Saturday, 22 November 2014

How I Was Shaped By The Pentecostal Church

Catch the Fire Church logo

     Church has always been a part of my life and a consistent influence for my faith. Church has challenged and altered my fundamental beliefs and has altered the way that I follow Christ. It's safe to say, as cliche as it is, that I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the Church and I wouldn't be who I am now without it. As an institution, I owe much to it.
     For most of my upbringing, I have attended Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (the title only mentions Pentecostal, but in reality I am discussing the Charismatic denomination as well). There, in these churches, my younger and more untouched Christianity was forged. My inception as a believer was in the Pentecostal assembly.
     As I grow older and learn more and more to critically examine my beliefs, faith and those who profess it, I realize that, in retrospect, the churches in which I was raised were not what I thought they were. In retrospect, there was as much to question about this denomination as there was to respect. In reality, there is as much falsehood as there is truth, if not at times more. As a youth, I saw firsthand the positive, glistening side of the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (from now on referred to collectively as the PaC's) as well as its stranger face where we do not always know what's going on, but something is.
     I realize, at this point, that the PaC's have earned somewhat of a reputation for some of its ritualistic behavior and seeming sensationalism. Not that the PaC's have become apostates, but that they have become the weirdos of the Church--the D&D club of the University, in other words. There is such a heightened attention towards the movemental activities of the Holy Spirit that the congregation feels drawn to intently study its mobility. Here, in this context, situations are set where the people in the pews are made to physically wait upon the Lord, or rather his Spirit, as if the day of Pentecost were a regular occasion.
     Some of the stranger things I've seen include repetitive, formulaic prayers and songs, often meant to prelude faith healings and/or exorcisms, where the whole congregation, whoever they may be, participates. Strange things include humans teaching humans, usually involving children, to speak in tongues. Strange things including declaring God's promises and expecting God to respond by fulfilling them, exactly the way the congregation intends--"By His stripes, I am healed". These are abbreviated versions, believe me.
     On the other hand, I have seen the positive dimension of the Pentecostal church. In some settings, there is actually a greater focus on Christ than on the Holy Spirit, which very often isn't the case. In some PaC's, the name of Jesus isn't just an insertion in a chant or a code-word for mystic empowerment. In some PaC's, the gospel is the centerpiece of their ministry. In some of these churches, there is more emphasis on Biblical study than there is on emotional experience, or at least an equal emphasis. In my personal experience with some PaC's, I was regularly taught about the reality of Christ, the devil, sin and spiritual warfare which has enabled me better discern where God desires me to go and what He desires me to do.    
     These things have shaped the way that I walk with Christ as my Lord. The strange events I've participated in and the greatly respectable service I've received from the PaC's have challenged what I believe, my theology, my behavior and my balance between solitary God-searching and interaction with others who share the same burden. The purpose of this brief article is not to condemn or exalt the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, but to simply show that some of its actions need questioning, like most denominations, and perhaps even some reform needs to take place.                    

Saturday, 11 October 2014

RE.: Brittany Maynard On Suffering And Death With Dignity

"Dig-ni-ty noun1. A way of appearing or behaving that suggests seriousness and self-control. 2. The quality of being worthy of honor or respect."
"My glioblastoma is going to kill me, and that's out of my control," Brittany Maynard ( 

I often wonder what goes through the mind of a terminally ill cancer patient. Is it fear? Is it a calm contentment? Is it regret? Is it quit? Maybe it's all of these emotions and many more, simultaneously and in phases. I honestly can't imagine what this state of sickness would be like and I genuinely wish never to receive a terminal diagnosis. Yet, what control have I over the future?
     Five days ago, October 6th, published an article, a story gone viral, disclosing to the public the insights of one such terminally ill patient:

     29-year-old Brittany Maynard possesses a malignant brain tumor, and within her body is a stage 4 brain cancer called glioblastoma. The doctors in April gave her 6 months to live, tops. It's been 5 months. She is literally "facing her death". She told People in this interview, described in the above article, that on November 1 she plans to end her life early, to "go with dignity".
     The purpose of the interview was for Maynard to share her thoughts on her experience as a terminal cancer patient, on aided death, and her recent project with the Compassion & Choices organization that will promote and advocate so-called "death-with-dignity" rights and laws to states in the US that currently do not have such laws. The project is given more detail in the above linked article.

Articles like these -- words like these -- do not grant shelter under the storm clouds of our deepest, most somber human emotions. These are the stories that penetrate so deep that they level us to our core. Upon reading of such a dire and inevitable circumstance, we must resort to our most fundamental beliefs about the truth to have any light shed on this unique and frightening moment in a persons life. As I write, let no one be mistaken that I too, among the thousands and millions who have read this article and shared in this story, am rendered defenseless and stricken grey with true sorrow. I can only bless the family and loved ones of Mrs. Maynard, newly wed at the time of her initial diagnosis in January, and give my sincere prayers up to God that she die in peace and live again in glory. I pass on my deepest condolences to her husband Dan Diaz.
      As brutal and agonizing a read as it always is, any decision to terminate any life is a serious decision. It must be contemplated seriously and put under a serious microscope, because this is life we're talking about. Once you end a life, you cannot take it back. There are consequences, both direct and indirect, both physical and emotional, both personal and interpersonal. Maynard's decision, whatever it may be with regards to how she passes on, will have an effect on those close to her, and she recognizes this in the article. Therefore, as she has, we should also question her decision to end her life prematurely on the first November day. One has to think: is it right? Does it make a difference when she dies, how she dies, or whether or not she chooses to die? What is the moral decision in this scenario? I believe that we have a real moral obligation to consider this case, or at least to ponder the ethics of euthanasia, because there may be one in your life one day, some day, who finds themselves in a similar predicament as Maynard. What will we say to this person? And what will be our decision if we find ourselves in this predicament? It's a real situation and moral dilemma that cannot swept under the rug because it happens. By examining this situation objectively, I feel we are doing something altogether loving.
     Suicide will always be tricky topic. This particular story reminds us of the late Robin Williams who recently made his own decision to commit such a tragic action. If we were interested enough at the time and remember, there was much justifying the action of Williams because of his bout with depression. The question was posed: was it right? Many said aye knowing the psychological tendencies of depressed persons, who act out of sorts and often irrationally, yet with a mysteriously persistent motive to ease the suffering of others though their actions don't always give that reflection. So suicide, in the case of Robin Williams, was dressed as a certainly tragic but probably sacrificially-motivated deed, that by ending his own internal suffering, having perceived this to alter the well-being of others, he would be ending the suffering of others. Therefore, the act was not an essentially immoral or selfish act. This was popularly argued by reporters and writers, while a western world was given to teary, tranquil silence.
     This argument, however, is not applicable to the case of Brittany Maynard, for she consciously and conscientiously makes this decision, to end her life, and further discloses this decision. Her decision has also been approved and encouraged by other independent and presumably sane individuals. She gives no self-diagnosis of depression nor does she express the presence and influence of it in her experience and her decision-making. Now, enough data is not presented for me to say with conclusion whether she is in a class of depression alongside Williams. But I'm inclined towards nay. I believe this distinction between the case of Maynard and Williams is important, because debilitating depression (and other psychological ailments) should be discarded as arguments in this case, and shouldn't factor into our ethical reasoning here. However, if it is adequately demonstrated to me that Brittany Maynard is under the influence of a psychological disorder, then I will revise my approach to this issue.

Maynard told the interviewer that she is not suicidal, but that she is choosing to go with dignity, on her own terms. It strikes me as making a distinction but with hardly a difference. Suicide is suicide, regardless of the scenario or the method. She is still desiring to kill herself. It's still "opting out". Does that not make her suicidal, I ask? I do not stress this point. The point I would rather choose to dwell on is why she has come to the conclusion that suicide is right. She provides both an emotional and a philosophical reason for believing euthanasia to be ethical, especially in her case.
     More and more, she experiences seizures and many other pains derivative of her ailment, surviving on medications from her doctor. She explicitly states that by choosing her death, she is choosing to put herself and those around her through less suffering. But what is ethical here transcends physical and emotional pain, she recognizes. She states that this choice for suicide "is ethical, and it is ethical because it is a choice."
     I have disagreements. I disagree with the act she is choosing and her reasons for it. And it's a disagreement worth stating because this is an issue that hits home for many of us and her's are the words that may be the final influence for some of us. I genuinely believe that Maynard is mistaken. Here's why I think so:

Suffering isn't all there is.

