Christian Living

Crisis, Curtains, and Christianity

[Preface: I write a lot about the silence of God and my personal doubts and struggles.  I feel like most of my posts are fairly deconstructive, so this is an excerpt of a hastily written letter in which I try to posit some kind of constructive theology.]

Here’s where I am with the silence of God.  I don’t trust human perception enough to believe in an infallible revelation from God.  I’ve seen Christians do too much stupid crap with “revelation” to believe that God is both God of revelation and God of our perception.  I know this sounds like it goes against the sovereignty of God somehow.  But part of our agency as human beings means that we bring some measure of humanness ­– dirty, messy, fallible humanness – to our perception of revelation, and that’s what bothers me.  How can I know that what I construct with theology or Biblical data will be anything more than a house of straw – a house of straw that will at best be burned down with the next generation’s philosophical and cultural ideals or at worst be seen as oppressive as we move toward the telos of the realization of God’s kingdom?  Knowledge is such a flimsy thing.  The way we interpret the same data changes from generation to generation.

At this epistemological impasse, I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m not the first to live in doubt.  One of my professors, Dr Robert Dykstra does a brilliant interpretation of the rending of the temple curtain in Mark’s gospel. [1]  Dykstra describes how in that raw moment of agony in the gospel of Mark, when Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he reads that as real anguish.  I read it as fear.  I see perceived abandonment and utter loneliness.  I read this as real doubt.  And the text does not condemn this.  In fact, it supports it!  In what Dykstra calls a beautiful act of violent exhibitionism, God rends the temple curtain in two – expressing solidarity with His Son, suffocating naked, exposed, and doubting on the cross.

I don’t see God physically.  I don’t feel God emotionally.  Hell, I don’t even sense God spiritually.  But in doubting – I feel the freedom and agency God has given me.  In giving us the freedom to doubt and wonder where in this Hell God is and why he has forsaken us, God rends the curtain, exposing Himself in an act of violently vulnerable solidarity.  And faced with my doubt, faced with a Divine silence, I’m faced with a choice.  I’m faced with my own human agency.  And so I make my choice.  I choose to fight against the silence.  I choose to try to break the silence of God.  I choose to try to prove that the impossible can happen here in this world and that the kingdom of God is breaking through this present darkness.

I identify a lot with the gospel of Mark.  Especially the ending, “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Of course that’s not the end of the story.  Mark wouldn’t be writing if it was.  And that’s the only answer to theodicy, for God’s silence, for God’s absence.  For like the disciples in the empty tomb, I have not yet seen my risen Lord.  The only answer is this: the story is not yet over; the drama is still unfolding.

Doubting is not in itself bad.  Living with questions and uncertainty is part of being human.  But living out the answers to those questions is something that is much harder.  I don’t have all the answers, and I probably never will.  But I can try to live the answers out as best as I can, reaching for the impossible, reaching for the Divine, reaching through that impenetrable curtain.  And maybe – just maybe – God will rend the curtain from top to bottom, revealing Himself in glory through the triumph of love over evil and light over darkness.

 

 

 

[1] Robert C. Dykstra, “Rending the Curtain: Lament as an Act of Vulnerable Aggresssion.” Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square. Ed. Sally A. Brown and Patrick D. Miller. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Racism on the Oriental Express

 

 

 

 

I don’t mean to be racist, but you just can’t trust the Chinese. Especially the ones in America.

I had taken my head phones off during my train ride into New York City in order to put on my bow tie just in time to hear these words from the gentleman in front of me.  Pretty shocked, I glanced across the aisle at the Chinese American man who was sitting there.  His head was stuck to the window in what looked like a pretty uncomfortable sleep.

Who says stuff like that in public?  This guy, apparently, on the way into New York City, home of over 680,000 Chinese people.

As I adjusted my collar, I chuckled to myself, and glanced towards this guy’s traveling companion, whom I assume was his spouse.  She was facing him (and me), and there was obvious discomfort on her face as we made eye contact.  I raised an eyebrow and gave her a half smile, and she glanced away.  And said nothing, letting this guy continue on his explanation of why Chinese people could not be trusted in America.

This is ridiculous, I thought to myself.  We are not in the south anymore.  This kind of stuff shouldn’t happen.

But it does.  And I can’t explain why.  I can throw around theories of “perpetual foreigner,” or “model minority,” or articles about how racial insensitivity infiltrating American culture and even the church.  But that doesn’t solve any of the problems or answer any of my very present questions about racial insensitivity or stereotyping.

I tried to tell myself, Don’t worry, it’s not personal.  But it is.  Because I am a person.  Who heard you say that my entire race cannot be trusted.  And I, personally, am especially untrustworthy because of my hyphenated identity of Chinese-American.

And it’s not just personal.  It’s familial.  “Dude, you just insulted my entire family,” is something I didn’t say.  My grandfather is one of the most dependable people.  My dad is my rock, and his word is gold.

One of the surest signifiers of a racist comment is the preface, “I don’t mean to be racist…” I wanted to tell myself, “Oh, it’s just racial insensitivity bred of ignorance.”  But it’s not insensitivity.  It’s racism.

