Thursday, September 22, 2011

The absurdity of "Change" for change's sake

When I was twenty-one and approaching the prospect of my third year in college, I began to take a slightly more active interest in the workings of the school and our Student Senate (student government).
I say that I took an interest because I actually had a look one day at what the cost was for every student to pay into the funds which Student Senate used to run the many clubs and events it did.
I modify the term "interest" with the word "slightly" because the extent of my interest basically only went as far as a conversation over lunch with a former Senator, who laid out in basic and vague terms the amount of money which was paid out in honorariums to the people involved in Student Senate and its larger clubs, such as the student publication and yearbook.

What particularly struck a spark in me was simply the fact that, out of an estimated $100,000 in fees gathered every year, approximately $27,000 was being paid to the Senators and other paid positions. My initial reaction was, of course, shock. $27,000 is a lot of cash to a student paying his way through college on bank and federal loans and a small amount of goodwill- all subject to the whims of the currency conversion between the U.S. and Canada.
I immediately began to be irritated, perhaps even incensed, at what I saw as a waste of student funds. Especially after my somewhat disgruntled friend regaled me with impressions of a largely useless bureaucracy (however small), which seemed quite unworthy of the healthy sum being given it.

What followed as a result of my discussion with that man was perhaps as much a sad commentary on the disconnectedness of students with the goings-on and accountability of their Senate as it was an eye-opening experience. The summary of the next few weeks was that I determined, in my moments of great confidence, that I would be the one to bring change, hope, accountability, transparency, and perhaps even a decent sense of financial responsibility to a Student Senate seemingly plagued with troubles. I was of course successful in the coming election in securing the seat of Vice President of Finance, although (here enters the sad commentary) I won in a race against nobody, propelled to my landslide victory by scant campaigning, a brief speech, and the yearly triumph of name recognition over general student apathy ("Hey I know him. I'll vote for him")

To make a long story short, and to get to the point, over the next two years I served as a Student Senator and did what I consider a decent job of budgeting and disbursing funds to all the many clubs run by Senate. I talked and I listened in meetings, argued, laughed, and most of all learned. I learned about getting people to agree with you, and even a little bit about politics and bureaucracy (whether using it or attempting to fight it). Most of all, I learned that before I got into my job, I had absolutely no idea of what the position required.

In fact, I had no idea what any of the positions really did, apart from when one Senator or another appeared at a sponsored event. What I knew was a few soundbites worth of past information. I carried with me into that first day in office a feeling that there were many things I needed to change immediately, the greatest of which was ensuring that all the money entrusted to us would be used well. After all, not only the VP of Finance but also the whole Student Senate ought to be extremely concerned with the stewardly use of so much money, shouldn't they?

In short, I hadn't a clue about how things REALLY were. I thought from the outside that Senators were outrageously paid, until I spent so many hours in meetings and work and sitting in the office to answer questions. My position could be said at best to earn about $45 a week, for which at least 5 hours of the week were taken up in work. In Ontario, that's less than minimum wage.
I believed as well that Senate must be wasting all sorts of funding on useless things. To be fair, there was some of what I considered to be wasteful or frivolous spending, generally along the lines of "We have the money- let's use it now!" However, the vast majority of the fees given to Senate were used in excellent ways, whether to fund clubs that helped local kids, or to help do acts of charity and outreach nearby, or just to provide fun activities and opportunities for fellowship to the student body- from whom, after all, the fees had come in the first place.

By the time I finished my second term as the VP of Finance I knew far more about my position, and had even managed to change a number of things. What changed the most, however, was my own assumptions about things. I now understand that if passing something controversial is difficult in a Senate of 13 college students, I can only begin to dream about how difficult that would be in a ruling government of 400 or more individuals, all older and much wiser in general than we were.
I learned as well that compromise, and coming to an understanding, and cutting back and making allowances on certain issues is an unavoidable aspect of the democratic form of government- again, even more so in a full-sized national government.

Most of all, I learned this:
1. NEVER vote for a man who runs his campaign on the promise that he will change everything, especially if he can't detail HOW he will implement the change. Such people are almost always simply hiding their total lack of knowledge and experience behind a facade of outrage, and at best they will accomplish little to nothing once they reach office and see what things are really like. At worst, even what they accomplish will be bad for the country.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Thoughts on suicide

Having only encountered someone who attempted suicide once in my life, I wish to forewarn my readers that I am not interacting with the idea of suicide emotionally. I hope to look at it from a purely analytical and Biblical viewpoint to understand a couple of things:
1. Why it is wrong
2. Why atheists do it
3. How we can understand instances of Christians committing suicide.

Further, I hope to propose a number of ways in which we can live our lives so that both we and those around us are directed away from the sin of suicide.

