An Invitation for Holy Week

JoW Facebook announcement 1It’s the week before Easter, and, for those of you who are in or near front range Northern Colorado, I would like to issue an invitation. For the rest of you I would like to share some jaw-dropping, mind-expanding, God-revealing thoughts about the Passover/Easter season.

A few years ago I was on staff at my church as the “Worship Arts Something-or-Other.” During my brief stint as a staffer, I created an event for Holy Week, (the week between Palm Sunday and Easter,) called the Journey of Worship. Perhaps you may find my reasons for creating this event interesting.

First of all, I sense that the Church in general is lacking a good and meaningful way to give expression to the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus; arguably the most important Christian holiday. Lovers of Jesus want to celebrate it, but may seem to be at a loss as to how to do it. Christmas has a number of traditions surrounding it. But Easter…not so much. There are no Easter carols. It’s hard to even find a good children’s storybook about Easter. I think there are reasons for this, but I’ll leave it at that.

Secondly, I created the Journey of Worship because there is an amazing back-story behind the climactic events of the life of Jesus that has been largely lost to the “gentile Christian church,” I’m not speaking here of some new, unsubstantiated, Dan-Brownish-horse-crap theory, such as: Jesus was married; or gay; or an alien, or a hologram. No. I’m speaking of something much older than Christianity that has been right there all along, but that nearly 2000 years of anti-Semitic “Christian” theology has buried. I’m speaking of the rich Hebrew roots of what has come to be called Christianity. We have the good fortune to live in a time when we can openly speak of these things without religious authorities lighting us on fire.

Thirdly, in light of the disturbing history of Christian-Jewish relations, the Journey of Worship seemed like a way for the gentile church to humble herself, and acknowledge and honor the Jewish roots of her faith. The apostle Paul referred to the gentile (non-Jewish) believers as uncultivated branches that had been grafted into the cultivated tree. He reminded gentile believers not to be arrogant, but to remember that it is the root that supports the branches and not the other way around (Ro 11:17,18.) He said that the gospel of God was to the Jew first (Ro 1:16.) Indeed, I have come to believe that one cannot fully understand who Jesus was and what he accomplished apart from the Jewish context into which He was born.

So…what is the Journey of Worship?

 “We are all part of a larger story. It is our Creator’s story of love, light, & redemption…”

JoW Announcement 2

These are the opening words of the Journey of Worship, a self-guided tour of the final climactic events in the life of Jesus. There is no speaker, live music, or program. We have simply created a contemplative, worshipful environment in the church sanctuary, where people can stay for as long as they like. There are nine stations guiding the viewer through a tour of the spring feasts that Yahweh gave to Israel. Lit luminaries at each station explain the meaning of the four spring feasts and how Jesus fulfilled them. There is a fair amount of adult level reading, so you should be aware of that if you have small children.

What do these ancient Jewish feasts have to do with us today?
God’s appointed feasts have both historical and prophetic significance. They are a remarkable example of the linear, progressive, unfolding revelation of the whole of scripture. In fact, the 7 (or 8 if you include the Sabbath) mandatory festivals given to Israel by God can be viewed as a sort of prophetic calendar.

If you think I’m getting weird on you, please hear me out. Look at how these mandatory feast days are presented in Leviticus chapter 23:

1)     Passover (v 5)

2)     Feast of Unleavened Bread (v 6)

3)     Feast of Early First Fruits (v 10, 11)

4)     Feast of Latter First Fruits [Pentecost] (v 15-17)

Then there is a four month interval…

5)     Feast of Trumpets  (v 24)

6)     Day of Atonement (v27)

7)     Feast of Booths (v34)

Doesn’t it seem odd that the first three feasts are clustered together in the first month, and then after Pentecost there is a four month interval? Then in the seventh month there are 3 more feasts clustered together? Why didn’t God distribute these feasts more evenly throughout the year?

Well, in God’s sovereignty, it appears as though the feasts and intervals are situated this way for prophetic reasons. The Journey of Worship details how Jesus fulfilled the four spring feasts by His crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Each of these world-shaping events occurred in succession precisely on each of these four feast days. In a remarkable and ingenious way, Jesus instituted a new covenant, secured our redemption, sealed our salvation and empowered His new church, giving new and further meaning to these (at the time) 2000 year old traditions. Amazing.

Equally amazing is that the prophetic fulfillment continues today, and we get to be a part of it. The four month interval between the spring and fall feasts seems to correspond to the time in which we now live – a time of harvest. – when people are being added into the kingdom of God. In fact Jesus often used the language of harvest in His parables. In the fourth chapter of John he refers specifically to a four month interval:

“Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you lift up your eyes, and see the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life’” (v35, 36)

Jesus is not concerned about the wheat crop here. He is speaking of spiritual things – about the salvation of human beings. While our expectation would be that the harvest comes in the fall, He tells his disciples not to wait. There is harvesting to be done right now.

Here’s the analogy in the feast of Latter First Fruits (Pentecost): Pentecost was an agricultural festival wherein the people would bring the first fruits of their crops as an offering to God. It was a way of expressing thanks to God for His provision, as well as an act of trust that he would provide an abundant later harvest. According to the scriptures God chose the occasion of the feast of Pentecost to fulfill His promise to introduce the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a new way (Acts 2:13-33.) Upon seeing this, some 3000 people believed and were added into the kingdom, the first fruits of a great harvest that is still in progress.

It is also remarkable to note that, in Jewish culture, in addition to the original agricultural meaning, this feast eventually acquired a secondary meaning. Rabbis determined that it was on Pentecost that God gave the Law (Torah) to Moses on Mt. Sinai, so Pentecost also came to be a celebration of the giving of the Law. How amazing that the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah in the old covenant would be the festival that God chose to pour out His Holy Spirit at the advent of His new covenant. Paul elaborates, “…But now we are released from the Torah, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Ro 7:6.)

The three autumn feasts have yet to see a Messianic fulfillment. Many of us think this will happen with the return of the Messiah. The apostle Paul gives us the strange detail that the Messiah’s return will be accompanied by a trumpet blast. Scroll up and look at what the next feast is after the 4 month harvest interval. Just sayin’.

I realize that, to the modern, enlightened, sophisticated ear, this all sounds like a bunch of religious superstitious legend. Except that it simply isn’t. It’s all demonstrably real. Passover and the other spring feasts have been celebrated and handed down by Jewish people for centuries. Real Jewish people are celebrating Passover today as I write this. When the Torah was given 4000 years ago, no one had an inkling that these feasts had Messianic significance. But in fact, they prefigure the climactic events in the life of Jesus, forming perfect analogies that help us understand what Jesus did for us. While Paul alludes to these analogies (1 Cor 5:7,8; 15:20-23) he doesn’t spell them out as they must have seemed obvious at the time of his writing. Who would’ve guessed that the Messianic witness of the Torah would first be denied by most Jews, and then eventually denied by a theologically anti-Semitic gentile church? Nonetheless, the Messianic foreshadowing in the Torah is clearly acknowledged in the New Testament writings:

JoW Announcement 3“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food or drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:16.)

