Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Squelched Swan Song of Tim Tebow

There appears to be a consensus forming that Tim Tebow's career as a football player is over. This, in itself, is a strange phenomenon, since he has a winning record as a starting quarterback in the NFL, a relatively rare achievement for a young player who came into the league with questionable talent and playing for a mediocre (at best) team. Heck, it's rare for any young quarterback to come out of the gate with a winning record. In any  event, people have begun to speculate about what Tim Tebow might do next, now that he has no future in sports proper.

As has been well-reported in this (and every single other) space, Tim Tebow is a no-foolin' Christian, and one of the career options that is open to him is Mainstay on the Inspirational/Motivational Public Speaker Circuit. Tebow could likely earn his weight in gold dubloons each year, speaking to one packed stadium of Christians after another. But it might not be that easy.

Recently, Tebow accepted an invitation to speak at First Baptist Church in Dallas, the church led by Robert Jeffress, who has had some not-so-nice things to say about some segments of the population.  Outcry was quickly and loudly heard. How could Tebow endorse Jeffess' message by agreeing to speak at his church? After some thought, Tebow cancelled the engagement, saying that he "needed to avoid controversy at this time." Outcry was quickly and loudly heard. How could Tebow bend his faith to the will of the politically correct establishment?

As's LZ Granderson says in his piece on this recent Tebow miasma, "Tim Tebow simply can't win." He's criticized for agreeing to speak and then criticized for what he doesn't say. We've touched on this before in relation to LeBron James and his "unwinnable" All-Star game last year. This Tebow story makes it clear: it is life itself that is the un-winnable game.

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (as a window into his larger worldview) makes life un-winnable. We think we can defeat adultery, but must admit defeat to lust. We think we can defeat murder, but must admit defeat to anger. We think we can defeat the inability to love our neighbor, but must admit defeat to the requirement to love our enemies. God's first word (law, requirement, standard) is a defeating word. It shows us that no matter which way we go, left or right, toward First Baptist Church or away from it, we can never truly do what Jesus would do. WWJD is too tall an order. We must rely on God's final word (grace, love, forgiveness), which is an enlivening word. It's even better to say that God's word of law is a killing word. It destroys us, no matter what we do. God's word of grace, though, is a resurrecting word, bringing life out of death and glory out of defeat.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Intellectual Honesty, a Theology of the Cross, and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition

My four-year-old daughter Hazel is a Sports Illustrated subscriber.  It's a complicated issue of expiring airline miles; don't ask.  This week, the annual swimsuit edition was delivered.  I remember, as a younger man, subscribing to SPORT Magazine (it was a cheaper monthly option than the weekly Sports Illustrated) and eagerly awaiting the swimsuit issue.  SPORT, it should be noted, performed a service to its libido-crazed readership: it actually produced a normal sports-themed magazine to put around the models in bikinis.  In other words, when your mom looked askance at the cover, you could always complain that "it just took pages away from their groundbreaking NFL coverage" and that you were keeping the magazine for posterity to "see how their NCAA tournament predictions turned out."  As to why it was discovered months later, well-worn, and hidden under the bed...well, excuses were harder to find then.

I've never subscribed (as my daughter does) to Sports Illustrated, so I don't know if SI ever provided this same service.  All I know is, they don't now.  I got my (um, Hazel's) swimsuit edition on the same day as a normal copy of SI was delivered (the swimsuit edition is twice as thick), and as I dispassionately flipped through it ("I read it for the articles!") I realized that there was absolutely no sports coverage in it whatsoever.  No "Faces in the Crowd," no "Dan Patrick's Just My Type," and no "Point After."  Just plenty of, um, great SI photography.

And I say, "Well done, Sports Illustrated."  Even Playboy attempts to give its subscribers an excuse to subscribe (some of the best short-form writing around, or, um, so I'm told).  Sports Illustrated, apparently, has decided to force an intellectual honesty on its readers that they might not have adopted on their own. These days, if you're caught looking at the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, the only apology available to you is the honest one:  "I, um, like to look at girls in bikinis.  Sigh."

Sports Illustrated has "called a thing what it is" as Martin Luther described the activity of a theologian of the cross. This is, though hurtful to those of us who are called out, a helpful thing, as it brings us sinners just one step closer to calling out ourselves...for a needed savior.

