Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Our Distrust of Relationships

"...our investment in technology reflects our distrust of relationships."

So says Samuel Wells in his chapter on human cloning. Is he right? And if he is, are we right to distrust relationships? I can't help but think of House's recurring line during the first three seasons of the show - "Everybody lies". That was his dogma. It was his truth about humanity - a truth that made technology the only thing to be really trusted and which turned human beings into mechanisms requiring mechanical solutions.

But if Terminator 2 has taught me anything -- and I'd be lying if I said that it hasn't -- it's that more and better technology will not ultimately lead to progress. In fact it may well lead to a disaster of apocalyptic proportions.

Walter Brueggemann's diagnosis of society moves along the same lines as Wells's:

Our society is now tempted to solve societal (and therefore personal) problems by old, predictable remedies. These remedies often seek to reduce solutions to power or technology or to more commodity goods. Thus political threat is countered by more military power. Thus problems of illness or aging are managed by more technology. Thus loneliness is overcome by more commodity goods, whether cars, new information technology, or beer. 

Of course it seems churlish to be having a go at technology, given that one of the givens of the quest for "more technology" is that Life ought to be prolonged. But as Wells notes, the "Life" in question is more the Platonic form than the kind of life that really is life. Thus you can have a doctor whose waking hours are dedicated to prolonging the existence of others, but whose life itself is a misery and whose opinion of those he is saving is that either they're as miserable as he is, or their lying.

In our knowledge economy, pride of place is given to those with the intellectual capacity to control and advance technology. Good friends, people who care about other human beings, are distrusted or seen as nice but useless. "Caring is out of fashion", writes Wells. We want solutions and cures, all the while belittling the more difficult task of coming alongside a fellow human being who is suffering and simply being there, however "useless" that might make us feel.

Into society's current handling of political threat, illness and lonliness, Brueggemann speaks the following words:

What we know, however, is that the most elemental human issues -- social and personal -- do not admit to such resolution. The reason is that human persons in human community are designed for serious, validating relationships that call for mutual care and responsibility; no amount of power, technology, or commodity can be substituted for relatedness. Thus Israel's great confession of faith is that at the bottom of reality is the fidelity of a holy God who seeks relatedness...

The King's Speech illustrates the power of "serious, validating relationships". The king in question has a chronic speech impediment, and has gone to every doctor in town who have tried every mechanical solution to fix the problem. His wife eventually takes him to a quirky man who promises to help. But help doesn't come in the form we think it might. It turns out (spoiler alert, but not really) that the man paid to cure the king has no credentials. He is not a doctor, an academic, a highly trained speech therapist. He is merely a man who found he could help people by giving them a voice. The king's issue was deeper than a spech impediment; his issue was a complete lack of a friendship. Having a friend gave the king a voice that somebody else considered worth hearing. And so the healing process could begin, though the wounds were not quite what the king anticipated.

There is a scene in House that also comes to mind. In the episode it feautres in, Dr House is confroned by a boy with severe autism. The child's parents have brought him to House because they fear something unusual -- that is, something other than the autism -- is the matter. House can't help but notice the oppressed look on the parents' faces throughout the episode. He sees their misery as they watch their child struggle to relate to those around him. They appear hopeless. The boy himself won't -- can't -- even look people in the eyes. He spends his time staring down at a hand held video game as the world drifts by.

House eventually cures the child of a potentially fatal illness, but as he sits with his "friend" Wilson he sees the parents reunite with their child and is completely underwhelmed by their reaction. One would expect them to register a "10" on the happiness scale having just been told that their son is going to live after all, but House suggests that they barely hit a "7".

The parents and child walk over to House and Wilson in order to say a thank you and a goodbye before returning to their life of "quiet desperation". The boy's head is still stuck in the video game as usual, but for one quite unexpected and brilliant moment he removes his gaze from the tiny screen and stares directly into House's eyes. House is transfixed. He looks back into the child's eyes, because, well, what else can he do? He relates to the boy in one of the few ways the boy can relate. Watching from the sidelines, the parents' faces are lit up with wide smiles and eyes. They walk away with their son with renewed hope.

"Now that's a 10", says Wilson.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Guess The "Theological Program"...

Such a theological program is highly individualistic, making the church an addendum to salvation, Christ’s resurrection a footnote to his penal death, and ethics an afterthought to theology.

- Andy Johnson

Find out what Andy Johnson is on about here. (Just to spice things up: His critique is of a doctrine that you -- if you're a Christian -- probably hold fast to; maybe even a doctrine on which your life of faith is built. It's certainly a doctrine I've clung to, but one I'm slowly beginning to loosen my grip on. Why? Because in the words of Daniel Kirk, "The structure of the universe is not law, the story of the universe is not a court drama".)

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Biblical Blog Post

Does anyone else have a problem with the adjective 'biblical'? I just saw it in one of the blogs I read to get me angry and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Biblical manhood. Biblical womanhood. A biblical view of money. A biblical view of sex. A biblical view of work. A biblical view of chairs and their relationship to biblical sitting.

