Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Buddhist King, the Priest, and the Christmas Elephant

Christmas Eve midnight mass may seem like an odd choice for this Baptist, but I enjoy the ceremony, music, pageantry, and beauty of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church's sanctuary as a time for my personal welcoming of the Christ Child.  Our own Advent and Christmas services at my church are treasures, and I would not trade them; but somehow, after all the "Baptist stuff" is over, sitting as a stranger among friends, hearing the same scriptures and the same carols amidst the foreign - to me - liturgies, chants, responses, and rituals of these Christian brothers and sisters adds something unique and special to my Christmas.

Tonight, Monsignor Hart told the Buddhist parable of the king who invited a number of blind philosophers to touch something they had never before encountered - an elephant - to try to figure out what this creature could be.  One touched the legs, another the trunk, one the tusks, another the girth, and still another the tail.  When it came time to explain the truth of what an elephant is, one was certain that an elephant is like a trunk of a tree, while another swore that an elephant was like a woolen rug.  Another said that no, elephants were clearly like large storage rooms, but others said an elephant is like a broom, or a pillar, and so on.  And the king sat back and laughed at all these supposedly wise men who, persuaded solely by their limited personal experiences, were light years away from the truth.

In our post-modern world of relativism, many view religion and God as though they were blind men touching parts of an elephant.  God means this to you and that to me, and religion serves this purpose for one and that purpose for another.  We continue to seek God, to look for true religion as we wander the universe and to feel blindly into the creations that are beyond us.  Many become convinced that God and religion are different things to different people, with varying purposes and "truths" based on our own experiences.  And somewhere, we are sure that somebody laughs at us all.

But Christmas is here.  And Christmas teaches something else.

The Buddhist king does not know about Christmas.

Christmas teaches something audacious, something that many in the world - likely many of you reading this - are not ready or willing to entertain even as an option.  Christmas means that we can know the truth of God. 

The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.  And we have seen His glory.  He is the one who was present when the morning stars sang together and through whom the world was created; the one who declared, "I and the Father are one;" the one who answered the demand "show us the father" by saying, "Have you been this long with me and yet still do not know who I am?"  He is the exact representation of God.  The infinite, eternal God is beyond us; but He longed for us to know Him. We could not explain the elephant, so the elephant became one of us.

God is beyond us.  So He condescended to walk with us, as one of us, so that we can know and understand who He is.

Religion is not about our search for God.  Christmas tells us that God searches for us.  Christmas promises that God came to us because we were feeling blindly and getting confused by tusks and toenails.

Our king does not laugh at our blindness.  Our king ends our blindness by bringing light... and that light is the life of men.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.

The Buddhist parable about a too-clever-by-half king who ridicules his people was explained to me by a Catholic priest.  And out of it I got a picture of the Christmas elephant.  I was reminded that we can and do know everything we need to know about God.  I was reminded that our search for God gives way to God's search for us.  And I was reminded that our king does not ridicule our failures but instead opens our blind eyes.

Christ has come so that we can see who God really is.  Our blindness is over. 

Arise, shine, for your light has come.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas in Connecticut

How can the children who survived, the parents of those who died, the teachers, the community, or anyone in the nation have Christmas now?  Who can sing "Fa La La La La" with a straight face?  Who can light candles, receive presents, attend a worship service?  Who can bear to read about peace on earth and good will to men?

The reactions today have been as swift as they have been predictable.  Prayers for the families.  Psychological explanations.  Exasperated calls for gun control and exasperated replies that the only reason this criminal could do what he did was that he was a "gun free zone." 

Questions.  Questions.  Questions.

Asking "why" is normal.  It does not get us very far. 

I can ask why these children were gunned down.  I can ask why drunks drive and wars rage.  I can ask why shooters shoot and why abusers strike. 

But, eventually, we have to move past these questions about symptoms.  Sooner or later, we realize that asking why these bad people have done bad things... or even why apparently decent people have done bad things... leads to a much more basic premise.

I have seen this more basic issue - the disease - raised in different places today.  "Our world has gone mad...."  "What is wrong with us?"  "Evil is rampant....." We live in a world full of bad people ... and decent people who do bad things. 

The answer to this question is not universal health care, social security, gun control, reduction in taxes, capitalism, patriotism, more government, or less government.  The answer is not political because the problem is not political.

The answer to this question is not kindness, philanthropy, hugging each other more, or patience.  The answer is not social because the problem is not social.

This is a problem that the Bible addresses repeatedly.  We have a sin problem.  We are, at our essence, an unholy, stained people.  We fail.  We do not meet the standard that God has set for us.  The answer to the question "What is wrong with us?" is obvious to those who are willing to see - The answer is that we sin.  Our world is devastated by its failure to meet the mark.

Our world stinks.  It is full of jackasses and stupid sheep and other dumb animals who do nothing more than act on base instinct.  It is full of dung and smells like it.  It is every bit a stable.

The answer to this problem is found in one place.  And that one place is a manger in Bethlehem.

Jesus was not born because God was lonely or because the angels needed a chance to air that new chorus they had been rehearsing.  Jesus was born for one reason - to die.  Jesus came, as the Bible repeatedly makes clear, to save us from ourselves. 

How can those in Connecticut have Christmas?  They have no choice.  They must have Christmas.  They must find room for the Son of God to enter the stench of our world and do what only the Son of God can do.

Chris Rice has written: "Tears are falling, hearts are breaking; how we need to hear from God.  You've been promised, we've been waiting.  Welcome, holy child.  Bring Your peace into our violence, bid our hungry souls be filled.  Word now breaking heaven's silence, welcome to our world. So wrap our injured flesh around You, breathe our air and walk our sod.  Rob our sin and make us holy, perfect Son of God.  Welcome to our world."

Christmas in Connecticut will surely result in more kindness, philanthropy, hugs, and patience.  It may even resolve a political dispute or two.  If so, that will be nice.