Friday, February 15, 2013

In Good Company on the Last Rung of the Ladder

Are you doing well as a Christian?  It seems that, often, Christians are less concerned with the fact that they're a Christian than their proficiency at being one. Because of this, we envision our Christian lives as being like a ladder we have to climb. Sure, we think, Christ's great sacrifice for us was enough to get us on the ladder, but now it's up to us to move higher. We imagine Billy Graham and Mother Teresa as being very high on the ladder and those people who never read their Bibles or pray as being very low. This schema makes sense to us, and it allows us to do one of our favorite things in the world: compare ourselves and our progress to that of others.

So what, then, are we to make of the Great Christian Tumble? You know what I mean: when a great Christian (usually an evangelical leader, pastor of a giant church, or politically active preacher) is revealed to have been engaging in reprehensible behavior. We are immediately thrown into confusion; we don't know how to classify the event. Is this evidence that this person wasn't as high on the ladder as we had imagined? Perhaps they'd never really gotten on the ladder at all (i.e. they weren't really a Christian after all). The truth, though, is more profound, and right out of The Matrix: there is no ladder.

Check out this scene from the under-appreciated 2004 film In Good Company. Topher Grace has just gotten a big promotion at work, and he's in the mood to celebrate:

Isn't this just the way life works? Just when we feel we've gotten everything together, when everything seems to be going our way, it all falls apart. The same might be said of those Great Christian Tumblers. It's right when they're on top of the world that everything goes to hell.

I've said before that I'm ready to accept the ladder image of Christian growth as long as we can agree that the ladder is of infinite height (since we can never be perfect) and that, as we climb, each rung disappears beneath us (so that we're always on the last rung, hanging by our fingertips). This is the only way the Christian Ladder can be reconciled to human experience! But, like I said above, the truth is that there is no ladder.

Each of us are, as Martin Luther said, at the same time justified and sinner, or, in other words, we are both Christian and human. We live our lives in the glory of the Holy Spirit (Grace getting promoted) even while we are getting in accidents, getting called names, and getting abandoned by our loved ones. Our desperate need never goes away. The Book of Common Prayer, during the Ash Wednesday service, says that this nature of our lives puts us "in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith."

Truer words were never written. In ourselves, we are left in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the Christian ladder. In Christ, we are carried directly to the top, no work necessary on our part. Christ comes specifically for the accident prone, for the derided, and for the abandoned. That's a good thing, because that's where we live.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Oh, Cutting Your Eyeball with a Laser Knife is Totally Okay:" The Casuistry of PEDs

Casuistry is a fancy theological word that means something like "the search for special cases." It exists by necessity; the law abounds, and so we humans (born lawyers, according to a friend) are compelled to search for ways to get around it. In fact, one might argue that casuistry makes up the bulk of a lawyer's job description: a client is accused of some manner of law-breaking, and the lawyer attempts to find a reason that, in at least this one instance, the law-breaking was justified. Lawyers spend dozens of billable hours a week at this job, but we humans are at it during every waking moment.

There are a million examples of casuistry in the world: lying is wrong...unless it will hurt someone's feelings. Stealing is wrong...unless it is from a big, faceless corporation. And now, a relatively new one: enhancing your performance on the athletic field is wrong...unless you do it in socially acceptable ways.

Syringes of Testosterone Cypionate, bad. Platelet-enriched ankles, good. The "cream" and the "clear," bad. Lasik surgery, good. Certainly it is true that some substances and procedures are banned by athletic federations and some are not, but the entire enterprise of picking and choosing which methods of performance-enhancement are "okay" and which are not is fraught with intellectual danger, if not outright buffoonery.

We engage in the casuistic exercise because we are desperate to justify ourselves. If we find an instance in which we are out of line (and therefore not "justified"), we scramble for a reason. "I told her that she looked great in that dress because the conventions of society told me to." "I didn't claim that income on my tax return because it would have required a lot of paperwork and it was only like $5 over the minimum limit anyway." Casuistry comes from the desire to never have to throw oneself on the mercy of the court and beg for a savior. Casuistry is a problem, then, for the same reason that anything that keeps us self-reliant is a problem: it clouds our ability to see ourselves as profoundly in need.

