Sunday, 31 January 2016

Joy, according to C. S. Lewis and Miroslav Volf

We don’t use the word "joy" a lot these days. The Google Ngram below shows that the words "joy" and "happiness" occur with about the same frequency, but if you add "happy" and "happiness" together, then they occur about 3 times as often as "joy". They can mean the same thing, but I think of happiness as a passing emotion that depends on external circumstances, whereas joy reflects a deeper sense of contentment, wonder and satisfaction that doesn’t depend on circumstances.

An author who influenced me a lot in younger days was C.S. Lewis, whose auto-biography was called "Surprised by Joy". Late in life he married a woman called Joy Davidman, but that happened after he published the auto-biography, so the book wasn't about being surprised by her. In fact the book is about the intense longing we feel for something supremely good, for a state of all-right-ness that the Hebrews called Shalom. Joy is a longing for the source of that goodness, a longing that can hardly be put into words. It is never found by looking for it, but found by surprise when seeking something else. Joy is like finding out that the thing you most wished were true actually is true.

I heard Prof. Miroslav Volf speak in Sydney last year, a theologian whose core topic for many years has been identifying the good life. People often say they want a good life, but what do they really mean?

He said it is very sad that religion often seems to imply that doing what is good and doing what is fun are mutually exclusive -- that if you do one you can't be doing the other. (It reminded me of what it seems like with food. The really yummy food is often not good for you and the food that's good for you can taste awful.) But Volf says that is a stupid idea. He said that we all wish for both pleasure and meaning and the good life has them both. We want to enjoy what we do. We want to do things that contribute to some greater purpose.

The best line of the lecture … I think I will remember it for a long time … was that joy is the unity of meaning and pleasure.

May we all find that true and deep joy. Don't settle for the fool's gold of surface-level happiness but seek all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable; and in doing so may you often stumble into joy.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

God is not in control - hallelujah!

In a recent conversation a friend spoke about the need to trust that God is in control. I've heard it before, and often in the context of a reassurance that even if your situation looks bleak, it is supposed to be comforting to know that God is in control.

I don't believe it.

The God I see described in the Bible gives up control rather than always bringing about what God desires. God suffers as much as we do in the brokenness of life. God allows all sorts of personal calamities, disasters that affect millions of people, and horrendous evils like genocide. It would be blasphemous to say God is in control of such things.

Certainly, God often brings good out of suffering. But that's not always in a way that can be seen and might not be in a person's lifetime. Sometimes I think God may use the suffering of one for the good of others, as happened with Jesus.

To say that God is sovereign, or God is Lord of all, does not have to imply that God always gets what God wants. God probably could have created a universe where God was in control, but chose not to.

For instance,  God "wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9 claims pretty much the same thing). That either means that God's will is done and all people are saved (which I do think is a possibility), or some people are not saved and God's will is thwarted.

I also think of Philippians 2:5-8 which points out that Jesus, being equal with God, chose to be a servant, i.e. one with no say in what happens. If we truly believe that Jesus was the exact image of God, then we also believe that *God* chooses to be a servant, forsaking power and giving up control. That's God's character. God doesn't always prevent or clean up the mess. God allows things to unfold in directions that are contrary to what God would wish.

Sometimes God does something surprising and turns situations around in ways we can only marvel at. But I do not expect that God has something good just around the corner for me and that since God is in control it is sure to happen.

So quotes like this ...

... don't inspire or comfort me. I am more comforted by the image of Romans 8:18-39. Creation is broken; it groans in agony (22). We too groan within that brokenness (23). And God is not controlling things remotely but sitting in the dust with us, also groaning (26). It is true that what God does is always directed towards that liberation from the bondage of decay for us and for the whole creation (20, 21, 28), but there is a lot God chooses not to do, and the decay continues. God wants good things and sometimes we can work together with God as part of the process of bringing good things to reality, but the control over whether those good things come to pass is a complex interplay of divine and human choices and their consequences.

The good news is not that God promises some escape from the brokenness but that God joins us in the brokenness. Not that God is in control, constraining the outcome, but that God has taken the risky step of forsaking control so that we can be truly free.

This is at the core of the Jesus' message: God stands in solidarity with us in the brokenness.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

The surprise of being known

A recent article by Charles M. Stang (*) notes that "Thomas's acclamation [in John 20:28] is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus is called 'God'."

I think that's pretty remarkable. Elsewhere Jesus is called Son of God, image of God, and other similar epithets, but only here is he plainly "God".

More remarkably, the declaration by Thomas is not an abstract philosophical idea but a personal commitment, for the full exclamation was "My Lord and my God!"

What caused the famous doubter to make such a bold avowal? Stang suggests that it was not because the doubts about whether Jesus was alive were removed when Thomas touched him. In fact Thomas probably did not touch Jesus! Jesus invited him to but the declaration "My Lord and my God!" comes immediately after the invitation, with nothing at all to imply that he touched Jesus first.

It strikes me that the Gospel writer has created a clever parallel between this scene at the end of the Gospel and one at the beginning – with Nathanael back at the end of chapter 1.

Nathanael is sitting under a fig tree when Philip says to him "Come and meet Jesus of Nazareth. We think he might be the promised one." to which Nathanael responds derisively "Not likely if he comes from Nazareth!" But he came to Jesus anyway and Jesus surprises him by already knowing what he was doing under the fig tree. More than that, Jesus affirms Nathanael's guileless heart.