“For since the Torah has but a shadow of the good things instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near” (Heb 10:1.)

The Invitation:
I welcome you to step out of your busy routine and take some time this week (through Saturday) to meditate on what our loving Creator has done for us. If you live in the area, you can visit the Journey of Worship at Summitview Community Church in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Click here for times and details. Admission is free.

No matter where you live, this season I hope you get a glimpse of the larger story of which we are all invited to be a part!

Boyhood Visions of the Future

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I was born in the year 1960. Have you ever had moments of realization when you look back on your childhood and suddenly see how media was shaping your perception of reality? Kind of like finding out that the “food” you’d been eating as part of your “healthy diet” was actually part of a seductively packaged alien plot to incapacitate you so that the aliens could take over the planet? Lately I’ve noticed this around popular assumptions about the future that I grew up with.

I’m referring to the booming period of optimism and faith in human progress after WW2, when new nuclear-age war technologies began to be applied to the public sector marketplace. When cars began to grow fins, and vacuum cleaners and toasters were mass-produced to look like rockets. When “the future” was upon us – “The Space Age,” promising to give us a better world through chemistry. When little kids like me grew up watching the Jetsons, My Favorite Martian, Lost in Space, and Star Trek on black and white TVs. This era was the context of Pixar’s more recent, Toy Story, the era when little boys began to turn their attention from Cowboys and Indians to “the new frontier” – Outer Space!

There is a song that still cracks me up, summing up many of these early 60’s stereotypes about the future. The song’s bad grammar helps make the point, probably more accurately than songwriter Terry Taylor could’ve guessed it would, that human beings are still the same, despite technological advances:

(It’s the Eighties So Where’s Our) Rocket Packs?

I thought by now I’d walk the moon
And ride a car without no tires
And have a robot run the vacuum
And date a girl made out of wires…

I thought by now we’d live in space
And eat a pill instead of dinner
And wear a gas mask on our face
A president of female gender

Though progress marches on (new day)
Our troubles still grow strong
And my expectancies become my fantasies
You turn my blood to sand, the earth stands still again

My hopes are running low
Things moving much too slow
There’s no space men up above
And we’re still far from love…so very far from love

I thought by now we’d build a dome
Around the world, control the weather
In every house a picture phone;
Communicate a little better…

                          – written by Terry Taylor, 1984, from the album Vox Humana

You have to watch this Youtube video of the song. You must. Asap:
(Click here. Now.)

I thought it might be fun to list a few of the more damaging myopic futuristic assumptions that everyone thought would be so cool. At the time I was completely oblivious to the politics behind them.

Improved/Synthetic/Space-Age Food
Really? Why did anyone think this would be a good idea? Oh, that’s right – because Science has so perfectly grasped how food and the human body works. It is beyond pompous to assume that we can process, refine, chemicalize, and even genetically modify, the food supply and end up with better results than if we eat the stuff that organically grows out of the ground from nutrient-rich soil. (If you can still find any.) Genetically modified corn and soybeans were introduced into the American food supply in 1990s. Since then, food intolerances/allergies to these foods have exploded.  ‘Could be just a coincidence. Nevertheless, some 60 plus countries have now banned GM crops. Not in America though. There’s too much money to be made. But don’t worry. After all, it’s only the nation’s FREAKING FOOD SUPPLY.

Many futuristic assumptions forgot to take into account human greed and arrogance. Apparently this was supposed to evolve away, or something.

Apart from the nutritional benefits of eating actual food, it is worth noting that preparing food together and sharing a meal with family and friends has always been the quintessential communal act of human existence. Maybe we shouldn’t do away with this in the name of convenience.

Living in Outer Space on a Synthetic Planet
This doesn’t sound fun to me. Maybe for a couple of hours. The reason given for living in space was that the earth was going to become too crowded and polluted. I actually had teachers tell me this. But even as a boy the obvious question seemed to be, “But, couldn’t we just not destroy the earth?”

The Gender Thing
Visions of the future often included a more androgynous society, featuring both women and men wearing matching unitards. Apparently this was supposed to directly equate with equality, as if men and women cannot be equally valued so long as gender and gender roles exist. As if difference must necessarily imply inequality. I think they apply this same strategy in North Korea today, except they don’t use unitards, exactly. No one really knows.

As a little kid I remember seeing an artist’s conception in LIFE magazine about the future. The image contained a line drawing of a man and woman, each wearing only identical striped, bell-bottomed pants. They were the same height, both of their heads were shaved, and they had the same skinny build. The only difference was that the woman had boobs, sort of. (One can only guess at why.) I remember the picture made me cry, because I thought this was what the future would inevitably be like, since it was in LIFE magazine.

In remembering 60′s pop culture I have a hard time coming up with any innate difference between the sexes being celebrated in the future. I can’t think of any futuristic men with beards, (unless they were villains.) I don’t recall seeing a pregnant woman in a futuristic show or movie at all, let alone an image of woman breast-feeding a baby. Eyuu! How primitively human would that be! That would just call to mind all sorts of inequalities and unscientific, subjective feelings. It’s taken decades for breast-feeding advocates to overcome the misperception that breast-feeding is somehow innately less “modern” or less “scientific” than bottle-feeding.

The Procreation Thing
And speaking of babies, in songs and movies it was definitely assumed that this messy, emotional, undignified business of childbirth would somehow be cleaned up in the future. We’d pick babies from a test tube. Fetuses would be grown by scientists in a big tank. We’d be able to pick the gender, eye color, and intelligence of our (probably only) child. As if intelligence is a virtue, apart from good character. (Why does everyone assume their genius child is going to use their intelligence to eradicate disease and hunger? Maybe your genius child will use her intelligence to make weapons of mass destruction and eradicate humanity.)

I’ve been in a number of conversations with pro-legal-abortion-on-demand people who have brought up the idea of an artificial uterus. They seriously hope for this development. This would resolve the issue for them, finally making men and women equal. What is this impulse that pushes us to reject what is most innately human and deeply meaningful about ourselves?

The Inconvenience Thing
The idea of the innate worth and sanctity of all human life necessarily seemed to be on shaky ground in futuristic visions. There were never any people with disabilities, or blindness, or incurable diseases, or old age, in the Future. Why? They’re not there because, well, we will have learned how to fix the human machine by then. At least one hopes that’s why they’re not there.

Much of the futuristic vision seemed to be about overcoming inconveniences, like food preparation, childbirth, children, work, infirmity, and human limitations; the very things that have given shape to the lives of everyone who has ever lived on the planet.

The Work Thing
The idea of a person going to work all day at a job involving physical labor was not futuristic. Even walking more than a few steps was oh-so-20th century. A smiling George Jetson carried a briefcase home from work as the moving sidewalk carried him to his front door.

Of course most labor would be performed by cool-looking robots. Transportation would be akin to a trip to the amusement park – everything from personal hovercraft to rocket packs.

Things Missing From the Future:
God, of course. Of course there would be no belief in God in the future because everything would be explained and fixed without Him. And that would make us God. Super convenient! I now assume this was the media industry buying into the “secularization thesis” – the now discredited “Enlightenment” idea that as nations modernize and progress technologically, belief in God will inevitably die out. So surely in the scientific, space-age future, God will have been long gone.

