Monthly Archives: March 2008

August Rush: Another Movie Searches for Transcendence and Finds it in Music, and Family

The movie August Rush, which debuted in November 2007, presents an uneven but inspiring tale of one sweet boy’s search for transcendence in a world of isolation and evil. The movie is not flawless, but its depiction of the power of music alone makes the film well worth watching.

The plot centers in two musicians (played ably by Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who chance upon one another, sleep together, and then lose touch completely with one another, despite the fact that they developed an incredible bond with one another (yes, in one brief night of passion; cue eye-rolling now). Russell’s character ends up pregnant and gives birth to a boy she never meets (you’ll have to watch the film to see why). The boy, “Evan Taylor” (played by Freddie Highmore of Lost in Neverland), ends up in a miserable home for boys. Sweet-spirited and mystically in touch with music, which he hears in even the most ordinary of sounds, he escapes from the home, ends up in New York, and embarks upon an adventure in which he trains himself to play a number of instruments at a lyrical level. The plot, as noted above, is a bit uneven and seems half-heartedly devoted to aping the story of Oliver Twist. In addition, some of the characters are less than plausible (Robin Williams shows up for several scenes of extended, and unneeded, histrionics).

These factors, and the act of fornication that drives the movie, are regrettable, but the movie has significant strengths as well. This is a film that quite simply is in love with music. As one who loves music (a rather broad statement), I resonated with its appreciation of harmonic beauty. The film, though not Christian, does also pick up on elements of common grace (though it would not call them such). Though little Evan is mired in a painful station in life, he finds beauty all around him, and maintains a disposition of hope and good cheer. It’s touching and challenging to watch. Most of us are far too swallowed up in our own selfish little existences to notice the beauty of the world, let alone to draw others into it through creation and celebration. The movie further succeeds in representing man realistically. He is not inherently satisfied with life as it is placed in front of him. No, he searches, and quests, and storms until he finds that which he deems transcendent. For Evan (or “August”, as he is renamed), the search ends with music, and also with a reunited family. These same ends bring transcendence to Evan’s parents; throughout their young lives, they wrestle with music as Jacob with the angel, and even when musically accomplished search for their other family members. There are two insights here: one, music elevates our earthly existence, and two, family does the same. Without these two goods, we are impoverished, living isolated, hopeless lives.

As Christians, we can resonate with these points. As I’ve very recently said (in writing on the movie Once, which carries some similar themes), music is imbued with transcendence. It is not cheap and small; it was given us by God to explore the moral and spiritual complexity of the universe. Though music is not God–and thus August Rush fatally overreaches in ascribing it such significance–yet we can say that music is a strange and magical thing. It is another language, a way of speaking about our lives and experiences and the truths and mysteries of this world that defies verbal communication. Music is not Transcendence, then, but it is a transcendent art form, capable of reaching across structures and thought patterns to grab hold of our soul and plunge us into pools of mysterious and beautiful reality. I love that August Rush believes this and seeks to communicate it. Though it strains in this endeavor, and misses the truth that music points us to–that God alone is Transcendence–yet it succeeds in capturing something of the essence of music. It is a beautiful film, and there are several scenes that moved me on a deeply emotional level and made me thankful that people take up cameras and attempt to capture aspects of human existence such as music.

The film, as noted, also shows a powerful belief in the family, and perhaps unintentionally, the nuclear family (dad, mom, child). This is a great insight as well. Though the family is also not ultimately transcendent, as August Rush might lead us to think, we may say that the family is perhaps God’s greatest earthly gift to us. It is simply impossible to enumerate the ways in which we are blessed on a daily, even hourly, basis by our families, even if they are not families of considerable health. Just having a family is immensely meaningful. The support that one has in being part of a family is not often consciously thought of but is precious beyond quantification. The film knows this, and shows us what it means for people to live without the structures of family–and most clearly to live without parents as an abandoned boy. One can have talent, and beauty, and joy, but without a family, one is ultimately unhappy. We Christians would of course go beyond this to say that God alone is our greatest need, that it is our most urgent necessity to enter into not an earthly family but a spiritual family that transcends this earth. On an earthly level, though, it is clear that God has structured the family to be the central part of our earthly existence. He has done so, I would argue, to show us something of the taste of familial perfection as expressed in the Trinity, the union of Father, Son, and Spirit, of which our families are but a type and shadow.

August Rush seeks true transcendence and fails to find it. But we may commend it for its pursuit and enjoy for its depiction of two of the choicest gifts God has given humanity: music and family. This movie shows us for the hundredth time that the people around us are not living atomistic lives, at least not all of the time. No, they are looking for something; something greater, something higher, something unified, something beautiful. Though they may discover numerous gifts of common grace in their search, we know that until they find the Christ, the salvation-giver, this search will prove fruitless in the end. We must be around them, then, to tell them where transcendence, and joy, and true hope may be found. It is not in music, but the One who created music; not in the family, but in the One who created the family; it is not found in the gift, but only in the Giver.

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The Week-est Link, March 28. 2008: Blogging Tournaments, Disney World, Blog Gems, and Violence

1. Whew. It’s been quite a week here at consumed. This little blog has seen a relative avalanche of comments due to some controverted content. I’m really thankful for those who have weighed in, and it was interesting to hear another side of the Billy Wolfe saga. Thanks again to everyone who wrote in. I don’t have time to respond to comments, but I read every one of them, and I’m often pushed to think by them (as you can tell if you read my frequent follow-up posts).

2. Said at Southern has a terrific March Madness-like contest going on right now (replete with brackets and all!) that has the dual purpose of 1) finding out which SAS-related blog is the big dog on the block and 2) giving exposure to unknown bloggers and linking them to better-known bloggers. It’s a terrific idea, though Tony Kummer and Timmy Brister are known for terrific ideas. The “Madness” is in its second round, and somehow, inconceivably, consumed made it to the second round. Sadly, folks, we’re currently getting smashed. Oh well–I suppose this blog is something like NCAA cinderella Siena. At least, like them, we made it to the second round!