But what a world where Adam Lanza can shoot dozens of elementary school children needs is more basic - and much more complex - than a hug and a handout. 

We have all, like sheep, gone astray.  We have turned, every one of us, to our own way. 

But behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and He shall be called "Emmanuel," which means "God with us."  And He shall save His people from their sins.  And the government shall be upon His shoulder.  And His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  And the lion and the lamb will lie down together.  And a little child shall lead them.

It is absolutely time for Christmas in Connecticut.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


It is the day after the election.  It is the day after the failure of the opposition party to unseat the incumbent president.  It is the day after the end of billions of dollars' worth of negative advertisements.  It is unfortunately not the day after the end of windbag editorial television interviews and acerbic Facebook posts and emails from both sides.

It is the first day of calls for healing.  I applaud those, although calls for healing that emanate from the winning side - from those whose candidate won the election - ring somewhat hollow.  I do not mean that they are all insincere - surely they are not.  I simply mean that to the victors go the spoils, and when the victors pause their party and look up from their feast to ask the losers to join them in "healing," it sounds something less than helpful.

No, it is the losers who must cry for healing.  It is those of us whose candidate did not win who must take the first - and probably the second and the third - steps toward recovering the sense of e pluribus unum that we all say we want.  That cry for healing must recognize who won and who lost; a plea that is a well- (or not-so-well-) disguised demand that the winners give up all or some of their winnings is just a temper tantrum, not a call for healing.

I do not say this out of malice.  The winners, I am sure, want healing.  Of course they do.  They got what they want, and now they want the rest of the nation to fall in line and cooperate.  There is nothing wrong with that.

The losers, though, have to decide what we want.  If those whose vote was in the minority decide that they want to secede, or quit caring, or carp about the process, or emphasize some sort of "real" victory from the close popular vote, or deride the winners, there will be no healing.  If those who failed to persuade the majority decide to sit back and wait for God to redeem what they see as an otherwise hopeless situation, God may well do so, but those sitting back will likely miss it.  Scripture is instructive that miraculous healing generally starts with Christ's asking us to do our part first.  When the blind asked Jesus for healing, Jesus' response was, "What do you want me to do for you?," and He waited for an answer.  His response to the afflicted was, "Stretch out your hand."  His response to the hungry crowd was, "What food do you already have?"  His response to us may very well be, "What steps can you take to get this healing started?"  Somebody may have to start digging through ceilings.

I applaud my liberal friends who have taken to cyberspace to call out for healing, but until my conservative friends take the first steps, I fear healing will not happen.

I do not suggest that losing this election means that Republicans in Congress are supposed to start voting for higher taxes or rubberstamping any judicial nominee submitted to them by the White House.  Moving towards healing does not mean surrendering convictions.  I do suggest that healing will require a change in attitude, a change in rhetoric, a willingness to compromise, and a recognition of the greater good.

I expect my liberal friends will "like" this post.  I hope my conservative friends do as well.

I call on my conservative friends to join me in calling for - and working for - healing.  As we pray, let's stretch out our hands and offer what we have.  Then we can wait to see - indeed we can expect -supernatural, miraculous healing begin.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cloud Atlas

I really wanted to like this movie.

It has, after all, a truly great cast.  I have been a fan of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Hugh Grant for a long time.  I am more recently becoming a big fan of both Jim Sturgess and Jim Broadbent.  And it has, for good measure, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, James D'Arcy, and many more.

Then, added to the allure of such a great cast is the intriguing idea that they are all playing multiple roles, in several cases changing race and even gender in the process.

I had read the reviews that said that the movie was incomprehensible and pretentious, but I was sure that those were lowbrow attacks and that I would grasp the true meaning.

After watching it, I can only say this:  it is incomprehensible and pretentious.

I guess I will have some spoilers here, although truly I think your watching experience will not be changed at all by anything I say.

The trailer is great.  It promises a story that shows that "everything is connected," that hope and love are ideals that drive us all and connect us all, and that humanity's innate drive for freedom will succeed.  These are notions that capture all of us.  You should pull the trailer up here and watch it.  It is six minutes long.  It is much better than the movie, and it gives you all the inspiring thoughts and provides glimpses of the famous actors in many different roles.

Some will say the movie is too big - too many characters, too many actors, too many stories.  I think they are wrong.  The problem with the movie is that it is too small, because it seeks to impart truth that is beyond the filmmakers and tell a story that mere mortals cannot tell.

The movie attempts to weave together parts of (for it cannot hope to tell the entirety of any of them) six tales -- in six different time periods with the same actors playing different roles -- in a creative attempt to proclaim that our lives are connected and that our stories move from century to century in a single path.  But six stories in even a three hour movie cannot capture hope and love and the quest for freedom in the way and with the sweeping completeness promised by this movie, and it is pretentious to try.  The script's idea of freedom is told in fits and starts.  Its theme of love - regardless of gender, age, race, or even (ultimately, apparently) species - is repetitive and in your face but not very deeply told.  Its concept of hope is, I guess, that even if mankind destroys itself, we can rebuild some sort of primitive hunter-gatherer society and start again with the help of prescient beings from outer space.  It says that it is about truth, but I am at a loss to say what the "truth" of this movie ultimately is.

The movie is part "2001," part "Lord of the Rings," part "China Syndrome," part "Amistad," and part "Planet of the Apes"... but it is not nearly as good as any of those predecessors.

I kept waiting for it to come together, to make sense.  I did not want to take the three directors' word for it that "everything is connected;" I wanted to see "it" - this promised connectedness - for myself in the movie.  The actors keep turning to the camera and asserting it, but "it" never happens.

Because the subtexts of the movie are largely liberal, some will read my criticism as political.  That would be a mistake.  If I eschewed all movies with liberal points of view, scripts, or plot points, I would not like very many movies.

