Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Brief Layman's Theology of Fasting

There are certain physical manifestations of emotional occurrences that are common to all of humanity. Insomnia is characteristic of overwhelming anticipation; who can sleep the night before Christmas morning? Indigestion is often associated with stress, as well as high blood pressure especially if the stress is chronic. What are the physical manifestations of intense longing? Perhaps insomnia, diminished pleasure in other activities, the inability to focus on anything else, or anyone else. As the villain in the movie Hitch said, “Colors are dull, food has lost its taste…” When you want something (or someone) more badly than anything else in the world or out, your body reacts by suddenly losing its desire for other things, including things necessary for survival. You’re not hungry, you can’t sleep, and you can’t take your mind off of the object of your affection.

David wrote Psalm 63 in the Judean Wilderness while he was running from King Saul. Inside the rain-shadow of Israel, the area gets less than 11 inches of rain per year. It was during this time, running for his life while being pursued by an army, hiding as a fugitive in one of the most barren places in the country, that he penned the following words:

“Oh God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you,
My soul thirsts for you
My body longs for you
In a dry and weary land where there’s no water.”

Forgetting about his own weariness, forgetting about his physical thirst and hunger, David writes that he earnestly seeks God. He can’t even begin to think about his material needs when he is so desperately longing for his Lord. “I have seen you in the sanctuary, and beheld your power and your glory”. David had an intimate knowledge of the goodness of God, and the satisfaction of knowing him and its superiority over even the richest of worldly pleasures. “Your love is better than life… my soul will be satisfied as the richest of foods” David knew that the love and approval of God was better than even life itself, and was ready to forfeit it even as his being was being supremely satisfied in the presence of his Lord.

I would like to suggest that this is the basis for fasting. Fasting is outcome of a soul saying, “God, I want you so bad I don’t even care about physical hunger, I don’t care about physical thirst, I don’t care about death. All I want is you”. When someone is madly in love, it is like his self is elsewhere while his body tries to maintain status quo. He remains listless as other things go on around him because he’s only thinking of one thing. If you ask him if he wants to get something to eat, he’ll reply, “It’s okay, I’m not hungry”. If you ask why he looks so tired or weak, he’ll tell you it’s because he hasn’t been sleeping well.

During these intense periods of longing for your Maker, that is when you fast. You take the time that your body normally uses for daily survival-maintaining rituals (such as eating), and you turn that time towards God.

Men and women who are madly in love with God sometimes seem like their mind is elsewhere. Maybe they don’t exhibit those extreme symptoms of a romantic obsession, but if you could picture them in your mind’s eye, they will always be looking upwards. They are God-centered, heaven-faced, and always thinking about the object of their utmost affection, Christ Jesus their Lord.

People who remind me of this are John Piper, my friend and mentor Greg O’Brien, and my dear friend Mushroom Cheng. Anyone who talks to these people for more than five minutes will know what their minds are constantly thinking of, or who their minds are constantly thinking about. I look up to these people and admire their single-minded passion. I want to be obsessed with Christ and his supremacy to the point of being slightly aloof all the time. That’s the level of desire I want to have for my Lord and savior.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Christmas Thought

The Jews have always had privileged access to the words and commands of God. Ever since they became a nation, the God has spoken to his chosen people through a number of different ways. He spoke to Moses as a burning bush and chose him to be Israel's leader and his spokesperson and through him, he gave them his written commands, which they were to bind on the tablets of their hearts. After Moses came his understudy, Joshua, followed by the Judges. There were, of course, numbers of prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel. He spoke through David with the Psalms; he used a draft-dodger by the name of Jonah. He used a talking donkey to speak some sense into Balaam; during the days of Moses he even manifested his divine presence as a pillar of fire or a spiraling cloud in order to provide protection for his people.

Then one day, after the prophet Malachi spoke his last word, came silence. For four hundred years, God's people heard not a single peep from their Lord. Kingdoms rose and fell, Israel found independence for a brief period of time only to be crushed again by the mighty Roman Empire. Chanukah was invented. Finally, after four centuries of silence, the God of the universe finally spoke again. His first words?

Goo goo ga ga.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lots of good thoughts packaged into a bad blog

Been thinking about momentum in the context of sports. Momentum is an illusion, even in physics. In physics, momentum is the product of an object's mass and velocity. An object's momentum is an arbitrary equation; it's a number constructed out of two other numbers that are real quantifiable measurements. Actually, now that I think about it, I don't want to go down this slippery slope because if I call momentum an illusion, then I have to call all other physical measurements such as velocity and vectors illusions. The only real measurements of any object is its mass, volume, and position in time. And even then, illusions though they're not, they are still arbitrary. Alright, that's a thought for another day.
At any rate, momentum is certainly an unquantifiable element in a sporting competition. You often hear color commentators report about it based on highly unscientific factors, like "which team needs the win more" "which team scored more in a row" or "which team overcame an enormous psychological obstacle by accomplishing something they've been struggling at" (i.e. Brandon Jacobs' monster catch and run for a TD on Sunday). They factor in excitement and morale. They factor in winning streaks. In short, they factor in things that are completely irrelevant to a team's likelihood to win.
Momentum is not real; not in the physical world and not in sports. But what is real and what isn't real anyway? Is evil real? Augustine famously made the argument that evil has no real substance; it is the absence of something. I always hated that argument. Anyone who wants to argue that cold is not real because it is the absence of heat, or darkness is not real because it is the absence of light can first spend the night naked and blindfolded on my front porch before we engage in meaningful discourse.
(I believe the fulcrum of this debate is your metaphysical foundation. Augustine and Aquinas presuppose a universe constructed out of matter. Varying degrees of being have varying degrees of form and less unintelligible matter, until you get to the highest being, which is actus purus, pure act. According to this metaphysical worldview, things that lack form, such as darkness or evil, lack existence. But I embrace a good deal of Humean skepticism in this matter. For me, perception doesn't point to a metaphysical structure. All I can be sure of is the information of my senses. For me, that's where existence starts. Sorry, Aquinas, but the problem of theodicy remains)
My point is, though there are no scientific ways of quantifying momentum, in sports or in physics (I would argue that the current "scientific way" of quantifying momentum isn't scientific; it's mathematical), it exists. We can't actually grasp it, and we argue about who has more of it (or at least Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth do), but it's real. Ask any football player what it's like to be down two TDs in the first quarter of a four-quarter game. Ask him if playing the other 45 minutes of football is easier if you're down two TDs or up two TDs. Ask him which one is more like stopping a freight train and which one is more like accelerating a freight train going downhill. When your opponent has all the momentum, it is very difficult to regain it by sheer force of will.
Normally in sports, when you're sent reeling you need to stop the game in order to regroup. You can call a timeout or just hang on and try not to lose any more yardage before halftime. During the break, you need to re-center yourself, get hyped up, adjust to what your opponent is giving you, and hopefully turn it around. I guess all this is to say that, when you're in the middle of the game, it's hard to stop something that's happening.

In no particular order, the list of amazing subjects I touched upon that I did immense injustice to: theodicy, metaphysics and its death after Modernity, physics and the nature of the world, being and existence, the arbitrariness of time and position, thrownness, continental philosophy and the connectedness of the universe, and of course, going for it on 4th and 2 at midfield.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

If you're out of tune, you suck

Lately I’ve tried to stay away from saying anything too disagreeable when I get on my soapbox. I didn’t feel like getting into any debates online and I was too lazy to properly research my position, so for the most part I’ve been keeping my opinions to myself. However, I think I’m ready to subject some of my thoughts to peer review. The topic is “intonation as a measure of musical quality”. Go ahead and tear into it, you vicious, liberal...

The progression of music through history, like any progression of art through history, can be charted by its stages of rule-breaking. Music establishes its boundaries, visionary artists transcend those boundaries, and then music establishes new boundaries. Throughout history, almost every element of music, from rhythm to dynamics, from melody to meter, has had rules broken by some class of music, ranging from high-brow classical to low-brow popular.

While this is not an exact science, trends of music culture can be identified. Before Beethoven, few composers would dare modulate outside of their parallel and relative keys, but the introduction of new dissonances in the Romantic era of classical music saw artists bring on increasingly chaotic chord progressions. Brahms did things with the orchestra that Mozart wouldn’t dream of; he bent and broke rules, and established new rules of conduct for the same works; symphonies, concertos, and whatnot.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the classical world started getting tired of even the most fundamental rules of music; the paradigm of keys and traditional rhythmic patterns. French Impressionism paved the way for the likes of Schoenberg and Stravinsky and their work in atonal music (music that essentially lacks a central key signature). Everyone began experimenting with unconventional time signatures; ones where the numbers aren’t always divisible by either 2 or 3.

