Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Green Martyrdom and the Christian Engagement of Late Capitalism

Rodney Clapp

Clapp, Rodney. "Green Martyrdom and the Christian Engagement of Late Capitalism." Cultural Encounters - A Journal For The Theology Of Culture Volume 4 / Number 1 (2008): 7-20.

Finished Reading: 02.2009

Rodney Clapp asserts that consumerism is desire for desires sake, and we are addicted to centering too much of our life on obtaining our desires, which are unfulfillable. Consumer capitalism demands that we make consumption our way of life, our ritual, and our spiritual satisfaction. It pretends to be a comprehensive view of life, where there is nothing beyond obtaining and acquiring.

In America, every single day of the year is a consuming holiday, and the day after an actual holiday is the first day leading up to the next holiday. The day after Thanksgiving kicks off the Christmas shopping season with huge sales! (buy! buy! buy!) Later, when we have settled down to our normal lives after the holidays, Valentines Day populates the countenance of our storefronts, screaming red and flowers and candy! Valentines Day wouldn't be anything to speak of outside the consumerist structure which has been created to take advantage of, ironically, the ancient celebration of St. Valentine, a Christian who was killed and martyred for his faith oh so long ago. We have made consumerism important because we want it to be important, perhaps subliminally covering up what these ancient holidays were really about.

A martyr is someone who endures great suffering on behalf of a belief or principle. If only St. Valentine knew what we were suffering for him. There are no martyrs in consumer capitalism, just as surely as there is no crying in baseball. Baseball players are supposed to be tough as nails, and consumers are supposed to spend money on things they don't need. That's how it goes. Subsistence living is viewed as inferior to the vision of the good life depicted in all desire-based advertising, or as you might call it, "advertising." Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer asks, "Could it be that we do not understand martyrs in our postmodern era because we cannot fathom what it is to be convicted of and committed to the truth?" Too often truth is whatever sells. Does Jesus sell?

Consumerism has been incorporated into American Christianity, and Rodney Clapp argues that, "Christ is not a pleasant add-on or option to an unending array of consumerist products and experiences," as many have come to believe. Christ is often seen only as a way for me to get what I want.

Clapp suggests a society, specifically within the church, that purposefully moves away from consumerism, thinking on our consumption of the environment, our finances, and time. This is green martyrdom: to sacrifice our apparent entitlement to obtain, which we have been reaching for as much of as we can get our hands on, at whatever the costs. We first need to be able to understand martyrdom, which starts with thinking outside ourselves.

I know we used to have martyrs around because now we have a lot of holidays to forget them by. There used to be heroes, too. Now we have celebrities. Celebrities exist for our consumption. We don't want to be like them, the real them, we just crave their attention and their phat rims. Heroes are to be honored and revered for some great deed, but they are far above the common people and we don't really try to be like them, we just look up to them.

Conversely, martyrs are to be emulated, but not for something they have done or something they have, but because the life of a martyr points to something greater than themselves, unlike every other instance of fame, which points inwards at itself. The martyr lives outside himself, and Rodney Clapp makes five strong points to illustrate what a green martyr is, comparatively less committed to the cause as the red martyr who has died for his strongly held beliefs.

1. Green martyrdom means laying the bodies of ourselves and our own on the line for our way of life, rather than making others suffer for it. We should support local economies rather than fight consumptive, distant wars to support our "consumerist way of life," even at the cost of adjusting our standards of living and energy consumption.

2. Green martyrdom means working toward an economy that includes and does not exclude and separate or hide the poor from the rich. We should establish ties with the less economically well off, and integrate rather than get as far away from them as we can. The church needs to involve itself with churches that are less economically well off as well.

3. Green martyrdom means committing our whole selves, body and soul, to church, community, and place for the long haul. We are a society in transit, consuming and moving on. We should commit to a certain place to cultivate relationships and community rather than following consumptive rewards.

4. Green martyrdom means challenging idolatry and naming greed as an acute form of idolatry. We should have conversations about where to draw the line with our greed, which is a sin just as sexual sin is surely wrong.