Starting with the first, then- why is suicide wrong? Let's first eliminate useless approaches to understanding suicide and why it is wrong. From an evolutionary point of view suicide might be seen as either natural (your body decides it's weak and kills itself) or stupid (rebelling against the natural self-preservation instincts imprinted in you). In neither case does evolution make a moral judgment, however (as indeed evolutionists have no grounds to make any moral judgments) and so we know from the start that we cannot explain suicide by non-religious terms. While a psychological assessment of the reasons for suicide might also prove useful, it is increasingly the intention of the psych community to attach all things to evolutionary motives, and so perhaps we might cautiously seek the input of a Christian psychologist, but not likely a worldly one.
The initial reason one might come up with to establish the wrongness of suicide is that life is God's- He gives it and He has the power to take it away. As Psalm 139 says, "For you formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb."(139:13) Psalm 22 likewise says, "Yet You are He who brought me forth from the womb; You made me trust when upon my mother's breasts. Upon You I was cast from birth; You have been my God from my mother's womb." (22:9-10) Clearly then God is active in the creation of each of us- He personally forms us and loves us. Further, in the Creation story in Genesis God names Adam, establishing His authority over him. Also, Paul talks to us about our bodies not being our own in 1 Corinthians 6:19- "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?" Finally, we can infer from the prohibition against murder that we do not have authority over the life or body of others, let alone our own. Since then we can understand from the Bible that we do not have the right to take our own life, we can establish that for that reason suicide is wrong.
A common objection at this point is that many people just can't help committing suicide. Various examples will be cited about, for instance, people who have been diagnosed as chemically unbalanced who, according to our modern doctors, are compelled by their chemistry to end their own lives. As to the chemical vs. mental debate, I have said some in the past and will no doubt say more in the future as to the balance between the mind and the body, but I will avoid that side of things for now. Suffice to say that I do not believe we can excuse sins upon our nature unless it is our very human nature to which we are referring, and for which we are yet accountable.
The second aspect of the objection however is that some people's lives just go so wrong, and they just lose so much or suffer so much that it should be understandable, if not conscionable, for them to end their own lives. This brings up so many controversial cases such as when a loved one is on life-support or in a coma or just suffering terribly over an extended time and wishes for the pain to stop. As to wishing to ease physical pain I can understand that some things are extremely difficult to bear even as Christians who rely upon God for all things. However, we are reminded by the examples of Job and the martyrs that suffering can be born by relying upon God, who is our strength in times of trouble. As for sufferings born in the mind, such as the loss of things or people you love, disappointment, frustration, and the like, I think the same can be said as was for physical suffering- God is our steady rock and our fortress, and He provides for us. The Bible is full of imagery of God providing for His people, even out of nothing (as in the example of manna in the desert). There can be no suffering so great in this world that we should be validated in electing to end it of our own volition. God DOES provide.
The question arises then as to why someone would commit suicide- what would cause someone to fall to the point that they would choose to end their own life? There are a number of reasons, and I will strike one off the list at this point as being a topic for other times: that of religious suicide. The actions, for instance, of suicide-bombers, are incomparable with the actions of a man jumping off a bridge. I will also not engage at this point what we deem as heroic actions- the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades; the person who throws another person out of the way of an oncoming vehicle only to be struck themselves. These examples are again not representative, I think, of a purposeful ending of one's life; they are motivated by a desire to save the life of another, as well as a willingness to lose one's own life in the pursuit of doing what is good. In such instances I think we may find useful this verse from Matthew 16: "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it." (Matt. 16:25).

As to why people will choose to willingly end their lives, then, I will make a simple answer: Suicide is simply to be understood as a reaction to the total failure of all one’s gods. This answer will not, I think, be well received by many Christians- or many others for that matter. I would dare to say that this may be because we do not wish to think ill of those who have ended their lives. Suicide is in our modern world a great tragedy, and we often hesitate, if not outright refuse, to identify it as sinful. As well many Christians object that friends of theirs who have attempted or succeeded in committing suicide were otherwise good cheerful God-fearing Christians, and that perhaps life was just too much to bear.

To this objection I have found it useful first to examine the reason one might suppose as to why an atheist (I use the term loosely) might commit suicide. Because atheists have, to whatever extent they’ve convinced themselves, rejected god, they reject the moral law which is accepted by those who believe in and fear God. While most if not all atheists nevertheless adopt the morals of the surrounding society they live in, they lack any strong religious convictions which would strengthen what they view as socially acceptable morals. This is an important point because insofar as an atheist believes he lives by morals by choice, he may also convince himself to forego said morals by choice as well. Therefore, should the situation become so deplorable, there is no spiritual reason why an atheist should not proceed with killing himself.