The astute connoisseur of music will identify these trends in any genre. The Beatles aren’t iconic just because of their great music and its represented ideology; they revived the traditional guitar-based rock band and paved the way for all rock music afterwards. The patron saint of alternative rock music is U2; there are few alternative artists who haven’t stolen (or borrowed, or w/e you want to call it) from their familiar delay-pedal electric riffs. Before jazz got big, seventh chords were unheard of and likely to be considered noise rather than music!

Anyway, I’m painting with broad brushstrokes and generalizations, but my point is, there are no musical rules that haven’t been broken. Good, new music happens when a forward-thinking artist says, “hey, let me try this that no one’s ever done before” and it catches on.

Now, of all the rules that have ever existed and of all the ones broken, one rule in my mind that has stood steadfast across all genres and time periods is the rule of intonation. What I mean is, I CAN'T THINK OF ANY KIND OF MUSIC WHERE A RULE GOVERNING QUALITY ISN'T "THE SINGER OR MUSIC MUST BE IN TUNE*. We’ve left all the other rules in the dust; thanks to the foggy world of Indie, good music nowadays doesn’t even have to have discernible conflict and resolution, cadences, refrains, theme and variation, consistent key or time signature. thanks to pop radio, good music nowadays doesn’t even need to have real instrumentalists! For every rule, there’s at least one accepted artist breaking it.

BUT THE ONE RULE IN MY MIND THAT IS STILL UNTOUCHABLE IS THE RULE OF INTONATION. I can’t accept as a musician an artist that intentionally sings off-key, no matter what cultural messages it sends out. I don’t think I am ready for it, and I don’t think our world is ready for it. Does anyone else feel this way? I am thinking primarily of two songs. One is “Paper Airplanes” by MIA and another is “Anyone else but you” Moldy Peaches, which was featured in the recent film, “Juno”. Oftentimes on the radio, you’ll hear musicians who don’t rely on auto-tune enough and have off-key parts in their songs, but I think these two offenders are particularly egregious because to me, in their music they don’t even sound like they’re trying.

I think because of alternative and indie music, the traditional standards of judging vocal quality is now out the window. People with “bad voices” can still earn fans if the fans feel that their voice is unique enough to stand out. With the birth of rap, there is now “good rapping” and “bad rapping”, although of course there’s vast disagreement as to what is which. However, no matter what timbre of your voice and what inflection of your rhythmic poetry, one rule that still stands fast to me is, “IF YOU'RE OUT OF TUNE, YOU SUCK”. I’m sorry MLIA, I know you’re trying to convey to us your laid-back, gangsta lifestyle full of swagger with your relaxed style of singing, but it’s no excuse to relax your vocal chords to the point of wretched tonal quality. It’s one thing to try to bend some rules; it’s another to make my ears bleed and make me want to kill something when I listen to your music. I’m sorry, but I’m not ready for it.

Does anyone else feel this way, or am I too doggedly stubborn with my musical preferences? Are most people really okay with out of tune singers; is intonation perhaps just a wretchedly joy-draining pet peeve of mine? No one else wants to slay an innocent victim when “Paper Airplanes” comes on the radio?

My final point is this. I admire Jay-Z and I love his music. I also support his campaign against the over-use of auto-tune. From a firmly ethical standpoint, I’m still undecided about whether auto-tune is good or bad for the music world; whether its considered cheating or its as legitimate as any other electronic aids. But, come on Jay-Z! If you’re going to sing that poorly in the first 10 seconds of your song, how the heck do you expect to convince people that auto-tune is bad? Plus, you’re a rapper! This isn’t even your fight! Why don’t you let the indie artists, who stand to lose a lot more, take the lead in this crusade?

*The closest exception I can think of is the use of the whammy pedal by electric guitarists, which in a way is a descendant of the classical vibrato; but even then the controlled pitch-shifting is a far cry from the junk you hear from artists who don’t even try to sound good.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Neurosis of Guilt among Pious Christians

Speaking of works-based righteousness: I think our congregation still struggles with this deeply. It’s part of our set Asian-American, bi-cultural neuroses. It’s packaged in with the things we’ve been taught at home, by our parents, by the performance-driven culture around us. My parents are the best parents in the world; they give me more than I ever deserved and support me more, so much more than the parents of a lot of my friends. They never pressure me except not to waste my potential. Yet I still feel it because I grew up saturated in it. That constant guilt during my waking hours, like the feeling of coldness during sleeping hours (if you’ve ever tried to sleep without adequate blankets, you know what I mean) is always there, pushing me onwards to perform. I’ve talked about the difference between chasing after something and going after something because you are being chased from behind. Works-based guilt is a cause for the latter.
The thinking I am speaking of exists by the presupposition that we must fend for ourselves; that God will not come to save us, that God is not in the business of saving us, but only judging us. We think if we’re going to make it through the judgment day grind, we’re going to have to take our piety upon ourselves and work towards pleasing God. We acknowledge salvation by grace with our lips, but our hearts are far from it. We acknowledge that we’ve been “saved by Jesus Christ” and that we’re “born-again”, but after that conversion, we live as if we’re still on the wrong end of God’s wrath. So we work all the harder. When we get lazy and stop reading the Bible regularly, we beat ourselves up over it and subject ourselves to self-inflicted emotional trauma. If we forget to do devotions in the morning and our day goes badly, we think God is “disciplining us” for our grievous error. If we don’t get something we want, even if it’s a good thing, we think it’s because we didn’t pray hard enough and never think that it might possibly be that in God’s sovereign plan, the timing wasn’t right.
Not only is this a profound misunderstanding of faith, it is a deep affront to God’s saving power and it is often disguised as piety. When we lament, “why can’t I just be a better Christian?” and put ourselves down for our piss-poor effort, we are in essence spitting upon the work of the cross, nullifying the precious jewel and regarding it useless in our predicament. Not only that, just consider what happens when we do succeed. If I read the Bible every night and pray for an hour before I go to bed, who gets the credit then?
I hear it more often than not, “I struggle so much with loving God. I can’t seem to do my devotions consistently. I fail all the time.” While this sort of self-reprieve is no worse than completely giving ourselves to sin without abandon, it is no better either. What’s the difference between sinning and being okay with it, and sinning and complaining about it? There is no difference; neither one grasps the power of the gospel, the gospel of the one who knew no sin and yet became sin for us.
A warning to the pious. My friends, beware of guilt. It is dangerous because it makes us think that having it is the only way we can live with our sin. We think if we’re not feeling guilty about our failings then we are not truly right before God. But the truth is the exact opposite! Our guilt is very real and we can only be right before God if it is removed, not if it is lived with. If all we had to do was struggle with our constant guilt, then Christ died for NOTHING!
What’s the difference between being chased and chasing something? The former is done out of fear and the latter is done because of love. Don’t chase after piety because death is chasing you from behind. Chase after loving God because grace has given you motivation.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

“I’m a war of head verses heart, it’s always this way
My head is weak, my heart always speaks before I know what it will say”
- Crooked Teeth, Death Cab for Cutie

Talking about the distinction between soul and body is dangerous. It’s facetious. There is NO clear line between soul and body, mind and matter, reason and emotion. They are heuristic categories. We human beings love to multiply distinctions. We do it because it makes the world simpler, easier to understand, and more manageable. We love to categorize, to dissect, and to label. And it’s not wrong. We can’t have it any other way. But to do so is to risk losing sight of the fact that we are WHOLE. There is a human being. There is no digestive system, circulatory system. There isn’t a sex drive and an appetite. There is a human being. You were wrong, Clive Staples Lewis, when you said “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body”. What we are is a human being. What you are doing is creating all sort of religious, philosophical, and ethical problems by multiplying distinctions where they ought not to be.

Why do we do this? First of all, because it’s easy. It’s easy to decide on a macro level where the eyeball ends and the skull begins, where the small intestine ends and the large intestine begins, where the tendon ends and the bone begins. But on a molecular level, no such distinction exists. On a macro level, we know when we are being driven by emotion and when we are being driven by reason. But if we subject our inner thoughts to deep introspection, we’ll realize that trying to distinguish the two is foolish; it is a result of an inadequate understanding of our cognition. It’s a result of oversimplifying our brain processes. The Vulcan race from the Star Trek franchise is an interesting philosophical thought experiment, but it would not be possible, nor would the existence of such a race be logically tenable. You might as well try to invent a race of beings that could only conceptualize numbers but not words.

If we were really honest with ourselves, we’d realize that all our emotions are a logical result of complex inner thought and logic. All of them are explainable, they all have an origin somewhere, no matter how confusing they seem to us. If we were really honest with ourselves, we’d realize that no one reason’s logically in an objective vacuum. Reason isn’t an impartial tool that we use to arrive upon an objective answer. If it were so, then why would we disagree? On anything? The two are inextricably connected. We can’t separate it.

