Saturday, January 24, 2015

THE IMITATION GAME

Uni and I just saw the movie by this name.  It tells the story of Alan Turing, who was undoubtedly one of the greatest mathematical minds who ever lived.  But his story is not merely the dull story of a brilliant mathematician; it is the story of a man who is credited with saving millions of lives and bringing WWII to a close two years earlier than it might have been.

Along with other men of genius, Turing was recruited by British intelligence to crack Enigma, the German code, which changed daily.  The main body of the movie tells the story of his struggles with his superiors and co-workers in his plan to build a computing machine that could accomplish this task.  Of course, as is well known, he did just that; his "Turing Machine," as it came to be known - a monstrous device with whirring wheels and gears - cracked the code and became the ancestor of our modern computers.

This, however, is only one part of his story.  The movie actually begins in the 1950's with a police investigation into a robbery that occurs in the home of the eccentric professor, which uncovers some strange secrets.  Turing's life and struggles are shown through a series of flashbacks, not only to his work during WWII, but also to his preteen experiences in an all-male boarding school.

Alan Turing as played sympathetically by Benedict Cumberbatch, comes across as an odd, antisocial eccentric.  Though a brilliant mathematician, cryptanalyst and logician, he has no social skills.  He seems unable to understand normal human communication.  And we find out through the three parallel tales that he is a homosexual.  As a preteen in the boarding school, he is mocked and harassed by his fellow students simply for being "different," and he turns in love to his friend Christopher - the only person who understands him.

The police investigation ultimately reveals his condition and Turing is arrested as a pervert under the existing British laws of his day.  Apparently no consideration was given to his heroic acts during the war; they had never been made public.  At the close we see him as a confused sickly man, no longer able to function, alone with his beloved machine, which he knows as Christopher.  He was being chemically castrated - a choice forced on him as an alternative to prison.  A note at the bottom of the screen tells us that he committed suicide shortly thereafter.  And another note tells us that years later he was posthumously pardoned by the Queen.

As Uni and I drove home still wiping tears from our eyes, we both agreed that this was a great, though tragic story.  I even mentioned that this was a genuine tragedy in the same sense as the Greek and Shakespearean tragedies; it contained all the required elements.  Just to be sure, when I got home I looked up "Tragedy" in my old copy of The Reader's Companion to World Literature (1956, 1973, The New American Library).  It is described there as "a type of drama in which the chief character undergoes a morally significant struggle which ends disastrously. ... In Greek tragedy (and in most great tragedies written since) the hero is essentially a superior person and is treated sympathetically; his destiny or choice is to go down fighting rather than submit, and thus to pluck a moral victory from a physical defeat.  The hero's recognition of his role and his acceptance of his destiny constitutes the climax of the tragic structure.  His 'tragic flaw,' as Aristotle calls it, is some defect which helps to involve him in ruin, for the spectacle of entirely undeserved suffering would be merely depressing. ...  Ironically, the noblest efforts of the hero involve him in guilt and lead to his misery.  The struggle may be between one character and conflicting forces which he can in no way control.  In the greatest tragedies, however, there is also conflict within the character himself ..." (pages 529-30).  This description is an almost perfect fit with Turing's story as presented in the movie.

I suppose some of my evangelical Christian friends would moralize.  They might see this movie as advocating homosexual behavior.  I admit that I had a bit of that fear myself before I saw the movie.  It doesn't!  In fact, the only sexual reference that I found offensive was a crude heterosexual joke told by one of Turing's co-workers.  I believe that this little bit was added to show how Turing was totally oblivious to the meaning of this type of humor.  No, the movie doesn't advocate homosexuality any more than Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus the King advocates incest.  Nor for that matter, are the countless biblical tales of rape, incest and murder, advocating these acts!

I believe that this movie is the type of movie Christians should see.  It takes us outside of our box and shows us the struggles and feelings of some of our fellow fallen human beings and should arouse empathy rather than condemnation.  And it should also arouse compassion for those who are "different."

To use Aristotle's words, it should be a "catharsis," causing us to "thrill with horror and melt with pity."  And it'll give you a good cry.

Monday, January 19, 2015

FRANCIS & CHARLIE


I have been observing Pope Francis over the two years he's been in office and have admired him almost from the beginning.  The other day I finally sat down with my yellow pad and wrote out some thoughts which Uni and I discussed.  Uni types them and publishes them on the blog.  She had not yet done so when not long after this, she awoke me from napping during the evening news.  She informed me that I might not want to publish the post I had written; Francis had just said some things I may not like.

