Friday, November 28, 2014

Bonhoeffer Abridged by Eric Metaxas

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

This is, as the title indicates, an abridged version of Metaxas' monumental biography of theologian, pastor, and WWII Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had heard quite a bit about the book when it's original form was released. Metaxas is certainly a huge name and a respected scholar, but much of the criticism came from my friends in the peace movement, among whom Bonhoeffer is a sainted figure. The contention was that Metaxas glossed over some of the more radical and difficult teachings of Bonhoeffer, especially as they related to non-violence.

This is a difficult position since Bonhoeffer was, most definitely, eventually involved in the plot to overthrow (and assassinate Hitler), working as a double agent within the intelligence service. While Metaxas does a masterful job of illustrating the very confusing nature of elite German life during the war, at least in the abridged version of the book, I have to agree that Bonhoeffer has been, in some ways, domesticated - as a martyr for status quo Christianity more than a radical challenge to it.

The book is very much a history of the Third Reich. Beyond the obligatory early biographical information, the narrative simply retells the Nazi story from the inside and the ways in which this intersected with the life of those Christian pastors who attempted to maintain prophetic distance, led by Bonhoeffer. This is complicated precisely because of Bonhoeffer's social position within one of the leading families of the aristocracy. So many officers, intellectuals, and other leaders were against the manic aims of Hitler, but continued to work subversively within the German war machine. Perhaps the best contribution of Bonhoeffer Abridged is shedding light on the truly muddled nature of life in Nazi German (as opposed to the typical black and white treatment we so often get in the US).

Additionally, great pains are taken to portray Bonhoeffer as those around him understood him - a true man of God. The holy account of his final hours and the calm and peace which he maintained throughout as a real testament to the profound power of God in his life, overshadowing what is a scant treatment of his true beliefs about Christian ethics in human society. The final chapter is inspiring and emotional, but a poignant, appropriate tribute to a true hero of the faith.

That being said, I'm not sure the purpose of an abridged version (other than additional revenue). The audience likely to pick up a 200 page biography and not a 500 page one has got to be pretty small. This version is interesting enough to make me want to read the larger work, but it's also thorough and deep enough that I wonder if such a reading wouldn't be too repetitive. The writing is well done and the abridgment is noticeable in only one or two places (where there is clearly insufficient transition between paragraphs).

Bonhoeffer's life - a pacifist involved in killing Hitler - is a depressing contradiction to some. Metaxas attempts to use his personal piety and obvious holiness of heart to overcome the credibility gap here. I've found great comfort in the way Bonhoeffer spoke of himself. I tried (in vain) to find the quote I read once upon a time, wherein he deals specifically with his involvement in the conspiracy to remove Hitler and his own non-violent beliefs. Bonhoeffer refused to justify or condone the evil he supported, but instead explained it was the best option available to his limited vision and conscience. This perspective on Bonhoeffer is absent in Metaxas' work, but it does not make this biography any less important.

Bonhoeffer Abridged is a good book. If you are among those who would choose a 200 page biography over a longer, fuller version, by all means get this book. If nothing else, the abridged version may whet appetites enough to explore the actual writings of the man who's life and work has inspired deeply my own faith and those of countless others who find the status quo insufficient.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Looting Isn't Stupid

Looting isn't stupid. It's hopeless, but it's not stupid.

I'm not saying that the young men and women breaking into liquor stores and fast food restaurants and stealing shoes from the corner store are actively exhibiting anything other than an opportunistic gut reaction. What I am saying is that whether they know it or not, looting is the collective response of the truly hopeless. It's not stupid.

I don't condone violence of any kind. I don't want people rioting or looting for any reason. Then again, I have hope. My faith is built around a belief that love will win in the end, that we're, despite all evidence to the contrary, destined for a future of peace and loving co-existence in which all are welcomed, valued, and find place.

I imagine most of those who casually dismiss looting as stupid are also not hopeless. Even if your hope is somewhat less idealistic than mine, you believe there is a good chance things can or will be at least functional for most people in the future. "If only people would just _________ or understand ____________ or even elect ____________, we'd figure this out. That's hope.

People with hope don't understand looting.

