Thursday, May 13, 2010

When Pop-Culture Meets Epistemology

WARNING: spoilers lie ahead. If you aren't caught up on all the latest episodes of LOST, save this to read later

A great little piece of pop-culture is set to expire in just over a week. The ABC television series "LOST" comes to a close on May 23rd when it airs it's 2-and-a-half-hour finale.

Part of the show's great appeal has been how difficult it is to figure out what exactly is going on. If you don't watch the show, that might seem strange. And it is. The show turns you upside down so many times that you can scarcely decide which way is actually up. It is the epitome of the phrase coined by Winston Churchill, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Just when you think you have figured out what is going on, the show peels back another layer of the onion to reveal a perspective you haven't even been aware of before.

Take the notion of figuring out what the island is. There are at least a half-dozen theories. The island is Atlantis. The island is the Garden of Eden. Perhaps the island is a just a place for the cursed -- a place where people are tortured and ultimately sentenced to die. And then there are island mythologies that have been presented to the viewers this season. Jacob, a very influential character, shows another character a bottle of wine, and suggests that the island is the cork that keeps the contents of the bottle from spilling out & ruining the rest of the world. And now, more recently, we were introduced to Jacob's mother. She shows her sons a sinkhole that a small stream empties into & that has an unearthly golden glow emanating out of it. Jacob's mother then explains that this is the light of the world, and that if it goes out on the island it goes out everywhere else in the world.

If you don't watch the show, and you've stayed with me this far, God bless you. Because you're probably thinking what I'm thinking, "This is just some murky bologna." That's exactly what it is. But it all serves to cause you to question how you know what it is you think you know -- the question of epistemology. A point that Entertainment Weekly's requisite LOST writer "Doc" Jensen touched on this week:

To behold ("the golden light" from the sinkhole) is to take a metaphysical Rorschach text. I might see God and a call to worship. Someone else might see science and a call to investigate. Someone else might see a practical joke and start looking around for Ashton Kutcher. I suspect Lost would say that no single interpretation is correct; that those who insist on a single interpretation couldn’t be more incorrect; that the history of human catastrophe on The Island is comprised of eras of dogmatic, abusive interpretation run amok.

Terrifying thought, isn't it?

And then you take a glimpse at the real world, and real human history. Where there were things like the Aryan supremacy movement in 1930's Germany (partly a result of faith in Darwin's "survival of the fittest" thinking), and The Crusades (whose effects echo down through the centuries all the way to today's "War on Terror"). "Dogmatic, abusivve interpretation run amok" can explain a lot of sad parts of our history.

It's almost enough to make you want to swear off taking a stand on anything, which is an error of another kind. Pluralism reigns. Which "Doc" Jensen goes on to address, thinking about what is the message of LOST:

It could be that LOST is philosophically relativistic and religiously pluralistic — but given everything else we've seen on the show, I think what's more likely is that Lost just doesn't trust human beings enough to know "the right answer." We are too flawed, too damaged, too biased, too selfish, too incapable, too limited, too mortal, just plain too much of this world to be able to really and fully know what this world is really all about. To paraphrase Mother: All our answers will only lead to more questions. It's an infinite progression into infinite regression — "turtles all the way down" cubed, to use a phrase that I'm too stupid and tired and lazy to explain, but feel free to look it up. I don't think LOST is saying to stop pursuing truth. Not at all. I think it's more concerned with how we conduct our search and how we can labor with our neighbor in their search.

It all brings to mind the old parable about seeking truth. Say you blind-folded 4 men, and had them feel out an elephant. What would they say they found? One man might discover the tail, and declare that it is a rope. Another man might discover the trunk, and call what he found a huge snake. Another man might feel out the tusks, and say he discovered a spiny beast with spears protruding out of it. And another might just feel up the side of the elephant, and say that it is like a great wall. The point being that we’re all essentially half-blind creatures (at best) with very limited perspectives. Paul might say, “we see as through a mirror dimly.”

Which is very difficult for an Evangelical like me. Because while I believe that the text I’m handling is inerrant, I can’t really believe in my ability to meet it all out infallibly. I'm only human.

