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May 03, 2011

TSAMuch has been said about the TSA and their growing freedom to do pretty much whatever they want to us once we enter an airport. I don’t like those backscatter x-ray machines and refuse to go through, which means that I have had to get that full and invasive patdown a few times now. While it’s not the kind of thing I get too outraged about, I do find it frustrating. We all know that it is largely a charade—that giving invasive patdowns to those who refuse to go through the backscatter machines really does nothing to make the skies safer. It is security theater, designed not to stop terrorism but to make us feel like it is stopping terrorism. Patting down toddlers is the price we pay to feel safer.

Patrick Smith, who writes the column “Ask the Pilot” for Salon.com, writes about an absurd situation he encountered recently. He was snagged for not putting all of his liquids and gels in a little zippered baggy. No problem; though having to put your little travel-sized liquids in a baggy is another silly and largely pointless exercise, Smith complies. But here’s where it gets funny—the TSA guy doesn’t then scan those liquids or do anything else with them; he just wants them in the baggy. As if having them in a plastic bag makes the skies safer. As soon as he is past the checkpoint, Smith takes them out of the bag (as it is his right to do). But at the checkpoint, even after they went through the machine, the agent insisted on having them in a bag. It’s utterly pointless.

At the end of his column Smith writes about an infamous situation in which TSA agents missed the forest for the trees—or something like that.

Are we looking for liquids, or are we looking for explosives? A search for the former is not a de facto search for the latter. Not the way we’ve been doing it. Steve Elson tells the story of a test in which TSA screeners are presented with a suitcase containing a mock explosive device with a water bottle nestled next to it. They ferret out the water, of course, while the bomb goes sailing through.

This is not to say that we do not need the TSA and that airports and airplanes need no security. Quite the opposite. The fact is, though, that most of the public measures are designed to elicit a feeling of security rather than to actually make anyone or anything secure.

Blah blah blah. I could rant about this for a long time. When it comes right down to it, Romans 13 compels me to submit and obey (though technically the TSA has no connection to my government). So I submit to their rules, ridiculous as they are.

Now let me draw an application I’ve had to make to myself.

September 10, 2008

I wanted to post a brief follow-up to Monday’s article in which I asked Who Shapes Your World? I think the issue of celebrity and heroism was a fascinating component of the James Bradley’s book Flags of our Fathers. In the book he described the infamous battle of Iwo Jima, but he did so within the context of his search for the role his father played in that battle. His father, John Bradley, a Navy corpsman who was assigned to the Marines, was one of the men who raised a flag over Iwo Jima in what has become the world’s most reproduced and most famous photograph. His father was thrust into the role of hero or celebrity based on raising that flag, and yet he very rarely spoke of his role in the battle in his life after the war. He mentioned it only once to his wife and only a couple of times to his children. It was only after his death that his children began to consider what their father had done and to try to unravel why he would not, could not, speak of the war. They wanted to know how their father became a hero.

Hero. In that misunderstood and corrupted word, I think, lay the final reason for John Bradley’s silence.

Today the word “hero” has been diminished, confused with “celebrity.” But in my father’s generation the word meant something.

Celebrities seek fame. They take actions to get attention. Most often, the actions they take have no particular moral content. Heroes are heroes because they have risked something to help others. Their actions involve courage. Often, those heroes have been indifferent to the public’s attention. But at least, the hero could understand the focus of the emotion. However he valued or devalued his own achievement, it did stand as an accomplishment.

The moment that saddled my father with the label of “hero” contained no action worthy of remembering. When he was shown the photo for the first time, he had no idea what he was looking at. He did not recognize himself or any of the others. The raising of that pole was as forgettable as tying the laces of his boots.

The irony of John Bradley’s celebrity is that, during the battle of Iwo Jima he was a hero many times over. His heroism earned him a Navy Cross, the Navy’s second highest decoration. His son writes, “the flagraising, in fact, might be seen as one of the few moments in which he was not acting heroically.” He knew that the act of planting a flag in the ground was not an act of heroism, but was an act that had made him a celebrity. “He knew real heroism. He could separate the real thing from the image, the fluff. And no matter how many millions of people thought otherwise, he understood that this image of heroism was not the real thing.” John Bradley had no interest in celebrity and resented those who sought to bestow it upon him.