Looting isn't stupid; it's just hopeless.* In the wake of extreme tragedy, disaster - a zombie apocalypse for example - there will be looting. Those who've prepped for doomsday will find these looters reactionary and callous, with their underground bunkers and decades worth of canned hope shading their eyes. But when there's reasonable expectation the world will operate differently in the future, old rules can more easily be ignored. If the aliens have landed, and are actively disintegrating every human in sight, if the flood waters have covered the roofs and armed police are forcing you back into the danger zone, there is little in your adrenaline-drenched body to believe anything will be as it was. Survival is the new morality.

We can say, rightly (at least from the majority perspective, those with hope), a decision like that of the Grand Jury in Michael Brown's death, whether we agree with its faithfulness to the law or not, is no apocalyptic disaster. That's true. It's a tragedy from any perspective, but life will go on.

Looting, in this case, is not about a hopelessness for the existence of society, but a hopelessness that right or wrong mean anything within that society for people of a certain color or socioeconomic status. Again, I don't condone looting and violence. I just can't. I have faith. But it makes perfect sense to me how a lot of young black men and women wouldn't. It makes sense to me that they look at all the events of Ferguson and say, "It doesn't matter if I do the right thing or the wrong thing, I'm still gonna end up dead or imprisoned or beaten or gassed." They do have numbers on their side. In lots of poor black neighborhoods it's more likely for young men to serve time than to graduate from high school - and a high school diploma is no guarantee of success in its own right, especially from the kind of schools our society provides for those neighborhoods.

Looting isn't stupid, but our responses to it are. We crave news coverage that shows the violence and not coverage in the dozens of churches offering shelter, food, clothes, and hope to people who might otherwise be hopeless. We tell the angry, young hopeless people to stop being stupid, rather than providing some indication there is a future worth hoping for - a future in which all perspectives are considered and included, even if they make it difficult for the comfortable, established way of life a few of us enjoy.

The answer to violence is certainly not more violence. It's a message we hope to send to looters, but one that doesn't come across well behind riot gear and tear gas. That might be practically effective, but it's ultimately useless. We're not fighting stupidity, we're fighting hopelessness. We need new weapons. Not the weapons that come at a discount to our police from the Iraqi surplus store, but those which come from personal commitment to cross boundaries in our daily lives (and not for a day or a week or an hour at a time, either).

These tragic and regrettable barriers mean few persons of legal authority carry any weight for the hopeless, believing they do only reinforces and strengthens the lack of hope. We need to listen to those champions of hope who hope so strongly they've built lives and relationships of trust among the hopeless. We need to listen, rather than arrest them; it only breeds the very hopelessness we wish to end.

It starts with recognizing that my normal, my life, my hope, my assumptions - my truth - does not work for everyone in every place. My stuff matters, but not because it's right, because it's mine. The same courtesy is owed to others, even if they seem wrong or stupid, even dangerous. I can make this claim, because I am willing to sacrifice if need be, for a future in which we all not only have a place, but feel we belong on equal ground. I certainly have not sacrificed enough,** but I believe such sacrifice is possible, because I believe in hope.

*It doesn't quite make sense in the context of this post, but there is also a looting for seemingly no reason at all, or very little reason. White teenagers celebrating a football victory (or mourning a loss), for example. I'd argue that this is still rooted in hopelessness, but a hopelessness that has no outlet in a society in which these people are already atop the mountain of privilege.

**I have to acknowledge that my hope is easier to have, because the world around me works pretty well for me, especially as compared to the vast majority of people on the planet. I also have to recognize my willingness to sacrifice for hope might be compromised when the reality of a more difficult hope sets in. We can't underestimate the power of comfort and status quo. It's much easier to change someone else than to change myself.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Jerry Seinfeld and Living Right

On Facebook, last week, I post this awesome link to an unlikely interview with Jerry Seinfeld and Wale. They've struck up an interesting friendship and collaboration. I am a huge Seinfeld fan, so I'm drawn to what he does, but this sort of thing is all he does these days. Jerry is 60 now and he made $800m from his television show. He's got three kids. he doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to do.

What he wants to do is talk to people he finds interesting. So he does this Wale thing. He does his web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which is exactly what it seems. Jerry spends the afternoon talking to funny people and showing off some of his $15m car collection. He's not working a brand. He's not angling for something. He's enjoying life, doing what he thinks he should be doing.

