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  • David Copperfield
    David Copperfield

    by Charles Dickens


White House Irony Caught Unawares

The noted irony of The White House tweet- left- is courtesy of Matthew Schmitz over at First Things.

Naturally- in the truest sense of the word- there is no institution of motherhood without the lack of birth control. Rather, tomorrow, I'm going to be celebrating the fact that my mother didn't use birth control. I'm also going to be celebrating the fact that I have two children to a great wife, by not using birth control. The last thing I'd ever think to celebrate about, or give thanks to, is birth control. 

I could probably wax philosophical on the sanctimonious philsophy that is revealed by such a tweet, but it probably does better to note that I'll actually be celebrating my mom tomorrow, instead of a radical allegiance to a selfish individualism. 

[Note: I'm not saying, like in Roman Catholicism, that birth control is inherently wrong. But I am saying it's ridiculous to give thanks to the Affordable Care Act for free birth control. On Mother's Day.]


The Virtue and Vice of the "Common Man"


Is it a vice to be common? Certainly many aspects of our contemporary living recoil against being ordinary. The advent of Facebook lends itself to a perpetual posturing of personality. Twitter lends itself to the self-centered notion that people will actually read what I write (as does the irony of this blog post). Certainly, we're inundated with our fair share of mainstream media articles on the self-defined uniqueness of the millenial generation. I'm even told by a counseling friend of mine that the newest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is needing to change its definition of narcissism to be more extreme, because the old definition of narcissism is too common to have explanatory value. 

It's an edict of our age that we all like being special. When filling out a resume, when arguing with our boss in our heads, when applying for any kind of loan, when filling out scholarship applications, we all want to be special, and probably think we are more special than we actually are. Perhaps we should find solace in being common?

To that point, two of my heroes certainly did champion the "common man," the man of common sense with an ordinary life and an ordinary job. One is Gilbert Keith Chesterton and the other is Charles Dickens. Chesterton in his biography of Dickens extols the virtues of Dickens, precisely for being common:

Dickens stands first as a defiant monument of what happens when a great literary genius has a literary taste akin to that of the community. For this kinship was deep and spiritual. Dickens was not like our ordinary demagogues and journalists. Dickens did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted... Hence there was this vital point in his popularism, that there was no condescension in it. 

Dickens wanted what the people wanted. The virtue in this is that his popularity was incredibly widespread, and yet he still discussed meaningful matters. By any standard, Dickens produced works of art. The common man still voraciously read 800 pages of Bleak House and David Copperfield because Dickens was so good. Does anybody read 800-page books anymore?

And that's where the rub is, isn't it? Part of being common now is different from what was common then. The common man now watches an excessive amount of television and hardly reads at all. The common man now is in financial debt. The common man now spends a lot of time on Facebook trying not to be common. This raises an important question: is there still wisdom in being common, in being ordinary? 

There certainly is, but it means we need a definition of the idea of the "common." It's virtuous to be common in a difficult, seemingly meaningless job. It's virtuous to be common in one's awareness of the news: not too much and not too little. It's virtuous to have a common love of one's family and one's actual neighbors. It's virtuous to do ordinary, common things in a simple, faithful way. Chesterton and Dickens have much to admire about people such as this, as do I.

To talk about such ordinary, common lifestyles is to note, in fact, how rare such common action is. The tricky admission, in a narcissistic age such as ours, is that we can only strive for such virtuous commonality with limited effect. That is, unless we had an ordinary carpenter for a savior.



The Resurrection of Jesus

I posted this last year after Easter and am re-posting it this Easter day.

Abstraction is easier than earthiness. Religious principles command little, but a God become man is difficult indeed. A God who dies and comes back to life in real space-time human history might be the most difficult reality of all. Notice I didn't say "truth" for that word is so easily abstracted.

It's much safer to have religious values. It's much more demanding to deal with a God who passed through death and back to life again; and there's reasonable enough evidence to the fact.