Well we got online and found his comments about the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.  Though he had previously condemned the act of violence, he now apparently felt that he needed to do a little "blame the victim."  And though he seemed to be attempting to be congenial, he rather came across as crude.

Some of his talk:  "You have an obligation to speak openly.  We have that freedom.  But without causing offense.  It's true we cannot react violently, but if Dr. Gasbarri here, a great friend, would say something insulting against my mother, a punch awaits him.  But it's normal ...  You cannot make provocations.  You cannot insult people's faith.  There is a limit ..."

So is Francis correct?  If so, is he justifying the behavior of the Islamic terrorists?  Is he making the religious views of others off limits for satire?  Much of our humor in America seems to be composed of just that.

Perhaps he has forgotten that many Christians, including Roman Catholics are suffering, even being put to death in Moslem lands.  Their crime?  Blasphemy - insulting the Prophet Muhammad by claiming that Jesus is greater than he.

Or has he forgotten that during the Middle Ages and the Reformation, those of his own church tortured and put many to death for speaking out against them?  Is he justifying their actions?  And yes, Roman Catholics suffered at the hands of zealous Protestants?

Or perhaps he has not read of the Old Testament prophets who mocked the competing "faiths" of their day?  Isaiah draws a verbal cartoon that is definitely a lampoon of the idol worshippers of his day:
          "The ironsmith takes a cutting tool ...  The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil.  He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass.  He shapes it into the figure of a man ...  He cuts down cedars or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak ...  Then it becomes fuel for a man.  He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread.  Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it.  Half of it he burns in the fire.  Over the half he eats meat ...  And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol and falls down to it and worships it.  He prays to it and says, 'Deliver me, for you are my God!' ... No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, 'Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten.  And shall I make the rest of it an abomination?  Shall I fall down before a block of wood?'"  (Isaiah 44:12-19 - ESV)

There are plenty more where this came from!  Of course, the prophets frequently suffered the same kind of holy wrath that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo suffered.

Move into the New Testament.  How about John the Baptist referring to the religious people of his day as a "nest of snakes"?  (Matthew 3:7)  Wasn't he mocking their faith?

And then Jesus used that same expression at least twice on those same religious people (Matthew 12:34; 23:33).  In fact, the first 33 verses of Matthew 23 are filled with scathing pictures of those religious people of Jesus' day - the same religion that Jesus belonged to!  The hyperbole and metaphors He uses bring up pictures in the readers' minds that could be perceived as cartoons.
          " ... they make their phylacteries (Scripture boxes they wore on their foreheads and wrists) broad and their fringes long" (Matthew 23:5).
          " ... you travel all over land and sea to make one convert and whenever he converts you make him into twice the son of hell you are" (verse 15).
          " ... blind guides ... " (verse 16).  Elsewhere He says, " ... if the blind guides the blind, they'll both fall in the ditch!"  (15:14).
          " ... straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel" (23:24).
          " ... you clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence!"  (verse 25).

And of course we know where this kind of sarcasm got Jesus.

I've been warned by nice people of all persuasions - fundamentalists, atheists and others in between - that sarcasm and satire should not be used, that it signifies a weak argument or that it is hurtful.  Sometimes I simply reply, "Tell it to Jesus" or "Read the Bible" or "Read any good literature."

Our American culture is filled with sarcasm, satire and lampooning.  Admittedly much of it may seem crude and tasteless, though you may want to read Ezekiel 16, where Israel is compared to an old whore who is so undesirable that she has to pay her "lovers."

In many ways the cartoonists and late-night comedians of today fill in the space that was once occupied by the prophets.  They point out to us the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of our politicians, pundits and preachers.  Most of their sarcasm is spent not on our faith but upon its practitioners, and much of the time we deserve it and could even learn from it.  Sometimes they seem to understand the requirements of our faith better than we do.

I even attempt satire at times, though apparently I'm not succeeding very well; I've received no death threats!

Friday, January 2, 2015

USED-TO-BE CHRISTIANS?

Occasionally in conversation, correspondence or reading, I come across sayings like, "I used to be a Christian," or "I was raised as a Christian, but ...," or "Back when I was a Christian ...."  This seems to happen more and more often lately.  In the past people might have referred negatively to "church" or something like that, or spoken of their "church background" (such as "my grandfather was a preacher" or "my grandmother was religious").  I don't recall people often speaking directly, either negatively or positively, of Christianity itself as something in their past.
 
