Not all that’s popular is of good quality.

Advice for actors on how not to appeal to crowds:

And let those that play your
clowns speak no more than is set down for them. For there
be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity
of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime
some necessary question of the play be then to be
considered. That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition
in the fool that uses it.

Hamlet’s advice to the acting troupe may have some application to preaching, music and other aspects of life.  What say you?

George Sodini and Limited Atonement

When George Sodini walked into his Pittsburgh gym and opened fire on August 4, killing three women and wounding several others, that was a tragedy.  An edited version of his diary over the last year has been released and it is heart-breaking.  His bitterness and loneliness escalated through the posts; he never turned to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness and fulfillment he desperately wanted.

He did, however, include a bit of theology near the very end of the diary:

Maybe soon, I will see God and Jesus.  At least that is what I was told.  Eternal life does NOT depend on works.  If it did, we will all be in hell.  Christ paid for EVERY sin, so how can I or you be judged BY GOD for a sin when the penalty was ALREADY paid.

To read his attempt to bring the grace of God (albeit a flawed view of that grace) into his rationalization and self-pity – that floored me.  How I wish he had known the truth about what God and Jesus!

All of us need to realize that eternal life absolutely does depend on works!  Now, our works can’t earn eternal life, but the righteous works that Jesus Christ did during his life on earth – those works are the ones that eternal life depends on.  Call it the active obedience of Christ: he never sinned and always did right.  He was the only man to walk this earth and actually earn eternal life.  For us to have eternal life, we must be in Christ.

That statement that “Christ paid for EVERY sin” is misleading in this context.  It ignores the fact that there really is a limit on Christ’s atonement.  Here’s the false dichotomy: either we all go to hell for our sins OR we all see God because Jesus paid for them.  In other words, either (A) no hope of salvation or (B) universalism.  You can say what you like about the potential limits of the forgiveness that Jesus secured with his death, but when you look at what actually happens between men and God, there is a limit.  God does not extend the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice to people who don’t want it.  He does not give those blessings to people who think they want it but won’t humble themselves to ask for it God’s way either.  God gives forgiveness (based on Christ’s death) and righteousness (based on Christ’s life) freely and unreservedly to those who repent from their sin and exclusively trust Jesus for the salvation he has provided.

Unfortunately, when people choose to stew in their own self-pity, loneliness and bitterness, they close their eyes to the joy and liberty of forgiven life in Jesus Christ.  How sad it is when they almost come close to Christ, but their mistaken theology leaves them to wallow in despair.

FWD: Re: Fw: FW: Fw: RE: Fwd: URGENT!!

This morning, I opened an email entitled “FWD: [Fw:] Fwd: FW: Fw: [FWD:] (maybe a couple more) HB 1388 Passed.”

That was the best part of the email.  The rest of the email was a stereotypical urban legend, “conservative” watchdog alarmist message.  It nearly frightened me into buying a gun (or several!) and joining militia (fergit that! I’ll start ma’ own!).  Apparently, President Obama recently signed an executive order to spend $20 million to help terrorists immigrate to America.  The email chronicled all his other woeful failures and deliberate attempts to destroy America and warned the reader to “LOCK AND LOAD MY FRIENDS!!!!!!” (sorry to all the original sender’s friends – I need to find you and “lock and load” you before our country is destroyed) and to “PLEASE PASS THIS ON” (I really do care, but stop shouting at me).

All most tongue-in-cheek mockery of that email aside, here’s why it really bothered me.

  1. It’s factually bogus from the get-go.  “HB 1388” has nothing to do with terrorists or immigration or terrorists who immigrate.  In fact, “HB” is not how people refer to legislation anyway.  Conservatives got all riled up about “HR” 1388 (it allegedly forced students into a mandatory volunteer group to be brainwashed by the President just like the Hitler Youth – only with more capital letters and “FWD:” notations).  Moving along, the alleged $20 million for Hamas terrorists issued is a presidential order, not a bill from the House (which would be noted with “HR”).  Frankly, the email is so factually confused in the subject line that I have very little hope for the body…
  2. The allegation that the President is sending $20 million of hard-earned American taxpayer dollars to move terrorist to US soil is also a load of malarkey.  That money is not earmarked for plane tickets and box-cutters for Hamas extremists.  It is, according to the US Dept. of State, intended for “distributing emergency food assistance, providing medical assistance and temporary shelter, creating temporary employment, and restoring access to electricity and potable water to the people of Gaza.”  To put things in perspective, President Bush signed for nearly $30 million for refugee relief in Somalia, Sudan and Chad in 2007 and nobody started a militia.
  3. This is no urgent matter that we must do something about now. It was signed in January.  Seven months ago.  What a shame: we are incapable of keeping track of current news; only old stuff is capable of angering us!

