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culture

July 08, 2009

A little while ago my friend Ian loaned me the PBS DVD series The Story of India This six-part series, which runs about six hours, simply tells the story of India from ancient times until roughly the time of Indian Independence. It is a good documentary, even if the host’s excessive exuberance toward all things Indian is a little bit hard to take after a while. “Oh, isn’t that wonderful! Fantastic! Remarkable! Unbelievable! Stupendous!”

As one would have to expect for a series focusing on the history and culture of India, this film devoted a good bit of attention to Indian religion. And, as you know, India is a hotbed of religious fervor where Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and nearly every other religion you can imagine coexist, at times peacefully and at times through great bloodshed. As much as the history of India is the history of faiths existing together in peace, it is equally a story of the battle for dominance of one faith or another. The documentary devoted a good bit of attention to the various means of religious expression, from Muslims venerating the tomb of a sufi to Jains pouring out their offerings to a statue of Gomateshwara to Hindus bowing low before their ancient deities. The idolatry, portrayed so vividly in full-color and wide screen is quite shocking. India represents a fascinating collision of the first world with the third world, of the ancient with the modern. Somehow it seems that this form of idolatry should have been left in the past; have we not evolved or developed or matured beyond bowing before gods of wood and bronze? Yet here are countless millions of men and women who are every bit as devoted to their gods as were the enemies of the Israelites of old.

As I watched these people venerate their gods I felt pity for them and I felt gratitude to God for his grace in saving me from such idolatry, such sinful adulation of Satan. I suppose that may sound arrogant; I do not mean it that way. Here were men and women bowing low before gods who were so clearly made in their own image—gods who were not good and righteous and perfect and omnipotent, but gods who are so often petty and perplexed and perverted—gods who are so very human. There is no transcendence here; there is little to distinguish these gods from those who worship them. These people are, in a very real sense, worshiping themselves. They create gods who are very much like themselves and then prostrate themselves before such pathetic deities. Rarely have I seen such a vivid picture of the idolatry that dwells within the human heart.

Yesterday the world memorialized Michael Jackson. The numbers are still being tabulated but there is little doubt that millions, probably hundreds of millions, watched at least a portion of the memorial service. How many did so, as did I, merely out a morbid sense of curiosity, probably cannot be calculated.

Jackson’s service was an representation of just the kind of pluralism that has marked India. Everybody involved wanted to invoke God’s name, as you’re supposed to do when remembering a loved one, but it was clear that most of them invoked a god made in their own image. Even those who spoke of Jesus or who prayed to Jesus did so without any clear reference to the Jesus of the Bible. They spoke of a Jesus who accepts all and even (or perhaps especially) those who had rejected him. Never did Michael Jackson give any evidence of putting his faith in Jesus Christ, yet those who watched were assured, time and again, that he was now safe in the presence of the Lord, waiting there for the rest of us to arrive. Words and phrases invoked God and used the Christian lexicon but without any reference to the gospel, the true gospel, the gospel that saves. Lost men declared to other lost men untruths about the god they wish for, not the God who is.

During the singing of the old song We Are the World, those who watched saw religious symbols from all faiths spinning across a video screen, blurring, blending their lies to the already blind.

Together as One

All faiths are the same, don’t you know? Why dwell on such petty distinctions? God is whoever you want him (or her or it) to be. We are the world. We are god.

What surprised me more than anything was the genuine grief, the genuine mourning, of those who attended the memorial service. Of course his brothers and sister and daughter were distraught, but so too were many of the fans who so loved him. On the radio I heard an interview with a woman from Toronto who attended a screening of the service. She told how when she heard of Jackson’s death she collapsed and was inconsolable, at least until she could go to a tattoo parlor and have “Gone too soon” tattooed onto her body; that was the beginning of the healing process. She had brought her young son to the memorial service so he could see his mother’s love for this man she so venerated. All across North America, all across the world, there are similar stories of worship. Can we call it anything other than worship? I don’t think this is too strong a word. For many people, Jackson was a god; for many people celebrity is idolatry.

Yesterday we saw idolatry of a whole different order yet idolatry that is so similar to what I saw in The Story of India. There are some who, in their idolatry, bow low before gods of wood and stone and burnished bronze. There are others who, in their idolatry, live vicariously through celebrities and who bow low before the spirit of the age. Michael Jackson’s funeral, where God’s name was invoked and where Jesus’ name was supposedly held high, was as vivid an expression of idolatry as was the footage of hordes of Indian Hindus dancing with joy and veneration before their statues. One is a base idolatry, the other is sophisticated and proper. Both are the same ancient sin, the same ancient rebellion against the one true God.