Our train slowed to a stop at Newark Penn Station.  And my racist traveling companion wondered to his wife, “Do you think we have to transfer? Or will this train take us into the city?”

“This train will take you into New York Penn Station,” I heard myself say, “Is that where you guys are ending up?”

“Yes,” the gentleman in front of me turned around and answered. “So we don’t need to transfer trains or anything?”

“Nope.  This line terminates at New York Penn Station, the terminal.”  I responded, noting too late my redundancy.  Maybe he thinks I’m uneducated as well as untrustworthy.  I wanted to add, “But you don’t have to trust me…you can ask a white person if it would make you feel better.”  But I didn’t.

I probably could have taken that moment as a teaching moment to share my offense at his racist comment.  I probably could have taken that moment to break the silence on this issue, perpetuated by his wife.  I probably could have done a lot of things.

But to be honest, I didn’t trust myself.  My instinct was to lash out with a smart-mouthed comment, a cutting quip, or some other biting line.  But I didn’t. I didn’t think that would be very loving.

So I decided I’d blog about it later.

And here we are.

I don’t mean to be that guy writing about racism in post civil rights era America, but you just can’t trust anyone these days. Especially the ones in America.

Mission Impossible: Further Reflections on 4.15

It’s not everyday that a girl weeps in your backseat.

In fact, I can’t think of a single other time that’s happened to me other than on April 15th of this past year.

I promised over six months ago to return to this day, and half a year later, here we are.

**********

On Wednesday I watched the Boston Red Sox slaughter the St Louis Cardinals to take the World Series in game six.  As I sat in T.G.I. Friday, watching pitcher John Lackey battle through six and two-thirds innings for the win, I rooted with all of Boston to celebrate a World Series victory at home.  1918 was the last year that Fenway Park had seen the Sox claim the fall classic until this past week.

It had been 95 years since Boston had seen the Red Sox take the World Series.  And it had been six months since I had seen Boston.

**********

I don’t remember their names.  There were four of them – three boys and one girl.

As I drove out of Boston, winding through the narrow streets congested with terror induced traffic, my mind raced in a hundred different directions.  Is it over?  What’s going to blow up next?  Will my parents be okay?  This can’t be real.

But it was real.  The siren in my rear view mirror belonging to the ambulance stuck in gridlock was real.  The confused marathon finishers walking the streets on their cell phones and in those alien-looking foil blankets were real.  The conscious decision to push down the torrent of emotions and the flood of feelings was real.  The active effort to dam my mind against the ominous rising tide of worry was real.

It was all real.

Despite my daze, I found my way to a street where traffic was actually moving.  I was almost to the freeway, and then I’d be on my way home.  But of course leaving behind a tragedy and an experience like this is never that easy, is it?

As I rolled down the congested but moving street, I passed one woman wrapped in a foil blanket with her parents holding her thumb out.  We locked eyes as I drove by.  In the instant I gazed into her wide green eyes, I realized that the the public transportation system many were relying on to get out of the city must have been shut down.

And I kept driving.  Leaving behind the blonde haired, green-eyed, foil-wrapped woman.  Leaving behind my guiltlessness.

I glanced up to my rear view mirror and saw not a single taxi behind me.  Just the familial trinity left standing on the street.  And as I departed from them, I heard the words of the gospel of Matthew, “Depart from me.”

My head screamed rationalizations.  My heart ached to be beyond the emotional hurricane enveloping the city.  But Christ, when were you hungry? When were you thirsty?  When were you a stranger?

The answer was clear.  “When I stood on the side of the road and you passed me.  When I was dressed like a chipotle burrito and you rolled right along.  There I stood in need and you denied me.”

But I kept driving.

Then I saw them.  A group of college aged kids walking down the middle of the street.  I made eye contact with their leader as I approached them.  And he threw his thumb up.  And I hit my hazard lights.  And I pulled over.

**********

This past Wednesday night I watched as every person in Fenway Park stood to celebrate the Red Sox’s victory.  I watched the team run onto the field, rushing the mound and jumping in celebration.

The last time I stood in Boston in celebration was at 2:40 pm, four minutes before my dad crossed the finish line and nine minutes before the first bomb detonated.

**********

Where you guys heading?

Some college suburb right outside the city.  The first thing I noticed was their ridiculously thick Boston accent.  I wanted to laugh.  But I didn’t.  Probably a good thing, because these were tough Boston kids.

Okay.  Cool.  I can take you there. Let’s just get out of this city.

Where you guys coming from?

The Red Sox game.  We killed the Devil Rays, but man, [creative string of expletives]; I wish we’d stayed home.

It was a small step – a small gesture, to stop for strangers and give them a lift outside the terrorized city.  I didn’t want to.  I wanted to get out of Boston as fast as possible.  I didn’t want to drive an hour out of my way fighting through traffic to get these kids to their home.  But I did.  Love won out in the end.

**********

I sat in my grandparents’ living room when Boston completed their sweep of the Cardinals in 2004 for their first World Series victory since 1918.  It was epic: Curt Schilling pitching game 2 with blood running through his sock down his ankle, Johnny Damon’s solo homerun in game four, and Belhorn’s game winning home run off the foul pole in game 1 are unforgettable moments.