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not writing in favor of that presidential directive.  In fact, I’m not offering any opinion about it all.  I am making a point about honesty, factuality and integrity.  That watchdog (more like watch-chihuahua) email lacked honesty, factuality and integrity.

Christian, why would you forward that email?  “Because people need to know what those sneaky liberals are up to!”  Stop.  When the “information” is emotionally manipulative misinformation, people do not (repeat: do not) need to know it.  That email was (for lack of a better term) a “false witness.”  And if I recall rightly, God placed a prohibition on bearing false witness.

Don’t succumb to the temptation to get all riled up at every allegation made against your “political enemies.”  Don’t forward malarkey email either.  (Hint: if it’s been forwarded more than 5 times, it’s either a joke or an urban legend.)  If we are children of light, our interaction with our world must be marked by truth (Eph. 5.6-8).  I cannot see how a Christian can “pray for kings and for all who are in high positions” (I Tim. 2.1-2) at the same time that he forwards inaccurate and deceptive emails about those leaders.  “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4.6) – including your email!

Read this and this for some helpful exegesis / theology regarding American conservative activism.

Subversion, or Conversion?

Don’t you love surprise blessings?

ABC (Australia) ran this story recently about two men (and their families) who broke with the tradition of their Amish community..  I think the reporters were hoping to play a “real people breaking against their draconian spiritual leaders” angle for this one.  The thing that stood out to me, however, was not the alleged subversion of these men, but the testimony of their conversion!

The video is worth watching.

More Thoughts on Aesthetic Absolutes

A few days ago, I raised several questions about aesthetics and how easily absolute standards can be applied to beauty in art (visual, music, etc).  Those questions present a serious challenge to the simplistic application of the view that there is an external standard of beauty by which every piece of art can be judged.

As is very frequently the case, there is a balance that needs to be maintained.  I recently argued against the neglect of the role of personal taste in aesthetics; today, I’ll maintain that personal taste is just a part of the issue.  In this article, I’ll use the word “individualism” to describe relying on subjective personal taste to judge beauty.

In my last post, I questioned the assertion that “God’s character is the absolute standard for beauty and all art must be judged thereby.”  While there is truth in that assertion, it’s an oversimplification of the issue.  While God is the ultimate source of beauty, there’s no easy art-related check-list based on his character.  And there can’t be.  Do you want to evaluate visual art based on God’s character?  You can’t see God, so there is no one-to-one correlation.  Shall we evaluate musical beauty?  We can’t hear God sing; we can’t see a playlist of his favorite music.  Again, there is no quick and easy comparison.  But, the difficulty of evaluation does not excuse us from our obligation to glorify God in this area of life!

The Bible gives us a framework for evaluating beauty and art.  It’s the framework of our world.  God created the world and it was “very good” (Gen. 1.31).  Then things changed (Gen. 3) and with man’s sin, “bad” entered the world.  The world we occupy today is a mixture “creational” and “fallen” elements (to borrow some verbiage from Dr. Dan Forrest).  I almost cringe to write this next statement, but very few things are purely black or white in our world.  Take people, for example.  The purest, holiest saint on earth is still not perfect.  Though very “good,” there are still tints of sin’s corruption in every man on earth.  On the other end, God’s common grace allows that very corrupt people can on occasion do good things.  Some classical composers lived profligate lives and wrote music of enduring quality.  (For a humorous take on common grace, I recommend a word from Gilbert and Sullivan.)

The Bible addresses individualism.  Fallenness affects every one of us at the core of our being: “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17.9).

Reliance on the community’s standard is not an adequate solution.  After all, the community is flawed at its root because it is made up of fallen individuals.  “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way” (Isa. 53.6).  There is little hope that a crowd of individualists can ultimately correct the problems inherent in individualism!

So how do we judge beauty in art?  There is a factor that lies beyond the human race, I would submit.  When God set himself to make something tangible, visual and audible, he made us and the universe around us.   Art, then, is mankind’s limited, imperfect attempt to create.  Paintings, requiems, sculptures, novels, choruses – these are our attempts to make something new and wonderful.

