming it is to witness our current President wield this weapon with the precision of a "statist" samurai. I sit with mouth agape at his recent speeches in which demonized "groups" are targeted as the enemy of other "groups" to which he seeks to appeal (bankers, insurance companies, etc.). Are these industries not populated by Americans as well? Are we to believe that all who work among these "groups" deserve the criticism spouted by the President?

"Statism" (a catch-all term coined by Mark Levin in his recent work Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto meant to include socialism, communism, fascism, etc.), has seen many figures throughout history rise to power by means of pitting one "group" of society against another, and offering themselves as the solution. "This group is to blame for your troubles" (so goes the speech), "and I will fight that group for you." The problems come when one actually knows someone within that group that does not fit the description. After all, it's much easier to judge by the group than to think of the individuals within said "group," or better still to know someone within that group through relationships and conversation. Nevertheless, capitalizing on such intellectual laziness is a powerful exercise, and very tempting to employ.

My hope is that such vacuous tripe spewed in our society will be eclipsed by more thoughtful voices that account for individuals, and speak less about groups. Neat categories of racial, vocational or religious groupings cannot begin to account for the immense diversity to be found at every turn. Skin color is absolutely the least I can know about a person. For that matter, other group labels are hardly more helpful. It's disappointing to witness our elected officials traffic in these labels so fluently, but at least I can teach my children correctly, and realize that each individual person is someone I should purpose to know nothing about until they reveal their character by word and deed.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Send Them Out to Play



I lament with a grieving sigh the number of sports that children seemingly can no longer simply go outside and play. Sparsely found throughout neighborhoods are the sandlots of yesteryear wherein easy baseball games could spontaneously be organized among friends. Growing up, my own neighborhood had a vacant lot where bike jumps could be constructed. Caked in mud, my friends and I would return from the track with the satisfaction written on our face of having worked hard at our fun.

Many more stories could emerge from my childhood regarding "the jungle" just upstream from our home on the Sacramento River. Because of the varying seasonal flow levels for the river, there was a significant swath of land upstream from our home, yet downstream from the Cypress Street bridge, that could never be developed. The Sacramento River flooded this area annually, if not more often. The vegetation overgrowth, the lack of development, the stagnant bogs, bamboo and vines all made it seem like a far away "jungle." How many epic adventures this "jungle" facilitated cannot be counted.

Taking turns being Rambo, G.I. Joe, Chuck Norris* or Indiana Jones, our imaginations flourished with perceived dangers around every tree (I know I listed Chuck Norris among a catalog of mythological characters, but none who know young boys or has been one would reasonably object). Even when a long cherished vacant lot across from my home finally saw a house built on it, other "uncharted territories" abounded. At the end of the street remained a low depression that simply could never be built on. Therefore, the tree in its center stood unmolested throughout my childhood. It's majestic branches housed the finest of tree forts. Nearby a mythic mound of blackberry vines ominously overshadowed the ditch's base. Only the bravest dared to attempt paving a tunnel to its center with clippers and machete. Six Flags is for sissies. We were real men.

It's not that girls weren't allowed. It's just that women's lib goes only so far. At 12 years old they may want equal rights to the stereo and the phone, but they draw the line at blackberry vine thorns, murky swamp water, and the glistening sheen of adolescent male sweat conjured through an honest day's work constructing the world's greatest hideout. With hammer, saw and nails in hand, we marched down to "The Tree" to craft the ever more grand fortress. The steps were secure and the platform was high enough to boast a commanding view of the cul de sac. From this vantage point, one could easily knock a Pepsi can off the nearest mailbox with your BB gun (who didn't have one?).

These were the battlefields of countless acorn wars, fearless knights repelling the barbarian hordes and races through foliage without concern for being struck by whipping vines (besides... chicks dig scars anyway). My parents paid little mind to the dangers inherent in our activities unless a neighbor complained (we all feared the disapproval of our fathers regarding our exploits - that kept it within reason), or unless someone was actually injured.*

*As an aside, it must be mentioned that the term "injury" is relative. Scraped knees, falling hard on the ground or lacerations that draw blood can only be called "injuries" if they interrupt play. Otherwise, you play through it. "Oh man! My mom's gonna be mad. That's the second pair of pants I've ruined this week." For the most part, mom is appreciated for slapping the band aid on so we can get back at it.