I just wanted this to live up to its billing.  It does not come close.  And in retrospect, perhaps it can't.  I agree with Roger Ebert that the filmcraft is excellent, that the movie is not boring, and this it is beautifully made.  If that, plus seeing Halle Berry as a young boy and as a white woman and seeing Tom Hanks in six or seven different roles, is enough for you, then you will enjoy the movie.  If you enjoy insider games like trying to figure out if the cannibal king in all the makeup is Hugh Grant or Hugo Weaving, then this is the show for you.

But if you want a movie that actually is convincing that its six stories are interconnected by more than the artificial device of using the same actors, the same randomly placed birthmark, an odd piece of music, and some dialog that proclaims (for no apparent reason) that our lives are all connected, you will leave the movie, like me, disappointed.

This is a not a bad movie.  It is just not what it promises to be. 

I will end with what will probably be, to most of you, a very odd analogy.  To me, watching this movie is like listening to a Bob Dylan album.  I know that a lot of art and passion went into making it, and there are certainly moments that I enjoy.  I know that many of the cool people I know and read will tell me that it is great and that I really should treasure it as art.  But truly, at the end of the day, I just don't really understand what it is trying to say.  Perhaps that is my own failure.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Words of Life

It is one of the best emails I ever received.  It came today from a former roommate, someone who now lives far away whom I do not see often:

Lyn, I have a personal favor to ask. I'm serving as sponsor to my nephew - the son of my late sister - in connection with his confirmation into the Catholic Church.... At one point when I was struggling personally, she highlighted for me several passages of scripture that contained messages of comfort and the promise of Christ's love.  They were really helpful to me, but, stupidly, I didn't commit them to memory....I'd love to give him a gift of a Bible with some similar passages highlighted should he ever need the support, comfort, and inspiration (and don't we all at some point), but - quite frankly - I don't feel like I know scripture well enough to find the best messages.  Knowing how seriously you live your faith, and how well you know the Bible, do you have any recommendations?

I was honored to be asked.  I thought I would share here what I shared with my friend.  I am sure you have many other verses you would share, and I am not suggesting my list here is the best, the most complete, or the ideal.  But these are the scriptures that came to me as I pondered his email, and they are the ones I was led to share with him.  I did not set out to have a "Top 20" list of passages of support, comfort, and inspiration, but that is what I have ended up with.  As the hymn says, these are words of life and beauty.  They are wonderful words of life.

John 8:31-32 -- Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Philippians 4:6-7 -- Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Psalm 103:1-5, 8-13 -- Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits— who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion,  who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.... The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever;  he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.

Matthew 14:27 -- But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

Lamentations 3:19-24 -- I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”

Revelation 7:16-17 -- Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Joshua 1:7-9 -- “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.  Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.  Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Psalm 23 (KJV) -- The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Romans 8:1-3 -- Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son....

Isaiah 43:1-4 -- But now, this is what the Lord says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God,  the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.... You are precious and honored in my sight, and I love you.

1 Peter 5:6-7 -- Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Psalm 46:1-3 -- God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

Ephesians 2:4-10 -- But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,  made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.  And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Zephaniah 3:17 -- The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.

1 John 4:7-19 -- Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.

Isaiah 9:2-3,6 -- The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy.... For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

John 1:12,14,17 -- Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.... For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

2 Chronicles 7:14 -- If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
Matthew 7:7-8 --  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened."

John 3:16-17 -- For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Words Matter - Why I Still Call Myself an Evangelical Christian

I have spent much of my life using and cherishing words.  I was a debater, debate coach, and debate judge.  I am a litigator, arguing cases before judges and juries because I think that beats dueling in the street.  I am a law professor who focuses on teaching bright students how to use words in the courtroom. I am a writer.  I have been accused of being a talker and an arguer.

Words matter.  If you don't know why you have chosen a particular word, you are at best sloppy and and at worst abdicating your responsibility as a user of the language.

Labels matter.  I don't want to call you something that you will not own.  Labeling someone because of a stereotype, a bias, a prejudice, or a misconception is dangerous.

I call myself a Christian, a Baptist, and an Evangelical.  Nowadays, I often find myself telling folks I am not "that kind" of Christian, Baptist, or Evangelical.  The fact is that people too often use words and labels without knowing - or, worse, knowing but not caring - what they mean.

There is an exceptionally well-written article you can read here that is, to me, tragic.  It discusses many important topics that go beyond the scope of this blog: the failure of churches to communicate the person and the love of Christ; the shallowness of what passes as Christianity; the misuse and misunderstanding of the power of music; and more.

But what is particularly tragic to me is that the articulate writer has chosen no longer to call herself "Christian."  Her choice is either because she has decided that she never was a Christian or because she is embarrassed to wear the label.

To be sure, there have been and continue to be a number of misuses of good labels.  There are countless abuses and downright outrages carried out under the names "Christian," "Baptist," "Evangelical," and many others.

I hope you will not judge me based on the evil and the stupid and the shallow that are done under the same labels I wear. I do not think ill of all football officials because of the call (not) made in the end zone of Monday night's game. I don't dismiss all musicians because Eminem calls himself a musician. If you are an actor, I bet you don't stop calling yourself one just because you see a Tom Arnold movie.
I choose to maintain the labels and to try to live up to what they mean.  Christians earned that name by mimicking Jesus, coming to be known in the early church as "little Christs."  "Evangelical" means "of or related to the teaching of the gospel of the Christian religion."  That everyone from Wikipedia to Bill Maher now attributes a whole host of qualities and sins to those labeled "Evangelical Christians" is not a reason, in my book, to stop using the terms correctly.