Bring in the tension: our noblest, finest and most skillful attempts to create are limited by our position as finite creatures and tainted by our fallen condition.  The challenge for the creators among us is to strive for excellence in what they do.  It is their job to pursue the limits of their abilities and to avoid snares like triteness, laziness and mimicry.

The challenge for those who do not create art but simply evaluate what others have created is to evaluate wisely.   As neat and clean as a “this standard categorically determines beauty and ugliness” approach might be, we’re not in that position.  Instead we’ve been given eyes, ears and a mind to use for God’s glory.  Passivity, laziness and willful lack of discernment are unacceptable for Christians.  We are given the mandate to consider carefully whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy (Phil. 4.8).  That requires discernment.

Is there a place still for personal taste?  Absolutely!  Don’t forget that God’s creation is flooded with variety.  We must not forget the distinction between “superior and inferior art” and “right and wrong morality” (but that’s a rabbit trail for a different post!).  Looking down on others simply because they enjoy art that is (in our opinion) inferior, commercial or shoddy – that’s pride, not love.  Lovingly helping them broaden their scope of art appreciation is one thing; blanket criticism of their preferences is quite another.

But how can we cultivate discernment in our own lives?  When we look at a painting, let us consider what reflects the goodness of God’s creation and what reflects the corruption of the Fall.  When we hear music, watch a movie, read a book or see a play, let us ask the same questions.  Our answers will most likely be varied: we will see creational and fallen elements in all art.  Good discernment compares those two elements and assesses art accordingly.

I cannot think of a better summary of the call to discernment than Phil. 1.9-11, Paul’s prayer for his beloved friends:  “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

Thomas Kincade and Aesthetic Absolutes

Joe Carter at First Things blog recently posted this article about Thomas Kincade’s artwork.  I must admit, I’m not a big Kincade fan – I’ve never used one of his images for my desktop.  But I’ve never had anything against it either.  The glowing-window cottages are quaint.

The gist of the article is this: Kincade’s painting style has changed over the years.  He used to paint better than he does now.  The change has been from aesthetic excellence to Hallmark-quality art.  This change can be measured according to a transcendent objective standard of aesthetic excellence.  According to that article anyway.  The opposition, however, claims that glowing windows and bright lamp-posts are indeed nice to look at and that Kincade, therefore, is just fine in their eyes.  I’d recommend reading that post now if you’re not familiar with this issue yet (don’t forget to come back here, though!).

Some folks have extended this Kincade art debate into the realm of music.  I’ve read two blog posts that wondered if this discussion of visual aesthetics had anything to do with sacred music.  If so, that comparison would imply that music can also be judged by an external, objective standard of aesthetic value.  Let me suggest three reasons why I’m actually somewhat uncomfortable with that objective aesthetic standard philosophy.

In the first place, no one has defined what that standard actually is.  Some folks claim to link that standard to God’s character (and that sounds great!), but let’s be real and practical.  What kind of art is exactly like God’s character?  Is it Rembrandt, Monet, Ansel Adams, da Vinci or Warhol?  Or take music: is it a SoundForth recording, a Paul Jones hymn, a Bach chorale, a sacred Whitacre or Pärt song, the latest Getty CD or Patch the Pirate?  (And that’s not even beginning to answer questions about what kind of non-sacred music has value!)  This lofty, objective standard of aesthetic excellence sounds good, but no one actually knows what it is!

In the second place, making the kind of value judgment about Kincade art that the First Things article made borders on arrogance & snobbery.  It tends toward an artificial divide between “high society” and “the ignorant masses.”  The unspoken (and dangerous!) implication of the Kincade judgment is that if lots of people like it and buy it, then it is common, commercial and valueless.  The danger is that pride will set in and people will think that they have “more refined taste” than others and therefore are “better” than those others.

In the third place, this line of thinking almost entirely eliminates the validity of personal taste (or at least, it neglects personal taste).  When people decry the value of Kincade art, they forget that it’s OK for someone else to like Kincade paintings (just read through the comments on that post!).  They lose the ability to see other people as God’s image-bearers with different tastes.  Personal differences are made into an issue of good-bad, better-worse and right-wrong.

Of course, I agree that there are absolutes of morality based on God’s character.  Please do not misunderstand me or take these concerns out of context.  But do God’s absolutes really disqualify a Kincade painting of a warmly glowing cottage?  Music, of course, is a whole different story from paintings.  I’m not prepared to work out all the details of this question in the music arena.  But I will offer the warning that the first post with the criticism of Kincade’s work is incomplete – the real issue with Kincade is a matter of preference and not morality.