Large Families. Gosh – there’s just something kind of undignified and Stone-Age about large families. And there is that overpopulation thing. It is interesting to note that the nations that are going extinct today, due to a failure to reproduce themselves, (as in Japan and much of Europe,) are also the ones where belief in God has been on the wane for some time.

Not What It Used To Be
In the present day, entertainment media’s conception of the future is very different from that of the 50s and 60s. It is now difficult to find an optimistic view of the future in popular culture. Most movies portray a very seamy, hopeless, barbaric, apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic futuristic vision. Perhaps this is because Science has proved to be an insufficient savior – it has indeed helped us with our technological problems, but not the human problem. The Modernism of the 50s has given way to the Post-modernism of today, which can offer us no transcendent purpose to history.

So what is my point in going back to the 50’s and 60’s portrayal of the Future, besides for the fun of it? I hadn’t noticed until recently how uniform the picture was that was presented to me, even during that innocent era. As pop culture’s vision of the future has grown darker, the picture of the future continues to be quite uniform. The underlying assumptions that guided the optimistic makers of children’s entertainment in the 50s and 60s happen to be remarkably fitting with the same metaphysical and political agenda promoted by the entertainment media today. Secularist values have not really changed – they’ve just lost their luster. People aren’t smiling at the future anymore. It’s the same fascism (for a better world, of course), the same evolutionary materialism, the same confusion about sex, gender, marriage, and family, the same utter lack of any transcendent basis for valuing all of human life, the same repudiation of the most meaningful aspects of what it means to be human.

In the not too distant future, I may or may not produce a children’s book that will set the vision of the future that I grew up with on its head. Set far in the future, in my book these prevailing secularist ideas will be looked upon as backward. Ideas such as food coming from a box, can, tube, or pill will seem funny. The idea that gender is a mere social construct will seem puzzling. What if children grew up with adults pointing out to them that, back when God ceased to exist, human beings ceased to exist as well, becoming merely accidental bundles of chemicals floating through space? What if children grew up convinced of the absolute value of every human being, since all human beings bear the image of a universal Creator who loves them? What if children grew up respecting the unique gender and parenting roles of both men and women? And what if bringing a new life into being were seen as a great privilege, and a valuable responsibility, rather than an inconvenience? I can testify that it would make for a better world.

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Should Parents Influence Their Children? (Duh.)

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This week I want to share an article with you that I think is well worth reading:

The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books
— Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s Book Reviewer, The Wall Street Journal

The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on March 12, 2013, sponsored by the College’s Dow Journalism Program.

On June 4, 2011, the number one trending topic on Twitter was the Anthony Weiner scandal. I happen to remember that, because the number two topic on Twitter that day—almost as frenzied, though a lot less humorous—had to do with an outrageous, intolerable attack on Young Adult literature . . . by me. Entitled “Darkness Too Visible,” my article discussed the increasingly dark current that runs through books classified as YA, for Young Adult—books aimed at readers between 12 and 18 years of age—a subset that has, in the four decades since Young Adult became a distinct category in fiction, become increasingly lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly.

Books show us the world, and in that sense, too many books for adolescents act like funhouse mirrors, reflecting hideously distorted portrayals of life. Those of us who have grown up understand that the teen years can be fraught and turbulent—and for some kids, very unhappy—but at the same time we know that in the arc of human life, these years are brief. Today, too many novels for teenagers are long on the turbulence and short on a sense of perspective. Nor does it help that the narrative style that dominates Young Adult books is the first person present tense—“I, I, I,” and “now, now, now.” Writers use this device to create a feeling of urgency, to show solidarity with the reader and to make the reader feel that he or she is occupying the persona of the narrator. The trouble is that the first person present tense also erects a kind of verbal prison, keeping young readers in the turmoil of the moment just as their hormones tend to do. This narrative style reinforces the blinkers teenagers often seem to be wearing, rather than drawing them out and into the open.

Bringing Judgment

The late critic Hilton Kramer was seated once at a dinner next to film director Woody Allen. Allen asked him if he felt embarrassed when he met people socially whom he’d savaged in print. “No,” Kramer said, “they’re the ones who made the bad art. I just described it.” As the story goes, Allen fell gloomily silent, having once made a film that had received the Kramer treatment.

I don’t presume to have a nose as sensitive as Hilton Kramer’s—but I do know that criticism is pointless if it’s only boosterism. To evaluate anything, including children’s books, is to engage the faculty of judgment, which requires that great bugbear of the politically correct, “discrimination.” Thus, in responding to my article, YA book writers Judy Blume and Libba Bray charged that I was giving comfort to book-banners, and Publisher’s Weekly warned of a “danger” that my arguments “encourage a culture of fear around YA literature.” But I do not, in fact, wish to ban any books or frighten any authors. What I do wish is that people in the book business would exercise better taste; that adult authors would not simply validate every spasm of the teen experience; and that our culture was not marching toward ever-greater explicitness in depictions of sex and violence.

Books for children and teenagers are written, packaged, and sold by adults. It follows from this that the emotional depictions they contain come to young people with a kind of adult imprimatur. As a school librarian in Idaho wrote to her colleagues in my defense: “You are naïve if you think young people can read a dark and violent book that sits on the library shelves and not believe that that behavior must be condoned by the adults in their school lives.”

What kind of books are we talking about? Let me give you three examples— but with a warning that some of what you’re about to hear is not appropriate for younger listeners.

A teenaged boy is kidnapped, drugged, and nearly raped by a male captor. After escaping, he comes across a pair of weird glasses that transport him to a world of almost impossible cruelty. Moments later, he finds himself facing a wall of horrors, “covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, hearts, feet, ears, penises. Where the f— was this?”

That’s from Andrew Smith’s 2010 Young Adult novel, The Marbury Lens.

A girl struggles with self-hatred and self-injury. She cuts herself with razors secretly, but her secret gets out when she’s the victim of a sadistic sexual prank. Kids at school jeer at her, calling her “cutterslut.” In response, “she had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”

That’s from Jackie Morse Kessler’s 2011 Young Adult novel, Rage.

I won’t read you the most offensive excerpts from my third example, which consist of explicit and obscene descriptions by a 17-year-old female narrator of sexual petting, of oral sex, and of rushing to a bathroom to defecate following a breakup. Yet School Library Journal praised Daria Snadowsky’s 2008 Young Adult novel, Anatomy of a Boyfriend, for dealing “in modern terms with the real issues of discovering sex for the first time.” And Random House, its publisher, gushed about the narrator’s “heartbreakingly honest voice” as she recounts the “exquisite ups and dramatic downs of teenage love and heartbreak.”

The book industry, broadly speaking, says: Kids have a right to read what- ever they want. And if you follow the argument through it becomes: Adults should not discriminate between good and bad books or stand as gatekeepers, deciding what young people should read. In other words, the faculty of judgment and taste that we apply in every other area of life involving children should somehow vaporize when it comes in contact with the printed word.