Baptists have always been a diverse group, so the label has constantly applied to a multitude of different ideas, groups, and even ideologies.  The old joke that a group of ten Baptists will guarantee that you have at least eleven opinions springs from experience.  So, you have Hardshell Baptists and Free Will Baptists and Primitive Baptists and American Baptists and Southern Baptists.  That Jerry Falwell called himself a "Baptist" when I was growing up meant little to me and my church - Falwell and Liberty University were not a part in any way of my little slice of Protestantism.  Southern Baptists in turn could be divided into groups like liberals, conservatives, premillenialists, amillenialists, tithers, non-tithers, and casserole lovers.  Over the last 35 years, the breakdown has been far more telling, as fundamentalists and moderates and literalists and progressives have taken over what it means to be a Southern Baptist.  Suddenly, Jerry Falwell is a Southern Baptist and I am not.

But I am a Baptist.  I treasure the traditional Baptist ideas of church polity, the priesthood of all believers, soul competency, the absence of any creed but scripture, and the organization of the church.  The genius of the Cooperative Program remains as a legacy, even if the Cooperative Program itself has been hijacked by those who no longer want to cooperate with me.  I do not own how many Baptists view women, exclusivity within the church, the role of the church in politics, who should be welcomed, race, war and peace, or the use of money.  But I am nonetheless a Baptist.

I am an evangelical.  Not in a political sense - the correct use of the term evangelism has nothing to do with my presidential vote.  Evangelism means the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ - not the marketing of any particular church, not a political agenda, and not a personal glorification campaign.  There are many means of evangelism, and you don't have to be a preacher or even like tent revivals to be an evangelist.  I view evangelism as the Christian's primary act of obedience to Jesus.  Social justice and personal responsibility and money management and feeding the poor are all critical, but they all stem from our responsibility to reflect and demonstrate the gospel of Christ, using words if and when necessary.  I heard someone say this weekend that our actions can shape our beliefs - I respectfully disagree.  Our actions spring from who we are and where our faith lies.  Who we are shapes what we do.  If it is backwards, then what we believed before we started acting was pretty weak.

I am a Christian.  I am old-fashioned enough to use words like "I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior" with no hint of irony or embarrassment.  But being a "Christian" is much more than a one-time act when I was eight years old.  I wear the label "Christian" because my goal is to be seen as a "little Christ."  If people see and hear and sense Jesus through my life, then I am a successful Christian.

I abhor many acts that are carried out in the name of Christianity, evangelicalism, and the Baptist Church.  I share much of the repulsion of the above-cited article's author at the shallow and self-aggrandizing messages - be they from music, books, soft-soap "worship services" in basketball arenas, TV, movies, or youth group meetings - that some pass off as  Christianity.  People like the author who fall for that tripe are heading for disappointment, disillusionment, and often (usually) a great fall.  And all the king's horses and all the king's men may not be able to repair the damage.

The King, however, can repair the damage.  The King can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.  And that is why I am a Christian. 

Words matter.  Labels matter.  Even if the powers that be in the Southern Baptist Convention won't have me, I still attend a church that is "Baptist" in its theology, polity, and organization.  And even if the pop culture of shallow Christianity rages on, I still call myself an Evangelical Christian.  On purpose.

I am intentionally an Evangelical Christian.  Words matter.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Day They Put Old Dixie Down

I went the first 38 years of my life without ever owning a dog.

Then, in 2003, Dixie came into our life. 

I had always been a cat person.  When Gena and I married, part of her dowry was Doremi, who became a part of my family until he died in 2001.  Shortly after his passing, we got two new kittens, Simon and Garfunkel.  We lost Garfunkel in early 2011, and we had to have Simon put down two weeks ago.  That was hard.

But it was no comparison to today.

I am out of town, just as I was two weeks ago when the decision was made about Simon.  But when I left home this weekend, I knew.  Dixie, now 11 years old, more or less, was clearly not well.

In the fall of 2003, we knew that my parents' dog Smokie was going to come live with us for a while until my folks could move to Texas.  Our family was at the State Fair of Texas, and we saw an exhibit hosted by the Humane Society.  The kids (and Gena, no doubt) convinced me that Smokie would need a friend, and a big blond mutt the Humane Society folks had named Josie seemed to take a real liking to me.  OK, she was crazy about our whole family, but I always knew she had a special affection for me... trust me on this one. We ended up signing the papers, and for the first time in my life, I was a dog owner.  It took a day to handle the details, and the next day I drove to Dallas and drove her (now named Dixie by family vote) home to stay.

Dixie grew into a huge dog.  I loved to tell friends, when they asked her breed, that she was "half golden and half pig."  Despite her size, she thought she was a lap dog, leaping onto any member of our family who sat down.  She was well behaved, loyal, loving, and friendly.  She was all those stereotypical things I had always heard (and never really believed) about a family dog.  I was smitten.

A few years ago, our family added yet one more pet, Sophie the dachshund.  Dixie and Sophie took to each other immediately, a female canine version of Mutt and Jeff.  Walking the two of them was an adventure and a pleasure.

About a year and a half ago, it became clear that the elderly Dixie could no longer jump up on our bed, but she seemed perfectly happy to sleep on the cushioned chair at the foot of our bed.  A week and a half ago, she could no longer get on the chair, sleeping instead on the floor.   Through it all, she was loving and seemed happy, if slower to get up.

By Sunday, when I left home, it appeared that her legs barely could hold her up.  She would lie down to eat.  Having no personal experience with this kind of thing, I did not know know for sure... but I knew.  I did not use the word "good-bye," exactly, but I made sure to spend some time with Dixie before I left town.  This morning, Gena and the girls took her to the vet.  The word came back quickly - cancer.  At least two tumors.  At her age and weight, Dixie might well not survive any kind of surgery, and surgery would most likely reveal still more tumors.  It would not be curable.  The end was here.  A painful death surely awaited unless our family exercised responsible pet ownership to end her suffering.

As I was out of town, it fell to Gena, who (with some logical help from the girls) made the right decision.

I won't see Dixie again. 

As I say, I have always considered myself a cat person.  I made fun of "Turner and Hooch" as a "silly boy-and-his-dog movie."  I have lost cats before, one as recently as two weeks ago.  This is different. I sit here, far from home in a Hilton hotel room, and grieve.