But that wasn’t the end of the story between the Sox and the Cards, as we saw last Wednesday. There was still another victory to come.

**********

Yesterday the church celebrated All Soul’s Day, the day commemorating all who have died in the past year within the church and without.  Before communion this evening, our priest gave us the opportunity to lift up the names of those beloved by the congregation who passed into the next life this past year.

Mary.  John.  Robert.

As names were lifted up by other congregants, I voiced the names of my family members who passed this past year.  My great aunt.  My uncle’s grandmother.  And Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

The name came off my tongue unexpectedly.

I wasn’t ready to forgive this man.  I wasn’t ready to move on.  I wasn’t ready to love like this.

I already showed love to the stranger.  I already drove them home.  Cursing, weeping, and panicked, I did my duty, I overcame my selfishness and drove these kids home as a way to share the love of God.  But that wasn’t the end of the story.

That wasn’t the end of love.

“Love your enemies…Bless those who curse you…”

Those were the words of the gospel of Luke read in churches across the globe today.  And they are hard words.  Impossible words.

**********

Six months ago a girl wept aloud in the backseat of my Toyota Corrolla as we drove out of Boston.  She wept from confusion, from anxiety, and from fear.

Today I wept internally in the front pew of my church in Princeton.  I wept for confusion, for anxiety, and for fear.  But I wept not from those qualities in me – but from those qualities in another.  I wept for the confusion, anxiety, and fear that led the Tsanraev brothers to do what they did.  For the confusion that continues to lead humans to act in violence against one another.  For the anxiety that leads brother to strike down brother in the human tradition that dates back to Cain.  For the fear that is the enemy of true unconditional love.

The story is still not over.

There will always be room for love to grow.

So may we stop for the stranger.  May we feed the hungry.  May we clothe the naked.

And may we do the impossible and love our enemies.

In my last reflection on the Boston bombing I expressed much doubt in the sovereignty of God.  I still don’t know how God is active in this world.  I still don’t have the answers I want.

But I know that loving Tamerlan Tsarnaev is impossible.  But that which is impossible for humans is possible for God.

Somehow tonight I reached beyond myself and found the impossible.

And in the impossible, I found God.

9.5 Theses on Twitter and Indulgences

Reflecting on the recent grant of a plenary indulgence to all those who participated via social media in World youth Day, I came up with a few theses of my own to nail to a virtual Wittenberg door.

Just a sketch of my thoughts now, more details to come!

1. The church must consider possible and likely effects before translating sacraments and practices into new mediums. 

 

2. The power of God is not limited by the biases of a communication medium.

 

3. Social media and technology provide access to experiences and aspects of the church that many will never have access to in person.

 

4. Physical presence is radically different from digital observation.

 

5. Social media perpetuates a separation of body and soul.

 

6. Social media (and internet discourse) subverts the gravity of a message or experience by leveling all things to an equal prominence.

 

7. Social media is used principally for entertainment not serious engagement, and as such the medium often trivializes the content.

 

8. The computer (or smartphone or tablet) is not conducive to a devotional attitude of singleness of heart.

 

9. Social media is now a part of our world and part of creation.

 

9.5 The church should use all forms of media and communication but with right application and care.

Zombie Theology

“There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.”

 

These opening words of the Didache, a document from the apostolic age, are as black and white as they come.  There is a path of light and life.  There is a path of darkness and death.  There are only two roads, one of life and one of death.  It seems pretty simple at first read, right?  Dark and light, black and white, death and life – all are paired in binary relationships.  However, we know from life experience that not everything is exclusively binary.  Dark and light blend at dusk, and black and white blend into gray, but death and life don’t blend very well.

They don’t blend very well, unless you consider the undead: zombies.  While the theological questions I am about to pose have little or nothing to do with the lore concerning brain-hungry monsters, I like the term zombie theology because it captures the strange world of the uncertainty within ethics and morality.

Growing up I loved rules.  I lived by the rules, so much so that when nine-year-old Michael saw the blue handicapped sign by the ramp at a building in Philadelphia, I made us walk the block around to the front steps even though both my dad and me were dying to go to the bathroom.  I refused to let anyone color outside the lines.  Even in college I bought a train ticket for every ride even if I were fairly certain the conductor would not check my ticket.  I like it when rules are explicit, boundaries are clear, and morality is absolute.

But that is not the world we live in.  We live in a world where ethics, right and wrong, are constantly in need of reevaluation and renovation.  As technology speeds ahead in directions hitherto predicted only by science fiction writers, new questions concerning ethics spring up like weeds.  With the advent of globalization and the entire world being networked and interconnected, this century has seen the fields of bioethics, social ethics, business ethics, and sexual ethics all become increasingly complicated.

Unfortunately, the debates do not get any less fierce or less complicated when these issues are raised within the realm of Christendom.  The Christian life was supposed to be simple, right?  There are two paths, one of life and one of death.  But which is which?