3. Together for the Gospel has multiple videos up from the 2006 conference. They will be well worth the time it takes to load and watch them. I was there to witness most of this content in person, and I can say that it made an impact on me. Less than three weeks to go ’til 08!

4. Slate ran a hilarious series exploring the weird sub-galaxy of Disney World this week. Not everything is nice (or rated PG), and I don’t love the paranoid, mocking nature of some of the author’s writing, but he also unearths some pretty realistic insights about this strange place. I don’t know about you, but animatronic robots give me the absolute creeps.

5. Introducing a new feature on this blog: “Blog Gems”. I want to bring to your attention worthy blogs that you may not have heard of. I’ll do this on Fridays, and I’ll generally only give you one link so as not to water this feature down. Today’s Blog Gem: Redeeming History, a blog written by Trinity Evangelical Divinity School PhD Student Mark Rogers. This blog, written by a very sharp Historical Theology student, is devoted to spreading the riches of Christian history. It is well-written, well-researched, and spiritually profitable. Mark is a good friend and a future scholar, and I could not encourage you more to check out his young but very good blog. I may not have many readers or much “virtual clout”, but many people have been very kind to me in giving my blog attention (Tony, Timmy, Justin Taylor), and I want to extend that kindness to others. Email me at owendstrachan [at] yahoo.com if you think you might qualify here.

6. Last words on the violence issue (I promise). Let’s cut to the chase: I think it’s rather foolish to think that one needs to watch shows devoted to acts of brutal, needless violence in order to train one’s son to be a robustly masculine protector. We need not freak out about violence, but neither should we think that the worst iterations of it (i.e., meaningless, needless violence) serve as the best instructors of our children. That’s just silly. If you want to cultivate a strong man, a good man, a man who knows his body and can use it for good, train him in biblical truth. Teach him. Show him how to use his body. Wrestle with him. Teach him about safe, bounded, harmless (relatively) violence. Allow him to participate in contact sports, albeit those (in my opinion) that do not glorify or rely on violence (e.g., basketball, baseball). In these ways and others, you will acquaint your son with his body, teach him to use it productively (an important word, no?), and ensure that he does not equate physicality with hurting people–which so many boys today, whether Christian or otherwise, do. This is productive training.

It is silly to think that we need to expose children to bloodsport to train them up. Simply put: we do not. Our children need not be awkward, unexposed to physical contact and play, but neither do they need to love violence and crave it to be robustly masculine men and protectors of others. Those who argue along these lines are overextending the bounds of credulity, in my humble opinion (though I appreciate my friend Reid’s thoughtful piece on this subject, even if we do come to different conclusions).

My father never watched a brutal fighting match with me, but he trained me to be a protector. I never played football, or wrestled, or watched brutal combat fights (either real or otherwise), and I never relished violence. I wasn’t a wuss, though; I loved sports, and I liked some degree of contact. My father oversaw all this, and he exuded a spirit of tenderness toward the women in his life, being primarily his wife and daughter. I never had any doubt that Dad would protect us to the death, and I don’t have any doubt that I would do the same for my family. I am thankful that he did not think that I had to become hungry for brutality to develop this instinct. He didn’t think that, and I didn’t need it. I simply needed what we all need: an unapologetically masculine, physically capable, compassionate man in my life, showing me on a daily basis what it means to be a strong but restrained, able but careful, manly but gentle man of God.

That, and not any form of violence-glorifying media, is what we need more of. Not UFC, but good dads. Not TKOs, but good dads. Not wrestling that hurts, or football that brings concussions, or chest-beating fury, but good, godly, wise, masculine dads.

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Further Thoughts on Guys, Fighting, and Needless Violence

There have been some great comments on recent posts. Thanks to all who have written in with thoughtful things to say. Even when folks have disagreed with me, they’ve been charitable and reasonable.

I’ll focus today on how Christians might understand needless violence. With pursuits like football, or backyard boxing, or karate, how are we to think as Christians about these things? Let me first say that I don’t think that there is an easy answer here. In other words, I am not assuming that I have everything figured out, and that in thinking about this topic, all gray areas have been peeled away and I am now in a position to clarify the black area and the white area regarding this topic. Simply put–I’m not. There is a significant amount of gray area relative to the topic of “needless violence”. For example, I play pickup basketball. It is not as violent or physical as is football or boxing, but it does involve physical contact, and thus in playing it, I run a higher risk of injury than I do if I simply stay home and exercise. With all of us, then, there are areas that cannot easily be defined as right and wrong; we are in one in this discussion.

Having said all that, I’m still game to try and come up with a framework for thinking through these matters. I start, as I did yesterday, with noting that it is fundamentally a good thing for a man to prepare his body for defense of self and family. I am not a pacifist, and I do not think that the New Testament teaches pacifism, but readers should note that neither do I sneer at it. It is true (however much we might like it to be otherwise) that there is no explicit command (that I know of) in the NT that enjoins us to defend our families with violence. Indeed, there is much material that does call us to peace and non-violent response to provocation and even pain (Matthew 5-7, for instance). With that said, the Bible doesn’t cover everything, and I think it’s legitimate to defend oneself and one’s family from attack. No, that’s too weak. It’s imperative that one do so. If self-defense, after all, is not explicitly commanded in the Word, neither is pacifistic response to attack. This is a gray area, and I think that we have freedom to defend ourselves and our families from attack.

It is important, then, that men take the time and effort to make their bodies ready for defense and also for utility around the home. I don’t have a specific verse to point to here, but it’s a shameful thing when an able-bodied, physically capable man allows his body to become weak and flabby due to gluttony, laziness, and irresponsibility. We may joke about it, but if our homes were attacked, if our wife’s purse were snatched, if our families were threatened with violence, would we be able to respond? In my humble opinion, men should take care of their bodies, exercise regularly, and make themselves strong (to a reasonable extent, of course) for the purpose of protecting and caring for their families. Get a BowFlex, join a gym, run three times a week, do pushups–exercise doesn’t have to be fancy or even that long to be profitable.