In this day and age when everything is about image or strategy or competition, Jerry is Jerry. That's living right. You or I may disagree with him when it comes to what's important or the best ways to spend time and money, but that's not really the point. He's living life for life, not for some ulterior motive.

Yes, it's likely much easier to forget what other people think or ignore outside expectations when your net worth trumps the GDP of most Caribbean nations, but money is only a requirement if money is part of the goal. You can live the way you want - or think you should - so long as you're willing to sacrifice.

Jerry can be free and indulgent, but freedom doesn't come with a price tag. The trick is not being caught up in the game of more. There are plenty of people with far more money than Jerry Seinfeld who don't have enough. There are people with almost nothing who have more than they need. What I like about the carefree Jerry these days is simply that he's doing it different. I really believe the first step to "living right," is getting off the wheel of conformity and expectation. You'll never be able to stand on your convictions if you're not the one forming them in the first place.

It might take work to get from where you are to where you want to be, but the key is not letting other people define what living right means or how to go about getting it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Many Ways to God

There's a joke I've heard a lot, especially (for obvious reasons) in Christian circles. It goes something like this:

A man was standing on the railing of a bridge, ready to jump. A passer-by, concerned, asks the man why he wants to end his life. "Nobody loves me," comes the reply. "God loves you. Do you believe in God?" "Yes," says the desperate, would-be jumper. "Are you a Christian?" "Yes, I am." "Are you protestant or Catholic?" "Protestant." "Me, too," says the passer-by, "What sort of Protestant?" "Baptist." "Northern or Southern?" "Northern." "Me, too. Northern United Baptist or Northern Independent?" "Northern Independent." "Me, too. Reformed Northern Independent Baptist or Traditional?" "Reformed." "Me, too. Are you part of the 1873 Reformation or the 1922 Reformation?" "Oh, the 1922 Reformation." To which the man replies, "Die heretic scum," and pushes the jumper off the bridge.

It is, I suppose, a way for us to laugh at our differences and how seriously we take them, but few, if any Christian will tell you differences don't matter. They'll admit some of them matter very little, "so long as we all love Jesus," but even that is a difference among the many people out there who do, in fact, believe in God. There is some baseline most everyone draws for defining who's in and who's out.

Growing up, the notion that there are many paths to God was exactly that sort of litmus test in the faith environment in which I grew up. If a person claims there are many ways to God, they were definitely not believing correctly. This all stems from the passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, but through me." Which always sounded pretty self-explanatory.

Of course context is everything. If you're asking the question, "What's the way to God," then Jesus is a pretty easy answer (if you're a Jesus kind of person or give credence to what John has to say). Theologically, things get a little more tricky. The generic evangelical gospel was always, "believe certain things about Jesus and the salvation of Jesus will work for you." It's a very simple and individualistic way of determining who's in and who's out. The problem comes though, in that scripture doesn't spend much (any?) time concerned with who's in or out. It just doesn't.

Scripture is much more collectivist. God created the world. God is at work making the world what God intends it to be. Individuals have a part only in the choice to participate in God's intended way for the world, or not. This is ultimately what "salvation" means. Not eternal security, but the end to which one's life is aligned. Scripture isn't much concerned with where you're going when you die as it is with where you're going while you're alive.

The question we should all be asking ourselves is, "What is the right way to live?" I think it's the question every person asks almost every day of their lives. It's the only question God ever intended us to ask (or perhaps, it's the one question underlying all the other questions we ask in life). The talk of "ways to God" only makes sense for those who believe in God - but everyone is looking for the way to live. That's the real question. That's what people mean when they say they believe in "many ways to God." They just want to affirm that people are different and make different choices and none of us are, independently, capable of fully judging the choices of others.

You know what? They're right.


Look at it this way: Christians might argue that Jesus is an irreplaceable part of what it means to live rightly, but likely, once they've agreed on this simple fact, every two Christians out there would eventually find something about which to disagree (maybe not seriously enough to push someone off a bridge, but seriously nonetheless).

We're largely ok with those differences, because we really do believe there are many ways to God. People are different. They have different lives, outlooks, experiences, which all combine to lead them to answer that ultimate question - What's the best way to live - a little bit differently.

