Vain Promises of Eternity

This world promises glory, but glory fades. This world promises eternity, but death takes away. 1980’s sex symbol Farrah Fawcett died this morning, followed by rock and pop star Michael Jackson this evening. Money, fame, glory, power, and influence are powerful mechanism of trade and economy. Death is blind to such present realities—and cares not for status, ability, popularity, or intention. This world promises what it cannot fulfill.

There is only One who has conquered death, only One who can conquer it still.


Three Deeper Issues with Television, Part 3: Faith Relegated.

The final thematic element that you will be bombarded with (in most TV viewing) is pandering of faith as acceptable but unfounded and irrational. “Faith is fine…for you.” Several episodes of House M.D. drew this conclusion. But don’t suggest for a moment that it has any place in a fact-founded, reason based discussion.

How is this different from generations past? I haven’t thought through this completely, but the past 50 years strike me in this way:
• 1950s – faith national: “a cultural thing.”
• 1960s – faith critical: “a personal thing.”
• 1970s – faith assumed: “a Sunday thing.”
• 1980s – faith political: “welcome at the table.”
• 1990s – faith ignored: “irrelevant to the conversation.”
• 2000s – faith empty: “mystic, abstract, personally relevant; corporately irrelevant.”

Watch episodes of the original Twilight Zone series—particularly an episode called “The Obsolete Man.” Faith was an accepted practice in the 50s. In the 1960s, it came under attack as part of a larger assault on the family and become “a personal matter.” (Watch the original Star Trek series and you catch glimpses into the cultural tenor regarding faith.) Then in the 1970s, religious affiliation dropping, it was relegated to a “church thing”—something for those people. In the 1980s, faith seemed to have its greatest voice in the Moral Majority as a political power. And in the 1990s, it seemed to serve only to advance a neo-evolutionary worldview (watch the movie Contact, with Jodi Foster); or else be dismissed as purely relativistic.

Post 9/11, faith has been given this mystical position: on the one hand, it’s non-scientific—which is to say irrelevant and of no consequence; but, on the other hand, its “good” for people to have a faith. “It” helps with life. “It’s” irrelevant, except to the one who holds it—then “it’s” relevant, tolerable, significant, and worthy our respect.

Numb3rs takes up the issue of faith: Don nearly dies, and starts going to the synagogue (he’s Jewish by birth). His girlfriend is antagonistic, and his brother is dismissive. His father is encouraging, and his brother’s girlfriend is tolerable. Conclusion: faith is relevant…for some.

House M.D. takes up the issue of faith: a woman is dying and she believes her “faith” will save her. House is antagonistic. Cuddy is permissible. Foreman justifies. Cameron is encouraging. In the end, she is healed in ways that remain subject to interpretation. Conclusion: faith is relevant…for the believer.

This is faith today—unfounded and non-factual. It’s a table, really, around which all sorts can come and offer varying views and opinions: some accept, others believe, criticize, dismiss, argue, lambast, encourage, support, and still others don’t care. This is the mystic and “non-concrete” faith as presented on television.

What is wrong with this? It teaches us that faith in God, or a god, is something wholly abstract. For religious proponents, faith has always had concrete consequences. Whether one was a Buddhist, Muslim, Jew or Christian—faith was real. The Being in whom one believed actually affected reality. Faith even changed and transformed reality. For the Christian, we do not believe faith—expressed in prayer or fasting or spiritual devotion—is an appeasement to God. Rather, that God in his Grace ennobles faithful expression by dignifying it with consequence. A man prays and is delivered. Another fasts and receives direction in some decision. This is the ennobling of consequence. Taleb would petition silent evidence, of course. But that aside, faith was always concrete—and for true believers, it always will be.

What is the benefit of having faith relegated to the non-concrete? Namely, you put an end to fundamentalism. If what a Muslim or Jew or Christian believes can be reduced and relegated to some abstract feeling of peace and goodwill—then maybe there won’t be many more reason to have wars that grow out of religious convictions (the Afghanistan war is more religious than political in nature, proving that religion impacts politics, and has very real consequences…aka, 9/11). Where science failed to “prove” religion irrational, and philosophy (Nietzsche) failed to render “God dead,” television presents religion as relevant to a diminished sphere of influence: an individual life. Continue to reduce that sphere, and eventually religion has as much power as a “mall cop” (I’m thinking the new movie that’s out): enough to be an annoyance, but not something to take seriously.