I don't believe that dogs have souls.  I don't know if or how we will have pets in eternity.  But I know that there is an empty place that I have never before experienced.  I know now what it means to lose a dog.  All those friends before who have gone through this with absolutely no empathy from me - well, now I understand.

August 21 will always be for me, with apologies to The Band and Joan Baez,  the day they put old Dixie down.  I am better for having known her, and I will miss her.  That seems awfully silly for a grown man to say, but I am guessing that you dog lovers understand.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Oh No! Another Chick-Fil-A Blog!

I know, you really do not want to read about this anymore.  Whatever you believe, you have settled on it before now.  Another post is not going to change your mind.

I agree.  I promise not to try to persuade you that Dan Cathy was right or wrong.

But I have some other observations that I hope will resonate.

First, almost everyone agrees on the free speech issue.  The mayor of Boston was just wrong, and he quickly realized it.  Governments in this country do not get to keep otherwise legitimate business owners out of town solely because of their beliefs, their religion, or what they have said in an interview.

Second, almost everyone agrees on the love issue.  Yes, there has been hatred spewed (on both sides, I might add), but the overwhelming sense I get is agreement that God calls us to love everybody.  We can disagree on what love requires of us, but the accusations from either side that the other side is hateful are, by and large, unfounded.

Third, neither the free speech issue nor the love issue has anything to do with how most people have reacted.  If you choose to boycott the franchise and I choose to eat there, both of us have that right.  Cathy's speech does have consequences in the marketplace, and while the constitution restricts how the government reacts to it through the First and Fourteenth Amendments, you and I have no such restrictions.  Loving Dan Cathy requires me neither to agree with him about gay marriage nor to buy his sandwiches; loving homosexuals does not require that I agree with the social movement in favor of legalized gay marriage or that I must join the boycott.

Fourth, seeing the boycott shoe on the other foot has been ironic.  In 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention announced what would be an eight-year boycott of all things Disney because of perceived pro-gay policies of the Walt Disney Company.  Then, a mere 15 years ago, it was the religious conservatives trumpeting a boycott as an appropriate free market expression and media liberals condemning the idea as high-handed and foolish.  Today, the arguments are the same, but the proponents have switched sides.

Fifth, the world has changed.  Comments like those made by Cathy would not have caused a ripple ten years ago.

Sixth, social media and the issue of homosexuality combine to bring out the worst in a lot of us.  You know this yourself from the Facebook postings you have read over the last week, culminating yesterday - Chick Fil-A Appreciation Day - with postings from Christians criticizing other Christians for buying chicken sandwiches for lunch instead of sending those three or four bucks overseas to feed a starving child.  (I assume that the people who posted that sentiment fasted as they sent their own money overseas, but I digress.)  I have read posts from both sides of the issue that have been rude and demeaning.

Seventh, many people on both sides of this issue honestly do not understand how people can disagree with them.  I read one blog that compared, with tongue only slightly in cheek, the supporters of traditional marriage with people who believe those commercial cows really don't know how to spell.  The smugness of the "learn to think" posts are matched by the moral superiority of the "God-said-it-I-believe-it" posts.

Finally, I am struck by the number of Christians on both sides of this issue.  I am struck by the number of conservatives on both sides of this issue.  I am struck by the number of liberals on both sides of this issue.  Gay marriage is a controversy that crosses normal boundaries.  Christians can believe that homosexual activity is wrong but that the government should stay out of it.  Other Christians can believe we have no place calling anyone's choice to love someone else sin and yet not take a stand on what they believe is a social and political, but not religious, issue.  A social conservative and a social liberal can both believe that marriage is by definition between a man and a woman and that government intrusion to expand that definition is simply illogical.  Political liberals and Tea Partiers can all believe that domestic partnerships or other legislative creations are sufficient and that we do not need to use religious terms like "marriage" to define any social relationship.

There is a lot for all of us to learn.  Regardless of what happens with gay marriage, and irrespective of how many chicken sandwiches you do or do not eat this month, this tempest will not stay in a teapot.  How we communicate with each other, what we really mean by high-minded concepts like love and tolerance and freedom, and the role that religious belief and morality really play in the public sphere are all at issue.  I hope that my conservative friends can allow people with whose behavior and beliefs they disagree to coexist with them.  I hope that my liberal friends can allow people with whose behavior and beliefs they disagree to coexist with them.  I hope that all of us can widen our views enough to find a way to hear - and not try to dictate - the voice of God.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Church Generation Gap

Fair notice - this blog is for church members. Those of you who are non-Christians or are unaffiliated with any church are welcome to read, but for this blog, I am not really talking to you. I suspect that you have some valuable insight to add, and I welcome that, but I am talking to someone else right now.

One of the latest Berkley polls out there shows that the Millennial Generation – the twenty- and thirty-somethings – are not going to church. My church is a great example: there is a lot of grey hair, and the youth group is thriving. In between, however, there is a big gap. I know a lot more people in my church who are in the age group fifteen years older than mine than in the age group fifteen years younger.

There are a number of articles out there (here, for example) speculating on the reasons why. You will see explanations including moral compromise, hypocrisy in the church, the ongoing denominational battles, clergy sex abuse, and the failures of church youth groups to provide transformation to teenagers.

I do not discount any of those as a partial cause, but we need to consider something else. We need to examine whether the churches are worth being a part of. Many people my age and older are committed to the idea of church and will be there as a matter of principle. Teenagers will go to church that is fun or where their parents send them or where their friends are or where there is free pizza.

What about the folks in between? What about the twenty-four year old newly married construction worker, the thirty-one year old lawyer, the thirty-six year old single mother, and the young family of five struggling to make ends meet? It is true that Generation X, those who are now in their thirties and early forties, may come to church in order to bring their kids there. While that is good, those folks need to have a reason to become a part of the church independently from their children.  What are churches offering them, once fun and free pizza are not really drawing cards?