5. Green martyrdom means admitting the reality of death and living as if we will one day die. We can't take it with us, so we shouldn't try to get more than we need before we die. We shouldn't live our lives for the ultimate end of averting our suffering, for that is futile.

A life lived in this manner doesn't necessarily point to God, as some people can find other reasons for their moral choices, but Christians should recognize that we cannot possibly turn fully towards the good God of the Bible unless we turn fully away from consuming ourselves.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Great Divorce

C.S. Lewis

Finished Reading: 02.2009

In this creative story depicting the great separation between heaven and hell, the divide between God and sinners, Lewis explores the idea of the "Refrigerium," or holiday from hell. I was not familiar with this term before reading the book, but apparently it is said that those in hell are given a chance to leave for a short time, mostly choosing to visit Earth and appearing as ghosts or various haunting apparitions. The Great Divorce begins with a group of regular people waiting at a bus stop in hell. Upon boarding the bus, which is magical and flies, the passengers are taken up into heaven where most are incredibly scared out of their minds, and only a few wish to stay.  Those that want no part of heaven hurry back to the bus for the return trip to hell.

In hell, it is always raining and twilight, with the darkness ever looming. The unnamed narrator boards the bus and we follow him on his journey to heaven. Before he arrives, he meets a few people on the bus with whom he has short conversations. One man explains how the grey town that they just left is so bland and horrible because people quarrel with one another which leads them to move away from their disagreeable neighbors. Each quarreler moves his home further and further away, with no one ever moving any closer to where they started, and so the whole town is a sprawl that goes on for millions of miles. This sounds like horrible city planning to me and an accurate depiction of sinners moving further and further from Christ, which leads them deeper into hell and no nearer to the bus stop.

Upon arriving in heaven, where it is perpetually dawn and the sky is so much larger than can be imagined by comparison on Earth, the bus passengers step out and marvel at how very bright it is. The narrator notices that everything is so much more real here, and that the bus passengers appear now as ghosts, somewhat transparent. He then notices that the people don't seem any less real than they did before, though he can see right through them, but rather this new place is more real and more solid in a way previously unimaginable. The grass is hard as diamonds and hurts their ghost feet, tree leafs are unattainably heavy to lift, and there is a general fear of the rain, for if it begins to rain the ghosts will be pierced with many holes as if from a machine gun. Further, the ghosts are able to walk on the very hard water in the river, but are swept away and hurt by its power.

The narrator begins to walk around and explore this fascinating and dangerous place, observing encounters between ghosts and the Solid People, those who are of this place. Mostly these meetings are prearranged, with a Solid Person coming to meet a ghost who has just arrived from the bus. One such Solid Person is a murderer who is humble and regrets his wrong choices, and has repented. He has come to meet a ghost friend who can't believe that a murderer is in heaven and not he, since he lived a good moral life. Another ghost comes along who doesn't think we should be punished for our beliefs, no matter what they are, as long as we truly believed them, thinking all is relative and there is no real truth.

A man stealthily tries to steal some apples from a large tree, but struggles against their immense weight. He wanted to take many, but is unable to take any and sneaks off hoping no one noticed his failed attempt. He is rebuked by an angel. Another man is very disappointed in what he sees in this place, thinking heaven is not what he had hoped for, and does not think that his talents can be of any use here, or that there is anything that heaven can do for him.

A vain woman thinks only of her image and cannot stand to be seen as a ghost, so see-through. She is very ashamed. There is a grumbling lady, and a sex-seeking lady, and an artist who marvels at the beauty of heaven but wishes to return to hell because they don't need artists to paint the beautiful landscape in heaven when all can just look at the beautiful landscape for themselves. He, as so many of the others, wants to be where he is needed, placing value in his self-worth over absolute beauty and love.