Brittany Maynard makes her decision concerning her death on the basis that she will inevitably suffer until her inevitable death, soon-to-come. I get it. No one wants to experience the seizures, the head-aches, the heart-aches, and everything else that comes with stage 4 cancer. Or perhaps I don't get it. I haven't experienced what you, Brittany, have. But I have seen another 29-year-old die of a defect she had borne since her infancy. I have listened to the last breathes of a dying breast-cancer victim. I have seen a man die after a century of living only to spend his final days -- years -- with hardly any sensory ability or physical comfort. So perhaps, suffering isn't quite as foreign as one might presume. Regardless, I believe one's own suffering alone does not make for sound reasoning for taking their own life on their own terms.
     I am a Christian. And in my worldview, there is more meaning to life than simply happiness v. suffering. Our experience does not determine our worth nor the value of our living. God has decided that we are worth our suffering and that our lives have such tremendous, intrinsic value, that our temporary suffering is meaningless. There is more at stake than how weighty our pain is. There is one's destiny to consider. There is the lives of others to consider, whether their lives are lived in truth, contentment and love.
     Now one may be wondering why I bring my faith into it and I'll tell you why. This issue of aided death, if you want to call it that, is perspectival in nature. I'm convinced that ethics, fundamentally, is a philosophical question. The meaning of life, also, is a philosophical question. Both ideas, morality and meaning, are connected at the hip. Without there being any real meaning to one's life and existence, ethical questions become redundant and void of pertinence and value. So how can I not bring my faith into it? This is an issue that everyone approaches from the angle of their religious, philosophical worldview whether it be agnosticism, Christianity, Islam or atheism. This is a dilemma that touches the very cores of our beliefs. Therefore, I can only give my opinion derivative of my deeply routed, deeply Christian religious convictions.
     As a Christian, I believe that God has invested into life tremendous value and purpose. Therefore, who are we to say when our time is up or when our purpose has been fulfilled? Who are we to press the 'Game Over' button? Life-and-death decisions should never be based on the certainty of our suffering. Any decision based on our emotions is a selfish, subjective, and individualistic decision. That you have a choice in the matter does not make it right or ethical. That simply does not follow.
     What about the suffering of her family? What about those who must watch Brittany endure such agonizing pain? What about them? If all that there is to one's final days is pain, then would it not be better to spare the family's pain by ending the life? These are compelling questions. I have a few questions of my own however. Along the same lines as what has previously been discussed, does the causation of suffering (especially when it is due to your own suffering) automatically make the very act of living unethical? Or, perhaps, does it make dying ethical? Does causing happiness and suffering alone construct an objective moral code? Also, at what point is one's life become so filled with suffering that it becomes more worthwhile to die? At what point does another's suffering override and determine your own life's meaning and value? Is it possible that your meaning and your character can positively affect another in spite of the other's suffering? Can there not be meaning and positive transformation and outcomes in the midst of suffering?
     If moral determinations are predicated solely on suffering, be it physical or emotional, personal or interpersonal, then the individual posits a very flat, meaningless, colorless world without any real, intrinsic worth aside from the culmination of flesh, bones and the chemical reactions that materialize thought.

Was there ever any dignity in human life, at all?

You don't know when you're going to die.

Consider this. How has the circumstance of the individual changed from one living the average 75-95 year life-span to one predicted die at 29? All that's changed is a) probability of dying sooner rather than later, and b) the magnitude of suffering to be experienced near death. Do either of these changes give good, objective reasons for claiming your own life? Point b) has been addressed as we know. Point a), however, provides another factor that we as questioners must consider.
     What happens when death is near-inevitable? What happens when death is so certain and so soon that it wouldn't make a difference whether you end your life "early"? Well, I find that there are flaws and wrong assumptions made in this line of thought.
     First of all, death is certain for all of us, isn't it? Does the chronology grant one any exclusive rights to aided death? If yes, on what basis?
     Second of all, how can one know for certain when they will die? Some are guaranteed death in months time, only to live on for years. Some believe they will live an average life only to be abruptly hit by a bus, stricken with AIDS, or die in there sleep for some unknown cause. Is the future ever truly known? To say that we will die at such and such a time is to claim possession of all the data necessary to come to a specific and definite, futuristic conclusion. Isn't that playing God? Isn't the individual, then, claiming infinite knowledge? Unless we are God, we should set the odds of survival just above zero. If the odds are just above zero, should we not then act and live with the expectation and attitude that we will live? This is why I don't take a doctor's words with such absolute confidence, because they are not gods.
     With these points in mind, I cannot really see what is fundamentally different in the case of Brittany Maynard from that of a healthy individual that would make aided death dignified, justified and truly right.

Personal thoughts on her activism.            

I also find that it is odd to spend what is likely your last weeks promoting and advocating euthanasia. Personally, if I was to fight for any cause, wouldn't I invest my remaining energy and time into helping researchers find a cure or more effective cancer-treatment methods? Wouldn't I want to help other cancer victims fight rather than... well, quit? I find it odd. I find that the influential and heart-moving activism of Maynard to promote aided-death reduces life of its worth (I am repeating myself) when life is made joyful and fulfilling when we fight for it, even in this situation.
     If cures and treatment methods are a star in the dark sky, to be attained only the unforeseeable and distant future, then why not help mankind get a little closer to reaching it? Or if cures and treatments methods are absolutely unattainable, then why not strive to assist research and access to better pain-reduction methods other than termination? Why not invest your remaining life in a cause that will benefit those who still have potential for a long life?  Why not invest your remaining life to helping orphans or the poor or minorities or...? Why invest what is left with your life in helping others die?

It is my Christian conviction that life has meaning independent of our suffering. I am convinced that at whatever stage our cancer is at, whatever the magnitude of our suffering is, we ought not to claim our own life because it is not a right given by God. I am convinced that the motives of Brittany Maynard, from her own words, are entirely too subjective and individualistic to be an objective predication for her actions. Therefore, I cannot agree that her decision, on this matter of life and death, is right. It is unethical, contrary to her claims.
     I haven't a grain of spite within me towards Maynard. I haven't an ounce of ill-will towards her, nor any desire that she suffer. Yet, I am convinced that as long as she lives, her life has a distinct, sacred purpose and that she hasn't the right nor the infinite knowledge to say when her purpose has run out, especially for emotional purposes. Her decision is based on an emotional charge which I can hardly blame her for. But that doesn't make it right.
     My hope, for Brittany, is that her final days be spent under the blessed light of the gospel of Christ, that she would live meaningfully for an ethical and pertinent cause. I pray that she would know and abide in the truth and find the joy in it. I hope that she would live in undying love and devotion to her family and loved ones, that she be remembered and loved well after succumbing. Above all I pray that she will find the joy and hope that transcends all earthly pain and pleasure and gives men and women, whatever condition they're in, a reason to live and fight for the living. I genuinely hope she changes her mind.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

A Winding Maze Of Color And Psychosis: A Review Of "Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth" ★★★★

The concept of abstract art meeting philosophically intriguing writing, in the graphic novel context, has interested me for a long while, now. How timely should it be that the father and champion of what may have been a virtually new art-form has awoken from its hibernation and stricken my heart at last. Batman: Arkham Asylum, written in 1989 by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean, is a graphic novel that was without precedent, without peer, and is arguably without contention, to this day, as the finest comic book ever published. The record it holds as the best-selling work in the industry's history certainly suggests so. Popular acclaim stands it erect in line as a classic, a class including many formidable productions of marvelous novelists and artists. In spite of the hype, perhaps, many other reviews have created, this reading was certainly no disappointment.
     What Morrison and McKean concocted just about 25 years ago doesn't invite readers, then or today, to indulge the classic version of Batman and the Joker. The artists beckon an unsuspecting audience to take part in a near-claustrophobic "feast of fools", hosted by a clown in a dark house, originally intended for something nobler than dooming the sane, the moral, the rational. The novel is characterized by spellbinding imagery, and an unorthodox assortment of paintings, photography and etchings. It's rich in symbolism and purpose. The story is, just as well, harmoniously conniving and surreal. The amalgamation of this near-illusory craft creates a beautiful sum of literary work that compels even the most ordinary folk to the deepest, most necessary philosophizing.
     The old DC story follows the parallel paths of Amadeus Arkham, pre-world-war-two founder of the infamous Arkham Asylum, and Batman, the protector of Gotham city's innocent. The inmates of the said asylum "for the criminally insane", king-ed by the Joker, have staged a takeover and successfully seized control of the facility. Notably, this takes place on the night of April 1st, April Fool's day. The Joker's one last demand before he releases the hostages his henchmen hold is that they have their caped adversary in their captivity. Batman enters the asylum, as ransom, unbeknownst of what craze lies ahead, or whether he may stand to escape, in the end, the clutches of his heinous enemies. Or is it one enemy? While Batman ventures to the lawless playground of the unleashed rogues, the grim history of Amadeus Arkham's own trip to insanity reawakens in the unfolding horror, only to lead the masked vigilante to his darkest nightmare.

