Monday, July 31, 2006

The Cause of Creation and the Reason for Hope

Every once in awhile I meet a Christian who seems to have given in to despair, or who spends a lot of time entertaining worries. I've seen that around the blogosphere a little bit lately. It's happened to me at odd times in life too. I think it happens when we lose our focus on why we are here in the first place, where we have come from and where we are going. And that's easy enough to do these days. If you ask some Christians why God created all things, the main answer you'll get is that it wasn't because he lacked anything and it wasn't that he needed to create. Is that really all we have to say on the subject, that it wasn't neediness? After all that we have studied, do we understand God no better than that, that we can manage to look at all of creation and have nothing positive to say about God?

God's love is the starting point of all things. To be sure, without God's power, nothing would have happened -- but those with power often do not use it, and having power is not the same as having a reason to act. Power has no direction by itself; if we conceive of God almost solely in terms of power, we tend to miss that. But love moves to action, and God's love towards what he had conceived in his mind is the impetus for creation and the foundation of its goodness. This relationship of God to the world, then, is naturally one of grace (that is, goodwill and favor), and this was established and evidenced by the same act of love by which God brought all things into being. The implications of this are not just for the time of the foundation of the world, but for all who live on the world founded on God's love and grace. This new, created goodness was worthy of recognition and love, calling to mind the goodness of its creator in various ways, being a result of God's own overflowing goodness. Everything that was made was blessed by the act of creation with goodness and favor from God, and sealed with his recognition that it was good.

The act of creation -- and the fact of God's love, which was the first cause of this creation -- is also the cause of our redemption. It is the reason why the world is not now abandoned, forsaken by God, as it might deserve. It is the reason Christ came. It is the reason why the world will be made new. It is the reason why the home of God will be with us at the end of all things. God's love for mankind and fellowship with mankind was part of the design of all things at the foundation of the world. That God might someday become man was hinted at when he made mankind in his image; that door was open from the beginning. Fellowship with mankind was part of God's intent from the foundation of the world. That was why the crown of creation was a creature capable of fellowship with God, capable of knowing and loving God, a creature bearing the image of God. It was because God's love is the starting point of all things, and the spiritual consummation of God's love for mankind was one of the aims of creation, part of God's plan for the crown of creation.

In this world there are plenty of occasions for sadness; there is definitely a time to mourn. But any loss or wrong cannot eclipse this: God's love towards us is our reason for hope.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Visions of Paradise: Van Eyck

From the Ghent Altarpiece, Jan van Eyck, completed 1432 A.D.

Not all image-smiths work in words. Van Eyck's artwork has been said to sacramentalize nature, to remove (or refuse to recognize) a distinction between this world and the realm of the holy. He shows nature as a rightful part of God's self-revelation, and remembers that paradise was not meant to be an other-worldly thing.

Previous in the Visions of Paradise series:
Tolkien's Lothlorien
Coleridge's Xanadu

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Tagged! "One Book" Meme

I hadn't been going to play the "one book" game, but then Dr. P. tagged me and ... I may be lazy but I'm not a complete spoilsport. By the way Dr. P. has moved from Disert Paths to a new spot, if you see "Dr. Platypus" in my blogroll now, that's still him. I'm adopting a modification to the meme that came to me well recommended: don't answer 'the Bible' for any question since it's too much of a cop-out.

So here goes:
  1. One book that changed your life: The only real answer here is ruled out in the meme ... The distant second: The Icon: Window on the Kingdom by Michel Quenot, translated by "A Carthusian Monk". Why? For the baptism of the imagination, opening doors in my mind.
  2. One book you've read more than once: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  3. One book you'd want on a desert island: A blank book and a pen.
  4. One book that made you laugh: A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket, and MAD Magazine: Spy vs. Spy series by Antonio Prohias. (So that's more than one. I like books that make me laugh.)
  5. One book that made you cry: The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
  6. One book you wish had been written: Filling the World by John the Apostle et al.
  7. One book you wish had never been written: What if a major world religion had "authoritative Scriptures" written by a "religious leader" who routinely ordered assassinations, raids, and attacks, who was known to order torture of his enemies? What kind of effect would that book have on any area of the world where that book was widely held as holy? And what would it do to the peoples' souls and their moral compass?
  8. One book you're currently reading: God Here and Now by Karl Barth; but his sentences are like packs of Ramen noodles ... you know there are only two of them in a pack and they just keep going and going ... and you keep coming back for more, half because it's good and half because you can't very well stop in the middle of a long string like that, can you?
  9. One book you've been meaning to read: The Arabian Nights
  10. One book you wish you could write: The History of the Astounding Reconciliations and Renewals of Christ's Followers in the 21st Century
  11. Now tag five people: Aww, I hate to pick and choose. If you've ever commented on my blog, I'd be glad for you to consider yourself tagged.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Christian Art and the Graven Images Commandment

Canterbury Cathedral, scenes from the Poor Man's Bible Window, circa 13th century, public domain

Every once in awhile I forget that they're out there: those Christians who think that artwork -- especially religious artwork -- is offensive to God because of a commandment in the Sinai covenant given to Israel through Moses. I recently met someone of this view for the first time in a long time. She was earnest, she was sincere, she was passionate, and she thought I was at least leading people astray that I'm supportive of Christian artwork. For the sake of Christ and of fellowship, I didn't want to just dismiss the question, even if it did seem outlandish.