What happened to the "the jungle" though? Where's "The Tree?" Where's the bike track that I wiped out so bad on that I laid in the mud for an entire 73 seconds to make sure I was fine?

Now it seems parents are so careful, so scared, so concerned over the safety of every little activity. How miraculous that any children survived toddler stages prior to the age of padding up every corner in the house. Instead of encouraging children to simply get out of the house and play to the hilt, money must be raised to afford the sports league with its list of expenses. Xbox and Wii in the living room are replacing the dirt and danger of the vacant lot. This is a lamentable trend that, in my opinion, is weakening our children as surely as junk food is tied to the national issues of obesity found everywhere in the news. Kids don't need a video game control as much as they need a hammer. They don't need a mouse as much as they walking stick. The joystick for the couch is more dangerous than the hockey stick for the street. For the cost of most video games, parents could well supply kids to get outside and work up a sweat.

"Send them out to play," I say. That computer game, Wii, Xbox, or playstation is like junk food - an occasional delicacy that can ruin their health if not heavily regulated. Kick them off the couch and out of the house. It won't kill them. On the contrary, they might just live life more to the full.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

What do you Mean when you Say, "Equal?"

My recent examination of issues related to women performing combat ops in the U.S. military was actually part of a much broader subject of how one views the sexes, and what the differences between them means for society. Certainly no one denies there to be any difference between men and women. At the very least, physiological differences are acknowledged, even if no others are admitted. However, in conversing over the implications of differences beyond mere anatomical features, some terms must be agreed upon in order to advance the dialogue. The following is an explanation of the terms I have found helpful for discussing the subject:

Egalitarianism - This view holds that the sexes are equal in value, and that this equality has rendered further differences (beyond mere physiological features) to be largely irrelevant. Functions of domestic and societal roles are by and large culturally conditioned. This translates into a functional interchangeability between the sexes as it relates to responsibilities in the home and in society. Domestic roles or occupations outside the home can be pursued by either sex, for there is no rationale by which any role would be considered out of reach, or inappropriate for one or the other. Leadership in the home is the realm of either sex, or it can be shared between the spouses. The egalitarian view would not find a legitimate reason for assigning leadership responsibility to the mother or the father. Equality has rendered traditional roles archaic. Tradition is viewed with suspicion because of the manner in which one sex has unfairly dominated the other in history. Societal evolution and modern enlightenment requires that people progress beyond such paradigms of "inequality." This can be summarized as undifferentiated equality - no different roles for the sexes in home or society can be legitimately entertained because of the equality of the sexes.

Some examples of how this outlook toward humanity has been applied are roles of leadership in church, the home or even military service. The traditional domination of some societal or domestic functions by men is viewed as the unenlightened inequities of yesteryear. In Christian circles, this is seen as the trajectory of biblical ethics made evident by the Apostle Paul's assertion: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female–for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" - Gal 3:28. Egalitarianism is often applied to traditional roles of authority, but is demonstrated also in the proliferation of woman in other roles traditionally reserved for men because of their particular demands (i.e. police, firefighter, military, etc.).

Complimentarianism - This view holds that the sexes are indeed equal in value, but that the differences between them are significant for understanding created purpose. The differences between the sexes "compliment" each other to complete the whole picture and potential of humanity. The differences are not seen as impediments to equality, but instead are to be celebrated in the quest to fulfill the unique benefits of manhood and womanhood in the home and society at large. Men, fulfilling roles seeming to have been particularly assigned to them by creation and history, also champion the necessity and value of women doing likewise. The rationale for these particular roles are taken from both religious texts and historical precedent, but by no means retards the mutual admiration the sexes have for one another. Men fulfill responsibilities that seem "delegated" them to by God, soberly considering the weightiness of these functions, while admiring the particular and vital functions "delegated" to women that they are uniquely gifted to perform. In this manner, neither sex desires to be the other, for they extol the necessity of the opposite sex while embracing the functions of their own. Therefore, this view can be summarized as differentiated equality - the different roles "assigned" to both sexes are equally valuable precisely because of the equality of both sexes.

