Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hats and Doors

I am amazed that "The Adjustment Bureau" has not gotten better reviews. Oh, the reviews have been fine. Some have even been good. But none has seemed to rate the movie as "great."

I think it is a great movie.

If you have not seen it yet, don't read this blog. Go see the movie first. This blog is full of spoilers.

The movie is based on a Philip K. Dick short story that I have not read. I do know that Dick was an Episcopalian and that he dealt with issues of spirituality in many of his works. I do not know if the adapter/director/producer of the movie, George Nolfi, is a Christian or not.

I, however, view the film though my personal lens, so I have to see a film that deals with issues of fate, determinism, predestination, and free will from a Christian perspective. I believe this movie is outstanding because it raises questions and offers some answers. It is also flush with symbolism that speaks to me.

1. The free will question. I address this first not because it is easy - of course it is not - but because anyone who has seen a trailer for the movie knows that this is the clearest theme. The point of the movie, to me, is that we all do in fact have free will - or at least we can have free will - but we have to want it enough to fight for it. There is no requirement that we have to exercise it, and indeed we can allow ourselves to submit to currents and influences and perhaps even intentional forces around us sufficient to sweep us along to an end that we have not chosen. For those willing to fight for choice, however, there is no plan that cannot be rewritten.

There is a limit to our choice, of course. I believe that God is sovereign, and where God's specific will is involved, we are powerless to defeat it. We cannot, for example, create a 25-hour day. My wife Gena could not have decided not to have a beautiful singing voice.

Gena could, however, have chosen not to practice, not to sing, not to take her talent and make the most of it. In the extreme, she could choose to abuse her voice and herself so as to ruin the gift she has been given.

God's sovereignty is matched by God's love. The love of the Father means that we have options... choices. The Father desires to be loved by us, and forced love is of course no love at all.

I believe that God's specific will appears far less often than many others seem to believe. I think that God's permissive will is far more pervasive and that it can involve a number of scenarios that God will allow depending on how we act, mature, choose, and function. What appears to be "the plan" may in fact be a starting point; indeed, it will take us to a predetermined ending point if we let it, but if we, like David Norris in the movie, choose to fight for what we know is right, God's permissive will in fact has more than one possible outcome.

2. The power of love. As I have written here, I look for this in movies. In "The Adjustment Bureau," the key to Norris' determined fight for his own choice is love. What ultimately makes the black-clad storm troopers disappear at the end of the movie is the expression of that true love, the kiss. As Richardson foreshadows early on, a "real kiss" will create unthinkable problems for "the plan."

3. The symbolism of the doors. If you know what you are doing - if you have the right map and know the way to go - you can move more quickly than others. There are doors everywhere, but not everyone knows how to use them. What is a simple closet door to most people is, to those who see and understand, the portal to freedom or to success. The key is to learn how to recognize and use the doors.

4. The symbolism of the hats. The "angels" or "case agents" or "adjusters" or whatever you want to call them have limited powers, thanks to the Chairman. They can only travel through the doors when they are wearing a hat.

We too have hats. Probably not bowlers. What we have are the tools God gives us. Some come to us supernaturally, like the gifts of the Spirit. Others come to us naturally as talents and abilities. Still others come through hard work. There are some that are simply bestowed. What becomes important for us is to recognize that we cannot operate the doors - we cannot take advantage of everything the world has to offer - on our own. Our powers are limited, but thanks to the Chairman, we have the chance to wear our hat and use the doors. If the hat blows off, we need to stop long enough to pick it up. If the enemy improvises and knocks our hat off, we are going to be in trouble. We have to protect our hats.

5. The symbolism of water. When Harry and Matt are on the boat or in the rain or in Manhattan's central pumping center, they can talk without detection. To make their most important plans, they need to be "surrounded by water." I don't know if we should make too much New Testament intrigue out of baptism as the meaning of water here, but I do think a broader interpretation is clear: we can find protection. There are places we can go where the encircling protection from those who would harm us is apparent. Sometimes, it stops raining. Sometimes, we have to get off the boat. Ultimately, we have to make a run for it to the courthouse. But, at least for a moment, we can find the water and know that we have a chance to refresh and have some of our questions answered.

6. The symbolism of light. I missed this one the first time I saw the movie, but it reached out and grabbed me the second time. The movie is, by and large, set in dreary greys and dark rooms. But at critical moments, the light shines. When Harry sleeps on the bench so that David can find Elise, the sun beams. When David finds Elise again after three years, the sun has just broken through. Just before David walks in with the coffee and he and Elise realize how deep their love is, we see the light of the full moon. As the climax of the movie approaches, even through the rain, we see the nascent sunrise trying to overcome the storm clouds. At the denouement itself, as the camera encircles the kissing lovers on top of the building, the dreariness is overcome by brilliant sunshine.

Since we know at the end of the movie that the Chairman was always involved with David, always ready for David to exercise choice, always hoping for David to break free of the plan, we can look back and see the presence and help of the Chairman in these criticial events. They did not happen without the light.