Symbolism, Imagery and the Grand Metaphor

Arkham Asylum's plot is threaded with the incredibly luxuriant fabric of the journal entries of the aforementioned founder of Arkham Asylum. The initial entry, revealed in the first few pages, details the pains of Arkham's childhood, marked with tragedy - Amadeus's father died, his mother stricken with psychosis. Right away, our unfortunate boy, then, introduces the reader to symbolism: the beetle, which his mother sickly consumed, as one of rebirth. Rebirth into what, exactly? Another world of "fathomless signs and portents ... magic and terror ... And mysterious symbols." Then we are brought back to the present, where Batman and Commissioner Jim Gordon assess a developing situation: the Joker and his gang have taken over the asylum. The Joker, enrobed by his trademark sadistic humor, orders the Batman into the "madhouse" to free the hostages. Though other options are presented by a compassionate Jim Gordon, Batman agrees to the clown's conditions. He feels compelled to. But he's afraid:
Afraid? Batman's not afraid of anything. It's me. I'm afraid. I'm afraid that the Joker may be right about me. Sometimes I... question the rationality of my actions. And I'm afraid that when I [...] walk into Arkham [...] it'll be just like coming home.
     From there, we are submerged back into the mind of the deceased Dr. Arkham. In fact, the whole story is a back-and-forth process that matches the tragic events of Arkham's life and career with the grotesque afflictions of the Madhouse upon Batman's mind. Parallels intentionally mark the plot progression and sees powerful themes given flesh and unforeseeable life. Numerous instances of this intense parallelism exist that are so remarkable and subtle, it's chilling. For example, when Amadeus Arkham's family is brutally murdered by a madman, he finds his daughter's head facing him from inside an otherwise innocent dollhouse. What a fantastically gruesome comparison that is drawn between the past and the present in this story - what was intended for good is abused and marred into something horrifying, like the malignity of the Joker's laughter and the hospital turned war-zone. There seems to be a fate that is repeating itself in our hero's life.
     In fact, by Morrison's creative interpretation of the hero, the Dark Knight appears much more vulnerable and seemingly a lot more penetrable in this episode. He's not the morally immune, physically impressive warrior-type we've enjoyed by Christian Bale's incarnation or Jim Lee's modern comic-book impression. The weakness of Batman, the humanness of Bruce Wayne, is more obvious. When the King of Lunacy challenges the Cape-and-Cowl to a devious word association exercise, heavy philosophical rocks are overturned as a psychological burden is laid. As the Joker examines an abstract picture on a card, he sees all kind of seemingly random images. But when he inquires what Batman sees in the same picture, the next frame literally becomes an extending bat that takes up an entire page. But as this sequence continues, your confidence is overwhelmed with pathos. An inquisitive but still insightful psychotherapist, Ruth Adams, facilitates the exercise (she's innocent and good-intending, it would seem, but must go with the Joker's orders as he's the one with the gun, at this point.) She gives the first word, "Mother." Batman responds, "Pearl."
     "End." Batman breaks under the agonizing weight of memory, regret and remorse and orders the exercise to stop. The pain is so thick and heavy in his mind that he would later take a shard of glass and drive it through the center of his hand, perhaps as a distraction from the real pain. But even in this moment of sheer distress, we can see the early revelations of a messianic metaphor. It's hard in literature to separate pain from any analogy to Jesus Christ, but this goes beyond mere melodrama and faint self-deprecation. The mirroring of the two figures is sincere and only right. Batman accepts every one of the Joker's challenges - the Nazarene lugging reddened lumber - even as it breaks him down to the bare fibers of his person. It's about sacrificing the subjective desire of security for the reign of what's objectively true. Something deeper and more universally abounding is on the line. This is what the fight is for. But the fight, up to this point, has only begun.
     Mercilessly shooting down an officer right in front of our Caped Crusader's eyes for intimidatory purposes, the Joker gives Batman an hour in the Asylum before the inmates are unchained to kill him. And here we see that Batman must push through a hefty line-up of classic and lesser-known villains to ensure his own survival: Clayface, Doctor Destiny, Mad Hatter, Zeus, Killer Croc and Two Face. Did I miss anyone? Oh, right! The Joker! Never forget that devil. Each battle, each confrontation, seems to take a greater toll on Batman's mind. The artwork seems to follow the same, near hallucinogenic trend into a chaotic bowl of mental worms and dirt.
     Symbolism is prominent throughout the escalating conflict, reflecting the story's all-too-evident, psychological underpinnings. A clock is a frequent image representing the aspect of time in the story. The house is a symbol of madness or disorder. The bride's gown a symbol for innocence. And so on. Extreme blood imagery prevails as well as an appropriate dark tonality throughout. It makes for a very captivating and altogether pleasureful opportunity for exercise in literary analysis. It's almost Shakespeare-esque in how much detail went into the various devices and creative employments by the authors. In many ways, this abstract dimension is the factor separating it from all other Batman comics.
     Batman as an implicit, but nearly explicit, Christological metaphor reaches his ultimate peak in the titanic, blood-bathed battle between him and Killer Croc. Giving an added epic and personal overtone to the climactic contest between beast and man, the most vital and provocative journal entry of Amadeus Arkham is lettered, woven into the most physical performance of the whole story. As Croc and Bats have at each other, and Croc plunges a spike into Batman's gut, we have a reading of Akham's disparaging journal [excerpt] :
I have been shown the path. I must follow where it leads. Like Parsifial, I must confront the unreason that threatens me. I must go alone into the Dark Tower. Without a backward glance. And face the Dragon within. I have only one fear. What if I am not strong enough to defeat it? What then? The drug takes hold. I feel small and afraid. Perhaps I've done the wrong thing. Somewhere, not far away, the dragon hauls its terrible weight through the corridors of the asylum. I am borne up on a wave of perfect terror. And the world explodes. There is nothing to hold onto. No anchor. Panic-stricken, I flee. I run blindly through the madhouse. And I cannot even pray. For I have no God.
     The battle rages and blood is spilled. Batman is not only the one who bears the intense psychological burden of overcoming this "unreason", but also very clearly bears the excruciating pains that no one else could take. That no one else could take and sensibly hope to overcome on their own, finite terms. His victory would take a dramatic, heart-sickening and triumphal turn as this fantastic read reaches its awesome end.

Batman is still a hero for the ages.

The Verdict

     This is a novel unlike any other I've read. You read it moreso for the art which, in and of itself, contains a story within each frame. A gallery whispering sensual songs and war poems. The immaculate variety of styles and imagery, incorporating into itself the strong symbolism, allusions and metaphors of the prose, penetrates the soul today as it wriggles and scampers to know the truth of reality, be it one of total irrationality and meaninglessness or one of universal beauty and morality. A boon for the comic book industry and DC Comics, the book bears few shortcomings. These, which I would consider disappointments in spite of a terrific script, include one very debatable scene at the end after the Killer Croc battle, and a Batman that is perhaps just a little too weak for my comfort. Nevertheless, the message and thematic elements stand tall. Grant Morrison and Dave McKean pulled off an ambitious, genius work that, in large, deserves its fame. 4 out of 5!

Morrison, Grant. Batman: Arkham Asylum. 15th. ed. S.l.: D C Comics, 2005. Print.     


Saturday, 6 September 2014

Definitions Of Blessedness

The idea of God being a necessarily loving and merciful deity, though my greatest joy, is an exhausting burden for many others. This is simply and inadequately put. To toil to bend one's coursing rapid of thought around it and, what's more, to reconcile it to the dying, desperate world around it is surely a lifelong quest. Seldom is the journey completed. In the midst of this common struggle, which brands our lives, we find a relatively small group of confident, boastful Christians. They've deserted the battle and made a mad dash to the hidden victory flag-pole of whimsical blessedness.
     Here's what I mean to say. What I hear frequently from God's army of saints are the many ways in which God is merciful and a blessing to them.

"I wake up every morning with breath in my lungs."
"I have a roof over my head."
"I live in a free country."
"I have a job in a tight economy."

These are examples of God's "blessing" and "mercy" and "faithfulness" to his people, as I am told. The question I am now asking is "Really?" This is a universal question. A question that must be assessed to bring unity to the Church and to bring believers to a proper understanding of what it means to follow Christ. If blessing is ill-defined, the implications can be spiritually catastrophic as is exemplified by countless churches, sects and heretics throughout the history of Christendom.