In response to this surprise of being known, Nathanael blurts out “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

The parallels with the Thomas scene are numerous. Thomas is also told about Jesus by other disciples and he responds derisively. But when he meets Jesus, he finds that his thoughts are already known to Jesus. And in the surprise of being known he blurts out "My Lord and my God!" To end both scenes, Jesus is recorded as commenting on the basis for belief.

At the beginning and the end of the Gospel, John records people making life-changing allegiances to Jesus because they are surprised and overjoyed to realise that they are already known by Jesus. The significant thing about this kind of faith is not how it is influenced by what you know or how much you doubt. What is significant is that faith – or faithfulness – is based on a certain kind of relationship. In neither Nathanael's nor Thomas's case does Jesus reprove them for doubt, and I am sure both continued to hold doubts. So it's not that they made some declaration of faith because their doubts went away. Rather, they both made declarations of allegiance because in being known by Jesus they recognised the compassion of God.

* Stang, Charles M. 2016. “Doubt, Our Modern Crown of Thorns.” Studies in Church History 52.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The wild man at the heart of Roger Waters' "The Wall"

Roger Waters The Wall
During last week a friend and I watched The Wall at the wonderful Avoca Beach Picture Theatre, not quite knowing what we were going to see. Was it going to be a remake of the original movie or a documentary reflecting on the album that was first released 37 years ago? It turns out to be an edited version of Roger Waters' 2010-2013 concert tour, with concert footage interspersed with Waters' pilgrimage to war memorials where his father and grandfather died.

37 years! Makes me feel old, because I remember buying that album at the time. Now, when I listen to a lot of the music I loved back then, it sounds pretentious and musically lame, but The Wall is one of a handful of albums that continue to be inspiring: the music is still catchy and complex, the lyrics profound, and the artistic vision monumental.

Pink Floyd was always known for the extravagance of their light shows, and Waters raises that in this concert to amazing heights. I mean "raises" literally -- the stage crew gradually build a brick wall at the front of the stage during the concert, so that by half-way through the musicians are completely obscured by a 10m wall and continue to perform behind it.

The wall has always been the central metaphor of the whole project, and Waters has worked that metaphor to the limit through multiple re-interpretations over three decades. We build personal walls to protect ourselves, but they end up isolating and imprisoning us. As he emphasised in the Berlin concert in 1990, the wall can also isolate and imprison nations.

I've always been a great fan of Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave, and even pretty impressed with Michael Jackson's posthumous This Is It. But from a creative point of view, The Wall has a scope and attention to detail that surpasses them all. The staggering visual effects complement the storyline of the music and amplify the audacious vision that is both a commentary on war and fear, and a semi-biographical reflection on modern masculinity.

It is that last point that stood out to me as I watched the movie. The lasting value of the whole project is likely to be not the creativity, or the music, or the visual effects but the insightful portrayal of the modern western male psyche. Waters has captured the angst I feel, and I think many of my male peers feel. The ambiguity of whether walls protect or imprison. The shame of expressing emotions. The demoralising outcome of modern education. The distrust of government. The misguided aspiration for rock-star status. The disappointment that life has not delivered what we hoped for. The depressing thought they we are no more than a single brick in a huge impersonal wall.

In another review of this movie, Leslie Felperin accuses Waters of misogyny. I think Felperin is wrong about that, mistaking an honest portrayal of the male experience for a denial of the female experience. The movie is almost devoid of females. All the musicians are male. Waters' travelling companions are male apart from a brief scene with someone I presume is his daughter.

The story in the lyrics reveals a youth who had difficulty separating from a perhaps over-protective mother. The original movie (from memory) had more to say about how that psychological rut was transferred to his wife. That's coupled with an absent father. The commentary in this movie explicitly notes that war caused not only Roger Waters to grow up without a father, but that the same thing was true of his father.

Waters is a man castrated, but consciously on the journey to discover what it means to be a true man.

Along that journey he notes -- and discards -- false ideals of the masculine. Waters' repeated use of faux-Nazi characters and symbols satirically presents the emptiness of the supposedly masculine will to power. Woven throughout the piece is a criticism of the tendency to judge those who are different and the way that is ultimately expressed in the stupidity of waging war against the Other. When it comes to male attitudes to women, he notes the pathetic expression of lust for a "dirty woman", and couples that with a fear of being eaten by a vagina.

One of the best outcomes of feminism is that it has forced men to think about the meaning of masculinity. Waters hasn't resolved that here, but he clearly rejects some possibilities, and I think points towards two more helpful possibilities. In "Nobody Home" he sings "I've got wild staring eyes \ and I've got a strong urge to fly \ but I got nowhere to fly to." What I think Waters is attempting here, or at least pointing towards, is to reclaim the wild man archetype. The problem is, how does one get there from here? We feel trapped behind the wall we have conspired with society to build around our male identity. But let's at least affirm the will to break free.

The second direction Waters points to is the demolition of the wall. Sometimes it can be a conscious deconstruction; other times it is forced upon us as a shameful punishment "to be exposed before your peers." But in the end, as is clear from "Outside the Wall", we need each other.