Fairy tales and trigger warnings

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already.  Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey.  What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.  The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination.  What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.  Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

—G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”

I thought of this quote as I read N. D. Wilson’s recent essay “Why I Write Scary Stories for Children.”  Wilson has much the same message, except that in his case, it comes as a product of his own experience as a parent.

I write violent stories. I write dark stories. I write them for my own children, and I write them for yours. And when the topic comes up with a radio host or a mom or a teacher in a hallway, the explanation is simple. Every kid in every classroom, every kid in a bunk bed frantically reading by flashlight, every latchkey kid and every helicoptered kid, every single mortal child is growing into a life story in a world full of dangers and beauties. Every one will have struggles and ultimately, every one will face death and loss.

There is absolutely a time and a place for The Pokey Little Puppy and Barnyard Dance, just like there’s a time and a place for footie pajamas. But as children grow, fear and danger and terror grow with them, courtesy of the world in which we live and the very real existence of shadows. The stories on which their imaginations feed should empower a courage and bravery stronger than whatever they are facing. And if what they are facing is truly and horribly awful (as is the case for too many kids), then fearless sacrificial friends walking their own fantastical (or realistic) dark roads to victory can be a very real inspiration and help. . . .

Overwhelmingly, in my own family and far beyond, the stories that land with the greatest impact are those where darkness, loss, and danger (emotional or physical) is a reality. But the goal isn’t to steer kids into stories of darkness and violence because those are the stories that grip readers. The goal is to put the darkness in its place.

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Relativizing ourselves

The great problem I have with moral and cultural relativism is that they’re only ever wielded in one direction.  When we invoke relativism, it’s to relativize and thus dismiss those who disagree with us; we never seem to use it to relativize our own assumptions.  Functionally, moral and cultural relativism are a cloak of humility to disguise tyrannical moral/cultural imperialism.

Many of the assumptions contemporary Western mass culture considers self-evident and holds sacrosanct are actually far from obvious, and in fact would be seen as strange and highly implausible by most cultures in human history.  Gavin Ortlund is right:  “Secularizing late-modernity is a strange, new animal.”

Of course, as he goes on to say, “Identifying the historical and global isolation of our culture does not discredit it.  ‘Weird’ does not always equal ‘wrong.'”  However, we should always bear in mind Tim Keller’s wise observation that if the Bible is really God’s word, it will inevitably offend and infuriate every culture somewhere.  There will always be assumptions in any given culture which the culture considers self-evident and sacrosanct that Scripture flatly contradicts.  To that end, it’s worth looking for those aspects of our culture which are atypical or even strange in the broader context of human history, to help us see where we need to treat our own culture as relative rather than normative.

Ortlund identifies three for our consideration:

  • God is in the dock.
  • Morality is about self-expression.
  • Life is starved of transcendence.

It’s tempting to respond to these points with complaint, castigation, and nostalgia; but such a response is not productive.  As Ortlund writes,

Gospel faithfulness demands we engage our culture with both truth and love, yielding neither to compromise on the one side nor escapism on the other. This means we cannot simply bemoan the encroaching cultural darkness, swatting at the errors around us with our theological club.  As TGC’s Theological Vision for Ministry puts it, “It is not enough that the church should counter the values of the dominant culture. We must be a counterculture for the common good.”

In responding to these metaphysical, ethical, and existential Copernican revolutions in our culture, I believe we must work hard to establish the corresponding subversive biblical doctrine in each of three areas: (1) a high view of God, (2) a thoroughgoing notion of repentance, and (3) a transcendent vision of worship.

Read the whole thing.  It’s more than worth your time.

 

John Horsburgh, Bell Rock Lighthouse during a storm from the northeast, 1824, engraving, after a drawing by J. M. W. Turner.  Public domain.

In praise of humility [REPOST]

NOTE:  I ran across this post from November 2009 while I was looking for something else, and was struck by it, so I decided to repost it.