 

One question that has haunted me over the past few years is the problem of guilt, intention, and effect.  By this I mean: do I have moral culpability for unintended effects of my actions?  Let’s look at a concrete example.  I have a pretty small clothing budget, and I shop at places that have lower prices.  How are these places able to offer such seminarian-budget-friendly prices, though?  Many times the savings I see are an indication of a system of underpaid workers in an offshore facility.  And we’ve all read the sensationalist news stories about factory fires or the horrid conditions in sweatshops.  But do we actually do anything about that?  My intention is just to buy clothes.  If I claim for myself ignorance of companies’ operations then does my clock of invincible ignorance repel all culpability for the effects of my patronage?  My intended effect is to buy a trendy pair of pants.  The unintended effect is that a company that exploits people profits and continues in their exploitive way.  This is just one example of what ethicists call the double effect in our actions.  There is the intended effect, obtaining some nice fitting pants, but the unintended effect of the perpetuation of exploitation of people is also attached to the action.

 

Since we’re exploring zombie theology, Sunday marks the premier of the fourth season of “The Walking Dead,” one of my favorite television shows.  The reason I love it, in spite of the high tension, suspense, and gruesome violence, is that the show highlights these moral scenarios that are ambiguous, sticky, and undead.

Take for instance a marginal scene in the beginning of the 12th episode of season 2.  (No major plot spoilers here if you have not yet seen the show.)  The protagonist Rick, accompanied by two others, including his adolescent son, are driving along the highway when they pass a backpacking man who begs for them to stop.  The risk is too great, Rick wordlessly communicates as they continue driving, watching the man running after them grow smaller in the rearview mirror.  The group is already suffering from limitations on resources and another unknown person would only decrease their odds of survival through the zombie apocalypse.  At the end of the episode, as the trio returns to their camp, they see the body of the backpacker half eaten by zombies along the side of the road.

Was Rick wrong?  Should they have prevented this man’s death by picking him up despite the risk to their group?  Rick’s intention was to preserve the group and increase the odds of their survival.  He did not want this man to die; however, the unintentional but inevitable effect was that the undead walkers consumed this man.  So how then do we evaluate this scenario?

Our evaluation is important and highly relevant to the ethical dilemmas of our day.  This is a caricatured version of my moral conundrum of ethical shopping.  Yes the zombies were the active agents in killing the backpacker.  Yes the corporations exploiting the impoverished people of developing nations are the active agents and bear guilt.  But is Rick complicit in this man’s death by his inaction?  Am I complicit in the corporation’s guilt by giving them my money and business?

 

The exploitation of the marginalized is definitely outside of my intention.  But when the action and effect, however much unintended, are bound so tightly in an inextricable way, it seems to me that there must be complicity in responsibility for the outcome.

Love your neighbor as yourself.  This is the second greatest commandment.  In this globalized world, it’s hard to know who is your neighbor.  For with the advent of the internet and the communication technologies available to us, everyone is a neighbor in some sense.  And it is our Christian duty to love them.  It is our Christian duty to shed our clock of ignorance and learn how best to love.  That is our call, regardless of denomination, theology, or steeple height, we are called to love our neighbor.  Our neighbors in the Bengladeshi factories that collapsed killing 112 workers need our love.  The Chinese college students forced to put stickers on Playstation 4s in order to graduate need our love.  The millions of children working in horrible conditions in Pakistan need our love.

How do we show our love to these neighbors?  Well, dear reader, I leave that to you to decide.  For me that means researching my consumption choices.  It means learning about how my actions unintentionally affect my neighbor.  It means revaluating my priorities as I search for fashionable clothes.  For there is a path that leads to life.  And often this path is hard to find, for it is narrow.  But this path is a path of love for all, which is a daily challenge.  This is a challenge that I accept every day anew as I choose to walk in love as Christ has loved me.

There are myriad other examples of ethical situations that fall into this nebulous category of zombie theology.  May God give us wisdom as we discern how best to proceed in our lives and try to display unconditional love.  We live in the information age, and we have no excuse for living in an intentional ignorance of the unintentional travesties rippling forth effected by our actions. 

 

The world is a sticky place, and morality is anything but black and white.  But the path to life is paved with love, and there is no law against love, so let us pursue life in pursuing love.

 

Love means researching the business practices of a clothing company before you drop $50 on a couple of cardigans.  Love means researching the labor policy of a video game distributer before spending a few hundred dollars for the latest console.  Love means educating yourself on the exploitation of others that we may move to work against evil.

 

To paraphrase a Franciscan prayer:

 

May God bless us with the foolishness to think that our individual actions make a difference, so that we may take courage to seek ways to show love to all our neighbors and effect the change that others say cannot be done.

The Frustration of Faith

“But what is the ground of my right to believe the impossible fact, that God has intervened in the history of man?  What justifies my right to hold to the truth of the sacred history? …Have I the right to place absolute trust in the testimony of Scripture?”*

“The message of Christ has never had a brighter future ahead of it.  It is the only one to offer a response to radical evil, to the forces of death and misfortune to which man is captive and that economic, social, political, and scientific reforms cannot reach.  Christ alone descended into these endless depths of misery that are inaccessible to man, on which he has no grasp, in order to destroy the venomous source from which every evil and suffering spreads through humanity.  Considering all religions, all ideologies, the message of the risen Christ is the only one to resolve the ultimate drama of the human condition.”**

In these words from Jean Daniélou, a French Jesuit cardinal of the 20th century, I find hope.  The questions he poses in the first block are the exact same questions I pose almost daily.  What right do I have to claim that this God of ancient stories is actually at work in this world?  I can’t prove the existence of God.  I can’t say definitively where God has been at work in my own life.  I can’t prove that Jesus was the Christ or the Son of God.