The implications of using this adjective are (usually) "I have the one correct interpretation of the Bible on this matter. Agree with me, or you are unbiblical."

The reality is that doctrine/ethics is a much more complicated beast. It is more complicated because Christians claim to follow a man who is found to be in, over, and sometimes even against the Bible.

* For more on Jesus's relationship to Scripture, you could do worse (though you could most certainly do better) than read my erstwhile series on how Jesus read the Bible. It might just be one of the best things I've done on this blog in two and a half years. (How's that for damning with feint praise!?)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Spiritual Maturity

If only spiritual maturity was based on the number of Christian books you've read...

On America

I've only watched the first minute, but what a strange opening to a memorial address. I half expected someone in the crowd to shout out "Get in the hole!" or "Excellent golf shot, Tiger." When it comes to bizarre crowd reactions, this is up there with David Letterman's audience that night (though the insufferable Letterman ought to shoulder most of the blame for that). 

I have a few American readers so I'll have to choose my words carefully, but Americans are idiots.

Allow me to make another sweeping generalisation while I'm at it: America seems unable to accept tragedy as tragedy, and therefore seems unable to really grieve. Instead, tragedy is seen as a call to "stand up" and become an even more united America under God. Grief is displaced by the usual exceptionalism that calls Americans to become more American; tragedy is a chance to show the world that what doesn't kill us as a nation -- as an ideology -- can only make us stronger. What else can explain such rapturous applause and howling as a man stands up to speak of the loss of life?

I know quite a few American people, and there is not one of them that I wish I didn't know. I just spent a summer in the States, and was treated as well as I've been treated in my life - and I'm not just saying that because I had ice-cream almost every night (though that didn't hurt). But there is a collective mentality in the States that I think is deeply antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

At the beginning of Bible college we had to divide ourselves into groups based on regions of the world. These would be our prayer groups for "World Focus". Someone asked me why I didn't join the North American group. My response was, "America doesn't need prayer; it needs repentance."

I was half-joking when I said it, but like many jokes there was some truth contained within.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Overaccepting A Threatening Offer: A Christian Response To Disability

In the final section of Improvisation, Wells tells the stories of two women -- both heaviliy involved in Christian ministry -- who have each reared a child with severe physical and mental disabilities. This is where the rubber of blocking, accepting and overaccepting meets the road.

Our vocation is to "incorporate" the life of the disabled into the life of the church. Our vocation is to "overaccept" disability. We can begin to do this by listening to Frances Young's words with soft hearts:

The challenge of learning to know, be with, and care for the retarded is nothing less than learning to know, be with, and love God. God's face is the face of the retarded; God's body is the body of the retarded; God's being is that of the retarded. For the God we Christians must learn to worship is not a God of self-sufficient power; a God who in self-possession needs no one; rather ours is a God who needs people, who needs a Son. Absoluteness of being or power is not a work of the God we have come to know through the cross of Christ.

The church has tended to identify God with the intelligent, the funny, the talented, the useful, the wealthy, the attractive. I am no different, and I've spent much of my (Christian) life trying to attain most of these things in order to be more god-like. But if Jesus has anything to do with God -- if the cross and resurrection have anything to do with God -- He is to be found in the unexpected people and places.

There is much good talk on our "identity in Christ". But lest that begin to sound like a mystical abstraction, our identity in Christ ought to be wrapped up in the people that Christ identifies with. To have an identity in Christ means to identify with those on the fringes. It means we overaccept them, because God in Christ overaccepts them. The question, Who am I friends with? might just be the most spiritually profound question we ask ourselves this year.

I am still learning. Dear God, I am still learning.

Givens and Gifts: a poem

Givens and Gifts

When gifts are made givens
All hell breaks loose.
Enlightenment boasts knowledge;
Entitlement, its fruit.

Our past is forgotten;
The present’s the game.
The only future imagined
Is more of the same.

When gifts are made givens
Death triumphs over life
And all of our being
Is marked with grasping and strife.

But beautiful feet
Bring good news to all and one
“Our givens are gifts
And the giver is not done.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

Blocking, Accepting, and Overaccepting

If I read a book superior to Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics in the next twelve months, 2011 will have been a vintage year. The chapters on accepting, blocking, and overaccepting are challenging and inspiring in equal measure. If, like me, you don't know what these technical terms mean, a story Wells tells will illuminate.

A concert pianist was performing at a packed venue. He vacated his chair in the middle of the performance to get a drink of water and stretch his legs. During the short interval a child wandered up on stage. The young boy sat on the pianist's stool and started hitting various keys in random fashion. The sound created was deeply unpleasant.

The pianist was now faced with three choices.

He could "block" the boy. That is, he could usher the child away from the piano and back to his parents in the crowd. He could stop this awful sound.

He could "accept" the boy. He could simply let the child continue until the boy decided of his own accord to stop playing.