May 14, 2009

Last night as Aileen and I taught some of the teens at church (as we do every Wednesday evening) we encountered the concepts of guilt and shame. It is a tricky concept this, as it may be positive or negative depending on the context. The Bible makes it clear that, in their innocence, before they invited sin into the world, Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed.” Written after the fact and written at a time when people could hardly conceive of nakedness as being anything but shameful, these words are clearly meant to make people think and to consider a world without shame. Shame, after all, in at least one of its forms, is product of guilt. Shame comes about as we realize our guilt or our inadequacy. Shame comes as we compare ourselves to a better standard or even as we compare ourselves to another standard (which is, more often than not, other people). So while it is a product of sin and a necessity only in an imperfect world, it is also a gift, of sorts. Shame is an aspect of God’s common grace that keeps us from expressing ourselves in ways that would otherwise result in serious consequences.

Some time ago I read The Death of the Grown-up, a fascinating book by Diana West and one that seeks to answer the question of “Where have all the grown-ups gone?” The book’s subtitle is “How America’s Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization.” I suppose that says it all. West has studied this phenomenon and has determined that it is one that is going to have serious repercussions. One section of the book that caught my attention deals with the loss of shame.

Shame is becoming increasingly foreign in our culture. We hear of the way many teens act these days—with 13 year old girls propositioning their male friends and dispensing sexual favors on the school bus; with men and boys alike proudly discussing just how much pornography they consume; with the sexual preferences of movie stars being discussed in the evening news; with commercials for sexual enhancers constantly playing on television. Where has shame gone?

West traces the decline of shame to the death of the notion of obscenity, especially in the world of art. “By the time the courts, in effect, declared obscenity was dead, they had killed something vital to a healthy society: the faculty of judgment that attempts to distinguish between what is obscene and what is not obscene—the avowedly ‘grown-up’ sensibility of an outmoded authority figure who had long relied on a proven hierarchy of taste and knowledge until it was quite suddenly leveled. From this leveling came another casualty: society’s capacity, society’s willingness, to make even basic distinctions between trash and art.”

This has led to all manner of offensive, vulgar art being paraded in front of us, even if that art is just plain bad. The question is not, as it should be, “is it good art?” Rather, people simply cry “censorship” and allow anything to be displayed, no matter how vulgar, no matter how devoid of artistic merit. We can no longer distinguish between trash and art. Exempting art from censorship laws, effectively concluding that there is no such thing as obscenity, has had consequences.

“Once the law balked at recognizing obscenity, the populace began to doubt the very basis for shame. With no legal, institutional support for consensus, little wonder the bottom fell out from under morality.” As obscenity became a thing of the past, so too did it’s necessary consequence: shame. Shame is increasingly missing from our culture. We do things, watch things, enjoy things, participate in things that at any other time and in any other place would be considered shameful. Politicians show little remorse, little shame, when their dirty sexual deeds are exposed. Parents cavort with children, acting like children. “Shamelessness sheds light on why it is that American matrons are more likely to host sex-toy parties than Tupperware parties; why the Major Leagues showcase Viagra ads at home plate; why a presidential fund-raiser for GOP candidates includes a well-endowing—that is, contributing—porn star and pornographer; and why at grocery store checkouts shoppers can check out “hot sex tips” along with a loaf of bread. We have all learned—or at least we have all been taught—that the mental blush is superseded by the genital tingle.”

The paradox is something Christians know well. “Less restraint doesn’t necessarily deliver greater freedom.” It should be not surprising that the “land of the free” is also the land with more laws than just about any other nation in the world. With rules comes freedom—not with a lack of restraint. Humans being what we are, we rely on rules to keep us acting within the bounds of morality and within the bounds of shame. When these rules are tossed out and when shame disappears, so too does our willingness to restrain ourselves. With no concept of obscenity there is no shame; with no shame, anything goes. “In a shameless culture…self restraint is continually undermined.”

“By the twenty-first century, shame and embarrassment have zero association with sexuality—or so we are endlessly, numbingly instructed—and, correspondingly, an infantile lack of behavioral restraint may be observed in everything from freak dancing, to ‘super-size’ eating, to McMansion-building. Without the concept of obscenity, without reason for shame, the ‘self’ in self-control sees no greater, larger, socially significant point in holding back.”

What has happened to shame? Well, it appears that shame has been put to death. “Culturally speaking, obscenity is all but legally obsolete, and shame is a kind of secular sin—a symptom of ‘hang-ups,’ of repression, of inhibition, of liberty lost.”

The only thing our society tells us to be ashamed of, it seems, is shame itself.

April 01, 2009

Some time ago I read Girls Gone Mild, a book by Wendy Shalit. Shalit’s first book, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue was published eight years ago and caused quite a stir. Shalit, an Orthodox Jew, made the audacious claim that the sexual revolution may not have been entirely beneficial for women. She decried the lack of modesty this revolution has brought about and, according to TIME defended “compellingly, shame, privacy, gallantry, and sexual reticence.” Of course many people, and feminists in particular, were disgusted with the book and ruthlessly mocked her. In her second book, Girls Gone Mild Shalit investigated a new movement that seems to be growing in strength and is being led by young people. It is a movement back to modesty and back to an understanding of womanhood that is somehow distinctly feminine.