The more (seemingly) successful we are in our casuistic enterprise, the longer we will hold on to our (apparent) ability to save ourselves. But this is a ruse, a fake. We are in the Star Wars trash compactor, and the walls are closing in. Making up reasons that our situation is tenable is not a long-term solution. Best to shout out for help now.

Friday, February 8, 2013

We Ask, We Get, We Die

They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding…He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law…all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
The people of Israel have gathered together, and they’ve asked Ezra to bring the book of the law and to read it to them. They ask Ezra to bring the law. But then something interesting happens: after this morning-long church service, spent reading the book of the law and worshipping God, all the people had broken down in tears.

This is the way of life: We ask for the law, we hear the law, and we are broken by the law. This relationship with the law is as old as time itself. We think we want it, but as soon as we get it we are broken by it.

Why do we ask for the law?  You would think that we’d want to be free, right? No rules, no restrictions. As Outback says, “No rules, just right.” And that does sound pretty great, in theory, but when we really get down to it, no rules or restrictions means no way to tell who’s better than anyone else. And make no mistake, we are in love with telling who is better. In addition, we’re convinced that the law will come in and show everyone how well we’re doing.

The Who have a greatest hits album called “Who’s Better Who’s Best,” and this is a great description of what we spend a lot of our time doing: comparing ourselves to everyone around us and trying to figure out where we rank.  “I may not be as good a father as Rick down the street who’s always going to his kids’ recitals, but I’m sure as heck a better father than Stan…that guy doesn’t ever seem to be home at all!”  The law, even though it might not be written down anywhere, is what tells us what it means to be a good father, mother, husband, daughter, son, Christian…person!  We are desperate to get credit for the good things we do, so we need there to be a structure to tell us what’s good.  That structure is the law.  So we want it; we need it, because we need to know where we stand. Usually, though, we don’t truly understand it.

It’s clear that we don’t understand it because we don’t spend a lot of time like the Israelites did at the Water Gate.  Remember, they spent the morning having the law read and interpreted to them, and by the end, they were totally wrecked.  We, on the other hand, take a more active approach: we lower the standard so that we can think of ourselves as having accomplished it.

When we hear the true standard, the full requirement, the real law, it destroys us.  Far from showing us how well we’re doing, the law shows us just how short we fall.  We are exactly like the Israelites in Nehemiah, destroyed by the realization that the law is beyond our ability to obey; that being a better father than Stan isn’t good enough, that the standard is perfection (Matthew 5:48).  We fall to our faces, covered in tears. Wrecked.

This is the first truth of true religion: the law will kill you. It will reduce you to tears and end your life.

So…if the law kills, what brings life? If the law destroys, what resurrects?

Ezra and Nehemiah tell the people not to be grieved, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength,” even in this time when they feel so weak, so broken.

“Now wait a minute!” you might say.  “How can this God, whose law is so oppressive that it breaks his people down to tears and destroys our lives every day also be our strength? Our protector?  Our refuge?  In other words, how can the oncoming enemy force also be the rescuer?  How can the judge also be the defense attorney?

The miracle of grace is this: the law-maker is not God’s only job description; or better, law is not the only thing God speaks. God is also and finally our savior, Jesus Christ. He doesn’t just speak the law that puts sinners to death; he speaks the gospel that raises the dead. And he utters this second and final word at just the right time. In Romans, we read that at just the right time, while we are ungodly, while we are sinners, Christ comes for us. While we are like the Israelites, oppressed by the law, on our faces under the weight of our own failures, covered in tears, and broken. Right then, Christ comes. As Jesus says in Luke 4:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he says, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Gospel that we preach, is that, though the law comes and destroys us, the Son of God comes and resurrects us.  Our death is overturned by Christ’s death. Our life is created by Christ’s life. We hear the law and we are brought to tears.  We hear the Gospel and we are moved to joy. In Christ, we who were poor are now rich. We who were captive are now released. We who were blind now can see. We who were oppressed now are free.  In Christ, this is the year of the Lord’s favor.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Royce White on the Human Condition

Royce White is a great basketball player. He led his Iowa State team in every major statistical category as a sophomore and was a lottery pick in last year's NBA Draft, all while suffering from a serious anxiety disorder. He's currently in the throes of trying to work out a mental health protocol with the Houston Rockets (the team that drafted him) so that he can feel comfortable playing. White was recently interviewed by Chuck Klosterman for, and had some very revealing things to say.