In response to a world of theologians that neuter every Christian symbol and abstract every Christ-event into a vague principle for living, David Bentley Hart proclaims:

If then a theology of beauty stands with the concrete and the particular, in defiance of any species of thought that places its faith in abstractions or generalities, it militates of necessity against practices that simply sort narratives into discrete categories of story and metaphysics, myth and meaning, symbol and reality, and then rest content...If indeed Christianity embraces "the aesthetic principle" par excellence," then abstraction is the thing most contrary and deadening to the truth it offers...God's glory, though, is neither ethereal nor remote, but is beauty, quantity, abundance, kabod: it has weight, density, and presence...In the end, that within Christianity which draws persons to itself is a concrete and particular beauty, because concrete and particular beauty is its deepest truth.

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, 2003

I couldn't help but think, on a week we celebrate the Resurrection in Christendom (except for the Orthodox community which celebrates next week), how counter-cultural the truth of history really is. We live in an America that craves principles for life, that likes to abstract God to generic religious values, and the raw fact of Jesus coming back to life stands opposed to such abstractions.

A related idea is prominent in Time's cover story this week: Rethinking Heaven, by Jon Meachem. Meachem's basic thesis is that too many Christians view heaven as a bodyless existence in some pie-in-the-sky afterlife. Meachem challenges that notion, appealing to a new heavens and new earth and abodily resurrection and afterlife.

Of course, if you know anything about Christianity, Meachem is absolutely correct, which makes his title rather presumptuous. Meachem, nor the theologians he cites, are rethinking anything. One need not go back to the Bible to point out that Christians, even since the second century, have believed in the resurrection of the body, as opposed to the mere immortality of the soul. Christians have been professing this truth by way of the Apostle's creed for 20 centuries.

But Meachem's still on to something. Far from challenging Christian stereotypes, he's really challenging the common American clinginess to abstraction and ease. Much easier to believe in a bodyless heavenly paradise, than for the fact that God the Father will redeem, through the risen Jesus Christ, this world and unite it to his new heavens.

In sum, Jesus' Resurrection shames our sense of existential viability, needing to feel certain things or perform certain religious tasks to have a fake or weak experience of the divine. No, in Christianity, as Hart notes, the particular beauty, the raw fact, of Christ's Resurrection is the deepest truth, my feelings be damned.

He is risen. He is risen indeed.


Web Silence, Busyness, and Idolatry

It has been quite a few months since my most recent blog post. A lot has certain happened since that November night when I wrote about the religious implications of our habit-forming practices: Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and the out-of-townness that resulted, going out of the country to India for two weeks, and taking over for parts of a colleague's job who took a different job. In short, it's been a busy time, a unique time, and the longest silence this blog platform has yet known. 

So, what have I learned?

First, I've learned that I don't really have much to say. When I don't write for a longer period of time, and I spend the rest of my leisure time reading, I come to realize more and more that I have very few original ideas to think and to write. So, even though I have had a few spare moments to think about blogging, I have been at a loss for much to say in the first place. Web silence has taught me humility.

Second, busyness can create good choice-making. When one is busy, one has to decide many times between good things and bad things. Often, though, it also means deciding between doing good things and best things. Busyness has forced me to spend more time working on things that matter, and then simply being available to my family, and then doing little else. I have not been disappointed in this busy life thus far.

And yet, and thirdly, busyness does not necessarily mean these good decisions will result. Often times, in busyness, many (myself included) seek to find the de-stressors of the world where we find our medicinal religiousity. What do I mean? I mean we seek ultimate happiness in transitory de-stressors: alcohol, drugs, other people ("used" wrongly), and most of all media. Television and internet are insidious drugs indeed. I admit to the allure of the de-stressor in my own ways, and since stress attends busyness I have become more aware of my typical false medicines.

In Christian cirlces, we often speak of anything that demands our allegiance besides God as an idol, even good things that can become ultimate things in our heart of hearts. Technically speaking, idols are religious artifacts that, because we can see them, are things that demand our ultimate worship. Most often, we are mixing the worship of the One, True God with other idols. But our American idols aren't Baal or Ashteroth or some other wooden carving, but the medicines listed above.