It is not just Christians who are aghast at our culture’s view of womanhood. The sexual revolution has produced a generation of girls who are brazen in their sexuality. We’ve come to a time when girls are offered the choice between being brave and sexual or timid and modest. Culture teaches that it is acceptable to wait to engage in sexual practices as long as you feel you are unprepared. It is those who are comfortable with their bodies who flaunt their nakedness while those who hide their bodies are ashamed. Hence it is the weak who wait and the strong who engage. And countless numbers of girls are engaged, even from a young age.

But that is not all. As girls become increasingly sexual at an increasingly young age, they also become aggressive. Girls have long been taught that traditionally feminine qualities such as niceness and gentleness are a sign of weakness. Girls are encouraged to be tough, to stand for their perceived rights. And girls do this. Bullying among girls has become commonplace in schools. The term “bullycide” has been coined, has had to be coined, to describe people, and often girls, who are driven to suicide by bullying.

Girls are being mean because their parents and teachers are teaching them to be mean, expecting them to be mean, demanding that they be mean. Adults are telling the children that it is the aggressive who will inherit the earth. The girls who are nice will be trampled on and will be left behind. Girls are also seeing meanness modeled for them in their entertainment. In discussing this topic, Shalit provided an interesting quote from none other than Erika Harold, who was Miss America 2003 and who is now studying law at Harvard. “A profound statement from a beauty pageant winner,” you ask? Read on.

We live in a culture where reality TV is pervasive, and we’re entertained by other’s humiliation and by pulling on people’s weaknesses and watching a weak person be embarrassed; and I maintain that’s the cause—glorifying humiliation of others—not being good. With bullying it’s about thinking you have the right to devalue other people, and there are some people who think people should just toughen up, grow up. But bullying, I think, is a much more pernicious problem than that. If people don’t value other people, they just see it as acceptable to bully other people.

Last February, just as a new season of America’s favorite program began, I wrote about American Idol and how it so masterfully combines our culture’s twin obsessions with exhibitionism and voyeurism. I thought back to this article as I read the quote by Erika Harold. I thought again of William Hung who, perhaps more than anyone else, typifies the victims of reality television. Hung is, well, just not a very good-looking guy (we’ll leave it at that). He may have thought that he was talented enough to make an impact at American Idol but the cold reality, as we all saw, was that he was utterly untalented as both a singer and dancer. Yet he passed through two levels of auditions and was given the stage in front of the judges where he was promptly humiliated and rejected. He was brought back later in the season for a special “Uncut, Uncensored and Untalented” episode where he performed again. He even released a series of three albums, all featuring his horrendous singing. He was a joke and we all laughed at him, not with him.

It is always educational to see what other reality programs are making waves. There is Hell’s Kitchen where a chef with a serious anger problem screams at potential chefs; there is Big Brother, where people compete to be the last person standing in a house filled with cameras; there is American Inventor where people try to create the next big product and America’s Got Talent where thousands compete in a national talent show with a million dollar prize. And then there is some horrendous show who’s name escapes me where young women and older women compete for the attention of a sleazy bachelor. A popular game show, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? puts “average Americans” up against a group of 5th graders in a quiz show format. Those who cannot beat the children have to look into the camera and say, “I am not smarter than a 5th grader!”

The common thread with all of these shows is that they glory in humiliation. Some are worse offenders than others, but anyone who has seen the commercials where Chef Ramsey screams obscenities at chefs in Hell’s Kitchen or who has seen advertisements of older women in anguish after being outfoxed by a younger woman on that ugly dating show will realize that the humiliation is as much the attraction as is the challenge of the show. I suspect as many people watch Hell’s Kitchen to watch the outbursts as they do because they find the cooking interesting.

What is wrong with us? Why is it that we glory in the humiliation of others? Would we be as interested in these shows if they were merely about talent or about fascinating plots? I don’t think we would. I think we are attracted to them precisely because they humiliate other people. We are attracted to them, at least in part, because they give us the opportunity to feel better about ourselves at the expense of others. “I may not be a good singer, but at least I’m not as bad as him. I may not be able to carry a tune, but at least I’m not delusional enough to go and audition for the show!”

Read the book of James and you’ll come to the undeniable conclusion that what comes out of a person is a sure indication of what he puts in. This is true physically, emotionally and spiritually. What we allow into our hearts and into our minds necessarily impacts our lives. We may not be able to exhaustively examine our own hearts, but we can surely look to what comes out of us and see evidence of what we’ve been putting into our hearts.

