Letter from a Montgomery Office: A Response to Martin Luther King

Dear Dr. King,

As you no doubt recall, on Good Friday fifty-two years ago, you found yourself under the eyes of a guard and under the burden of proof. When the SCLC ignored the court-ordered injunction against your march in Birmingham, you and your fellow “agitators” were arrested for disturbing the peace. You will remember that you scratched together a letter in the margins of the day’s newspaper. Your fellow clergymen wrote “A Call for Unity” in that paper, prompting your eloquent and impassioned response. Today your letter has become a testament to the just cause of civil rights and is taught (though not near often enough) in high school and college classrooms around the country. I fear my own words too feeble and my experience too limited to properly answer your imprisoned cries for justice and equality, but I wonder what you might think about how the nation has progressed.

You once wrote in your Birmingham prison cell, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” You wrote those words to affirm the moral principle that evil is the natural state of man, and that in the absence of good people confronting evil it will only spread its tentacles through our streets and farms and highways and homes. If it can happen legally in Mobile, it will happen legally in Montgomery. Should we stand by like the priest or the levite, the innocent will die bleeding on the road. For those of us who call on the name of Christ, our silence will condemn the innocent and nullify our Christian witness.

I am concerned that people, myself first of all, lack the moral will and fortitude to confront evil. I am concerned that your example falls fruitless to a cynical and selfish age. I am concerned that your words, powerful though they are, are manipulated to bring the powerful more power.

I am confident you did not live your life in the hopes that your birthday would become a national holiday, still less that Americans half a century later would use what your birthday has stood for as an extra day to sleep in. Knowing you as I do (as anyone can know a historical figure), my guess is that you would have used your extra day to be about the business of justice. Our corruption of the “holy day” demonstrates our tendency toward ease than toward holy labor. You are frequently invoked by politicians, celebrities, and clergy as an inspirational figure, but inspiration without perspiration creates a vacuous desolation. Your birthday means little if we do not remember, and our remembrance means nothing if we do not act.

You are likely disillusioned in how other groups have opportunistically capitalized on the success of your movement. I think of the misery endured by slaves in the early centuries of America and ask myself, does the union rep demanding more wages equate to the slave under the lash? His pathos is infused with the tones of Douglas and Garrison. His anger and societal revisionism is laden with Marx. In hopes of attracting many to his cause, he invokes your name and pulls out your quotes to prove the justice of his cause. But it is not only the advocate of economic equality who has appropriated your work. No one has set the dogs on supporters of the same-sex marriage movement, yet these too have adopted the tone, language, and rhetoric of the civil rights movement. Millions of Americans today see little difference between your march and the march for gay rights because they fail to make the distinction between status and behavior. Further, while praising choice they have failed to understand the responsibility of choice, and so fail to see how your movement has been made into a parody with the addition of transgender equality, the supposed next frontier of civil rights. Though societal norms, such as traditional marriage laws, are not themselves the arbiter of justice, they are likewise not flaunting justice simply by existing.

Finally, I am certain you are disappointed in how apathetic many have become to the cause of justice. It would seem too much is invested in the status quo to overcome the crippling inertia of inequality. You wrote often on the problem of ambivalence, of how not only the white man wouldn’t care to change things but how also both the affluent Negro and the dispirited Negro couldn’t care to change things. Far too many prominent voices have asserted that minorities have no chance at success in America. The race-baiting frauds like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have prospered with a message of oppression, but an oppression of their own communities, an oppression of the mind. Education, they are told, is a waste of time if the white employer will never give them a high-paying salary. Politicians, they are told, want to steal away whatever rights they do have. Nonviolent protests are nowhere near as profitable as the threat of legal action. The legacy of your successors is one of lethargic victimhood.

Sadly, so too is the legacy of your opponents. Too frequently contemporary white Americans are deaf to the calls for civil rights, associating them with the likes of Jackson and Sharpton. They see Sharpton at a Ferguson rally and assume that the cause surrounding Michael Brown must be the same as that surrounding Tawana Brawley: smoke without fire. They assume that affirmative action has done its part to eliminate racism and that a couple of laws solve it all. They assume that fifty years removed from the events of Mississippi Burning, a mere two generations have rooted out inequity. The effort to be colorblind is, sometimes, willful blindness.