However what may be taken into account is that all atheists try as they might, do have gods. Their gods may be family members, friends, a spouse, cable TV, or some such other object of creation which is the focus of their hopes. Insofar as all created things are fallen in this sinful world, such gods as an atheist will live his life for tend to be rather unreliable. An atheist wants even less so to turn to God in times of trouble than we as Christians do, and so when an atheist’s god fails, he will simply turn to another. I dare say most atheists have quite a pantheon in their lives at most times, even as many of us are often guilty of serving various created gods instead of the one true God. The distinction here is that eventually an atheist may run out of substantial gods to look to for joy. The amount of time that it will take until this point could be brief or very long- it just depends on how good the person’s life is and how adept they are at replacing old gods with new ones. One might expect therefore that while the majority of atheists are able to live their lives skipping from one god to the next, it is nevertheless more likely that an atheist- or for that matter anyone who puts their trust in a false god- is logically more likely to commit suicide than a devout Christian. This is for obvious reasons- whereas a devout Christian looks forward to the life beyond this one for our greatest reward and therefore does not put too great a stock in the material things of this world, an atheist has no connection to that ultimate Joy.

Since we have established the likelihood and reasons for which an atheist might commit suicide, we can then take a look at suicide among Christians and attempt an understanding of why it might happen. Because we as Christians have been given the knowledge of God’s Love for us and His promise of Salvation, one should expect in ideal conditions that we would be less than likely to give in to depression that leads to suicide. However, we are all fallen human beings and so it is extremely easy for us to lose sight of God and set our sights on created things to glorify them. Suicide might therefore be understood to be no more shocking than any other sin. That is to say, we are sinful and prone to doing all sorts of evil- therefore why would one sin be any less likely than another.

I would argue however that suicide is distinct for a couple of reasons. The first is that suicide is a final act- an attempt on one’s own life is largely irrevocable (except of course for instances where the attempt fails). It might be fairly argued therefore that it is not very easy to show repentance for something which you die from. Secondly, suicide is rarely if ever a spontaneous and unpremeditated action. There is almost always a slow build-up of things that leads to the suicide. Remember, if we accept suicide as a failure of hope in the things of this life which you have stocked your hope in- that is to say, those things which you worship- then it would seem to indicate that whereas a Christian or any individual may seem on the outside to be “normal” and “happy” and otherwise display emotions and actions not indicative of a likelihood towards suicide, it is quite likely that that person has been slowly drifting away from God. We are all of course sinning, as I have said before, on a continuous basis. However, for one to entirely give up on life one must have laid not only the majority of their energy and hopes and dreams on something other than God, but may likely have laid such on anything BUT God. That is, the individual over the course of some time drifted both voluntarily and, to some extent, involuntarily and subconsciously away from God and His promise of salvation. Like all people they sinned- but unlike many they finally gave up. By such a standard then I submit that for a Christian to commit suicide is to attempt at rejecting in as final a way as is possible God, His Grace, Love, Salvation, and Authority.

Let me clarify here however that whereas others think that we Christians judge who will get into Heaven or Hell, I am attempting no such thing. Indeed, there is not a single individual in this world whom we can definitively know to be going either to Hell or Heaven (although we as faithful Christians may certainly have faith in God to save us). Certainly by our human standards we judge people to be good or bad, but as we are all utterly depraved before God it is entirely up to Him to save those whom He will.

Likewise I feel it is necessary to clarify that while we may examine the motives and actions of anything from an exterior view, it is often much less clear from the point of view of the person committing a sin (something I have extensive first-hand knowledge of). In light of this we may certainly feel very sad for someone who has strayed so far from God.

The ultimate point which must be addressed here, however, is not whether suicide is a sin- a terrible sin, even. While it hopefully proves useful for us to better understand the tragedy of suicide, it would be a useless chore to have written this article and not also seek some way to prevent potential future instances, both in my own circle of acquaintances and in those of the people who will read this. With this in mind, I submit that there are an abundance of ways in which we can both encourage ourselves and others to live joyfully in this life in service to God, relying fully upon Him to provide for us and bring us into eternal life when our time here has ended. A number of ways to do this are as follows:

1. Take time out your life, however busy it is, to get to know your close friends as well as possible; to at least show interest and caring to those you sort of know; and to be respectful and exemplary of the fruits of the Spirit to every face you meet. Doing this is both right and good for encouraging others- and in turn you will often find others showing care for you.

2. Keep an eye out for signs of when people are struggling in life- having friends is not just about playing video games and hanging out- deep conversations about life and frustrations are vital to friendship and also establish a deeper level of trust and respect which improves both your lives. Also, I do not mean to watch out for when people seem to be really in danger of doing something bad- if you start then you’ve waited far too long. Rather, engage people and seek to help them in even the smallest struggles.