Is Christian artwork permissible in light of the commandments? Does the Sinai covenant apply to Gentiles? And does the Sinai covenant forbid artwork in the first place?

The Question
The Ten Commandments contains a command forbidding images. Why does Christian tradition contain such a long history of images? Are we showing contempt for the commands of God, or ignorance of the commands of God, by having images?

In Answer
Let's start with Exodus and review what it says about images. The translation used here is NIV which is readable but not always the most accurate; if questions of exact wording arise we may want to dig deeper.

Against Images
1) Exodus 20:4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them" (etc.).

There's a prohibition against images; the context is idol-worship. At this point the question is still open whether that prohibition is absolute or whether it was specific to idol-worship.

For Images
2) Exodus 25:18-20: "And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover."


3) Exodus 25:33-34: "Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand. And on the lampstand there are to be four cups shaped like almost flowers with buds and blossoms."


4) Exodus 26:31: "Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman."

There is a command to make images of things in heaven (cherubim) and earth (almond flowers with buds and blossoms) in context of making a beautiful and holy worship of the true God.

Based on these we can see that the prohibition against "images" (all artwork depicting living things) is not absolute even within the Sinai covenant. That still leaves plenty of questions open but it does put Christian religious artwork on a solid basis: it puts the history of religious art within the framework of the Sinai covenant, not outside of it.

For artwork, Exodus allows that there is both a right and wrong use of religious images. It places the right use of religious images squarely within the realm of using our God-given creativity to return glory to the Creator and to build a vision of paradise on earth.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Visions of Paradise: Tolkien

The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain.

Previous in the Visions of Paradise series:
Coleridge's Xanadu

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Haunted World: The Past that Won't Stay Buried

Amityville Horror. The Shining. Poltergeist (and Poltergeist II). Pet Sematary (and Pet Sematary II). And more imitators than you can count. What do they have in common? The Native American / Indian burial ground underneath it all. Then there's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, with its cursed Aztec treasure. This horror over our national past is not strictly a United States phenomenon. Mexican horror films have seen their share of Aztec mummies.

The stuff that nightmares -- and horror films -- are made of: Genocide of chilling scope, partly accidental through disease but far too much deliberate. A culture's betrayal of those who welcomed them. The more technologically advanced cultures plundering and dispossessing the less technologically advanced cultures. These days shame has increased to the point where it's not considered polite to mention that the native peoples of the Americas were less technologically advanced, even though the New World cultures of the time were often stone-age and, more often than not, pre-literate in development. But I don't think these things should be swept under the rug. Abusing our advantage was an aspect of what went wrong, and part of a pattern that has repeated itself often in history. One lesson we need to remember these days is that scientific and technological advantage does not make for better people. And if the learning of our culture counts for anything, then how in the world did all that happen?

We Christians have to wonder at those times. Had the words of Christ fallen on deaf ears? Had our culture learned no more, or forgotten so much, about treating others as we would want to be treated? To be sure, there were cases of people protesting the treatment of the native population back when the land was still, in the main, in their possession. But not enough to make a difference. The majority of people went along with what was happening. And as a culture, it gives us nightmares. (Are horror films the nightmares of a culture? I wonder.)

Then there's the temptation of self-defense. How many cultures in the rest of the world are built on the subdued ruins of the peoples who lived before? How many of our cultural role models (such as Greece and Rome) were empires? How many of the native peoples of the new world attacked and conquered and enslaved each other, built empires at each others' expense before any Europeans came? But that rings hollow in our own ears despite being true. It's just that defending ourselves by saying "we are absolutely no better than anyone else at their worst" is no excuse at all, and we know it.

Neither is this only an American-content concern. It began under Old World flags with Europe pushing out its religious heretics and deporting its criminals, or plundering gold and silver to send back to the mother country. Still, those of us who live in the Americas must remember that when the New World won its independence from the Old World, nothing changed. The high-sounding ideals of the U.S. Declaration of Independence did not make the U.S. suddenly wiser or kinder in its dealings with the native peoples. "All men are created equal ... " Ouch.

