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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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

Meditation on forgiveness

Does it seem to you that Western culture is growing increasingly merciless and unforgiving?  Maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe you think the opposite is true, given the rate at which behaviors traditionally understood as wrong are being normalized—but that has nothing to do with mercy or forgiveness.  Actually, that trend underscores my point; given the increasingly pharisaical tenor of Western society, true toleration of behavior is disappearing into polarization, leaving only approval and anathematization as options.  The drive for societal affirmation of such behaviors as same-gender sexual activity isn’t driven by the intolerance of Christians.  Yes, there are plenty of intolerant Christians out there, but on the whole, the American church at least is far more prone to conflict avoidance.  We strive to avoid offending anyone because offending people reduces both attendance and giving, and we’re all about seeing those numbers going up.  When it comes to sin, we might still believe it’s sin, but our usual policy is, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”  The same cannot be said of the culture at large.  That’s why the first rule of watching videos on YouTube is, “Don’t read the comments.”  It’s also why this comic from Randall Munroe continues to resonate so powerfully:

Our culture is very good at forgiving things it doesn’t think need to be forgiven—and increasingly good at denouncing orthodox Christians as unloving and unforgiving for insisting that such things do need to be forgiven.  When it comes to beliefs or actions which the elites who shape Western culture find unacceptable, however, there is little or no capacity for forgiveness.  This is a result of the ongoing re-paganization of the West.  The idea that forgiveness is a good thing was a Christian intrusion into the culture, and is fading as the cultural influence of the church fades.  As Tim Keller points out,

The first thing about [Christians that offended pagan cultures] was that the Christians were marked by the ability to forgive.  Almost all ancient cultures were shame-and-honor cultures.  A shame-and-honor culture meant that if someone wronged you, you paid them back.  Your honor was at stake.  You have to save your honor.  That’s what mattered.  And most of the people in the shame-and-honor cultures believed that that’s what kept society together.  Society was kept together by fear. . . .

Christians came along and said, “No, no, you forgive.  Someone wrongs you, you forgive.  Seventy times seven.”  This was nuts to a shame-and-honor culture.  Nuts.  We know that the Northern European pagan cultures that were being won to faith through the monks coming up during the fifth/sixth/seventh/eighth/ninth century . . . were shame-and-honor cultures, and one of the things they used to say in resistance to the Christian gospel was that “If Christians come in here and everybody starts forgiving everybody else, society will just fall apart, because what keeps society together is fear.”  And so the idea that you forgave your enemies and you turned the other cheek was crazy.

True forgiveness is renouncing the right to demand (or enact) judgment.  Read more

Repentance is not a work of the Law

Repentance is not a work of the Law.  That thought came to me today, and I’ve been mulling it all afternoon.  Repentance isn’t something we do as a duty to meet the requirements of the Law.  True repentance, which involves a change of behavior, isn’t something we can do entirely in our own strength.  Repentance doesn’t earn us forgiveness.Read more

Faith and the “New Atheists”

I am—as anyone who spends any time poking around this blog can surely tell—a committed believer in Jesus Christ.  Some days, I can also call myself a committed disciple of Jesus Christ; some days, not so much.  As Andrew Peterson wrote in “The Chasing Song,”

Now and then these feet just take to wandering;
Now and then I prop them up at home.
Sometimes I think about the consequences—
Sometimes I don’t.

Still, for all my failures in living it out, I’m committed to the walk.  I’m committed because I believe Jesus spoke truly when he told his disciples he is the way, the truth, and the life.  I believe the people of God, from our founding in Abraham all the way through to the church of today, have been given the only true account of the existence of the material world, and the only true account of human existence.  I don’t think any one branch of the Christian tradition has a perfect or complete understanding of that truth, and still less any individual believer; the fact that each of us is both limited and sinful ensures that our best understanding will be both incomplete and flawed.  I believe God uses even those flaws to his own purposes.

I’m absolutely committed to Jesus because I believe that faith in him is true, even if my faith in him is only imperfectly true.  If anyone could prove to me that the Christian faith is false, I would abandon it.  That might seem like a hard right turn to some, but it isn’t; I want to believe what is true, not what is congenial.  That’s why I’m still a Christian after forty-plus years of life and twelve-plus years in the pastorate.Read more

9/11: A reminder that freedom isn’t free

The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt.

—John Philpott Curran

During the decade of the 1990s, our times often seemed peaceful on the surface. Yet beneath the surface were currents of danger. Terrorists were training and planning in distant camps. . . . America’s response to terrorism was generally piecemeal and symbolic. The terrorists concluded this was a sign of weakness, and their plans became more ambitious, and their attacks more deadly. Most Americans still felt that terrorism was something distant, and something that would not strike on a large scale in America. That is the time my opponent wants to go back to. A time when danger was real and growing, but we didn’t know it. . . . September 11, 2001 changed all that. We realized that the apparent security of the 1990s was an illusion. . . . Will we make decisions in the light of September 11, or continue to live in the mirage of safety that was actually a time of gathering threats?