Yet when people ask me why I hold to my faith in Christ, I tend to answer with Daniélou: the narrative of God’s victory over death answers the spiritual questions and riddles of life more fully than any other human effort.  As Chesterton put it, “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of humans.”

This narrative is still full of frustrations.  The frustration I feel most acutely right now is the suffering that continues to wildly, rapaciously, and sinisterly spread its toxins throughout our world.  Where is Christus Victor?  Where is the Christ depicted conquering death?

We pray for healing.  We pray for equality.  We pray for justice.  We pray for peace.  We pray for Christ’s return.  But why aren’t all these prayers answered?

I know the answers that the Church and the Bible hold.  And I don’t want those answers.

I know I’m supposed to see the world with Paul’s bifocal vision (as explicated by J. Louis Martyn), seeing the suffering around us in tension with the promised return of Christ.  I know I’m supposed to see sin as a symptom of humanity’s original sin, and I know that God is not the creator of evil.  I know these things.  I know the story.  I know how the story ends with Christ’s return and the establishment of God’s kingdom without end.

But I’m still dissatisfied.  This isn’t the way it should be.

And I suppose that’s the point.

The riddles of God, satisfying as they may be, are still riddles.  “Why, God?”  This accusatory question I demand of God remains unanswered.

At this juncture, I am supposed to say that this is where faith comes in.  That the only way to continue with this dissonance is to grasp onto faith that God is love and that Christ is Lord.

It seems a bit of a cop out.  But I’m going to say it anyway.  For at the end of the day, this riddle of God is the only solution I am left with.  With tears, shouts of anger, and agony, I grasp that thin line of faith, and I pray it is stronger than it appears.

* Jean Daniélou, Mythes païens et mystère chrétien, trans. P. J. Hepburne-Scott (New York: Hawthorne Books, 1968), 107.

** Jean Daniélou, Et qui est mon prochain?: Mémoires (Paris: Editions Stock, 1974), 236.

Both found in Communio International Catholic Review: Liturgy and Culture, Winter 2012, p. 665.

My Journey to Becoming a Slut

“Mostly I just don’t think it would be very beautiful.”

One of my writer-crushes Rachel, of racheltellsitlikeitis.com, wrote a piece about a year ago that I am just now getting around to responding to: “Non committal make outs: a treatise.”

As with all of Rachel’s writing, this piece is humorous, playful, reflective, and challenging.  In her biting and witty way, Rachel does a great job explaining the evangelical Christian guilt associated with non-committal make outs.

She makes a case for non-committal make outs concluding, “I don’t think you get handed the Sin Card for masturbation or some mostly-not-sexual making out with that person you aren’t dating.  It’s truly not worth all the guilt and shame we associate with it.”

But that’s not the end of the treatise.  She continues, “Non-committal make-outs (and masturbation) are not sinful, in my mind. But. I don’t think we should necessarily be basing our actions on what is sinful and what isn’t. That can just become about cheating the system, finding loopholes, feeling righteous and good.”

So what is the moral paradigm that we plug our decisions into in the hopes for an illuminated life?  Rachel cites Beauty.  Making out without attachment is not beautiful.  Or so Rachel says.

And I think I agree with her that the ideal is to make those physical connections with someone who shares a emotional connection, commitment, and attraction.  But I don’t know if I can agree with the proposition that the pursuit of Beauty is a valid standard of measure for our daily choices.

It sounds really nice.  And I want it to work.  But I’m not sure it does.

Beauty is subjective.  Beauty is learned.  And our perception of beauty changes over time.

I know, I know, this flies in the face of the Platonic ideals that I want to believe in.  It goes against my desire to assert that Truth is Beauty and that both are absolute.  But as much as I want to say that Beauty is absolute, unchanging, timeless, and universal, I don’t think the particularities of the world allow for that.

My own personal ideas of beauty have changed drastically within my own lifetime.  Even at the age of 15, I was aware that my standards of beauty changed within one semester.  I walked into my AP physics class immediately smitten with Anne.  She was the ideal of beauty for me.  Tall, thin, and the pinnacle of beauty as far as 15 year old Michael Toy was concerned.  But by Christmas time, I had a new standard of attractiveness: Emm. Emm, who had been in the class since day one, had a different body type than Anne and was also better at physics.  I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly certain that intelligence and her mathematical aptitude influenced the change in my perception of beauty.  (That actually is a recurring theme in my life – becoming attracted to someone in class because she is really good at a certain subject.  Intellectual natural/sub-conscious selection at play, I’m sure.)  But whatever the reasons, my standards of beauty changed then and continue to change.