My New Testament lens sees here the Light of the World, the lampstand, the Light of Men.

Let there be light.

7. My view of "the plan." I suppose some will watch the movie and view it as an attack on the Bible. After all, the movie raises any number of questions about whether "the plan" is good, is loving, is changeable, is really worth following.

I see it differently. I see the mindless following of a narrow reading of the plan by the Bureau. I see those who have no interest in why the plan is written. I see those who are confounded by the idea that the plan may have been different in earlier times, that the plan may be viewed differently by others, that the plan in fact has a number of interpretations.

I do not think the point here is to say that the Bible is changing. I think the point is that interpretations of the Bible can be narrow, limiting, misunderstanding. The Bureau members are not evil; indeed, they are earnest and sincere. They are simply narrow. They look at the plan and think they know what it means, and they are not interested in alternative views.

The key language in the movie to me occurs when David says something like "if we don't understand the plan, maybe we can find who wrote it." That has gospel all over it. The Bible, and others' interpretations of it, are important, but they are less important that the One who wrote it. The Bible tells us of God and of God's plan. The Bible describes to us the Word of God. But God is more important than the description of God.

I do not denigrate for one second the importance of scripture. Any honest reading of my blogs will reveal the high reverence I have for scripture and my belief that it is authoritative. I am in no way suggesting that the Bible should be interpreted away. I do believe, however, that there are multiple interpretations for much of scripture, many of which equally sincere believers espouse in contradictory ways. The answer, I believe, is to go to the One who wrote it.

I don't mean to suggest that this movie is an obvious allegory for a New Testament Christian understanding. A quick scan of the internet will show you that plenty of folks have seen it without seeing a clear religious message of any kind. I freely admit that my view of the movie is shaped by my world view.

That said, I like the questions the movie raises and the tools it gives us to discuss them. The movie gives us a hat and points us to a door.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Life Expectancy

It was there in the paper today - life expectancy in America has, for the first time, crept over 78 years. Of course, that statistic is for babies born in 2009, but it strikes me as good news nonetheless.

Except... that means that I am well past halfway home. I guess I have known that, but to see it in stark black-and-white is a little jolting. When exactly did I cross the halfway line? It wasn't when I was 39, because life expectancy was shorter back then. I suppose I could go back and figure it out, but it is not really the mathematical that has caught my attention. Nobody rang a bell when I crossed the midpoint. Nobody waves a flag to tell you when the next lap - or the last lap - is beginning.

Nobody gives you a roadmap or a schedule for your life, of course. We don't know if we will live to be 78 or not. That is an average, so half of us will live longer and half won't make it that far.

I am 46. If anybody had asked me before I saw that article, surely I would not have predicted that I will live to be 92, so I guess I have known that I am on the homeward side of halfway. Still, to read it in the paper is a different thing.

Have I accomplished what I set out to accomplish? Am I anywhere close to "halfway" there? When I was my son's age, getting ready to head to college, would I have been pleased to read the biography of the 46-year-old me? If today I could read the biography of the 56-year-old me, would I be pleased?

In light of the Japanese earthquake - superimposed on events of Libya and Iraq and Korea and Afghanistan - I have read a new round of "Are we in the 'End Times'?" emails over the last week or so. The answer, as always, is "yes and no." The universe is run by a God to whom a day is as a thousand years, so questions of time-and-God are nonsensical. Jesus Himself did not know the answer to the question of when The End will come.

What I have - what we all have - what we all have always had - is today. I don't know how many more tomorrows I will have, but reading the paper today makes it clear that I have a lot fewer than I thought I did.

Simon and Garfunkel sang it well: "I am older than I once was but younger than I'll be. That's not unusual."

Maybe today I should hug my kids a little more. Maybe write a blog with more meaning than this one. Maybe build a bridge or cure cancer. Maybe I should go find somebody I can teach to read.

All I have is today. That's not unusual.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

What Do Christians Know?

John 8:32 famously says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

We have all heard that we have entered the "post-modern world," where truth is relative. Agnosticism – literally the view that you know nothing for sure – is in style. It is impolitic to be certain of anything that smells religious.

I believe that we as Christians minimize what we know. We act as if we don’t know anything, that we only think or prefer. We act scared of the word “truth,” preferring instead to say that we have a "point of view." We are too quick to retreat to a position that says something like this: "Faith is inherently unproveable. If it were a scientific formula, it would not be faith. Therefore, since we cannot prove matters of our faith in a laboratory or a courtroom, it would be presumptuous of us to say that we know them."

A dangerous extension of this view goes to our witnessing, our evangelism. Because we cannot really say that we “know” our faith, it is impolite, if not outright unacceptable, to attempt to persuade someone else of our faith. We can too quickly fall into the view that decides that faith is just a matter of opinion and that we therefore have no business talking to anyone else about it.

I have written before (here) that we Christians share our faith (what the New Testament calls "evangelism") in a genuine desire to help, that we have to package what we say properly, and that we have to base that sharing on a pre-existing personal relationship with the person with whom we are sharing.