If the church is offering culturally relevant discussions of poverty, issues of world peace, immigration, and gay rights, some of these Millennials may find the topics interesting for a while. Then again, they can find the same discussion on television or on the internet or in any of a number of social groups. If the church is offering a rock concert or an organ recital, Millennials may be attracted to the event without ever understanding that the church was hoping that they would be attracted to the church itself. If the church is promoting its style (be it contemporary, liturgical, traditional, blended, or something else), the Millennials may well be attracted only to the style, and to that only for the moment.

If church is offering an angry Jesus, a warlike Jesus, or a finger-pointing Jesus, it may be a hard sell. On the other hand, if church is offering a Jesus who does not care what you do as long as you show up or a Jesus who does not demand anything in particular, there will be little reason for the Millennial to stick around. If the church forces narrow interpretation, many thirty-somethings will continue to shop; but if the church treats "doctrine" like a dirty word, those same thirty-somethings will wonder what the fuss is about.

I have a friend and professional colleague (who came back to church as a Generation Xer because she had kids) who has done most of her postgraduate work studying the differences among generations. In studying the Millennials, she finds, generally speaking, hyper-educated children of "helicopter parents" who grew up going to multiple after-school and summer programs and getting a trophy for every activity. They have moved beyond their parents' questioning of authority into a world where they are their own authority, able to Google any question personally and relying on their digital savvy to decide questions for themselves. They are passionate but largely unaffiliated - be the discussion about politics, brand loyalty, commitment to an employer, or religion.

And, of course, they are becoming adults in a post-modern world, where the concept of overriding truth is anathema to many who set the agenda and rule the airwaves. Simply telling them what we believe is the truth and then expecting them to fall in line because we are authoritative or pointing to a book that we tell them - as sincerely as we know how - is authoritative will not prove very effective. That does not mean that we stray from the truth or abandon the scripture (in fact, the opposite is true), but in preaching and relying on the Bible, we have to recognize that natural skeptics are not going to accept our authority just because we tell them to.

We can debate about whose "fault" these generational characteristics are, but while we tilt at that windmill, the Millennials are not finding many churches offering them what they need to stick around.

(At this point, I should insert the obligatory exception notice - Yes, I know your particular church is different, that your Young Adult Ministry is overflowing and you cannot buy enough cribs for the nursery. Good. You are in fact the exception. I have taught Sunday School classes overflowing with twenty-somethings, half of whom were out of the church four years later. Some exceptions do not last.)

When I think about the folks in this age group who are not involved in church and whom I know at work, in my neighborhood, on Facebook, or elsewhere, I ask myself, "Why do they tell me they are not in church?" The answers go something like this, in no particular order:

     1. They are busy, and church does not seem worth the expenditure of time.
     2. They do not know what church offers that is believable and meaningful.
     3. They have "done church" in the past, and it was (1) boring, (2) meaningless, (3) and/or disappointing.
     4. They do not know Jesus. (OK, they do not put it that way, but the conversation makes it clear that the church of Jesus has little call on those who do not know Jesus in the first place.)

Can the church do anything about this? I think so. I do not think the answer is tied up in worship style, correct denomination, or even finding the proper side of the conservative/liberal divide. I believe that churches of all stripes, smells, and colors can still become home to Millennials.

I am sure that there are worthwhile studies into how to communicate differently to this generation. We can understand that the way we did it in the fifties or the eighties may not work today without descending too far into the style debate. We can and should evaluate programs, organizational structures, and messages.

But the real issue is both deeper and simpler.  We need to be more about Jesus and less about ourselves. To welcome the Millennials home, the church has to allow itself to be, as the New Testament describes it, the body of Christ. First and foremost, the church needs to portray Jesus and quit trying to market the church. Too many "evangelism" or "growth" or "outreach" programs are centered on how great a particular church is. Those kinds of emphases are largely effective to those who already believe that church is important and may shuffle church members from one congregation to another, but promoting yourself as a "good church" does not move those Millennials who have dropped out. Introducing them to the Lord has always been the better plan. Jesus's words "If I be lifted up, I'll draw all men to me" certainly have something to say about the cross and about worship, but they also speak to how the church ought to be about its business.

When relevance outweighs revelation as a goal, the church is about itself.  When the identity and authority of the pastor are clearer than the identity and authority of God, the church is about itself.  Garrison Keillor is quoted as saying "If you can’t go to church and for at least a moment experience transcendence ... then I can’t see why anyone should go."  Our churches need, in the words of a close friend of mine who happens to be a pastor, to recalibrate to the transcendent.  If we are the body of Christ, then we are all about Jesus and not about ourselves.

Being the body of Christ means different things to different churches, and so churches will still be different. Being Christ's hands and feet will result in churches that go into the world and interact with the poor and the immigrants and the needy. Being Christ's arms will mean that churches hold onto those who need holding. Being Christ's eyes will mean that churches find a new vision for how to operate in this world, a vision that no social group or internet post can match. Being Christ's voice will mean that churches worship with a clarity of message. Being Christ's face will mean that churches display Christ simply by allowing folks to walk in the door. Being Christ will demonstrate the truth that all of our authoritative pronouncements and scripture-quotation alone cannot convey. Being Christ will be accomplished by transformed church members living the lives of those who have an ongoing relationship with Jesus and who have personal experience that reflects the scripture and proves the truth of our pronouncements.

We have to trust Jesus with the business of drawing people to Him. When we think we know better, we lose people, a generation at a time. When we market something other than Jesus - in fact when we "market" at all - we send the message that we think the reason people should join with us is because we church members have it figured out. That message just does not wash, with Millennials or anyone else.