It is impossible for us to revel in the humiliation of other people and not begin to see ramifications in our own lives. Bullying is a problem in schools today and it stands to reason that one of the causes of this behavior is children imitating what they see on television. The adults in these shows humiliate and belittle one another and the children take this as an example of acceptable human behavior. You and I may not be prone to bullying, but if we enjoy watching other people be humiliated, what does that say about us? And, of equal importance, how is that beginning to manifest itself in our lives?

December 17, 2007

I spent some time this weekend reading Al Mohler’s forthcoming book, Culture Shift (set for a mid-January release). In an endorsement of this book, John Piper writes, “Albert Mohler is a steady guide, unremittingly clear-headed.” This is a fair assessment. Anyone who reads and enjoys Mohler’s blog, will find this book is more of the same—commentary from the junction of faith and culture. In fact, many of the book’s twenty chapters are based upon Mohler’s previous commentary at his blog. It is a good book and one I benefited from reading. It has given me a lot to think about and, as you’ll see today, plenty to write about.

In June of 2005, Mohler wrote an article titled “Needed: An Exit Strategy” and discussed the issue of public education and the Southern Baptist Convention. At that time, for the second year in a row, a resolution was “submitted to the denomination’s Committee on Resolutions, calling for Christians to reconsider support for the nation’s public school system.” Dr. Mohler begins with this article and adapts it in the ninth chapter of Culture Shift. Here he says “Christians parents are increasingly aware that the public schools are prime battlegrounds for cultural conflict. Given the deep ideological chasm that separates the worldviews and expectations of many educators from those held by many parents, we should not be surprised by the vitriolic nature of this conflict.” He believes that the near future of public education will prove increasingly hostile to Christians and traditional values.

Examples of the downgrade of public education abound. He provides several examples. For example, he writes about King & King, a parable of homosexual marriage in which a young price decides he wishes to marry his true love, which in this case is another prince. This book has been read to seven year-olds in Massachusetts. He writes also of children who were sent home with “diversity book bags” to help teach that there is no such thing as a “normal” family and that all family structures are equal in value. And he writes of the national “Day of Silence” now supported in many high schools—a day organized by homosexual activists. These are not just extreme and isolated examples but are, more and more, becoming common.

The breakdown of the public-school system is a national tragedy,” he writes. “An honest assessment of any history of public education in America must acknowledge the success of the common school vision in breaking down ethnic, economic, and racial barriers. The schools have brought hundreds of millions of American children into a democracy of common citizenship. Tragically, that vision was displaced by an ideologically driven attempt to force a radically secular worldview.” What was once one of America’s great strengths is now beginning to lead to her moral breakdown.

Because of these factors, Mohler believes that it is time for Christians to leave the public school system and that homeschooling and Christian schooling are alternatives all Christian parents should consider. Those who are not yet ready to make the move should, at the very least, have an exit strategy in place. In his original article, Mohler writes this:

I believe that now is the time for responsible Southern Baptists to develop an exit strategy from the public schools. This strategy would affirm the basic and ultimate responsibility of Christian parents to take charge of the education of their own children. The strategy would also affirm the responsibility of churches to equip parents, support families, and offer alternatives. At the same time, this strategy must acknowledge that Southern Baptist churches, families, and parents do not yet see the same realities, the same threats, and the same challenges in every context. Sadly, this is almost certainly just a matter of time.

In the book he changes the statement only to increase the scope from Southern Baptists to all Christians. It is time, he believes, to leave the schools. Or at the very least, it is time for parents to consider the alternatives and what factors would drive them to these alternatives.

As I’ve indicated in the past, Aileen and I choose to place our children in public schools. We do not do so lightly and certainly not without some trepidation. Yet, because of factors I’ve outlined elsewhere, we feel this is the best thing we can do right now. Every year we re-evaluate. While we do not have a firm exit strategy, one that says “precisely under these conditions we will withdraw from the public schools,” we do keep a close eye on what our children are being taught and do not take for granted that they will remain in the public system indefinitely. We benefit, I believe, from our province’s highly-regulated system where the curricula are consistent throughout the entire system. We benefit also from knowing teachers and from pressing them to understand what children are being taught and what ideology is behind it. We have been very pleased with almost all of the teachers we’ve met so far.

If the time comes that we feel it would be right to take our children out of the public education system, I will be left with two great and related concerns I would need to reconcile. The first is this. If all of the Christians withdraw from the public schooling system, it seems to me that we lose our ability and even our right to speak to that system and to influence it. Though the political system is terribly corrupt, Christians continue to be involved and continue to vote, knowing that only in this way will we have any influence. Yet in the schooling system many wish to withdraw. But when we do so, I fear, we lose any right we might have to correct or influence. As Christians we look to better not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us. We look to be a transformative influence. If schools truly are “prime battlegrounds for cultural conflicts,” as Dr. Mohler states, why would we purposely remove ourselves from them? Why would we give up and retreat from this battleground? If this is where the hearts and minds of generations of citizens will be formed, why would we take no interest in it? If we retreat, we lose our voice.