Re-Evaluating The Definition Of Blessing     

Beginning several months ago, I have been reassessing what it means to be blessed. Initially, I examined how the term "blessed" or "blessing" is used and as it turns out we Christians tend to use and, quite frankly, abuse this word a lot. One, almost every day, reads on Facebook or Twitter how so-and-so got a job, gave birth, got married, got promoted, got out of bed, got lucky, got, got, got, and if the account is of a Christian, you'll find the phrase afterwords "God is good" or "God is faithful" or "God is merciful" or "I am so blessed". So, by way of contrast, one can uncover what is really being meant. All one has to do is read what is written on a bad day. So the question I am now asking is "Is God unfaithful and unmerciful if you are fired, aborted, killed, diseased, unlucky, still in bed and are you no longer blessed?"     
     So what does it mean to be blessed? One can say it is finding love or freedom or something less tangible like that and more fluffy. One can go for the Bad Answer and say success. However, I've resolved that by these two definitions, one has to resort to subjective, physical, human terms. About the former "definition", though God gives an ideal freedom and love, these things, in human hands, can be tainted and twisted into ungodly things. We see everyday how love can cause utter turmoil and how freedom can produce chaos. So things like love and freedom, on their own, aren't necessarily an absolute "blessing". About the latter, success, in every physical sense, is impertinent and meaningfully dead in and of itself. This is why I would be hesitant to say that because I avoided a car crash, I was blessed. Because someone else crashed instead of me. The problem is, conclusively, that the definition of blessing becomes altogether human and quite individualistic.
     As Christians, how can physical gain be so regularly equated to blessing from Heaven when we claim to exalt the one who gave up all physical gain? It's strange to me. We so regularly emphasize what God allows us to have in our life. The problem I'm having is why we don't put equal emphasis on what God does not grant us. What does this suggest about the popular perception of God's character? What does this suggest about the way blessing is commonly defined? This is truly problematic. An overemphasis on things that are spiritually neutral can liquefy a person's platform easily by both masquerading the essential meaning of life and leading to a deceptive philosophy that could misrepresent the cause and character of Christ. After all, Jesus was a very successful unsuccessful person. If we want to be like him, then why are we afraid of being successfully unsuccessful also?
     A popular punching-bag for ministers and congregates is the grossly popular Health and Wealth Prosperity camp. The likes of Osteen, Dollar, Copeland and Meyer are insistent on physical gain as a basic, essential definition of blessing. Of course, the only way to this conclusion is pure ignorance and deception, among other traits. To redefine what it means to be "favored by God" so extremely and grotesquely, not to mention dogmatically, is to redefine the Gospel message similarly. This extremity is the ultimate implication of an ill definition of blessing. If the measure of God's faithfulness and mercy is restricted to our deliverance from physical abuse and impoverishment, then we have contradicted, in the most basic sense, the meaning of the Gospel and our human existence.
     The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is where the conversation, on what it means to be blessed, begins and ends. The beatitudes edify not the high-up or the worldly wise men. They exhort everyone to be fruitful and pure in spirit. "Blessed is the man..." Who is blessed? The peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, and so on. So, basically, if you want to live a blessed life, here's what Jesus is offering: holiness. Take it or leave it. He doesn't offer free kicks, a nice crib or a Magic Bullet. What Jesus offers, in return for belief, is a sanctified, purified heart by his definition of purity and godliness. This is from the words of Jesus, our savior. He doesn't imply that you will be blessed if you peace-make or are pure. He says you are blessed. Your reward is waiting for you in Heaven.
     Jesus's life, from a birds-eye view, contradicts the physical spectrum of blessedness, because he was not a frequent recipient of physical "blessing". Jesus did not make that many friends. At least, he wasn't hugely popular. In fact, if we were to define blessing in physical terms, Jesus was considerably un-blessed. He was scrutinized, mocked, rejected, unemployed and finally tortured and crucified. This trend in his life speaks for itself. Physical wealth is of little meaning to God.
     Another man, who I pity because he is so frequently misunderstood, is Paul, the renowned missionary of God's appointment. His life was often, in a sense, hermitic and largely under the weight of persecution. His success was nil if it were quantified materialistically, similar to Jesus's life. The oft misquoted Philippians 4:13, when taken in context, actually speaks enormously about what ought to be counted as rewarding in life. Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV):
... I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.          
     What does Paul's testimony suggest about the reality of pleasure and poverty? Did it matter to him whether he suffered or not? Basically, it doesn't matter if we have lots of stuff or no stuff at all, because we have Jesus. Point, blank.
     If one takes blessing and converts its meaning into strictly spiritual terms, what does one get? The answer, in my mind, is what matters in light of eternity: salvation and the possible renewal of our heart and spirit. God so evidently in scripture, and from experience, prioritizes our character and identity in Christ over our resume or our income. This is the only way the Gospel can be the Good News it professes. This is the only way the Scripture can remain consistent. This is the only way a loving God can be reconciled with a world filled with sufferers and thieves. It is the only way for the cross of Jesus Christ to remain pedestalled. It is the only way death can be a joyful event in spite of all its tragic properties. The camp that would assert the message of Creflo Dollar or Joyce Meyer or any other hardline Word of Faith materialism is a camp that, by blindness or intention, would dismantle all of this - what the apostles and martyrs stood, suffered and died for. They would opt to discombobulate consumerist congregations and diffuse the potency, adequacy and life-providence of Jesus's mission which every attentive individual knows is already accomplished in the life of his true bride - dead sinners turned into living family members, not failures turned into accomplished merchants.
     Now it is not wrong to enjoy things, but I believe the key is in the balance which, by the way, I do not believe is in a "fifty-fifty split". The idea of Jesus being the one and only true blessing must dominate our life. It must gush out of our hearts, seep into our minds and well over into our outward actions. There is a spectrum of definitions which can be separated into physical and spiritual. Our spiritual definition of what it means to be blessed must over-arch our physical passions including professional, sexual, and habitual endeavors. We can consider the physical pleasures of life a blessing and, in a sense, an act of God's mercy, but always while kept under the piercing gaze of God's redemptive and vengeful light. This is what I meant by balance. It is important to keep things in perspective.
     Just to further clarify my last point, let me describe a fictitious scenario. Pretend that you are married. You have a wife or a husband. Now, let's say you have another friend of the same gender you are physically attracted to. If you were to meet with this friend, along with your husband or wife, you can enjoy your friends presence, talk with that person, enjoy them. Your partner would be there and there would be no question you remained faithful to your partner, while still enjoying communion with your friend. Now, if you were to get together with your friend, whom you could theoretically be attracted to, while your partner was someplace else (out of sight), the likelihood of you cheating on your husband or wife increases immediately. Whereas, if you were to hang out with your friend with your partner present in your mind, in your thoughts as a reminder to keep to your vows, then the odds of unfaithfulness are virtually zero. Though the analogy breaks down, as all analogies do, I sincerely hope it serves the purpose of exhorting individuals to always remain faithful to God's higher purpose while enjoying earthly pleasures.

Ready, Fire, Aim

The possibility of error increases rather steeply, to me, when we haven't a clue what we're after. This is the hope I have for my readers, that they would shape their desires after God's. The desires of many are the superficial tangibles. The desires of many are the intangible ideals, which are not necessarily bad. God's desire for everyone, whether we read the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels or the Epistles, is clear as day. God's desire is that we would strive after holiness above all the other vain and meaningless ambitions. All other purposes sway and break down under the gale of God's call for personal, spiritual renewal.

Indeed, no other blessing is as adequate and fulfilling as our hope and communion with Jesus.      

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Way That's Harsh And Fruitful: A Review Of "When The Game Stands Tall" ★★★★

Ever played on a competitive sports team? How about a high school club? Does it seem that there's a cycle to high school sports? There's the phase when the training, the pressure, the strain is all about the win, the record, the ring. Then follows the phase where suddenly these old ambitions are reduced to their true value, and all the energy becomes an investment not only into athletic excellence but into personal substantiation. When the Game Stands Tall is a movie keenly dedicated to this cyclical tension - a linebacker about to rock you over as the story, based on real accounts, intertwines the ever-powerful metaphor of high school football with the very literal angst of life. Don't get caught flat-footed!

