Friday, April 27, 2012

Good and Evil

Now the serpent  was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’? ”
    The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”
    “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,  knowing good and evil.”
-Genesis 3:1-5

Last year’s massacre on the island of Utoya, in Norway, took the lives of 69 young people at a summer camp organized by the youth division of the Norwegian Labor Party. Anders Breivik, a right-wing extremist who opposes immigration and seems to have a hatred of Islam in particular, was arrested for the murders and is being tried this week. He does not deny that he committed the murders, but claims that they were necessary to the preservation of what he calls a “Christian Europe.”
    He said at his trial this week that the killings were “based on goodness, not evil.”
    Breivik’s belief that his acts were in some way “good” apparently motivated Christina Patterson, of the UK newspaper The Independent, to write an opinion piece entitled “The First Step to Mass Murder Is a Belief in Good and Evil.” Patterson quotes Breivik’s “manifesto,” compares him to other white supremacists and terrorists, and points out how the kind of violence that Breivik committed always arises out of hatred, not for others, but for self.
    But then she goes on:

What all of these people have in common, apart from their hate, is a view of the world that divides it into good and evil. They like things to be simple. They want to live in homogeneous cultures where one view, which happens to be their own, prevails. When cultures change, as they all will with globalisation, they stamp their feet, and want to bend the world to their will. They can't bear their own feelings of failure, and want to feel strong.

    In short, Patterson claims, Breivik killed 69 people because he believed in good and evil.
    Strange, to look at something like the massacre of that many promising young lives and think that the problem is too strong a belief in good and evil.
    No, Patterson had it right when she talked about hate as a cause. Fear of change. Feelings of failure and shame, and a convenient scapegoat to take the blame. He wanted his world to never change, wanted it always to conform to his perception of reality.
    That was the first temptation, wasn’t it, the one the snake used to seal the deal? “You’ll be like God, knowing good and evil.” That was all it took, and suddenly the fruit of that one tree looked better than everything else in that garden combined. “Go ahead and eat, and you won’t need God. You’ll be able to determine what’s good and what’s evil, what’s right and wrong, all by yourself.”
    People have been wanting this privilege for themselves since Day One. It’s how a student justifies cheating on a test, why a husband leaves his wife for another woman, how a pro-life activist decides to kill a doctor who performs abortions, why a suicide bomber detonates his vest in the middle of a crowded market. At bottom, the reason is the same: I’d like to be able to define good and evil so that I can define it in ways that best suit my worldview, my prejudices, my wants and needs.
     Whenever I get to I decide what is good and evil, it will remarkably come out suiting me best. I’ll define it in ways that are most convenient to me, that absolve me of responsibility for my own life, that provide suitable scapegoats for my failures.
    What’s gone wrong when someone like Anders Breivik raises a gun is not that he believes in good and evil. It’s that he believes in his version of good and evil. What went wrong on the island of Utoya that day was that Anders Breivik believed the serpent’s lie that he could “be like God, knowing good and evil.”
    Good and evil, though, is something that has to come from outside of us, independent of our own prejudices, preferences, and desires. If good and evil doesn’t sometimes sit in judgment on our own values and actions, we might rightly suspect that we have them mixed up somehow. Anders Breivik apparently never allowed that suspicion to enter his mind. He was so sure that he was right, that his actions were good, he apparently never imagined that he could be wrong. He still hasn’t - he’s still convinced that what he did is “based on goodness, not evil.”
    For human beings to separate out what we wish to be good, what we prefer to be good, what we want  to be good and what our passions tell us is good from what is actually, good - well, it requires divine intervention. It requires more that we sit in judgement over our own hearts instead of other people. It requires faith in God, submission to his Spirit, and a trust that he will lead us and teach us what is good.  It requires God, made flesh, living among us and showing us what a good life really looks like.
    Good, in a nutshell, is following him: Doing what he did, loving what he loved, hating what he hated, and offering an empty outstretched hand to the point of a nail to right the world’s wrongs. Instead of a fist holding a gun.
    Jesus shows me that whenever I turn against people in anger and hate, I’ve lost sight of right and wrong. However morally upright I may feel that I am, however certain I may that I’m in the right and others are in the wrong, to turn on people is to do evil. Loving people is a fundamental good. Only loving God ranks higher, and he loves people.
    Deciding that belief in right and wrong is the problem doesn’t help. If Anders Breivik’s atrocities teach us anything, it should be we human beings aren’t up to the task of determining good from evil. It should remind us that the human heart can justify anything, slap the label of “good” or “evil” in anything. It should call us back to faith in the God who from the beginning has promised to tell us good from evil, right from wrong.
    It should help us to listen to him, and to imagine that he might even use people who disagree with us to help us all see good from evil a little more clearly.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Sharing the Music