Then WHY? Why do our feelings and thoughts always seem to be so opposed? Why do we speak in these terms? Why do we say things like, “Listen to your heart” as if our brains were out to steer us wrong? Why did Obi-freakin’-Wan tell Luke to “trust your feelings” instead of that expensive, high-tech targeting system in his X-wing fighter? Why does it seem like our hearts desires and our brains “oughts and shouldn’ts” are always in conflict?

I don’t know. I have a few insufficient answers. It could be the result of sin fracturing a being that God regarded as “good” and “whole” and “complete” into incomplete parts that are always in conflict with one another. It could be that after three thousand years of Western, Greek-influenced philosophy, we as a culture are ingrained in our understanding of what makes an individual that it’s impossible for us to imagine it any other way.

I think it’s our burden to unseat this misconception. It’s a great distinction for non-meaningful circumstances, such as when I say, “I hate working out, but I know it’s good for me, so my reason overrides my emotions”. But when it comes to the important issues, it’s dangerous. Because what does God save? Our souls? So our bodies are meaningless? We can treat it like trash and do whatever we want to it? That’s exactly the kind of reasoning that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to combat.

Anyway, I don’t think anyone really goes to that extreme. I think this mis-led thinking is more insidious than that. Nobody says, “Well my soul is saved, so I might as well trash my body now”. But a lot of us are led to think that perhaps reasoning is more important than feeling and that we must subject our passions to our logic. Or some of us might go the other way and think that there are some questions in which “a logical answer isn’t possible” and that you had to trust your intuition. Both beliefs are wrong-headed. The first one is held under the mistaken assumption that you can actually reason objectively without letting your personal biases factor in, biases that are intrinsic to your very being, biases that all humans have because if you don’t have it then you wouldn’t have an identity. The second one is held under the mistaken assumption that intuition precludes logic. Your feelings tell a thousand tales of your reason; just in a language that you don’t understand.

Where am I going with all this? I’m re-reading some of my notes about Kierkegaard. Part of his life’s work is to remind Christians that choosing Christ is neither emotionally nor logically tenable. It’s a choice that’s doesn’t just go against your feelings, it goes against your reason. It is ultimately an “absurd leap of faith”. You didn’t choose Christ by reason; you didn’t do it because it was the most logical decision. You didn’t choose Christ because he fulfilled all your emotional needs. Yes, maybe that was the case on the surface. But ultimately, if you truly understood your faith, you’d realize that throwing all of yourself passionately onto this man-God is a choice that is made in absurdity.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you first have to invent the universe

Draper sent me this link: http://melindataub.com/god-twitters-creation/ and it reminded me of a lofty thought I had while I was taking a physics class over the summer. It is called:

How to create the universe in infinity easy steps
1) Create light.
2) Back up a second, you have to invent the concept of creation.
3) You can't back up without first explaining the concept of progress and sequence
4) But you can't have sequence without first setting in place the skeleton of sequence, which is time!
5) Okay, okay, it's clear what we need to do first is invent time.
6) Wait, what do you mean by "first"?
7) First is like, what takes place all the way on one end of the timeline; the end marked "beginning"
8) Alright, seriously, we're getting nowhere with this. If we want to invent time, let's just start by inventing numbers.
9) One....
10) Two...
11) Three...
12) Quick question, if we haven't got sequence yet, is this happening all at once?
13) Yes, and if you keep interrupting me, the universe will never be created!
14) I don't understand your statement
15) Oh right, I forgot. I haven't created the concept of causality yet. Well you see, I had in mind that the universe I created will be governed by these rules which I will call logic. What I just said is an example of a "conditional". It is a truth-function that takes on the form of an "if-then" statement. The truth of the second part (which I will call the apodosis) depends on the truth of the first part (the protasis). Anyway, my point is, the entire world will function this way. It is the language of propositions. It is what my humans will use to describe what's going on. Logic will be the backbone of language.
16) Uh... cool! Can you remind me again, what language is?
17) ...
18) And, what's truth?
19) Also, I forgot to mention, you didn't even explain what a concept is.
20) You seriously have to stop explaining things with other things that you haven't created yet.
21) Oh my God. Screw this.
22) Oh. My. WHAT!?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Problem of Dissonance

It's been a while since my last attempt to be true to the purpose of my blog. A couple of times, I've dabbled with topics that deal with reason and revelation and the doubts of my faith, but nothing I've written so far can really count as sincere wrestling; not the direct wrestling with divine issues that I had hoped to accomplish for this blog. I think my reasons for staying so shallow on this blog thus far are two parts laziness, two parts fear, and one part I honestly don't know where to start. Well I've decided to get over my laziness. I don't know what it is I truly fear about writing my thoughts. One part is, I am anxious about people knowing that I struggle with such deep-seated doubts concerning my faith. Another part is, some of the things I believe and some of the things that I claim will be considered far-fetched, theologically unsound, doctrinally dangerous, and even blasphemous, especially because I am associated with such an orthodox, reformed church. But I think I've decided that if I do have beliefs that are wrong, they won't right themselves unless I subject them to the scrutiny of others anyway. And I always hope that what I write will resonate with someone else who ponders the same issues.

Having said all that, I still haven't a clue where to start. I feel like all the questions I have are webbed into an intricate network of issues with no discernible center or focus. Therefore, I've decided to do something that I'm not good at: approach all my issues haphazardly and unsystematically and hope my readers will see all the issues together as they bleed into one another.

Today I wanted to ask a question that I formulated one year and six months ago: "Why is dissonance beautiful?" Why do pleasure and pain, joy and suffering cling onto each other so inseparably that you cannot have one without the other?

The question as it exists in my mind is really difficult for me to explain because there are so many different levels and contexts in which I can ask it; yet I believe they are all related and all ultimately the same question. I suppose I'll approach it from three different angles.

1) One of the things you learn in literature 101 is that all good stories have a conflict. How interesting would it be if you read a story that began "Once upon a time", went on with "and, encountering no problems of disturbances from their current condition, they lived happily" and then ended with "and continuing their happy living, they lived happily ever after"? That tired old way of ending fairy tales is only meaningful if there were some conflict that needed resolving.

One thing I've become more and more aware of is a plot trope that you find in a lot of action-adventure movies. Towards the last third of the film, the protagonists have come up with a plan to resolve the conflict, whatever it is. But if the rest of the movie just showed the good guys pulling off their plan without a hitch; it would leave the last part lacking. So they throw a hitch into the plan in which a final turn in the plot can take place. One example of this is the movie Armageddon. At the end, just as they finally overcome all the other problems in their plan and is ready to take off from the asteroid, they find that they can't remotely detonate the bomb, so someone has to stay behind and play the sacrificial lamb. Another example is the movie Independence Day. At the end, they finally figure out a way to overcome the alien invader's shields, but after engaging the alien spaceship for a while, they realize that they're not doing enough damage and running out of missiles, thus necessitating a sacrificial lamb to fly into the alien craft as it's about to fire and blow it up.

My point is this: conflict drives the plot of a story. Without it, it would be incomplete. What is essential in a good story, whether it's a movie, book, or even something that happened in real life, is dissonance.

2) I've always HATED classical music. Not classical music in general. I love that. Classical music as in music written during the classical period; Mozart and Haydn and Salieri and the like. The mathematical precision of each piece, the perfect harmonies and most importantly, the lack of musical dissonance. Everything was perfect fifths and major thirds; all the chord progressions were neatly cadenced, all the ornaments and variations - predictably constructed. Every time I listen to Mozart, it always gave me the same sick feeling; the feeling you get when you eat too much candy all at once. Like the stomach-ache that follows an over-indulgence of sweets, classical-period music left me with an emptiness, a yearning for something more savory.

What's my favorite genre of classical music? I've always been a huge fan of late Romantic and Impressionist. My favorite composer is Chopin. Why? Because after Beethoven, classical music evolved and a new element was added. In the music, there was bitterness, there was discord, there were chords that don't work with each other. But it wasn't chaos. It wasn't the unintelligible, chaotic dribble of Schoenberg's atonal music; music without a center. There were absolutes. There were still key signatures, time signatures based in double and triple meter; there were still cadences and structures and stories; but the stories had more moods. If classical-period music was about unicorns and butterflies and fairy tales with happy-endings; Romantic music introduced sorrow and pain and darkness and told real-life stories. Classical-period music puked rainbows and lived in a dream world of pastel colors and unending sunshine; Romantic music grasped the ugliness of life and embraced rain and hail when it came.

