Friday, July 31, 2009

Dantean Equipoise

An old poem appropriate for Valentine's Day . . .

There is a great gulf fixed
Twixt Heav’n and Hell
Spanned only by a lonely Bridge of Light.
Poets say its struts and strands are made of angels bright.
Amongst them, one of Roman race,
Stained his quill that he might trace their flight.

He sought to view fair Paradise
Midway through his darkling wood,
Raised his head and strained his heart to see it, if he could.
Stare as he might, through starry night,
No pearl-faced gates he viewed,
No emerald-circled rainbow throne with heaven’s grace imbued.

His head bowed low, his weeping heart
Convulsed him at the thought,
That he, the poet, could not write the Bridge that Blood had bought.
‘Twas then that, in his sore despair, a voice beckoned his soul,
“Who is it there?” the poet asked, and then She said, “Behold!”

“I am Beatrice fair, thou lover of my soul,
“I am your Bridge to Paradise, Beautiful, Bright, and Bold.
“I am Heav’n come down, to wing your flight
“Across that bridge you seek,
“So sheathe thy quill and follow me. Be quiet, quick, and meek.”

At her firm word his stir-red soul arose from its despair,
And followed fast the Lady Fair who winged him through the air,
Up to the very throne of God where prostrate now he lay,
And heard another, stronger Voice, that hushed all others, say,

“How came ye, weary traveler? How came ye to this Place?”
“I was guided by Another,” saith he, “She of radiant face.”
“Ah, yes,” then did the Sovereign say, “Ah, yes, I know her well.
“Beatrice well has led the souls of many men from hell.”

At this the poet turned to her, gazed in her lovely face,
And said, “I thank thee, beauteous Lady Fair, who led me to His Grace.
“I thank thee, for thou art the Bridge of Light that poets told,
"Thou' art She who sav-ed me, imparadised my soul.:"

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Transfigurational Living

The poet’s words infuse the cosmos with magic. Dewdrops become diamonds, every rose a ruby, every leaf an emerald, every golden sunrise a glorious chariot, and every silver moon a divan upon which the goddess Love sits enthroned. Christian poets ennoble the romanticization of nature, and in their happiest moments envision every good man a knight-errant in quest of the Holy Grail, and every good woman a virginal lady-in-waiting for her virginal Galahad, golden chalice in hand, "rose red with bleatings in it."

In particular, Charles Williams attempted to incarnate the Divine in his literary and poetic characters. T. S. Eliot said of Williams, "He attempted to do with language that which cannot be done," that is, to write in such a way that divine light emanates through the writer’s pen and upon his page, not just lodging in the reader’s mind, but twice transfiguring the reader’s mind, once in his imagination, a second time in his will as the reader incarnates the very vision Williams conveys. Heavily influenced by Dante’s vision of Beatrice as "she who doth imparadise my soul," Williams’ literary heroes, both male and female, are loci of paradise (loco with Paradise as well). Williams’ artistic endeavor is not without biblical warrant.

When Jesus Christ spoke of His Father’s house in which there are mansions (monai.), He did not mean elsewhere beyond the stars, but rather Divine Mansions erected in the souls of men and women. How do we know this? We probably don’t know this because we have been preconditioned by bad preaching to think of heaven’s Mansions as possibly far away in time and certainly distant in space, but that’s a completely wrong idea. If we carefully follow Jesus’ words in John 14, and listen keenly to the Son of God’s explanation about the "mansions," He tells us that His Mansions are inside us,

"If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our mansion (monen) with him."

All the major translations miss the mark, and almost every preacher. Call it what you will–mansion, room, resting place, dwelling place, abode–call it what you will, but Jesus does not say that the Mansion is there and then but rather here and now. Paradise has come down from heaven to earth, not just through the Incarnate Son of God, but through every person in whom He and His Father have built their Mansion. Who does not know this?