Moving on to the matter of needless violence, we’re all going to have to use our minds on this one. We’ll need to think hard about our involvement in pastimes that could hurt our bodies and damage our ability to physically care for our families. There’s no code to refer to here, and the Bible has very little to say on this matter, directly. It is my own personal conviction that I will play sports that have a relatively low degree of contact and possibility of injury. I personally would not box with other men. Concussions can come fairly easily in boxing, and I could not justify such potential injury. I need to be able to use my mind for the rest of my life, and I cannot see how risking long-term injury for no purpose fits in with responsible Christian headship. I am able to get the exercise and exhaust the energy I have in far less dangerous pursuits. If I am involved in a football game, I will always advocate for touch or flag-football. It may be fun to tackle (though it’s not for shrimps like me), but let’s face it: most of us twentysomething guys are getting old, and we can easily get injured from tackle football. With something like karate, I’m fine with it, personally. I don’t know a ton about it, but if one does karate carefully and for the purpose of self-defense, I think that’s fine.

But with things like mixed martial-arts, we’re in another category. Yes, the church needs more testosterone–that is true, and if you read this blog for more than a day, you’ll see that I argue just that, if in a nuanced way (I hope). But we don’t need to lift up bloodletting and physical pain and needless violence to encourage a culture of masculine leadership. If we do so, I think that we’re making a mistake. The authors of the New Testament do not teach us that physical exercise is of huge value–they teach us that it is of little (1 Tim. 4:8). It is possible for us to be so captured by the idea of a masculine pastorate that we go well beyond the categories of the New Testament and make requirements of our leaders that it simply does not make. While encouraging men to take care of themselves, to seek to live long by eating well and exercising much for the benefit of others, and to be robustly, unapologetically masculine, we must be very careful not to exceed scripture and think that our pastors must be capable of beating people up. If that is the requirement, friends, I have clearly misperceived my call.

On the matter of what entertainment we watch, some commenters made good points. I can honestly say that I am probably not as careful on this point as I could be. We should be careful about reveling in violence. In a violence-saturated society, sometimes it’s hard to see that we are doing so. I’m sure that I’m sometimes guilty of this, and those who have pointed out this potential hypocrisy in me and others have made a good and worthy point.

Thanks to all who wrote in. Let’s continue this discussion in days to come.

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Is Vicious Combat Between Guys a Good Thing? The New York Times on Mixed Martial-Arts

The New York Times magazine just published a story on mixed martial-arts fighting that caught my eye. Paul Wachter has crafted “Gladiator” as an exploration of the culture and morality of this “sport”, which is rapidly growing in the United States. I’ve read material on this sport before but had not encountered an article of such length and depth. This piece raises questions that many folks would have about “M.M.A.”, and leaves one wondering whether it is appropriate for Christians to support and participate in such events.

Those of you who read Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll’s material will know that he enjoys MMA and has attended fights in the past. Driscoll, who I respect and have benefited from, advocates that Christians not turn their back on the “sport” due to its authentic representation of the desires of contemporary men. Beyond this, Driscoll encourages Christians to engage the sport: “My three young sons and I enjoy watching Ultimate Fighting in conjunction with our Old Testament Bible studies”, he said in a 2006 blog. “Because I am a Christian pastor I now need to find something that connects all of this to being a Christian. So, I’ll just say that while young men are watching tough men compete, the reason they don’t go to most churches is because they could take the pastor and can’t respect a guy in a lemon-yellow sweater, sipping decaf and talking about his feelings.” There’s something to commend in these comments. The Bible is not a sanitized book, though many of us think it is. The Old Testament in particular is raw and bloody, its scenes and narratives acted out on the level of gritty, even gruesome human behavior. Many men, even men of God, were not soft-edged and soft-voiced. They were tough, salt-of-the-earth types who worshiped God with a sword in hand.

Furthermore, I don’t condone feelings-oriented churches led by weak men. It’s a beautiful thing to see a strong man of God balance courageous leadership with a compassionate disposition. I think that Mark Driscoll has some things to say on this matter, then. But while I do have great respect for Driscoll and look up to him, I wonder about a whole-hearted embrace of Ultimate Fighting and its counterparts. Wachter describes a street fight organized by a rival to the Ultimate Fighting Championship: “The two men approach each other throwing wild haymakers. Alvarez lands a knockout punch, and Tommy collapses to the ground. In the U.F.C., this fight would be over. Instead, Alvarez rushes over to his unconscious opponent and delivers five more punches to his head. Next, he leaps, bending his legs behind him, and slams his knees down on Tommy‚Äôs face with the full weight of his body. Then he does it again. Finally, Lynch intervenes as Tommy lies on his back, moaning and struggling to breathe, with blood streaking down from a gash on his chin.” Now, we need to note that this is a bloodier, more brutal type of fight than the UFC would sanction (and, presumably, than Driscoll would watch, though I don’t know that for sure). With that said, there are similarities between the formalized UFC and its street offshoots. In each, men beat each other up with savage ferocity. In both, men come away from their fights bruised and bloodied. Both celebrate a wild masculinity in which men are prized for their power–specifically, for their power to harm another man.

I in no way would want to encourage Christians to be physically weak. I think it’s a very good thing–I would say a duty, but that might be too strong–for men to be strong and able to protect themselves and their families. Speaking personally, I would be wracked with guilt if I were physically unable to protect my wife and family in the event of an attack. It’s also very helpful to be able to take care of things around the house for my wife–to move things, and shoulder burdens, and generally be capable of helping her physically. I don’t have a Bible verse to back up this desire of mine, but I don’t think it’s entirely necessary here–it seems to me to be common sense. Men who are out of shape and weak should consider what they might do in the event of an emergency or an attack–would we be able, to some degree, to help or protect? Or would we be woefully unable to act assertively due to laziness, gluttony, and irresponsibility? These are important questions for the head of the home, I think. It should be clear, then, that I think that Driscoll and the UFC have something to teach us. I do not style myself a wimp, and though I lack height and bulk, I try to steward my body well in order that I might help my family and, to some degree, glorify God.