I know there are people who find Mozart delightful. I am not calling them shallow people. I am, however, calling Mozart's music, standalone, shallow music. It's too perfect. It's too harmonious. It's too happy. And because of that, it's incomplete. What is the depth that Mozart is lacking? Dissonance.

3) My strength is music, so I have more metaphors from music to explain what I mean by dissonance. Even in its fundamental structure, music as the relation of certain sounds with others, there is the concept of consonance and dissonance. In music theory, the fifth interval (C to G, D to A, E to B and so on), is called a "perfect fifth" because there is a mathematical perfection in the relations of their frequencies. The fifth of a note is always 3/2 its frequency in hertz. Thus if A is 440kHz, the E above it is 660kHz. If I played a fifth interval on the piano for you, even if you were completely unmusical, you would say to me, "That's nice". You might not know the right words, but you would agree if I told you that it was "harmonious". But if I played for you two notes that were a half-step away from each other, you would say to me, "That's ugly" or "That sounds bad". If you heard it inadvertently, you might think that someone just accidentally sat on the keyboard.

My point is, even in the fundamental building blocks of music, in the theory and the math and physics that constitute its very structure, there is ingrained the idea of consonance and dissonance*. YET, dissonance is necessary! If we didn't have dissonance, we wouldn't have music. We would have harmonious chords; we'd have various nice sounds that can be created by instruments, but we wouldn't have music.

In a grander manner, if we didn't have dissonant chord progressions and conflicts in the plot of a musical piece, we would have nice-sounding music, but we wouldn't have beautiful music.

Dissonance is needed for beauty. Pain is needed for pleasure. Conflict is needed for resolution. But WHY?

You might be thinking, "Well this is not a big deal; all you've said so far is that in order to appreciate goodness, you need badness. In order for cadences to mean anything, you need a progression. In order for 'happily ever after' to mean anything, you need a problem" What's the big deal? It just means you need to hear some bad news first. It just means you need to hear some dissonant sounds in your musical piece. What's so bad about that?

But don't you see? In the grand picture, bad news isn't simply bad sounds. It's death, and pain and suffering! It's warfare and murder. It's selfishness and greed. It's theft, it's pride. It's envy and sorrow. It's the loss of one's children, the loss of one's parents. Dissonance in life is being born in a nation that's not the USA and being condemned to a life of hunger and extreme poverty. Dissonance in life is being born blind or being born without the ability to use your legs. Dissonance is unrequited love. Dissonance is splinters and canker sores. Dissonance is death. Dissonance is the knowledge that if you do everything right in life, you'll end up in the same cemetery as the guy who did everything wrong in life.

In one sense, this is no real revelation to the astute liver of life. We all know that life is pleasure and life is pain. "You take the good, you take the bad, you take 'em both and there you have: the facts of life". How do you measure a year? "In inches, in miles, in laughter and strife". To enjoy the sun is the run the risk of getting sunburn. To each a watermelon is to pick out the seeds. To eat steak is to kill a cow. To ask a girl out is to run the risk of being rejected. You can't separate out the pains of life. To do so would be to make it less beautiful, or less colorful. Read "The Giver", watch "Pleasantville", and they illustrate this idea better than I can ever do.

Yet, WHY? Why is it this way? Why is pain inextricable in life? Why is a life without pain bland and shallow and undesirable?

I have some answers. I have unsatisfying answers. They relate to our God. I'll bring the issue back to theodicy in my next post.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I've been thinking about absolutes a lot. The current album I'm obsessed with is "Absolutes" by Barcelona. I've been thinking about the need for absolutes as a defining part of my psycho-social constitution; as THE defining part of my formation that makes me what I am: A conservative, reformed-evangelical, Bible-believing, Chicago statement of inerrancy-signing Christian. But since I haven't worked out anything specific in that area, I'll just share one of my earlier thoughts regarding absolutes.

"Only a Sith deals in absolutes. I will do what I must" : Obi-Wan Kenobi, in Star Wars Episode III, referring to the evil Anakin Skywalker.

"Deals in absolutes --> Sith Lord" : Obi-Wan Kenobi, as rendered by the rules of Western formal logic.

"All who deals in absolutes are Sith Lords" : Obi-Wan Kenobi, as rendered by the rules of Aristotelian formal logic.

"All A are B" : One of the templates of a universal statement, or "absolute" statement.

I should probably add that, Obi-Wan was responding to Anakin's own statement, "If you're not with me, then you're against me", which is the same exact proposition form. But I think Russell's paradox has something to say about this bind.

I should also add that I haven't been completely true to the original purpose of this blog's creation. I haven't even come close to talking about the issues that intrigue me the most: the issues of reason, revelation, theodicy, and why I am a self-hating reformed evangelical Christian. Everything else that I write about are meaningful to me at an arm's length. But those issues frighten me; the ones that I really want to write about. They are so deeply ingrained into my own constitution as an individual that I afraid that if I begin talking about it, I will reveal too much. But soon. I'm almost ready.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Intolerable Tolerance

A repost of an excerpt from Chuck's blog.

"It is an interesting observation on today's religious climate that many people now get every bit as steamed up about insisting that 'all religions are just the same' as older dogmaticians did about insisting on particular formulations and interpretations. The dogma that all dogmas are wrong, the monolithic insistence that all monolithic systems are to be rejected, has taken hold of the popular imagination at a level far beyond rational or logical discourse. The 'remote god' view encourages it: if god is, or the gods are, far away and largely unknowable, all human religions must be vague approximations, different paths up the same mountain (and all paths get lost in the mist quite soon anyway). Equally, the pantheism that sees 'god' as the divine or sacred aspect within the present world leads ultimately in the same direction: if all religions are responding the to 'the sacred' in this sense, they are simply different languages expressing the same concept.
Few who embrace one or the other of these beliefs (or in some cases, it seems, both) stop to consider how remarkably arrogant and imperialistic these rejections of the supposedly arrogant and imperialistic religions actually are. They are saying with all the authority of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment behind them that they have discovered the hidden truth that all the great religions (especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) had missed: all religions are 'really' variations on the Enlightenment's idea of 'religion.' Well, of course: if you start with that idea, it would look like that, would it not?
But why should we believe the Enlightenment's arrogant claim any more than anyone else's? Some Christians, thinking to be generous-spirited toward those who embrace different faiths, have spoken of such people as 'anonymous Christians'; this is now generally accepted as hopelessly arrogant. Why should a Buddhist want to be an 'anonymous Christian?' But by that same token it is just as arrogant, if not more so, to claim that the adherents of all religions are really 'anonymous Enlightenment religious persons.'
We cannot, obviously, settle this huge debate here..."

-N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, pages 100-101

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Habits of Learning

I am fully convinced that there are people out there who can learn more about the world by going out and mowing the lawn than other people do after four years of college and four years of grad school. Perhaps the fresh, earthly smell of cut grass will cause this person to ponder the beauty of the natural world. Upon reflecting on nature, he'll be reminded of Psalm 19 and be led to ruminate on the theology of general revelation. One doctrine will remind him of another doctrine and before he stows his lawnmower away in his garage, he will have discovered new truths about the world around him and the God that created it. That's one way I imagine a person can go about doing household chores.

Last week, I wrote about habits of reading and how poorly we Christians read our Bible. The truth is, there was nothing particularly spiritual in my criticism. I honestly think we as a culture are just horrendously inadequate when it comes to basic intellectual skills. Today, when I went to the PaLM-sponsored Worship Conference held in Queens with some of my praise team members, I was thinking about the skill of learning. I have to admit, after the initial worship session and the keynote message, I was thoroughly unimpressed. Although the rest of the conference, especially the workshops, was really good and I ended up being blessed greatly, I was worried because I really had to pull the teeth of my worship team members to shell out $65 and attend the conference. I was anxious that they'd think this day was going to be a waste of time and money and blame me for that.

So I decided to pull them aside right before the workshop session and remind them, "Remember, if you're really serious about learning, it's not about what they spoon-feed you, but what you decide to take from the plate and put into your mouth". The truth is, as bad as a conference can be (and that conference was EXCELLENT), you can always learn a lot by keeping your eyes and ears open and assessing every experience with a critical mind. "Why was I put off by what this person said?" "How can I verify that what this person said was true?" "What does Scripture have to say about this subject?" "As horribly as that person put it, what can I take away from his lesson?"

Even if it's something you've heard time and time again, you can still re-think those lessons and perhaps unravel some more of the big picture, or unearth some more of the epistemological foundation upon which your presumptions are built. What I mean is, even if it's something you've heard a lot, you can still ask yourself questions like, "Well where did I hear that the first time, and is it a valid idea?" "How did I as well as this presenter arrive upon the same conclusion?" "How might our agreement on this idea yet diverge into disagreement about this other, related idea?"