But as Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Budhists—we must insist that faith is concrete. Either we insist that God (a god) can save us, and give him the opportunity to prove it—or else we have no grounds for proselytizing. We must insist that the God in whom faith is put, if real, has real and significant effects upon reality. Otherwise, we accept Hollywood’s version. And when that happens—we stop praying, stop fasting, stop seeking the direction of the Creator who made us and God who sustains us. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Faith is empirical in its outworking, or else it is nothing more than the feel-good preference that House and Numb3rs (and a dozen other shows) would have us believe.

This is particularly harmful to children who, on the one hand, are told by parents and pastors that God is real and He really works in and through events; but are instilled, on the other hand, with the assurance that their faith is powerless over the lives and events of those who don’t believe (the way magic has now power over the logical, in the movie Flight of Dragons!).

Such is the philosophic assault that TV has upon us. We watch their shows that convey “faith” and feel good afterwards. But reflect upon these conventions: I believe we will certainly find our faith less reliable, ourselves less confident, and our God less powerful. Under such subtle attacks, our faith withers away from the desperate spaces of creation. Redemption ceases being a divine act and becomes a human endeavor. Faith may fill our heart, but never does it overflow into others. It may comfort us, but we are left bereft of opportunity to encourage others with “the hope that is found within us.” In an environment where believers insist upon empirical consequences for faith, mysticism grows weak. The invitation by the God of the Bible is: test, taste, see.

Compare that to the invitation of television and the contradiction is obvious: “Just watch.”

Three Deeper Issues with Television, Part 2: Heroification

The second detrimental thematic element of television (as a modern story telling medium) is what I call heroification. In today’s politically-correct, “appease all” world, Hollywood can’t talk about “truth, justice, and the American way” (or even just “truth and justice”!). That isn’t a message likely to draw in the international community of viewers within or outside of our borders. Viewership drives revenue and so ideals like mercy, justice, absolute truth, and rational faith take a back seat to soft narrative—where conflict centers on some “event-oriented” or “emotional” tension. If there is no “justice,” (non-partisan) then there is no real “injustice”—just criminals or patients or clients (on the one hand) and police, doctors, and lawyers (on the other).

CSI isn’t about seeing justice done (I watch them all)—they rarely (if ever) talk about justice, rightness, or truth—but is, instead, about a team of scientists seeking to solve a case. Private Practice is not so much about changing and improving the lives of patients for the betterment of…what? Themselves, society, the world? (e.g. restoring the effects of the fall). Rather, the misfortune of patients is merely the thematic tension that allows us to see the relational dynamics of the doctors as they interact, debate, conflict, copulate, fight, debate, etc., etc.

Making the world a better place, extending goodness and mercy—that’s so yesterday! (Modern values have exploded into the void left by these neglected virtues, values like the environment, equality, and anti-imperialism.) Will Dr. House solve the case in time and if so what does it teach us about House—drug addicted, bitter, angry, disrespectful, spiteful, undermining, bad-talking, abusive Dr. House? Heroification isn’t about the understanding the world, or ourselves, or propensities (if anything, the “picked-on” Muslim is likely to turn out the innocent bystander of the terrorist attack [e.g. both Numbers and Lie to Me had this storyline]; while the evangelical Christian will be boorish, daft, and prone to stupidity).

Nor is heroification about a hero. That too is yesterday—we don’t want Superman or the A-Team, Matlock or Stingray. Give us broken, screwed up, passed over, divorced or divorcing, characters—but then heroify their lifestyles. Used to be, you watched daytime talk-shows to see who was “more broken than I am” and nighttime drama to see “who I should be like.” It is very possible that these have completely flip-flopped. Don’t give us heroes to “imitate or emulate.” Give us characters with careless relationships, compulsions, and corrupt; but environmentally friendly, open to sexually-orientation, and universally accepting. Lower the bar. We don’t want someone to live up to; just someone to watch.