So, that being the case, I'm going to need grace for the errors I will inevitably make.

And that being the case, I probably oughta have grace with others on theological errors they may happen to make. Because if we want forgiveness, we have to forgive.

Ultimately, the point is humility. Because while we've all cobbled together a set of beliefs about what our world is & where its going, we'd be hard-pressed to claim full knowledge & insight into the goings-on around us. To have enough humility to maintain an open mind. To not be closed off to other possibilities when the next layer of the onion is peeled back before us.

Such a conclusion seems to clash with the idea of "boldness," something that the book of Acts speaks a lot about. Until next time...

Friday, May 07, 2010

My Friend, So Long -- Part 2

I imagine what it must have been like.

The Church at Corinth meets together at their regular time on Sunday morning. There's a buzz before worship starts on this day, though. News is being passed around that can only be described as startling. It's being bandied about that one of the young adult guys actually is sleeping with his step-mother! Can you believe this? It is UNbelievable...

"That's right! Unbelievably AWESOME! High fives all around. What a score for him, right?!"

This is how the Church at Corinth reacts apparently. Surprised? This is a town where, when you show up on someone's doorstep, instead of a doorbell you're greeted with shapes of human reproductive organs. You see, in 1st century Corinth, sexual irregularity was a virtue. The kinkier the better. It's like your most awkward bachelor or bachelorette party, only it's every day life in Corinth.

And you thought OUR culture was in the dump.

In our last installment, we engaged some of the questions that Jennifer Knapp's out-of-the-closet announcement raised. In this installment, I just want to focus on one:

What does it mean for kingdom people to dwell with Jennifer Knapp?

Raised by Scot McKnight, this to me is the most challenging and most pressing question. Questions about nature & nurture are interesting (not to mention eternally inconclusive) but ultimately secondary to the fundamental issue of how we deal with people. Because for kingdom people, our greatest commandments -- our primary standing orders -- address how we deal with others.

So, kingdom people, how should we dwell with Jennifer?

Let's pick up where we just left off. Our primary command is to love. To love with everything we have, and to love as much as we love ourselves. So how we respond, it should occur to us, needs to come from a primary motive to love.

But love is a very complicated thing. Love doesn't always result in saccharin, feel-good niceties.

Take the Apostle Paul. In his relationship with the Church at Corinth, scholars tell us that Paul wrote at least 4 letters. FOUR letters. "But I only have 2 in my Bible." That's right. But Paul references the other letters he wrote -- which we do not have any copies of -- in the 2 letters we do have. We know that Paul wrote one of the letters before he wrote 1st Corinthians. And we know that Paul wrote the other letter in between writing the two letters we have in our Bibles: the ones that we call 1st & 2nd Corinthians. Paul talks about THAT letter right here:

So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you. For if I grieve you, who is left to make me glad but you whom I have grieved? I wrote as I did so that when I came I should not be distressed by those who ought to make me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would all share my joy. For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.

Notice that this letter, which Paul later references again & is often called "the sorrowful letter," was written out of "distress," "anguish of heart," "with many tears," and out of "the depth of (his) love." Paul apparently had to spank the Corinthians verbally. But he did so out of a motive of love.

Paul didn't do this so that he could feel better about himself. He didn't unleash his rage just to vent all of his pastoral frustration on these difficult people. That wouldn't have been love; that would have been selfish. Instead, Paul wrote what he did out of love, because he loved that church too much to not say something.

I want it to be well-attested here that what comes next comes from a place of love. And, in that sense, a complicated love. Because I've never actually met Jennifer Knapp personally. I don't know her, and she doesn't know me. Which makes it difficult to even address this issue. In her Larry King interview, Jennifer verbally spanked Pastor Bob Botsford for having the gall to speak to her as a spiritual mentor when he doesn't even have a real relationship with her to speak of.

And yet, here we are in the 21st century. With rock-and-roll superstars that you feel like you know, and digital connections that shrink the world.