I appeared on National Public Radio to discuss these issues with the Young Adult book author Lauren Myracle, who has been hailed as a person “on the front lines in the fight for freedom of expression”—as if any controversy over whether a book is appropriate for children turns on the question of the author’s freedom to express herself. Myracle made clear that she doesn’t believe there should be any line between adult literature and literature for young people. In saying this, she was echoing the view that prevails in many progressive, secular circles—that young people should encounter material that jolts them out of their comfort zone; that the world is a tough place; and that there’s no point shielding children from reality. I took the less progressive, less secular view that parents should take a more interventionist approach, steering their children away from books about sex and horror and degradation, and towards books that make aesthetic and moral claims.

Now, although it may seem that our culture is split between Left and Right on the question of permissiveness regarding children’s reading material, in fact there is not so much division on the core issue as might appear. Secular progressives, despite their reaction to my article, have their own list of books they think young people shouldn’t read—for instance, books they claim are tinged with racism or jingoism or that depict traditional gender roles. Regarding the latter, you would not believe the extent to which children’s picture books today go out of the way to show father in an apron and mother tinkering with machinery. It’s pretty funny. But my larger point here is that the self-proclaimed anti-book-banners on the Left agree that books influence children and prefer some books to others.

Indeed, in the early years of the Cold War, many left-wing creative people in America gravitated toward children’s literature. Philip Nel, a professor at Kansas State University, has written that Red-hunters, “seeing children’s books as a field dominated by women . . . deemed it less important and so did not watch it closely.” Among the authors I am referring to are Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Ruth Krauss, author of the 1952 classic A Hole is to Dig, illustrated by a young Maurice Sendak. Krauss was quite open in her belief that children’s literature was an excellent means of putting left-wing ideas into young minds. Or so she hoped.

When I was a little girl I read The Cat in the Hat, and I took from it an understanding of the sanctity of private property—it outraged me when the Cat and Thing One and Thing Two rampaged through the children’s house while their mother was away. Dr. Seuss was probably not intending to inculcate capitalist ideas—quite the contrary. But it happened in my case, and the point is instructive.

Taste and Beauty

A recent study conducted at Virginia Tech found that college women who read “chick lit”—light novels that deal with the angst of being a modern woman—reported feeling more insecure about themselves and their bodies after reading novels in which the heroines feel insecure about themselves and their bodies. Similarly, federal researchers were puzzled for years by a seeming paradox when it came to educating children about the dangers of drugs and tobacco. There seemed to be a correlation between anti-drug and anti-tobacco programs in elementary and middle schools and subsequent drug and tobacco use at those schools. It turned out that at the same time children were learning that drugs and tobacco were bad, they were taking in the meta-message that adults expected them to use drugs and tobacco.

This is why good taste matters so much when it comes to books for children and young adults. Books tell children what to expect, what life is, what culture is, how we are expected to behave—what the spectrum is. Books don’t just cater to tastes. They form tastes. They create norms—and as the examples above show, the norms young people take away are not necessarily the norms adults intend. This is why I am skeptical of the social utility of so-called “problem novels”—books that have a troubled main character, such as a girl with a father who started raping her when she was a toddler and anonymously provides her with knives when she is a teenager hoping that she will cut herself to death. (This scenario is from Cheryl Rainfield’s 2010 Young Adult novel, Scars, which School Library Journal hailed as “one heck of a good book.”) The argument in favor of such books is that they validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped—among other things. The problem is that the very act of detailing these pathologies, not just in one book but in many, normalizes them. And teenagers are all about identifying norms and adhering to them.

In journalist Emily Bazelon’s recent book about bullying, she describes how schools are using a method called “social norming” to discourage drinking and driving. “The idea,” she writes, “is that students often overestimate how much other kids drink and drive, and when they find out that it’s less prevalent than they think—outlier behavior rather than the norm—they’re less likely to do it themselves.” The same goes for bullying: “When kids understand that cruelty isn’t the norm,” Bazelon says, “they’re less likely to be cruel themselves.”

Now isn’t that interesting?

Ok, you say, but books for kids have always been dark. What about Hansel and Gretel? What about the scene in Beowulf where the monster sneaks into the Danish camp and starts eating people?

Beowulf is admittedly gruesome in parts—and fairy tales are often scary. Yet we approach them at a kind of arm’s length, almost as allegory. In the case of Beowulf, furthermore, children reading it—or having it read to them— are absorbing the rhythms of one of mankind’s great heroic epics, one that explicitly reminds us that our talents come from God and that we act under God’s eye and guidance. Even with the gore, Beowulf won’t make a child callous. It will help to civilize him.

English philosopher Roger Scruton has written at length about what he calls the modern “flight from beauty,” which he sees in every aspect of our contemporary culture. “It is not merely,” he writes, “that artists, directors, musicians and others connected with the arts”—here we might include authors of Young Adult literature—“are in a flight from beauty . . . . There is a desire to spoil beauty . . . . For beauty makes a claim on us; it is a call to renounce our narcisissm and look with reverence on the world.”

We can go to the Palazzo Borghese in Rome and stand before Caravaggio’s painting of David with the head of Goliath, and though we are looking at horror we are not seeing ugliness. The light that plays across David’s face and chest, and that slants across Goliath’s half-open eyes and mouth, transforms the scene into something beautiful. The problem with the darker offerings in Young Adult literature is that they lack this transforming and uplifting quality. They take difficult subjects and wallow in them in a gluttonous way; they show an orgiastic lack of restraint that is the mark of bad taste.

Young Adult book author Sherman Alexie wrote a rebuttal to my article entitled, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood.” In it, he asks how I could honestly believe that a sexually explicit Young Adult novel might traumatize a teenaged mother. “Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?”

Well of course I don’t. But I also don’t believe that the vast majority of 12-to- 18-year-olds are living in hell. And as for those who are, does it really serve them to give them more torment and sulphur in the stories they read?

The body of children’s literature is a little like the Library of Babel in the Jorge Luis Borges story—shelf after shelf of books, many almost gibberish, but a rare few filled with wisdom and beauty and answers to important questions. These are the books that have lasted because generation after generation has seen in them something transcendent, and has passed them on. Maria Tatar, who teaches children’s literature at Harvard, describes books like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Books, and Pinocchio as “setting minds into motion, renewing senses, and almost rewiring brains.” Or as William Wordsworth wrote: “What we have loved/others will love, and we will teach them how.”

* * *

The good news is that just like the lousy books of the past, the lousy books of the present will blow away like chaff. The bad news is that they will leave their mark. As in so many aspects of culture, the damage they do can’t easily be measured. It is more a thing to be felt—a coarseness, an emptiness, a sorrow.

“Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as if it does not matter.” That’s Roger Scruton again. But he doesn’t want us to despair. He also writes:

It is one mark of rational beings that they do not live only—or even at all—in the present. They have the freedom to despise the world that surrounds them and live another way. The art, literature, and music of our civilization remind them of this, and also point to the path that lies always before them: the path out of desecration towards the sacred and the sacrificial.

