Now Playing at Life in Mordor: Tolkien, Williams, and Opposite Views of the City

Because I am the master of shameless self-promotion, I have no qualms about sharing with you my latest post over at Life in Mordor, the blog of Mike F. where I sometimes appear as a guest contributor.  This piece is entitled “Tolkien, Williams, and Opposite Views of the City“.

I have recently been exposed to the work of Charles Williams.  Williams was a contemporary of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis at Oxford, though he never finished school there.  Tolkien did not know him well, and lamented the influence he would have on Lewis.

If you read The Lord of the Rings, you can pick up on the fact that Tolkien seemed to have a strong distrust of technology and urbanization.  Cities were at best a necessary evil (Minas Tirith), and at worst an incarnation of the demonic (Minas Morgul).

Williams had an opposite view of things.  To him, the city has a special place in God’s economy.  Living in cities is the cause of humanity’s best impulses (this is where we get our word “civilization”; to Williams the only alternatives to civilization are savagery and barbarism).  Christian discipleship is a community endeavor and city life forces upon us the realization that we live in community, whether we like it or not.  In the city human energies are collected and submitted to the process of exchange–our best work in exchange for the best work of others.

Les Miserables 81: Where Are They Going?

lesmiserablesAt this point in the story we have just seen Marius have his hopes of gaining his grandfather’s blessing to marry Cosette dashed.  Let us not forget that Thenardier and his gang have just tried to rob Jean Valjean’s house on the Rue Plumet.

In this section we have three short chapters showing key characters in the aftermath of these events, heading toward the story’s climax.  We see that Eponine has a hand in the events that steer two of the three characters to their places in the story’s climax.  Victor Hugo never comes out and says this is Eponine, but he gives you just enough to recognize her from earlier descriptions and put two and two together because he gives you the reader credit for having at least a little bit of intelligence.

First we see Jean Valjean.  He is sitting on a solitary embankment at the Champ de Mars.  He just wants to be alone with his thoughts.  He doesn’t suspect a thing as far as Marius and Cosette are concerned, but there have been some troubling developments lately.  He has seen Thenardier snooping around the neighborhood, and he has noticed a growing political unrest in the city.  A growing unrest would mean an increased police presence, which would of course put him in danger.  This alone was enough to make him seriously consider leaving the country.  Then, earlier in the day he was out in the garden and he noticed writing on the wall, where Marius had written his address for Cosette the night before.  But Valjean knew nothing of Marius’s nightly visits, and so he was deeply troubled.  And while he was sitting on the embankment, someone came up behind him and dropped a note which said nothing but “MOVE OUT”.  This sealed the deal for him.  He looked around and caught a brief glimpse of a childlike figure in workingman’s clothes running away.

We then turn to Marius.  He had gone to Gillenormand’s with little hope, he left with none.  He wandered the streets all through the night before returning to Courfeyrac’s in the wee hours of the morning.  He didn’t even bother to get ready for bed.  He slept through the day; when he finally woke up Courfeyrac and friends were preparing to head out for General Lamarque’s funeral.  This didn’t even register with him.  He headed out later, taking the two pistols that Javert had given him just before his adventure at Gorbeau.  He still had these laying around, and he couldn’t tell what impulse possessed him to take them with him.  (This is a small detail, but Victor Hugo feels compelled to mention it here, so we can be sure that these two pistols will play a significant role later on in the story.)  He continued to wander the streets just like he did after leaving Gillenormand’s, but he clung to the certainty that he would see Cosette that night.  That night he went to the Rue Plumet and entered the garden, but there was no Cosette.  He searched all around, but still no Cosette.  He knocked on the windows of the house and called for Cosette, even at the risk of exposing himself, but there was no response.  The house was completely deserted.  He then heard a voice that sounded just like Eponine’s calling out, “Monsieur Marius”, just as Eponine had addressed him in earlier meetings, and telling him that his friends were waiting for him at the barricade.  He looked around and saw a figure that looked like a young man (this connects this sighting of Eponine with the figure that Valjean saw earlier in the day) disappearing into the twilight.  (Remember that in Paris the days are very long in the summer and the sun doesn’t set until very late.)