But I am not convinced that the UFC and its counterparts contribute positively to society. I’m afraid that they perpetuate an age-old stereotype of masculinity, namely, that it is determined not by the character of a man’s heart but by the circumference of his biceps–and his ability to deploy said biceps in conflict, whether necessary or otherwise. I would challenge the notion that men today are especially drawn to violence. Couldn’t we legitimately say that men have always been drawn to violence? Yes, the UFC does represent, I think, a response to a culture that beckons men toward effeminacy and weakness in many dimensions. In that sense, then, this movement is uniquely contemporary. But couldn’t we also say that this is merely one iteration of many across history of men prizing blood-sport? If this is true, then we should mark that, even as we consult the scriptures for testimony encouraging men to prize needless violence.

The Old Testament, to be sure, includes numerous stories of war, bloodshed, and violence, but we’ve got to remember that much of this violence was in fact sanctioned by God. God not only allowed it–He decreed it! Israel incurred some of its harshest penalties for failing to carry out total warfare, in which entire cities and societies would be utterly destroyed. Our minds struggle to comprehend this reality, but it was so. In the New Testament, however, warfare seems to be carried out on a spiritual plane. We do not wage war against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers (2 Co. 10:3). This statement seems to correct a mindset that exalts violence in the current day.

I make this last point to argue against a view of UFC-type violence that sees it as sanctioned in the current day because of Old Testament texts. Just war and defense-oriented war are, I believe, biblical, but random violence is hard to justify simply by citing texts on total warfare sanctioned by the Lord Himself for the purpose of carrying out judgment on wicked nation-states. There’s a bit of a jump there, as I see it. I don’t think that Christians should be afraid of violence, in one respect; that is, we shouldn’t cower in its face, and we should be ready, as mentioned above, to defend ourselves, our families, and our lands, when these causes are just. But brutal violence that is needless should have little place in our homes, and little place in our raising of sons. As Christian fathers seek to be protectors, so they train their children to be protectors with nuance and wisdom. But these same fathers should avoid teaching their children to glorify and even pursue senseless violence. If it is poor stewardship of one’s body to be weak and powerless when one is physically healthy and able, so it is equally poor stewardship to subject oneself to violence that could permanently impair our minds and bodies and could, in just the wrong moment, rob us of life. What a stupid reason for injury and, God forbid, death–a silly boxing match carried out for no reason other than to sate the hunger for aggressive combat. How one would answer to the Lord for that, I do not know.

“Gladiator” provokes much thought, then. It encourages us to put violence and masculine aggression in proper perspective. God has made men strong and capable of great physical feats (some of us, at least!). But it seems that He has made us so not to exercise our wildest passions, to revel in our base pursuits, but to be living reflections of His character. The Lord, after all, is our protector, but He is never frivolous or selfish in filling this role. It is our charge, then, to emulate our creator, and to steward our bodies well for the betterment of others. We do not seek to become gladiators–no matter what the culture tells us–but to be protectors. Each term is just a word in length, but there is an ocean of difference between what they signify–and what we must become.

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When a Lawsuit’s a Boy’s Only Hope: Billy Wolfe, Bullying, and the Results of a Peer-Based Culture

It’s not every day that you see a story about one boy being bullied without headlines accompanying headlines announcing a vicious death or a closeted homosexuality. Yesterday, though, the New York Times published just such a story. Dan Barry wrote the piece, entitled “A Boy the Bullies Love to Beat Up, Repeatedly”, as a sober, quiet reflection on bullying. Though there is no grisly headline attached to the story (thankfully!), the piece is worth reading and thinking about.

Barry notes, succinctly, that fifteen-year-old Billy Wolfe of Fayetteville, Arkansas gets bullied on a regular basis. This is the kind of piece that Barry regularly writes for the NYT: pieces that go beyond headlines and burrow into the experiences of everyday people. A steady diet of such articles would grow tiresome, probably, but this piece raised a number of issues in my own mind about the link between schools and bullying. Billy is bullied on a regular basis by a number of boys who randomly approach him and punch him. There seems to be little rationale for this behavior, though one could guess that Billy is an outsider in his school–he might be bookish, or he might be slightly effeminate, or he might be a little socially awkward, or he just might not be strong, debonair, or athletic. As one who went to public school, I can reason that any of these factors could be directly contributing to Billy’s situation. Kids–despite appearances to the contrary–can be relentlessly cruel. Public school can be quite difficult, then, because it often involves a large number of kids, some of whom are quite cruel, and little supervision by wise, discerning adults. For the child who is, for whatever reason, on the fringe, public (or private) school can represent a day-in, day-out exercise in sustained fear and unalleviated despair.

Perhaps many of us have forgotten this truth. We’ve long ago left behind school experiences that were difficult. Perhaps we are internally ashamed of the fact that we were once bullied. In fleeting moments of remembrance, we feel as though we caused such treatment. Maybe we remember how gawky we were, or how awkward, or how small, and we feel that we deserved to be bullied. Let’s square with bullying, and with the pre-teen and teenage years: they can be quite hard. We’re not giving into silly psychobabble or becoming weak if we look our past in the face and see the pain and hurt that lies there. I was always very short, and I remember being on picked on continually for it. I told my parents about some of it, and occasionally talked about it with friends, but there was alot of evil that I could do little about it and simply bore on my own. Some would say that this reality shaped my character and made me tougher, and that’s probably true. But my experience in public school among a bunch of nasty kids also left me with some scars. I’m sure others experienced the same, though it’s unlikely they’ll talk much about it.