On Monday I wrote about our culture’s obsession with celebrity and shared some wise words that Os Guinness wrote in The Call. He discusses fame and heroism and the call of Christ and provides three reasons that heroism has fallen on hard times. It is the second reason that most gripped me. Guinness points to the press and media and their role in creating the modern celebrity. He did this long before “American Idol” and the rise of the “reality” show, forces that have created celebrities (or “heroes”) faster than ever before. These forces widen the gap between “fame and greatness, heroism and accomplishment.” It used to be that heroism was linked to the honor of accomplishment so that only those were regarded as heroes who had actually made some grand accomplishment, whether in “character, virtue, wisdom, the arts, sports or warfare.” Sadly, this is no longer the case. Today we find that the media offers a shortcut to fame—“instantly fabricated famousness with no need for the sweat, cost and dedication of true greatness. The result is not the hero but the celebrity, the person famously described as ‘well-known for being well-known.’ A big name rather than a big person, the celebrity is someone for whom character is nothing, coverage is all.”

Daniel Boorstin in his book The Image, aptly defined fame in our societal context. “The hero was distinguished by his achievement, the celebrity by his image. The celebrity is a person well known for his well-knownness. We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so realistic that we can live in them.” Gregory Foster, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C, wrote on this subject recently. “Celebrities…are qualitatively quite different than heroes, markedly inferior to them in fact. The celebrity is nothing but a person of celebrity, well known for his well-knownness,” he wrote. “Heroes, in contrast, are transcendent, mythic, seemingly superhuman figures who combine greatness with goodness. They may have charisma, presence, and ‘gravitas’; they must demonstrate courage, vision, and character-selfless character. Heroes have stature, if not size.”

It would be easy to dismiss this subject as irrelevant to the Bible-believing Christian, sweeping it away with a terse statement that Christians are not to have heroes. And yet it is not that simple. We, as humans, are naturally followers. There is something in us, and something that I think precedes the Fall, that precedes our sinful natures. Whatever this is causes us to want to follow others. Foster writes, “we are all followers at heart. We praise and preach leadership, but we practice followership. Consciously or not, we constantly seek someone beyond ourselves to tell us when and how high to jump. Better that we relinquish ourselves to someone worthy of adulation and veneration than to the many charlatans and demagogues who prey on us.” Christians are not exempt from this and constantly seek others to emulate. The Bible does not appear to frown on this, but anticipates it, expects it. I think of the admonition of Solomon that “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” I think of Paul exhorting the Corinthians to “be imitators of me.” I think of the lofty moral requirements of those who are to be leaders in the church. Truly we all seek to follow, even those who also seek to lead.

And yet we often follow poorly. With our very souls at stake, it is crucial that we choose our heroes well. Far too often we seek to emulate not those who are most godly, but those who have the highest profiles. We choose our heroes poorly and are molded into the image of men or women who have not first been shaped into the image of Christ. We follow Christian celebrities rather than emulating true heroes. We follow those who are content to be celebrities, even Christian celebrities. We follow those who offer no stature, only size.

It seems to me that John Bradley knew something that too many in our culture, whether Christian or not, are content to ignore. He saw celebrity for what it was: instant, empty and fleeting. He knew that true heroes are those who are known and remembered not for a meteoric rise to prominence, not merely for being known, but for accomplishment and character. If only we were so discerning.

September 08, 2008

Every now and again TIME Magazine features “The People Who Shape Our World.” A couple of years ago, they created a list of 100 men and women whose power, talent or moral example, they feel, is transforming our world. It is important to note, before we take a peek at this list, that it is not really the world which these people shape. Rather, it is people within the world that are shaped and transformed by these people. A person can only shape the world by shaping the people in the world. So bear that in mind as we move along here.

Having reviewed this list, the cynic in me does not hold out much hope for the world. Here are some of the men and women who are apparently shaping the world we live in. The first category is of artists and entertainers—“influential stars [who have] won fans and spawned imitators around the globe.”: J.J. Abrams, George Clooney, Dixie Chicks, Ellen DeGeneres, Wayne Gould, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Arianna Huffington, Ang Lee, Rachael Ray, Will Smith, Howard Stern, Reese Witherspoon, Tyra Banks, Matt Drudge and Stephen Colbert.

I only rarely watch movies, have gotten rid of our cable television, and almost never listen to the radio so am not entirely up-to-date on Hollywood’s latest shining stars, but I had a great deal of trouble thinking that most of these people could possibly shape our world, at least in a way that was at all positive. And even more so, I had trouble understanding why anyone would want to emulate and idolize many of these people and allow themselves to be shaped by them. Again, a person can only shape the world by shaping the people in the world. To be influential a person must have influence over others.