Finally we see M. Mabeuf, whom we haven’t seen in quite some time.  His is an extremely heartbreaking tale.  The last we saw of him Gavroche had just dropped a purse in his garden which Montparnesse had attempted to steal from Valjean and which Valjean had given him, and which Gavroche had in turn stolen from him.  But Mabeuf was too honest for his own good and he did not trust this gift, so he returned it to the police station where it languished as unclaimed property.  Meanwhile he continued to decline.  He was forced to sell his plants, then his furniture, and finally his books.  Recall that Mabeuf loved gardening and rare books.  Both of these loves were taken from him as he descended into poverty.  When he reached the point where he was forced to sell his books, a dark veil seemed to pass over his face that would never lift again.  Finally he sold the last of his books to pay for some expensive medicines for his housekeeper who had fallen ill.  The day was June 4.  The next day he heard the sound of fighting off in the distance.  He asked a passerby what the noise was, and was informed that it was a riot near the Arsenal.  He went inside and looked for a book to sell.  When he saw the empty bookcase he remembered that there were no more.  He then wandered off in a daze.

You will have to stay tuned to find out what becomes of these three characters.

Marc5Solas: Top 10 Reasons Our Kids Leave Church

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post over at Marc5Solas entitled “Top 10 Reasons Our Kids Leave Church“.  It is no secret that an awful lot of young people are leaving evangelicalism after high school, many never to return.  There is no shortage of books, sermons, and blog posts addressing this problem, and no shortage of different opinions on what must be done to solve it.

Marc5Solas has talked extensively with young people who have left the church, and has identified the ten reasons that come up most frequently in his conversations.  A lot of these have to do with the fact that so much of evangelicalism has bought into the idea of making church “relevant”.  As a result, many of our churches have become hothouse environments that are not quite the church, but not quite the world.  Our youth are tragically ignorant of the historic faith of the last two thousand years and the vast wealth of resources it provides for answering the doubts and objections raised by skeptics and unbelievers.  Christian community, or what passes for it in many evangelical churches, can easily be replaced with the sort of community that young people find out in the world.  Young people don’t need the Christian faith (as it is presented to them) to find spiritual fulfillment or do good in their world.

Bottom line:  Young people don’t need the Christian faith as it has been presented to them.  If church is nothing more than a place to learn life-application principles for better living in community…well, you don’t need a crucified Jesus to do that.  Why get up early on Sunday morning to visit some cheap knock-off of the entertainment venue you went to last night and hear some middle-aged guy dressed up in skinny jeans trying to be hip (and failing miserably) give you life-improvement principles that you can get in the self-help section of any decent bookstore?

The solution to the problem is simple:  Get back to preaching the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.  You don’t have to ditch the jumbotrons or the light show or the rockin’ praise band or the Noah’s Ark-themed preschool environment.  But make sure that everything you do in your church points people toward the full weight of condemnation that is ours under the Law, and the full freedom that we have in the Gospel.

Read:  Top 10 Reasons Our Kids Leave Church

Why Are We Even Talking About This?

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by pastor/evangelist Greg Laurie that came out this past week, entitled “Where is the United States in the End Times Scenario?“.

If you have been around evangelicalism for any length of time, then you, like me, have probably been exposed to a fair amount of end-times teaching.  You have probably even come into contact with the question posed in this post, and you may have heard some of the possible answers.

Laurie gives three possibilities.  First:  The US is absent from end-times prophecy because it has been nuked out of existence.  Exactly the sort of thinking that was prevalent back in Cold War times, only now the bogeyman isn’t Russia, it’s Iran or North Korea or some other rogue terrorist state or terrorist organization that has illegally obtained nukes.  Second:  The US has corroded from within and declined as a result.  This plays into preaching about the soul of the US, about how America was founded as a Christian nation by men who sought God fervently (Heads up:  It wasn’t and they didn’t), about how America has lost its way by legalizing abortion and gay marriage, taking prayer out of public schools, going from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” and how we are seeing the consequences of this through increased abortion, divorce, murder, broken families, etc.  All the usual Focus on the Family/Republican National Committee talking points.  Some of you may be nauseatingly familiar with this sort of preaching.  (I’m not, but I know some places I could go to hear it every week if I wanted to.)