In reflecting on Billy Wolfe, I’m reminded of a few recent trips to local coffee shops. While reading in the afternoon, I’ve observed schoolchildren, fresh out of school for the day, play a number of pranks on one another. I’ve also seen packs of children hanging out with no adult supervision. In all of these instances, I’ve thought to myself that it is no good thing for packs of unsaved children to hang out together. There is little good that results from such grouping. Unsaved children, after all, do not tend to focus on goodness, truth, and beauty, especially in a Christian sense. No, they tend to focus on what is evil, outlawed, unkind, “cool”, and funny, despite what others may think. The peer-based culture of American children that stems from the advent of public education in the twentieth century can hardly be viewed as a positive development for our society. I am not offering a direct application regarding the viability of public school for children of Christians here. Some kids thrive in such situations–they’re well liked, they have a good witness, and all goes rather smoothly. With that said, though, it only makes sense that public or private school, unless closely monitored by wise, kind, just adults, threatens to present schoolchildren (particularly those who are not well-liked for whatever reason) with situations marked by cruelness and, well, evil. As Christians, we’ve got to think carefully before we plunge our kids into such worlds.

It is not easy to admit that one was bullied. It is also not easy to forget being bullied. I remember getting punched by bullies in school, and I remember one of my friends being shoved into a locker by a bully. He cut his hand so badly that he had to go to the emergency room. There was a great deal more that I can remember, too. I remember being taunted by older boys about a poor basketball game I played. Without any provocation, these boys repeatedly made fun of me for making a few turnovers. Twelve years later, I can easily recall my hot cheeks, my attempt not to cry in front of other boys, my inability to say anything meaningful to these boys.

These recollections show me that I, along with all Christian parents, need to think carefully about schooling. We cannot shield our children from the evil of this world; indeed, we must teach children to live in the midst of it, and beyond this, to be light in this place. With that said, though, we should remember children like Billy Wolfe. There were many children I can recall who were chewed up by public school and the cruel kids who populated it. We should remember, perhaps, our own histories, and run our minds over our own scars. As parents, we should be prepared to stand up with great force and courage for our children. I’m thankful that my own parents were always there for me. We’ve got to teach our children to defend themselves, even as we teach them to, when possible, suffer reproach for the gospel. Most of all, we need simply to think–to think about our children’s souls and the way they will be shaped by the childhood years in which we shepherd them. Education is important, after all, but at what price does it come?

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When a Lawsuit’s a Boy’s Only Hope: Billy Wolfe, Bullying, and the Results of a Peer-Based Culture

It’s not every day that you see a story about one boy being bullied without headlines accompanying headlines announcing a vicious death or a closeted homosexuality. Yesterday, though, the New York Times published just such a story. Dan Barry wrote the piece, entitled “A Boy the Bullies Love to Beat Up, Repeatedly”, as a sober, quiet reflection on bullying. Though there is no grisly headline attached to the story (thankfully!), the piece is worth reading and thinking about.

Barry notes, succinctly, that fifteen-year-old Billy Wolfe of Fayetteville, Arkansas gets bullied on a regular basis. This is the kind of piece that Barry regularly writes for the NYT: pieces that go beyond headlines and burrow into the experiences of everyday people. A steady diet of such articles would grow tiresome, probably, but this piece raised a number of issues in my own mind about the link between schools and bullying. Billy is bullied on a regular basis by a number of boys who randomly approach him and punch him. There seems to be little rationale for this behavior, though one could guess that Billy is an outsider in his school–he might be bookish, or he might be slightly effeminate, or he might be a little socially awkward, or he just might not be strong, debonair, or athletic. As one who went to public school, I can reason that any of these factors could be directly contributing to Billy’s situation. Kids–despite appearances to the contrary–can be relentlessly cruel. Public school can be quite difficult, then, because it often involves a large number of kids, some of whom are quite cruel, and little supervision by wise, discerning adults. For the child who is, for whatever reason, on the fringe, public (or private) school can represent a day-in, day-out exercise in sustained fear and unalleviated despair.

Perhaps many of us have forgotten this truth. We’ve long ago left behind school experiences that were difficult. Perhaps we are internally ashamed of the fact that we were once bullied. In fleeting moments of remembrance, we feel as though we caused such treatment. Maybe we remember how gawky we were, or how awkward, or how small, and we feel that we deserved to be bullied. Let’s square with bullying, and with the pre-teen and teenage years: they can be quite hard. We’re not giving into silly psychobabble or becoming weak if we look our past in the face and see the pain and hurt that lies there. I was always very short, and I remember being on picked on continually for it. I told my parents about some of it, and occasionally talked about it with friends, but there was alot of evil that I could do little about it and simply bore on my own. Some would say that this reality shaped my character and made me tougher, and that’s probably true. But my experience in public school among a bunch of nasty kids also left me with some scars. I’m sure others experienced the same, though it’s unlikely they’ll talk much about it.

In reflecting on Billy Wolfe, I’m reminded of a few recent trips to local coffee shops. While reading in the afternoon, I’ve observed schoolchildren, fresh out of school for the day, play a number of pranks on one another. I’ve also seen packs of children hanging out with no adult supervision. In all of these instances, I’ve thought to myself that it is no good thing for packs of unsaved children to hang out together. There is little good that results from such grouping. Unsaved children, after all, do not tend to focus on goodness, truth, and beauty, especially in a Christian sense. No, they tend to focus on what is evil, outlawed, unkind, “cool”, and funny, despite what others may think. The peer-based culture of American children that stems from the advent of public education in the twentieth century can hardly be viewed as a positive development for our society. I am not offering a direct application regarding the viability of public school for children of Christians here. Some kids thrive in such situations–they’re well liked, they have a good witness, and all goes rather smoothly. With that said, though, it only makes sense that public or private school, unless closely monitored by wise, kind, just adults, threatens to present schoolchildren (particularly those who are not well-liked for whatever reason) with situations marked by cruelness and, well, evil. As Christians, we’ve got to think carefully before we plunge our kids into such worlds.