On the one hand, much has changed. Institutional, de jure racism has been brought to heel. It still exists, as I was reminded by an older sister in my Sunday school class just last year. But Jim Crow laws have been struck down, minorities are not barred from voting (despite claims to the contrary with the “oppressiveness” of Voter ID Laws), and one cannot be legally denied employment on the basis of color, much less gender, religion, and age. For those with the eyes to see it, many do judge others by the content of their character.

On the other hand, we have a long way to go. De facto, relational racism still exists, and will always exist so long as there are differences. White women still fear the mythos of the angry, aggressive black man, while black men still fear the mythos of the angry white mob. Black people lack the benefit of the doubt police officers give whites. Believing still in the goodness of people, I believe many want these circumstances to change and are glad to play their part in ignoring stereotypes and treating each other as individuals. It is a battle that must be fought within—and among each other—and, if I may use your words, combating ignorance with knowledge and hate with love. But, as I said, we have a long way to go.

I sit in my comfortable Montgomery office, just a few miles from the birthplace of civil rights, and think too little about the struggle for racial equality. This city is sharply divided, geographically and ideologically, on the subject of race. It is one of those national subjects we’re “talking about” all the time in our speeches and cable news shows—but one which we never do anything about. Perhaps we don’t know what to do. But perhaps it starts with an intentional shift, the desire to sit in a different seat and to change the view.

The arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice, but the end of that arc is often found only in eternity. Until then, and like you, we must do our part to urge it to bend closer toward our own time.

Respectfully yours,

JF

The Post-Christmas Blues

Those who know me well know of my intense love for Christmas. Well, for the whole of December really. In fact, more likely the final three months of the year. It is about the build-up, the anticipation for December 25th. The nearing of the end. Truly, there is something eschatological in the air. The cold settles in on the world. Fall leaves transform to winter snow. Decorations appear from dusty boxes to line shelves and dinner tables. Most importantly, there seems to be a spirit of good will permeating a hardened humanity. Peace on earth—if only for a season.

For me, Christmas is an historic event. By that I mean it is a day that connects me to the Celtic past. From as far back as the fifth century, Catholic missionaries were in the practice of appropriating ancient pagan practices and infusing them with new Christian meaning (see Imbolc and the Lupercalia for a couple of these examples). Christmas, of course, is no exception. While the Celtic druids of Northern Europe celebrated the winter solstice and the rise of the sun god, the emerging Christian dispensation saw parallels to the gospel story and replaced the solstice with Christmas. Therefore, as the Celts worshiped evergreen trees in their homes, so too eventually would German Christians also haul in the tree to remember the cross. Gifts that would be exchanged at harvest would find biblical precedent in the gifts of the Magi and so continue the tradition. When I think of Christmas, I consider the biblical Nativity; but I also think of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, of the medieval Yule log, of the 1914 ceasefire—generations of Christians celebrating the Lord’s birth throughout the ages.

So when the holidays are over, I find myself in a bit of a funk. The day after Christmas I’m more than a bit sad when I hear the change of music in retail stores as “Jingle Bell Rock” is replaced by “For Those Who Are About to Rock” (I only resentfully agree to give up my holiday music on Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas). Like Charlie Brown, I sit on the existential wall in the last pensive scene of the Christmas special and say, “Another holiday has come and gone.” History has passed and I am living firmly again in the 21st century. Perhaps that says too much of my penchant for romanticizing history, but I agree wholeheartedly with the philosopher Bon Jovi, who famously opined that he wished every day could be like Christmas.

Hemingway says he always felt a mixture of happiness and sadness when completing a good story. I think this is a fitting description for the arrival of the New Year. Having spent all fall counting down the months and festivals until Christmas, I take a long walk through a valley that doesn’t really rise until I begin anticipating summer break. Viewed through the wide-angle lens, it would seem most of my life is spent waiting. Like in an absurdist play, I imagine the future rather than remain in the present.

My problem, I suppose, is more universal than simply unique to me—and I’d suppose further that the post-Christmas blues are merely a symptom rather than a diagnosis. Far too quickly do we move on to the next experience without relishing the fleeting joys of the present. We’re always anticipating the next day, the next get-together, the next vacation—as if real life were not worthy of our rapt attention.

It may be difficult for us to train the next generation to live in the moment when the moment can be so un-entertaining. The question they are asking their forbears is ontological. Why settle for reality when fantasy is so much more appealing? When we have video-on-demand and games-on-demand and communication-on-demand, why do we need to live in the moment?