Times have changed.  Those who refer to themselves as "Nones" on religious surveys comprise the fastest growing "denomination" in America today.  I can understand that.  Those who never made a profession of faith of any kind are bolder today.  But when people claim that Christianity is something in their past, I am troubled.

First of all, I have a theological problem.  The Bible tells us over and over that those who are followers of Christ - those who have put their faith in Him - are chosen by God.  We're even told that this choice was made in eternity past, long before we born - "before the foundation of the world."  Did God make some wrong choices?  We're told that we've been "born again."  Can a person get un-born?  We're told that we're secure in God's hand and that "no one can pluck (us) out."  So based on my understanding of the Bible and the theology derived from it.  I'd have to conclude that the "used-to-be Christian" either never was in fact a Christian in the biblical sense, or that this person still is, but is for some reason denying it, perhaps even to his or her own self.  We're not always able to tell the difference.  Ultimately only God knows.

I recognize that there are those who believe that a believer can "lose his salvation" and that this dispute has been going on for nearly 2,000 years.  I don't desire to enter here into a theological debate with my friends of that persuasion.  I believe that what I'm speaking of is a different matter that should trouble them as much as it troubles me.

So who are these who claim that Christianity is something they once held to but have since turned away from?  I believe that there is no single profile of the "used-to-be Christian."  The profiles that follow are from my own experiences with people I have met or read.  I am not attempting to be judgmental.  If I offend any reader, I ask you to please let me know.

I suppose that for a great number of used-to-be Christians, Christianity was assumed as part of the family tradition.  Their families attended church regularly or occasionally.  They may have attended Sunday school or catechism class.  They were labeled by some denominational title.  They were culturally Christian and as they grew older, they simply turned away from something that was never internalized.  This turning away may have come about for any number of reasons or any combination of reasons:
·       Dogmatism of the parents or church leaders, possibly accompanied by an inability or unwillingness to answer disturbing questions.
·       Perceived hypocrisy - a "do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do" attitude on the part of those parents or leaders.
·       Some traumatic event or events that occurred, especially if tied to the religious environment.
·       Intellectual problems - an insistence that Christianity has to be tied to ideas that contradict current scientific (or perceived scientific) data.
·       A study of comparative religions that reveals similarities and seems to negate the exclusiveness of Christianity.
·       Legalism - the insistence that Christian behavior must be confined to burdensome rules and seemingly senseless regulations.
·       Political positions - these are, to many, so directly tied with their Christianity that when a political view is abandoned the accompanying faith is jettisoned as well.

I recognize that there are many other factors.  And yet there are many who have experienced many or all of the above factors and more, and have not rejected their faith in Christ.  Some have actually grown stronger in faith in spite of - or because of - any or all of these (I would place myself in that group).  Some too have abandoned institutional Christianity without claiming that Christianity is a matter of "used-to-be" (I've found myself at times close to joining that group).

I also recognize that "used-to-be" can simply be a debating technique, a sort of protection from having to listen to Christian witness.  Christians want to tell unbelievers stories about their conversion.  Unbelievers can counter with their stories of "un-conversion."  It can just be about winning the argument.  But I don't think this is usually the case.

I am not writing this to win an argument.  I do not in any way feel that my faith in Christ is threatened by any of the above factors or arguments.  But they do trouble me and I would like to know more about used-to-be Christians.  So I'm asking any readers who can make that claim or who share my concern to send me their stories.  It can be done as a comment on this post or more privately by e-mail.  Just click "contact me" above.  I will not share any private comments without permission.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

WHAT - YOU'RE PREGNANT?

Whenever and in whatever manner the Christmas story is told, there's a character of whom we don't hear a lot.  Oh, he's there, but he usually doesn't seem to have an important role.  In the nativity scene he's seen bowing piously before the manger; in the pageants he's seen leading the donkey on which Mary sits, or he's knocking at the door of the inn.
 
No, Joseph doesn't seem that important.  In the Gospels, he's not around much after the Christmas story, except for a few disparaging remarks about "the carpenter." And yet he is the main character in Matthew's version of the Christmas story. The first 17 verses of the New Testament give the royal genealogy of Jesus through Joseph - even though Joseph was not Jesus' biological father.
 
After the genealogy Matthew begins his story with a brief account of Joseph's dilemma:  "Now the birth story of Jesus Christ was like this:  when His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph - before they came together - she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wishing to put her to public shame, decided to divorce her privately" (Matthew 1:18, 19).