Some examples of this are in those roles that traditionally have found both men and woman dominant in them (religiously, domestically, socially, culturally, etc.). The folly has been in the slow devaluing of female-dominant roles, forcing woman to seek male-dominant roles to feel equal. The specific applications of the complimentarian model is tricky, for the Bible seemingly addresses differentiated equality primarily with regard to spiritual leadership in the community of faith (be it a home or a church). For this reason complimentarians see the role of spiritual leadership falling normatively upon men (as a burden of service more than a privilege), meaning that among the unchanging qualifications of a pastor are that they be male (ironically, while complimentarians see the role of pastor falling only to men, they have no problem with women performing the comparatively secular roles of President of the United States or British Prime Minister).

Chauvinism - This view is seldom admitted to because so few circles can be found in which it is socially acceptable in western culture. Rare is the man (if they can be found at all) that will confess their chauvinism outright. Instead they will simply speak as though women are inferior in various and sundry ways, that their influence has weakened society and that their contribution is negligible compared to the troubles associated with accommodating them. To this brand of male, women are necessary for sexual gratification and the bearing of children (oh, and throw in some domestic duties for good measure), but little else. They truly do not find women to be of "equal" value to men, but instead see women as functional necessities that must be managed by masculine power. Differentiated inequality best describes this position. To imagine women barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen is a little impractical; since without at least some comfortable shoes to protect her feet, her life of service to him could be interrupted by injury.

Feminism - This view has common ground with chauvinism in that it also holds the opposite sex to be inferior. The ills perpetrated on human history and current society are entirely attributable to male abuse. For this reason, men are seen as a necessary evil for conceiving children, but it would be preferable for medical technology to find an alternative to the traditional method of egg fertilization. Women are superior in their capacity for virtue, with men being more prone to vice. Their macro analysis of the culture finds that man must be progressively marginalized for society to evolve. For this reason women not only can perform all roles traditionally assigned to men, but can most assuredly execute them better. No difference in role is considered because all roles are better filled by women than men. For this reason, feminism is the view of undifferentiated inequality.

Ironically, the feminist would acknowledge there exists roles that only women can perform, but would not acknowledge the existence of any roles that only men can perform. Mothers are absolutely necessary for child rearing, but fathers are an unnecessary luxury. A woman in political leadership can supposedly relate to all people, but a man in the same position is said to be unable to relate to women. A woman who preaches supposedly reaches a broad audience, but the male preacher is said to easily alienate the women in attendance.

These four views fall on a continuum (borrowing common terms of "right" and "left" to connote socially conservative and liberal trends respectively (click to view larger image):

Along this line chauvinism falls to the "far right," while feminism lands on the "far left." The middle ground is occupied by complimentarianism and egalitarianism in that they share the assertion of equality between the sexes. The continuum is necessary not only for the sake of a visual aid, but also because clear lines of demarcation separating these categories can be very difficult to discern.

Some that are called "feminists" are actually egalitarians. They are desirous of equal rights for women to vote, receive promotions based on their merits and achieve unfettered success in the areas they pursue, but do not actually view men as inferior to women. For this reason, many men are egalitarians that mistakenly call themselves "feminists." They believe in undifferentiated equality, and champion women participating in any role they choose, regardless of how historical traditions have addressed a particular issue.

To confuse the matter further, many complimentarians are accused of being "chauvinists." Because the egalitarian (to say nothing of the feminist) cannot accept a category of differentiated equality, the complimentarian's assertion that the sexes can be both equal and designed to fulfill different roles is seen at best as nonsense, and at worst as promoting inequality. To counter this the complimentarian strongly asserts differentiation, which sounds like chauvinism to those "left" of the center. However, the complimentarian understands that there still exists those to the right of them on the continuum. Real chauvinists still populate some religious and secular circles alike. They can be detected in church, in seminary or in any other gathering where they feel safe to share their true feelings about women. Knowing that chauvinists both believe in the inferiority of women and make life much more difficult for them, complimentarians bristle at their continued existence. Seeing the equality (albeit differentiated) of women as a cause worth fighting for, complimentarian men challenge chauvinists' perceptions and seek to limit the damage they can cause.