Let me close with Saint Paul the Apostle in Philippians 4:8:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

And let us think about these words when we go shopping for books for our children.

 

Copyright © 2013 Hillsdale College. “Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.”
Imprimis (im-pri-mis), [latin]: in the first place - SubsCriptiOn free upOn request.

New Painting: The Wall Remaining

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The Wall Remaining – Detail

This week I want to feature what may be my favorite painting from the Zeitgeist art exhibit, a show of recent work by Mollie and me. If you haven’t seen the show, there’s still time! It runs until Feb 23, 2014.

The painting I’m featuring is titled The Wall Remaining. It’s a triptych approximately 4 by 6 feet, painted in oils on panel. Below I’ve reprinted the copy that accompanies the painting in the show:

THE WALL REMAINING

The history of relations between the Church and the Synagogue is one of the world’s tragic stories. The first followers of Jesus (Yeshua in, Hebrew,) were all Jewish, and his “church” began as a sect of first century Judaism. As these early Jewish disciples spread the message of Jesus, a series of events, described in Acts chapter 15, led to an astounding decision on the part of his disciples: the Jewish church in Jerusalem made the decision to fully welcome gentile (non-Jewish) believers, as brothers and sisters, into their company without requiring them to become Jewish. The gentiles’ status as joint heirs would be based on their being “partakers of the new covenant” of Yeshua. The ancient Mosaic covenant sign of circumcision, as well as Torah observance, would not be required of them.

As a result of this inclusivity, large numbers of gentiles came into the church, eventually outnumbering the Jewish members. As the church became more gentilized over time, and as Jewish members increasingly found themselves out of favor with traditional Jews, the church took on a distinctly Greco-Roman character. By the time of the first Ecumenical Council under the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, there was not a single Jewish bishop in attendance, though some 1800 invitations were sent out across the empire. Increasingly, anti-Jewish laws were passed under subsequent Christian emperors and kings so that the Church eventually became an openly anti-Jewish institution, generally consigning Jews to an inferior status, and at times actively persecuting them.

Throughout Europe, it is still possible to see vestiges of the historic, divisive relationship between the Church and the Synagogue displayed in the artistic embellishments of its cathedrals. Many cathedrals feature two figures: Ecclesia (the Church,) and Synagoga (the Synagogue.) Triumphant Ecclesia wears a crown, and usually holds a staff and a Eucharistic chalice. Synagoga is always blindfolded, and carries a broken staff and a representation of the Torah. Though I had previously read about these two allegorical figures in my books, I saw them for the first time in the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The sight of them deeply saddened me.

It is noteworthy that the New Testament scriptures do not support this division. The Jewish apostle, Paul writes:

“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision (Jews,)…were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise…But now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:11-16)

Here I have painted Ecclesia and Synagoga as ossified and broken statues warming in the light of these scriptures. Ecclesia is not triumphant; instead her head is bowed down. Synagoga has become indignant and distanced; understandably so. The wall remaining, though invisible, is as formidable and as obstinate as the Berlin wall ever was. The figure in the center panel reaches for the hands of the two ladies, awaiting the healing and the unity-in-diversity that I believe we will see in our lifetimes; a unity that has not existed since the dawn of the early Church. (end quote)

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For hours and information about the Zeitgeist painting exhibit, call the Loveland Museum-Gallery at 970.962.2410, or visit www.lovelandmuseumgallery.org.

You can purchase note cards and other artsy gifty items featuring our art & design work at our online Zazzle store (click here.) Thank you for your support!

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-          What Easter has to do with Separating Christians and Jews
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Introducing Our New Greeting Card Line…

Many of you know that I worked at Hallmark Cards for almost a decade before moving to Colorado to pursue a living as a fine art painter. Well, recently, after decades of creating original fine art and illustration, I realized I have lots of nice work sitting around in computer files, not doing me or anyone else any good. So Mollie and I have decided to make the best of this work available in the form of greeting cards, note cards, apparel, and other gifty stuff. Digital technology now makes it super easy and affordable to do this. If you’re a fan of our work, I hope you’ll go to our Zazzle page and check out what we’re offering to you.

We’re resurrecting a business name I was toying with when we first moved to Colorado – The Loveland Company. Originally I wanted to open a store in Loveland selling art, creative gifts, great local music (by locals such as Taylor & Rebecca Mesple, and Dave Beegle,) and other cool stuff. Fortunately, I realized that I really didn’t have the capital and business savvy to open a brick and mortar store. We still don’t, so we’re opening an online store. If we get a decent response, we’ll keep adding new stuff.

Why The Loveland Company?
Because:1) I love the name of our town – Loveland, Colorado, 2) I love the fact that The Loveland Company initials happen to be “TLC,” 3) My town, Loveland has developed a reputation as a great little art town. There are proportionally a ton of artists of all types living here. So how fitting to name our little art & design company after our little artsy town, 4) I love love, 5) I hate hate.

I’m timing this announcement a couple of weeks before Valentine’s Day, since I’m featuring a Valentine’s Day card design. Since I’m a (possibly obsessive) storyteller, I thought I’d tell you the story behind this design. (I promise not to do this every time we add a card to the offering.)

The Time Angel
I tried to push a very different version of this idea at Hallmark, but they rejected it. Then, when I got to Loveland, I learned that the City holds a citywide contest each year to pick an official Loveland Valentine card, which is then sold all over town at local businesses and stores. At the risk of sounding like an art snob, I will say that some of these designs seemed to me to be just a wee bit amateurish. Which is fine. It’s a small town. Whatever. So one year I decided to submit my Time Angel idea, which Hallmark had rejected. You know…since I had worked as an artist for the number one greeting card company in the whole freakin’ world. I spent a couple of days creating a new watercolor painting, which I was quite happy with. I submitted the design.

The Loveland Chamber of Commerce Valentine’s-Day-Card-Picking-Committee also rejected my submission. (Sigh…)

So I later sold the little original watercolor at a studio tour, and moved on to the next thing. But I still have a great digital scan, and I still like concept. Whether ANYONE ELSE LIKES IT OR NOT!

LOVE RULES, MAN!!!

Here is the card design, blank inside, suitable for giving to anyone you love, available on Zazzle:

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A Note About Loveland’s Valentine Re-mailing Program
Valentine’s Day is kind of a big deal in Loveland, because of the town name. Loveland is also known as The Sweetheart City. You may or may not be aware of Loveland’s re-mailing program, the largest of its kind in the nation. Each year more than 160,000 cards from all 50 states and over 100 nations are re-mailed through Loveland so that they can be postmarked with Loveland’s Valentine cachet. This year marks the 68th anniversary of this program.

You can have your mail stamped in Loveland by following these 2 steps:

1)     Pre-address and pre-stamp all valentines, and enclose them in a larger 1st Class envelope.

2)     These envelopes should be sent to:

Postmaster – Attention Valentines
446 E. 29th St
Loveland, CO 80538-9998

All valentines will be removed from the larger envelope at the post office, postmarked with the official Loveland Valentine’s Day cachet, and sent on their way!