But enough of the personal anecdotal stuff.

Scientists say (yes, I am invoking the vague “Scientists” from journals and periodicals that normal people don’t have the time or expertise to read) that there are objective measures of beauty.  But for the most part, beauty, outside the three broad features or symmetry, averageness, and sexual dimorphism, is subjective within cultural and individual standards.

So if beauty is subjective within physical attraction, can other ideals of beauty be subjective and bound to cultural groups?

In the case of non-committal makeouts, masturbation, and even premarital sex, perhaps the reason Rachel and I don’t initially find these things “beautiful” is because of our evangelical Christian upbringing.

Our culture influences how we see the world.  Our perspectives on life, our ideas of the large narrative arcs, and our perception of beauty are all colored with hues mixed from the paint of the exposures and experiences.

Maybe there is something beautiful in non-committal make outs.  Maybe there is beauty there that resonates outside my experience and cultural worldview.

It is not the pinnacle of beauty in relationships within the Evangelical Christian monogamist  culture, but I am going to dare to say that there is beauty outside of that narrative.

Half a century ago, many Christians condemned miscegenation.  And look how that turned out.

Less than a decade ago, relatively few Christians were willing to say that a relationship between a man and another man could be beautiful.  But more and more, we are seeing a shift in that perspective.

I’m not writing to condone sexual anarchy.

I’m not going to go make out with a stranger at a club. Or go on a spree of one night stands.

And I’m not saying that some standard of universal Beauty doesn’t exist.  I want to believe that it does.

But I don’t know if the pursuit of beauty is a valid decision making paradigm.  For other narratives exist outside my culture.  And I think they can be beautiful.

**PS I’m not really becoming  someone who sleeps around all the time. I just wanted a captivating title.**

***PPS I am aware of the issues and concerns that have aggregated around the word slut, and while I don’t have time or space here to provide a properly nuanced explanation of my use of the word, I do hope that this post has combated “slut-shaming” or that kind of hegemonistic attitude***

[UPDATE 8.2.15: even if a universal standard of beauty doesn’t exist, the fact that a cultural construction is a cultural construction doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And certainly, finding what is beautiful using the resources within one’s own cultural narrative and experience is a valiant and wonderful thing.]

Being White in Princeton

So today I broke one of my rules.  I have a ton, and it’s impossible to live by them all.  Like: Don’t eat taco bell. Or don’t make out with strangers. Or nothing good happens after 2am.  Some rules I import from others.  Such as: Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.  Okay, here the joking stops, for another rule is not to make light of things that are serious.  I don’t take a lot of things seriously, including my Christian doctrine, much to the chagrin of a lot of my friends.  (Although one professor did praise my urge for levity in the study of theology.)  But some things I do take seriously.  Actually, in my now unmaintained okcupid account, one of the questions is: Can anything be made into a joke or made light of in the right context? My response: There are very few things that are off the table for me to joke about, but there is one important one: rape.

The rule I broke today was this: Never ever read the comments on a blog or an online article.  Ever.

Well today I broke that rule and all hell broke loose.  I don’t think I’ve been this worked up since a bunch of kids came through my Starbucks yelling, “Fag!” at each other.

The article was about a woman in New Delhi who claims to have been gang raped by a lawyer, his assistant, her estranged husband, and her brother-in-law.  Now I know that rape is a touchy subject.  With the Steubenville case wrapping up, my facebook feed has been lit up by angry feminists and well-intentioned people standing up for the rapists.  A lot of people have a lot of opinions.  And each person is entitled to his or her own opinion.

But the comments on this article were horrifying.  Not just because of the ignorance.  Like the fact that most people thought this took place in the U.S.  Or someone saying: “Bunch of savages. Dirtiest country in the world.”  Or people fighting about Muslims and Hindus and their treatment of women.  That was all horrendous.  But what really got me fuming was that people were joking about it.  The very first comment was from Brian: “Apparently this chick didn’t know that anyone going to see a lawyer is going to get screwed.”  I don’t even want to write the other jokes people were making.

I was aghast at the light-handed way people were treating this subject.  There is no levity in rape.

Last week I read an article entitled “Being White in Philly.”  Now there are tons of problems that I have with this op-ed, but one thing the author noted is that in corporate and political Philly, African-Americans are very well represented.

“There is a black middle class, certainly, and blacks are well-represented in our power structure, but there remains a vast and seemingly permanent black underclass. Thirty-one percent of Philadelphia’s more than 600,000 black residents live below the poverty line. Blacks are more likely than whites to be victims of a crime or commit one, to drop out of school and to be unemployed.”

Up in the power structures of our society, everything might be fine and dandy, but the fact remains that on the ground, something is systemically broken.  Something is still wrong.

I write this a block away from the #1 ranked university in America, where Shirley Tilghman sits as Princeton’s first, and the ivy league’s second, female president.  There is no shortage of feminists here in Princeton. And yet when you descend the ivory tower of academia, what do you find?  A similar discrepancy to what Robert Huber noticed in his op-ed.  On the ground, something is radically broken.