Parenthetically, the men of my church are complimentarian in that they appear to champion differentiated roles for the sexes, but will not countenance a chauvinist. Never has a single critical word been spoken at The Pipe Club concerning wives, for indeed it seems likely that the men present to hear it would, rightly indignant, set upon the erring brother with strong rebukes for his folly. Such reactions were observable from seminary professors who often so strongly asserted the value of the feminine influence in the Church that they seemed almost egalitarian to me. When I asked them if they were, their response was, "No. I'm complimentarian in my outlook of humanity. I'm just reacting to the chauvinist jerks that still seem to slither into this school now and then."

As a complimentarian, I'm not above personalizing the issue, seeing egalitarianism as devaluing roles that my wife (as a woman) is uniquely designed to perform, and chauvinism as devaluing her altogether. The egalitarian, I simply want to help gently correct their folly. The chauvinist, I'd like to correct not quite as gently.

Theologically, chauvinism and feminism share a common heresy: the belief in concentrated depravity. The effects of the great fall of humankind are universal. No one is exempt from the need for a Savior and to be redeemed from the effects and consequences of sin. The depravity of man touches all and influences all: this is the classic doctrine of "universal depravity." No one is more or less in need of saving than anyone else. We're all crooked deep down. The chauvinist sees the female as experiencing more of "the Fall's" degenerative effects. Consequently, they see the world as better managed when the negative influence of women is marginalized. Likewise, the feminist views the male similarly. Both see depravity as more "concentrated" in the opposite sex than in their own. This is also the root of racism: the intuitive assumption that the depravity of man is more concentrated in another race than in one's own.

Dismissing chauvinism and feminism for the gross errors that they are, a civil conversation should ensue between the remaining categories since both egalitarians and complimentarians agree on the equality of the sexes. Where they diverge is whether the differences inherent in those sexes translate into differentiated roles for certain spheres of responsibility in society. Will the egalitarian believe that the complimentarian they're conversing with is NOT a chauvinist simply for asserting differentiated roles? Will the complimentarian extend the courtesy to the egalitarian they're talking to NOT to assume that they're a rabid feminist simply because they desire undifferentiated roles? Civility is a prized condition for these conversations. If we could agree on some terms with which to have the conversation, that might go far in achieving a dialogue beneficial to all.

In the meantime, it is truly difficult to know what someone means when they say they strive for "equality." The feminist says they desire "equality" for women, but in truth likely sees the superiority of women far better (since men are indeed inherently inferior). The chauvinist speaks of "equality" for women in that they should also be allowed basic human services (the servant to the male must be kept fully functional after all). The egalitarian calls for "equality" between the sexes, confusing value and function, and desiring interchangeability between them (since some roles seem more important that others, denying a woman any of the more "important" roles is to perpetuate inequality). The complimentarian, however, sees "equality" of value among diverse functions (both mothers and fathers are equally necessary in their unique roles), and roles that seem gender specific are to be celebrated for demonstrating the necessity of either sex... This is the way the world best works.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Band of Sisters

During a recent visit to a local bookstore, a book title caught my eye. It was entitled "Band of Sisters," and was an expose' of women in combat, fighting the war in Iraq. My thoughts immediately went to the debate of yesteryear that wrestled with the notion of my country willingly sending women into combat roles, and wondered what occasion marked the end of that debate. The idea of military women in combat roles seems such a given now as to seemingly leave any arguments against it as archaic as the phonograph. The subject is not merely women serving in the military, for indeed World War II saw many non-combat support roles flawlessly executed by patriotic women. The subject in question is regarding sending women into combat duties, where it is their job to both face potential death and destruction from the enemy and to deliver it to the enemy.

(I realize that by offering the following opinion, I risk alienating myself from friends that hold a more egalitarian view. Hopefully, they will not judge me too harshly for my position.)

It is unfortunate that the debate has seemingly ended, for I consider the practice of assigning combat roles to women among the more immoral acts of current military policy for the United States. Certainly this is strong language, but I do not offer it as hyperbole-for-effect.