—George W. Bush, October 18, 2004

History will not end until the Lord returns, and neither will the twist of the human heart toward evil. The idea that we can just ignore or deny this reality and go on about what we’d rather be doing, whether in domestic or in foreign policy, is the political equivalent of cheap grace; and it is no more capable of bringing what blessing our politics can muster than its theological parallel can bring salvation. It may be true, as Theodore Parker said, that the arc of the moral universe “bends toward justice,” but if it is, we must remember that it’s only true because God is the one bending it—taken all in all, the collective effort of humanity is to bend it the other way.

This world is fallen, and all of us are tainted by the evil that rots its core; and all too many have given in to that evil and placed their lives in its service. Most have not done so knowing it to be evil—there are very few at the level of Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s version of Richard III—but that doesn’t make them any better. Indeed, the fact that people like Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden do vast evil believing they serve what is right and good only makes them more dangerous, because it makes them far more effective in corrupting others, and far less likely to repent. Evil is a cancer in the human soul, and like any cancer, it will not stop growing until either it or its host is destroyed—which means that those who serve it will not stop unless someone else stops them.

Which is why the 18th-century Irish politician John Philpott Curran was right. There are those in this world who are the servants of evil, those movements which are driven by it, and those nations which are ruled by such—some in the name of religion, some in allegiance to political or economic theory, some in devotion to nation or tribe—and in their service to that spiritual cancer, they operate themselves as cancers within society, the body politic, and the international order; they will not stop until they are stopped. As Edmund Burke did not say (but as remains true nevertheless), the only thing that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing; the logical corollary is that to prevent the triumph of evil, those who would oppose it must be vigilant to watch for its rise, and must stand and fight when it does.

Must that always mean war? Not necessarily; as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others, have shown, there are times when nonviolent moral resistance is the most effective form of opposition (helped in Gandhi’s case, I would argue, by the fact that the Raj was not evil). But the fact that that works in some societies doesn’t mean that it works in all, because nonviolent resistance depends for its effect on the willingness of others to repent—and not everyone is willing. Some people are hard of heart and stiff of neck, unwilling to humble themselves, liable only to judgment; they will not stop unless they are forced to do so. When such people rule nations and are bent on tyranny and conquest, then sometimes, war becomes necessary. A tragic necessity, yes, but no less necessary for all that.

We have enemies who have decided in their hearts that they must destroy us, and they will not be shaken from that decision, because they have excluded anything that could shake them; they are unflinching in their resolve to building up the power and ability to do what they have committed themselves to do. This is hard for Americans to understand or accept, because—with the characteristic arrogance of our Western culture—we think that everyone, deep down, thinks and feels and understands the world as we do, and thus is “rational” on our terms, by our definition of the word. We fail to understand people and cultures that really don’t value their own lives and their own individual wills and desires above all else. But there are those in this world who don’t, who simply have different priorities than ours, and who consequently cannot be negotiated with or deterred or talked out of things as if they were (or really wanted to be) just like us—and who in fact have nothing but contempt for the very idea.

There are people, movements, nations, who want to destroy America and our culture (which they believe to be Christian culture, far though it is from being so), and who will not be dissuaded by any of our attempts at persuasion or appeasement. Indeed, go as far back as you want in history, you’ll never find a case where appeasement of enemies has worked; rather, time after time, it only encourages them. If someone is determined to defeat you and has the ability to do so, it isn’t possible for you to choose for things to be different, because their choice has removed that option; your only choice is either to let them do so, or to try to stop them.

But is it right to try to stop them? What of the morality of force? As individuals, when someone hates us, we are called to turn the other cheek and trust to the justice of God—but that’s when we ourselves are the only ones at risk. When it comes to defending others from harm, the calculus is different; this is especially true of government, which bears the responsibility to defend all its citizens from evil, and has been given the power of the sword for that purpose. The decision to use force of any sort—whether it be the national military or the local police—must not be made lightly; it must be done only when there is clear certainty that the deployment of force is necessary in the cause of justice. But when it is truly necessary in order to defend the right, if that defense is properly our responsibility, then we cannot shrink back: we must stand and fight, or else allow evil to triumph.

Freedom and justice and true peace only come at a cost, in this lost and broken world of ours; they must forever be defended against those who do not value them, and would destroy them for their own purposes. This includes defending them against those who would use the fact that we value them against us—who would subvert our freedoms and use our willingness to accept a false peace, the mere absence of overt military conflict, to extort from us our own piecemeal surrender. If “peace” is achieved by craven cowering before the threats of the vicious, it is no real peace, merely a temporary and unstable counterfeit that does nothing but postpone the inevitable conflict; and if that false peace is gained through the sacrifice of freedom and justice, it is worth nothing at all. For any society willing to do so, the only epitaph has already been written by Benjamin Franklin:

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Michael Spencer, RIP

If you are going to think about God, go to Jesus and start there, stay there & end there.