Judas Thaddaeus (not Iscariot) does not understand what Jesus has said, that "He who grips and guards my commandments also loves me, and whoever loves me, both my Father and I shall love him, and I shall manifest Myself to the one loving me."

Judas Thaddaeus is really puzzled now, "Lord, what has occurred that you are going to manifest yourself to us and not to the world?"

Dr. Robertson says that Thaddaeus is "caught on the word emphanizo," weakly translated "manifested," better translated somehow associated with the substance "light" or the action of "shining," since emphanizo derives from phaino, "to shine." More colloquially expressed, God’s Mansions are lit brightly from within. Paradise radiates from within the soul’s Mansion and through its windows. And it is that radiation from Him through us by which our lives are transfigured, and by which we transfigure others’ lives as well. How do we do this?

Just as Jesus told Thaddaeus, "Grip and guard my commandments, and love me."

Thus we see that a transfigurational life demands both an ethical and an emotional radiance of Paradise; ethical in that we grip and guard Jesus’ commands, emotional in that we Love Him. As surely as God commands ethical obedience, He also commands emotional obeisance; in fact, all moral obedience is subsumed within the emotional obeisance of Love, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and spirit and your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets." By ethical and emotional adherence to the Divine commandments, our souls prove themselves to be Mansions of God, the windows of which shine upon earth with the radiant fire of heaven.

Unless Jesus has tricked us by what He said about building His Mansions in our souls, then "I go to prepare a place for you" cannot indicate His departure from earth to take on a celestial architectural endeavor; but rather, "I am going to Passover; I am Passover; and I shall purchase a Mansion for your soul, not with corruptible things such as silver and gold, but with the incorruptible currency of heaven, the precious blood of the Passover Lamb."

Old Israel had the Paschal lamb’s blood upon her hovels in Old Egypt, and light in her houses. New Israel has A Better Stain upon her Mansions in this present evil world, and a brighter light through her windows.

Shine, Fair City, Shine! Transfigure, ye transfigured!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ignorant Worship

To counter objections to my thesis from the outset, I readily admit Paul’s maxim “knowledge puffeth up.” Privileged to spend a lifetime of study and learning, I am often nudged by the Spirit to remember two things, “If a man thinks he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know,” and “If a man thinks himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Socrates also oft admonishes me with his memorable words, “The one respect in which I am wiser than other men is my recognition of my own ignorance.” I also know that love better edifies than knowledge, and that wisdom is better than knowledge (We all know educated fools); but the preeminence of love and wisdom over knowledge does not mean that knowledge should be disdained but rather relegated to its proper sphere, and it certainly does not mean that knowledge should bow and curtsey, blush and blather in the presence of ignorance, which brings me to my topic, ignorant worship.

Jesus Christ Himself spoke of this at Jacob’s well when He said to the Samaritan woman, “You do not know what you worship.” Conversely, Jesus said of Himself and His Ancestors, “We know what we worship.” She worshiped ignorantly; He worshiped knowledgeably, indicating a certain intellectual dimension to worship. The First Commandment also includes this dimension of intellectual and knowledgeable worship, when Yahweh declares that we should worship Him with all our “mind.” Even more poignantly, almost the entire Pauline Corpus exists to correct some ambiguous or blatant intellectual ignorance in favor of precise, intellectual accuracy about the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.