It wasn't us. But for many of us, it was our culture and we don't get away clean. And the time for easy solutions is centuries past. Many of us are not from Europe -- we are from Africa or Asia; not part of the culture that betrayed its hosts, though still living on land that was not rightfully gotten from its previous owner. Is there still a lien? Many of us who look European are of partially native ancestry. Many of us who are of entirely European ancestry would have nowhere to go in Europe now, when we no longer even remember the names of our ever-so-great-grandparents' home towns, even if we assumed (perhaps optimistically) that we would be welcomed in Europe. Many a hard-traced family tree in the U.S. stops at the eastern ocean in the early days of our country, unable to bridge the gap to where we came from.

Still the horror movies keep asking: Will the spirits of the betrayed ever rest? Can there ever be peace after what happened? Is there a solution of gold returned or blood repaid to end the nightmare? The movies always seem to find the answer in two or three hours. It is both easy and true to say that history cannot be undone. But not all of history has been written. We do not share guilt for the evils of the past merely because we are the descendants of "Pilgrims" and and conquistadores. But the lingering problems of injustice are as much a part of our cultural heritage as the music and scientific achievements of our culture. We share the evils of the past if we do nothing to right the wrongs we have inherited. As a culture, it bothers us; that's why so many works of literature pick up on that theme. We know we have to act, but have no easy time figuring out what to do. The first step is figuring out what end result we would want. This would be a good step in the right direction: that the native peoples who remain now should live in as much prosperity as is common in this nation. So the task falls to our generation: to figure out what it would take to make that happen. Will our children inherit our nightmares and our horror stories, a tradition of helplessness or apathy or self-justification? Or a tradition of action?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Recognizing Humor

I'd like to thank those who participated in "the joke's on you" informal meme. Thanks to:

Loiegram ("Why did the duck cross the road?")
Codepoke ("How many Calvinists does it take to change a lightbulb?" and "How many home churchers?").
Proclaiming Softly for "How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb?"

You are all good sports. But Loiegram and Proclaiming Softly got short-changed, since they used the comments section I didn't end up linking any posts on their blog. So let me fix that by linking a post each that deserves a link:

Here's Proclaiming Softly with some advice the media could use.
And Loiegram ... well, can the woman sew, or can the woman sew?

Gotta love the human side of the blogosphere!

Take care & God bless

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Visions of Paradise: Coleridge

For awhile during this season of Pentecost, I'll be reviewing visions of paradise on Sundays. For this series, the defining character of a vision of paradise is to arouse desire for the holy.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stateley pleasure-dome decree;
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Ethics of humor: Fellowship, division, and derision

Q. Why did the crank cross the road?
A. He didn't want to be on the same side as the chicken.

When at its best, humor builds fellowship. It restores perspective, keeps us humble, helps us think more clearly, and allows us to share goodwill. It bases fellowship on our weakness and foolishness, at the same time inviting us to leave behind the foolishness but keep the fellowship. If human foolishness is being pointed out, the one doing the pointing includes herself in the group that the joke is on. There's a willingness to share foolishness and disgrace for each others' sake and in each others' company.

At its worst, humor is an attack. Mockery and scorn are the voice of bitterness and rage. These are forbidden to Christians, though in practice we do not seem to have noticed. At times like that, "humor" expressses a hatred in our hearts for our brother and both invites and incites further hatred. The Bible has a lot to say about derision and scorn, and about mockers. None of it is good.

Q. How many critics does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. It's "light bulb," not "lightbulb."

How often do we hide under technicalities to miss the other person's point, or use a minor mistake from the other side as a pretext to ignore a larger problem while jockeying for position?

Q. How many people on your side of the street does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Oh yeah? Well the light bulb is out on your side of the street too!

Time for the crank to cross the road again. We all have to be on the same side of the street. Nobody gets to stay at a safe distance and act as if there are no problems on that side.

P.S. Let me know if you can think of any more "light bulb" or "cross-the-street" jokes that pertain to our own foolishness, especially when it comes to inter-Christian divisions.

Request: please target your own side only til all things be restored.

Meme: If you want to take this as a Meme and run with it, and see if you can add a joke to the collection, I'll link you back when I find you. I'm guaranteed to find you if you leave a comment.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Fill the earth: population and food

Recently the topic of the world's population was mentioned in a comment thread. Right now "overpopulation" is more of a regional issue than a global issue: there are some regions that have difficulty supporting their populations while others have surplus to export. As a whole, there is not a problem with the world's population having outrun its capacity to produce food. But when considering the possibility that the world's food supply might run tight in the future, occasionally there are drastic suggestions such as mandating abortions to enforce population caps. So it seems right to mention that we have more moderate options available to us before we consider drastic measures.