Third:  There is a great revival in the US.  When the Rapture comes, a huge percentage of its people disappear.  With all those Christians gone, the remaining infrastructure cannot survive and the US disappears as a nation.  Feh.  The Rapture is part and parcel of a dispensationalist eschatology which is deeply flawed, to say the least.

But why are we even talking about this?  Why are we even asking about the absence of the United States from end-times prophecy?  The very question itself is based on some flawed assumptions:  that modern nations as we know them today are part of the prophetic teaching of Scripture, that the absence of the US from said prophetic teaching is surely bad news for the nation, that we are in fact living in the last days, that the US as the world’s reigning superpower should be part of end-times prophecy if we are in the last days.

This sort of approach to the prophetic teaching of Scripture is not good.  It turns the Bible into a giant puzzle book of God’s plans for the future.  This plays in conjunction with a moralistic approach to Scripture which is too prevalent in evangelicalism and sees it as nothing more than a book of principles for good living.  This approach to Scripture helps drive the evangelical tendency to create institutions and organizations that separate from the world in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons.

To think that prophecies in Scripture are intended to point to modern nations and current events requires some creative thinking, to say the least.  Most if not all of the Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in the coming of Christ.  Many of the New Testament prophecies were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent extension of Christianity to all the world.  They also point to the future coming of Christ, but in ways we cannot clearly understand even today, with the benefit of centuries of thought and struggle from thinkers, scholars, and theologians.

The vast majority of Christians outside evangelicalism are loath to go beyond the statements contained in our creeds when thinking and speaking of the end times:

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and His kingdom will have no end

…We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

–The Nicene Creed

We would do very well to heed this example.

Ty Grigg: Signs the Spirit Has Left the Building

Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece by Ty Grigg over at Reclaiming the Mission, the blog of David Fitch.  The post is entitled “Signs the Spirit Has Left the Building“.  The big idea here is that evangelicals frequently talk about the work of the Holy Spirit in ways that are not right.  A lot of what many evangelicals say about the work of the Holy Spirit proceeds from two faulty assumptions:  (1) We know what the work of the Holy Spirit looks like, and (2) We can control the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Heads up:  We don’t, and we can’t.

Regarding the first assumption:  We only think we know what the work of the Holy Spirit looks like.  Frequently, our convictions in this regard tend to fall squarely in line with our personal preferences.  (Example:  If we like powerful, in-your-face preaching, we will regard people who preach like that as anointed by the Holy Spirit.  If we like hype and emotionalism, we will regard churches that major in these as filled with the Holy Spirit.)  This error can lead to divisions in the church; in the Corinthian church it led in no small part to the factions that Paul criticized in 1 Corinthians.  The reality is that the work of the Holy Spirit is very hard to discern, and often cannot be reliably discerned until well after the fact.

Regarding the second assumption:  Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 sinned because he attempted to buy the Holy Spirit’s presence and power with money.  Most of us would never dream of such a thing nowadays, but how many of us attempt to buy the Holy Spirit’s power with other things, such as holy living, biblical teaching, commitment to spiritual discipline, and our own efforts to manufacture feelings such as zeal for the lost or contrition for our own sin?  Rather than attempting to stir up the presence of the Holy Spirit, it would be much better to focus on the ways in which the Holy Spirit is already present in our midst.  The Holy Spirit’s presence is not a prize to be gained through the right sort of spiritual practices and an appropriate level of zeal and fervency about such practices; rather it is a gift that is already given to us and promised to any community of believers gathered together in the name of Jesus.  Indeed, the Holy Spirit’s presence in a community of believers is the very thing that makes the existence of such a community possible in the first place.

Read:  Signs the Spirit Has Left the Building

Les Miserables 80: Old Heart and Young Together

lesmiserablesLast time we saw Thenardier and his gang attempt to rob Valjean’s place, and we saw Eponine foil their attempt by just standing there in the gate.  Now we get to see what Marius and Cosette were up to on the other side of the gate while all the commotion was going on outside.