The pianist decided on option three, however. He walked over to the piano and stood behind the boy, placing his hands down on the piano to the outside of the boy's. As the boy hit his random notes, the pianist began to play along, turning these notes into an improvised melody which delighted the crowd. He did not block the boy's playing. Neither did he merely accept it. He overaccepted it. He turned cacophony into symphony. He turned water into wine.

We face the choice between blocking and accepting every day, in ways small and big. We can kill the conversation with the old man on the bus who wants to talk about nothing in particular, or we can continue it. We can refuse to play with our eager nephew for "genuine" reasons like tiredness or more important things to be doing, or we can just play. There may of course be legitimate times to block and legitimate times to accept, but for Wells the dominant attitude of Christians should be overacceptance. This is because the dominant attitude of Christ was overacceptance.

The Sermon on the Mount is a string of overacceptance. Jesus does not block the law. He does not accept the law. He overaccepts it. If someone asks you to go one mile with them, don't say no. Don't say yes. Go two.

Then there is the adulerous woman. The Pharisees want her to be stoned to death in accordance with the law. Jesus does not block their demands, nor does not accept them. He overaccepts them - "The people who haven't sinned can throw the first stones at her". His overacceptance breeds the right kind of justice.

Think finally of Jesus's death. He does not block it. Neither does he merely accept it. He overaccepts death; he "out-narrates" it with an even bigger story of life. 

If even death can be overaccepted, what is beyond this attitude?

I strongly encourage you, Christian or not, to read this book. The choice is yours - block, accept, or overaccept!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sons Of The System

Consider this story recalled in Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics by Samuel Wells. In the 50’s a fatal accident occurred on an operating table in Edinburgh. A child died due to an unexpected complication, with the surgeon apparently left helpless in the face of sheer bad luck. This is not the story, however. The story is the conversation between two men after the tragedy. One of the men expressed deep sympathy for the unfortunate surgeon. The question, What could he do? was no doubt present with full rhetorical force.

But his conversation partner perceived events differently. He knew the unfortunate surgeon, and therefore knew that there was nothing unfortunate about him or this tragic event:

I think the man is to blame. If anybody had handed me ether instead of chloroform I would have known from the weight it was the wrong thing. You see, I know the man well. We were students together at Aberdeen and he could have become one of the finest surgeons in Europe if only he had given his mind to it. But he didn’t. He was more interested in golf. So he just used to do enough work to pass his examinations and no more. And that is how he has lived his life – just enough to get through, but no more; so he has never picked up those seemingly peripheral bits of knowledge that can one day be crucial. The other day in that theatre a bit of “peripheral” knowledge was crucial and he didn’t have it. But it wasn’t the other day that he failed – it was thirty-nine years ago, when he only gave himself half-heartedly to medicine.

“Just enough to get through, but no more.” This was the story of the surgeon’s life. This is the story of many people’s lives. This is the story of my life.

I gave myself half-heartedly to Financial Mathematics and Economics. I was never going to be one of the finest mathematicians in Europe, but I had the potential to do well. I chose the path of least resistance, however, and have been shaped by that choice ever since. It didn’t matter at the time that I left a Money and Banking exam early because I was so bored with what I was writing. I knew I had done well enough in a conjoined module to pass the class overall. But these choices in the “training ground” form habits that die hard.

“The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” The Duke of Wellington’s point is that the training ground in Eton is what really mattered. Here is where skills were honed, decisions were made, and character was formed. Waterloo was simply the tip of the iceberg. I think also of the Barcelona trio Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. We marvel at their natural talent and giftedness, but it is the training ground at La Masia that has formed them from an early age. They are “sons of the system,” according to Xavi; disciplined, even indoctrinated, to play football a certain way.

“Sons of the system” sounds like slavery, but to watch these three play football is, as Arsene Wenger highlighted, “art”. The “system” is not oppressive; rather, it sets its sons free.

The reality is that we are all sons of a system. The surgeon in question’s system was “Just enough to get through.” It was a system that promised freedom – freedom to play more golf. It probably looked harmless at the time, but it ended up costing a child’s life. What we do in the training ground echoes in the battle ground, for better or worse.

Of course despite what films shows us, most of life is spent in the training ground. Dramatic, life and death moments are rare. Our lives consist of the little things. They are the stuff of training sessions and weekly league games – Champions League finals are few and far between. The training ground and life can’t be separated, because the training ground is life. If we are training, we are training for the present. Our sonship to a system is for the here and now as well as for the future.

The question is, whose sons are we? We know by the fruit. Are we being formed into works of art, virtuous human beings for whom no piece of knowledge is too “peripheral”, for whom no act of faithfulness is too small, for whom no display of love is too insignificant?

To take the Sermon on the Mount seriously is to wrestle with the reality that Jesus didn’t place too much weight on professions of allegiance. The greater weight was placed on doing the will of the Father. Our sonship is a gift freely given by God. No amount of doing can earn entry into the family. But the gift is also a vocation, a calling. We become “sons of the system”, disciplined, even indoctrinated, as Xavi was. But slavery to this system sets us free.