—Michael Spencer

I don’t have the time or energy to give this the attention it merits, but Michael Spencer, the iMonk, died this Easter Monday after a four-month battle with cancer. One never agrees with anyone completely, of course, but the iMonk was a powerful and critically important voice calling the church that calls itself evangelical back from the heresy of making Jesus about something else (primarily, us, in one form or another) to the truth that we are supposed to be all about Jesus. I’m grateful that he got his book Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality finished before his death, and leaves that as his valediction to the church; I’m equally grateful that a group of folks who knew and loved him and believed in his work are planning to keep it going. But most of all, for his sake, I’m grateful that he is indeed truly resting in the peace of Christ.

On art that can truly be called “Christian”

We in the church in this country tend to throw around terms like “Christian music” and “Christian fiction” pretty carelessly, without really thinking much about them, or what they mean, or even if they actually can mean anything at all. There’s a good argument to be made that only people can truly be called Christian.  W. H. Auden once declared that there cannot be “such a thing as a Christian culture” because “culture is one of Caesar’s things.” I’m beginning to understand what he meant, I think, and his point is one with which we must reckon.

That said—as Christians, as people made in the image of God, we are most definitely called to be culture makers; in Tolkien’s terms, we were made to be sub-creators working under our great Creator, and we have both the need and the responsibility to do so wisely and well, in a way that is true to our faith. As I wrote a while back,

Stories matter. They matter because they’re the stuff of our life, of our reality and our nature, and the expression of the creative ability we’ve been given by (and in the image of) the one who made us—and we matter. They matter because they affect us, moving our emotions and shaping our view of the world, both for good and for ill. And as a Christian, I affirm that they matter because everything we do matters, because the best of what we do will endure forever. And if they matter, then we need to take them seriously, both as readers and, for those of us so called, as writers—for our sake, and for everyone’s.

The same can be said, in a bit of a different way, for music, the visual arts, and for the other media in which we create; and if we want to call that “Christian art” as a shorthand, then the shorthand has value, assuming we realize that’s all it is. But that still leaves us asking, how do we do this—and when we do it, what exactly are we doing?

Among the folks who are wrestling well with this interlocking set of questions are the writers at the group blog Novel Matters; my wife pointed me this morning to a post there by Patti Hill that I think is particularly good. Of course, she has a real advantage because she starts off quoting Flannery O’Connor, which is always worth doing:

Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty as possible.

To really understand where O’Connor is coming from in writing this, I think it’s important to add a couple other quotes from the same book:

Dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality. . . . It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.

Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.

For O’Connor, then, I think we can fairly say that it’s our obligation as Christians to see the world truly and deeply, as it is rather than as we would like it to be—and that for those gifted and called to write or to create art in other ways (and if you are gifted, then you are called, in whatever way and to whatever degree), there is the further responsibility to represent reality in such a way that others can see more truly and deeply than they did before. Too many people (not just Christians, by any means) shy away from that, because as O’Connor says, it requires getting dirty—really digging into and dealing with the dirt of this world, because you cannot know this world and you cannot see it truly and you cannot portray it rightly without knowing and dealing with its dirt. There’s dirt all over the place, and in every human soul; you just can’t avoid it.

So then, how? Hill nails it, I think:

We look to Jesus.

No one saw the world more concretely than Jesus. A whore washed his feet with her tears. He not only made wine, he drank it. He touched leprous skin. He invited himself to a tax collector’s house for lunch. And, I’m thinking, he heard naughty words there. Caked with blood, spittle, sweat, and dirt he took the nails for us. Gruesome. Violent. Definitely off-putting. That’s crucifixion, the purest act of love.

To follow in the steps of Jesus, to write in a God-honoring, “dirty” way, we must see the world—as best we can—as Jesus sees it, with empathy, detail, and love. And so it is for the Christian writer to observe and portray the beauty and brutality and pain and suffering and redemption all through the eyes of love.

Yeah—that’s spot-on.

If it’s occurring to you that this all sounds like it’s not just about art, you’re right; after all, in a way, what we’re really asking here is how we’re supposed to create art as disciples of Christ—which is to say, how do we understand creation as discipleship—and that inevitably flips us around to the corollary: how do we understand discipleship as creation, as a process in which we stand under God our Creator as the sub-creators of our own lives, as the process of making our lives a work of art for God? As I’ve asked elsewhere, what does it mean for our lives to be poems for God?

Doing what comes naturally

It is the most natural thing in the world to falsify God. All we have to do is follow our intuitions and good intentions. But whenever our uncrucified selves take over, bad things start happening. Worshiping Christ alone is an adjustment. It is unnatural—and freeing.

We pay a price to follow Christ. We pay a far higher price not to follow Christ.

Ray Ortlund