The Terror of Goodness

aslanRecently in one of the classes I taught we talked about (among other things) how hard it is in literature and in movies to portray goodness.  This is not to say that there are no good characters, but getting across the stunning nature of goodness is more difficult.  For instance, to portray the evil of the orcs in the Lord of the Rings movies, all you have to do is make the actors spend more time in the makeup trailer, adding an extra fang here or a bit more ooze there.  But to portray a truly good character (from the book) like Faramir…well, you change the character so he’s not so good.  Why? Because goodness is hard to portray and doesn’t play well on screen.  Even comic book superheroes are now angst-ridden and conflicted about doing good.  Probably the film pinnacle of a character who is a good man is Forrest Gump, and he has to be portrayed as mentally challenged or else the audience won’t believe someone can be that good. In fact, “good” characters in movies are often depicted as smarmy people no one wants to be around.

Our class discussion was prompted by Lewis’ observation in Mere Christianity that “some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are only playing with religion.”  We tend to think of evil as the most terrible thing in the universe, but the real terror is encountering absolute goodness; that is why everyone in the Bible who encounters an angel falls down and must be reassured with the angelic words, “Be not afraid.”  The awesomeness and terror of goodness: that is why it is so hard to accurately represent it in art.  For this reason, Lewis chose to use a lion for the absolutely good Narnian character of Aslan.  As Mrs. Beaver replies to Susan when she expresses concern for her safety at meeting a lion, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” The lion Aslan is both attractive and terrifying, like actual goodness.  Now that I think about it, not only is goodness difficult to depict, it is probably not something we want to depict because facing goodness shows us our own badness.

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Virgin Born

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).  Of the many theological implications of the virgin birth, my favorite (can one have a favorite theological implication?) is what this doctrine teaches us about the grace of God.  We know that our salvation is by the grace of God, but the virgin birth reminds us that even the beginnings of our salvation is by God’s initiative and power.  Put another way, the virgin birth of Christ proclaims that salvation is God’s act and not dependent upon human effort.  In fact, the manger reminds us that the birth of Christ, like our new birth, is by the agency of the Holy Spirit.  In a poetic sense, all who are new creations in Christ are virgin born: children of God by the Holy Spirit.

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I Can’t Believe in Math

mathSuppose someone went around saying, “I just can’t believe in math because there are so many wrong answers to equations out there.  I look around and see people writing ‘2+2=5’ or ‘2+2=3’ and I wonder, how can there be math when so many get such horribly wrong answers?”  Of course, the person’s consternation about the wrong answers assumes that he or she knows that there is a right answer, namely that ‘2+2=4.’  And further, he can only know the right answer if there is such a thing as math to dictate that 2+2=4.  In other words, math must exist in order for the person to recognize wrong answers, which in turn, are leading him to doubt math.  The existence of math is logically necessary before the argument against math based on wrong answers can make sense.  Thus, one might rightly ask this doubter, “How can you not believe in math if you believe that ‘2+2=5’ is wrong?”  Similarly, regarding the problem of evil and suffering in the world, the question might be, “How can you not believe in God if you believe there is objectively real evil in the world?” Isn’t God’s existence (and by extension, absolute moral standards (right answers and wrong answers)) logically necessary before the argument against His existence based upon evil can even make sense?

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How to Anger English Majors

shakespeareI love languages.  I specialize in the “dead” languages of Greece and Rome.  But the history and development of languages has always fascinated me.  I was hooked the first moment I heard about Indo-European (which was first hypothesized by William Jones, whom I hope is a long lost relative).    One thing I firmly believe about language is that grammar is primarily descriptive not prescriptive.  Though it does give us rules about (prescribes) HOW to speak, it is mainly a reflection of (describes) how we in fact DO speak.   Languages change.  And as languages change, so do the rules.  One group of people who just don’t get this is English majors.  Maybe because they enjoy knowing the rules and condescending to those who don’t, who knows?  But in keeping with the holiday season, I give you 2 things that are absolutely true about English but which will absolutely infuriate English majors. Continue reading

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On Steve Jobs and Sophocles

steve-jobs-iphone1 When I look at how our society has treated Joe Paterno or is currently treating Bill Cosby, it is clear that we have a tendency to damn the entirety of man’s life’s work because of the evil he is suspected to have committed or allowed.  But we arent entirely consistent in this regard.  There are people whom we believe to have made such important, significant, or valuable contributions that we overlook or ignore or allow or excuse their negative actions.  I found 2 such examples separated by almost 2500 years with surprisingly similar stories: Steve Jobs and Sophocles.  Both were universally acknowledged as geniuses in their own day.  Both were evidently quite lousy people and cruel to those closest to them.  In both cases, people overlooked the latter because of the former.  Continue reading

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How to Raise a Monster

spoiled-bratRecently in one of or our assemblies I spoke on the constant temptation to worldliness.  As Saint John puts it, this worldliness is marked by “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” (1 John 2: 16).  Because the word “lust” is a loaded term, I used Peterson’s paraphrase to help the students truly understand these temptations.  Peterson words them like this: “wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important.”  I find his paraphrase interesting because the traits of worldliness, as he lists them, are the very traits that good parenting and effective discipleship are trying to reduce.  In other words, worldliness is the equivalent of remaining a spoiled child and not growing up.

What I find more intriguing (and disturbing, really) is that these characteristics—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—are also the hallmarks of parents who spoil (ruin) their children.  Actually, they aren’t the hallmarks of the parents, but the qualities the parents champion and even foster in their children.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, when you encounter a child who is, as we say,  a “monster,” you will find parents who (knowingly or not)  always want to ensure that “their baby” is treated fairly or gets his fair shake, never has to know what it is like to go without, and who is the center of attention at home. Combined, these seemingly well-meaning parental goals almost guarantee the child will become a monster, or as John might put it, a worldly brat.  We often call such parents “helicopter” parents because they hover over their children in an attempt to enforce these three objectives.  The irony is that while their tactics work, the product is more than they bargained for.


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Thanks for Doing the Minimum


“Thanks for doing the minimum.”  Rhetoric school students (that’s what we call our high school students at the school where I am headmaster) are familiar with this phrase because this is what I jokingly say when, for instance, a boy shows me that his shirt is tucked in.  While I say it tongue-in-cheek and we all get a laugh out of it, this nonetheless points to something that is widespread in our culture.  We anticipate rewards for doing what is merely expected—in other words, for doing the minimum.  We see it when a student thinks she should get a high grade on her essay because all of the words are spelled correctly, or when a young man is proud of a completion grade, or when schools give citizenship awards for showing up, or when I think I am doing God a favor by tithing.  I don’t think this is anything new; we have merely found new ways to reward the minimum because the minimum is so seldom completed. It isn’t mediocrity; it hasn’t even risen to that level.  So don’t think you’re going to get a medal for reading this.  Thanks for doing the minimum.

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