The movie, directed by Thomas Carter, follows now acclaimed coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) as he tries to navigate through one of the most pivotal years in the life of the De La Salle High School football program, the Spartans. The team has just come off a climactic year, recording their famous 151st consecutive win ("the Streak" stretching about over a decade), further establishing the team's image as one of sheer athletic dominance, or at least so far. Few know, however, that behind the remarkably unparalleled success of De La Salle is a coach who teaches humility, honesty and integrity on and off the field, often referring to the words found in the Gospels. He teaches his team - his students - that more important than winning is having a winning character. Yet, the young team, of juniors and seniors alike, struggles with the concept of humility and meekness. Referring to Luke's Gospel, Coach Bob exhorts that if you "give, then it shall be added unto you." But does that make sense? Why is it then that a kid, who does his best to help others, is losing his mom to cancer? Where is the reward in that kind of lost situation? Perhaps the proper way to live in this unjust life is to take what you need and leave the other guys to fend for themselves.
     This is a team caught in a teeter-tottering struggle to find their grace when it's tremendously easy to get muddled in the hype of "The Streak" and the glory of a winning season. Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), the star player for the Spartans, is on the verge of scoring the team's touchdown record in his final season as a Spartan. It's his season. His moment. His time to shine. After all, doesn't he deserves it? Bob Ladouceur, for all his idealistic fervor and honorable character, has his own demons to take care of. His success as probably the greatest high school football coach around has prompted a multitude of lucrative job offers from colleges. But not only do these Big Time offers provide a temptation for him, Bob struggles to distinguish between his role as a coach and as a father, if the distinction can or should even be made. Questions, all around, blitz our De La Salle squad to the point where the beleaguered youth must decide a way forward where moral compromise is as likely, even more so, than statistical downfall. All of this on the eve of their greatest and most physically demanding challenge to date: a scheduled game with a big, brash and fast team that is every bit an equal for De La Salle.
     The theme of pride and humility is firmly planted in the soil, but as the team's struggles begin to unravel before the start of the season, pain and loss are clearly focal to the younger story developments and the team's winning pedigree hardly seems relevant. Loved ones of athletes dying bedside with only waning time to delay the imminent. An athlete whole and sincere, beloved among family, cherished among friends, unjustly murdered during the night. A coach, who tries to teach who he can a dependable moral code to live by, suffers from a heart attack. All of this and on the edge of a decisive season for many. Why do such terrible things happen to such good intending people? Has God cursed them? Is this all because they were bad people? What did they do to deserve this? The answers to the early questions are not clearly answered. How could they be? Bob Ladouceur, who recovered swiftly from his heart attack incident, after all was able to return to coaching only to find a group of kids who were divided between those for a persevering effort and those for a persevering "Streak". When the team loses its first two games of the season, bitter reality hits that they are not a team built for perfect performance. The ultimate question the team must face, before total disaster looms, is what are they built for?
The Verdict
     When the Game Stands Tall deals with reality at it's most essential in a way that's realistic, comprehensible and completely accessible. Most people know what sports pressure is like. Everyone knows what life pressure is like. This inspiring movie is both true and compelling, escaping ostentatious writing but hardly avoiding all the necessary clichés of a High School football movie: the packed stadium cheering and jeering, the school band playing, the cheerleaders, the hotheaded parent in the crowd, the pregame huddle, the near-catastrophic injury, the close call and the anxiety of the final down to bring home the marbles. But we can forgive the film its occasionally cheesy effects because it's a serious movie that doesn't take football too seriously. It's a movie that keeps sports in its proper place and places life in all its complexity and murkiness at center-field. It's a movie that accentuates the gain of victory and defeat, the reward of pleasure and anguish alike. It promotes a message of utter and complete selflessness and service that desperately needs to be transmitted in the sporting world. The idea is not to get more coaches to take their kids to PTS recovery facilities to teach about humility. The idea is to encourage more competitors to examine their motives and to take a deeper look into what matters in life.
     The film is well put together, surprisingly, sticking relentlessly to a realism without exaggeration or unnecessary distraction. The action is rugged, and I often found it difficult to decide what was more poignant, the sound of bodies smacking the ground or the sight of the mourning parents of a dead son. My only personal disliking of the film was that I find it hard to imagine my Jimmy Caviezel as a motivational football coach, but even then, he's certainly a great actor able to the task. There were also one or two loose ends left at the end but I hardly clued in since I was so satisfied with the rest of the film. I award the movie, When the Game Stands Tall, a proud 4 out of 5. Truly worth watching!                      

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

RE.: The Guardian's Dean Burnett On Robin Williams, Suicide

Death, as I'm positively certain every conscientious person knows, is a tragedy of tragedies, even if it passes over those we do not particularly admire, love or even respect. That's what makes it such a potent, natural phenomenon. We were reminded of this, very shockingly, when two days ago, beloved and acclaimed actor-comedian, Robin Williams, died at the age of 63, when he apparently claimed his own life. And so rises, once again, the sensitive and extremely combustible discussion on the reality of debilitating depression and its often terminal end, suicide.
     As fire meets fuel, so does ignorance meet social media, and the smoke leaves behind those who haven't done their research and demean victims to merely ideas and symbols. In the media fight for rightness on the moral and psychological nature of depression and suicide stands the Guardian newspaper's own, Dean Burnett. In response to certain comments that tend to be idly tossed about in public conversation, virtual or otherwise, he wrote an article in an attempt to dismantle the assertion that suicide is a selfish act. The link to the article is below:

The Guardian: Robin Williams' death: a reminder that suicide and depression are not selfish

The article posits the thesis that suicide is, essentially, not a selfish act and that if you hold this view, "... you’re wrong, or at the very least misinformed, and could be doing more harm in the long run." Before delving into his argument, he makes some clear points that I agree with wholeheartedly. Primarily, that there are those who are misinformed and do toss around criticism without having a clear understanding of the subject. There are those who capitalize on the opportunity to speak without first sympathizing. This type of voicing out is wrong. Having said this, however, I tend to disagree with the position of the writer on this topic and I don't think his arguments do very much to give serious weight to his argument and, moreover, there is a fundamental point that he misses.
     Burnett's first point, in support of his thesis, is that Depression is an illness. I agree with him completely on this and I think there are a lot of boneheads out there who have not thought this through. On this subject, people generally need to be more educated. Yes, there are the odd spurts of muddy experiences in life, but there is also the persistent indwelling, psychologically traumatic effects of depression which life-long enslaves individuals. It is a mental disease which is often hereditary and isn't so easily dissipated. I've never experienced depression, fortunately enough for me, but it doesn't take a rocket surgeon to know these things. You just have to know someone and see, though sometimes through facades. Or read Wikipedia.
     It's basically the same with Burnett's second point claiming that Depression doesn't discriminate, though he does side-track a bit with this one because instead of arguing that suicide is not necessarily selfish, he argues that suicide is an option for everyone. I agree with him, in both of the first two points, but, admittedly, I'm not entirely sure how this supports his argument.
     It's in Burnett's subsequent point, that Depression is not "logical", where his discourse really gets to the point, making a legitimate argument. However, this section of his article illustrates the point I'd like to make, and the one Dean Burnett missed from the beginning.
"If we’re being optimistic, it could be said that most of those describing suicide from depression as selfish are doing so from a position of ignorance. Perhaps they think that those with depression make some sort of table or chart with the pros and cons of suicide and, despite the pros being far more numerous, selfishly opt for suicide anyway?"
     Burnett quickly attacks the preposterity of such a notion, asserting that depressed individuals do not think "normally" as non-depressed individuals do. But, half a paragraph later, Burnett hypothesizes a sufferer's thought process for committing suicide.
"From the sufferers perspective, their self-worth may be so low, their outlook so bleak, that their families/friends/fans would be a lot better off without them in the world, ergo their suicide is actually intended as an act of generosity?"
     Dean, is this not a logical thought process? He admits that this is an assumption on the suicidal person's motives but justifies it with the opposing view's assumption of the selfish nature of suicide. So is this now a game of which assumption is right? Doesn't your argument make an assumption about the person's motives? Burnett continues to beef up his point by implying, in the end, that to one contemplating suicide, there is no "easy way out" and not too many other options apparent to them than "opting out", the term being used in some countries now to replace "suicide". Does this mean that the person pondering suicide hasn't actively sought out other options? Or does it mean that they have and none have presented themselves to the point where suicide is the evidently best option? In either case, is the final decision to end life not also an act of "giving up" on the search for other options? And if there no other options "apparent", is that because of the individual's refusal to see, refusal to search, refusal to cooperate, refusal to take the leap of faith? How often are the other options truly invisible? Is not, then, still the individual's suicide solely their responsibility, however misled?
     The last point of this article that accusations of selfishness are, themselves, selfish, makes some clever points but is hardly on topic. The string of interrogatory questions suggest an underlying selfish desire in anyone publicly criticizing the deceased. The problem here is that only a certain percentage of individuals who take the stance that suicide is selfish fall guilty to Burnett's rhetoric, that is, those who meet the conditions that these individuals "publicly declare that the recently deceased is selfish" and "[they] feel that those expressing sorrow and sadness are wrong and [they] need to show them that [they] know better, no matter how upsetting [those expressing sorrow] may find it". I know I think that suicide can be selfish and neither of these apply to me. At least, not the way Burnett seems to paint it. Again, I know there are boneheads out there. True story. So, to me, since this point doesn't apply to all in Burnett's opposing camp, it can hardly be taken with serious consideration.      
     I've tried dealing very carefully with this topic and I want to make certain things clear. I do not know Robin Williams nor his motives for taking his own life. I don't know. It may have been genuinely out of thought for his his family and friends. It may have been an act of cowardice. I don't know. Only God knows. I am terribly distressed and anguished by the knowledge that real people suffer at the hand of this great fiend, Depression, and that real people commit suicide after time toiling against it. I know people who toil. The last thing I would do is reduce these beloved people to symbols as I attempt to make a point.
     Depression is an illness that inflicts many, I think, often without conscious allowance or consent. However, suicide is a conscious action requiring thought to realize and is often preluded by deliberate pondering. As sad as the thought is to me, I believe the action solely rests on the shoulders of the individual, not "life", not Depression. Suicide is not a valid option, no matter how low the self-worth or how deep the pain, and, whatever the motive, it should not be commended as such. That would mean tremendous indignation. Life is deeply sacred and worthy, which makes not only suicide immoral, but murder, euthanasia, abortion, as well as all forms of human discrimination essentially evil acts. No, I'm not saying debilitating depression is immoral. I am saying the act of suicide is a terrible theft because each individual life has incredible intrinsic value before the eyes of God who loves His creation and sent his Son to die on their behalf that they might live in infinite bliss by His side. No matter where you are or what your next move will be, I would hope to inform you, if considering suicide, that the option is always there to love and be loved by Him.