3. Read the Bible and focus on which verses connect with you the most. I’ve always found that verses dealing with my struggles are especially good to keep close to me as they provide encouragement to me when times are hard and when I fail in resisting sin. Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and chapters about God’s power (e.g. Isaiah 45, Job 38-42).

4. Talk about God in your life and discussions with others. Bring up His Providence with your friends- it’s usually uncomfortable even among Christians but it shouldn’t be. You’ll find that the more often you acknowledge God’s work in your life, the more you will think about and be aware of God.

5. Accept that physical things are temporary- do not put your treasures on earth, “where moth and rust destroys, and where thieves break in and steal,” but put your treasures- your love and hope- in God.

These are just 5 things which I encourage others, and pray that I myself also may have the strength to do. Most importantly, “trust in the Lord your God with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.” (Prov. 3:5-6)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


As a business student of sorts (I chose to minor in it in college, but I am constantly being educated in the rest of life) I am beginning to find my everyday adventures to stores and restaurants to be crowded by many business-like observations. For instance, today I stopped in at a small Chinese restaurant near my house to order some amazing sesame chicken and rice. The food was awesome. However, as I sat there waiting for my food to be prepared, I looked around the room and noticed the walls were, for the most part, gallingly white. Sure there were a couple small 8"X6" pictures and a beautiful 3-foot fan with horses painted on it, but in a room about twice the width of your average household hallway, that's rather spartan fare.
If this was my room, I might sleep and wake and not really care about the plainness, or the cracked paint, or the door slightly off its hinges leading into the kitchen area. Given the awesome smell of the place, I nearly avoided caring about the appearance at all. However, image is something which is very important to address, especially when your business will be entertaining customers for anywhere from one to thirty minutes. In the five minutes it took me to order and receive my food, I envisioned at least 7 or 8 things I could do just to that room that would make customers want to stand around longer, maybe even sit down and eat (which every restaurant owner should know is a great thing, despite the behavior of rundowns like McDonalds).
The point of this, apart from a not-so-subtle hint that I'm for hire for business consulting (and cheap too), is that public image is something which I think not many of us are aware of.
Now as a quick note, I will allow that people from foreign cultures who were more than likely born and raised in foreign cultures may have different ideas of image and customer relations and general personal interaction standards. It isn't just chinese restaurants that have image issues, however.
It occurred to me today that image issues- or more specifically, a perceived lack of concern for public image- may well be a symptom of postmodernity (by which I mean the philosophy and many manifestations in Western culture). After all, one of the key messages of postmodernism is that the individual and the subjective perspective are king. Every person's experiences and morals and worldviews are unique and equal and cannot be involuntarily subjugated to the views of another. In this worldview, no one has any overarching reason to care about what others think of them. Apart from fulfilling our own needs and wants- such as impressing members of the opposite gender and earning cash to buy stuff- there's really no reason why we would allow any other person or group's ideas of normality or rightness hold sway over us.
This viewpoint has unfortunately led us to the point where music largely comprises a vast mass of make-upped whiner-guys, 2-bit autotuner rappers, and chaotic and nonsensical orchestral compositions. Our most popular artists might even be good at singing if they aren't lip-syncing at concerts or weren't chosen because they were fashionably good-looking. World religions at this point (which unfortunately includes Christianity) have degenerated to the extent that even "intolerant" "absolutist" religions (like Christianity and Islam) can't seem to hold onto their holy books when they've been exposed to iPods and cell phones for too long (someone should do a medical study on that).
Postmodernism has, in short, attempted to entirely lay waste to the founding pillars of culture When everything is equal, nothing is valuable.
As a further result, individuals are exempted from concern for what others think of their day-to-day actions and opinions (although, of course, others are not exempt of our opinions of THEM). We have begun to believe that, for instance, profanity and vulgarity are acceptable so long as enough people use it- or at the least, others shouldn't take offense at what I myself find innocuous. We have begun to dream that what we accept as normal activities and items in our lives are inherent rights, which when infringed upon by unsuspecting villains must be defended with harsh words and hard feelings. We have reached the point where, as the detective says in the movie "Crash," we no longer talk to each other, bump into each other in our daily lives- we just crash every now and then. We have so insulated ourselves in the rightness and goodness of ourselves and our thoughts that we no longer have any regard for the impact of our lives on the lives of others- except, again, when we feel we must impact them voluntarily (for their own good).
This voluntary rejection of others and self-glorification is responsible for immeasurable damages to our friends and neighbors and brothers and sisters around us.
We as people cannot afford to go on like this. For one thing it inevitable that the purposeful nothingness of modern culture will be eventually consumed by a powerful positive ideology. For another, the bloodshed can only increase as we stop talking and caring and simply act and respond.
We as Christians cannot afford to forego a wise and discerning and purposeful consideration of our individual and group public image to the world. We MUST represent positive ideology, good intentions, real faith which creates real actions, and a 360 degree consideration of our lives and impact. (Necessary note: this includes environmental impact, but I'm thinking recycling, not "stop having babies to save earth")
The Bible is full of passages exhorting us to avoid being stumbling blocks to others and lead in wisdom. We are reminded over and over of the dangers of an unrestrained tongue which will destroy. We are told to love- which often means giving more than we receive. And all of this falls under a consideration of image.
"What do people say when they see my life?" is not a question we need ask ourselves so that we can blithely bathe in any real or imagined praises others could be showering us with. The question of image is a very necessary question which we must constantly address in our lives. It is a question which I would especially say must be addressed in the institutional body of Christianity today (private goodness generally being outweighed by public foolishness).
Specifically, it's time for us to start considering how others can be uplifted and led to praise God by what we do.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fake Reality