And from there I think we will see as well that the downfall of the public education system becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I look at the examples Dr. Mohler provides—examples of all kinds of ugly things that happen in the public schools, I realize that things in Canada do not seem so bad. Canada is a very liberal nation and, by rights, it should be in worse shape than in America. Yet I do not see that this is the case. Yes, there are occasional stories that strike fear in this parent’s heart, but it seems that our education system is less corrupt than that of our neighbors to the south. And I can’t help but wonder if this owes to the fact that fewer Canadian Christians have exited the public schools. While the homeschool movement, following the American trend, is beginning to catch on in Canada, and while it seems that homeschooling is fast becoming the favored or even the default option for conservative Christians, this is largely a recent development. With Christian schools notoriously underfunded and overpriced, and with homeschooling not an option many believers have even considered, most Canadian Christians have kept their children in public schools. They have maintained their voice and their influence. When all the Christians leave, we would expect the schools to decline. And perhaps this is what we are seeing in the United States. Perhaps Christians are inadvertently contributing to the decline.

I wonder sometimes about a “Genesis 18” principle. In Genesis 18 we read of Abraham interceding for Sodom and for his people in that city. “Then Abraham drew near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’” Abraham asks God, pesters God even, whether God will preserve the city for the sake of the righteous. Will God preserve the city because His people are in it? God answers in the affirmative. And is it possible, I wonder, that the Canadian system has been preserved more than its American counterpart because God’s people have remained there? Perhaps this is a long shot; perhaps I am abusing the text and the principle it teaches; but I can’t help but wonder. Would we not expect God to preserve an institution where His people are present and are attempting to make inroads for His glory?

At any rate, Aileen and I continue to keep our children in public schools and continue to wonder if the day will come when this is no longer something we can do in good conscience. I believe that Dr. Mohler is right and that we will need to arrive at an exit strategy. Yet I hope this is never a strategy we need to put into action. I hope and pray that Canadian Christians will find that they can continue to place their children in public schools and that, as parents, they can continue to serve within the schools, to make their voices heard, and to positively influence this prime cultural battleground for the glory of God.

December 12, 2007

Over the past few years, Aileen and I have continually returned to the question of why so many young people these days seem unwilling or unable to grow up. It is a question that has confused us, especially as we look to many of the young people we know. There was a time when young people seemed eager to grow up, to mature, and to head out into the world to make their mark on it. Or that is how we remember it (we were, after all, married at 21 and parents by 23). But those people now seem to be the exception more than the rule. More and more, it seems, young people (and increasingly older young people) are choosing to stay home, to stay in colleges, to earn a second or third or fourth degree. They are, it seems, refusing to grow up.

To help our thinking on this issue, I’ve been reading The Death of the Grown-up, a fascinating book by Diana West and one that seeks to answer the question of “Where have all the grown-ups gone?” The book’s subtitle is “How America’s Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization.” I suppose that says it all. West has studied this phenomenon and has determined that it is one that is going to have serious repercussions. The lines between child and adult are growing increasingly blurry. I hope to write a review of the book next week.

One section of the book that has caught my attention deals with the notion of “shame.” Shame is a bit of a tricky concept, I think, as it seems to me to be both negative and positive. The Bible makes it clear that, in their innocence, before they invited sin into the world, Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed.” Written after the fact and written at a time when people could hardly conceive of nakedness as being anything but shameful, these words are clearly meant to make people think and to consider a world without shame. Shame, after all, in at least one of its forms, is product of guilt. Shame comes about as we realize our guilt or our inadequacy. Shame comes as we compare ourselves to a better standard or even as we compare ourselves to another standard (which is, more often than not, other people). So while it is a product of sin and a necessity only in an imperfect world, it is also a gift, of sorts. Shame is an aspect of God’s common grace that keeps us from expressing ourselves in ways that would otherwise result in serious consequences.

But shame is becoming increasingly foreign in our culture. We hear of the way teens act these days—with 13 year old girls propositioning their male friends and dispensing sexual favors on the school bus; with men and boys alike proudly discussing just how much pornography they consume; with the sexual preferences of movie stars being discussed in the evening news; with commercials for sexual enhancers constantly playing on television. Where has shame gone?

West traces the decline of shame to the death of the notion of obscenity, especially in the world of art. “By the time the courts, in effect, declared obscenity was dead, they had killed something vital to a healthy society: the faculty of judgment that attempts to distinguish between what is obscene and what is not obscene—the avowedly ‘grown-up’ sensibility of an outmoded authority figure who had long relied on a proven hierarchy of taste and knowledge until it was quite suddenly leveled. From this leveling came another casualty: society’s capacity, society’s willingness, to make even basic distinctions between trash and art.”