Technology has made this ontological question possible, and it is the forbears’ fascination with technology that has created the quandary. Our mode of storytelling, as one example, has sensationalized all things to the point that we have trouble embracing the quiet and the ordinary. The musical interludes and montages of Hollywood fast forward through the seemingly inconsequential to move on to the significant scenes and moments; thus, we do not know how to pass real time. We think that our lives should be narrated by Morgan Freeman and that a soundtrack should play whenever we experience our own significant moments. Not only this but we fear isolation and we fear boredom; and so in a moment of quiet, we turn on the television or surf the web—or, if in public, we pull out our smartphones and check social media. For us, though we are too saturated within the digital chaos to recognize it, every day really is like Christmas.

Yet the ontological question can be reversed. Is the fantasy, arguably more appealing, truly more satisfying? Is a conversation via text better than face-to-face? Does watching an adventure on television beat going on one’s own adventure? Is pornography a suitable alternative to the beauty of the sexual relationship? If the answer to these questions is no—and for all but the truly perverse this will prove true—then the banal and mundane aspects of real life can be reaffirmed.

It is important to remind ourselves that it is in the middle period that life is lived. One cannot take part in the Eschaton without first making the long journey toward the Celestial City. The Christ spent most of his time in the mundane. Rarely did he see moments of glory while in the flesh. No dramatic music played when he changed water into wine. The five thousand could not experience a close-up shot when Jesus distributed the loaves and fishes. And the disciples fled rather than watch in tragic triumph when their rabbi was nailed to a cross. Real life is messy and uninteresting, and only rightly understood and given meaning in hindsight.

There is nothing more mundane than grading papers of apathetic freshmen comp students. But make no mistake: it is holy work. It may be that someone will tell my story many years from now. Perhaps my students will remember how my comments not only helped them become better writers but better Christian thinkers. Perhaps my biographer will record how my years spent grading those papers were essential preparatory years on the road to something greater (?). Or maybe few of my students will give a second glance (likely not even a first glance) to my comments, or maybe my life will pass without greatness nor the need for a biographer. Maybe I will live my life in the mundane, relishing the extraordinary moments and learning to embrace the ordinary.

This shy of eternity, every day can’t be like Christmas. The holiday is one to work toward, to look forward to, most assuredly, but one cannot give gifts without making money to purchase gifts. December is a holy month, but so too is January. It is in each moment that we should life, and live fully, and perhaps redeem the time.

Experiencing Advent

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a wonder at the wisdom and power of Your Father and ours. Receive my prayer as part of my service of the Lord who enlists me in God’s own work for justice…Excite in me a joy responsive to the Father’s joy…

Novice as I am to liturgy, and though fairly ensconced in the evangelical tradition, I am learning, however slowly, the deep richness in the church calendar. There is something powerful in consciously turning one’s attention to a facet of the Gospel story. There is something refreshing and ennobling in devoting one’s self to particular passages and prayers. The conversation with God, so often unmoored by our whims or moored only with prescribed daily Bible reading, is reinvigorated and refocused on Him, and not me.

Low-church detractors have historically scoffed at the notion of concentrating on the Nativity at Christmas or on the Resurrection at Easter. Shouldn’t we hold Christmas in our hearts the year round? they ask. No doubt we should, but do we? Does Christ exercise lordship over every area of our lives, including what and how much we purchase during a holy day? (I hear the reverberating echoes of Christ’s whip in the temple approaching.) I think our focus on gifts this time of year far exceeds the presents offered by the Magi. I bring this up not to shame our detractors, but to urge them caution. We could easily lament the commercialism of the season, and there is certainly a place for that. There is, for instance, something distinctly perverse in my sons’ LEGO® Star Wars™ Advent Calendar. The Christ child, not a brick minifigure of Darth Maul, is eagerly anticipated every twenty-fifth of December—and He is certainly no phantom nor menace. But rather than wasting time weeping and gnashing our teeth at how others celebrate the season, I prefer to refocus our attention on the meaning of Christmas. Redemption is a more glorious and Godly exercise than criticism.

To find redemption, however, we must exercise our memories. We must think back to a past long buried by worldly ambitions, adult stresses, and the presumption of maturity. Everyone can recall what it was like on Christmas morning: running to mom and dad’s room, dragging them to the stockings, marveling at the half-eaten cookies left for Santa and his reindeer, wanting to rip open every present at once. As adults, we can delay our palate for Christmas—in part because we possess a sizable purchasing power throughout the year that children lack—and so miss out on childish joy. We forget, as grown-ups do, the inability to wait a moment longer.