It is not easy to admit that one was bullied. It is also not easy to forget being bullied. I remember getting punched by bullies in school, and I remember one of my friends being shoved into a locker by a bully. He cut his hand so badly that he had to go to the emergency room. There was a great deal more that I can remember, too. I remember being taunted by older boys about a poor basketball game I played. Without any provocation, these boys repeatedly made fun of me for making a few turnovers. Twelve years later, I can easily recall my hot cheeks, my attempt not to cry in front of other boys, my inability to say anything meaningful to these boys.

These recollections show me that I, along with all Christian parents, need to think carefully about schooling. We cannot shield our children from the evil of this world; indeed, we must teach children to live in the midst of it, and beyond this, to be light in this place. With that said, though, we should remember children like Billy Wolfe. There were many children I can recall who were chewed up by public school and the cruel kids who populated it. We should remember, perhaps, our own histories, and run our minds over our own scars. As parents, we should be prepared to stand up with great force and courage for our children. I’m thankful that my own parents were always there for me. We’ve got to teach our children to defend themselves, even as we teach them to, when possible, suffer reproach for the gospel. Most of all, we need simply to think–to think about our children’s souls and the way they will be shaped by the childhood years in which we shepherd them. Education is important, after all, but at what price does it come?

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Filed under billy wolfe, bullies, bullying, Christ, dan barry, education, home-school, new york times, public school

When a Lawsuit’s a Boy’s Only Hope: Billy Wolfe, Bullying, and the Results of a Peer-Based Culture

It’s not every day that you see a story about one boy being bullied without headlines accompanying headlines announcing a vicious death or a closeted homosexuality. Yesterday, though, the New York Times published just such a story. Dan Barry wrote the piece, entitled “A Boy the Bullies Love to Beat Up, Repeatedly”, as a sober, quiet reflection on bullying. Though there is no grisly headline attached to the story (thankfully!), the piece is worth reading and thinking about.

Barry notes, succinctly, that fifteen-year-old Billy Wolfe of Fayetteville, Arkansas gets bullied on a regular basis. This is the kind of piece that Barry regularly writes for the NYT: pieces that go beyond headlines and burrow into the experiences of everyday people. A steady diet of such articles would grow tiresome, probably, but this piece raised a number of issues in my own mind about the link between schools and bullying. Billy is bullied on a regular basis by a number of boys who randomly approach him and punch him. There seems to be little rationale for this behavior, though one could guess that Billy is an outsider in his school–he might be bookish, or he might be slightly effeminate, or he might be a little socially awkward, or he just might not be strong, debonair, or athletic. As one who went to public school, I can reason that any of these factors could be directly contributing to Billy’s situation. Kids–despite appearances to the contrary–can be relentlessly cruel. Public school can be quite difficult, then, because it often involves a large number of kids, some of whom are quite cruel, and little supervision by wise, discerning adults. For the child who is, for whatever reason, on the fringe, public (or private) school can represent a day-in, day-out exercise in sustained fear and unalleviated despair.

Perhaps many of us have forgotten this truth. We’ve long ago left behind school experiences that were difficult. Perhaps we are internally ashamed of the fact that we were once bullied. In fleeting moments of remembrance, we feel as though we caused such treatment. Maybe we remember how gawky we were, or how awkward, or how small, and we feel that we deserved to be bullied. Let’s square with bullying, and with the pre-teen and teenage years: they can be quite hard. We’re not giving into silly psychobabble or becoming weak if we look our past in the face and see the pain and hurt that lies there. I was always very short, and I remember being on picked on continually for it. I told my parents about some of it, and occasionally talked about it with friends, but there was alot of evil that I could do little about it and simply bore on my own. Some would say that this reality shaped my character and made me tougher, and that’s probably true. But my experience in public school among a bunch of nasty kids also left me with some scars. I’m sure others experienced the same, though it’s unlikely they’ll talk much about it.

In reflecting on Billy Wolfe, I’m reminded of a few recent trips to local coffee shops. While reading in the afternoon, I’ve observed schoolchildren, fresh out of school for the day, play a number of pranks on one another. I’ve also seen packs of children hanging out with no adult supervision. In all of these instances, I’ve thought to myself that it is no good thing for packs of unsaved children to hang out together. There is little good that results from such grouping. Unsaved children, after all, do not tend to focus on goodness, truth, and beauty, especially in a Christian sense. No, they tend to focus on what is evil, outlawed, unkind, “cool”, and funny, despite what others may think. The peer-based culture of American children that stems from the advent of public education in the twentieth century can hardly be viewed as a positive development for our society. I am not offering a direct application regarding the viability of public school for children of Christians here. Some kids thrive in such situations–they’re well liked, they have a good witness, and all goes rather smoothly. With that said, though, it only makes sense that public or private school, unless closely monitored by wise, kind, just adults, threatens to present schoolchildren (particularly those who are not well-liked for whatever reason) with situations marked by cruelness and, well, evil. As Christians, we’ve got to think carefully before we plunge our kids into such worlds.

It is not easy to admit that one was bullied. It is also not easy to forget being bullied. I remember getting punched by bullies in school, and I remember one of my friends being shoved into a locker by a bully. He cut his hand so badly that he had to go to the emergency room. There was a great deal more that I can remember, too. I remember being taunted by older boys about a poor basketball game I played. Without any provocation, these boys repeatedly made fun of me for making a few turnovers. Twelve years later, I can easily recall my hot cheeks, my attempt not to cry in front of other boys, my inability to say anything meaningful to these boys.

These recollections show me that I, along with all Christian parents, need to think carefully about schooling. We cannot shield our children from the evil of this world; indeed, we must teach children to live in the midst of it, and beyond this, to be light in this place. With that said, though, we should remember children like Billy Wolfe. There were many children I can recall who were chewed up by public school and the cruel kids who populated it. We should remember, perhaps, our own histories, and run our minds over our own scars. As parents, we should be prepared to stand up with great force and courage for our children. I’m thankful that my own parents were always there for me. We’ve got to teach our children to defend themselves, even as we teach them to, when possible, suffer reproach for the gospel. Most of all, we need simply to think–to think about our children’s souls and the way they will be shaped by the childhood years in which we shepherd them. Education is important, after all, but at what price does it come?