Joseph and Mary were not simply "engaged" as many modern translations tell us.  Betrothal under the Mosaic Law meant that they were actually legally married; the bride price had been paid and vows had been exchanged.  Only one thing remained undone during this period - the actual consummation of the marriage through sexual union. (This was different of course from our modern "enlightened" custom, where sex comes first.
 
There's a lot packed into these two verses.  I've tried to put myself in Joseph's place and imagine his emotional reaction to the discovery that his beloved was pregnant and he wasn't the father.  Perhaps the discovery occurred when Mary returned from her three-month visit with her cousin Elizabeth as related in Luke's Gospel.  Perhaps she was beginning to show.  I can imagine the dialogue as she approaches.
 
Joseph:  "It's my pure precious Mary, returning at last.  It's so wonderful to see you again.  I've missed you so.  You look so good.  But Mary, you've changed!  You seem to have - uh - gained a little weight."
Mary:  "I'm pregnant Joseph."
Joseph:  "You're pregnant?  You're kidding right?"
Mary:  "No, I'm pregnant ..."
Joseph:  "Mary!  No!  How can this be?  How could this happen?  You've always been so pure!  What have you done?  You've broken your vows!  Who...?  What...?  Why ...?"
Mary:  "Joseph, please calm down.  I'm still a virgin."
Joseph:  "Mary, that's nonsense!  How can you be pregnant and still a virgin?"
Mary:  "The Holy Spirit came upon me and the power of the Most High overshadowed me.  And the Child within me is holy.  He's the Son of God!"

I can feel the confusion and the conflicting emotions in Joseph and can hear his voice rising with every word he speaks.

Joseph:  "Mary, stop saying crazy things.  That's impossible!"
Mary:  "Nothing is impossible with God!"
Joseph:  "I know that!  Of course, I know that!  I've said it myself many times.  But God doesn't work this way!  Not since Adam has a man come into this world without a human father!       But what am I doing arguing theology with you?"
Mary:  "Please Joseph, let me tell you how this happened.  You see the angel Gabriel came to me and ..."
Joseph:  "An angel?  Mary, you know angels don't speak to us anymore!  That only happened in the Bible!"
Mary:  "Please, let me explain ..."
Joseph:  "Mary, you know that I love you!  But it's clear that you have sinned horribly - against God and against me.  Your adultery is bad enough.  Don't make matters worse by making up this lie.  Don't blaspheme God by blaming Him for your sin!"
Mary:  "Joseph ..."
Joseph:  "Mary, Mary - please stop talking.  I'll have to divorce you.  I could have you stoned for adultery but I can't do that.  Just go away.  You've ruined our lives!”

Matthew continues his narrative, telling us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and explained matters.  Joseph does take Mary as his wife but the marriage is not consummated until after the birth of Jesus.

Most of the rest of the story is familiar and can be found in the following verses.  But one thing about the angel's speech may tell us a bit more about Joseph.  The angel told him, "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife ..." (verse 20).

Why did the angel tell him this?  Was fear a factor in Joseph's reaction to Mary's condition?  Undoubtedly he felt the pressure on himself from different directions.  We're told that he was "righteous".  Not self-righteous, but genuinely righteous in the sense of walking with God and following God's laws.  He clearly had a love for Mary.  We may suppose that, knowing that both he and Mary were of the line of David, he had hoped that one day their son might turn out to be the Messiah.

And yet if he took Mary as his wife the shame of their first son's being illegitimate would haunt them.  Hopes for the future would be dashed.

We don't know what became of Joseph beyond the first few chapters of Matthew's and Luke's Gospels.  Apparently he died and left Mary a widow by the time Jesus entered His public ministry.  But if Joseph feared shame, the shame would follow his step-Son until Jesus' death.  We read that years later, some of those who opposed Jesus would say to Him, "We weren't born of fornication ..." (John 8:41).  Perhaps that question about Jesus, "Isn't this the carpenter's son?" (Matthew 13:55) was more than simply a reference to Jesus' lowly birth.  There may have been more to it than that.  Perhaps the implication was, "Isn't this the illegitimate child, who that carpenter took for his own.  What a disgrace!"

There are many places in this world, even in this country, where followers of the carpenter's Son may experience fear, shame and disgrace.  There are even places where Christ's followers fear for their lives.  Joseph overcame his fears by simply surrendering himself to the will of God.