We must remember these moments, and with them look forward to an eternal future. The anticipation of Christmas morning, that tangible taste of joy, is an echo of the opening of heaven. That expectancy is captured in the urgent notes of Lauren Daigle’s “Light of the World”:

The world waits for a miracle

The heart longs for a little bit of hope

Oh come, oh come Emmanuel.

This, if you will recall, is the very purpose of Advent. The whole of December in the liturgical calendar is recreated as one of the darkest intermissions in Israel’s history. Successive oppressors for five centuries—the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans—have reduced the nation to slaves. Jehovah has returned them to their homeland, but as tenants, not landowners. The Hasmoneans introduce pagan worship in the temple, Pompey the Great steps foot in the Holy of Holies without any fierce rebuke from God, and the priesthood has become a corrupt oligarchy. Religion is nothing more than ritual—without revelation. Where once prophets and false prophets could be found on every street corner during the reign of the kings, not one has spoken for four hundred years. Spiritual hunger is quickly turning to starvation, which is breeding materialism, cynicism, and a lack of faith. The winter cold lies heavy on Israel, and her people have been awaiting Messiah.

It seems subtly and subterfuge are among God’s favored tactics. The Greek gods would have descended from Olympus, the Romans with cosmic battle. And at times the Hebrew God had done those same things. But he chooses this time to appear as a child, born to a poor family, announced to social outcasts like shepherds and temple devotees. He chooses to send his son into foreign lands and remote villages and the wilderness so that none could greet him with fanfare. For his mission was not conquest, curiously enough, but submission. Even in the Christmas saga, the shadow of the cross can be seen in the distance. Experiencing Advent means we are anticipating not merely his arrival but his purpose in arriving. He didn’t come to bring a throne, and Good Friday didn’t look so good that Friday.

Imagine the desperate sorrow and the broken anticipation of seeing Christ the King hanging on a Roman cross. Every expectation shattered, every hope destroyed. Imagine Mary, voiced by Sara Evans in her Christmas ballad “New Again,” weeping:

God, how can this be your will?

To have your son and my son killed?

And in one of the most profound expressions of faith in modern music today, Jesus, suffering on the tree, looks at his mother and kindly says,

Whatever happens—whatever you see—

Whatever your eyes tell you has become of me

This is not

Not the end

I am making all things new again.

All things new. He did not bring a throne, but he did come to usher in his Kingdom, one that exists, he says, within us. On Advent, we celebrate the coming of the King. Emmanuel. God with us—and within us. We remember the reason he came, we renew our purpose in the Kingdom today, and we wait hopefully for his return.

It is perhaps a supremely foolish and childish thing to reenact the Incarnation on one arbitrary month of the year—though I am confident there is nothing foolish or arbitrary about it. For after all, it is a supremely foolish thing to follow God sometimes. In the midst of pain, of confusion, of persecution, of claims to objectivity, sometimes submitting to an unseen God is one of the stupidest things we can do. When the storm rages, it is so easy to curse the rain. Yet when the storm rages, there is no greater anchor than the Rock that is higher than I. And when the storm passes and the sky brightens, the Rock remains.

For all who wait

For all who hunger

For all who’ve prayed

For all who wonder

Behold your King

Behold Messiah

Emmanuel

Emmanuel

Redemption is indeed a glorious exercise. The re-creation of all things. On Advent, we can confidently affirm he is making all things new again.

Media Matters: Truth (?) to Power (!)

A fire is being ignited in America today, its flames evidenced in curiously bizarre media reports floating around the websites and airwaves. The various controversies surrounding Lena Dunham. The Rolling Stone rape story and the frightening lack of due process in college rape cases. The (mis)information disseminated during the Michael Brown incident and the premeditated riots that followed. Now, it would seem, is the winter of our discontent. One wonders not only what has happened to the country but where all of this unrest is coming from—and where it is going.

The goal, it would appear, of these characters in our seriously silly play is indeed the unrest: the overthrow of the social order. Romantic notions of revolution seem to occupy the minds of these figures, all in the name of making this world a more “just” place to live. Racial, sexual, and aesthetic marginalization demands, we are told, a loud and sometimes violent retort. Forgetting the hard lessons of the French Revolution—genuine injustices committed in the cause of equality—they press on toward some indeterminate end. The fire, like that same one sparked in Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises, is given the name Justice but is actually its opposite.