 

There’s a fascinating piece up on Time‘s front page entitled, “The Case for Modesty, in an Age of Arrogance,” by one Nancy Gibbs. Gibbs begins,

Virtues, like viruses, have their seasons of contagion. When catastrophe strikes, generosity spikes like a fever. Courage spreads in the face of tyranny. But some virtues go dormant for generations, as we’ve seen with thrift, making its comeback after 40 years in cold storage. I’m hoping for a sudden outbreak of modesty, a virtue whose time has surely come.

In truth, what she really wants to talk about is not modesty but humility (which, as she notes, can be practiced in many ways: “Try taking up golf. Or making your own bagels. Or raising a teenager”); but I don’t have a problem with that, especially as she has good things to say about humility and its importance.

Modesty in private life is attractive, but in public life it is essential, especially now, when those who immodestly claimed to Know It All have Wiped Us Out. The problems we face are too fierce to accommodate arrogance. Humility leaves room for complexity, honors honest dissent, welcomes the outlandish idea that sweeps past ideology and feeds invention. We want to reimagine the health-care system, confront climate change, save our kids from a financial avalanche? The odds are much better if we come to the table assuming we don’t already have all the answers. . . .

Humility and modesty need not be weakness or servility; they can be marks of strength, the courage to confront a challenge knowing that the outcome is in doubt. Ronald Reagan, for all his cold-warrior confidence, projected a personal modesty that served his political agenda well. I still don’t know what President Obama’s core principles are, but the fact that he even pays lip service to humility as one of them could give him the upper hand in the war for the souls of independents—a group that’s larger now than at any time in the past 70 years. . . .

But I heed Jane Austen’s warning that “nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.” If Obama appears proud of how humble and open-minded he is, if he demonizes opponents instead of debating them, if his actual choices are quietly ideological while his rhetoric flamboyantly inclusive, he will be missing a great opportunity—and have much to be modest about.

Interesting closing comment, that.

 

Looking back from the last year of Barack Obama’s second term, Austen’s warning was aptly noted.  The President missed a great opportunity.  Here’s hoping somebody learns a lesson from his example; another term or two of that sort of attitude—from either party—could be disastrous.  The alarm Gibbs was sounding was urgent six years ago; it’s only the more so now.

 

Image:  Black hole Cygnus X-1.  Image credit:  NASA/CXC/M.Weiss.  Public domain.

Getting outreach backwards

A great frustration for many pastors is the common expectation of church members, including lay leaders, that it’s the pastor’s job to grow the church.  The truth is, most pastors have less ability to grow the church directly than any committed member of the congregation.  That might seem strange to say, given that so much of the American church has convinced itself that programs and style are the keys to growth, but it’s true.  Programs and style may help one congregation steal members from others, but they will not grow the churchDean Inserra makes the point well:

“We need an outreach event to bring in some young people.”  I hear that from Christians often about their church, assuming it must be the key for City Church in getting the “young folks.”  Other times I eavesdrop on conversations at Chick Fil A, where a table of staff members from another church in town are hoping their pastor will take off the tie and “go contemporary,” since they want to be “relevant,” and “reach the young people.”

– Do an outreach.
– Change the music.
– Dress in jeans.
– Use more technology in the service.
– Increase social media presence by getting on Twitter.
– We need to be more creative.

I hear it all.  It once made me sad for these nice folks who I do believe sincerely are trying to reach more people, but now I just roll my eyes.  An unbeliever doesn’t care about any of those things because, wait for it . . . he’s not a Christian.  Why would someone who isn’t a believer and doesn’t attend a Sunday church worship service, care about the music at the local Baptist church?  Have you ever met a new believer who in his or her testimony mentions that he or she heard the pastor didn’t wear a suit, so this new believer decided to try it out, heard the gospel, and was baptized?  Maybe that story exists somewhere, but I haven’t heard it.  Why would an unbeliever follow your church on Twitter?  I’ve never heard someone who came to church because the pastor sits on a stool rather than standing in a pulpit.

Very few see it, but there’s idolatry underlying the folly Inserra critiques.  “Relevance” has been a major idol in the American church for decades, and on the whole it has gone largely unchallenged.  Read more

Nikabrik’s populism: A further thought on the appeal of Donald Trump

In her brilliant short essay “Nikabrik’s Candidate,” to which I linked last week, Gina Dalfonzo identifies the core of Nikabrik’s evil as a corrupted virtue.