On this list we have such notables as the Dixie Chicks. Their influence is felt in disrespecting and scorning their President, setting a terrible example to their fans of people who loudly and proudly disregard authority. We have Ellen DeGeneres and Ang Lee who are notable primarily for being advocates and champions of the homosexual agenda. There is Reese Witherspoon who, well, stars in movies. Howard Sterm has popularized all manner of perversity and profanity while Tyra Banks has a talk show and lots of surgery, I guess. Rachael Ray teaches people to cook (I know this because I saw an episode of her show once while flying from Los Angeles to Atlanta).

The article goes on to list Scientists & Thinkers, Leaders & Revolutionaries, Heroes & Pioneers and Builders & Titans. Some of the names are familiar to just about anyone. Others are not. Noticeably absent from this list was a firm Christian presence (which I say despite Bono and Pope Benedict both being represented).

As I thought about this list I was reminded of something Os Guinness wrote in The Call. He discusses fame and heroism and the call of Christ. He provides three reasons that heroism has fallen on hard times. The first of these is the modern habit of debunking. Modern people are (often necessarily) cynical and “look straightaway not for the golden aura but for the feet of clay, not for the stirring example but for the cynical motive, not for the ideal embodied but for the energetic press agent.” The third reason is the death of God in Western society, or as Guinness terms it, “the drowning out of the call of God in modern life.” Having lost a perspective of the transcendence of human life, we can no longer properly talk about an ideal human character. In previous generations, to be a great human being was to be a “knight of the faith.” This is, of course, no longer the case. Because there is no Caller and no higher calling, there are no knights of faith and no one who can dub them.

It is the second reason, though, that most gripped me. Guinness points to the press and media and their role in creating the modern celebrity. He did this long before “American Idol” and the rise of the “reality” show. These forces widen the gap between “fame and greatness, heroism and accomplishment.” It used to be that heroism was linked to the honor of accomplishment so that only those were regarded as heroes who had actually made some grand accomplishment, whether in “character, virtue, wisdom, the arts, sports or warfare.” Sadly, this is no longer the case. Today we find that the media offers a shortcut to fame—“instantly fabricated famousness with no need for the sweat, cost and dedication of true greatness. The result is not the hero but the celebrity, the person famously described as ‘well-known for being well-known.’ A big name rather than a big person, the celebrity is someone for whom character is nothing, coverage is all.”

Guinness often points to Winston Churchill as a true hero. Churchill was a flawed man, but one who rose to true fame, greatness and heroism through character, virtue, wisdom and warfare. Churchill was able to say once that “I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.” Yet through the trials he developed great character and has rightly been memorialized as a true hero. Guinness points to Moses who was a man ablaze with a passion for God. Moses was transformed from being a man of action to a man of words and he slowly became a leader, a prophet, and a hero who was given the tribute “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” This is so vastly different from the Paris Hilton brand of celebrities in our culture who are known for being well known.

The heroes and influencers of our culture are rarely heroic. We prefer fleeting fame to grand accomplishment, coverage to character. Sadly, it seems that this lack of discernment is seen within the church as much as without. Many of the men and women who have risen to the ranks of influencers and leaders within the church lack the godliness and character that ought to set apart those to whom we give special honor. How else to we explain so many of the Christian “heroes” who are watched by millions and who sell millions of copies of their books?

Great men and women will have great heroes. This was brought home to me some time ago when I had the privilege of touring through the offices and library of Dr. Albert Mohler. On the walls of the library and his offices were portraits of truly great men—Charles Spurgeon, John Knox, William Tyndale and other heroes of church history. There was even a portrait of Winston Churchill and several biographies of the man. Clearly Dr. Mohler is deliberately surrounding himself with the examples of men who are truly great—men whose example he can learn from and emulate. I’ve since toured other similar libraries and time and again I see portraits and biographies of great men and women—people who are heroes in the truest, purest sense of the word.

I aspire to be a great man. I don’t much care if you or anyone else remembers my name months or years from now, as long as God knows me as a man who knew and loved and honored Him. I wish to be great in His eyes. If I am to strive after godliness and to become a man who is great in God’s eyes, I must pay close attention to who influences me, to who shapes my world. I must know for certain that I will imitate those I allow to influence me. And thus I must be sure that those who influence me are not merely those who are well-known for being well-known, but those who are men and women of character, virtue and wisdom. I will not find too many of those in the lists of “People Who Shape Our World.”