To ensure delivery by Valentine’s Day 2014:
> Foreign mail must be received in Loveland by Feb. 4

> U.S. destined mail must be received in Loveland by Feb. 7

> Colorado destined mail must be received in Loveland by Feb. 10

> Proper postage must be affixed, especially for foreign mail.

Colorado residents have the option to drop off their pre-addressed, pre-stamped valentines to local King Soopers or City Market food stores, where you can find special drop boxes for this purpose. Feb. 8 is the final day to drop off valentines at these locations to ensure on-time delivery.

Below are some examples of past Loveland cachets. They’re all designed and written by locals, as part of the annual contest.

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More Interesting Details
This year, 2014, the cachet stamp slyly references the floods that buffeted a segment of our community last fall:

From the Sweetheart City
Scenic, Safe and Strong
Comes a flood of Valentine wishes
To you, where they belong.

Here’s something else I just learned from the Loveland Chamber of Commerce website. Apparently, there is a waiting list for people who would like to be one of the 60 plus volunteers who “lovingly hand-stamp” each card with the Valentine cachet during the first two weeks in February. Check out this video. At one minute and forty-one seconds, it’s almost too long, but it’s so stinkin’ cute. Go ahead! Click here and get a glimpse of some local color! (ie: red and white.) When I saw it, it hadn’t quite gone viral yet, at 474 views…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1P296xn4b70

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“Retro Family”
Here’s a card design I put on Zazzle that was yanked because I apparently violated John Wayne’s privacy/celebrity rights. (‘Sorry, John.) It’s adapted from a cover I designed for a now defunct alternative newspaper – KC Jones. I thought you’d like to see it before I give the Duke a makeover.

Thank you again for stopping by our ZAZZLE STORE (click here.) Please bookmark the link as we will be adding cool stuff periodically.

More About Mores (and Morays)

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Webster defines mores (pronounced MOR-aze – like the eel,) as:
“the fixed morally binding customs of a particular group.”

I’m no expert on morality and ethics, but then, who among us is? However, I have been paying attention. There is an idea about morality out there that seems to be not going away, despite the fact that it’s completely unhelpful to the discussion. It’s like the high fructose corn syrup of discussions on morality – self-serving people have put it in everything, even though it’s really bad for everyone.

I’m speaking of the idea that, regarding human behavior, if something is natural then it must be good; if an impulse is natural it must be in us for a legit reason.

May I delicately point out a couple of things about this idea that might be stupid?

First of all, what does that even mean – a “natural tendency,” or “natural behavior”? If we’re merely material animals, as secularists claim, how could anything we do not be natural? Maybe some of you can answer this for me, but I come up empty. I mean, if animals do it, doesn’t that automatically make it natural? Can we really say that killing other people is unnatural? Couldn’t I argue that it’s perfectly natural to make snow angels in a bed of poison ivy, or to rush off a cliff to my death like a lemming? How is this helpful in determining what is moral behavior? Couldn’t someone plausibly argue that it’s natural for the larger, physically stronger, and more aggressive sex to dominate the other? Or, on the other hand, I might look around at the world of nature and conclude that wearing clothing isn’t natural, since we’re the only animals doing it. I’m also pretty sure we’re the only ones cooking food, using electricity, and making art. I don’t get it.

Second, pundits seem to be using evolutionary theory as their basis for thinking this way, as if they actually know anything about our so-called evolutionary past. Evolution explains everything for secularists because they believe that it must. If we truly evolved from scum, then everything that is here is the result of natural evolutionary processes, whether or not it seems plausible. And yet, our evolutionary past is not observable or testable, and is therefore not falsifiable. Is this sounding familiar? This is what secularists say about God, whose existence is also not falsifiable. Nonetheless, we now have highly educated materialists, speaking as dogmatically as any Sunday School teacher ever did, teaching utterly speculative things like, “Men are more sexually promiscuous than women because, in our evolutionary past, sexually promiscuous behavior increased the odds of passing on one’s genes.” I can hardly imagine a worse basis from which to derive morals and ethics.

Thirdly and most importantly, the equating of what is natural with what is acceptable completely misses the point of what morality is. I must make the observation here that moral behavior is always at odds with our “natural” tendencies – that’s precisely WHY moral behavior is revered and respected!  Call me Master-of-the-Obvious, but isn’t the reason we value truth-telling precisely because we know we all have a natural tendency to lie? Do not stories of love and self-sacrifice move us to tears precisely because we know we all have a natural tendency toward self-preservation? Don’t we celebrate couples who have lived their entire lives together in marital sexual fidelity precisely because we know that people are naturally inclined to be sexually promiscuous?

Let’s stop there for a moment: In other words, marital monogamy is not natural – rather, it is the high bar for relationships. But in fact we are now hearing “marriage equality” secularists arguing precisely against marital monogamy in their quest to redefine marriage. Because monogamy isn’t natural. (See examples here, here, & here.)

Right. By definition, moral behavior is not natural. If anything, I’d say it’s…well, kind of…supernatural.

What it’s like to be a human being
Our polarized postmodern culture now carries two prominently clashing views of humanity, morality, and freedom – the secular view, and the biblical view. I find the comparison endlessly fascinating. Both sides see a problem within human beings, but both see the problem and solution in profoundly different ways. Both see human beings as split apart. But each understands this disunity differently:

1)     The secularist believes only in the material reality. No spirit apart from the body. No mind apart from the brain. No truth apart from observable matter. The physical nuts and bolts of the human machine is all that objectively exists. Anything beyond that – values, morality, spirituality, culture; even gender and ideas of human worth – are fluid, squishy, subjective, arbitrary, illusory, and  ultimately disposable. So within man, the secularist posits a separation between what can be observed as fact (the material,) and the unseen realm of values (the non-material.)

2)     The biblical view understands human beings as creatures who were created to be a unity of body, soul, and spirit (1 Thes 5:23.) We were created to be relationally united with our Creator, who objectively exists apart from our physical reality. (Therefore, mind, personhood, and worth can all exist objectively apart from physical reality.) However, human beings now exist in a fallen state of spiritual separation from God; we’ve lost an essential part of what we were meant to be. So within man, the follower of Jesus sees a separation between God and man, which has consequently left man struggling to find the lost unity – body, soul, and spirit – that he was created for.

The secularist believes that the material universe contains the only pieces of the puzzle that exist. The follower of Jesus believes there are critical pieces missing that must come from outside of ourselves, and outside of the material universe, and that our loving Creator took it upon Himself to provide those pieces. So the goal of the spiritual rebirth of which Jesus spoke is about restoring us broken creatures back to wholeness and relational unity. It was never about religion, or “going to heaven.” (I welcome any argument from the whole of scripture that shows otherwise.)

Regarding social mores, both views can agree that morals are not natural in that they go against our natural impulses. But one perspective views this as negative and limiting, while the other sees it as positive and helpful

1)     The secularist approach says that we accidently evolved by mindless, natural processes, and that “artificial” social constructs, such as religious moral codes, are tools of oppression that may keep our true selves from being expressed. Our natural impulses are what brought us to our present evolutionary state. Social constructs such as gender limit our choices and potential.