Notice I changed the question a little bit there. I changed the word "right" to "best." I moved it from an either/or to a spectrum. Life is not a right/wrong, true/false question. The theologian NT Wright is quoted as saying, "I'm confident 20% of what I believe is wrong, I just don't know what 20% it is." We need to be comfortable with the notion we're wrong. That doesn't mean we give up on belief, it just means we give up on certainty.

In this unreal scenario, you're told your child was in an accident and in critical condition in the hospital in Vartoken, Iowa. You have only a car, no phone, map, or GPS. You might not know exactly how to get there, but you're going to make the best decisions you can until you do. Chances are you won't choose the most direct route. You will likely make a few wrong turns along the way, but not knowing exactly how to get there isn't going to make you just give up and stop trying.

Yes, each religion has its bedrock absolutes. Christians or Muslims or Jews or Buddhists can be as generous as possible, but there are still some beliefs that will always be out of bounds for calling yourself a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist. Let's call these the ordinals. Our religion is the direction in which we set out in this mad dash to Vartoken. They're big choices and they're often very different from one another. Some people might spurn all organized religion or ignore God altogether. They're setting out on less established paths, but setting out nonetheless.

We can disagree (strenuously) with the way some people take, but as we settle in on our chosen direction, we become more comfortable with the people around us. Sure, they may choose a different turn here or there, but we're all going the same direction. The closer and closer we get to the destination, the more comfortable we feel with the people around us - yet we're all still on different paths.

Now, as a Christian, I'm convinced that whoever makes it to Vartoken in the end - whether they set out as an Atheist, Hindu, or whatever else (whether they finished that way, too) - they got there because of the part Jesus Christ plays in the life of the world. When Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," I believe that's true in an of itself, not because someone agrees with or denies it. I don't at all believe religion gets us where we need to go, but I do believe Jesus makes it possible.

In the end, it doesn't really matter who has the most direct route to "the best way to live." I happen to call that "best way," Jesus, but the way itself doesn't change if you call it something else. What matters is that we're willing to be wrong and change our minds (if we're convinced they need to change). What matters is that we're not so arrogant to assume our path is the only path to God.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


I realize its been two weeks since I posted something. That's far too long a break for my liking. But, life has been busy and I haven't had a ton of time to think or much reason for my mind to wander. It's strange how mental burnout always seems to fall post-election. There's nothing so good for enriching a life of nihilistic depression as democracy in action.

Anyway, since I need to write something and I happened to really enjoy my three hours with Christopher Nolan last week, I thought I'd review Interstellar.

There's been a lot made of Christopher Nolan's weaknesses. The best description I've heard is that he overestimates what he has to say. His movies always have a message, but he sets up a relatively simple message in a complex, utterly innovative way. His movies are like giving someone a Hershey bar inside one of those cool stainless steel briefcases you always see handcuffed to someone's wrist in the movies. No one is going to complain about getting chocolate, but they might be slightly disappointed there wasn't more in the box.

I happen to be one of those people who's sufficiently impressed with the box to be happy. I loved Interstellar. The critics are right that Nolan relies on his actors to carry the weight of the film, which probably keeps him from winning directing awards, but he almost always finds the right actors and gets great performances from them - which make for great movies.

Interstellar tells the story of a not-too-distant future, where blight and environmental degradation have literally decimated the planet. Human exist, essentially, in a state of stubborn denial that they will eventually be extinguished from the Earth. Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA test pilot, refuses to lose hope. Through mysterious circumstances, he and his young daughter uncover a secret mission to find a new home for humans on another planet and he's recruited to fly the spaceship - along with Anne Hathaway (a scientist whose father runs the program), Wes Bentley (whose character is so unimportant it doesn't merit someone whose name we know), and another guy who looks just like US Mens National Soccer Team legend, DaMarcus Beasley.

The story centers around father-daughter relationships, particularly the one between Coop and his daughter, played as an adult by Jessica Chastain. She ages as he's in space due to relativity. There's been a lot made about what's "true" and what's not about the science of Interstellar. They had renowned astrophysicists consulting on the project (one so important he's a character in the Stephen Hawking biopic out now), and while some liberties were taken for the sake of story (and of course some speculation was made based on the unknown), it's much less Science Fiction than most outer space films.

The ultimate message Nolan wraps in this incredibly impressive box is that love means something. Love isn't frivolous and it isn't unimportant. It's a message I wholeheartedly support. I think it's pretty darn important even if it is simple. It's told through beautiful artistry and skillful storytelling. There are lots of surprises and real human emotion done extraordinarily well by extraordinary actors.