My web silence hasn't been, then, just from blog-writing but also from much online content, reading or otherwise. That's usually quite a draw for me, and the blessing is that busyness has prevented it largely. But I have to remember that a little busyness is neither good, nor bad, really (exceptions for extremes of sloth and workaholism, naturally). It's just that busyness has made me more aware of its benefits and retractions.

Even still, I remain wary of the false gods. They promise much, and deliver so precious little. It's just that I haven't had a lot of time to think about them.


Spiritual, but not Religious, Driving

It's a common meme in our age to claim to be spiritual but not religious. When one thinks of this idea at first, it's quite acceptable. Most people recognize a longing, a desire to experience deep meaning, which they know secularism cannot fulfill. And yet, it's so much easier to pine for such meaning without the need for institutions or groups of other fellow believers, whatever that belief may be. In other words, I'd much rather like to feel warm on the inside, and not have to deal with the difficulty of other people. The pervasive popularity of Chicken Soup for the Soul provides such evidence of this idea. Even Christians, and not just the New Age folks, are susceptible to this kind of thinking. The attraction is palpable, and draws in our need to make gods in our own image.

The danger with such thinking is that it dares not think about the deeply religious implications of everyday routines. A "religious" word for routines, often used in church worship services, is liturgy. But liturgy doesn't just have to be confined to church settings. Indeed, we engage habits and routines, just like the church's "liturgy", in our everyday lives. Many of those routines, in a sense, are religious. James K.A. Smith points to such religious significance as he defines what all liturgy really is in his book Desiring the Kingdom:

[Liturgies are] rituals of ultimate concern: rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations (pg. 86).

If that is true, then there's a great many routines in our life that beg for our ultimate allegiance, and promise fulfillment over other gods. James K.A. Smith, in his book, looks at a few of those examples such as American football and the mall. For me, though, I confess that where I have seen this play out is on my daily commute. The route I take to work is a "liturgy." Stick with me for a minute.

The routine is designed to get me to work in the fastest manner possible. What's the ultimate good? It's timeliness, ease, comfort, and quickness...the quintessential Americanized religion. I pass by commuter-only lanes. I'm on the interstate for a little bit to speed up the process. I break the speed limit because I know now how traffic lights are synchronized and I know I can beat that certain speed limit at the appropriate miles per hour and get through the yellow light. I even know where to look for the cops; their favorite hideouts are routine too and thus easy to spot. I even know the best back ways in case of an accident. And even still, in rush hour I loathe the competition with the other cars because I'd like my drive to be spiritual, but not religious. They, after all, are after the same gods of ease and comfort, and only few can make it through the narrow gate to America's eternal comfort, if any at all.

What's the result of this religious liturgy upon me? I've become more angry, more impatient, and I fight others in my head more. I didn't start this routine wanting to be angry and impatient. I wanted to get to work and be productive, and then I wanted to get home and be with my family. And I wanted the time in-between to go quickly. In fact, I didn't start this liturgy this angry. I was less angry and impatient two years ago, when I lived in a different place in the city. But, alas, the commute really is a liturgy, and it really has had a spiritual effect upon me.

Dana Gioia, former Chairmen of the National Endowment of the Arts and now living in southern California, gets to the heart of my point in his poem, "The Freeways Considered as Earth Gods." Some excerpts:

The gods do not condescend to our frailty
They cleave our cities, push aside our homes,
Provide no place to walk or rest or gather...

We do not fail to worship them. Each morning
Millions creep in slow procession on our pilgrimages...

And they demand blood sacrifice...

The poem is found in his new collection of poems, Pity the Beautiful, and truly, many of the poems in there point to the ultimate meaning we give to very human, earthly patterns of behavior.

Beware your routines. They may be shaping you more than you know. Because they're religious.