What seems to be unifying each of these causes, real or imagined, is the desire for power. Populism, of the left- and right-wing varieties, taps into the generalized national angst and into specific local or community concerns. With the rise of demographic-focused politics beginning in the 1960s, we have all become segmented into competing special interest groups jockeying for attention. Black, brown, anglo, feminist, gay, religious, secular, rural, and urban all want a seat at the throne. Assuming one’s cause is just and the other’s not, rarely do these groups think about the ultimate conclusion of their philosophy. They want it—and now.

I cannot help but wonder if the fuel to these flames is exacerbated by the media landscape. And I don’t mean The Media in some sort of conspiratorial, industrial complex way (although there might be room for that sort of discussion). I mean the greedy, irresponsible, crisis-driven reporting of events that has captivated mainstream, cable, and internet news.

The bent of journalists and editors toward crisis existed long before the early twentieth-century days of muckrakers. But at that time, news existed in a 1-week (newspaper) or 24-hour (network) news cycle. Today, we’re dominated by a four-hour news cycle, which means we have terribly trifling attention spans. But it also means we’re dependent on the dramatically shifting media narratives. Our information is filtered through the biases and errors of eyewitness accounts, grand jury testimony, and for most of us, news outlets who report this information. We cannot pay attention constantly, yet we want to be informed—and so we have little choice but to trust (even with some skepticism) those who report those events.

But sensationalism rather than truth has become the medium of exchange for modern news outlets. Whatever will make ratings, sell magazines, or get the most likes in the moment is what matters. Consider, briefly, the news stories above. For these few weeks at least, this is the fare to which we have been sumptuously treated. But then what? In what abyss is sent the stories once furiously occupying our televisions and news feeds? What was the result, for instance, of the congressional investigation in Benghazi? What is the status on the prison at Guantanamo Bay and rendition sites around the world? Why was it not boldy announced that Lois Lerner’s emails had been miraculously found after all? Where is the coverage of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine? What is happening in the streets and parliaments in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum? (More importantly, why is the world’s supply of chocolate running short?) And when something of great significance does occur, like the surprisingly tame and remarkably conservative pronouncements of Pope Francis in the last few years, more is made of it than it might actually deserve or is reinterpreted to fit a perceived pattern. The media builds the intensity of the crisis and then rides the ideological waves of change, claiming first-row seats to history. For without change, there is no history–and no ratings.

The thirst for ratings taps into the sensational and least discerning of the human faculties. Further, when reaching those parts of ourselves, the most likely emotion this will generate is fear. This is especially true of those with an agenda. Those who seek power must use fear to cow their opponents into silence. The oppressed, dispossessed, and disenfranchised rarely remember the abuses suffered, real or imagined, under the former regime; or they remember their abuses so clearly that they invoke the lex talionis against their oppressors. Anger is a poor substitute for wise thinking, yet it seems that the angrier someone is the more others will pay attention to them. Our characters are not motivated by virtue but by air time, book contracts and movie deals, and stretching their fifteen minutes into thirty.

The American consumer seems at least tacitly aware of this conundrum, as they rarely let media events dramatically challenge their worldview. School shootings, for instance, almost always precede a brief upswing in a public call for increased gun control before plummeting back to previous levels a couple months later. This has both positive and negative components, for people often stubbornly refuse to believe what their eyes tell them; yet if their eyes are being manipulated, then their refusal is justified. Lacking trust, we wind up believing in whatever fits our previously-existing (meta)narrative. If I think that police brutality against African Americans is more common than the media reports, then I’m likely to feel sympathy for the Michael Brown family and the entire Ferguson community. If I think police brutality against African Americans is exaggerated, I’m more likely to pity Darren Wilson and law enforcement officers. Both factions believe they are pursuing truth, and perhaps they are, yet the result is chaos.

Torn as I am between cynicism and optimism, I yet fear a society so un-governed by virtue that we would abandon our institutions in the vain hope of finding money, fame, and attention only to despair in the meaninglessness of our discovery. Long gone are the days of acolytes seeking to exercise their civic oaths, their business ethics, or religious orders in humble service to a greater good. We have fallen far from the examples of King and Mandela, of Jefferson and Monroe. But then again, they were men with direction and, we can reasonably argue, a commitment to virtue. How many of our journalists, celebs, and pols can say that?