I trust Jesus to be able to breach any Generation Gap. I don't trust anyone else to do it, great churches included. I think we need to get out of the way.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering the Mountaintop

My son has just returned from a two week mission trip to Spain with his college choir.  As you might imagine, he has been pretty tired since he returned, so I have not gotten a lot of detail, but he was eager - jet lag or no - to share a particular experience as soon as he got home.  Seems that a subset of the choir nicknamed the "Adventure Club" found a mountain to climb.  Hiking a cliff above Laguna Negra, they found another cliff and scaled it. Suddenly, in Trey's words, they were surrounded "by more of God's glory than I have ever seen before."  As they stood there, surrounded by good friends who are "some of the best singers in the world," the hymns poured forth.  Their version of BRH's anthem "I Am" echoed names of Christ through the canyons below.  Trey has declared it a moment he will never forget.

I am reminded of the line of the kindly alien Griff in "Men in Black 3" - "This is my favorite moment of human history of all time."

That Trey's mountaintop experience actually happened on a mountaintop is neither unusual nor coincidental.  Mine was in Colorado.  My mother's was in the Alps.  There must be something about height and clarity and thin air and the people with whom we find ourselves when we take these trips.

Mountaintop experiences get a bad rap.  We tend to think of them as (1) temporary and (2) emotional.  Well, they are both, but so what?  Peter wanted to stay on the Mount of Transfiguration, and Jesus made him come down; so we tend to decide that being on the mountain is somehow bad or unworthy of followers of Christ.  I disagree.  After all, Peter would never have been on a mountaintop in the first place if Jesus had not led him up there.

It is those temporary, singular experiences that often sustain us.  We do not have to stay on the mountain to remember.  Trey will never forget how the harmony of those young voices singing "I Am" sounded through the crispness of that European springtime.  There will be many more temporary experiences, individual times when God shows up, when the face of God is within reach and the voice of God is unmistakably plain.  The hymn writer called them "foretastes of glory divine."  Modern authors tend to call them "Aha" moments.  They are moments when we touch heaven.

Yesterday was Pentecost, the day we remember a singular, temporary experience when a room was alive with tongues of fire and with (as my pastor so brilliantly put it yesterday) the translation of God into everyone's own language.  The apostles did not have daily returns of the mighty wind, yet that one experience was sufficient to start what we now know as the church.

My mother saw the Matterhorn appear through the clouds over fifty years ago.  For her, the song was not "I Am" but rather "How Great Thou Art."  Different time.  Same God.  Different place.  Same message. Different song.  Same power.

Of course, a faith built on emotion is doomed to fail.  If that is all you've got, you are in trouble.  If, however, that is not all you've got, then your emotional experiences with the Almighty Creator are of great benefit.  God speaks to those whose faith is centered on a real relationship with Him through our emotions as surely as through our senses and our experiences.  Think of your scripture - the wonder of Sarah, the despair of Elijah, the happiness of Zacchaeus, the eroticism of Solomon, the anxiety of Christ in the garden and on the cross, the "high" of John on Patmos.  These emotional moments must be tested, but they are real.  How we "feel" is not the basis of anything, but when we have a real basis, God can touch us and make us "feel" something that  verifies so much.

Yesterday, I sat and listened to our youth sing a song of great emotional import to them as they honored their graduating seniors.  That moment, for those of them who know Christ and love each other, was real.  The tears of joy and fear of the dark and wonderment as they examine these soon-to-be-stretched relationships mixed with memories of feelings from their youth group years.  Trey, no longer in the youth group, saw and heard the same thing I did, and he remembered how he had felt just last year when he had been one of those graduating seniors.  What he knows now that he did not know a year ago is that there is a bigger mountain waiting, that those youth group feelings are preparatory, not final.

Of course, we have to follow Jesus down the mountain.  The towns and the marketplaces are where we walk with Him most of the time.  And there are moments, yea, when we walk through the valley of the shadow, and there He carries us.

But remember, if you hear Him calling you down the mountain, you probably got there because He led you up in the first place.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Debater's Perspective on the Current Political Rhetoric: A Stock Issues Approach

When students learn the academic game of debate, there is a univeral starting place: the affirmative team, at least in traditional policy debate, is charged with presenting a "case and plan."  The plan is the what the team proposes to do; the case is why they propose to do it.

While there are countless permutations, strategies, and tactics, the most basic debates center around the "stock issues:"  topicality, harm, inherency, solvency, and disadvantages. (Those of you who are not debaters, stay with me. This will make sense.)

Topicality is what it sounds like - the plan must fit within the resolution, or topic, for the year.  Inherency means that that the present system cannot fix whatever is wrong, thus requiring the plan.  Neither of those is relevant to this blog.

The other three stock issues cross over into our everyday political rhetoric.  "Harm" simply means what is wrong in the present system.  The affirmative team identifies some "harm" of significance that begs for correction.  "Solvency" is the affirmative's proof that the plan will fix the harm.  Disadvantages are the negative team's arguments about why the plan is a bad idea.

A negative team need not win all these issues. Winning one is enough for a negative vote from the judge.  A negative team may, therefore, simply argue that the "harm" is not really so bad and does not need to be fixed; or the negative may argue that the harm is indeed significant but that the plan does not solve it; or the case may be granted in its entirety, but the negative may try to prove that the disadvantages to the plan outweigh whatever is gained from solving the harm.

Today's rhetoric ought to embody the same idea.  When somebody is against a certain political idea, it may be because she denies the harm, but that may not be the case.  She may agree that the harm is significant but may think that the proposed way to fix it won't work or is a bad idea, or both.

Take two ideas from today's headlines, Obamacare and the North Carolina state constitutional amendment on marriage.

Someone may oppose Obamacare because he truly believes that there is no health care crisis or because he simply hates poor people and does not care about a health care crisis. If so, in debate language, he would be denying the "harm" of the affirmative case.  But he may well believe that we have a health care crisis and may care deeply for the poor and still think Obamacare is a bad idea, or that Obamacare is the wrong way to address the problem, or both.