A simple glance at the various Christian denominations also proves our point. As a general rule, the more intellectually and educationally sophisticated the pulpit, the more intellectually astute and educated the congregation. At the high end of the spectrum we see the learned Presbyterian, Christian Reformed, Methodist, and Episcopal clerics who appeal to more educated and intellectually astute congregations, arguably a tad high-brow; at the low end of the spectrum we see the fringe lunacy of Pentecostal preachers deceiving the ignorant masses, especially the poor; and in the middle we see the Baptists, Churches of Christ, Nazarenes, et. al., appealing to the moderately educated masses. These various categories of worshipers also fall within obvious socio-economic paradigms: churches with more sophisticated approaches to worship attract the rich, churches with simplistic preaching attract the poor, and churches with a moderately educated clergy attract the middle-class. One could also make the politically incorrect argument that certain theologies and aesthetics appeal to more industrious and productive individuals, while other theologies and aesthetics appeal to those who look to God as a cheap economist and therapist for their self-induced economic and emotional fragility. The major exception to these criteria is the Roman Catholic Church who, arguably, has the best-educated clergy throughout history and yet poor congregants predominate the Roman Catholic church. This indicates that evangelicals, especially reformed evangelicals, have abdicated to the Catholics and Pentecostals the responsibility of reaching the poor, the very people Jesus said should, “have the Gospel preached unto them.”

Intelligence and Ignorance also impact the aesthetics of worship. Again, as a general rule, the more sophisticated the theology of a denomination, the more aesthetically high its worship environment. For instance, just notice the difference architectural styles and interior décor of the Catholic, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches as opposed to the architecture and décor of Baptist, Bible, and Pentecostal Churches.

In the last twenty years, the major aesthetic shift in Christendom has been in the aesthetics of music, which also follows the same pattern: the more sophisticated the theology, the more sophisticated the music, both in terms of lyrics and composition. “High Church” and “high theology” breed an ambiance of “high music” that aims to elevate the aesthetic sensibilities of the worshiper, especially his intellectual contemplation of sophisticated lyrics and his emotional meditation upon complex musical scores; “Low church” and “low theology” breed “low music” that aims more at the emotions than the mind, typified by lyrical and compositional simplicity. Plato warned against the latter.

Art in any form, especially musical art that aims primarily for the emotions is, according to Plato, not to be trusted. Plato understood that pathos should never rule logos: emotions should never rule the mind; when the heart gets over the head, tragedy follows. The opposite must be true if art has any value, Plato said; logos should rule pathos, the mind should filter and refine the emotions, and the only way the emotions can be properly filtered and refined is through intellectual rigor that leads to Truth which, in turn leads to Goodness and Beauty. That makes most contemporary Christian music suspect.

The contemporary Christian music scene, and the all to common “ambiance” of typical “praise and worship,” can hardly be indicted for being lyrically and musically complex. To the contrary, three-chord choruses, sung over and over again, with minimal lyrics and simplistic scores, rule the day. We say, “Isn’t that a great song,” not because it is truly “great” but because it so easily touches our mundane and lethargic lyrical and musical sensibilities. We don’t have to think, and we don’t have to strain our voice or our ear. “Easy listening” wins the day in contemporary worship. Ask yourself this question, “What is the greatest influence upon contemporary Christian music?” Christianity, or secular music? The answer is all too obvious. This magnetic pull of the Christian masses to vulgar lyrics and music powerfully corroborates our thesis:

Ignorance, not knowledge, permeates contemporary worship.

Knowledge is never a sure guard against errant theological ideas, religious practices, or even appropriate aesthetic sensibilities, but ignorance is always the enemy of Truth. As for me and my house, I would rather sit in the ornate secular chamber of Mozart and Debussy and gaze beyond their unconscious genius to the deliberate mystery of God, or wrestle with the honest skepticism of Twain and Voltaire, than to subject my ear and mind to an intellectually tepid and emotionally mundane distortion of God Almighty. In Bonhoeffer's day his contemporaries had marked the theology of worship "on sale"; today, we have posted that bargain in our once stained-glass, now broken, windows of aesthetic sensibilities.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Are Men Growing More Wicked?

Are Men Growing More Wicked?

Yes, men are growing more wicked.

Proof shouts at us from every niche and corner: on the television, the movie screen, the radio, the Internet, at the table next to us in a restaurant, in the newspaper, in politics, economics, from the suburb to the inner city, from the most rural setting to the ivory mansion, evil is rampant, adamant, blatant, decadent, flagrant, violent, insolent, and constant.