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The Week-est Link, March 21, 2008: Devotions?

1. Video of Tim Keller speaking apologetically. Keller’s talk is not to be missed and can be used both to edify and instruct Christians. (HT: Justin Taylor)

2. Helpful discussion of how to tackle the sometimes thorny subject of morning devotions. Covenant Life members CJ Mahaney, former pastor, and Jeff Purswell, pastor and theologian, are the writers here, and they have some very helpful things to say. This topic can befuddle many Christians, and we can easily condemn ourselves on this subject. Great to have someone speak pastorally and directly to it.

3. Biblical theologian Graeme Goldsworthy recently spoke at Southern Seminary, and the talks sounded great to me. Here are the links. They include a PDF of Goldsworthy’s talks that stretches over 70 pages–fruitful material you shouldn’t miss, particularly if you want to understand the unity of the Bible.

That’s all, folks. Have a great and edifying Easter weekend!

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What’s More Valuable: Putting in Time or Preaching the Truth? Kingdom Considerations

The answer to the above question must be carefully qualified, in my humble opinion.

Both pursuits, offered out of a redeemed heart, are honoring to God. God has given His creation and His people the opportunity to labor for His glory (1 Co. 10:31). As with all things that we do, we have the opportunity to present our works and deeds to God as gifts. How do we do so? By performing them out of a heart of love. Though it is easy to get a bit over-heated about the nature of work–some theologians have oversold its value, as I see it–and see every task as ushering in the kingdom, it is clear from the Bible that work possesses inherent dignity when done to maximize God’s glory. Though the actual tasks we perform may not in themselves advance the kingdom (the kingdom is advanced primarily by proclamation and inherently spiritual activity, I would contend), yet our attitudes, our dispositions, and our constant devotion to God can well bless the Lord.

We see, then, that while making a shoe may not inherently advance the kingdom (the shoe possesses no spiritual value, after all), the attitude of the shoemaker (his worshipful heart expressing itself even as he sows the shoe together) and the good he accomplishes with the shoe (passing it on to a needy child in the name of Christ, for example) may well contribute to the forward movement of God’s kingdom. Not everything we do contributes to this forward progress, I would argue, but this is not to say that we cannot bring God glory in our daily goings-on and, perhaps often by means of our heart and our spiritually minded acts, claim some kingdom ground. We see, then, that the matter of work–indeed, all of our daily acts–becomes a matter of theological consideration, and requires us to carefully define the kingdom on biblical grounds.

With all of this said, the preaching of the gospel is the fundamental means of kingdom advancement. See Matthew’s first notation of kingdom-oriented preaching in 3:2–it is explicitly connected with the preaching of the gospel. Therefore, we should seek to preach the gospel to advance the kingdom, understanding that this is the primary–though not the only–means of pushing it forward. This means for those of us who work that we should indeed seek to preach the gospel in our workplaces. We should do so, however, shrewdly (Mt. 10:16). I don’t think it wise for a Christian to consider their primary on-the-job responsibility to be evangelism. That’s not honest. Your employer has hired you to be an accountant; be an accountant. Account. (Sorry, that’s a bad joke.)

However, be a shrewdly Christian accountant. Season your conversation with the gospel. Look for opportunities to talk about your church, your faith, your conversion. Ask co-workers if they would like to hang out, and then engage them in honest, normal, but spiritually oriented conversation. Read the Bible in your lunch hour, and keep it on your desk. Let people see that the Bible is an organic part of your life. But do all this while being an excellent accountant (or forester or truck-driver or librarian or politician or athlete or stay-at-home mom). Know accountant laws. Put in a hard, full work day. Be one of the best employees in your office. Be nice, polite, helpful, and kind. Do your work with excellence. In summary, be a worker whose Christianity is apparent, whose goodness is evident, and whose work is excellent. Honor your Lord, but do so while honoring your boss.

Many Christians, of course, work in environments hostile or at least unfriendly to Christianity. In this case, simply turn up the “shrewdness” factor. People are still desperately lost; they are still looking for light, to some extent; they will still be unable to avoid noticing an attractive Christian witness when it presents itself. Over time, they’ll ask questions and want to know what makes you tick, a situation helped, of course, by a Christian directing conversation well and living a life that looks and smells differently from others. Above all, Christians in these situations must look to share the gospel just as much as other Christians, though as noted they will need to do so with greater shrewdness than others. On the question of what to do when sharing faith involves the loss of a job, there is no black-and-white answer that I know of. One will have to balance faithful boldness with careful wisdom. One will have to do so, though, with Christ’s warning about being an unfaithful or fearful witness in mind. No reward is promised to the timid; much reward is promised to the courageous (see the beatitudes of Matthew 5).

In summary, the Christian must thus see himself as part of a cosmic movement of God’s Spirit that is orchestrated by the Father’s will and proceeds forth from the Son’s redemptive work. The Christian who goes off to work each morning should not simply think that he is putting in time and punching a clock; neither should he think that he is in some vague sense honoring God by working. No, he should realize that he is part of a kingdom movement, and he is able throughout the day to advance that kingdom by a godly attitude and disposition and by acts and deeds of gospel-oriented grace, justice, beauty, and goodness. We might restrain ourselves from saying that every task he performs directly contributes to this kingdom progress, but in doing so we would not make the mistake of thinking that only preachers accomplish spiritually meaningful things. No, all of us have the opportunity to participate by disposition and deed and word in this cosmic movement.