Someone may oppose the North Carolina amendment because she believes that gay marriage is a good or moral idea or because she believes the amendment is an imposition on minority rights.  But, someone may think homosexual marriages are a bad idea and still oppose the amendment because she does not think it is any of the government's business or because she thinks that the constitution is not the place to address the issue or because she believes that moral issues like this are for the church and not the state to address.

My point is that you often cannot tell how someone feels about what is important simply by how that person responds to a particular policy initiative.  It is not my point in this blog to tell you what I think about Obamacare or amendments outlawing gay marriages, but I can tell you that being against either one may not say what you think it does.  Being against them may be a statement about solvency and/or disadvantages, not the claimed harm in the status quo.

Many of today's pundits - whether they be on tv or on Facebook - clearly do not get this.  The level of condemnation of those who disagree on policies because of the assumed reasons for the disagreement is frightening to me.  The idea that anyone who opposes government-run health care must hate poor people is uninformed.  It is too narrow to think that quoting Bible verses will make all Christians be in favor of certain governmental action.

Don't assume that those against Obamacare do not care about the poor or the health care crisis.  Don't assume that all those who feel that gay marriage is wrong are therefore in favor of making it illegal.  They may absolutely agree with policy proponents on the harm but be against these polices becaues of a lack of solvency or based on disadvantages.

Remember that you can argue the negative for a number of different reasons.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Dead Mockingjay's Society

This blog contains spoilers, both of the 80s movie "Dead Poets Society" and the recent publishing fad Hunger Games trilogy. If you haven't seen the movie, and want to, and/or if you have not read all three books in the series, and want to, you probably don't want to read the rest of this.

I am in the minority of people my age, especially those who graduated from my high school, which was also attended by the author of the screenplay for "Dead Poets Society" and which ostensibly is the basis for the school that serves as the setting for that movie. I am in the minority because I do not like the movie. I think it serves up a lot of potential and sets the stage for something great and then falls flat. I feel exactly the same way about The Hunger Games trilogy. My 15-year-old daughter got me involved in the first book, called The Hunger Games, and I read the last two, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, on my own. They have a great potential and set the stage for something great. And then the bottom falls out.

So here are the spoilers. In the movie, after all its talk about individuality and standing up for what is right even against great odds, the students all chicken out when it matters. When Robin Williams's character Mr. Keating is fired, the students can do nothing more than a semi-dramatic stand in an attempted protest. They cannot muster any sort of real defiance, much less any action. In short, they have not learned anything. They have quoted a few famous lines of poetry when it was cool among their little "society" to do so, but when the chips are down, they have nothing in the tank. One student even famously commits suicide rather than actually challenging authority. They are all, in short, pitiful.

The trilogy is much the same. Through the first two books, we follow with care several characters, most notably Katniss, through struggles with totalitarianism, hatred, slavery, and manipulation. There is some really good writing here, and we no doubt care deeply about Katniss and her closest friends. As the third novel, Mockingjay, progresses, it is clearly the best of the three, not only being the most engrossing but also leading the reader to what we expect will be an important point of view. And then, without explanation, something happens. The last fifty pages are not only out of character, they invalidate everything that came before. At the climax, after the death of her innocent sister, Katniss becomes everything that she has hated for 2 and 4/5 novels. She kills a minor character, Coin, essentially because she can. She retreats from reality to a place of despondency. She gives up caring. She intentionally chooses not to look for either reason or goodness. She just quits.

Let me give both works their due. Perhaps their respective endings are not failures. Perhaps the writers really do believe that there is nothing to all of the great values that their characters examine through most of the stories. Maybe they really are sending us the message that all is worthless, that virtue is pointless, and that fighting for those difficult-to-fathom values is meaningless. Nihilism is, in some circles, a respected philosophy (although I expect a true nihilist would laugh at the idea of its being a "philosophy").  Shulman, the screenwriter of "Poets," and Collins, the author of the Games trilogy, may be clever perveyors of nihilism.

I don't think so. I think they are trying for something great and just do not know how to finish. I think they swing and miss. Badly. And that's a real problem.

If you endeavor to portray truly heroic qualities like civil disobedience, noble resistence to evil, and fighting for truth and love, you better know what you are talking about. You better be able to show a solution when the going gets tough. And neither the movie nor the novels are able to do that. In both, despite some high-sounding rhetoric, the characters demonstrate when the chips are down that they have learned nothing. And that is worse than not starting.

In comparison to these kinds of failures, the struggles of Scout Fitch, Huckleberry Finn, Samwise Gamgee, Anne of Green Gables, and other great characters of literature - and even movie characters like Luke Skywalker and Rick Blaine and Oskar Shindler - shine. These are characters who learn - truly learn - ideas and virtues that in fact enable them to face seemingly insurmountable odds and to triumph. Learning some lines of poetry and talking about individualism mean nothing when you knuckle under at the first challenge. Winning some games and learning to rely on your innate abilities, finding your friends, and challenging tyranny are nice; but when you become what you despise, losing all sense of love and reason in the process, and ultimately settle for a life of mediocrity and defeat, your struggles mock you and all who follow you.

The ending we want from these stories is, of course, the story of the gospel. There is no promise that all will work out, and there is certainly no assurance that the nice words you have learned will pave the way to easy defeat of the challenges that face you. In fact, we are promised a walk through the valley of the shadow. We are told that we will be hard pressed. The One who is the center of our story cried out "My God, why have you forsaken me?" But the story does not end there. There is the power to overcome. There is understanding. There is victory. There is resurrection.

I am not asking every movie or novel to reflect the gospel. I enjoy a good adventure story as much as everyone else. But I do expect a writer who dares to take on issues like these to follow through. Don't promise transformation and deliver conformity. Don't offer transcendence and then present nothing beyond the expected, the ordinary. Don't advertise victory only to write about defeat.

Nihilism is, by definition, empty. Life promises more.

The gospel guarantees more. Learn something. Move forward. Follow the One who delivers.