After five decades of observing human nature and culture, my observations are existential to my subjective experience, but only a blind and deaf man would argue against objective proof of my assertion that men are growing more wicked.

As my “righteous soul is vexed from day to day,” I think often about moral and cultural deterioration. My latest contemplation of that awful subject derives from a recent conversation with an educational colleague who taught a number of years in a southeastern, metropolitan public school district. Beyond the typical incorrigibility and lethargy of the average student, numbers of her students wore electronic ankle bracelets to supervise their probation. Threats against teachers and social matriculation were the norms. We both reminisced about “the good old days” when public school schools were excellent (of course a handful still are), and the teacher was equally respected with the doctor, lawyer, and preacher. The teacher was always right, a revered authority-figure whose professional station inherently demanded respect from both students and parents. Misbehave, and the prodigal could expect an enforceable penalty; continue to misbehave, and he could expect the board of education applied (with stinging force) to the seat of education.

My! How things have changed! Punish a punk and you'll get fired and sued.

If you’ve followed this blog for any time, you’ve heard my harangue about prolific profanity in public places. Add to that the sexual promiscuity and drug abuse rampant in our culture, and one already has several unassailable proofs of moral and cultural deterioration—disrespect, irreverence, ignorance, laziness, rebellion, materialism, relativism. I know Caligula had his day, and Hitler, and Dillinger, too, but nowadays outlaws, hooligans, hoodlums, and hedonists are the rule, not the exception.

Why?

Pragmatically and historically, the 50's and especially the 60's are the origin of this decline: the advent of rock and roll and, with that, the drug and sex culture; the burgeoning entertainment industry and media controlled by reprobates and profligates; perpetual and large-scale breakage of the Ten Commandments; the intellectual and philosophical deterioration of the average university and the raping of the public mind; celebrity worship in athletics, theater, and music; relative and socialized democracy instead of absolute and socio-economic hierarchy bred from meritocracy, the psychological wasteland of divorce; pornography; sexual license; social and biological Darwinism; laziness; gluttony; Arminianism; mysticism; and, yes, the debilitating effects of multi-culturalism in the name of tolerance and equality: all these factors are symptomatic proofs of men grown more wicked.

It is certainly becoming much more difficult to love a neighbor as oneself. Those who possess moral integrity find themselves increasingly polarized from the broader culture; this is why Christian schools exist, and why so many Christians channel (and largely waste) their energies through politics, trying to “take back America for Christ.” But, of course, a political solution is only a Band-aid. A national catastrophe might spark a degree of moral and cultural reformation, not a molehill like 9/11 but a mountain like WWII, perhaps simultaneous and broad-scaled nuclear or biological detonations in American cities (I think it is almost sure to happen); but every Israelite knows how shallow is the repentance of Pharaoh and Egypt in the midst of plagues.

I am so thankful that I am a citizen of Heaven, that the Church is my Home, that the Bible is my Constitution, that a better Wind blows upon my Homeland than that shifty and violent wind of human culture; I am so thankful for God’s grace in my life, for the forgiveness of my sin through the precious blood of Jesus Christ, and for eyes that, though they must at times look with horror and sorrow upon “the things seen,” can also look above and beyond to wonderful and unassailable “things unseen.”

“Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse,” Paul has told us, and also that “in the last days, men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”

May the Sovereign and Merciful God of Heaven help Israel that she may also grow, better and better, “in grace, and in the knowledge of her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

By His own decree, and in His own way and time, that Dread Sovereign, Messiah ben David, shall "wash His feet in the blood of the wicked."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Lost in Austin

The Fair Tish and I went on our annual Super Secret Road Trip ("SSRT"). This was SSRT #5: Lost in Austin. The SSRT occurs around the first week of July every year, and is basically comprised of me planning a weekend in a city, telling Tish to hop in the car, and then we go. Somewhere along the way, I tell her where we're going, and it's a great deal of fun. This custom began when we were dating, and would go someplace for the day (in other words, we wouldn't spend the night somewhere).