CK: Well, then what's the lowest level of mental illness? What is the least problematic behavior that still suggests a mental illness?

RW: The reality is that you can't black-and-white it, no matter how much you want to. You have to be OK with it being gray. There is no end or beginning. It's more individualistic. If someone tears a ligament, there is a grade for its severity. But there's no grade with mental illness. It all has to do with the person and their environment and how they are affected by that environment.

CK: OK, I get that. But you classify a gambling addiction as a mental illness. Gambling is incredibly common among hypercompetitive people. The NBA is filled with hypercompetitive people. So wouldn't this mean that —

RW: Here's an even tougher thing that we're just starting to uncover: How many people don't have a mental illness? But that's what we don't want to talk about.

CK: Why wouldn't we want to talk about that?

RW: Because that would mean the majority is mentally ill, and that we should base all our policies around the idea of supporting the mentally ill. Because they're the majority of people. But if we keep thinking of them as a minority, we can say, "You stay over there and deal with your problems over there."

CK: OK, just so I get this right: You're arguing that most Americans have a mental illness.

RW: Exactly. That's definitely correct.

CK: But — if that's true — wouldn't that mean "mental illness" is just a normative condition? That it's just how people are?

RW: That doesn't make it normal. This is based on science. If there was a flu epidemic, and 60 percent of the country had the flu, it wouldn't make it normal.

White has hit on something here, something that Christians have always known. Despite Klosterman's seeming confusion, what White is talking about is an idea as old as Christian theology: original sin. Humans all have a problem, and even though it's spread evenly throughout the entire population, it's still a problem. In other words, it's normative and problematic.

We like to think that it's mostly those "other" people who have a problem. As White says, it comforts us to be able to shunt them over to a corner to deal with the problems that we claim we don't have. This is the tragic genius of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: he takes all our problems back to first principles (it's not murder, it's anger; it's not adultery, it's lust; and so on) tearing down our ability to think ourselves "illness-free."

The church should look like Royce White's America: he would have us "base all our policies around the idea of supporting the mentally ill." Our churches should base all their policies around the idea of supporting sinners by proclaiming the arrival of a Savior.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Looper and the Power of Love

Rian Johnson's 2012 sci-fi actioner Looper has a plot far too detailed to summarize here.  It's a very good movie; you should see it.  In fact, what you need to know to understand the clip below is complicated enough.  The young boy in the truck is a powerful telekinetic who will grow up (very mild spoilers!) to be a brutal gangster.  Bruce Willis (the older guy) has come back in time to kill him, Terminator-style. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the younger guy) and the boy's mother are convinced that future is not yet set.  Here is a part of the climactic scene:

The boy is bad news. We've seen him, earlier in the film, destroy a man with nothing more than his mind. Not only is he bad news, he's bad news with a ton of power. There's only one thing with more power than the evil resident in this boy: his mother's words, "It's okay. I love you."

Christians have always known the power of "I love you" to break down barriers and to intervene between us and judgment, whether it comes from Bruce Willis or from God. But what about the "it's okay" part? Many Christians hold to the "God loves you just the way you are" adage and would interpret the mother's words in this light: "You're ok. Therefore, I love you." They assume that God thinks the same way: "You're okay just the way you are. Therefore, I love you."

But we misunderstand.

God's word to us is the same as that of the boy's mother: "It's okay. I love you." But it is most decidedly not "You're okay. Therefore, I love you." God's word to us is "You're okay because I love you." We are the little boy: we are bad news, and we think we have lots of power. We're not okay. Not at all. God doesn't love us just the way we are. He shows his love for us in that "while were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

It is this kind of love that can cut through the violence and anger of our lives. When we believe that we're loved "just the way we are," the sin remains. Only the knife's edge of "You're okay...but only because I love you" can perform the necessary surgery on our hearts.  Christ comes for the undeserving, for the sinner, for the far from okay.  In his saving work, though, he becomes God's love for us, creating us anew, and making us so much more than okay.
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