This has led to all manner of offensive, vulgar art being paraded in front of us, even if that art is just plain bad. The question is not, as it should be, “is it good art?” Rather, people simply cry “censorship” and allow anything to be displayed, no matter how vulgar, no matter how devoid of artistic merit. We can no longer distinguish between trash and art. Exempting art from censorship laws, effectively concluding that there is no such thing as obscenity, has had consequences.

Once the law balked at recognizing obscenity, the populace began to doubt the very basis for shame. With no legal, institutional support for consensus, little wonder the bottom fell out from under morality.” As obscenity became a thing of the past, so too did it’s necessary consequence: shame. Shame is increasingly missing from our culture. We do things, watch things, enjoy things, participate in things that at any other time and in any other place would be considered shameful. Politicians show little remorse, little shame, when their dirty sexual deeds are exposed. Parents cavort with children, acting like children. “Shamelessness sheds light on why it is that American matrons are more likely to host sex-toy parties than Tupperware parties; why the Major Leagues showcase Viagra ads at home plate; why a presidential fund-raiser for GOP candidates includes a well-endowing—that is, contributing—porn star and pornographer; and why at grocery store checkouts shoppers can check out “hot sex tips” along with a loaf of bread. We have all learned—or at least we have all been taught—that the mental blush is superceded by the genital tingle.”

The paradox is something Christians know well. “Less restraint doesn’t necessarily deliver greater freedom.” It should be not surprising that the “land of the free” is also the land with more laws than just about any other nation in the world. With rules comes freedom—not with a lack of restraint. Humans being what we are, we rely on rules to keep us acting within the bounds of morality and within the bounds of shame. When these rules are tossed out and when shame disappears, so too does our willingness to restrain ourselves. With no concept of obscenity there is no shame; with no shame, anything goes. “In a shameless culture…self restraint is continually undermined.”

By the twenty-first century, shame and embarrassment have zero association with sexuality—or so we are endlessly, numbingly instructed—and, correspondingly, an infantile lack of behavioral restraint may be observed in everything from freak dancing, to ‘super-size’ eating, to McMansion-building. Without the concept of obscenity, without reason for shame, the ‘self’ in self-control sees no greater, larger, socially significant point in holding back.”

What has happened to shame? Well, it appears that shame has been put to death. “Culturally speaking, obscenity is all but legally obsolete, and shame is a kind of secular sin—a symptom of ‘hang-ups,’ of repression, of inhibition, of liberty lost.”

The only thing our society tells us to be ashamed of, it seems, is shame itself.

October 24, 2007

Will you participate in Halloween this year?

Halloween is once again nearly upon us. Articles about the occasion are beginning to make their way into my RSS reader and I thought I’d keep up with one of this site’s few traditions and write an article on the subject. My thoughts on the subject continue to develop as perhaps long-time readers will notice.

Just this morning Pulpit Magazine linked to a great article courtesy of Grace to You. The article deals well with the subject, seeking to answer these questions: “How should Christians respond to Halloween? Is it irresponsible for parents to let their children trick-or-treat? What about Christians who refuse any kind of celebration during the season—are they overreacting?”

The article spells out several legitimate ways Christians will react to Halloween this year:

  • Some will adopt a “No Participation” policy. As Christian parents, they don’t want their kids participating in spiritually compromising activities—listening to ghost stories and coloring pictures of witches. They don’t want their kids to dress up in costumes for trick-or-treating or even attending Halloween alternatives.
  • Other Christians will opt for Halloween alternatives called “Harvest Festivals” or “Reformation Festivals”—the kids dress up as farmers, Bible characters, or Reformation heroes. It’s ironic when you consider Halloween’s beginning as an alternative, but it can be an effective means of reaching out to neighborhood families with the gospel. Some churches leave the church building behind and take acts of mercy into their community, “treating” needy families with food baskets, gift cards, and the gospel message.
  • There’s another option open to Christians: limited, non-compromising participation in Halloween. There’s nothing inherently evil about candy, costumes, or trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. In fact, all of that can provide a unique gospel opportunity with neighbors. Even handing out candy to neighborhood children—provided you’re not stingy—can improve your reputation among the kids. As long as the costumes are innocent and the behavior does not dishonor Christ, trick-or-treating can be used to further gospel interests.

I appreciate the sensitivity the authors display in dealing with what is a difficult topic. It is my conviction that this is, in many ways, an issue of conscience. I do not believe there is absolute right and wrong here—we can’t be too dogmatic about it. Each person (and, in particular, I believe, each father) must examine the Bible and his conscience to see where that leads him. It may lead him to any of these options, each of which can be legitimate. The Bible says nothing about Halloween, though certainly there are principles we can find that will help guide us. But ultimately I believe we have to trust our biblically-informed consciences and our sanctified reasoning to guide us. Let me share where this has led me.