Yes, there are things to pick apart. The storyline with the "surprise hollywood star" is unnecessarily convoluted (likely to make sure they slipped a fight scene into the movie), but the power of the whole shines through well.

It's a story about fathers and daughters, $165m spent for one father (Nolan) to say something important to his own young daughter. If they can handle the intense space depictions and emotional turmoil, you can take your daughter to see it without having to cover her eyes or ears. I cried at least three times, although it could have been more. Nolan is telling his daughter the importance of dreams and ambition, but also balancing those notions with the importance of relationships and simplicity.

It's a beautiful movie, but you don't have to see it in theaters to appreciate it (although you won't be disappointed if you do fork over the dough for a big screen). In the end, the critics are right, the degree of difficulty, story-wise, wasn't real high, but it was still an excellent movie. I said upon leaving the theater, "Christopher Nolan might've just ruined movies forever." I believe this was beautiful, entertaining, timeless, passionate, and good. It's not an epic piece of craft, but it is an extraordinary movie.

Art doesn't have to be perfect to be moving. I liked this a whole lot more than other movies which were obviously better. That has to say something.

I think everyone should see it. Not because it's world shattering, but because it's good and fun and promotes the kind of love our society so often forgets or ignores. It might not be profound or narratively groundbreaking, but it's nothing simple. It's not easy. But it's not easy in the best possible way.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

My Favorite Election Lie

Last night was the mid-term US elections - a lot of Governors and Senators were elected, plus all of the House of Representatives. Most often as I watched victory speeches, one phrase stuck out above the rest - "You didn't vote for me, tonight, you voted for yourselves."

This is, by far, my favorite lie of election season. It's not even limited to election season, its the lie woven into the entire fabric of US democracy that keeps the whole structure afloat.

We don't vote for the candidate most capable of doing the job - every single voter could name a half dozen age-eligible acquaintances more appropriate for the position - we choose between two narratives, representative of larger institutionalized power positions, carefully crafted to appeal to our emotions and fears.

This system is perpetuated by rhetoric of representation, as if the mere ability to vote ensures free and fair elections or could ever hope to deliver on its promises. These applause lines, "You stood up for Arkansas today," serve only to perpetuate the myth that orderly authority is the only means by which we can effectively live together.

It trickles down. How often does a neighbor talk to a neighbor about a noisy dog or an overgrown yard before they call the police? Do you even know your neighbors' names? Are we informing ourselves about the social safety net by talking to people in our own town whose lives it affects (both positively or negative) or do we get our information from talking heads on TV?

Every winner, regardless of party of ideology, adopts the language of populism - a good fight against smarmy elitists (either of ideological or economic stripe), because all of them are hiding the real system of elites who make decisions. Power's only purpose is to maintain power.

The real "players" in this system are empowered interests. Yes, they spend and spend to influence elections, but not out of some ideological bent; they spend to make sure the people elected are the people who listen to them.

Our own collective association with the larger narrative plays right into this scheme. We believe by voting we can defeat the powers, when our participation only enables them.

That's not to say Democracy is bad. There are plenty of ways to collectively decide how we'll best live. Usually the best way to do this is face to face. We don't have to vote to meet the people and problems really affecting our daily lives head on. In many nations, even those with similar representative systems, there is a stark contrast between the business of government and the life of the nation.

We don't want government interfering in everything we do, but we continue to perpetuate a system that can function only by doing exactly that.

When you vote, if you vote, try to remember you're never, ever voting for yourself. You're voting for a ridiculously ambitious, well-crafted, well-funded illusion of freedom and participation. (It's interesting to note how often the loser speak extemporaneously and rambles, while the winner never does.)

The real revolution is the revelation that we need no politicians to control us or free us from control. Our communities, the people with whom we live and work each day, have all the power - on this fact nearly everyone agrees. What we so often fail to see is how the current voting system incentivizes our giving it away.

You can't change the system from within the system, only from without. All of these self-proclaimed outsiders become something different when they enter in. The only real change comes in starving the system of power, which sounds insidious, but starts by simply knowing and talking to the guy across the street. You are worth far more than your vote, and so is he.