Why are these habits of asking good questions and being observant important? First of all, because I'm sick and tired of people complaining about how bored they are... in class (ahem, high schoolers), at Christian conferences (ahem, clergy and full-time ministers), or at church during a preacher's sermon (ahem, Boon Church English congregation!). And second, because critical learning not only allows you to take the most away from any situation, it also helps you to identify and reject harmful, wrong lessons! Think about it this way. If you are tied down to a chair and spoon-fed food, you are still being fed and nourished. But you won't be able to do much to defend yourself if someone comes along and scoops a big dollop of rat poison into your mouth. Whereas if you're someone who carefully examines everything you eat and make sure you choose only the finest quality cuisine, you will become a very healthy person.

The same can be said about our lives. Note I didn't say our "spiritual lives". This is a principle that goes beyond what we do concerning our faith; it's a principle that distinguishes intellectually fit men and women from intellectual fatties and slobs.

When I look down at my notes from today's conference, a little under half of it have to do with the subject, "Worship". The rest of my notes are just little things that I jot down as one thing a person said reminded me of something unrelated, or perhaps a reminder for me to think through something that I haven't really thought through. No one says you have to learn exactly what the speaker is teaching you. If he's a good enough speaker, he'll make you do it anyway. But if he's not, it's YOUR responsibility to get the most out of it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Reflections From A Kingdom-Warrior

Last night, Pastor Scott, some members of the Boon Church servants team, and I had the wonderful opportunity of having dinner with Reverend Wayland Wong at Pastor Don’s house. A seasoned minister, Wayland is one of the most respected Chinese-American pastors in the country. Based out of Orange County, CA, he has been working with Chinese churches and is incredibly knowledgeable in the area of Chinese ministry and the unique cultural challenges with running a one in America. He has more decades of ministry experience than I have years (even including my years in HS as a youth leader).

I was really excited to meet him and drill him with questions because Chinese-American ministry happens to be my passion. I had been reading articles from a newsletter called FACE (Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals) that he started in the 70s. In addition, I had spent the last summer interning with ISAAC (Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity) and was all ready to pick his brain about all the challenges and strategies of running a Chinese church. I had pictured him as someone very strategically-minded, a visionary, an outside-the-box thinker. I imagined he was sly, clever, perhaps even a little devious. I couldn’t imagine a person with any other kind of personality who would survive that long in his chosen field. As someone with so much experience, I was all ready for him to lay down some secrets, some dirty moves, some trick plays in order to get ahead of all the church bureaucracy. I was really expecting him to say things like “This is how you get a Chinese board of deacons on your side” or “When you start a ministry you know that they won’t like, make sure you do this and this”.

It turns out my expectations were way off. Instead of church-building strategy, he spent most of the night preaching to us, imploring us to have unity and love in Christ. He warned us multiple times about the dangers of “doing church” and missing the point of all of that church-building. He reminded us that ultimately we are called to build God’s kingdom, and not fight the Chinese board for more rights. He reminded us that no matter what circumstances we’re placed in, whether the English Congregation has its own budget or not, whether our voice is heard in church governing or not, we have the command from Christ to make disciples and to strengthen one another in Christ through the Word.

I was surprised, but when I got home, I began to understand it all. After a lifetime of serving the church, Reverend Wayland Wong had learned this precious piece of wisdom, and that is to bear in mind always what our ultimate purpose of doing church is. It is to glorify God and to see him magnified in the eyes of as many people as possibly in the world. He had probably seen time after time how easy it is for church leaders to lose sight of this and disintegrate into bickering, gossiping, slander, and church-splitting. He had probably felt the passion in each of our hearts in PD’s house that night, and recognized that same danger within us, and that was why he chose to spend most of the night reminding us of the true purpose of church.

He gently encouraged us to seek change and revival not in grand church changes, not in a parallel church-leadership (that is to say, a Chinese board AND an English board), not in new programs or events, not in coffeehouses or praise nights or revivals, but in individuals. He reminded us that revival starts with individuals gripped with a powerful desire to return to God, and those individuals seeking out other individuals to teach, admonish, encourage, rebuke, pray with, and search Scripture with. And those individuals forming groups, and those groups coming together to be the body of Christ. As he spoke, my eyes were opened to how much more I could be doing RIGHT NOW, with the circumstances that God has placed me in.

I am so young. Within me there is still so much fight, so much fire, so much youthful passion. Yet another thing Reverend Wayland said was how important it was to choose your battles, and not just that but know who you’re battling. The enemy is not other people. It’s not another congregation or another church or another church leader. It is Satan, who’s work is to divide God’s people and destroy the work of the gospel. If we don’t keep that in mind, we’ll be lost within our own selfish desires and deceptively personal causes and the work of the kingdom will not be done.

I want to challenge you, Christian. What’s important in your life? What battles have you fought and are they the one’s that will win ground for Christ’s kingdom? If you’ve lived your life safely, always seeking stability, keeping your head down and trying not to offend anyone, then where is your passion, your urgency to see the gospel go out? Do you have that fire in your belly, that devotion in your will? Tonight, I was reminded of what ought to be the most important thing in my life. I hope reading this gives you an opportunity to reflect on what that is for you.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Habits Of Reading

Last week, my brother Andrew shared that he has been trying to read through the gospels and is having a hard time focusing. While I don't doubt for many of us, a big reason we have difficulty reading the Bible consistently is a mixture of heart and discipline issues, I think for people who have been Christians for a long time, reading the gospels pose a different problem.

I've gone to church since the second grade, and between that time and now I've probably heard, read, or encountered in some way every story in every gospel at least a dozen times. I suspect this is true of many people reading this note. So when we decide to read Matthew or Mark or Luke again, we get bored. What am I supposed to get out of this? I know these stories backwards and forwards!

The truth is, familiarity breeds negligence. As soon as our eyes graze the heading, "The Calling of the First Disciples", "Jesus Calms a Storm", "The Parable of the Lost Son", we recall all we know about the story and then just read through it on auto-pilot. So we zoom through it, not carefully taking time to note the details and to savor each sentence or word. Because we've read it so many times, we think there's nothing left for us to learn from Scripture!

Well, right now as I prepare a sermon series on Mark, I realize that we are all SO WRONG! Our familiar style of reading the gospels (or really anything in the Bible we think we know well) is just POOR READING. It's a careless, haphazard, missing-many-details habit that we have to change or else risk never growing and never encountering the Bible in a deeper manner.

The truth is, right now I'm only beginning to learn to develop right habits of reading and asking the right questions. "Why did the author put this story in between these two stories?" "How come the author included this detail about Jesus?" "Why does Jesus take only these disciples with him?" It's really a discipline of productive reading that is applicable to any literature, not just the Bible. And, to risk being unscientific, I would even claim that part of the reason why we don't have good habits of reading is because of our TV and internet culture, where the goal of new products and applications is to make things as accessible as possible (hence, as brainless as possible).

If God is really the God about which Paul extols, "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge!", and Scripture is his Words, then how can we possibly ever declare (even in our subconscious) "I've learned all I can from this passage". It is intellectually prideful and downright wrong. What we need to do is learn how to humbly approach the Word of God and have our spiritual ears opened. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear". How do we do that? We must prayerfully approach our Bible reading. We must avoid being in a rush, or treating it like an item on your to-do list that you are seeking to check off. We must avoid approaching the text too academically, like a reading for a class that you must work through. But at the same time, we have to approach it with right techniques to understand the meaning in the text.

Ultimately to do this, it's about time, persistence, and humble, prayerful, willingness. It requires that you do acknowledge that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and that it was written for you. It requires that you acknowledge that it is first and foremost, His Word, and that you must let it speak to you instead of you probing around for your own answers.

Try this exercise. The next time you go over a gospel, instead of just reading through it blindly, pay particular attention to one aspect of the stories. Pay attention to the different factions of people (the Pharisees, the disciples, the evil demons, the crowds) and how they view Jesus as the story progresses. Try to get your head around this complex interplay of recognition and confession from each of the groups. Have you ever paid attention to that before? What does that teach us about our hearts and how different people recognize Jesus differently?

If you develop right habits of reading, every time you read the Bible, you will learn something new. It's a practice, one of eternal spiritual value, and one that doesn't come naturally but must be worked at.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The God of Aristotle, Hume, and Christianity

Greek mythology used to be called Greek religion. We forget oftentimes, but the characters of lore that we love so much, mighty Zeus, evil Hera, regal Apollo, beautiful Aphrodite, at one point they were gods. These gods were anthropomorphic, which means that they were modeled after humans. They ate and drank heavenly nectar, they slept, they fought each other, they bled when they were cut, they felt fear and jealousy, they exercised deceit. In short, they did all things humans did. And yet the humans, the real humans venerated them, prayed to them for prosperity, and offered sacrifices to them in fear.