Larger gains: Increase food production
  1. Increase farmland available for food crops by using some of the land currently planted with non-edible crops such as coffee, tea, and tobacco (or opium, marijuana, or cocaine where applicable)
  2. Make better use of public land by making plantings in highway interchange "cloverleafs" and placing productive trees in median-plantings
  3. Create incentives for private land and landscaping to include food-producing plants
  4. Encourage individuals with productive plants to harvest and use the produce rather than letting it go to waste
  5. Encourage production of foods that produce optimal nutrition and food volume per acre

Smaller gains: Reduce food use
  1. Actually use left-overs
  2. Reduce household over-purchasing of food which leads to food spoilage
  3. Reduce over-eating
  4. Create incentives for restaurants to reduce portion sizes to an amount typically eaten
  5. Restrict the number of pets to reduce the total volume of food consumed by pets
  6. Make provision for large-scale sources of food scraps (e.g. restaurant waste) to be channeled back for use as livestock feed when suitable

The bigger picture: peace and sound government

Of course, there is a far larger problem in the amount of farmland that is unproductive throughout the world due to war or government corruption. There are entire nations capable of sustaining their populations and possibly capable of being food exporters who nevertheless tend to have famines because often one group burns another's crops. Peace in one more land is probably more beneficial than the "better land use" approach in several others, and better than the "well-used leftovers" approach in 10 others.

The smaller picture: re-thinking our menus

As much as I hope we can work towards peace, I also know it is not directly under our control, and that the simple things we can do here and now in our own homes are the fastest way to begin making a difference. My grandparents, who survived the Great Depression in a very poor and rural area, were masters of using every bit of food. Here's what I learned from my grandmother:
  • Old bread that's at risk to spoil makes good bread pudding
  • Or good bread crumbs for breading a piece of meat or topping a casserole
  • Or croutons
  • Or stuffing
  • Or melba toast that keeps a long time and goes well with gravy over it
  • Or a good filler for a meatloaf
  • Leftover bananas about to spoil make good banana bread
  • Or smoothies (ok, this was from my son not my grandmother, but it still works)
  • Scrap meat and vegetables make soups or stews or broths
  • The inedible cornflake crumbs at the bottom of the cornflake box make a good base for breading
  • Pickles made from watermelon rinds actually taste very good
  • When tomatoes fall off the vine and aren't fully ripe, that's when you make fried green tomatoes

The point?
Before we start restricting population, we have a long way to go in making better use of what we already have. I'm not saying that today is the today to feel bad if you throw out the stale bread instead of making it into croutons or stuffing. I'm saying remembering the thrift of previous generations and taking note of their creativity is a good thing.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Series of Note: AmbivAbortion Rant

Normally, I don't consider myself well-read enough in what other people are writing around the blogosphere to be in the recommendations business. But this evening I followed a link and read Amba's 'rant' on abortion. Every once in awhile you run across a piece that you know was forged in the depths where courage meets pain. I have no doubt that writing it -- or before, thinking through it -- cost her dearly; it shows its worth. It defies easy characterization, other than this: brave, honest, thoughtful, and heart-wrenching. She speaks with a voice that liberals can respect and conservatives can appreciate.

Amba's Abortion Rant: Part I
Amba's Abortion Rant: Part II

Leave yourself some reading and pondering time when you follow the links.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Quick note

Hi all

I'm not actually done with the ethics series. But this has been a rough week at work. I've put in lots of overtime. It's our busy season. So I'm just going to do something quick and easy next.

Take care & God bless

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Just for the holiday: Fig jam

At the risk of alienating my readers ... well, what's the point of having your own blog if you can't write about what you love? So, having now eaten as many figs as I can possibly hold, and having seen to it that my family and friends have done the same, and having seen a steady stream of birds coming out of my fig tree looking noticeably fat and happy, it's that time of year: fig jam.

10 c. fresh figs
5 c. sugar
1 t. lemon juice
1 t. cinnamon

From there, if you know how to make jam you're home free, and if you don't know how to make jam I'll just refer you to the nearest cookbook.

  1. Fig-and-strawberry: per 2 c. figs, add 1 envelope strawberry jello mix. (No, I'm not a purist when it comes to making jam. Whatever works. Including jello mix.)
  2. Orange-and-fig: if only it was as simple as the fig-and-strawberry. It starts out the same: per 2 c. figs, add 1 envelope orange jello mix. But then it has a nasty tendency to taste like orange soda. So also per 2 c. figs, add in 1 t. finely grated orange peel, which gets rid of the orange-soda taste. When you're done, the orange flavor takes the lead over the fig flavor but it's good.
Categories (if I bothered with that kind of thing): goodness of creation; enjoying the simple things in life. ;)

Back to posting the usual kind of stuff later this week.