One woman complains about her husband and doesn't even want to see him, and another woman wants very badly to see her son - but he doesn't show up. She has placed all her value in him. He is her identity and she would rather have him with her in hell than know he is happy up in the mountains of heaven. Another man has a lizard living on his shoulder, which is controlling his life. He doesn't want to get rid of it, but finally agrees to let an angel kill it, and when the lizard is dead the man is finally free. Transforming into a Solid Person, he rides off into the mountains.

There is a grand celebration for a beautiful and saintly woman who truly lived a life filled with the love of Christ. Everyone she came in contact with on Earth was affected by His love. In the midst of the celebrating, she meets her husband who is a shrivelled dwarf, and he can't believe she had joy in her life after he had died. He doesn't understand that her joy comes from Jesus. He wanted her to be broken and distraught from the separation of death. He wanted her to value him above all else. 

George MacDonald shows up and talks with our narrator for some time, answering many of his questions. (I am unfamiliar with this man,  but apparently he was a Scottish minister and writer that Lewis admired). MacDonald explains that to those who choose to stay in heaven, hell was not really hell at all, but rather purgatory. Those in hell have always been there, and those in heaven have always been there. The Solid People of heaven live to go higher and higher up into the mountains (which I take to be where Christ is,) but some stay down on the great plain where the has bus stopped, for the very purpose of trying to save the souls that arrive. He explains that hell is just a crack in the floor of heaven, small as an atom, and no one from heaven can go down to hell, except Jesus who once did, but those from down in hell who do come up for a visit always find something lacking and hurry back to the dark crack, despite the goodness they observe in heaven.

"For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see." (ch13)

In the end, the narrator sees that everything in life is just chess pieces on a game board on the great table of time. He then sees the perpetual dawn turn into a rising sun and his ghostly body is destroyed by the blinding light, blasted into oblivion! He awakes from his dream.

This is an excellent analysis of the human condition for sin and the various forms sin takes that keep sinners from wanting to be in heaven. Many people think that everyone wants to be in heaven and it is cruel of God to send some people to hell. What these people want is in hell, because they have no interest in Jesus. Lewis reminds us that while all are offered an outstretched hand (or bus ride), few take it. Few wanted to take the bus ride, and of those that did, even fewer liked what they saw and wanted to stay. Most moved as far away from the bus stop as possible, making it near impossible to catch a bus. Public transportation saves. We must turn fully away from ourselves in order to turn fully to God. 

"There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened." (ch.9)

I'm not sure of how the depictions of heaven and hell line up with life on Earth. Does life on Earth come completely before either the grey town of hell or the green plain and mountains of heaven? Are all characters in this story dead, and this is the afterlife, or is life intertwined with death and those in hell are living there and the Solid People are saved Christians in heaven - saved though not yet dead? Is the mountain where they go when they have died, and the plain is where they are while still alive, ministering to the sinning ghosts? This would explain why no one comes down from the mountain, and why the people from hell are able to ride the bus to see what the fuss is all about. They are hearing the Gospel and choose to accept or deny it. Perhaps the sunrise at the end is the coming of Christ, at which time it is too late for any ghost. Or perhaps that is just his individual death.

"There is but one good, that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to him and bad when it turns from him." (ch.11)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Blue Like Jazz

NonReligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality

Donald Miller

Finished Reading: 02.2009

Most of this book is set in Portland, Oregon. I feel an exciting connection to the people and places described, which is sort of weird. Stumptown Coffee. Pioneer Courthouse Square. Powell's Books. Mark the Cussing Pastor. Tony the Beat Poet.

Donald Miller tells of his growth in Christianity and the struggle between what he has known the religion to be and what he wants his relationship with Jesus to be. He values solid theology and loves Jesus, but wants it to be OK to disagree with the Republican party and hang out with gay people. He wants to be involved in a local church, but also spend time on a secular college campus loving people who hate God; doing things the American church traditionally shys away from.