But then again, perhaps truth is not found in the news ticker or feeds. Truth must deal with objective facts, yes, but it must also transcend those facts. Truth is never its own end, though it should be hunted with the same moral and intellectual vigor as if it was. Rather, truth is the means by which the individual moves to action. Because I cannot know the facts in the Michael Brown case beyond what I read regarding the grand jury testimony, what I do know is that a young man lost his life and another young man his livelihood. Such (limited) knowledge is likely to throw me into ambivalence or despair, neither of which are productive for the good life. Emotional wallowing would seem to be the default position here. Yet if I choose to employ the truth I can know in pursuit of the good I can do, then I can help build a world I can dream. Such aspirations are found in the simple choices of life, ones that will never receive attention in television reports, but ones that will make a lifetime’s worth of difference for each person and in the lives of those around them.

Media truly matters in a free society when it becomes the arbiter of facts and truth. Better that we, in our pursuit of virtue, become more discerning in our consumption of media.

The Tyrannical Daemon

I hate clichés. And I hate bandwagons. And, with a few exceptions, I hate people. My misanthropic tendencies arise from a superiority complex that values thoughts over feelings. Seeing thoughts in short supply, my disgust of the musical tour bus similarly develops from the kum-by-yah, self-realization, shakra formation inherent in most groupthink. And my distaste for clichés comes from a combination of the other two aversions: if you’re going to say something profound, it should be new and original, I often say.

But my distaste for clichés does not make them wrong. Perhaps some profundities last in the cultural consciousness because of their deep truth married to their simplistic expression. I haven’t fully figured out why cats are overly nervous in a room full of rocking chairs, nor do I understand why airing dirty laundry is a problem if everyone’s clothes are stained from time to time. And though a rose by any other name would surely smell as sweet, the word “rose” is a far more appealing word to identify a flower of love than the phonetically abrasive “maggot,” “moist,” or “lugubrious.”

These observations are no more true than of the clichéd expression rocketing around Christendom that “God is good all the time. And all the time God is good.”

But what about when God is not good?

We trust in God because he is all-powerful. But what happens when he doesn’t use that power to protect our home, to allow us to retire, to save our loved ones from death? We trust in God because he is all-knowing. But what happens when our knowledge seems far more accurate than his (as my son recently informed me of my own weak knowledge compared to his own)?

Christianity’s answer to the existence of evil has been challenged by people no less insightful than men like Voltaire. Should God be good, then why do so many bad things happen? Should God have immense power, then why does he not act on that power to prevent evil? Should this earth be not the best of all possible worlds, then God may not be good and loving but instead a tyrannical daemon who treats mankind like puppets on a stage, or as in Voltaire’s Candide, rats on a ship. Satan’s rationale to Eve in Book 9 of Paradise Lost sounds frighteningly accurate:

“God therefore cannot hurt ye, and be just; / Not just, not God; not feared then, nor obeyed: / Your fear itself of death removes the fear.”

Not just, not God. If God is defined in the superlative, then he is all justice. But if he does not enact justice, is he really as wise and potent and beautiful as we would like to believe? Theoretically, God could also be all anger and jealousy as well. As the poet William Blake muses, the being who created the innocence of the lamb also created the ferocity of the tiger.

But I think we get lost in the clichés and happy moralizing of the Christian walk. We love God because he first loved us. We love God because he gives us stuff. We love God because we fear not to. Do we love God because he is?

I believe the story of Job exists for this reason: to show us God’s darkness as well as his light. When everything is stripped from Job, his family, his riches, even his identity, all he has left is God. And while he believes God wrong, he still says, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (13.15). What faith must it take to hold fast to God even when he shows himself unjust? Even in his darkness, God is still far brighter than us—and it is only because of his ineffable, marvelous light that he can use the darkness. For God is not merely an instigator of darkness but one who saves within its shadows. Which means he is good because he cares. Pouring out one’s wrath on an innocent son is definitely not good for the son. Yet it is just for all of humanity whom the son volunteered to save.

I expect an intense moment of surprise will hit me when I arrive in heaven. Unencumbered by flesh, I will be able to look in the face of Christ and recount the times when I was so ungrateful, when I doubted, when I even hated him for what happened in my life. How could you let in such a wretch like me? And I imagine he will pull out a mustard seed and say, “Thank you for believing in me.”

We are the ones who lack vision. The petty disagreements we have with one another. The self-induced stress of worrying about tomorrow. The trials of the day. These moments become so self-defining yet are insignificant next to his incomparably great power for us who believe. The truth is that our knowledge is so finite that we cannot know why God does what he does. We can never know what trials and tragedies he saves us from experiencing. We cannot answer our doubts with information. Sometimes we must trust the tyrannical daemon.