2)     The biblical approach says we all bear the image of a loving God, but that our nature has been corrupted. “Artificial” social constructs serve as one imperfect way to keep our corrupted nature from spiraling downward, keeping our natural tendencies in check, and preserving societal order. Our fallen, natural tendencies tend to be selfish and destructive.

Clearly, a person’s ideas about freedom will be shaped by which idea of reality he or she buys into. It might come as a surprise to some that the teaching of Jesus and His apostles deals squarely with these issues of wholeness, freedom, and a unified life – unity between God and man, between man and man, and between man and nature.

A view of freedom that has been cutting-edge for 2000 years
In writing this, I am not advocating religion or politics or social mores as some sort of solution, nor does the Bible put forth this view. At best these things are more like a holding pattern. Personally, I am generally annoyed by religion, and I find some religions to be downright nasty and oppressive. Accordingly, in my last post I said that I don’t live by sex taboos at all, even as I was defending them. Secularist readers may be wondering how I can say these things since I consider myself to be a follower of Jesus. That’s a fair question. My answer is that Jesus is a person, not a religion, and that Jesus made possible an entirely new and better way to live, transcending cultural mores and religion. He opened the possibility for a life that couldn’t have existed before He came, and He was able to do this because He was more than merely a “great teacher.” Following is His good news, according to the Bible, as brief as I can make it:

The whole human being was created both a spiritual and a physical being, created for companionship with both God and men. God declared this relational unity to be “good.” When this relational unity with God was broken, humanity consequently experienced a spiritual death, or separation, and humanity slid into dysfunction and violence. With God’s covenant people Israel, God established a written body of “low-bar”, temporal social mores in the Torah. Similarly, all civilizations develop externally enforced bodies of mores, customs, and laws designed to maintain societal order. However, uniquely (and supernaturally) embedded within the Hebrew Torah and prophets was a promise of a coming freedom and salvation. God Himself took on human flesh in order to fulfill these promises for humanity. His salvation is total – freeing humanity from bondage to imperfect, externally enforced moral codes, but also freeing us from bondage to sin, death, and decay – the consequences of our fallen-ness. In making spiritual rebirth possible, Jesus uniquely made possible a real, internal change, and a new and better life in the Spirit as opposed to living under a written code (Ro 7:6&7.) All of this was an act of love on our behalf, and it comes with an invitation to everyone (Acts 13:47; Titus 2:11.)

This is not to say that the follower of Jesus is above the law, or that he is without law. God’s standard fulfills and surpasses the law. We see this illustrated in statements by Jesus such as, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery [Torah.] But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mat 5:27,28.) Yet the Spirit-led person is no longer motivated by fear or guilt, but by the highest motivator, which is love – Love for God and love for people. If you are a parent, or were raised by one, perhaps you will agree that there is no greater motivator than love. Accordingly, Jesus stated that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like it – to love one’s neighbor (Mat 22:36-39.) In keeping with this the apostle Paul stated that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law/Torah” (Ro 13:9&10.)

This better life in the Spirit made possible by Jesus surpasses the mores of each given culture.
In contrast, the non-spiritual life of the secularist rejects the cultural mores to follow “natural” impulses.

Ironically, from a biblical perspective, the secularist can be said to have the right idea in recognizing the insufficiency, artificiality, and even restrictive nature of externally enforced mores. But to dump the mores without replacing them with something better, (such as spiritual rebirth,) would be to turn our corrupted selves loose against forces too great for society to bear. This is akin to putting the inmates in charge of the prison.

For several years now, Evangelicals have been accused, both from within and without, of “harping on social issues like abortion and homosexuality.” As if Evangelicals are simply interested in returning to a nostalgic 1950’s America. As if these issues are simply a matter of a lack of intelligence and education on the part of Evangelicals. As if the issues of human personhood, gender, and sexuality do not affect us all at the most fundamental level. But this is now no longer a theoretical debate. America currently has a presidential administration that is forcing the issue. Social and political engineers are now dumping cultural mores and actively attempting to use the force of government to coerce otherwise law-abiding citizens to violate their “fundamental religious beliefs” over the issues of abortion and gay marriage. I understand that the political left’s ostensible reason for forcing everyone to submit to its political views is that its agenda is correct, just, good, & better for everyone. But really? I wonder if other totalitarian regimes have ever thought that. (I’m kidding. I don’t wonder. The answer is “yes.”) Must we be reminded that it is not okay to force people to submit to our personal political views just because our intentions are good?

It’s hip and trendy now to accept the materialist story and its implications – that you have the heart, mind, and destiny of an animal, and that human life has no unique, innate, or transcendent value. If you call yourself a Christian and you are buying into these materialist ideas, I urge you to get your head in the game, because this stuff matters. To  secularist and the Christian alike I offer a gentle reminder that there is no falsifiable evidence establishing as true the dogma of materialism. There is merely the same old pendulum of human bias and peer pressure, now imposing a materialist perspective onto reality. The issue for all of us is about the true shape of reality. Until that can be tested and proven in a laboratory, we had best cut each other some slack and err on the side of freedom of thought. Both sides of the worldview spectrum are going to have to find a way to respectfully disagree and co-exist, because neither side is going away.

“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

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In Defense of Sex Taboos. Sort of.

Remember the first time you got away with breaking a rule as a kid? Maybe it was your first cigarette, or maybe you stole something, or cheated on a test at school. Do you remember what happened afterward?

Nothing…

No angry voice from heaven. No dark clouds gathering with peals of thunder. No being struck with blindness or leprosy. ‘Just crickets and birds chirping…Hmmm. Remember how this made you wonder if maybe what you had done wasn’t such a big deal after all? If you were like me, your immature mind figured that if an action were truly wrong, then there must follow some unpleasant visible consequence. Instead there were only “artificial” consequences, usually imposed by adult authorities. This gave some of us the distinct impression as children that there was really nothing innately wrong with breaking these rules at all – these were simply things adults didn’t want us to do. They were “merely” social constructs. Therefore, all we needed to worry about was not getting caught. I watched as this became a way of life for many of my adolescent peers – breaking the rules and trying not to get caught.

It would be overly simplistic to say that the rebellious kids who saw the rules as disposable social constructs grew up to land on one side of the political spectrum, while kids who tried to obey their parents grew up to land on the other side. So I won’t say that. It would be only slightly more accurate to say that adults who view moral values as mere social constructs never grew up at all. So I won’t say that either. But I’ll say this: I think I’m seeing that the reasoning of a lot of us as adults is not much different from that of adolescent rebellious kids. I hear a lot of people who are arguing that if something is a social construct, then we’re probably all better off without it. The idea seems to be that discarding these artificialities will bring us closer to our “true” selves. And there seems to be an accompanying naïve assumption that our true selves must be good.

That is a wildly optimistic assumption if one looks at human behavior.