He doesn't claim to have the math of Jesus all figured out, but he loves Him and wants to obey Him. We learn along with the author as he struggles between the culture of the church and the culture of the world, asking hard questions while smoking pipes and seeking truth from people with tattoos. He makes friends with people different from himself, deep friends who come from different backgrounds, with various problems and differing philosophies. This is a journey that we can relate to because it is real life, not just church life -just like our life. Christianity is like jazz, not like math.

"There are some guys who don't believe in God and can prove he doesn't exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago, and honestly, I don't care. I don't believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons. If I walk away from Him, I will walk away for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything."

Right away in the first few chapters I notice this book reads a lot like J.D. Salinger's Catcher In The Rye. Quick sentences. Rambling thoughts. A lot of interesting information gets into your head really fast. He changes subjects quickly too. Sometimes it makes sense. Sometimes it doesn't. I think this is the way I really think, inside my brain. 

I came to the realization that Miller is not using the word and. This explains the short sentences. I enjoy reading this style of writing, but I didn't know how to describe it until just now. I didn't know what the structure was. As soon as I realized this, I looked very carefully for the next use of the word and. I found it over a whole page later! Maybe a page and a quarter even. Who writes for a whole page without using and? Of course you have to use and now and then. I paid attention to this for the rest of the chapter. Once he writes two pages without using and. By the time I finished the book, however, I noticed that he either stopped using this style or I just got used to it and didn't notice anymore. 

I don't know if I have ever laughed out loud so often while reading a Christian book, as while reading Blue Like Jazz. Miller is just so real. He feels like me. I think we would be friends. In the middle of some very deep, mystical, profound truth or life changing moment, he observes humor in how he is feeling or how he feels he is perceived by others. These moments and feelings are always present during our deep thoughts, but are not usually expressed - simply shrugged off as getting in the way of the point we are trying to make. 

The lines that I think are most funny don't seem quite as funny outside the flow of the text. They aren't jokes, they are just whimsical side observations. While having a quiet moment out in nature, alone with his thoughts and searching for God, Miller calls out to the sky but the stars are silent. He notes that the nearby river is speaking "some vernacular for fish." He calls out again. "Nothing from the stars. Fish language from the river." This doesn't lessen the moment, but makes it more real. 

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Burnt-Out Case

Graham Greene

Finished reading: 12.2008

A famous architect travels deep into Africa with the intention of escaping fame, and possibly dying in the bush...not really caring which. He is burnt-out with a career of designing grand cathedrals, but finds a quiet renewal in a troubling situation in Africa. He is able to momentarily regain some meaning to his life.  

Riding a boat down a distant river as far as it will go, Querry ends up at a Catholic church that houses and cares for villagers suffering from leprosy. The disease is new to him, and he finds himself in a struggle between the religious fathers and the atheist doctor; both want to save the inflicted people, but for different reasons. Querry leans towards atheism, but can relate to the fathers since he once shared their faith. He also struggles with anonymity in this distant country, as his fame is discovered and his past life of superficial good and moral wrong is revealed.

Both doctor and priest work together to help the suffering lepers, and Querry reluctantly offers his architectural skills for the building of a new hospital.  In so doing, he gradually goes through a renewal of his own, approaching a cure for his indifference and state of being "burnt-out." He sways between faith and scepticism, never really arriving anywhere.

The Catholic fathers have a high concern for the material well-being of the Africans, doing all that they can to heal their sufferings. However, they have a relaxed moral theology, not leading the patients to reform from their sinful ways. At the end of the story, Querry is charged with a crime, but is assumed guilty though there is no proof. The double standard in moral responsibilities between the Africans and the whites is evident, and sadly I think the white priests really do feel the Africans are of a lesser sort than they, and the Africans are not expected to be able to be sanctified.  There are many levels of belief and non-belief explored in the novel. In the end, after tragic events, life goes on at the hospital and lepers are continually treated for their ailments. 

I was not excited about this book and did not identify strongly with anyone except for the architect, simply because he was one nominally. There are not very many stories about architects in literature, so I read them when I find them. That was certainly my reason for reading this book.