Is God love? The cross tells us he is. Is God good? Most assuredly. But he does not always show himself good. Sometimes he shows himself unjust. But I think that has more to do with our perspective than it does a change in the character of God. It is true that he shows himself pure to the pure, faithful to the faithful, devious to the shrewd (Ps. 18.25-26). Much like the son being punished or the daughter not receiving her cherished ice cream cone an hour before supper, the parent sometimes seems harsh and unloving. Indeed, sometimes the broader perspective of the parent demands they be unloving, if we define unloving by refusing to giving children what they want rather than what is best for them. Only as the child grows does he realize the operations of fatherhood. If this be true, then we can still say with confidence, quieting all doubt…

God is good.

An Editor’s Life

For the last several months, I have taken up the responsibility of editing The Journal of Faith and the Academy, a publication of the Institute of Faith and the Academy at Faulkner University. The role of an editor, I am learning, is more complex than simply organizing and formatting articles. It is an amalgamation of duties, including writer, marketer, logistician, researcher, counselor, and politician. So taxing has been this new assignment that I have found little time for creativity, recreation, and writing of my own. I might spend some time lamenting this fact, but your time is short, so I will edit that digression and move onto more interesting thoughts.

Some people confuse editing with proofreading. In truth, proofreading is easy. Grammar follows a fairly standard set of rules. Convention and use have laid the path, and the writer needs merely to follow it. A proscriptive doctrine of subject-verb agreement, dangling participles, and (there it was if you just missed it) the Oxford comma acts as a railroad track to lead readers to clarity.

Leading readers to enlightenment, however, is a more arduous journey. As an editor, your goal is to ensure that the writer says what he thinks he says—in such a way, of course, that will make sense to the audience. Standing in as the imagined reader, the editor must walk the middle ground of statement and intention. In this respect, the editor should do as little revising as necessary out of respect to the author. Time, if not ethics, do not permit the editor to meddle. And yet, there’s always that one author who can’t seem to stay on the rails and whose train just refuses to climb the hill, that one whose lack of clarity screams out for a firm hand…

Nevertheless, revision errs in making the author say what the editor wants him to say. That impulse is always there—for surely I could make this idea more profound, could make this more obscure connection, could argue this point so much more clearly. But it is an impulse that can only be suggestive, not prescriptive. For if Dumbledore is correct, and words are the most powerful magic we wield, then the responsibility of handling the work of the author is a weighty one indeed.

Thought is composed of language, and language has the unique ability to affect thoughts, introducing ideas that can later become whole perspectives on the world. With this in mind, it is no large step from the grammatical to the psychological, even less from the psychological to the metaphysical.

What parts of our lives do we edit out? Surely we edit our past, as I have remarked elsewhere. But I think this is even more true when it comes to our interpretation and transformation. First, as believers, we attempt to edit out those behavior patterns, thoughtless actions, and evil intentions that prevent us from writing a masterpiece of our lives. We attempt—sometimes successfully—to delete gossip, lying, lust, or any other sin that would tarnish our divine likeness. This is, to a large extent, necessary. Yet at the same time, there is no good story without conflict, and the Father has chosen to make his kingdom out of sinful citizens. In the city of God, the weakest characters are those in whom Christ shines the brightest. He is, after all, the master editor.

But good editing can only occur when we have a good style guide and know how to use it well (I fear my metaphor is descending into obscurity and banality, but bear with me). Doctrine is fairly easy to grasp, as it is determined by scripture, tradition, and local (sometimes global) authority. Interpretation is much harder. One can become lost in the minutiae of grammar, denotation and connotation, and etymology, and never see the symbolism, allusion, paradox, and overall unity of the work. Sometimes I think we become so hung up on the task of proofreading that we neglect the more important work of editing. The Christ gives meaning to Isaiah’s echo of desiring mercy and not sacrifice, spiritual metamorphosis over religious purity. Focusing on doctrine means never making the mistake of revision (though doctrinal purists commit their own brand of revisionism as well). Yet it also means missing out on the importance of editing. The work of editing rises not only in laboring to make one’s life a reflection of the Author, but also in partnering with him to write a beautiful poem of one’s life in the larger poetry of humanity.

The task is not an easy one. It requires a right intention, an observant mind, and a steady hand with nimble fingers. But, when accomplished, the right words can create redemptive ideas.