Never had the sky been more studded with stars, or more charming, the trees more tremulous, the odor of the shrubs more penetrating; never had the birds gone to sleep in the leaves with a more hushed sound; never had all the harmonies of the universal serenity better responded to the interior music of love; never had Marius been more in love, happier, more in ecstasy.

Victor Hugo always waxes eloquently on the subject of love.  Anytime he does so, you gotta love it.

But there was trouble in paradise.  Cosette was sad.

Cosette was sad because Jean Valjean had just announced that they would be going away.  First, to a different part of the city, and then, shortly after, to someplace far away, perhaps as far away as England.

A shudder wracked Marius from head to foot.

When we are at the end of life, to die means to go away; when we are at the beginning, to go away means to die.

Marius, being a poor college student, didn’t have a prayer of being able to follow Cosette to England.  He just didn’t have the money.  Finally, after hours of heart-wrenching reflection, Marius had an idea.  He asked Cosette to not expect him the next evening, but to wait until two days later.  He then said to himself, “He is a man who changes none of his habits, and he has never received anybody till evening.”  You may well recognize this as referring to the old man M. Gillenormand, Marius’s grandfather.

We saw how Marius and Gillenormand ended the last time they saw each other.  It wasn’t pretty.  Apparently Marius has it in mind to go back to Gillenormand and ask for his blessing to marry Cosette.  That he is even willing to consider this, shows the level of desperation to which he has sunk when faced with the prospect of losing Cosette.

Gillenormand has not changed outwardly by this point in the story.  He still maintains all of this old habits, and he still maintains the physical appearance of one who would meet death standing erect.  But inwardly, his strength is failing.  It has now been four years since he has seen Marius, and he misses Marius terribly.  But he cannot admit any fault on his side, and so he cannot bring himself to make any move toward Marius.  Still, it has been four years since he saw Marius, and he has begun to fear that he will never see Marius again for the rest of his life.  And to top it all off, he was starting to lose his teeth.  (You will recall that one of the distinguishing marks of Gillenormand was that he had passed the age of ninety with all his teeth still intact.

When Mlle Gillenormand spoke of Marius, he lashed out in anger but wept secretly.  She attempted to substitute Theodule for Marius, as we saw earlier in the story, but that scheme failed miserably.

The supplanter Theodule had not succeeded in the least.  M. Gillenormand had not accepted the quid pro quo.  The void in the heart does not accommodate itself to a proxy.  As for Theodule, though suspecting an inheritance, he rebelled at the drudgery of pleasing.  The old man wearied the lancer, and the lancer shocked the old man….  All his qualities had a defect.

Gillenormand is one who craves authenticity with others, but he can’t bring himself to let others see him as he really is.  Thus on the inside he feels a mixture of love and anger toward Marius but misses him terribly.  But all the outside world sees is unyielding anger toward Marius.

On the night of June 4, Gillenormand was sitting up with a roaring fire in his fireplace.  (Parisian summers are not like summer in Georgia.  June in Paris is like early fall in Atlanta, so it is understandable perhaps that Gillenormand would want a fire, especially in a large, drafty old house.)  Gillenormand was trying to reconcile himself with the idea that Marius was never coming back, but his mind rebelled against it and he just couldn’t bring himself to it.

It was in this moment that Marius arrived.

The meeting did not go well.  Gillenormand yearned to throw himself into Marius’s arms and hug him, but all that Marius saw was his unyielding anger.  Marius asked Gillenormand for permission to marry Cosette, and after a long and rambling monologue, Gillenormand said “Never!”  It turned out that Gillenormand knew of Cosette already, because Theodule (who was stationed in the barracks near Rue Plumet) had already told him all about her.  After another rambling monologue, Gillenormand suggested that Marius make Cosette his mistress.  This so offended Marius that he walked right out in a huff.

Here we note that Gillenormand has just suggested that Marius do the same thing to Cosette that Tholomyes had done to Cosette’s mother Fantine.  But Marius would have nothing to do with this.