My conviction has long been that it would be a poor witness to the neighbors if my family were to refuse to participate in Halloween; it would be inconsistent with the way Aileen and I feel we are to live within this neighborhood. This day provides a unique opportunity to interact with neighbors, to enjoy their children and to prove that Christians are part of the community and not merely people who want only to interact with Christian friends or to only interact in our own way and on our own terms. Aileen and I are fully part of the community around us and look forward to being part of the community events that happen here. And so we allow our children to go out trick-or-treating, provided they do not wear evil or occult costumes. It still feels like a bit of a compromise, and admittedly one with which I am not entirely comfortable. Yet I would struggle far more with turning out the lights or finding something else to do that evening.

The truth is that I have several convictions regarding Halloween. I despise the pagan aspects of it. I am convicted that my children should not dress as little devils or ghosts or monsters or otherwise glory in evil. But I am also convicted that it is a poor witness to have a darkened house, especially in a neighborhood like ours which is small and where every person and every home is highly-visible. We know that, if we choose not to participate, the neighbors will notice and assume that we feel somehow above them for not participating (and that we are judging them for their participation). We have nothing to fear from our neighbors or from their children, no matter how they choose to dress for an evening. So my children will dress up (my son as a soldier and my daughters as a ballerina and a princess) and we will visit each of our neighbors, knocking on their doors and accepting their fistfuls of candy. Either my wife or I (I think it’s my turn this year) will remain at home, greeting people at our door with a smile and a handful of something tasty. If the kids are deemed too old to trick-or-treat, they’ll be forced to sing a song to merit any handouts. Our door will be open and the light will be on. A contributor to an email list I participate in once concluded his defense of participating in Halloween with these words: “One night does not a neighbor make (and one night does not a pagan make), but Halloween is the one night of the year where the good neighborliness that flows from being in Christ is communicated and reinforced. We are citizens of another Kingdom where The Light is always on.” That analogy seems particularly appropriate.

This year we’re doing something else. We’ve invited all of the neighbors over for dinner before the festivities begin. We’ve got at least 40 or 50 people who are planning on coming by for a barbeque. We’re doing this simply because we enjoy our neighbors and love to spend time with them. Halloween evening can be hectic, with parents getting home from work and then rushing to prepare their children, so we thought we’d attempt to relieve one burden by taking care of dinner for everyone. It should be fun and we’re looking forward to it.

My encouragement to you today is to think and pray about this issue so that you can do what your conscience dictates for that day. I do not see Halloween as a great evangelistic occasion and this is where some of my thought on the issue has probably developed most. In the past I may have tried to convince myself that Halloween would offer occasions to share the gospel, but I don’t think this is usually the case. Nor does it have to be. I think Halloween is a time that you can prove to your neighbors that you care about them, that you care about their children, and that you are glad to be in this world and this culture, even if you are not of this world or this culture. Aileen and I feel that God has deliberately placed us here and among these people. We want to celebrate with them, even on an occasion of such dubious importance as Halloween.


Addendum - Let me add just one thing here. This year Halloween is on a Wednesday which means it will conflict with many mid-week church services. We did not realize that the two conflicted until after we had already made and spread our plans for the evening. I am generally convicted that we need to be at church when the doors are open. If you are of the same mind, this article may be more theory than practice, at least for this year. We unwittingly made an exception this year, but probably would not have if we had not already invited the neighborhood to our home that night. And yes, we feel a bit guilty about it. My pastor offered this advice for next time: “Get a calendar!” That’s not a bad plan…

August 13, 2007

Second Life and cheating in a virtual world.

Friday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal featured an article about Second Life, a popular online digital world. It is inhabited by people like you and me, but people who take on a new identity—a second life. It is, by all accounts, an engaging experience. This is borne out by the millions of people who have signed up for an account (almost 9 million according to the company) and the tens of thousands that can be found online at any given moment. It is a world that mimics the real world, but also a world that allows people to fantasize and to be things they cannot be in real life. Men can be women; poor people can be rich; unpopular people can have hundreds of friends. The game gives anyone the ability to create a whole new life.

The story centers around Ric and Sue Hoogestraat, a seemingly average couple who live outside Phoenix. Ric is addicted to the game, playing for six hours most evenings and often spending entire weekends at it as well. At one point he was housebound for five weeks and often played the game for up to twenty hours a day. His wife has no interest in the game and is growing increasingly frustrated with her husband.

The real Mrs. Hoogestraat is no stranger to online communities — she met her husband in a computer chat room three years ago. Both were divorced and had adult children from previous marriages, and Mrs. Hoogestraat says she was relieved to find someone educated and adventurous after years of failed relationships. Now, as she pays household bills, cooks, does laundry, takes care of their three dogs and empties ashtrays around the house while her husband spends hours designing outfits for virtual strippers and creating labels for virtual coffee cups, she wonders what happened to the person she married.