Rest in peace, Robin Williams.            

Thursday, 31 July 2014

RE.: The Problem of Pain


Life sometimes feels like a free-fall. There is no control over where we drift, what we collide into, or where we land. At least, that's what it feels like. But most of all, it feels like our death at the bottom is imminent. Hopeless. The question that arises from this sentiment is why are we in this free-fall and why would an omnipotent deity, of absolute love, toss us into this state of hopeless, boundless desolation? It takes a great deal of courage and sympathy to answer the question because, otherwise, the question probably hasn't been answered. In fact, it can be doubly difficult (and beneficial) to try figuring out a solution because that one question connects so many others to itself. The answer lies, however, to this Problem of Pain, in the deep study of life, pain, pleasure, and God Himself. If the realities of these things and persons can be unraveled, then one will probably find God to be a more compassionate, merciful entity than originally perceived.
     When the universe was in its initial state, its first moment, its first breath, it was in perfect entropic form. Perfect order. Similar to how the first couple chapters of Genesis describe the world in its initial condition. Good, safe, perfect. What Genesis details is that humanity was given the luxury of total freedom of the will. This was so that our will would cause us to love and purposefully enjoy God in all His glory and perfection. Yet, the natural path of the universe is from order to chaos and as a dead corpse goes from warm temperature to cold, a natural consequence of freedom is pain (perhaps it's more appropriate to say this is the natural consequence). This becomes the reality when Adam and Eve broke the seal of trust and loyalty and chose the path of independence. The result of this broken state of being is that pain and death are permitted to exist in its wake. It is this result which we reap to this day. It is so incredibly obvious, our corrupt nature, and its tie with suffering. Yet some of us would pin the responsibility of salvation on God and blame Him from not saving us from our own actions or from not creating a "better world", which calls into question God's rights and freedoms.
     God is the pinnacle of power, the supreme authority, and the paradigm of goodness. Before anything was, He was, and His essential love. All of what we see, started from God's hand. As creator, the original mastermind, nothing in all creation can excel Him or exceed His greatness (the ontological argument). He is completely autonomous and independent. He is omniscient and omnipotent. This is the nature of God's existence. He is. Considering this, and the fact that no governing legislation had been written and that all that God does spawns from His nature, it can be concluded that God hasn't a moral obligation to anything or anyone. He is indebted to no one. Whatever God does, it is done out of His sheer will. So when He creates mankind, He does so willfully and with a purpose. But He is not obligated to maintain His creation. It is God's right to do as He pleases; He is God. So if He allows my suffering, it is His right to do so. It is not immoral nor is it wrong of Him. If we blame God and accuse Him for wronging us, we do so according to another standard which is, perhaps, unknown to us but our emotions endorse it.
     Consider this, though, referring back to my first point (second paragraph), it is in humanity's nature to oppose God's. Our corruption tears our children apart. Our greed commences wars of bloody consequence. The core of all that is wrong and immoral about this world resides in our bloodstream and indwells our minds. Under the gaze of almighty God, the maximally great being, there is no moral standard you or I have reached. It takes a proud individual with a hyper-tolerant definition of sin to disagree. What, in Heaven or on Earth, does any human deserve? We toil for power and reject the hand of God. We reject our conscience continually. What does any human deserve? I am inclined to think naught, at least by God's perfect standard. Now referring to my second point, consider what we do have: life, possibly a consistent situation, maybe a decent pay, friends, family, freedom. Maybe you don't have very much at all, but when one thinks about what they do have and what they deserve, on the other hand, one can consider it an act of God's mercy that they have anything at all.
     God's priorities have been a problematic quarrel for many, inside and outside the church, and it's on this topic where many conversations, and lives, go astray. One can accept that, by definition, God's will is supreme and absolute but the pickle is what exactly He does with this sort of power. We're all very confused and mystified. Even infuriated. As it turns out, the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition as outlined by our source, Biblical scripture, isn't all that hard-pressed to grant us the American dream, a good pension or a decent living arrangement. Of course not. Why would an infinite, eternal being want for us, primarily, finite, temporary stuff? Convenient, easy-going lives. Comfort. Pleasure. It's all Earthly stuff that'll stay in the grave when we die. The apostle Paul, a missionary of sorts, lived much of his life in persecution and destitution. The man who gave the Church Romans 8 also lived a considerably painful life, often solitary. Yet he wrote, in response to his sorrow, that he can "do all things through Christ who gives him strength" (Philippians 4:13). The prophet Jeremiah, and many others devoted to God, watched as their home nation was ravaged, captured and exiled. Jesus, himself, was mocked, scorned, and crucified. So evidently, the battle for pleasure isn't on God's radar. No. God is interested in a deeper, more pertinent quest. The quest for internal, personal change from one undeserving of Heavenly life, deserving of Hell, to a redeemed, reconciled and renewed individual, justified in the eyes of God. God is interested in a heart-change from stuff-seeking to truth-seeking because that carries over into eternity.
     If pain could further the cause better than pleasure, then would it not be better to suffer? But what good could come out of any suffering? But think about the transformative power of hardship or the way pain amplifies triumph or the way evil highlights good. By some strange mysticism that beguiles me, less-than-ideal situations have a way of bringing out the best in people, even changing them for the better. A hard heart can be softened by a heavy hammer. A slanderous mind can be permitted progress towards compassion. It tends to be in the direst of moments that the hero arises. God, outside of time-dimension, has the script and knows it. The greatest good will be achieved in each individual at the end of it. Suffering God uses to advance towards this end goal, this final state, like a catalyst of a reaction. God uses pain to accomplish good. Not all of us will understand or realize this good during our lifetimes. The script remains a mystery to us. But we are promised that it shall be realized in the life to come, should we believe. This to me is what it truly means to be blessed. We are not blessed by our successful situation. Neither are we cursed by our failing situation. Neither circumstance has any eternal worth. But real currency is in our hope in Jesus Christ. God, swapping royalty for servitude, took upon himself the penalty that corrupt humanity utterly deserves and conquers death that we also might live in perfection. The suffering of this world is not the end. God has a plan to redeem and restore order to it.

This is why, in spite of my pains, I place my faith and trust in God.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

RE.: "I know it's easy for you to believe in a God. But I've suffered more than you."

You've suffered more (maybe)... so what?

Since when does the magnitude of a person's individual suffering alter the validity of their argument? The measuring scale game has no worth nor does it garner interest from the objective.  


When this kind of statement is made, huge emotionally-driven assumptions are being made. A) That belief in God is "easy" and B) that the person making the statement knows how much suffering the other person, on the receiving end, has endured. It also implies a rather gross pre-conception of the god in question.

Belief has its appeal.

If one conducted a survey, they will likely find that, historically, people have been drawn to faith both from a life of relative ease and of cruelty. For an example of the latter (just to dismantle some of the assumptions made in the entitled statement), the Black Church in the south. Or the crucified apostles of Jesus. Or Jesus.

Perhaps, for these people, belief is grounded less on emotion. The whole 'solid rock' v. 'sinking sand' thing.