Many have sought to argue for and against women in combat based on various foundations. Some have argued for or against based on "capability" grounds. Those "for" argue that women are just as capable as men are in performing the various demands of combat ops. The examples range from a woman's ability (just like a man would) to press missile launch buttons to Demi Moore's depiction of a woman qualifying to serve on a Navy SEAL team in the 1997 film "G.I. Jane." Those "against" argue the sustained physical demands on soldiers and Marines in the combat theater of operations, suggesting that men and woman differ in average strength and endurance for such circumstances. One gives examples to support their position, but then is countered by examples to the contrary.

A similar "back and forth" occurs with the "morale" arguments, debating as to whether co-ed units, squadrons or ships enjoy the necessary combat readiness that they should when also dealing with inter-sex dynamics in close quarters. Examples are offered both "for" and "against" to support the case. Some suggest that combat readiness is compromised because these co-ed dynamics intrude, while others counter (understandably) that military professionalism and discipline can render supposed intrusive inter-sex dynamics irrelevant.

Other categories include the folly of elevating diversity over excellence as a driving value in recruitment (recent articles in Proceedings showcase this discussion), as well as the influencing physiology of the soldier being a factor (pregnancy, menstruation, etc.). Some of the issues make good cases, but ultimately are susceptible to the quagmire of competing examples. Instead of engaging one of these, I choose instead to approach the issue from a position of "aesthetics."

This would seem a strange foundation upon which to argue the traditional normative role of men as voluntary warriors, with the exception being women fighting to defend their homes. Nevertheless, I am persuaded that a sense of creation aesthetics will peer back into history and find that differentiation between the normative and exceptional roles regarding combat duties find the U.S. military's policy to be a stranger invention still. The "aesthetic" argument is that war is "hell"... it is ugly (in its grandest sense). It involves the destruction of an enemy's machinery and personnel until they are persuaded not to fight anymore. For all the virtues that might be perceivable or displayed during battle (i.e. valor, courage, leadership, wisdom, compassion, sacrifice, duty, camaraderie, etc.), the occurrence of war (even when necessary) is ultimately a tragic byproduct of human depravity, the extinction of which is part of the Christan's hope in Christ.

It's ugly because of what it does to the human body.
It's ugly because of what it does to human society.
It's ugly because of what it does to the human conscience.
It's ugly because of what it does to human relationships.
It's ugly because of what it does to the human soul.

By way of contrast, there is great beauty woven throughout God's creation that must be cultivated and championed. Physical appearance is but a sliver of the beauty created by God to reflect his glory throughout all things. Rightly do we see the majestic mountains, the vast plains, the blue oceans or lush forest and gasp, "That's beautiful." However, beauty is also expressed in human relations through gentleness, redemption, forgiveness, joy, love, understanding and service. Beauty is the subtle difference between a house and a home. It's detectable when a child goes to sleep content and loved. It's evident when restraint prevails over rage. It can be "felt" when "all seems right with the world" in the presence of a love one. It communicates the way things ought to be. Being created by God, we intuitively know when something is beautiful and displays a thing the way God created it to be - uncorrupted and glorious.

Antithetically, war is ugly. Therefore, those that prosecute it long to escape it and return to something (anything) beautiful. Historically (both in world and biblical history), "warriors" have been those skilled in prosecuting the ugliness of battle, allowing others to remain behind and preserve the place of beauty. Normatively, these two complimentary responsibilities have been divided along gender lines. Although some men have perversely reveled in war, enjoying its carnage and mayhem, others have legitimately seen it as a necessary service that must be performed and then set aside when completed. The "warrior" goes off/away/afar to war so that others will not have to. As it has been normatively a male role, the men fight so that the women do not have to debase themselves with this bloody, gross and ugly chore. Indeed women such as Deborah and Jael (Judges 4) are seen as the exception made necessary when too few men would fulfill their duty. Indeed it is ugly when the caretakers of those things beautiful in society must leave those responsibilities to make up for a shortage of servants in the field.