Yesterday in downtown Princeton, when I went to the bathroom three young men were talking about women in an extremely degrading, dehumanizing, and objectifying way.  And just over Christmas, on the main street running through downtown Princeton, there was a huge cutout of a silhouette of a woman bending over provocatively.  I was amazed at this public display of blatant objectification and reduction to sexualization of a woman’s body.  Right across from what NPR just praised as a liberal and integrated school.  So of course I wrote an angry letter to Urban and received a generic reply.  And the silhouette stayed until the next window display went up.

There’s something wrong with our society.  Something on the ground is broken.  And we can affirm women in our classrooms, and we can write angry blogposts, and we can write angry letters to indifferent corporations.  But what will it take to enact real change?  What will it take to make every man and woman realize that rape isn’t funny.  What will it take to make every person realize that every other person, male or female, is a human being – worthy of dignity, owed respect, and who has inviolable rights to personhood?

I live in Princeton, which, unlike Philly, is mostly white.  The median househould income in Princeton is over twice that of Philadelphia.  When my brother asked if I was going to put my gps in my glove compartment, I laughed and said, “This is Princeton. No one is going to break into my corolla.”  It’s easy to be “white” here in Princeton.  It’s easy to be a feminist in the classroom.

But what happens when we step outside the classroom?  What happens when we descend our ivory tower?  What happens when we make the drive fifteen minutes down route 1 to Trenton?  What happens when we start reading comments on blogs?

We’re faced with the fact that it’s a different world out there.  And I can follow John Mayer’s rule and wait for the world to change.  Or I can follow Gandhi’s rule and be the change I want to see.  But I feel like there’s something more we should be doing.

How can we shape this world into a better place, where all humans are treated with dignity and respect?

Faces, Facets, and Facades

Faces, Facets, and Facades.

“‘Would you tell us about her?” Lucille asked.

‘Oh, she was nice,” Sylvie said. ‘She was pretty.’

‘But what was she like?

‘She was good in school.’

Lucille sighed.

‘It’s hard to describe someone you know so well.’” – Homecoming, Marilynne Robinson

It’s hard to describe someone you know so well.  Recently, someone asked me what my own mother was like.  I started with, “Well she wants me to succeed.  She’s always making sure I have my act together, and am at least on some kind of track to succeed.”  Then I realized that the person my words were painting was some kind of a Tiger Mom.  Someone my mother definitely was not.  “But that’s her way of showing she cares – that’s the way that she let’s us know that she loves us a lot and is invested in our lives.  It’s not a bad thing.”  And I left it at that.  I didn’t talk about the years of hard work (25 years now) and the sacrifices she made to raise four children, homeschooling us all.  I didn’t talk about the packages she sends us in the mail of cookies, books, and nerf guns.  I didn’t talk about the meals she cooked, the clothes she washed, or the dishes scrubbed.

I couldn’t.  Not in a few minutes.  Not in a few hours.  Never could I, in mere words, give justice to the personhood of who my mother is.  The good, the bad, the joy, the pain, it would never be sufficiently encapsulated in a few sentences.

A few weeks ago I was talking with someone about Bible churches and how every church struggles to come up with its own statement of faith.  Ask a hundred Bible-belt evangelical Christians what God is, and you’ll probably hear quite a few different answers.  If you’d asked me a few months ago who I believed God is, you’d have heard this: I believe in God the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is: visible and invisible.  But recently I realized that those words are insufficient.  Sure.  Maybe in some ways, God is Father, God is almighty, and God is maker of everything.  But that’s not all that God is.  God is also Mother.  God is humility.  God is.  Period.

I can’t even describe my mother in words; how then do I expect to do the same with this being, person, or concept of God?

One way that I dealt with this was by throwing up a façade.  I would pick a few things that sound God-like, be it from the creeds, from philosophy, or tradition, and I would say, This is God.  But I was wrong.  That is not God.  God is more than that, and perhaps, less than that.

It’s hard to describe someone you know so well.  The people who claimed to encounter God, the mystics, kept to a holy silence.  They couldn’t describe the things that they saw or the things they encountered.  I’m not saying that we need to revert back to a completely apophatic system of theology in which we can say nothing positive about God.  But I do think we need to be incredibly careful about the assertions that we make about God.

Some of the cataphatic (positive) predications to God I like most are Beauty, Truth, Mercy, Kierkegaard’s Transcendent, or the Numinous as described by Kenneth Graham and C.S. Lewis.  These ascriptions, I know, are broad.  There are so many facets of God that these terms capture, but there are so many facets that escape the reaches of these terms.  Though my attempt is to refrain from laying limitations over the concept of God, I know that by using words themselves, I have constructed a framework or a façade.  What then am I to do?