The idea of a reality show initially seemed like a brilliant idea. The general audience was, I think, becoming fairly disenchanted with the fictional nature of most television shows, and so someone (whether it was the writer of the movie "The Truman Show" or one of the day-time talk show hosts) decided to present real life to people.
The execution (and by this I do not, unfortunately, mean "killing" but rather "carrying out") of reality shows has proven to be rather the opposite of this "reality."
The first obvious problem with the idea of reality shows is that, unlike in "The Truman Show," today's (fortunately) unknown individuals are quite aware of the cameras jammed in their faces at all awkward times of the day. This leads inevitably to a great deal of showboating, as displayed in so many shows where conflicts are blown out of proportion and emotions let loose over the most absurd of circumstances (e.g. "Oh. My. Goodness. She totally just used. my. comb. I hate her- I hope she dies. I'm going to ruin her life")
Second, it is quite obvious by this point that, much like the ignominious Jerry Springer, it is quite obvious by this point that reality show heads must be choosing their participants quite purposefully. Your average reality show seems to consist of an ethnically balanced group of young, mostly attractive individuals. The girls are all either immodest/ditzy, immodest/women power, or modest/women power types of people (with the rare addition of a quiet nice girl who's going out with the seemingly nice guy who ends up cheating on her). Guys range from your dirty jock to the nice-ish guy to the player.
All of them tend to portray an average IQ level normally associated with 10 year olds (especially in conflict situations). It is also rather likely that, like Jerry Springer, the "reality show" folks are encouraged, if not contracted, to start fights and cheat on each other. After all, "reality" might be far more boring.
This is all, of course, saying nothing of such gems of ideas as "Hey let's put these 4 married couples on an island and keep setting up scenarios where we try to get them to cheat on each other," or Big Brother's idea of cramming a bunch of either rich and "ghetto" girls and boys into a mansion and letting them hash things out.

The question might be posed, then- if reality shows fail to portray reality- or at least what most of experience as reality- then why do they have such a widespread appeal?
I have an opinion which I haven't researched (preferring to ignore reality shows on the whole) but which seems to make sense:
Reality shows provide not only the escapism of any TV show (no matter how lame); they also provide validation and relative-worth-association options. Since reality shows purport to portray "real life individuals," the events and personal expressions of the people we watch on TV can provide a couple of very helpful services to us. If an individual has the same character flaws as I do, but seems to lead a good life anyway, I receive validation for my character flaws (more often known as "sins"). If somebody is just a scumbag on the show, I get the opportunity to cast myself against their monstrous shadow and, by association, paint a pretty character of myself to myself and others. After all, I may have dumped so-and-so, but at LEAST I didn't cheat with Helga (as if there would be someone named Helga on a reality show) first like Scott did.
Again, the ability to validate and paint ourselves in the perspective of the characters on a reality show is much more powerful because, as the TV networks tell us, what we're seeing is "real life" and "real people."
This is the same sort of power I think the daily talk shows previously had, but reality shows are much more "in the moment," and they're also dressed up with story-lines and plot twists as opposed to the public-confession-booth style employed by talk shows.