There is absolutely no room in Nikabrik’s mind for the idea that a Telmarine could be good.  And at first we can sympathize; his people have suffered greatly under the Telmarines, and he is fiercely loyal to his people—a good quality.  But as Lewis frequently warned us, good qualities can be twisted and used for evil purposes. . . .

When his friend Trufflehunter reminds him that the Witch “was a worse enemy than Miraz and all his race,” Nikabrik’s retort is telling:  “Not to Dwarfs, she wasn’t.”  His own people and their safety are all that matter to him now.  Instead of being an important priority, this has become his only priority—and any attempt to remind him that other considerations exist brings only his contempt and anger.

This is how good people with strong, ingrained values—people who have invested time and money in the sanctity of life, religious liberty, and similarly noble causes—can come to support a man who changes his convictions more often than his shirts.  This is how people concerned about the dignity of the office of President end up flocking to a reality-show star who spends his days on Twitter calling people “dumb” and “loser.”  This is how some who have professed faith in Jesus Christ are lured by a man who openly puts all his faith in power and money, the very things Christ warned us against prizing too highly.  As one wag on Twitter pointed out, “If elected, Donald Trump will be the first US president to own a strip club,” and yet he has the support of Christians who fervently believe that this country needs to clean up its morals.

It’s important to understand this.  Nikabrik is full of hate, but it’s not because he’s “a hater.”  He’s unalterably and bitterly prejudiced against Telmarines, but it’s not because he’s “a bigot.”  Those are shallow characterizations for what are usually shallow attitudes, even if strongly held.  Nikabrik’s moral ill is far more perilous because far deeper, and rooted in legitimate emotional/spiritual needs.  Read more

Addition to the sidebar

A comment from my friend Kaleb Marshall prompted me to add a new site to the sidebar:  Spiritual Friendship.  I first discovered this group blog some time ago through the work of Wesley Hill, who’s one of the editors.  Here’s how the blog’s other editor, Ron Belgau, summarizes its thematic center:

Reading Aelred of Rievaulx’s little treatise On Spiritual Friendship as an undergraduate was a life-changing experience for me. Aelred, a 12th-century Cistercian abbot, insists that we need to test our beliefs about friendship with Scripture. The treatise is a series of dialogues in which three monks join Aelred to examine their ideas about friendship in light of their Christian faith.

One of Aelred’s insights made a big impact on me. He points out that friendship is based on shared goals, and distinguishes between different kinds of friendship: carnal friendship, based on shared pursuit of pleasure; worldly friendship, based on mutual advantage; and spiritual friendship, grounded in shared discipleship.

The dialogues helped me to see that although Christian discipleship is costly, it need not be lonely. Our culture has become very fixated on sex, but sex and romance are not the same as love. Nor is Christian love the same as the kind of casual friendship that is common in our culture (Facebook informs me that I currently have 554 “friends”).

Aelred insists that, contrary to the transitory nature of so many contemporary friendships, a friend in Christ “loves always” (Proverbs 17:17). He and the other monks discuss how to select and cultivate lasting and Christ-centered friendships.

Growing up as a gay teenager, the only messages I heard from the church were negative. Most in our culture—including many Christians—uphold romantic and sexual love as the most important form of love. But God forbade the sexual and romantic love I desired. Was I just to be left out in the cold?

Aelred helped me to see that obedience to Christ offered more to me than just the denial of sex and romance. Christ-centered chaste friendships offered a positive and fulfilling—albeit at times challenging—path to holiness.

As Kaleb noted to me, the question “What should a same-sex attracted Christian do?” is a perfectly fair one to address to those who believe that sexual activity between two people of the same sex is intrinsically against God’s will, but it’s one which tends to be met with blunt-force answers that treat people as abstractions rather than as individuals.  Hill, Belgau, and their co-laborers for the gospel answer that question better than anyone else I’ve seen, from the inside.

 

Photo of Holyrood Abbey ©2006 Lazlo Ilyes.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice . . .

. . . in practice, however, there is.

Things that should work, don’t.  Things that shouldn’t go wrong, do.  Other people act in ways that make absolutely no sense to us (though if we looked more closely at our own sin and saw it more clearly, their actions would make more sense to us, at any rate; but of course, we don’t want to).  The unlikely happens, spoiling our plans, and always (it seems) at the irredeemable moment.  The world outside our head proves to be a chaotic system filled with influences of which we know nothing, far more complex—and, consequently, far less tractable—than the world as we construct it inside our head.

This is one reason for the temptation Courtney Martin has dubbed “the reductive seduction of other people’s problems.”Read more

Be different just like everyone else

Given the increasingly common criticisms lobbed at orthodox Christianity in America these days, you’d think our culture was opposed to legalism; but don’t you believe it.  A few years ago, while he was still the senior pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Tullian Tchividjian made a trenchant observation in an essay titled “Church, We Have a Problem”:

The one primary enemy of the Gospel—legalism—comes in two forms.  Some people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (you could call this “front-door legalism”).  Other people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (you could call this “back-door legalism”). . . .  Either way, you’re still trying to save yourself—which means both are legalistic, because both are self-salvation projects. . . .  We want to remain in control of our lives and our destinies, so the only choice is whether we will conquer the mountain by asceticism or by license.

The world wants us all to be legalists, and on the whole, it doesn’t really care which kind.  Put another way, the world wants us to be conformists.  Some times and cultures favor “keep the rules” conformists, while others favor “break the rules” conformists, but what really matters either way aren’t the obvious rules being kept or broken.  What matters is the deeper set of rules you aren’t allowed to question.

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A little practical skepticism would be useful

Just a quick thought:  it seems to me that our nation(s) would be in much better shape if we all accepted that no matter what we do, even our best solutions will always work imperfectly and will always have downsides.  We would do well to be skeptical of the promises of politics—not just politicians, but politics.  We would do better to be skeptical of plans and programs and ideas for improvement—even our own.  No matter what we do, this world will still be broken.  Some people will be poor, and some will be exploited, and some will be abused; some will be exploiters, and some will be abusers, and some will be just flat evil.  We need to set aside our technocratic assumption that these are problems to be fixed and realize that they are people to be faced.  We need to give up the naïve idea that these “problems” can be fixed, which is really just avoidance:  we don’t want to face these people.  We don’t want to meet them honestly in their mess, we want the promise of a quick, clean, antiseptic solution that will make the mess go away where it won’t bother us.  We ought to be deeply skeptical of such promises, and even more skeptical of the desire of our hearts to believe such promises.

We won’t solve the problem of human evil by passing laws.  We won’t stop gun violence by passing laws against guns—or laws in favor of guns, for that matter.  When someone is determined to break the law, what’s one more?  That’s the easy way out, the cheap way out, the coward’s way out.  We will only make a dent in the evil of this world the hard way:  one life at a time, by knowing our neighbors and loving them as ourselves.

 

William Holgarth, The Polling, 1755.

Until something do us part

David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values offered an observation eighteen years ago which is just as true, and just as important, today.

To understand why the United States has the highest divorce rate in the world, go to some weddings and listen to what the brides and grooms say.  In particular, listen to the vows:  the words of mutual promise exchanged by couples during the marriage ceremony.  To a remarkable degree, marriage in America today is exactly what these newlyweds increasingly say that it is: a loving relationship of undetermined duration created of the couple, by the couple, and for the couple.

Our tendency may be to shrug off the significance of formal marriage vows, viewing them as purely ceremonial, without much impact on the “real” marriage.  Yet believing that the vow is only some words is similar to believing that the marriage certificate is only a piece of paper.  Both views are technically true, but profoundly false.  Either, when believed by the marrying couple, is probably a sign of a marriage off to a bad start.

In fact, the marriage vow is deeply connected to the marriage relationship.  The vow helps the couple to name and fashion their marriage’s innermost meaning.  The vow is foundational:  the couple’s first and most formal effort to define, and therefore understand, exactly what their marriage is.

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