The bottom line is, let's make sure we're talking about the same god. It doesn't matter what kind of God you would like to serve because that doesn't determine what kind of god you ultimately submit to. Ease and comfort don't register high on my god's priority list. So why should they on ours? Because what matters in light of eternity is not our revenue nor our pains, but what transformation, underneath, we experience in the process. Why go for gold when we could go for life and the abundance afterwards?


Monday, 28 July 2014

RE.: "Why can't you accept that the world is meaningless, without rules?"

Your persuasion is meaningless, then?

If the world is a meaningless, amoral world, then what does it matter what I choose to accept and believe? Do you consider it meaningful, important, and worth-while to convince me that I am wrong?

Do you accept, then, that the code you live by is undeniably groundless?

If the world is meaningless, then whatever moral code one embraces is utterly irrational and futile. If the world is godless, meaningless, and thus amoral, then can you accept that killing babies is, on no universal, absolute ground, wrong?

Friday, 25 July 2014

RE.: "I don't need a religion to tell me what's right and wrong."

You're right.

We are all born with a conscience. So people, regardless of their upbringing, can naturally discern what is good and evil. So, no, the entitled statement is not incorrect.

You misunderstand the point of religion.

What the entitled statement implies, though, is that religion is obsolete, as if its primary is to educate on matters of moral semantics. This is, by a gross degree, far from the truth. From my Christian perspective, the objective of the Christian religion is necessarily to make sure we tread on a straight, moral line. That's part of it. But it's so much more about the joy of relating and interacting with a living God, and the exchange of supplication with sanctification. The metamorphosis from a woefully dead sinner to a living child of God. It's not about making "bad people good", it's about making "dead people alive" as Ravi Zacharias put it.

You also lack the answer to the ontological question.

More important than the epistemological question, the one already answered in point one, is the ontological question. The question that begs answering is why the conscious tells us rape is wrong as opposed to right. Regardless of the corners you cut or the philosophical buzzwords you employ, your answer will always be religious.  

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

RE.: "The Bible was written by fallible human beings, so we cannot sensibly consider it the infallible Word of God."

Show me a significant contradiction.

We all have the right to question the infallibility and trustworthiness of the Bible and challenge the notion that it is the Holy Word of God. So how can we reasonably test to see whether Biblical scripture is "God-breathed"? A start would be to verify its consistency. Since God is perfect, therefore His word is perfect. You'll find in the Bible odd mathematical errors, chronological change-ups, and perhaps even exaggerations of historical events, but, with a right understanding of how divine inspiration works, we can dismiss these as minor contradictions. These are minor because they do not alter the message or the grand narrative in any considerable way. 

I think the data shows that the text is pretty reliable and pretty consistent.   

Deny prophecy?

If a church goer, a self-professing Christian, agrees with the logic that says "because the Bible was written by fallible Man, it can't be the infallible Word of God", are they not denying the long-held, traditional, Church-wide belief in prophecy?

Deny a personal God?

A scarier thought, though, is that if you deny that God can speak to people and through people, you're ultimately positing an impersonal, un-interactive, immobile God. 

Why do you worship this guy? 

Ultimately putting a restriction on God.

The more fundamental issue here, though, is that the person in agreement with the entitled statement puts a restriction on God's power, what He can and cannot do. 

He cannot speak to His people.
He cannot use language to deliver messages to His people.
He cannot employ His people.
He is finite.

Are we too much of a hassle for God?

Saturday, 19 July 2014

At Last, Retribution For The Vainglorious: A Review Of "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" ★★★★★

 "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" 2014

"Home. Family. Future." These are the things apes and humans struggle for in the film which could challenge for the title as this summer's - this year's - cinematic champion. That film is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves. It has been a dreadfully long time - a winter of cold patience - since I've experienced a film that can boast the awesome ability, that this movie has, to toy and tangle with our emotions and sensations. Few films that I've seen can hoist us up and plunge us down the way Dawn does. As the moviegoer - casual or not - will nearly instantaneously discover, this is a pleasant, crazy, harrowing, and amazing leap from the high shoulders of it's blockbuster prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

When we first met Caesar (Andy Serkis), the main ape protagonist, in the first installment of the reboot series, he was a young, intelligent yet still-developing chimpanzee, learning to manage in a human-dominated world that is still, buy-n-large, indifferent to the mistreatment of animals. In his youth, Caesar realized some harsh realities through difficult circumstances, namely Man's hubris and power-craving. After being separated from his adopted caretaker (James Franco) - this caretaker being a scientist responsible for a gene therapy medication which caused the apes' heightened intelligence and the unfortunate, ensuing outbreak of a Simian flu - Caesar realized that not all humans are good, and that recognizing your friends from your foes is as much a grey area as it is certainly a necessary element of his struggle for personal influence and resolution to the overarching conflict between humans and an insurgent ape culture.
These themes, and their inevitable implications, spill over into the plot of the July, 2014 flick. In the opening sequence of Dawn, across the map we see the Simian flu decimate the human population, while the humans themselves turn on each other in the craze. Ten years after the events of the first film, we are reconnected to the ape group which has settled down in the redwood forest near San Francisco, California. We are also abruptly acquainted with the humans who have survived and settled in the ruinous San Francisco city, itself. The audience, just by observation, can deduce three things from the early encounters between the apes and humans.
One, the apes have sophisticated and become more civilized after ten years. In a scene following the opening credits, the ape tribe commences a hunting campaign, lead by Caesar and fellow ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell). They set up the attack with stealth, they communicate in silence, until Caesar gives the terrorizing call for onslaught against a fleeing herd of what looks like caribou or deer. The successful horde of ape hunters return to their tight-nit community - a vast multitude of families and elders, finding their refuge in closely connected, earnest, woody homes. They educate each other. They speak to each other. They embrace each other. They hold each other accountable. And it can be seen that Caesar has matured into a fully grown, eloquent, and powerful leader of the colony, to whom his companions willingly surrender their allegiance. There is almost a hierarchy dominating over the apes, but there is a moral code embedded into it, and them, which Caesar consistently adheres to.
Secondly, the apes have the survival edge on humans. Of course, to Caesar and company, it is initially uncertain whether humans even exist still, after they were ravaged by the Simian flu. This is clear in an early conversation between Orangutan Maurice and Caesar. But as a couple of Apes were strolling through the forest unsuspectingly, everything was changed as they were rudely but unintentionally run into by a small group of travelling humans. Of course, both the apes and the humans were startled by suddenness as well as the significance of the encounter, and the initial human present, in his fear and confusion, dared to fire his gun and shoot one ape (probably more of a warning shot than an action to kill). Alarmed by the blast, the rest of the apes in the tribe scurried to rescue the two distressed apes, and surrounded the small group of humans. Caesar, upright with bravado (and some contempt?), commands the humans to “go”. In this scene, we meet Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who leads the humans and does not view the apes as a necessary threat to existence (nor does he blame them for the Simian flu). Eventually, the audience discovers that the humans were looking for a hydroelectric dam to generate power. The humans find out, to their misfortune, that the dam is situated in the apes’ domain. So there is an interesting contrast one can draw between the two species. The humans, who survived the flu contagion, though existing across the globe, are few in the San Fran residence. The apes appear to have been unscathed by the epidemic and have indeed multiplied over ten years. The apes live in peace, in community. They have all that they need: resource, security, and each other. Humans, on the other hand, struggle for much more. They struggle for fuel and power for communication with the outside world. Humans fear returning to their primitive origins, "back to the way things were". They are desperate, apes are not.  
Thirdly, both the ape and human settlements are populated by saints and sinners. In the human camp, Malcolm understands the history between the apes and the humans and thus harbors no disdain for them. He is, in a sense, the personification of empathy and understanding and demonstrates a positive response to a grievous, tragic past (he lost his family) which almost all humans, at this point, share. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is also a human leader, but has a different point of view. To him, apes are still only animals, untrustworthy and expendable. Another human, named Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who aids Malcolm in repairing the dam, outright blames the apes for the Simian flu. In the ape camp, obviously we have Caesar who always seeks to do what is right. Caesar and Malcolm are almost mirror reflections of each other, in this respect. But there is an interesting character in Koba. Koba, similar to Carver, despises the opposite species because of the perceived harm (imprisonment, torture) they caused. So he is immediately skeptical of the humans’ motives, not unlike Caesar or any other ape, but the bias is heavily against them. (The character foils detailed in this paragraph do develop tremendously throughout the film as this is only an early portrait. The character development in this story truly astonishes me.)
After the initial conflict, the plot takes off at a pretty rapid pace. The characters quickly establish their role to play and the game-board is set with haste. Fearing the intrusion of the humans into their homeland, Caesar gives them the ultimatum: keep to yourselves, or we’ll defend ourselves if need be. "Apes do not want war." His voice blankets the air and swallows our harrowed attention, and though it’s terrifying to hear, it also has some warmth that makes you want hear more from Caesar, our primate hero. Just hearing Caesar’s speech – it would make sense for the humans to want to stay put. But for some, namely the humans’ primary leader, Dreyfus, the dam is too critical to simply give up. Pursuing the extraction of electrical energy from the dam, by Caesar’s terms, could mean war. Some humans believe the apes could instigate a war as a means of eliminating a threat. So the game becomes one of chicken – who strikes first? Malcolm, however, isn't ready to give up and believes he can peacefully regenerate the dam’s power flux and negotiate with Caesar. He’s given three days to do so, by Dreyfus, before the humans would attack the apes first and seize the dam. This is the tipsy pendulum upon which the balance rests. Malcolm, with the help of some trustworthy friends and engineers, goes into the woods and confronts the apes in their own territory. Though an uneasy meet at the start, Malcolm eventually convinces Caesar that his motives are sincere. Though Caesar is still somewhat skeptical, he allows Malcolm to stay and get the dam going again but on terms that they give up their firearms. Koba is, in his mind, certain that the humans are just setting up an assault. We see him on multiple occasions quarreling, especially with Caesar, on the matter, fearing for the survival of the apes. Over the three days, the small band of humans work away and gradually earn the trust of Caesar and the pressure to wage war lessens. But it’s just when the situation seems contained that the fuse ignites. Basically, it’s only a matter of one unfortunate occurrence after another until the game comes to its furious end, its tumultuous climax, where love and fear coil and swirl as an agitated solution reacts into violent spark. Camps divide against themselves. Modest characters become heroes. The once loyal good guys become rebellious villains, and the dark side of the apes crawls out from the shade as the intrigue reaches overwhelming levels. "War has already begun."