This perspective threatens to transform our daily rites, doesn’t it? However you’ve considered work, you need not see it in stark terms, either as an evangelistic endeavor alone or a clock-punching exercise. No, work is a beautiful blend of these things, an opportunity to, as I said earlier, send God little gifts of glory by the things we do and the words we say. As you head into the forest, or wheel into your desk, or walk customers around the car showroom, you are not cut off from the kingdom. You are right in the center of it. As you live with integrity, and model Christ’s grace and kindness, and speak gospel-saturated words, yes, you are right in the center of it. You may not know it, and no one may see it, but heaven is smiling on you in these times. And somehow, in ways imperceptible to human eyes and ears, a reign is being extended, a light is being lifted, and the earth and hills and stars are being readied to celebrate and surrender to the coming King.

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Filed under calling, evangelism, missional, theology of work, vocation, work

What’s More Valuable: Putting in Time or Preaching the Truth? Kingdom Considerations

The answer to the above question must be carefully qualified, in my humble opinion.

Both pursuits, offered out of a redeemed heart, are honoring to God. God has given His creation and His people the opportunity to labor for His glory (1 Co. 10:31). As with all things that we do, we have the opportunity to present our works and deeds to God as gifts. How do we do so? By performing them out of a heart of love. Though it is easy to get a bit over-heated about the nature of work–some theologians have oversold its value, as I see it–and see every task as ushering in the kingdom, it is clear from the Bible that work possesses inherent dignity when done to maximize God’s glory. Though the actual tasks we perform may not in themselves advance the kingdom (the kingdom is advanced primarily by proclamation and inherently spiritual activity, I would contend), yet our attitudes, our dispositions, and our constant devotion to God can well bless the Lord.

We see, then, that while making a shoe may not inherently advance the kingdom (the shoe possesses no spiritual value, after all), the attitude of the shoemaker (his worshipful heart expressing itself even as he sows the shoe together) and the good he accomplishes with the shoe (passing it on to a needy child in the name of Christ, for example) may well contribute to the forward movement of God’s kingdom. Not everything we do contributes to this forward progress, I would argue, but this is not to say that we cannot bring God glory in our daily goings-on and, perhaps often by means of our heart and our spiritually minded acts, claim some kingdom ground. We see, then, that the matter of work–indeed, all of our daily acts–becomes a matter of theological consideration, and requires us to carefully define the kingdom on biblical grounds.

With all of this said, the preaching of the gospel is the fundamental means of kingdom advancement. See Matthew’s first notation of kingdom-oriented preaching in 3:2–it is explicitly connected with the preaching of the gospel. Therefore, we should seek to preach the gospel to advance the kingdom, understanding that this is the primary–though not the only–means of pushing it forward. This means for those of us who work that we should indeed seek to preach the gospel in our workplaces. We should do so, however, shrewdly (Mt. 10:16). I don’t think it wise for a Christian to consider their primary on-the-job responsibility to be evangelism. That’s not honest. Your employer has hired you to be an accountant; be an accountant. Account. (Sorry, that’s a bad joke.)

However, be a shrewdly Christian accountant. Season your conversation with the gospel. Look for opportunities to talk about your church, your faith, your conversion. Ask co-workers if they would like to hang out, and then engage them in honest, normal, but spiritually oriented conversation. Read the Bible in your lunch hour, and keep it on your desk. Let people see that the Bible is an organic part of your life. But do all this while being an excellent accountant (or forester or truck-driver or librarian or politician or athlete or stay-at-home mom). Know accountant laws. Put in a hard, full work day. Be one of the best employees in your office. Be nice, polite, helpful, and kind. Do your work with excellence. In summary, be a worker whose Christianity is apparent, whose goodness is evident, and whose work is excellent. Honor your Lord, but do so while honoring your boss.

Many Christians, of course, work in environments hostile or at least unfriendly to Christianity. In this case, simply turn up the “shrewdness” factor. People are still desperately lost; they are still looking for light, to some extent; they will still be unable to avoid noticing an attractive Christian witness when it presents itself. Over time, they’ll ask questions and want to know what makes you tick, a situation helped, of course, by a Christian directing conversation well and living a life that looks and smells differently from others. Above all, Christians in these situations must look to share the gospel just as much as other Christians, though as noted they will need to do so with greater shrewdness than others. On the question of what to do when sharing faith involves the loss of a job, there is no black-and-white answer that I know of. One will have to balance faithful boldness with careful wisdom. One will have to do so, though, with Christ’s warning about being an unfaithful or fearful witness in mind. No reward is promised to the timid; much reward is promised to the courageous (see the beatitudes of Matthew 5).

In summary, the Christian must thus see himself as part of a cosmic movement of God’s Spirit that is orchestrated by the Father’s will and proceeds forth from the Son’s redemptive work. The Christian who goes off to work each morning should not simply think that he is putting in time and punching a clock; neither should he think that he is in some vague sense honoring God by working. No, he should realize that he is part of a kingdom movement, and he is able throughout the day to advance that kingdom by a godly attitude and disposition and by acts and deeds of gospel-oriented grace, justice, beauty, and goodness. We might restrain ourselves from saying that every task he performs directly contributes to this kingdom progress, but in doing so we would not make the mistake of thinking that only preachers accomplish spiritually meaningful things. No, all of us have the opportunity to participate by disposition and deed and word in this cosmic movement.

This perspective threatens to transform our daily rites, doesn’t it? However you’ve considered work, you need not see it in stark terms, either as an evangelistic endeavor alone or a clock-punching exercise. No, work is a beautiful blend of these things, an opportunity to, as I said earlier, send God little gifts of glory by the things we do and the words we say. As you head into the forest, or wheel into your desk, or walk customers around the car showroom, you are not cut off from the kingdom. You are right in the center of it. As you live with integrity, and model Christ’s grace and kindness, and speak gospel-saturated words, yes, you are right in the center of it. You may not know it, and no one may see it, but heaven is smiling on you in these times. And somehow, in ways imperceptible to human eyes and ears, a reign is being extended, a light is being lifted, and the earth and hills and stars are being readied to celebrate and surrender to the coming King.

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Filed under calling, evangelism, missional, theology of work, vocation, work