But our society does not see it this way. Instead of war being the ugly obligation for which men must become warriors for a time, it is seen as the repository of glories that should not be denied women seeking to assert equal value in society. For the women to maintain the place of beauty to which the men might return after the ugliness of war has ended is seen as oppressing them from enjoying equality. Such has been the madness of devaluing all things traditionally feminine in our society that those tasked with preserving beauty in the world desire to live the same ugly existence as the warrior.

Where is the revulsion traditionally seen when an aggressor has so overrun the defenses of a "fort" that even the women inside must defend themselves? Is there not a wrongness inherent in the guardians of beauty having to soil themselves with the ugliness of battle? Where is the outrage historically conjured when the enemy engages not only the soldiers, but "the women and children too?" Our culture appears to be devolving into one which would instead exclaim, "they attacked the children, but the women should have taken care of it. They're equal after all."

The quest for equality has taken on a foolish pursuit for indistinctness. Supposing that to be equal means to be interchangeable, societal engineers have so devalued those responsibilities tasked to women, that many women now seek responsibilities tasked to men in order to feel valuable. The idea of women as voluntary warriors deviates from centuries of western (and even biblical) history, and represents an immoral devaluing of the beauty that warriors should seek to return to.

I hear the arguments about women being just as capable as men to fight wars, but I have never thought this was a capability issue. I know that one can always find women just as capable of warfighting as any man. In addition, I've heard the "morale" issue raised, knowing that this can be overcome with military discipline and training. The physiology issue can be addressed easily enough in the logistics of personnel needs as well. For me, this has always been a moral issue. Since creation women have (not exclusively, but more than men do) carried the mantle of God's beauty, tasked with reflecting it in their own person, as well as in everything they influence in the home and in society. That our country encourages them to enter the ugliness of war demonstrates two great tragedies: (1) preserving home and culture is now considered "beneath" these women, and (2) their presence in the battlefield might have been made necessary because too few men are willing to fulfill their responsibility as warriors.

I apologize to my egalitarian friends (particularly those women who have already succumbed to the folly of assuming equal value means interchangeable duty) that are offended by my position. My desire is not to slight you personally, but my conviction is that war is an ugliness men should not impose upon women given the chance to spare them of its horrors. To think nothing of bringing women into the ranks of warriors, creating a "band of sisters," is an immoral affront to millenia of both male and female responsibilities regarding war and peace. Let women fully embrace their power to cultivate the beauty of God in the home, in the workplace, in culture and society as a whole, and let men fulfill their responsibility to prosecute war in such a way that its ugliness does not overcome the beauty that must come after.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

One-upmanship


"Anything you can do,

I can do better.
I can do anything

Better than you.
"

I have recently become rather sensitive to a phenomenon of interpersonal interaction that to me now appears so rampant as to demand why it has taken until now for me to become so repulsed by it. As a result, I'm concerned that I might have frequently committed this faux pas without realizing it. It is the practice of offering, unsolicited, an "I'll do you one better" response to just about any comment. Seriously, we humans are so depraved that we instinctively want to add to anyone's news of achievement with "I do more," or "I know someone who does more."

Consider all the ways this type of response gets fit into a conversation:

Comment: "I ran a mile this morning."
Response: "My friend runs three miles every morning."

Comment: "I was glad to complete college."
Response: "I got a 4.0 all through college."

Comment: "My car is pleasant to drive."
Response: "My car blows all others away."

Comment: "I'm glad my children are learning so much."
Response: "My child is an honor student."

Comment: "Our church has about 50 people."
Response: "Our church has 1,000 people."

Comment: "We watch some sports at home on TV."
Response: "The game looked great on our 30 inch, plasma screen in HD."

Comment: "I completed my M.Div at seminary ABC."
Response: "I earned my Th.M. at seminary XYZ."

Comment: "I feel great after losing a little weight."
Response: "I look great after losing more weight."

Comment: "I was glad I found a suitable outfit at WalMart."
Response: "I just went shopping at Saks."

The list could go on and on. I shutter to think how often I have unthinkingly responded with an intuitive one-upmanship without considering the unkind comparisons I was constructing. Before I go trying to help my acquaintances or relatives extract this "sliver" from their eye, I had better make sure I've addressed this "log" in my own eye.