I don't know Jennifer. And yet I can't escape the notion that I know a lot about her. The fact that Jennifer wrote her lyrics with a remarkable depth and quality says a lot about her as a person. And those lyrics themselves say a lot about her, too. The fact that when I listen to her music I sense that she's mining out from the depths of my own heart speaks to the connection that she's fashioned -- not only with me, but with all her fans. The nature of fanhood in the 21st century produces an "unknown knowing" level of relationship that, while certainly odd, cannot be denied.

I feel a deep gratitude to Jennifer for her music. A gratitude for the entertainment quality. A gratitude for her giving words & lending her voice to deep spiritual insights. A gratitude for the companionship of her music in vulnerable moments. Her music has been a gift, and she's made her fans feel loved by it.

That connection, while not a personal one-on-one association, moves me to speak.

Not only that, but here I am expressing these ideas on a blog. Perhaps you found them via a link on Facebook. Maybe even a couple of you will go post a link to this on Twitter. The world is small. Whenever we move on geographically through our various stages of life, we're no longer forced to leave our friends behind. We still connect with them. It's wild. Churches are no longer simply small pockets & reservoirs of spirituality located in church buildings a few days a week. Churches are interacting with each other every day through status updates and instant messages. And churches aren't limited geographically. They're interconnected by whatever your standards of friendship are on Facebook.

So I say what I say about Jennifer not just as a member of the Lynn Haven Church of Christ -- wagging my finger at her & whatever church she attends across some spanse of space. I say this as one believer to another in this large, increasingly boundary-less group of believers.

So I hope I don't get verbally spanked by Jennifer like Bob Botsford did. I just love her. Yes, perhaps just fan love. But it is from a place of love, and motivated out of love.

Back to Corinth. Again.

This blog entry opened briefly with the tale of the immoral brother from 1st Corinthians 5. A man was sleeping with his father's wife. And looking closely at the original language, this was probably an on-going affair -- not just a one-time event.

And the congregation accepted this. Celebrated this. They thought that this was a good thing.

It didn't matter what they thought, though. Because the Kingdom of God isn't a democracy where you can sway sentiment & public opinion to establish your own idea of what's right & wrong. We live under the reign of God. Only His vote matters. What He says goes.

Then Paul wrote the following:

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you."

Two harsh points need to be made here.

#1, Is it the Church's place to judge Jennifer? Actually, yes. "Say whaaaaaat??" We have the responsibility as believers to look after our own. And while we have to be cautious about that, and remove the planks from our own eyes before we go speck-hunting in others' eyes, Paul twice here mentions passing judgment on those who are in the faith. How could we ignore that?! We can't ignore that. It's right there in the text, plain as day, in black & white.

While Jennifer Knapp remains in a same-sex romantic relationship, she remains in sin. She can turn away from that lifestyle choice at any time. But so long as she is steadfast in this choice, she is steadfast in sin.

I want to clarify: it's not the urge or the temptation that makes it sin, it is the choice. Here in 1st Cor. 5, Paul mentions a variety of sins that we may be more drawn or less drawn to. That said, I can't imagine any of them being as tempting as what Jennifer faces. But some people, it seems, are born to struggle with something.

I think about Frank Abagnale, Jr., the character at the center of the film "Catch Me If You Can." That man was born to be a swindler. And swindle he did. Until one day he repented. He didn't change his nature; he changed his mind. And he went to work for the FBI to fight financial fraud. I can't imagine how difficult it must be for him to know methods & cons where he could defraud people in seconds, and yet chooses not to. He has a gift. It almost seems like he was born with it. And yet, he has turned away.

Jennifer, too, can turn away. And it might be a thousand times more challenging to live with than Abagnale's predisposition. But she must turn. It's important that she hears that from her brothers & sisters who love her.

Harsh point #2... The church really needs to re-orient its attitude toward the homosexual community. Paul clearly instructs that this posture toward the immoral brother is NOT the same posture to take with the world. Go read it again: "not at all meaning the people of this world..." and "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?"

Christians need to grasp the concept that the world is going to be the world. The "homosexual community" -- the one that primarily exists outside of faith -- they're going to be who they are. And they may intimidate you & make you feel really weird. DEAL with it. They are who they are, and they're going to be who they're going to be. Let go of the hate. Let go of the spite. And stop talking like they're what's wrong with the world. SIN is what's wrong with the world.