The Greek gods were not all-powerful. They were not all-knowing. They were certainly not ever-present. They did not create the world. They all had weaknesses, they all suffered just like the people who invented their image. They lied to each other, kept secrets from each other, forgot things about the world and themselves. They left Mt. Olympus to visit earth. They utilized the absence of one god in order to set a trap for that god. In short, aside from a few supernatural powers, these Greek gods were human.

And then there came a point in Greek history when the people became skeptical of their deities. They started noticing that the correlation between rich sacrifices and abundance in crops was of little statistical significance. They started realizing that their prayers went unheard, that no one they knew had ever actually seen one of these gods in person (of course, there were reasons for that. “A friend of a friend of a friend once told me that they saw the goddess Artemis in the woods, but he can’t really tell you because he got turned into a deer), and that those “Oracles” at Delphi were often wrong (my brother Andrew says to watch the end of this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuJY27kfqIc).

Also around this time, a man named Socrates wandered the streets of Athens, questioning everything from Greek religion to the nature of knowledge. His student, Plato publishes an alleged dialogue of him questioning the moral character of the Greek gods (Euthyphro), and his grand-student, Aristotle, develops the ground-breaking concept of the “unmoved mover”, which forever changed Western thought.

The “unmoved mover” is a speculation necessitated by Aristotle’s metaphysical structure. Briefly explained, one of the varieties of arguments (the cosmological argument) goes as such:

Every finite being has a cause
Nothing finite can cause itself
There cannot be an infinite regress of causes

Therefore, “There must have been an uncaused causer that began everything else in the universe”

Whether we use ‘move’ or ‘cause’ is insignificant. What is significant is that there arose in the foundations of Western thought hints and a foreshadowing of a different kind of god. This god isn’t human and finite. It was all-powerful and responsible for the creation of the universe. If the original Greek gods arose out of a cosmic loneliness felt by humankind, this new god arose out of a reasoned, philosophical necessity. There needs to be something that explains why there isn’t just nothing. And therefore, a god must exist. If the original Greek gods were born out of deep, reflective wonderment of the stars above, this new god was constructed out of pen and paper, in the study-room of philosophical writers.

The founding fathers of Modernism picked up on these ideas and elaborated on them. They were concerned with rationally proving that God exists. “These are truths which we can agree upon. I will demonstrate that out of these truths arises the existence of God as a necessary conclusion.” Out of these were born the traditional arguments for God* (cosmological, ontological, teleological, etc).

Sounds all well and good, right? The problem is that, instead of reviving religion in their time, which is one of the aims of at least a few of these philosophers, what it did was create a god that was cold and absent, and very much NOT the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The god that they imagined was simply some being who got the whole world started and then sat back and relaxed. It wasn’t a god involved in the affairs of everyday humanity. If all the philosophers needed for their arguments to work is someone to wind the toy up and let it run, then that was all they got. Why not have a God that was sustaining the universe every second with his mighty hand? Because we don’t need one! We have science, causality, and the principles of natural law to explain that!

These two conceptions of god/gods dominated Western philosophy from its inception and to some extent, even now. You had to choose between either a god that was human, all too human, or a god that was absent, all too absent.

What of the God of Christianity?

Somewhere in between Aristotle and David Hume, a man was born in a small town in the backwater region of Europe. A few hundred miles East of Athens, a baby sleeps in a trough. The baby grows up to be a boy indistinguishable from any other human on the planet. runs around and plays with the other kids in his town. He loses his temper, skins his knee when he stumbles, and cries when he bleeds. He eats and drinks, he defecates. He blows his nose, he sneezes and occasionally feels under the weather.

When this young man turned thirty, he does something that was surprisingly popular back then in that region of the world. He claims he is the Messiah of Jewish prophecy. But he goes one step further and explains that he will not just save the Jews, but all of mankind.

A few months into his ministry, he acquires for himself twelve disciples. He continues to preach about the kingdom of God. One late evening, after a long day of preaching and performing miraculous wonders this man finishes gets on a boat with his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee. A furious squall comes up and threatens to overturn the tiny boat and everyone in it. The disciples stumble their way to the back of the boat, where their leader was sleeping soundly. Rousing him awake, they cry in terror, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Shaking off a yawn, and casually taking a moment to stretch, he gets up and speaks to the storm, “Quiet! Be still!” Immediately, the wind dies down sheepishly and the waves disappear, leaving the lake completely calm.

In the original text of this story, Mark 4.41, it says that the disciples “were terrified and asked each other, ‘who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” It is at this moment in which the God of Christianity and his true nature is revealed. It is a revelation more powerful and more telling than countless hours of reflecting upon the wonders of the skies or frantic writing in one’s study. It is at the moment when the disciples realize exactly who Jesus is. Jesus is the God of heaven and earth. He is the creator of the universe. He is the ruler of every drop of water, every slight breeze, and every inch of metaphysical reality.

And yet was this not the same man who was napping in the bow not a minute before? Was this not the same man who preached earlier today with a nasally voice because he was battling a cold? Was this not the same man… who was a man?

This is who our God is. He is the unmoved mover; the Bible says he is the originator of the world. By exercising his infinite power and authority, he speaks a beautiful world into creation. And yet, he was a human! The Bible also says that he came down, was found in appearance as a man, humbled himself to death, even death on a cross! Our God is not just a manifestation of a human being like the Greek gods. He is wholly good, wholly perfect, and wholly competent. Our God is not impersonal, unconcerned, an absentee Father. He is wholly involved in the workings of his creation and the affairs of his dearly chosen people.

This is the God we worship.

*Necessary footnote: To be fair, the Enlightenment thinkers, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, and so forth didn’t create these. They had their origin in Aquinas and scholastic philosophy. But they did make them into the monster that I described.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

British Pop and Danish Philosophy

feel the rain on your skin
no one else can feel it for you
no one else, no one else can
speak the words on your lips
drench yourself with words unspoken
live your life with arms wide open
today is, today is where your book begins
the rest is still unwritten

People who are familiar with my random, short-lived obsessions for certain artists or songs might recall that around the time that I discovered the name of the song in that Pantene Pro-V commercial a while back, I developed an infatuation with Natasha Bedingfield. I've since cooled down a little, but another reason why I loved her hit single "Unwritten" was because the lyrics were philosophically enticing. There's a surface similarity between the free-spirit, "carpe diem" lifestyle that the song espouses and one of the foundational tenets of Existentialist philosophy.

Existentialism is a branch of thinking that arose in the mid-19th century as a reaction against Modernism, the Spirit of the Age. Existentialism says that one of the basic facts of life is that it cannot be understood or described in the general, abstract manner; it must be experienced concretely. This is a turn away from tradional approaches in philosophy, whose focus was on offering grand explanations of the universe as viewed from an outside perspective. Existentialism's ultimate subject matter is the existing, concrete, living, individual. It seeks to examine the facts of life from an insider's perspective; asking the traditional philosophical questions, but with a more subjective bent.

Existentialists believe that concrete existence cannot be explained in an objective, scientific, facts-based manner. Thus you must "feel the rain on your skin" because "no one else can feel it for you". In light of this, the individual and his decisions becomes of infinite importance. It doesn't matter what you should do, it's what you end up choosing to do that affects your life. In the absence of meaning and prescription, we end up creating ourselves each day one decision at a time. "Today is where your book begins, the rest is still unwritten".

As we reflect into meaning of our own lives, "staring at the blank page before us", we can have different approaches and attitudes. The great Christian thinker, "Soren Kierkegaard", the first emo kid, and who Pyper calls the "favourite philosopher of anguished teenagers" developed the idea of "angst", or a sense of dread, insecurity, or even despair in the face of one's freedom to make one's own decisions. For Kierkegaard, the dread was a distinctly religious one, for our decision to choose Christ invites the possibility that we are wrong. To quote my favorite professor, David Aiken, "To sit at Christ's table is to run the risk that you are Judas".

There's also the absurd indifference of Albert Camus, as espoused in "The Stranger". In a "universe divested of illusions and lights", self-reflection becomes as pointless as existence in general, and thus in the end whether you make one decision or another doesn't matter.

Side comment concerning last weekend's VMS debacle: I find it fascinating that Taylor Swift's song "You Belong With Me" and Beyonce's "Single Ladies" were in the running for the same award. I can think of so many different ways in which these two music videos wouldn't even be in the same category. A few that come to mind are, "genre", "songs that don't blatantly exploit sex appeal", "songs that involve more than just three girls dancing in black and white", "songs in which the lead singer isn't wearing an asymmetrical outfit". Feel free to add some more.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Heavier Things

Today I completed a bike tour from Bear Mountain, NY to 103rd St. Manhattan. Forty miles of pedaling in silence offered me lots of time to reflect deeply. Here are a few of my thoughts:

There are some people whose greatest fear imaginable is to try their hardest at something and still fail. So they don't try. And there are some people who relish the opportunity to meet their limits and create new ones. They aren't satisfied with not failing; they must hit the wall and then push the wall farther back.