When it comes down to it, escapism itself is not a bad thing. If it was, fiction in general would not be Christian. However, escapism which not only lies to the audiences but also promotes a general lack of morality through validation and attempts to paint the world in ways that make our sins seem normal is not okay. It is an abuse of God's creation, art in general, and it is a waste of whatever bits of talent are employed in the industry. It's time for us to turn our backs on reality shows and wake up to the reality of life around us.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why Christian is More Than "Nice"

I had the chance to read selected passages of Augustine's City of God this semester and came upon some fascinating insights into the judgment of virtue which help with one of the big questions of today.
A number of times people have said to me, "Well I'm a good person" or "But I know so and so who's not a Christian but he's a good guy." The implied objection seems to be that if one can be a "good guy" without being Christian isn't that close enough? Doesn't that validate them and make them- who knows- OK for achieving the afterlife, even if they don't do silly little rituals like going to church and praying?
Well certainly not for Augustine. For Augustine virtue was determined by the relation of the body to the soul, and of the soul to God. Augustine believed that the body must be subjugated to the soul- that is, the soul (also sometimes understood as mind) must seek to prevent the body (flesh) from pursuing its own desires. This, like Aristotle's concept of virtue, can be understood basically as a prudent discernment and temperate moderation between the excesses and deficiencies of different virtues- moderate eating instead of starvation or gluttony, for instance.
However, the soul must ALSO be subjugated to God in order for any virtuous restraint on the body to matter at all. For, after all, if a man restrains himself from what is considered sin, but does so in order to glorify himself (whether openly or subconsciously), then the virtue has instead become a vice. In fact, Augustine goes so far as to say that without submitting yourself to God, how can you ever even truly do a good act? All that you do, in that it is bent towards your own glory, will be twisted from a good purpose to a self-promoting one.
This is not unlike the discussion of faith and deeds in the Bible- faith without works is dead, but works without love, without faith in God, is like "a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal." And that is the key here: Whereas Aristotle's concept of virtue is that each man does good because he naturally seeks his own good and it therefore advances his life's pursuit, for Augustine we are only virtuous if we act in love and submission to God. With such an understanding then truly only Christians might be counted virtuous people.
Now this sounds harsh- after all, didn't you help that old lady across the street? Don't you give money to the local food shelter?
I am glad that many people see the need to give and to be good in this world. I am ashamed as well that many so-called Christians do not feel such a need, instead being content to haplessly rest upon the imagined laurels of a non-judging God. However, I think a fair self-assessment of most people's charity would reveal that good acts are, more often than not, done that you might also receive something in return. I'm not talking material goods, here- I'm talking honor; glory; recognition; goodwill. Most of us can recognize that that is what motivates us a lot of the time.
True Christianity on the other hand, as Augustine understands it (and as it is) recognizes that God has already saved us. We don't need to DO anything to earn salvation. What we do in this life out of loving faithfulness to Him is in thanks for what He has given us. Is it necessary? Absolutely. A true faith and belief in God must produce good works. But this idea that simply doing good things for people is a merit badge you can gather to redeem at the pearly gates is ridiculous.
The real tragedy of the non-Christian "nice" people is that they understand to a limited extent how to show love. Much like Christ talks about how a father, when asked for a fish by his son, will not give him a snake- so we understand to a limited extent what is right and just and loving. Why? Because of 2 things: 1. God is always at work in our lives; and 2. We live in a culture which despite its best efforts has a fairly strong grounding in Christian ethics. What is normative even for non-Christians, even for vehement atheists, is often only so because of Christian influences which shaped this country and its people. But tragically, they don't care. By doing good and then rejecting God you are saying, "I do good so that you may glorify ME, not my Creator."
This is the fundamental difference between a Christian and "nice" people. I will not cease to be thankful that God is at work in our world and often does good things through nonbelievers- but I am also not going to stop praying that those who understand good and have loving hearts might turn their hearts to the true God who gave them life.
I can think of few greater tragedies I have witnessed in my life than the friend who is so "good"
, and yet so absorbed as to ignore God, or pay Him only lip-service but no heart-service. I only hope that God will turn their hearts to Him so that they may truly live virtuously in view of the eternal salvation awaiting us.

Christians and Culture Pt. 1

The following is an article I wrote in a "Christian Goth" group where someone asked whether it was possible to be Christian and "goth" in light of some of the more extreme "gothic" people.
This is also my first written address to the idea of culture and counter-culture, an idea I hope to expand (so comments and opinions are very appreciated).

"Christian AND Gothic?"

I found the group's ("It's possible to be a Goth, and Christian") description to be a very well-put argument for goth in the very broadly defined sense of the term, but more specifically what it seemed to be advocating was not "goth" but a counter-culture against superficiality and hypocrisy.