The Verdict

As a whole, Dawn has the delicacies and some of the finer elements of a post-apocalyptic film, though grim and contemplative, almost certainly without the grime of most movies of the genre. Though definitely with a swift flow of thought and a larger scope and vision, Dawn does make the occasional stop to focus in on the various micro-conflicts woven into the grander story, to our advantage. Perhaps it’s during the epic battles where the movie arrests us, but it’s during the quiet moments where it quietly convicts. In ways, these "quiet moments" bring us back to the relatively quaint beginnings in Rise. In fact, the soundtrack, combining modern dynamics with retro stylistic flavors, brings us back way beyond Rise and to the year 1968. The visual effects are immaculate and the acting is flawless. Unraveling like a Shakespearean play, the story is provocative, relatable and emotionally captivating. You'll experience the story in utter uncertainty, but leave the theater completely satisfied by the end. Giving credit where it is due, to the directors, creators and actors, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes earns its five stars. Couldn't more movies be like this?

Monday, 23 June 2014

A Worshiping Christian's Blacklist

For these, you have shoot on sight authorization*:

1. Emotionalism

There's no therapist quite like Jesus.

Emotionalism is probably one of the most subtle forms of idolatry that I find lacing worship services. It's our self-indulgence in non-stop repeating of tasteless, meaningless, and heartily heartless bridges. It's our careless waltzing on the sparkling side of the Grace coin. It's a sad rejection of maturity and responsibility. And it's probably a bigger block against real sanctification than it should be. Simply put, it becomes more about my feelings rather than about God's delight and the object of worship, itself, shifts.

2. Atmosphere-ism 

Zach Snyder's Man of Steel required the right atmospheric conditions to be powerful. God is better than that.

In my mind, the need to create an "environment" or "atmosphere" where God can "move freely" seems to be a sort of marriage between materialism and emotionalism, at least in the context of corporate worship. Most Big Name worship bands, I believe, are at fault in this area, which saddens me because for some bands, namely Hillsong United, it might be their only significant one. Unlike the craving for a raw emotional high (first point), atmosphere-ism comes to us under the guise of service to God, as a kind of bridge between Him and us. Let's remember that a joyful experience in God's arms is not the aftermath of the right combination of light, fog machines and melodies but solely in the humble struggle to carry our cross. 

"Tell me, Jesus Culture, why do I feel so alive at your concerts and so dead everywhere else?"

3. Relativism

"Narrow is the gate to life... but feel free to believe what you want because no one knows the truth and who am I to judge." Said no prophet or apostle ever. But apparently, for some churches, when it comes to hermeneutics, it's open season. The problem with trying to work out Christian worship in a relativistic framework or a postmodern worldview is that your words are killed before they have the chance to be vocalized. The god you want to worship ends up being an entity without identity. Your "worship" is reinforced (and jettisoned) by standards founded on water rather than steel.

4. Preach-prayers

"Dear God, as we come before you in worship, I pray that you would remove all distractions from our hearts and minds, because you don't like it when people text in church and sing obnoxiously loud during the chorus and I ask that you would quickly silence the aloof spirit that commits such blasphemous deeds."

Worship leaders: there's a time and a place. 

"You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear." ~ Deuteronomy 10:20
* This was intended to be a joke, but could be misinterpreted. What I mean to say is that we should be diligent to fight the existence of these beliefs and/or tactics, if you will, in our own worship lives. We can even extend this pious, spiritual militarism in our conversations, but remember that pride and hypocrisy are the bane and biggest hindrance to genuine worship as well.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

On Postmodernism

To say that truth cannot be known or that truth doesn't, at all, exist or that truth is not absolute or universal is to invariably give up on intellect and meaning. As the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb put it, "Postmodernism entices us with the siren call of liberation and creativity, but it may be an invitation to intellectual and moral suicide." [1] As soon as someone even suggests that truth is out of man's reach, and human reasoning and conscience futile, then the door is made open and the freeway paved for relativism of every sort. Professor Patricia Waugh states, "If modernism had tried to anchor in consciousness a centre which could no longer hold--the conscience of the heroic, socially alienated artist--postmodernism had shown us an even darker side of modernity and the aporias of the aesthetic. It had shown that there is nothing for consciousness to be anchored to: no universal ground of truth, justice, or reason, so that consciousness itself is thus "decentred," no longer origin, author, location of intentional agency but a function through which impersonal forces pass and intersect--Dover Beach displaced by an international airport lounge." [2] Without the capability to know truth, what validates one belief of reality over the alternative? Let's look at what is being claimed. "Truth cannot be known. There is no truth." It is a paradoxical statement that literally eats itself. But now let's, for a minute, talk the implications, the dangers of this line of thought. The possible implications of this lazy philosophy, which we've begun to witness, I find astounding. I'm convinced that it's in a postmodern worldview that you will find your StalinsWithout a true reference-point for meaning, humans will have the chance, in the guise of liberty, to fashion their own concept of reality, however heinous (if evil's even still a thing), without sensible conviction or rebuke. No person could assert the rightness of an idea or belief, much less persuade. What we have then, are decapitated birds coasting through the breeze of free love, guiltless hate, and relentless contradiction. 

Dr. D.A. Carson put it as I would, in his message on the Emergent Church and Postmodernism in the Church when saying that epistemology "is a tricky thing" [3]. Indeed it is. Yet the ball returns to the postmodernist's court. "We can know truth objectively, but we cannot objectively know truth.", Carson later said. We can know what truth is, but, of course, we cannot know all that there is to know about it. It's to say that knowledge should not be equated with certainty. After all, not all modernists are "dogmatic". Jesus did not allow for a postmodern worldview in John 14. Because I believe Him, I can believe in truth. I can believe that it's been revealed to us. I can believe that intellect is sufficient to discover and language capable to convey it. I can believe that there is a reference-point for meaning and morality. But if Jesus, after all, is a deceiver and a liar, then good is vapid of meaning, and meaning escapes itself. We no longer need to worry about inherent evil, nor inherent good, and dictators will be the least of our pains (If pain's even still a thing). Rhetoric will be the sword with which our society destroys itself. Aesthetics will be the idol we kiss as the world accomplishes all it can: cold, quiet death. 

[1] Gertrude Himmelfarb (b. 1922), U.S. historian. On Looking Into the Abyss, ch. 7 (1994).
[2] Patricia Waugh, British educator. "Stalemates? Feminists, Postmodernists and Unfinished Issues in Modern Aesthetics," The Politics of Pleasure: Aesthetics and Cultural Theory, ed. Stephen Regan, Open University Press (1992).
[3] The Emerging Church . Perf. DA Carson. YouTube, 2012. Film.
Other sources:
Postmodernism and Philosophy. Perf. Ravi Zacharias. Ligonier Ministries, 2007. Film.