Which kind of person am I? After five and a half hours of biking I still don't really know. I just know there are uncomfortable hints in my life that point more towards one than the other. For one thing, my greatest fear isn't that I try my hardest and still fail; it's that I didn't try my hardest and that's why I fail. There was never a defeat in my life that I didn't attribute to my laziness or apathy or lack of discipline. Everywhere I am, intellectually, spiritually, musically, physically, I can be farther if not for my lack of effort.

I deeply fear that my greatest shortcoming is that I don't try.

What motivates me? The way a bike tour works is, if it's popular enough, loads of people sign up who aren't in the physical shape to actually complete it. So after everyone has taken off from the starting line, a few trucks lag behind in the back of the pack to pick up those who have thrown in the towel (or who've stopped for other reasons, like irreparable road damage or some other emergency). When I ride, I'm constantly pushing forward, trying to pass people and not letting them pass me. But what I realized today is that I wasn't doing it because I wanted to be first. I was doing it because I didn't want to be last. I was petrified that I would get left behind and have to ride that damn truck back to the festival and eat the free lunch that is supposed to be for the winners. There's a difference between someone who pushes forward because he's chasing something and someone who's doing it because he's being chased. What is that difference?

That's it for now. Oh, and biking in midtown sucks. Almost got T-boned by at least a dozen yellow taxis. Use your freakin' turn signal!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Proverbs wisdom, money, and righteous living

I'm taking my blog in a new direction and pledging regular updates. From now on, instead of ambitiously large posts that no one cares about, I will use this space for short little theological, philosophical, or homiletic reflections. They'll be easier to read and less time consuming to prepare.

Proverbs 10.16
"The wages of the righteous bring them life,
but the income of the wicked brings them punishment."

Pastor Don preached on Pr. 10 this past Sunday. In light of this chapter, I've been wrestling a lot with coming to terms with the American economy and Capitalism. The American economy (very broadly speaking) is run on the assumption that if you are rich, it's because you worked hard for your money and if you are poor, it's because you didn't try enough and you deserved your poverty. In short, "everyone gets a fair chance". But today no one can look at the folly of our economic system and turn a blind eye to the people that fall through the cracks. Everyone knows someone who's hard-working and disciplined and smart but simply can't pull himself out of his circumstances.

"bill, i believe this is killing me"
as a smile ran away from his face
"well i'm sure that i could be a movie star
if I could get out of this place."

Likewise we are all too familiar with the rich boys riding of the coattails of their father's wealth; we've all heard stories of Asian parents who sacrificed so much to bring their kids to the U.S. and give them a better chance, a better education, and those kids who didn't understand how much their opportunities cost their parents.

But then there's Pr 10.4 "Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth." How do we understand money and finances in light of Proverbs wisdom? I think ultimately the Bible doesn't make any value judgments of any man-made economic system. Pr 10.16 acknowledges no correlation between righteousness and wealth or wickedness and poverty. All it says is, if you faithfully obey God, your money will bring you life. Likewise, no amount of gold or dollar bills will save the wicked from the ultimate wrath of God. Underlying all of the verses that we looked at on Sunday is the idea that righteous living far out-values monetary wealth. The bottom line is, regardless of wealth or poverty, the goal is to please God with whatever we have.

"Ill-gotten treasures are of no value,
but righteousness delivers from death" Pr 10.2

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Theodicy Part 1: Individualistic Variations On An Athiestic Theme

It's been a while.

Today I'd like to kick off a four-part series on my reflections on Theodicy. I'd like to start with a short story I thought of earlier this morning in the shower. The finale will be an explanation of why I think God is first and foremost, before everything else he is, a story-teller.

Once upon a time there was a man named Sarkar. Sarkar's life sucked. His wife died. His kids hate him. His dog accidentally got into some chocolate and died. He lost his job and his house fell over right after he made his last payment. But that's okay because his whole family's dead anyway. One day he was trying to cross the street when a truck hit him. Due to internal injuries, they had to remove his left leg and 2/3rds of his liver, which doubly sucked because by this time he had turned to alcoholism as a solution to his problems.

(Did I mention he was a Mets fan?)

Finally, Sarkar got fed up with his life and decided to do what all people do when they hit rock-bottom. Find someone to blame. He had heard of a far-away guru who lived in a cave somewhere on the top of a mountain. He sold his SUV (which was remarkably unharmed by his owner's bad fortune) scrounged up every last bit of money that he had, and got on a plane to the country to which the mountain on which the guru sat belonged. Let's say Nepal. He hired two sherpas and a llama. Llamas climb mountains, right? Well at any rate, he makes his way up to the top of the mountain, found the guru there, and asked him this question: "Why does my life suck?" The following conversation ensued:

Guru: You are being punished.
Sarkar: But why am I being punished? What did I do wrong?"
Guru: Well... it's not so much what YOU did, perse...
Sarkar: What do you mean it's not what I did? Then who did it? And why am I being punished for their wrongs?
Guru: It was your father's grandfather. He pissed off God by worshiping other idols, and so now you're reaping the consequences of his sin.
Sarkar: Whoa, hang on a second. You're saying God is doing this to me? God is the one responsible for my f----- up life?? So it's not what I've done, but he's the one doing this to me?
Guru: In a way, yes. But not for no good reason. I mean, he's totally gotta defend his honor. Now your great grandfather was a heinous-
Sarkar: Wait, what do you mean "defend his honor?" He's gotta defend his honor by punishing ME for what my GREAT GRANDFATHER DID?
Guru: Yeah, basically. So you're familiar with all that "God is perfectly just" stuff, right? Well if someone sins, God justice is so great that it demands-
Sarkar: Alright, alright, alright. Hold on a minute!
Guru: Okay, here goes...
Sarkar: Let me just see if I got this whole story straight. So once time there was this guy, whom I've NEVER EVEN MET. He just so happens to be my dad's dad's dad. And he worships some other god. And since he worshiped some other god, my life is in the pits. My life ONE HUNDRED YEARS LATER. Never mind the fact that I've never worshiped ANY god in my life. I've never intentionally pissed anyone off, human or deity. Forget that I've always tried to live my life fairly, or as you would say, justly. None of that matters, because well I have to pay for the sins of my forefathers. And so my wife died. My dog died. My liver died. My kids never want to talk to me again. All that suffering, that's not unfair at all. It was fair payment for the idolatry of a man who lived a century ago, whom I've never met. Do I have the gist of it?
Guru: Well, yes...if you want to put it that way....
Sarkar: What. The. Fu-
Guru: But hold on! If it makes you feel any better, you're the fourth and last generation, so your kids get a fresh start!

Quite ironically, Sarkar found that though he finally found someone to blame for his problems, the relief of that burden didn't alleviate his suffering one bit. At that point, Sarkar got so fed up with the ludicrousness of the guru's wisdom and, silently fuming, made his descent of the mountain. The sherpas tried to rob him, but he spent his last cent on that plane ticket to Nepal, so they had to settle for ditching him halfway down. He hung on as long as he could, but with one leg and 1/3 of a liver, didn't last very long against the cold. He died.

The end.

Next week: "Our Enlightenment Inheritance"

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Not "because of", but "in spite of"

But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: while we were sinners, Christ died for us. -Rom 5.8

Four out of the last seven times I've prayed publicly (that is, with other people), I somehow found myself saying this or something similar to this line:

"...and we thank you that you love us because-"

And then I'll awkwardly stumble around with my words before getting back into stride. I can't believe I've never thought about this, but there's really no easy way to answer that question. asking "why does God love us?" gets at the heart of unconditional love. There's no reason or rhyme to it. It's absurd. The only explanation I can think of is Ephesians 1.11-12

"In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory."

So ultimately God's love for us as shown in the cross is for the ultimate end of his glory. All the same, that doesn't really help me grasp the ludicrous extravagance of his mercy, that we who were once at war with God would be bought back into his camp at the price of his only-begotten son. This is a thought too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. But it is in the heart of the gospel.

O Lord, I am astonished at the difference
between my receivings and my deservings,
between the state I am now in and my past gracelessness,
between the heaven I am bound for and the hell I merit.
Who made me to differ, but thee?
for I was no more ready to receive Christ than were others;
I could not have begun to love thee hadst thou not first loved me,
or been willing unless thou hadst first made me so.
O that such a crown should fit the head of such a sinner!
_ such high advancement be for an unfruitful person!
_ such joys for so vile a rebel!