Considering how carnal our comparisons often are, it is no wonder that such responses remain continuing evidence that I'm crooked deep down ("Everyone is crooked deep down" - Derek Webb). Far better would be to respond to others' news with joyful affirmations, such as:

Comment: "I ran a mile this morning."
Response: "Good for you. That's so important for your health."

Comment: "My car is pleasant to drive."
Response: "I imagine that must make your commutes better."

Comment: "I'm glad my children are learning so much."
Response: "They must have good teachers."

Comment: "Our church has about 50 people."
Response: "It must be nice that they all know each other."

Comment: "I feel great after losing a little weight."
Response: "And you look great too."

It is for the sake of manners that I hope to uplift people more this year, and shed the one-upmanship that I so often must spew forth. You have good news? I don't need to "do you one better." I can instead be happy for you in your joy.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

They Can't Help Themselves

Having seen the new James Cameron movie "Avatar" this weekend, I'm left with mixed reactions to this cinematic spectacle. At the very least, I was extremely impressed with the artistic achievements represented in the piece. We paid the extra money to get 3D glasses and have the most awe inspiring experience we could. Certainly there was little about the film that did not deserve numerous and varied accolades for the animation, the imagined world of "Pandora," and the combination thereof. The fantastical creatures, landscapes and vegetation left the viewer amazed with wide-eyed surprise.

However, it is not the special effects or artistry of "Avatar" that deserves the greatest consideration, but its broad themes and story elements. Upon first examination, the film appears very much as a well produced, and skillfully stylized work of propaganda for the present day earth-worshiping, anti-military segments of western society. Several story elements convey these "liberal agenda" items:
  • Pantheism - the film depicted a world in which all of the flora and fauna of "Pandora" comprised the god of the Na'vi. So interconnected were the trees, plants and parts of nature in this world as to achieve sentience at a level greater than the human mind. To this end, all of the natural order comprises the god "Eywa," a personal deity to which the main character even prays and has his prayer "answered." While it would be preferable to grant this story the "immunity of fantasy," excusing this theme as mythological license, the film denies itself this luxury by seeking to incorporate our reality into it. Indeed the main character is from Earth of the future, and prays to Eywa, "They have already killed their mother [Earth], and now they seek to do the same here."
  • Anti-Military - the military personnel, command structure and machinery in "Avatar" are depicted as having one function: empower and protect an expansionist-industrial complex. A mammoth company desiring to mine a ground mineral are enabled to simply take what they want from the Na'vi and Pandora by the "hired guns." It would be nice to imagine that this story is depicting this rather sinister use of military force as isolated and anomalous; yet this is an accurate depiction of how the modern liberal sees all military. They cannot countenance a potentially noble use for military in an "evolved" society. Though the phrase "no blood for oil" was never used in the film, concepts of a preemptive strike and fighting "terror with terror" smack a heavy-handed reminder of evils that the filmmaker perceives the industrialized nations (and the U.S. specifically) as guilty of.
  • The Noble Savage - the modern liberal maintains an anthropology that suggests all the ills and evils that have befallen peaceful, self-sufficient and primitive people groups were introduced from industrialized, expansionist imperialism. People were fine, so goes the logic, before we came along. No argument against this anthropological view should posit that introduction of the West into native populaces were trouble free. However, it is shortsighted to imagine than the imperfections of humankind are found only in the West, which are then exported. We're all crooked deep down.
For these reasons, "Avatar" appeared pathetic and insulting at several moments. So blatant were the agenda laden elements that it seemed to convey the values of the modern liberal with comparable sermonic obviousness to how "The Passion of the Christ" sought to tell Christian message. As a propaganda piece, it was both skillfully executed and crafted with excellence.

