Thursday, May 30, 2013

Meditation XVII -- What to Wear

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."

I have spent much of my Christian life loving the verse that comes after this, where Peter tells us that God will exalt us if we act humbly. Or at least that is the vision I have given myself of that verse. Then I note He cares for me, and that I need to be "sober" and watchful because the devil is out to get me. Or at least that is the vision I have given myself. I do not think these ideas are to be negated, but perhaps I should see a new layer to the fruit of this epistle to God's church.

What does it mean to "clothe" ourselves? Certainly it is more than the Christian t-shirts and jewelry I can easily put on, and which I can easily shed or rationalize when the "message" contradicts my action. The Bible is filled with metaphors about clothing. We wrap ourselves in garments, primarily to protect us from what is outside, and to cover parts of ourselves not suitable for public viewing. Way down on the reasons for wearing any clothes should be a desire to attract. It is not that beauty or the art of fashion is evil in God's eyes, but that these are less important.

I have no word or understanding how to put on such clothes as humility. I must consider what humility is. It is more than acting humble, though I see the value of trying such until humility is a part of the being and not merely crudely shaped behavior. It is not self-debasement, or dishonesty about one's gifts or talents. The only idea of humility I can understand is one which looks at the self in honest perspective. I may be very good at something, and judged by others as the best, but if so, it is only because of what God has given me. It is not humble to pretend the talent doesn't exist. It is sin to fail to acknowledge the Source of that talent. It may well be death to forget how quickly it can be taken away.

To say that "God opposes the proud" may well conjure visions of an angry Lord waiting to smite any who refuse to think with some child's view of humility. I know I have often thought in this verse of God being "against" those who do not think or act like me. But now, I cannot look at it this way. Oppose does not necessarily mean "against" (or "hates" as some have misunderstood). I wonder, instead, if I should not look at the word to mean "stands in the way of." I cannot speak for others, or certainly every situation involving proud individuals.But I can say that my own pride has often not only come before a fall, but kept me from standing at all. Perhaps God stood in my way, not to give me a barrier to bust through or an obstacle to navigate, but to wait out my stubborn self-kingship.

Let me not speculate on what it means for Christ to exalt me, but any lifting up without His Grace is doomed to be disastrous. Perhaps it is recent suffering -- suffering mostly from my own hand and head and not God trying to "push me down" -- that leads me to consider grace so highly. I know it has been the subject of my prayers more than ever in the past couple of years, maybe because it is the "daily bread" I have only begun to realize I need, and deep in my being really want.

Putting on a dress of humility may be uncomfortable at times. But the coat of Pride has been found wanting. It has contributed to nothing less than illness. If we want to be well, we must trust our Doctor.

Lord, help me to abandon my pride, and to wear the garments of humility. Cover me, God, and lead me in Grace. In Christ, Amen.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lewis' Neglected Masterpiece

Screwtape LettersScrewtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of all the works in the C.S. Lewis canon, the one I think is most under-appreciated is The Screwtape Letters. In fact, I would say that this short, epistolary novel is also one of the most neglected literary works of the past century. I suspect it has flown under the radar because of a combination of two problems: On one hand there are those who refuse to see Lewis as anything but a spiritual teacher (though he would have scoffed at the idea, particularly concerning his fiction). On the other hand is the prejudice that modern literary scholars have toward Christianity. If it isn't Milton or Donne, they will have none of it, and even those two are eyed with suspicion.

The Screwtape Letters is a masterful tale of a senior devil (Screwtape) teaching his nephew (Wormwood) how to corrupt the person Wormwood is charged with drawing to Hell's Gates. This is done via what Lewis called "diabolical ventriloquism." Readers are reminded in the Preface that the devil is a liar, and should remember the book is satire--that Lewis himself is not advocating any such actions against the soul.

But because the book is satire, it is automatically pulled out of the hands of many modern readers who have had critical thinking surgically removed from their systems by politics, poor schooling, lousy instruction of the Bible, and a general distaste for reading of creative works spread by many sources. Thus, the book has been attacked by the religious and the anti-religious. References to Jesus Christ as "the Enemy" many bother those who have always considered Satan the nemesis. That the battle is over a soul many don't believe exists may be hard for others to take.

One could see the book as a sort of handbook on how people are drawn away from God, and thereby learn some sort of lessons from it. But this vision leaves the book looking like poor art, and merely a tool. We could see the book as a primer for those unacquainted with the Christian concept of sin. But then it would be merely an amusing anthropomorphic study. One might even look at the story as a portrait of fear and uncertainty during the tumult of war. But that only confuses those have no interest in looking within.

The Screwtape Letters does provide readers with a unique perspective on how the mind works, particularly the mind engaged in spiritual matters. Read in the right light, this book could appeal to people outside the Christian religion, and even those who are outside religion completely. However, it cannot, and should not be looked at as a definitive (or even partial) picture of Christianity or as a "witnessing tool." It helps the reader to know something of the basics of Christianity -- the story, not the doctrines -- but I don't think that knowledge is mandatory.

As satire, the humor in this book is likely to be lost on many readers. People looking for an easy to spot good guy versus bad guy tale or who are not used to the villain providing the narrative will have a very hard time laughing through this book. It is easy to forget that the most interesting characters are often the villains, and thus many cannot see their own foibles been lampooned, or worse, they may see them and instead of laughing at themselves, will be offended and toss the book aside.