Let me start by outlining the danger of counter-cultures. Being against that which is wrong is a particularly Christian concept, the sort of concept that modern-day pluralists and your average cheerful evangelical simply can't wrap their mind around. Muslims have no problem being against beliefs contrary to their own, and yet somehow we of the true Christian faith lack the courage to be so on a grander and more definite scale (standing, after all, on such a strong foundation). The problem counter-culture almost inevitably encounters is that it becomes obsessed with non-identity. It starts out by challenging the falsehoods of the (usually) more popular cultural norms, but in a short matter of time finds itself trapped by the need to constantly be different. Demagogical pundits run into the same problem by getting trapped by their own rhetoric so that they can never afford to post a moderate opinion.
So modern Goth, while it achieves one goal in its rejection of pop culture, also finds itself trapped in its non-associative identity. For a counter-culture to truly succeed it must, soon after its rejection of the popular, construct a definite and lasting identity of its own. The Reformation is a good example- first we rebelled against the popular beliefs of the Roman Catholic church, and then a number of Reformers over 100+ years established the central beliefs of mainline Protestantism, which are still held to this day. Sure, there are lots of different denominations, but those developed mostly later on, and largely due to the influence of outside ideologies. The core tenants of Protestantism established by Calvin still thrive in a decently large number of churches (Ironically, it was often people, like Luther even, who because they were simply counter to the excesses of the Roman Catholics, ended up establishing churches outside of mainstream Protestantism which actually still agree with much of the Roman Catholic belief system). Goth, likewise, has encountered a problem very similar to the Protestants. However, today's culture makes very little space for absolute identity and beliefs, and so one might argue that Goth as a culture of its own has been stunted. I would argue that Goth as a culture of its own stunted itself. Because Goth has associated itself as necessarily counter-cultural, it finds itself stuck in a paradox. Simply by naming itself as a theme, a group to associate with, it becomes a culture. And yet, at the same time, it claims to embrace all those who are counter-cultural.
But counter-cultural to what? By casting the net far and wide into the deep waters of malcontent and righteous anger, Goth has dredged up not only the innocent and pure who are disgusted with superficiality, but also the disturbed, the vampiric, the bleeders and the magickers, the satanists and the chaos theorists. What to do, then, when such a lot is dressing the same way, listening to the same style of music, and claiming the same cultural name? Well, in the Protestant tradition you split and form your own church. But because Goth has associated itself as simply "against pop culture", technically speaking it has no grounds to cast out the evil in its ranks. By the broadly accepted definition of goth, a satanist and a spiritist have just as much right to be goths as a Christian wearing black clothing and makeup and listening to H.I.M. (figure out what his name means if you will). They are, by definition, running counter to the popular culture as well. They just happen to also be against Christianity, against even common morals and accepted sanity in some cases. By supporting the rights of the individual to express themselves how they see fit, Goth has attracted some (note the caveat) of the worst people around. But who will cast them out when your culture embraces them in its very doctrines?

Just two other problems I have with Goth then, apart from the paradox and problem above. One is that the gothic mode of fashion and distinction is, like all fashion and art, a way of hiding what lies beneath. The gothic makeup industry only differs from popular makeup magnates in that it seeks to focus on the dark, on the impure, on that which is considered unattractive, but it still seeks to change your face. It still seeks to achieve a particular ideal by altering your appearance, by layering a mask of white or ash or clown cover upon your natural features. A truly counter-cultural order would simply be done with appearance and go natural. It is only by rejecting the superficiality of makeup entirely that one truly runs against the grain of pop culture.
Second problem: The obsession of shock and discomfort is, as some have pointed out, not a Christian ideal. Yes, you're going against pop culture by having 15 piercings, 12 tattoos, and a padlock in your left ear. But if you're doing it simply to shock people, simply to scare people, then you're not being loving as Christ called us to be. Christ certainly did not modify his body in any way. Christ did not show up in town with black hair, white makeup, and a lip piercing. And Christ certainly did NOT wear bondage leather, listen to songs about vampirism, and then wander into the temple wondering "WHY do they hate me?" Christ was counter-cultural, but he was so by way of reason and truth. He brought true religion to fight against the heresies being distributed by most of the factions of the day.

So if you want a descriptive definition of goth, you're not going to have much luck. There are simply far too many points of view standing under the same umbrella (in the rain, inside the cemetery, at midnight). But if you want to know how to be a faithful Christian AND live counter to the popular culture in a way that both rejects falsehood and defines truth, then I can help you.

What Sort of Faith?

The following is an article I wrote last year after reading stories of some of the persecuted Christians around the world- the purpose of the article is to challenge modern Western Christians with a model of real faith.

What Sort of Faith?