The chapter closes with a poignant scene as Gillenormand tries to call Marius back but Marius just keeps on walking:

For a few moments the old man was motionless, and as though dumbfounded, unable to speak or breathe, as if a hand were clutching his throat.  At last he tore himself from his chair, ran to the door as fast as a man past ninety can run, opened it and cried, “Help, help!”

His daughter appeared, then the servants.  He continued with a pitifully hoarse voice, “Run after him!  Catch him!  What have I done to him!  He’s mad!  He’s going!  Oh!  My God!  Oh!  My God!  This time he won’t come back!”

He went to the window that looked on the street, opened it with his tremulous old hands, hung more than halfway out, while Basque and Nicolette held on to him from behind, and cried, “Marius!  Marius!  Marius!  Marius!”

But Marius was already out of hearing and was at that very moment turning the corner of the Rue Saint-Louis.

The nonagenarian raised his hands to his temples two or three times, with an expression of anguish, drew back tottering, and sank into an armchair, pulseless, voiceless, tearless, shaking his head, and moving his lips, stunned, with no more left in his eyes or heart than something deep and mournful, resembling night.

“But You’re in the Wealthiest 2% of People on the Planet!!!!!”

Today I wish to take aim at a phrase that I frequently hear from well-meaning individuals whenever they hear people complaining of some problem or another.  You’ve probably heard it yourselves.  You know the drill:  Someone is having a bad day at work.  Their car wouldn’t start in the morning.  Or they had some trouble getting the kids ready for church.  “But you’re in the wealthiest 2% of people on the planet!!!!!”  Translation:  There are a whole lot of other people in the world out there for whom the problems you’re talking about aren’t even on their radar screen.  98% of the people in the world have concerns much more basic and urgent than this, such as “Where is my next meal coming from?”

Recently I heard it used as a critique of present-day evangelical worship music.  This is from Brian McLaren’s “An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters” which I linked here a few days back:

If you doubt what I’m saying, listen next time you’re singing in worship. It’s about how Jesus forgives me/us, embraces me/us, makes me/us feel his presence, strengthens me, forgives me, holds me close, touches me, revives me, etc., etc. Now this is all fine. But if an extraterrestrial outsider from Mars were to observe us, I think he would say either a) that these people are all mildly dysfunctional and need a lot of hug therapy (which is ironic, because they are among the most affluent in the world, having been materially blessed in every way more than any group in history), or b) that they don’t give a rip about the rest of the world, that their religion/spirituality makes them as selfish as anyone else, but just in spiritual things rather than material ones.

I don’t think either of these indictments are as true as they would sound to a Martian observer; rather, I think that we songwriters keep writing songs like these because we think that’s what people want and need. The scary thing is that even though I don’t think these indictments are completely true … they could become more true unless we take some corrective action and look for a better balance.

This response is usually a well-intentioned corrective, a reminder that our problems really aren’t that big a deal given the much broader scope of human suffering in our world.  To be sure, there are times and places when such a corrective is perfectly appropriate, such as the person who gets a scratch on his brand new BMW, or the wealthy suburban megachurch congregation that spends a whole Sunday morning singing nothing but “Jesus-and-me” worship songs.

Other times, not so much.

What about the newly-single mother of two who just went through a nasty divorce and is now faced with a host of challenges, financial and otherwise, that she didn’t have before?  Or the bachelor who sees his chances at marriage dwindling with advancing age and believes that he must be damaged goods if he has managed to remain unmarried for so long?  Or the child who has just lost her parents in a horrible accident?  Or the parents who have struggled with infertility for years?

Is it really appropriate to say to such people that we are among the most affluent and materially blessed people in all of history?  Does that make the pain go away?  Does it mean that we are not supposed to experience trouble or hardship, or that if we do, it pales in comparison to what people in the rest of the world have to deal with?

Suffering and brokenness are pervasive throughout the world.  Material affluence is no cure-all for hardship.  The trials, sorrows, and troubles suffered by those in the wealthiest 2% of people on the planet are just as real as those suffered by others elsewhere, even if they take a different form.