Pop Culture, Pop Guns, and the Politicization of Celebrities

In the midst of Ebola scares, a midterm election, and the rise of the Islamic State, you probably knew (not that you could help it, but much to your shame) that George Clooney recently married, that Chris and Gwyneth held a divorce ceremony, and Renee Zellweger used more plastic than a Lego factory to change her face. This is hardly news, and yet it occupies the headlines of current events from The Sun to the Wall Street Journal.

Celebrities are not a new phenomenon. People have been breathlessly taken by their rulers since governments first formed. People gravitate toward the rich and famous. It not only gives us, the little people, heroes to follow but reaffirms our belief that one day we can “make it” too. If Taylor Swift can become famous with little more than a smile, then maybe I can achieve fame and success. Most classical writers had fans who might have hash-tagged them were it not for the absence of social media and threat of execution. It was, at least in part, Julius Caesar’s popularity with the mob that contributed to his assassination—desires to overthrow the republic notwithstanding. And while politics is merely show business for the, shall we say, aesthetically disenfranchised, media figures distastefully use their attention-grabbing status to opine on everything political from environmentalism to economics.

As an antagonist of pop culture, I find it difficult to support the pet causes of people whose greatest claim to fame is pretending (albeit convincingly) to be someone else. If one makes their living fictionalizing, it is hard not to cynically wonder if their outrage is similarly feigned. Other celebrities have even fewer talents, like being able to sing better than most—and if they don’t possess that talent, they can at least remove more clothes while singing sub par. For this reason alone, their social and political judgments should be discounted.

I think many media figures are self-consciously aware of their own inanity, which is why they must expand their platform to be taken seriously. They don’t cure cancer, but they can make it look like they care about curing cancer. To some degree, this is systemic to their industry. For a profession which must outdo itself every summer season, bigger must be better. Yet we may or may not be reaching a point of diminishing returns for the theatre-going audience; time, as in all things, will tell. Are we no longer able to suspend disbelief in the predictable highwire jumps, slow motion effects, and CGI? Somehow I doubt it. It is more likely that the convenience of home viewing is out-pacing the perceived value of soaring ticket prices, popcorn and soda that is more expensive than a McDonald’s value meal, and the annoyance of sitting with loud and socially-inappropriate viewers.

But if there is any cultural backlash against Hollywood beginning to assert itself, it may (and this is a really big MAY) be rooted in the celebrity phenomenon. It is hard to take seriously, for instance, a video of celebrities condemning gun violence when the blockbuster movies they sell make money through crafted explosions, fake bullets, and fictional body counts. To my knowledge, the only action hero who has ever to account for his actions is Jack Bauer, appearing before a congressional committee explaining his counter-terrorist measures in the seventh season of 24 (apparently you can’t kill 309 people without someone taking notice), and even then his use of torture is considered sufficiently justified to allow him to save the world for another three seasons. But when the Avengers help save New York City, we never see the President granting emergency federal funds and the painstaking process of rebuilding billion-dollar skyscrapers. Rarely do we see one of Denzel’s characters facing guilt-ridden sleepless nights for all the bad guys he’s shot in the line of duty. We don’t hear the residents of Westeros standing up and saying “Enough” to the violence. Ironically, if the American news media saw the residents of Westeros standing up and saying “Enough” to the nudity, incest, and general promiscuity in town, they’d be heckled as too Puritanical for a more enlightened age.

The beauty of fiction is in paring down a story to its most essential elements; we are told only those plots that communicate the greatest meaning. Though it takes place in real time, we are thankfully spared Jack Bauer’s real needs to eat and pee (fighting terrorists never allows for a bathroom break—except perhaps during the commercials). This is an acceptable aspect of fiction wherein we the audience suspend our disbelief. Yet the downside is that we consumers of pop culture never see the day-to-day reality of what would occur outside the narrative. We only see the sensational events but never the consequences.

And herein lies the problem of the political celebs. They appeal to the low information voter, urging them to act without ever considering the costs of action—rarely ever considering the benefits of inaction. Ignoring the realities of real life, they do not consider the end result nor the unintended consequences. Because pop culture reduces everything to the lowest common denominator, the least truth, the least goodness, and the least beauty are merely enough—though the least never is. While this is certainly democratic, it means the most superficial engagement suffices for electoral success.

In the marketplace of ideas, there will always be bad ones. In the media landscape, we will always find stories of no inherent value. But this also means we don’t have to justify their existence with our attentiveness.