In a sense this is a story similar to any kind of addiction. One person in the family is hopelessly addicted to something while the others suffer but also tacitly support him. One person is being selfish and placing his own “needs” high above those of others. “Mr. Hoogestraat, for his part, doesn’t feel he’s being unfaithful. ‘She watches TV, and I do this,’ he says. ‘I tried to get her involved so we could play together, but she wasn’t interested.’” Sooner or later Sue is likely to reach the breaking point and walk out of the relationship. She feels deserted and in many ways has been.

Behind the story is an interesting warning for Christians. Ric has a second life in this game and it is one that involves another woman. It is a woman he has never met and apparently never wants to meet. In this game he is a married man. He married another player who goes by the name Tenaj (her real name is Janet Spielman). They spend countless hours together online, party together in this new world, and even have virtual sex. It seems clear that he is better friends with this virtual friend than with his life. He prefers the company of Tenaj than that of his wife. And, unfortunately, it is no longer unusual for people to prefer virtual company than real-life company. “Nearly 40% of men and 53% of women who play online games said their virtual friends were equal to or better than their real-life friends, according to a survey of 30,000 gamers.”

A short time ago I read an article written by a Christian suggesting that online dating is not a biblical option for Christians. I would tend to disagree. The greatest strength of online dating, as I understand it and as I’ve seen it play out (even in the life of a family member) is that it removes the physical dimension, at least for a time, while increasing the necessity and the depth of communication. People who date online share things in the written word they may not share face-to-face. This builds a kind of intimacy that is very important to relationships which can otherwise become easily derailed by physical intimacy. But the strength of such an online relationship shows the danger of forging these kinds of relationships haphazardly.

This problem is not unique to people who play games such as Second Life. It may apply also to people who read blogs or who use chat rooms or instant messaging or any form of online communication. Real life relationships are increasingly being supplanted by virtual ones. This article points out that our brains aren’t really wired to make the clear connections between what is real and what is virtual, what happens in the real world and what happens on a screen. “Our brains are not specialized for 21st-century media,” says Prof. Reeves. “There’s no switch that says, ‘Process this differently because it’s on a screen.’” So while a man like Ric may insist that he can draw a neat line separating what is happening on the computer from what is happening in real life, on a psychological level this may not be the case. And certainly on a spiritual and emotional level it is not the case. The story makes it clear that the intimacy he has developed with Tenaj has come at the expense of Sue. “Sitting alone in the living room in front of the television, Mrs. Hoogestraat says she worries it will be years before her husband realizes that he’s traded his real life for a pixilated fantasy existence, one that doesn’t include her.”

I’ve never played Second Life and have no intention of getting into it. It looks like it would be lots of fun, but it also looks like it would be far too addictive. My brief experience with this kind of game or experience shows that they have a strange power to draw people into them. I’d be concerned that it would suck me in and consume far too much time. But I have another concern. I am concerned that a game like this would lead me to develop relationships that are not real or valuable. Like Ric, I could easily develop relationships that exist only in bits and bytes and pixels. I would develop these relationships at the expense of real ones. After all, if I spend my Saturday afternoon sitting in my office roaming the lands in Second Life, I would not be able to spend that time with families, friends and neighbors. Yet there is more to it than time.

The time I might spend in a virtual world is only the beginning. There is also emotional and spiritual time and energy that would also be invested in something so fleeting. It seems clear that Ric’s investment is far deeper than only time. He is using this game, this world, to construct a whole new life and one that is far more interesting, far more perfect than the one he has now. In the game he is young, wealthy, fit and surrounded by beautiful women. His wife realizes this. “Basically, the other person is widowed,” she says. “This other life is so wonderful; it’s better than real life. Nobody gets fat, nobody gets gray. The person that’s left can’t compete with that.”

Constructing a second life is a proposition that may be fraught with peril. After all, if we create a life that is fictional but which represents what we would really like life to be like if it was without its current limits, we will necessarily make this real life look pretty pathetic in comparison. Consider Ric: in real life he is sick and overweight and getting older every day. He works a job that he probably does not much like and which does not pay very much. His wife is also getting older every day, is heavy set and does not support his addiction. But in the game he is young and attractive and rich and unbound by the nagging wife. As Sue says, his character is him at 25. Or it is how he wishes he could have been at 25.

In this virtual world we are all in danger of creating second lives. We may do so through a game like this one. We may do so simply by being dishonest in our blogs or in what we share about ourselves in the many social media platforms. The danger of being a different person in a second life is that this first life is the one we really live. What we do in the second impacts the first—how we feel about it, how we live it, how we enjoy it. God has given us one life to live. It would be foolish of us to give to much time, too much attention and too much energy to a second, virtual one. Chances are that this one will always look shabby in comparison.