Oh, this image showed up in one of the comments and I thought it was well worth posting here!  🙂

Cottage Abuse

Cheering for the opponents

Last month, Grapevine Faith defeated Gainesville State School 33-14 in their football game.  But that’s not important.  What’s interesting is that half of Faith’s fans, parents & cheerleaders spent the game cheering for Gainesville – the other team!

But after the game, “you saw the 12 uniformed officers escorting the 14 Gainesville players off the field and two and two started to make four. They lined the players up in groups of five—handcuffs ready in their back pockets—and marched them to the team bus. That’s because Gainesville is a maximum-security correctional facility 75 miles north of Dallas. Every game it plays is on the road.”

But cheering wasn’t the only encouraging thing that Faith did for the Gainesville prison team.  “As the Tornadoes walked back to their bus under guard, they each were handed a bag for the ride home—a burger, some fries, a soda, some candy, a Bible and an encouraging letter from a Faith player.”

“And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.”  ~ Mt. 9.10

It’s a simple choice of priority: burgers or people

Not too many months after beginning my Facebook account, I conclusively decided that well over 90% of the third-party applications were utterly worthless.  So I deleted them like crazy and consistently turn down requests.  I removed several apps that were mundane and harmless, but absolutely worthless.

Today, I read about a Facebook app that’s not merely worthless – it’s downright mean!  WhopperSacrifice.com is offering free burgers – the only catch?  Install their Facebook app and start removing your friends.  For every 10 friends you delete, you get a free Whopper.

What is the point?  What are they trying to do (other than get a few laughs, some cheap advertising and a little more business)?  I find it unsettling that people are so cavalier about dropping ‘friends’ for some free meat.  Perhaps it testifies to the shallowness of our culture.  Either people are so shallow that they’ll actually sacrifice friends for Whoppers, or people have so many shallow casual Facebook connections that dropped ‘friends’ never get noticed.

Moviegoers were recently shocked to see the Joker force Gotham City’s citizens to sacrifice one another for the sake of hospitals or for their own lives.  But take away the real death and throw in lettuce, tomato and a pickle slice or two – it’s just a joke now.  Are we starting to imitate what we’ve seen on the silver screen?

Of course, I could be taking this thing far too seriously.  I mean, hey, I’ve been meaning to clean up my friend list anyway and, after all, who doesn’t like free food?  This isn’t really another mark of America’s widespread selfish superficiality, is it?  All I have to say is this: if you used to be on my friend list, I’m sorry but don’t take it so personally – I was hungry.

God gives gifts to men and men glorify him by excelling in those gifts.

God gives gifts to men and men glorify him by excelling in those gifts – whether they’re saved or not.  All people bear God’s image (marred, yes, but God’s image nonetheless) and when they reflect his creativity and beauty and joy through musical talents, that brings glory to their Maker.

The King's SingersI thoroughly enjoyed the King’s Singers Christmas concert I heard last night.  It was hands-down the best classical concert I’ve attended (and I’ve been to a few thanks to my alma mater’s Artist Series programs)!  I’ve been a fan for a few years and jumped at the opportunity to go to a live concert.  It was held at Clemson University’s Brooks Center – a beautiful hall with excellent sound.  I’ll definitely be watching their schedule for future concerts.

But the King’s Singers – they were phenomenal!  They had chosen a balanced program of familiar Christmas favorites, little-known carols from past eras and seasonal songs from a variety of countries.  I could describe them, but really, an audio sample is worth a thousand words!  Let me highlight a few of my favorite selections from the concert; the links will point you to Amazon’s MP3 Store and the iTunes Store (if available).

Lullay, My Liking Amazon | iTunes

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)   Amazon | iTunes

Gaudete, Christus Is Natus Amazon | iTunes

Deck the Hall Amazon | iTunes

What Child Is This? Amazon | iTunes

Note about “What Child Is This?”: at the concert, the King’s Singers performed the beautiful Greensleeves arrangement heard in the sample – but with the Christmas text.  Their recordings, however, only use the English folk song lyrics.  During the concert, I was especially blessed by the salvation truths of the words to “What Child Is This?” and it is certainly my favorite song from the program.  When they record their next Christmas CD (no, the first four are not enough!), I sincerely hope that the CD will contain this beautiful arrangement with the Christmas words!

And to top off a perfectly wonderful concert, the Singers were in the lobby signing autographs, talking with concert-goers and being genuinely friendly people.  Thank you, King’s Singers, for a splendid evening!

The King's Singers