Infinite wisdom cast the design of salvation into them mold of purchase and freedom;
Let wrath deserved be written on the door of hell
But the free gift of grace on the gate of heaven.

Let thy love draw me nearer to thyself,
wean me from sin, mortify me to this world, and make me ready for my departure hence.

-Adapted from Valley of Vision, by Arthur Bennett

Monday, June 8, 2009

The gift of dying alone

I don't read many Christian dating books; I've read through Joshua Harris and dabbled with Dobson, but most of my knowledge of romance has been gained from life's most brutal teacher. That and mentor's. But I've always found it odd when Christians I trust, MARRIED Christians I trust, ask me if I have God's "gift of singleness".

Anyone else find it weird that what would have been an aberration in idyllic, prelapsarian existence is now considered... a gift? In Eden, if you were single, you were lonely, and you weren't single for long. Why is it that now we're on the other side of the cherubim, the ONLY THING in Genesis 1-2 that wasn't considered good by God...is now a gift?

And then those well-meaning, but married men and women will say, "You don't understand what it's like to be married. Sure it's wonderful (they whisper that part shamefully), but there are so many things that you can't do once you have to take care of someone else. You're so free when you're single! Being single offers you so many advantages to do ministry!" That may be true, Mr. and Mrs., but isn't desiring singleness for its advantages kind of like desiring physical disability "for the perks"? You always get a nice spot in any parking lot! You can sit all the time!

Am I wrong in thinking this? I just don't want people to call it a gift. You don't have to call it by what I think it is, an aberration rooted in the Fall. But if you choose to be single to serve God, just say "I want to be single". And if you want to comment on how it's been years since my last girlfriend, please do that. But calling singleness a gift is like walking up to a guy standing by himself at a tennis court and telling him how jealous you are that he doesn't have to share the court with anyone.

Friday, June 5, 2009

On Death And Dying

it's a bittersweet symphony, this life. you get a diploma, you try to get married, you die.

I’ve been thinking about death a lot recently. The thoughts creep up on me and catch me unawares, when I'm eating alone, doing my devotions, playing Madden NFL. Once or twice they emerge in the middle of a dream and balloon into an anxiety great enough to rouse me from slumber. But, most of the time, I’d say they catch me right before I lay down to rest and right after I rise to wake. They don't command my attention for too long; just long enough to remind me that I still need to deal with it.

I think this all started after my dog Lucky died just over a month ago. I forced myself not to grieve because I was still away at school and finals was just about to begin. When I got back, I never really did give myself enough time to think about it and get over it. So perhaps now these thoughts and emotions are finally leaking through the barriers I erected to protect my conscious awareness. Perhaps as catharsis, I need a good cry. But since I don’t really know how to just sit down and command that function to occur within me, I’ll write up some of my thoughts about death and dying.

Life is unbearable without friends and family, but death is even worse so. Because who then will plan your funeral? Who then will speak at it and remind those who are alive of the flightiness of life? Who will come and be reminded?

Flowers: I can't think of a better way to portray the absurdity of life (except perhaps the myth of Sisyphus, but that's a different kind of absurdity). An object that was created to be beautiful for an insignificant moment in time, and then succumb to the ugliest fate for anything on this side of metaphysical reality. The last time I was at a funeral, I remember looking around the room and noticing that there were dozens of flowers everywhere; probably more than a hundred total. First of all, that must have been expensive as hell. And all for what? So we can enjoy them for the hour-long service, that isn't even about the flowers? And then they get thrown out. What a waste. Then I thought, no, that's not a waste. Not compared to a human life lived like a flower. You accomplish glorious, yet fleeting beauty, and then it's all over, and you bring none of that with you. Now that's a waste.

Only with death does life matter. Otherwise, we'd have an infinite amount of time to correct our mistakes. But precisely because existence is just a Being-towards-death, just a delaying of the inevitable, just a waiting for that last grain of sand to cross the threshold into the bottom of that hourglass, precisely because of all these things does life matter. Not only so, but life matters infinitely. Or, rather, eternally.
"God hath given to man a short time here upon earth, and yet upon this short time eternity depends.” - Jeremy Taylor

The way I feel right now is precisely why Aquinas must be wrong in his theodicy.

I don’t want to think about it anymore; I can’t. It’s agonizing. The weight of it presses in around me from all sides, like being twenty thousand leagues under the sea. But we must think about it. Like the Israelites at Sinai, we must drink every bitter drop; we must taste the consequences of our sin. Only then will redemption taste as sweet as it is.

But we can’t steel ourselves from the experience either. We can’t harden our hearts in the hopes of protecting it. We must do that which is harder than hardening our hearts. That which is counter-intuitive to our thinking; something unfamiliar and completely alien compared to our defense mechanisms. We must let our hearts be broken.

This will be the last sad/negative post for a while, I promise.

Rest in peace, Lucky, whatever the hell that means for animals.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sin, Evil, And The Boondock Saints

[Read this only if you like philosophy]
The great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton had this idea that of all the central Christian doctrines, sin is the only one that is empirically evident. That means that, of all of our core beliefs (God's sovereignty, human sin and error, the Incarnation, the atonement of the cross), the idea that there is evil is the most provable based on observations of the world around us. I think there are some hard-headed Nietzscheans and the like who would reject the notions of good and evil, but these are philosophical idealists. I also think that, for the most part, all the upper echelons of philosophical academia have abandoned this notion of "absolute moral relativism". Heck, I'd even make the argument that moral relativism in its purest form was never even an idea entertained by any respectable thinker. "Everything is relative; there is no absolute moral law" is not embraced by anyone but misled and misinformed Stuyvesant students whose little knowledge puffs them up, but that's another blog for another week. That entry will be titled, "Don't saw off the branch you're sitting on".

[For the rest of you, start here]
For now, it suffices to make this point. There is evil in the world and we connect it to the vast evidence of pain and suffering that occur. No human who exercises either compassion or common sense can look at the injustices occurring all around us, people going hungry, people dying at the hands of other people, natural diseases and disasters (are they that natural?), and the existence of gangster rap, and deny that evil exists.

If this is the case, then we have to ask the following, "How?". I would like to propose two ways of answering this question.

If you've been in college for more than a year, I'm assuming you've seen the movie "The Boondock Saints" (1999). It's about two Irish twins residing in Boston, who became vigilantes after accidentally killing two Russian mafia members. "After a message from God, the brothers, together with their friend David Della Rocca, set out to rid their home city of Boston of crime and evil" (Wikipedia). The following youtube clip is a scene from the end of the movie, when the two vigilantes and their new accomplish sneak into the courtroom where mafia boss Joe Yakavetta was standing trial. He knew that he was going to get away scot-free because of his connections and the way he had the jury "wrapped around his fingers". Please watch, but note that there is strong language and implied violence.

How did the Boondock Saints address the problem of evil? Their presumptions are clear: The problem is there is a group of people in the world, we'll call them evil people, who commit evil deeds and make life hard for the rest of us. They cause us to suffer, to have pain, to endure injustices like loss of loved ones, violence, abuse, hunger and thirst, heartbreak. If we could just eradicate these evil people, then the good people will be rid of evil.

Now read and ponder this quote:
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
- Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

I've been thinking about this quote for one month, one week, and six days; ever since Pastor Jonathan Kerhoulas at Citylife Crossroads service. The truth is, the Boondock Saints were wrong. There are no absolutely evil people. There are no absolutely good people. The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. This is what the Bible says about evil. "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom 3.10). Every human being in the world is in the same boat. We were created by God as good, but because we fell, we are all sinful and we fall short.

I think this is hard teaching because we don't like to think of ourselves as the problem. It's so much easier if removing evil were as easy as removing the black sheep from the flock of white. But it's more like destroying the mold from a basket of apples. And "who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? This is why the Boondock solution isn't just. In the short run, it will save many people and remove a great deal of evil from the world. But it won't remove the evil within the hearts of the good guys, the "lesser forms of filth".

This is so important for us as Christians to understand because only by understanding the all-embracing, systemic nature of sin can we truly grasp the deep, transforming power of the gospel. See, no amount of human-originated justice, whether vigilante or socially-enacted, can root out the sources of sin within the heart of every man and woman. The only thing that can do that is the atonement found in Jesus' blood and the reconciling, peace-making acceptance of Christ as our savior. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5.21), and ONLY through him who knew no sin can we be made righteous.

G.K. Chesterton, when the a British newspaper posed this question to various eminent authors, "What's wrong with the world?", responded simply:

Dear sirs,
I am,
Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton

What's wrong with the world? We are.

Sola Deo Gloria