Therein is the essence of heroification. Where there is no God, there are no ultimate morals—mercy, justice and righteousness—and ultimately meaning must center upon the main characters: Horatio Caine, Gregory House, Cal Lightman, Walter Bishop—and whatever scenarios these characters find themselves tangled up in; dragging us along with them on their stumbling journey through life.

Heroification is intended to make us feel good about our values, our choices, and our live styles; assuring us that we aren’t as “f****d” as others (moralists? Christians?) would have us think; and that our cause—however pathetically irrelevant or culturally acceptable—will be enough to merit our praise…by the great accident of evolutionary history...."coming soon to a channel near you, this Fall."

Three Deeper Issues with Television, Part 1: the "60 Minute" Day

Pick a show. Any show. Watch it for a month and you are likely to experience—though maybe not explain—three stylistics elements that bend our perception of reality toward hopeless despair. I would suggest that, more than sex, more perhaps even than violence, these philosophical undergirding shape us.

The ’60 Minute’ Day
Television, as a narrative medium, skips the lulls of life—waiting in traffic, going to the bathroom, sleeping, being alone—except in the rare exception that these drive the thematic line (Seinfield has used all of these as thematic elements). Instead, television presents a world where character formation and interpersonal relationships jump, in seconds, from an office encounter to a restaurant interchange ten miles and four hours away.

The result is that viewers begin to have our concept of “normal” and “flow” shaped by these lull-less lifestyles. Such that—by contrast—our own lives seem dull, boring and more lull than activity. Dating people are surprised by the deep bitterness of betrayal that takes longer than a 2-hour special to heal. People shaped by death are shocked that the grief lasts beyond the 25 episode season. Television narrative necessitates haste and speed—forty-two minutes to establish believability, construct a scenario, build tension and come to climactic resolution.

Not life. Life, by comparison, is shaped by the slow and low points—how I respond in a traffic jam, what I think about before going to sleep, what I eat for breakfast and lunch, paying bills, reflecting on life. In television, there is no reflection: it’s boring to watch someone think. We get it from time to time, in those last “music-filled” moments of an episode, when the scene moves in slow motion and some nascent pop-artist sings.

Our reaction to this “real life” is to seek the level of activity and motion found only in television—the going, as it were, from one scene to another instantaneously. The speed and multifunctional aspects of the internet and interstate serve our addiction to some extent. But eventually, these leave us listless—unfocused, disconnected, bored.

It explains yet another way that the normal, lifelong commitment of marriage is assaulted. Long-time married people know that the shape and stability of their relationship will be crafted more in the ten-minute conversations at meals or in the morning before work, or at the end of the day; more than in the ten-minutes of sex in the shower. And yet—TV shows us the sex in the shower until we think, “Only my relationship is boring.”

I think the recklessness of drivers is due in large part to this sense of the “60 minute” day—this artificial compression of time and relentless energy of characters written without compulsion (or with it!), without grief (except thrown in to spruce up ratings), or consequence (beyond the next episode). And marriages, relationships in general, financial behaviors, introspection, and generally our view of self.

Attempted, we may attain this pace, for a season (no guarantees of a renewal next Fall!). But ultimately, we exit the “60 minute” day at the season finale of despair, listless vanity, and a reckless abandonment that gives up seeking meaning in life.

(Next: Heroification)


The Glorious Fitting of Incarnation

Someone asks, “Doesn’t it say a lot about the smallness of your god that he could inhabit human flesh?” I wonder if, instead, it says something about the great care and value vested in the creation of humanity. (Psalm 8:5, in reference to humanity, is applied more specifically to the person of Christ in Hebrews 2:7.)

I read too much to remember the reference, or even how accurately these details are. Nevertheless, the inklings of a story read stay with me: a man whose granddaughter survived a horrific car (airplane?) accident. The narrative conveyed how he was actually the one who built, installed, and tested the safety restraint device which was the means of her survival.