There is definitely a vocal and influential segment of modern culture who feels that, because an action may not have immediate visible, verifiable, negative consequences, then there are no consequences; all moral judgments must be relative, and are therefore, artificial. These well-intentioned people think that gender and monogamous marriage are malleable social constructs; that it makes perfect sense to treat sex as purely recreational; that personhood must be subjectively defined. That anyone who says otherwise is seeking to control women, or impose their morality or religion on others. Those who seek to uphold a societal moral code are judging people, which is now apparently on the same level as putting a kitten in a blender.

Now I’m on the other side. I’m a parent who has raised 5 children. I’ve worked with teens for a lot of years, and have watched a lot of other families raise their kids. I’ve watched a lot of kids (and adults) go off the rails. It’s clear to me now that as a parent, I did in fact know what was best for my children in most cases. I was wiser than they were, I could see farther down the road than they could, and I loved them and had their very best interest at heart when I administered “artificial” consequences. I understand now that the artificial consequences were preferable over the natural ones, because often the natural consequences would’ve come at too high a price, or would’ve taken years to see.

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As I was thinking about my own childhood recently, a metaphor came to mind that explains postmodern American culture.

I’m pretty sure that every parent I know instructs their toddlers to stay out of the street. At the same time, everyone knows this is overstated. There is nothing innately dangerous about a street – it’s actually the moving cars on the street that parents are concerned with. But it’s simpler to say, “stay out of the street.” That’s the way taboos work. If you examine them closely you can see that they’re kind of stupid. You can always find an exception to the rule.

In the suburb where I grew up, as we toddlers became adolescents, it became quite common for us to play in the street. This actually became an annoyance to the adults. My friends and I played roller hockey in the street right in front of my house. My brother, sister, and friends sometimes took up a quarter of the block playing 3 Grounders or a Fly. Why did we do this when there was a nice park down the street a block away? Maybe it was partly because we were lazy. But partly, for me at least, it was because I thought it was cool to play in the street, because not playing in the street was for little kids. It felt good to me. The adults could really no longer tell us to stay out of the street because we all knew the point of the rule was really not to stay out of the street, but to not get hit by a car. So we would move over for the cars. Nonetheless, we would actually get frustrated whenever a car would interrupt our games. Ironically, some of us would jokingly shout at the cars and tell them to get on the sidewalk where they belonged.

It’s interesting that I never saw an adult playing in the street with us adolescents. There were probably several reasons for this. For one thing, none of us adolescents were driving yet. So we didn’t yet realize what an annoyance we were. Mostly, as in the political arena, the most important stuff was left unspoken. But periodically an adult would actually spell out for us that streets were designed to be driven on, and that yards and parks and private property were designed to be safe places to play. But the conversation would end with us saying that we were being careful of the traffic.

Here is where we are now as a culture. We now have lots of people playing in the street. There are respected people in academia and in the entertainment industry urging them on, arguing that even the idea of a street is a social construct. Saying this solves nothing, but it makes those who say it sound intellectual, perceptive, and cutting-edge. And technically, what they’re saying is true: cars could drive on the sidewalks and through people’s yards in order to get around the adolescents who want to play wherever the hell they want. One can no doubt find places in the world where this is done. And in a perfect world this could even work quite well. But this gets us to the heart of the matter: we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world that needs artificial boundaries to keep society from descending into chaos.

The intellectual elites apparently feel they are educating people by pointing out that the rule, or even the street, is a social construct, and that they therefore are dispensable; taboos restrict human autonomy. Taboos are bars on a cage. Taboos are designed by those in authority to control people. I now routinely hear that ideas such as gender, monogamous marriage, and virginity, are social constructs. The very act of saying such things is assumed to be enlightening, and a call to action. Everyone! Get out in the street and play!

Here’s an enlightening quote from a cutting-edge dead guy:

“Whenever a taboo is broken, something good happens, something vitalizing. Taboos after all are only hangovers, the product of diseased minds, you might say, of fearsome people who hadn’t the courage to live and who under the guise of morality and religion have imposed these things upon us.”
Henry Miller – frequently banned American writer, 1891-1980

Really? But could a subjective, culturally made-up taboo serve a good purpose, even though it’s not “real”?

I personally don’t get excited about taboos, and I don’t live by them at all. However, I think they serve a real purpose in a very imperfect, heavily populated world. Even though I’m inclined to question everything, I often find that there are good reasons for the things we are told to question. Sex taboos are one of those things. I see them as a lame, last ditch, imperfect societal safety net. They’re like guardrails on a dangerous curve in the road. How many of you rely on the guardrail to keep your car on the road?

Right. Neither do I.

However, if you’re a drunken idiot, or if the road conditions are unsafe, hitting the guardrail is better than sailing over the edge and bursting into flame. Call me a pessimist, but removing all the road signs and guardrails might not lead to freedom and wonderfulness for everybody’s “true self.” Doing so might actually make it impossible for one’s true self to reach its destination. Those things might’ve been there for good reasons.

The neighborhood can handle a few kids playing in the street. This has always been the case. But there is a tipping point. Eventually, if the street becomes too crowded with adolescents, either traffic is going to come to a halt, or people are going to get hurt. If the neighborhood loses a common understanding of what a park, a street, and a car are for, the neighborhood will eventually disintegrate. Regarding our existence today, there could not be more fundamental ideas than gender, marriage, and human personhood. These are the most weight bearing of societal pillars. So many are expressing surprise and delight at how quickly these pillars are being removed! At the inevitability of it all!

Allow me to make a prediction about freedom in America. Please excuse the fact that it’s not very original. (I’ll admit that I looked at history to make this prediction):

American pluralism has given us a maximum amount of freedom with a minimal amount of chaos. Historically, we have ordered ourselves through the unique concept of (largely religiously motivated) self-government, along with the usual societal taboos around these societal pillars. With the redefining of gender, marriage, and personhood, the religious segment of society will lose constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. (This is not really a prediction, since it is currently underway.) As self-government fails over time, and taboos and guardrails are gone, society will descend into chaos. People’s “true selves” will be surprised, but will be helpless to do anything about it. The State will need to step in to forcibly restore order, resulting in a net loss of basic freedoms for everyone. That, my friends, is how dictators get elected – desperate people elect them. (Plus dictators lie and cheat, but that’a another topic.)

Here’s a fascinating paradox, addressed to my socially liberal friends: You guys are taking all the fun out of being counter-cultural. Supposedly, cultural taboos are oppressive. But the truth is you were always free not to comply. The consequence for non-compliance was that you would be labeled a rebel, or a radical, or a freethinker. Big deal. America never had a state church. You were always free to give religion the finger and go your own way in our pluralistic culture, if you had the courage to do so. But now, “progressives” are enforcing their “enlightened” (but-still-subjective, btw) values on everyone else, necessarily becoming the oppressor. You don’t have a compelling basis for self-government. You no longer have societal taboos. You have no transcendent basis for innately valuing all human life. You are now left with the force of government, which we are not free to disregard, to force those of us who disagree to comply with your subjective values. This is going to get interesting.

I want you to know that I forgive you. And I still love you. And I’m not going to comply.

Wishing EVERYONE tolerance and freedom of speech, expression, and religion in the coming year!
(Because we are now down to wishing.)

- Scott Freeman

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