As with a number of books by Mr. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters might be read considering its historical perspective. World War Two (called the European War by the author) is a backdrop for the story. Screwtape does comment on the war and differentiates it from other wars, and in fact differentiates this time in history from other times in regards to philosophy, education, and popular thinking. We could see the conflict as a metaphor for the spiritual warfare going on for the "patient," and also as a chaotic reminder of what it means to be "a house divided." I have always found it a little baffling and quite amusing that Screwtape keeps telling his charge not to get so excited about the pain and suffering caused by war, but at the end says that--spoiler alert you probably didn't need-- Wormwood has failed when the "patient" dies and goes to Heaven.

Included in many editions of this book is the fictional essay "Screwtape Proposes a Toast," written only a couple years before Lewis' death. Here the title character is not writing a letter, but giving a speech at the graduation celebration for the college where junior tempters are educated. The distinction made between Democracy as political idea (all are created equal) and democracy as philosophy ("I'm as good as anyone") is both hilarious and frightening.

The Screwtape Letters deserves greater recognition and attention. It might not be for everyone. But it should be attempted by most readers, and studied by a few.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Meditation XXVI -- Accepting the Message

"I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)

A great deal happens in this chapter from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus heals the servant of a centurion without seeing or touching him, all because the "outsider" who was said to love the Jews knew the power of God and understood the authority of Jesus. Jesus raises to life a man on the way to the tomb, the only means of support for grieving widow. He then answers the question of John about who He was -- though I wonder if the answer was not really meant for John's disciples. Later in the chapter we have Jesus trying to straighten the vision of his Pharisee host, by pointing out that the "sinner" attending to Him was forgiven "for she loved much."

But in the middle is Our Lord talking about the prophet John, and Luke's parenthetical phrase. Jesus tells those listening (and us if we want to hear) not only that John is fulfilling prophecy about the Christ, but also that as important as John is, those who are "least in the kingdom" are even greater. Then Luke notes the reaction: those who had been baptized by John not only accepted Jesus' words, but "declared God just." However, the religious leaders did not accept what Jesus said because they had not been been baptized by John.

Luke's phrase "rejected the purpose of God" is telling. The Pharisees and lawyers rejected God, not because they had reasoned against Jesus' arguments, but because they were not part of the group that had taken the step of being baptized. They certainly saw no need to publically acknowledge their sinfulness and participate in the ritual cleansing (not because they might have been against the ritual, but they surely weren't going to go to that wild man for it!). So again we see that truth and a desire for holiness play no part in the spiritual lives of these men, but whether or not the message comes from one inside their group.

Jesus said, "wisdom is justified by all her children." Some will accept only the reasoning of those in their churches, political parties, and cliques. And they will produce only more of the spiritually dead. Some will accept they are sinners and seek to be clean, seek God, wherever He is found. These are the sorts God built a Church (not church with a little "c") around. These are the ones for whom God builds a kingdom.

Lord, grant that we turn to You always, and that we hear Your Voice wherever You choose to speak to us. Amen.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Entertaining Story/Potential Missed

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ready Player One is a fine little story about young man in a virtual world trying to win a contest and trying to keep from getting killed, in the game and in the real world (which is strangely distant) in this book. From that description, it probably doesn't seem like much more than a novelized version of Tron, but the book is really much more exciting and interesting than I am making it out to be.

Ernest Cline does a good job drawing the universe and various "worlds" in the OASIS, where a contest/war is being waged for an item left by the creator of the OASIS. The player who finds it will become heir to the empire left by a ramped up Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/geek. In this book, that empire means pretty much the whole world, or what is left of it worth having. 

I'm told a movie of this book is in the works, and I'm sure, in the right hands, it could be a fine film. But I have some reservations. First, the author/narrator's obsession with the 1980s is, in a word, baffling. The story presents this decade as a golden age of all things artistic, when it was only a golden age for video games. References to terrible television shows and mostly (thank you, Rush) bad music, made me groan throughout the reading. Second, the out and out worship of James Halliday, creator of the OASIS, is disturbing. The protagonist (a teenager named Wade Watts) not only loves what the genius made and achieved, but even applauds his anti-social, psychologically destructive behavior. Had there been some sort of revelation that Halliday had realized that he was out of touch with his humanity, I might have been okay, but -- spoiler alert -- Halliday's approach to life is mirrored in the disciples who stumble only into their own human connections.

These objections are more about my personal preferences than the quality of the book. Ready Player One does suffer, just a little bit, with some of the stilted prose one finds in some first novels. And it reads, in some ways, like a formula road trip/buddy movie/coming of age story. But once the tale gets going, it really is an adventure. Wade Watts' quest is one that demands not only his considerable skill in gaming, but also requires him to learn about himself and how much growing up he has to do. He falls in love, of course, and has to figure out how his feelings connect to his goals. The obstacles Cline puts his character through (aforementioned 80s references aside) are clever and fun to read about. Of course, I was rooting for the hero, but I enjoyed watching as he worked to overcome his problems, not just by shooting bad guys, but by using his head. The part of the novel where Wade goes undercover was particularly engaging.

Chances are most readers will get more out the book than I did. Perhaps my disappointment is that novel could have been more than it is. Nonetheless, there is a lot of fun to be had in reading Ready Player One.

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