Having said that, there were other aspects of "Avatar" that stand out (though it is doubtful James Cameron intended them). It is doubtful Cameron intended these because the 2007 Discovery Channel documentary he produced "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" sought to disprove the biblical depiction of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is safe to assume that James Cameron would not intend to tell aspects of the Christian story. Nevertheless, because he is created by the one God who is, he cannot help but tell aspects of God's favorite story. Human beings are a curious lot, given over to depraved imaginations that debase ourselves and reveal our long war against our Creator. On the other hand, that same Creator gets "the last laugh" in how we cannot help ourselves but to tell echoes, shadows and allusions to His story of redemption through our art. For those "with eyes to see and ears to hear," evidence of this is on display everywhere.

In the case of "Avatar," some curious elements stand out:
(Allowing very general allusions in art is healthy, but analogies must not be pushed to far).

The Incarnational Messiah - the main character is sent from outside of the native people to become one of them. Having fully taken on their customs, their hunting skills, their method of bonding with creatures and nature, indeed even taken their "flesh" upon himself, he is the ideal figure to gain their trust. When his intermediary role is misunderstood and judged to be treacherous, he is despised and rejected, and stung up on a pole. Nevertheless, to regain their trust and accomplish their deliverance he must become what they expect of a "messiah," riding the largest predator of the sky and uniting the tribes of Pandora. The "sign" that the Pandora deity has "selected" the newcomer for a special purpose is the way that the illuminated "seeds" flutter and come to rest on him, almost like a dove might. The irony is that the viewer can be fairly confident that James Cameron is NOT attempting to tell a story that glaringly alludes to Jesus Christ.

If anything, the modern liberal should be offended that Cameron would, in a brazen display of ethnocentrism, select a Marine from Earth (an American no less!) as the "One" who must rescue the Na'vi. Why could not a "savior" have risen up from among their own ranks? What message does THAT send that these 'noble savages" were seemingly unable to save themselves? Why especially must an outsider become "incarnate" with the Na'vi in order for their deliverance to be accomplished?

The analogy must not be pressed to far, but secondary elements also emerge. The "teacher" who instructs Na'vi children and comes alongside Jack Sully to motivate him to "incarnate" into the Na'vi is Dr. Grace Augustine (I swear I'm not making this up. Cameron named the "paraclete" who comes alongside the "messiah" figure in his journey to become the savior of the Na'vi, "Grace."). Those of us with an Augustinian anthropology will also see a wink to humankind's helplessness and need for salvation. While the evil, corrupt industrial invasion can be viewed as sin entering Paradise in Genesis, such an analogy would point more toward Egyptian mythology (that sees sin entering the world because of a conflict between gods more than a fault of man). Therefore, such a connection does not hold up as well.

Nevertheless, the helpless Na'vi need an outsider to become one of them to save them from the invasion of something foreign to their paradise. Such a broad theme smacks of the Christian message with surprising clarity. With our tongues planted firmly in our cheeks, those that have eyes to see and ears to hear smile our knowing smirks as we witness James Cameron borrow elements from the only story worth telling to tell his story. Arguing authorial intent paradigms here would be irrelevant, for clearly Cameron is not intending to tell a story that points to Jesus Christ. They can't help themselves though. It's woven into our creation. We cannot help but display the glory of God, in some way, even when we do not intend to at all.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Resolutions

This year I resolve to:

  • speak less regarding things I don't know about.
  • hold my tongue regarding things I do.
  • argue with fewer people.
  • praise more people (even where they're not present).
  • learn more than I had to in seminary.
  • share more of my resources than is comfortable.
  • encourage people who need it.
  • value people who seemingly don't deserve it.
  • show patience when I'm in a hurry.
  • plan more in order to hurry less.
  • exercise my body for frequently.
  • exercise my spirit more intensely.
  • laugh about things that make me look silly.
  • grieve things that hurt those around me.
  • help someone needing assistance.
  • hate things deserving resistance.
  • smile more.
  • sneer less.
  • advance the adventure.
  • drive depth in relationships.
  • teach like it was my only shot with the students.
  • meditate on truths worthy of quiet solace.
  • seek wisdom from sages.
  • celebrate life, love and grace to the full.
  • work hard and play hard (in that order).
  • love the Lord our God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength...
  • and love my neighbor as myself.

The following resolutions will likely NOT all be accomplished (to say the least), but consider faithful saying: he has no measure of his skills who has no target to shoot at.