Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why I am not a cynic

“All the world’s a stage, and we are merely the actors.” The genius of Shakespeare is that he knew there was more to life than meets the eye. His plays about life would tell a story even better than life, enticing his audience to live vicariously through the actors. He used the invisible wall of the theater as a window through which an audience could play God for a day. To see everything that happens, hearing all private conversations, knowing all intimate thoughts, to look upon a world of movement, watching a plot unfold toward its inevitable conclusion, essentially, to be omniscient was to any audience a divine ability reserved only for deity. That invisible wall, however, was more than a window gaining access to a world full of actors. Shakespeare knew the wall was a mirror, making the audience take in the full reflection of their own image—the undeniable weakness of humanity, the perpetual problem of the human condition, the complicated web of human relationships, lies masked by flattery, deception concealed by mock friendships, ulterior motives, feigned sincerity. In an unforgettable scene from Hamlet, the prince hopes to prove his theory that his uncle murdered his father in order to get the crown as well as the queen. He hires a theatrical troop to perform his hastily written play that frames the new king. Before the play is performed for the benefit of Hamlet’s mother and her new husband, the prince gives last minute advice to the actors:

“Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now, this overdone, or come tardy off, though it makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theater of others.”

Shakespeare revealed to all—with eyes to see and ears to hear—that the world really is a great stage of players.

“What’s going on here?” Alarming revelations wake us up to the reality that what you see is not necessarily what you get. Most of us move to the steady drum of daily routines, comfortable habits, weekly schedules that lull us to sleep. We carry on without suspicions, mostly taking things as they come. Then, something terrible happens. A crime has been committed. A good person has done a bad thing. Embarrassing details reveal the difference between a man and his reputation. Shocked and disappointed, the majority opinion is repeated over and over again, “I never would have suspected him of doing something like that,” trying to come to terms with the unacceptable. Conspiratorialists rush in with their complicated theories of sinister forces and the underworld. Alarmists jump to the conclusion of widespread abuse. The intelligentsia debate whither and whence. The naïve refuse to believe that life can really be that bad. The cynics laugh from a distance, chuckling to themselves, “we told you so.”

So, in the play called life, what part are we playing? Well, who likes the choices? The sleepy masses, the rabid conspirator, the chicken little prophet, the pretentious pundit, the naïve fool, the self-righteous cynic—these modern-day Shakespearean parts are not very appealing. We may all, at one time or another, belong to the sleepy masses—but who wants to admit it? Conspiracies reveal more about the theorist than the real world. Prophets of doom are predictable. Pundits speak as if everyone values their opinions (but who’s listening?). Everyone knows that ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. The only part that seems to have any actors competing for the same role these days is the one played by the cynic. To rise above the rest, never taken in by surprise, untouched by tragic twists in the plot of life, never to be fooled by duplicity—to play the cynic—this seems to be the favorite role of many today. And, I can see why, since it is easier to be against something than for something else.

The world is filled with injustice, the problem of evil and suffering persists, and no one seems to have any answers. But, does it mean that we have to accept things as they are? Aren’t we supposed to make the world a better place? We know we must live with tragedy, but do we have to put up with evil run amok? Who will save us from this hour? Enter stage right: the problem solvers of our world—politicians, scientists, educators, preachers. Politicians appeal to the noble desire of “everyman” for the public good to encourage citizens to service the needs of the community. Scientists harness the power of nature using technological advances in their germ warfare against sickness, disease, and death. Educators seek to silence prejudice, bigotry, hatred, and intolerance fueled by ignorance by reminding all of us of what we know. Preachers persist in announcing “good news” from their pulpits, with sermons about the love of God, the faith of believers, and hope for the world.

Enter stage left: the cynic. With his diatribe, the cynic mocks humanity’s futile attempt to change the world. He delights in reminding us that heroes rarely live up to the expectations of their admirers. Crusaders eventually reveal selfish motives in their campaign for change. Power always corrupts. Notoriety drives discovery. Knowledge breeds arrogance. There is no cure for the common cold much less for what ails the world. Viruses mutate, anti-bodies become impotent. Death rules over life. There will always be wars and rumors of wars. History rarely teaches us anything. Personal ambition always takes precedence over the greatest good. And, in a world that cannot be saved, faith looks more like hype, and hope is the great pretender. The cynic won’t let anyone be fooled by the pretense of those who say they have the answer. No man is sovereign. No woman controls her own destiny. There is no Savior. This may all sound pretty dark, but the cynic claims that he’s the only honest person who has the courage to tell the truth, to unmask the hypocrisy of the human heart. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