Asked, “Were you surprised to hear that she survived, and that you—in a different time and place—had a hand in it?” the man answered something akin to, “Surprised? Yes—that anyone could survive that is a miracle. But not surprised at my part in it—no. I think about my family each and every time I am installing and testing the safety systems of these cars.”

What does it say about the capacity of humanity—made in the image of God—that He would design us with His own Son in view: His Son who would someday take up this same form? What does it say that every sampling of human expression, across the scope of history and space, bears the form designed to be taken up in the great union of God in Human Flesh? Furthermore, what does it say about our descent that we have stooped so low beneath the weight of base corruption, and what—that one day, face to face with fellows of the same substance, we would be tempted to worship that which was created? This is the Weight of Glory, of which C.S. Lewis wrote the following:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no 'ordinary' people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit -- immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment” (The Weight of Glory).


Irregular Ground Rules: Taleb on the Presence of Intelligence

Central to the ongoing debate between creationists and evolutionary theorists is the presence of intelligence: is there intelligence present in or behind the reality of existence? The presence (or absence) of an intelligent designer is the crux. Without it, there is no creator. But without it there can be no discussion either.

In the other species that I’ve taken to studying, there are no others that are studying (empirically provably) their origin and or existence. I am yet impose my own impressions upon the inquisitive expressions of the Orangutan, but here—the presence of my intelligence, observation, and summation—make my summations questionable. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s words, “However, our presence in the sample completely vitiates the computation of the odds” (118).

See the issue—I can only prove that discoveries can be inadvertent, that narration can create a fallacious view of reality, or argue from silent evidence that the earth is the lucky .00001% of the universe wherein the precise elements existed to produce life; I can only argue these things in the presence of my own intelligence (limited as it is).

By Taleb’s own assessment, it is only a matter of possibility that the life-diversity of the earth would come into existence because of the scope and expanse of imaginable attempts (universally speaking). And yet, despite the presence of human intelligence and reasoning, it is actually more likely that his own book would have been written already, without him, before him.

But it wasn’t. It took him, and the presence of his intelligence to set the guidelines for discussion that insists on the absence of intelligence in empirical defense of creation. In my interactions with all manner of other species, I have never been so limited in my argumentation. Taleb must check his own cognitive intelligence at the door if the same rules are to apply on both sides of the table.

Taleb writes, “Most of the debate between creationists and evolutionary theorists (of which I do not partake) lies in the following: creationist believe that the world comes from some form of design while evolutionary theorists see the word as a result of random changes by an aimless process. But it is hard to look at a computer or car and consider them the result of aimless process. Yet they are.”

Agreed—these are the inadvertent discoveries of humans—intelligent humans who were trying to do something. By Taleb’s own position, he should have ample evidence from turtles and ameba that significant movements in technology, medicine, knowledge, awareness, understanding, or any other facet of study, result regularly from equally incidental attempts. Where is the turtle’s equivalent of a computer? Where is the ameba’s equivalent of a laser?

The presence of the human intelligence in each of Taleb’s examples invalidates argumentation against intelligence. Not that his interpretation of these narrative anecdotes is irrelevant, but they are invalid as documented evidence for the position of non-intelligent existence.

Taleb has no problem saying that the presence of earth in predictability models for creationist verses evolutionist perspectives skews the visible evidence-erroneously—toward intelligence design. By contrast, the presence of human intelligence seeking something, and finding something larger or more significant, is assumed equally supportive evidence of his position. See the tautology? By Taleb’s own rules, the presence of the human intelligence in any of the inadvertent discoveries invalidates these cases as evidence for his position. Furthermore, his assessment and interpretation of these anecdotes further distances him from the objective assessment.

Historically, it’s been the position of evolutionists that support of their case will be the finding of other examples of life beyond earth (remember the excitement surrounding the Martian rock that seemed to have a “microbe” petrified in it; it turned out to be nothing more than a strange formation within the rock). Now, Taleb argues that it is more likely the absence of evidence which equally proves the evolutionary theory. In short, everything proves the theory.

That is, in the presence of the intelligence of humanity.