But the point is that we know something. Jesus says that we shall know the truth, and the truth will make us free. The concept of what we can know is all over the New Testament:
- When the apostles ask Jesus why He speaks in parables, Jesus responds that “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given” to them. (Matthew 13:11)
- After Jesus speaks to the woman at the well, she tells her friends that she has met the Messiah. They run to meet Jesus and then tell her, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the savior of the world.” (John 4:42)
- At the Last Supper, Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit will bring glory to Him by taking what is His and “making it known” to us. (John 16:14)
- John finishes his gospel by saying that “we know” that what Jesus has said is true. (John 21:24)
- Paul tells us that in Jesus we have been enriched in all our knowledge (1 Corinthians 1:5), that we know the mystery of His will. (Ephesians 1:9)
- John tells us that this is how we know we are His: that we keep His commandments and walk as Jesus walks. (I John 2:3,6)
- He tells us that we know we have passed from death into life because we love our brothers. (1 John 3:14)
- And we know that we live in Him and He is us because He has given us His spirit (1 John 4:13), which Paul calls a deposit that guarantees our inheritance. (Ephesians 1:14)

Of course, we see through a glass darkly. We do not know now as we will one day know. (1 Corinthians 13:12) Still, the key to all of this scripture is that there are things that we know. We do not know it all; we will never know it all. We cannot know our way to heaven – salvation is a matter of faith and the heart, not knowledge and the brain. But, as children of God, one of the great gifts we have is insight, clarity, knowledge, the unraveling of at least some of the mysteries of God.

A key gift of God to us Christians, of course, is hope. We typically use that word wrong – I "hope" she will go out with me, I "hope" the Titans win the Super Bowl, I "hope" it doesn’t rain tomorrow, I "hope" Mom orders pizza tonight. Those are not hope – those are wishes.

Here is my favorite quotation, from Peter Kuzmic: “Hope is the ability to hear the music of the future; faith is the courage to dance to it today.” Hope is not a wish. Hope is tangible, it is real. Hope is knowledge. Having hope means that we know what is going to happen. The writer of Hebrews says this:
"Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure." (Hebrews 6:17-19)

We shall know the truth, and the truth will make us free.

Taking that verse out of context is dangerous. I see it on pediments in courthouses where I practice. The truth shall make you free. And yet many who walk down those hallways have no idea how to access the truth that is described.

Jesus is specific on how we know the truth that makes us free. With the preceding verse, John 8:31, in context Jesus says this: “If you continue in my word, then are you my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” That is a different ballgame – we can certainly know things, but we can only attain that particular freedom-giving knowledge one way: we have to have an encounter with the one who is truth. For if the Son sets us free, we are free indeed. (John 8:36)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Perils of Democracy

Like you, I have watched the events in Egypt over the last month in awe. How a people can rise up and throw off its masters so suddenly is fascinating. For it to happen in Egypt, of all places, gives it special significance to students of the Old Testament. For it to arise out of - at least partially - the use of social media is truly amazing.

I have read and watched and listened as friends and media have applauded and praised. And I too, of course, have been thrilled to see ideals like self-rule and individualism take root.

But there is another side to this.

Whom will the people choose? True democracy is rule by the majority. Is rule by a majority of Egyptians what the world needs? Is it what Egypt needs?

Where is Egypt's Thomas Jefferson? Where are Egypt's Madison, Washington, Paine, Franklin, de Tocqueville?

American democracy was guided in its infancy by thinkers of care and intelligence. The riots and whiskey rebellions were far outnumbered by those who deliberately planned for what kind of government would replace the thrown-off kingdom. The cry of "no taxation without representation" presaged a carefully created representative structure. When Articles of Confederation were far too imperfect, the reaction was to call for a constitutional convention.

Is that what the Middle East will see? Will the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party and Al Wasat and the many other rising factions come together in the name of liberty and peace?

For every scholar who believes that democracy is the antidote to terrorism because it allows the critic a safety valve of free speech and governmental participation instead of throwing bombs, there is another who believes that new fledgling democracies simply present tempting targets for the radicals.

We all remember Iran in the early 80s. Having deposed the Shah and his autocratic rule, a relatively (for that part of the world) advanced Iranian people fell under the rule of Ayatollahs and radical theocracy - ostensibly democratically chosen - that has devolved into what we see today in the frightening world of Ahmadinejad.

Asking where the Egyptian Jefferson and Adams are just scratches the surface. What about the moral leadership that democracy demands? I recognize the deism of Jefferson and historical questions about Washington's piety - it is not my point to say that all of our Founding Fathers were deeply Christian men. But, there clearly were a number of deeply Christian men involved in the process, and there were even more men of sturdy character - whether their "religion" was the same as mine or not - who shepherded the process. Is the same true in Egypt?

Now, of course, the spread goes beyond Egypt, as Bahrain and Libya and who knows where else the seed of democracy spreads. And that is a good thing.

But it is a good thing fraught with peril. As we cheer, we must keep our eye on what fills the vacuum. Democracy is demanding. Are the Egyptians ready to meet the demands?