There’s a famous story about Diogenes, the cynic philosopher of the 4th century B.C., and his brief encounter with Alexander the Great that sounds more like the modern tale of the urban male. It is said that Alexander once approached Diogenes, who was basking in the rays of the sun, with the offer, “Ask any favor you wish.” Diogenes simply replied, “Get out of my sunlight.” For the most part, we act the same way. The people we used to look up to are now only standing in our way. We don’t believe anymore in the virtue of public service. Parents don’t want their kids to grow up to be president. The Church has lost touch with the real world. Preachers are passed off as a bad parody of themselves. Institutions of higher learning have turned into big business, where students are treated like consumers and educators are dismissed as bureaucrats of knowledge. Like Diogenes, we prefer to heckle those who stand over us, those who think they have real answers for real problems. We’ve been disappointed too many times to be taken in by these professional hucksters. Too many leaders have fallen, too many scandals have rocked our world, too many gullible people have fallen prey to the manipulation of the masses. Cynical of life, it’s our job to bring them back to reality; never believe the hype; always look for the loop hole; challenge the status quo; never play follow the leader; and above all else, keep our hands clean when “the play” goes wrong. Then, when the world falls apart again, we can say we weren’t surprised, we can say we are not to blame, we can shout from the balcony the words we long to say, “we told you so.”

But, we are Christians; we believe God came down from the balcony and became an actor, part of the human drama. Never missing a cue, delivering the role of a Savior to perfection, God-in-human-flesh showed us all how we are to live, what we are supposed to do. He knew the purpose of the play, the meaning of life. He revealed to us the most excellent way. His heart was pure; His aim was true. He set the standard. Yet, Jesus was everyman. He understands how hard it is down here. He was fully acquainted with our grief. He bore our sorrows. He was pierced through for our transgressions. He corrected our mistakes. “The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.” We believe God made a difference—that we are not left to ourselves to figure things out. Shouts from the balcony won’t do. We needed to see God.

That’s why I am not a cynic. I believe the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. I believe that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to die for our sins. The cross proves that God doesn’t turn His back on injustice. The cross proves that He understands what hatred feels like. The cross proves that He won’t let evil run amok. The cross proves that God loves. And, he calls every single one of us—those who have ears to hear and eyes to see—to carry that cross, all the way to the end of the play.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Subverting the Cynics
(or, why I didn't hear about faithfulness, salvation,
and the Spirit)

I heard most of what John Caputo and Peter Rollins had to say last Friday evening during an event called "Subverting the Norm," held on the campus of Drury University. Caputo is a philosopher from Syracuse University who wrote (among other things) "What Would Jesus Deconstruct?," and Rollins is an "emergent" leader from Northern Ireland who wrote (among other things) "The Orthodox Heretic." Several speakers were featured during the weekend gabfest, where those disenchanted with traditional forms of Christianity gathered to find encouragement.

Caputo used Hegel's dialectical determinism to make sense of the inexplicable essence of our faith (what Caputo called "the event"), where true hope is found in hopelessness, true forgiveness is only offered when the offense is unforgivable, and faith is grounded in doubt. The binary context of Caputo's symbolic world almost compelled me to offer my profound appreciation for his talk by saying, "I truly understand what you're saying because I misunderstand this event"). But, that would be disingenuous because I think I understand "the event" called "Subverting the Norm."

It dawned on me as I began to take in Rollins' remarks (who spoke after Caputo). There, in large letters projected on the flat screen monitor, was the theme for the gathering, "Subverting the Norm." I thought, "That would be an apt description of the cynics of the first-century, their raison d'etre, the banner for their movement. In fact, if they were to have had a meeting [but they wouldn't--they're cynics after all!] they probably would have given it the same title." Then, Rollins began to sermonize about the failure of traditional Christianity, and the reason his community of faith (called "Eikon") in N. Ireland explored ways of reclaiming Christian faith for the wounded, the doubters, the rebels, the disenfranchised, the hopeless. (By the way, several times--in the midst of Caputo's and Rollins' talk--I almost shouted, "Amen.")

Their's is an impossible task (something both Caputo and Rollins recognize). They're fighting a war on two fronts, taking on two ideological worlds that are worlds apart: the strident atheists and the dogmatic theists. To the power-hungry atheists, ready to disabuse all of us poor souls of our silly notions of God and Spirit, these post-post modern prophets declare hope. And, to the obscurantist Christians, convinced that complexities have no place in genuine faith, these neo-dogmaticians prescribe angst. In other words, sometimes Caputo and Rollins sounded like champions of the disenchanted. And, at other times, they sounded like priests of a new institution.