If every word or phrase we use to describe God is a façade insufficient to encapsulate God, then what are we to do?  Walk to the façade, pursuing the Beauty, Truth, and Mercy that one can see in this world.  And then walk through the façade, and let yourself realize that God is more than Beauty, Truth, and Mercy.

st mikes facade

When I was in Munich I walked by the Church of St Michael’s in the main square, and it was covered with a huge painted façade, as it was under construction.  I looked at it, thought, “That must be nice underneath the wooden plywood façade.”  Then I walked on.  Later that day, I decided to enter into the church, and inside was the second largest domed vault in the world, coming only after St Peter’s in Rome.  Inside I heard the choir practicing, and in that space, amidst the voices floating around me, amidst the memories of the saints who prayed there over the past 400 years, and amidst the Asian tourists snapping pictures, and amidst the bratty child’s petitions for candy, I experienced the Numinous. I experienced Truth, Beauty, and Mercy.  And these words can’t do justice to that experience which I hold so dear and so close.  For it is truly hard to describe something one knows so well.

Facades are not a lie.  They are what they are.  But they are not what is inside.

The Grateful Dread

The Grateful Dread

I am grateful.  I know, I know, that’s the cliché that I’m supposed to say coming out of the Christmas season.  I found the real meaning of Christmas, I rejected commercialism, realized I have loving friends and family, and that Santa is indeed real.  Or something like that.  That’s the Christmas spirit, right?  Be grateful, giving, and sentimental.  But for whatever reason I Just wasn’t feeling it this Christmas.  Maybe it was working like a crazy person at work and school during the weeks leading up to Christmas instead of properly fasting (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) during Advent, but the spirit of gratitude never really hit me.  Sure I said thank you and acknowledged all the things given me, seen and unseen.  And I was grateful, cognitively.  But I never had gratitude punch me with pathos.  I never had that overwhelming moment when I my heart was wrenched, my gut flipped, or tears fell out of my face.  So I spent Christmas pondering my life, searching for that moment when I’d be hit by that grateful spirit.  But it just wasn’t coming.  The plight of those under political tyranny, the situation of the sweatshop workers, even the predicament of the exploited Africa children couldn’t stir my gut to gratitude.  Perhaps it’s the overexposure by Christian aid groups looking for financial support, or the impotence I feel when considering these massive injustices, but I guess I’ve been conditioned to just accept these injustices without being affected in spirit.

Well now it’s Epiphany, and the Christmas season is over, so I don’t have to be grateful anymore.  I have no obligation to write the “feel grateful in the spirit of Christmas” piece.  But it was in this season of epiphany that gratitude caught up to me.

Gratitude.  There’s a lot that can be said about gratitude.  But don’t worry; I’m not going to be prolix.  For which, you should be grateful.

I am incredibly grateful for my health.

I never really considered the issue of health until this past year.  I am 22 years old, didn’t get sick once this past semester, have never broken a bone, and have never had any serious surgery.  And for this, I’m grateful.

This past year, God, providence, fate, or whatever you want to call it, (I think I’m just going to call it ‘life’) led my path across the paths of people who do not have the same healthy body as me.  They do not live the same life I live.  Sure, they walk the same earth, eat the same oatmeal, and drink the same water.  But I don’t wear the same shoes they wear, take the same pills, or drink of the same cup (‘of’, not ‘from’ – I’m not a germophobe).

The amount of energy they spend making it through the day is unfathomable to me, and I have the utmost respect and admiration for them.  I wake up and feel cold, and I don’t want to get out of bed.  I am in awe of the courage needed to get out of bed and face a day full of mountains, which to other people are molehills.  Christine Miserandino has a beautiful illustration of life with lupus using spoons.  (Google it! Worth the five minutes.)  Every action, every thing upon which energy is expended takes a spoon.  Getting out of bed.  Putting on clothes. Brushing one’s teeth.  And spoons are not unlimited, for the healthy, but especially for the sick.

This past week I was in the gym with my buddies, and an older gentleman was working out on some of the machines.  He was in pretty good shape for his age, both physically and socially.  As I was explaining the form of the deadlift to my friends, he came over and asked if I could walk him through this exercise.  The barbell, with weight, was over 130 pounds, and I offered to reduce the weight, but he said no, and proceeded to complete several reps.  He was surprised at how hard the deadlift was, and he was pretty wiped after the two and a half repetitions.  But he wasn’t disappointed he couldn’t do more, he was happy in what he was able to accomplish.

It’s not that I’m grateful because I’m not sick.  I’m grateful because I’m healthy.

I don’t pity the sick.  I don’t want to reduce sickness to a battle or something to be conquered; it’s so much more than that.  I don’t want to reduce those who endure sickness into some kind of charity case.

I just want to say that I’m grateful.

At my six month old cousin’s baby dedication, the pastor, in what I thought was incredibly conscientious, said, “In this dedication, this celebration of new life, we want to remember all of those who do not have children.  Those of you who are not able to have children, or who have lost children, we remember you, we love you, and we stand in solidarity with you.  In this celebration of these births, we do not forget you.”

Just as this church was grateful for these babies, I am grateful for my health.  And like this church, in celebration of my health I do not ever want to forget those who are not healthy.  I want to remember those who are not able to be grateful in the same way I am.  I’m not sure memory is enough.  But for now, it’s all I can do.

This gratitude is twofold.  The first part asks, “How are you going to recognize, remember, and lift up those who are not in the same situation as you?”  And the other second part asks, “What are you going to do with that which you’ve been given?”

I’m able to do so much.

And, God help me, may I do much with the life and the health I’ve been given.