Austin was a blast. We ate some great food, visited the Capitol, canoed, and toured the LBJ Presidential Library. We also stumbled upon a tea party, and hung out with about a thousand of our closest friends. If I could buy stock in the Gadsden Flag, I would go all in. The tea parties, if nothing else, are great stimuli for the flag business. Below I've composed ten observations about Austin. Feel free to contribute your own.

1. I didn't get bitten by a single mosquito, not one---not even while canoeing. I don't know if you can appreciate that phenomenon or not, but I must say I found it simply amazing.

2. Perhaps just as interesting, I surmise the reason I didn't get bitten was because Austin is home to 1.5 million bats that live around the lake near the Capitol Building.

3. Somebody should franchise tattoo parlors. Maybe that's already been done, but if it hasn't some enterprising inkster should take charge. Austin has approximately 700,000 people, all of whom, it seems, have at least three visible tattoos. That's visible tattoos.

4. Austin has a N. Congress, a S. Congress, and a Congress. As Congress is the main road, I believe there should be some sort of sign when you come into town about this. The Capitol Building divides North Congress and Congress. Then past the lake you have South Congress. I suppose this isn't a big deal when driving, but when it's 1:30 on a 110 degree day and you're walking around the Capitol Building on Congress and 15th hankering for a pizza at a certain primo pizza joint you read was on the 1400 block of S. Congress, and you've just noticed that north of the Capitol is N. Congress, well, you get a bit peeved, let's say, when you walk six blocks and realize there's no "S." in front of Congress....

5. While you can't smoke in restaurants in Austin, you can wear a dress that comes less than an inch below your business, if you catch my drift. Speaking of women's dresses, a feminist law professor told me once that a good answer to an essay question should be like a woman's skirt: long enough to cover everything, but short enough to keep it interesting. Driving down 6th Street on Friday evening on our way back to the hotel I saw a lot of "interesting," but I don't think everything got covered.

6. I am absolutely convinced that big cities breed racism, and that the only people who can't see that are those people who live in big cities. A quick glance around and you see self-segregated groups all over the place: Asian groups, Mexican groups, Black groups, White groups. We were at a pizza place (a substitute pizza place for the aforementioned primo joint) and I went to get a refill of my Cherry Coke (the best drink with pizza, bar none). Behind the counter was a 40ish woman of Italian heritage, and in front of the counter chatting with her was a 60ish woman of Mexican heritage. The older woman was quite upset over something regarding the ubiquitous Jackson coverage. I asked her what she was specifically upset about and she cited the tickets being sold for the funeral at the Staples Center. "Would you ever pay for a funeral?" "No," I said. "I would never charge for one either," she said. Then she paused... "It's the blacks." Maybe I'm just some hayseed hick, but I figured it was just nuts of all races.

7. Is there a requirement that hotel workers don coats that are three sizes too big for them? I notice this on every overnight trip I take now. The guy, or gal, behind the counter, regardless of age or race, has on a coat that just swallows them. I wonder whether that's taught in all of those hotel management courses they have at colleges these days.

8. I'm convinced that every waiter I had there either just moved to Austin to get into the music business, or moved to Austin 10 years ago to get into the music business. (I'm sure in the fall there will be students waiting tables, too.) The Fair Tish pointed out that the reason they probably haven't made it in music is because waiters have to work so many nights and weekends, which is when most gigs would be booked. She suggests that aspiring musicians get day jobs so they can perform at night. I thought that was a brilliant point.

9. The Pledge of Allegiance was recited at the tea party (I abstained). The recitation brought up this thought: If we added Puerto Rico as a state, then would people who pledged allegiance to the 50 star flag not have to pledge allegiance to the 51 star flag, as they would be reneging on their prior promise? What about pledgers from pre-Alaska/Hawaii?

10. There's no place like home.