It's easier to be against something than for something. Reacting against what's wrong (the cynic critic) almost comes naturally to those of us who think we have something to say. And yet, trying to be for something without becoming the very thing you despise (agenda!) is the natural consequence of the human condition. I saw that when Rollins showed pictures of his community back home--the trademarked "Eikon," worship as theatre, the outsiders becoming insiders (and vice versa--"down with those pesky fundamentalists!"). And, I heard it in Caputo's voice, when he spelled out what "the event" must look like: "if it doesn't address issues of justice and inclusion, it's not genuine." Hope and judgment--these ideas are hard to hold onto when you're not trying to sound like something you are.

In other words, they were talking about "faithfulness" and the need for "salvation" and the work of the "Spirit." But, seemed afraid to say so.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Misunderstood Man

Now that I've finished working through Paul's Spirituality (the MS is in the editor's hands now), I've come to a rather predictable (yet at the same time) startling conclusion: next to Jesus, Paul is one of the most misunderstood persons in Christian history.

I think he gets a bad rap for many things, accused of being a misogynist, intransigent theologian, impulsive missionary, pretentious apostle, incoherent thinker, and aimless rebel. (Those who think so have missed the essence of the man.)

Indeed, the more I think about him, the more I've come to the conclusion that Paul may have been the best example of what it means to follow Jesus than anyone else. And, the irony is, of course, that he never followed the historical Jesus. Amazing man. I wish we had someone today who took their faith as seriously as our St. Paul. I would love to see what that looks like.

Here's one Gentile who wants to say: "Thanks, Paul, for showing us what a life compelled by the love of Christ should look like--even today. I'm glad you're our apostle. I'll be standing behind you, with millions of your children in Christ, the day you present us to our Lord (1 Thess. 2:19)."

Friday, October 08, 2010

Prayer is defiance (one last tidbit from my work on Paul's Spirituality)

Because Paul wore Christ’s resurrection like body armor, the apostle was expecting a fight. He wasn’t surprised when he encountered resistance to the gospel (3:10-12). In fact, the armor of God explains why Paul kept returning to the same places where he was nearly killed. When you know you’re going to be raised from the dead on the last day, then no one or nothing can stop the proclamation of the gospel. To march in the army of Christ’s resurrection is an act of war against the devil. This is why Paul kept asking his converts to pray for him and for one another while he was in prison (Eph 6:18-20; Phil 1:3-11; 4:6; Col 4:2-4). It wasn’t simply a matter of asking for divine protection in the face of suffering and death. Paul knew Satan wouldn’t give up the battle. If the devil couldn’t threaten Christ believers with fear of suffering and death, then he would use other “schemes” to try to subvert the work of Christ. If he couldn’t win the fight using a frontal assault (worry, fear, suffering, and death cannot penetrate the armor of Christ), then he would get Christ believers to fight one another, stabbing each other in the back. That’s when the devil shows up in Paul’s letters. Paul accused Satan of trying to sneak into the churches as an “angel of light” and create dissension (2 Cor 11:13-15). Paul warned the Corinthians that Satan would exploit the unforgiving spirit of the house churches when a repentant member was excommunicated (2 Cor 2:5-11). Paul told the Ephesians not to “make room for the devil” by lying, cheating, and talking bad about one another (Eph 4:25-29). Embittered and angry, the Ephesians were grieving the Holy Spirit because they weren’t being “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you” (vv. 30-32).

This is why Paul kept reminding his converts to pray; Christ believers overcome Satan through prayer (1 Cor 7:5; 2 Thess 3:1-3). Prayer is confidence, an act of defiance against evil and suffering in a fallen world (2 Thess 1:5-12; Eph 3:8-21). Prayer is a memorial, an act of remembering what God has done (1 Thess 1:2-3; Phil 1:3-5). Prayer is perseverance, an act of thanksgiving knowing God will always be on our side (Eph 6:18-20; Col 4:2-4). When we pray for one another, we’re claiming God’s power is supreme. When we pray for one another, we remember our battle is not against “flesh and blood,” but against the powers of darkness. When we pray, we remind each other that we’re living between the “already” and “not yet” of Christ’s resurrection. When we pray, we contend for what is right. When we pray, we are telling the world we have nothing to fear. When we pray, we prove that we’re still fighting. When we pray, we find peace with God because He “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20). When we pray, we are taking on the powers. The fact that we are able to fight proves that we have already won the battle.