I have written a number of articles over the past year concerning the nature of truth, and how we as Christians ought to view God’s Word and the Christian religion. The quest for truth is a complex, never-ending and extremely challenging calling that all Christians must recognize, and so it is very important that we who have this luxury of the academic study of God’s Word in peaceful countries should readily avail ourselves of such opportunities joyfully and wholeheartedly.
But what of those who are in other countries around the world, countries whose cultures and mindsets are hostile to Christianity? What of the Chinese Christians who cannot even legally worship and who suffer constant persecution in the form of arrest, torture and even murder for their work in spreading the Word? We talk constantly in the Western world about sending missionaries to other countries. We embark on mission trips to countries in order to bring both physical help and God’s Word, and to embrace the culture clash that tears us out of the comfort zone of our everyday life in a country blessed with so much. And yet, when it comes to our own faith- as we pass the days in multi-million dollar institutions of higher education that constantly fill and challenge our minds with knowledge of God’s creation- many of us would as soon prevaricate and back away from the absolute truth of God’s Word as stand up for it to our relatively benevolent interrogators.
When it comes down to it, most of us don’t even have to be interrogated to surrender our commitment to Christ. Many of us have been drawn to churches that have swallowed the humanistic individualism of the Western culture hook, line and sinker. The prevailing mindset of individualism and subjective spirituality in the Western world - within which it is confessed that any person who so much as hints at devotion to any divine creature is a good spiritual person – has so thoroughly blinded the once-faithful Christians that many of us really aren’t even sure whether the Bible is the true Word of God. Western culture has spoken into Christians’ open ears the lies of humanity bent on glorifying itself, and we as Christians more blessed with physical blessings than any others in the world have turned from God and accepted those follies of men as our own.
The disparity of our faith when compared to our brothers in dire situations all over the world is utterly reprehensible. We in our “enlightened” spirituality, so tolerant of all viewpoints false and perverse, seek to travel to foreign lands thinking to educate the barbarian in the ways of good Christianity, and yet we have already traded such Christian faith as is good and true for the nonsense of a trivialized culture that stumbles after wind and takes up each new doctrine as a golden prize, only to leave it aside soon after as a rusted plaything. Surrounded by a culture epitomizing the proverbial house built on shifting sands, we have chosen to build our house in the same manner instead of building upon the solid and unchanging rock foundation of God’s Truth.
No wonder the world laughs at our faith! On the one hand in countries where death and humiliation and torture are accepted dangers to zealous Christians, the Word of God is sought out in humility and joy. It is there, where the line between life and death for those who worship the True God is most apparent, that the fire for the Lord burns brightest. It is where men must hide their Bibles and those who teach are routinely arrested and killed simply because of their beliefs that the real conviction of God’s Power and Truth reside in the hearts of men. What a humiliation, then, that we “enlightened”, blessed, and gifted individuals- being raised in peaceful, immensely wealthy countries where any religion can be practiced openly and safely- should reject and challenge the authority of God’s Word, and proclaim truth in sermons of our own devising. While men and women and children throughout the world die for the True Faith we devise new heresies and shortcuts for Christians. We market ourselves to an indifferent people in the hopes that those already overfilled and sick by a truly self-glorifying culture will think our way of life and worship is more fun than theirs. We soften our words and hide God’s judgment in songs of happiness and salvation that requires no obedience so that a world already turned inward on its own desires will identify Jesus as some sort of nonjudgmental buddy. And it is shameful.
I was reading excerpts from the second volume of “Jesus Freaks”, a series of books telling the stories of martyrs in other countries, and came across an especially convicting passage. This passage tells the story of Pastor Li De Xian who has suffered repeated arrests and torture for his preaching of the Word- he was arrested 15 times just between October of 2000 and May of 2001. Despite the persecution, however, Li De Xian continues to teach and fully expects future persecution, saying “We just follow [Christ]. There are many thorns, but we are just injured a little on our feet. This suffering is very little.” Most convicting, however, was the comment his wife, Zhao Xia, made: “Don’t feel sorry for us,” Zhao Xia says of their lifestyle. “At least we are constantly reminded that we are in a spiritual war. We know for whom we are fighting. We know who the enemy is. And we are fighting. Perhaps we should pray for you Christians outside of China. In your leisure, in your affluence, in your freedom, sometimes you no longer realize that you are in spiritual warfare.”
We as Christians who are so surrounded by blessings that we cannot even begin to count them must take to heart the stories of the martyrs. More than that, however, we must realize what their mission is. They are not out there preaching Christ in order to make people feel good about their lives. They aren’t out there to be culturally relevant- in fact they’re being purposefully counter-cultural in proclaiming God’s Word. As Jesus said in Matthew 10, “All people will hate you because you follow Me, but those people who keep their faith until the end will be saved.” They certainly aren’t risking their lives in order to market a God who calls us to worship at our own convenience, always gives us what we want, and is guaranteed to make us feel good about ourselves. They preach, and they suffer, and they die to spread the message of a God who gave us life and offered salvation to a world that rejects Him in its very nature. They bring a message of One God, Three in One, using the whole and complete True Word of God given to us in the Bible.
We Western Christians can only pray to achieve such a zeal for the faith in our lifetime of luxury.