The church needs to shut its mouth about condemning homosexuals as a group. That's not our job. We need to stop hating, and start learning how it is we're going to be salt and light to these people & maybe win over a few of them. That's what Jesus would do. That's what Paul would do. That's what we need to do. Period.

One of my other favorite voices in the community of Contemporary Christian Music is dcTalk. They haven't been together as a group for almost a decade. But they're still rocking concert venues as solo artists and fill-in lead singers (Michael Tait now performing as lead singer for Newsboys... weird, huh?).

It seems they knew that they were coming to an end as a band & were about to launch their solo careers. In their final full album, they released a song called, "My Friend (So Long)." It was sort of a warning to from each of them to themselves. From the beginning they'd used the music of dcTalk to honor God & further the Kingdom. And, going their separate ways, they didn't want to see any of them use their fame to launch solo careers that were only out to make money & bring honor to only themselves. So they wrote this song as an intervention to make a pact to keep honoring God with their music.

When I listen to this song, I can't help but think of people I've known who've left the faith. People I've cared about who've gone astray. It's a sad song. And now, I think about Jennifer.

Embedding is disabled, but here's the link to the song on YouTube. And here are the lyrics:

I heard your record on the telephone
It was my cousin, Joan
She picked it up in the top 40 rack and then...

I read your interview in Rolling Stone
You threw the boys a bone
And so I genuinely felt obliged to call...

I know You never meant to hurt us, man
We're just "a baby band"
You found a quicker way
To scale the wall of fame...

The situation's awfully dim
Should we up and go with him?
No way [no way, 1, 2, 3, 4]

We know exactly where you are, and you're gone [my friend]
Don't know exactly where you're coming from
You've gone away my friend
We know exactly where you are, and you're gone [my friend]
Don't know exactly where you're coming from
Have you gone astray [gone]

I saw your video on VH1
Looks like they spent a ton
How does it feel to be the flavor for a spell...

And I remember when you used to say
"Jesus is the way"
I never thought I'd see your light begin to fade...

The situation's awfully dim
Should we up and go with him?
No way [no way, 1, 2, 3, 4]

(repeat chorus)

Don't think we don't miss you
[We think about you every day]
We still love you anyway
[Love don't go away]
There's still this burning question
[I got to know] Why?

[What will people think when they
Hear that I'm a Jesus freak?]

Ah, ah, ah [hey]
[While this is something of fantasy]
[The moral of the story is]
[To stick with your friends]
Ah, ah, ah, ah [hey]
Ah, ah, ah, [hey]
Ah, ah, ah [hey, hey, 1, 2, 3, 4]

(repeat chorus)

Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, and you're gone [my friend]
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, so long
You've gone away, my friend
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, and you're gone [my friend]
Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, so long
We'll see you someday
Wish you well
Na, na, na, na, na, my friend

So how should kingdom people dwell with Jennifer Knapp? I guess I can only answer how this kingdom person is going to dwell with Jennifer Knapp.

* I'm not going to buy any of her new music. I won't be going to any of her upcoming concerts. As much as I'd love to listen to her new tunes, I can't abide her choices. I won't support those choices with my money.

* I'll continue to keep up with her goings-on. I'll be watching from afar as she talks about her life, her faith, her lifestyle choice to love another woman. I'll be hoping that last one changes. I'll be praying for her regularly.

* And I'll keep listening to her old music that I still have on my iPod. I'm not going to delete any record of her & purge her from my memory. That seems inappropriate. I still love her old expressions of faith put to song. To me now, they're like pictures in an old photo album that remind me better times with her. Those aren't going away. I'll still be listening to those, probably praying as I hear each song.

So this is where we part. Jennifer has made her choice. I've outlined how I can't abide that choice.

One more thing: I don't feel like I, or the church, is leaving Jennifer. Point of fact, she left us. Maybe she didn't want to; maybe one day she'll come back. I'll be hoping and praying for that day.

My friend, so long.