What you heard from me,  keep  as the pattern  of sound teaching,  with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard  the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us....
    [T]he things you have heard me say  in the presence of many witnesses  entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.
-2 Timothy 1:13-14, 2:2 (NIV)

    Every father hopes for something to share with his children: some experience, some common interest, some hobby. You want something that you can talk to your kids about, something that you enjoy doing together. I think from both the dad and kid side of the equation, you want to know that your relationship doesn’t always have to be parent-child. You want the chance, especially as kids grow into teenagers and adults, to have a friendship as well.
    For Josh and me, one of the places where our relationship turns into friendship is music.
    Specifically, Bruce Springsteen’s music. I’ve been a fan for a lot of years, and Josh became a fan after I shared it with him.
    So imagine our excitement - mine, especially - when we heard the announcement this week that he’s coming to play at Wrigley Field in September.
    Springsteen’s legendary live shows are a big reason that I became a fan. (I saw him play for three and half hours once.) I don’t necessarily expect that this show will be a marathon - the guy has his AARP card now, after all - but I’m looking forward to sharing with my son what is, in this era of Auto-Tuned and lip-synced “live” shows, for my money one of the best live music experiences out there.
    I would enjoy seeing Springsteen with my wife (though she hasn’t quite developed an appreciation for The Boss). I’d enjoy seeing him with friends, or even alone. But it means more somehow, that I’m going to see him with a young man who’s seeing him live for the first time, and that I can share that with him.
    I hope, though, that music isn’t the only thing we’ve shared.
    None of us would argue, probably, that Christianity isn’t intended to be shared. In fact, the “good news” at the heart of our faith is passed down from one person to another, one generation to the next. That’s how it continues to speak to us, continues to have relevance in a changing world, continues to breathe hope onto the dying embers of human hearts. The faith exists because it’s been passed down. The “pattern of healthy teaching,” as Paul puts it, is what we’ve heard. It’s nothing we create, or make up, or develop through focus groups and measuring trends. It’s what we’ve heard, which means that it comes from outside of us. It is to be heard, and guarded, and then passed on.
    Jesus wrote nothing, isn’t that interesting? Nothing that’s lasted, anyway. But others were there, and they listened and they saw, and eventually they got around to telling what they heard and saw and reflecting on what it meant. And eventually those recollections got written down, and then copied, and copied some more, and shared in the church. And still, today, people all over the world reflect on what they’ve received, and hear it read, and then go try to live it. And share it again.
    Sometimes, though, we get mixed up. Sometimes we get confused as to what it is that we’re supposed to be sharing.
    What if I had tried to pass along to Josh my interpretation of Springsteen’s music, without letting him hear much of the actual music? What if, instead of listening to him while we drove, I spent the time telling him why Darkness on the Edge of Town was superior to Wrecking Ball? What if I had spent the time lecturing about why vinyl is superior to digital downloads? Oh, he might conceivably kind of enjoy my interpretation. Maybe, if I was compelling enough, it might even move him like Springsteen’s music. But it wouldn’t be the same thing. And it would be really, really hard to dance to.
    Sometimes churches and church leaders, in the name of trying to guard what they’ve received and making sure it gets communicated faithfully and understood properly, have done something much like that to the gospel. We’ve made it hard for people to hear the music over our analysis and interpretation. We’ve forgotten that hearing the gospel is much more akin to listening to a great song played live than attending a lecture about a recording of that song. It’s intended to be heard with the same faculties, I’m convinced, that make it possible for us to enjoy good music. The gospel teaches us, of course, but not only by instructing our minds. (Maybe not even primarily that way.) It teaches us by touching our hearts - reaching down to the core of who we are - and moving us. It moves us to repentance. It moves us to hope. It moves us to action.
    Maybe people in our world are having trouble hearing the gospel right now because we’ve forgotten that and aren’t communicating what we think we are. They don’t want to hear the analysis. They might not always want to hear the music, either - but the Bible says that’s where the power of God for salvation is. And so that’s what they need to hear.
    And maybe that’s why we believers don’t seem to be doing much sharing of the gospel these days. Maybe it’s because we know intuitively that something’s off, that what we’re communicating isn’t necessarily the gospel that once turned the world upside down. Maybe the first thing some of us need to do to become more effective, enthusiastic sharers of what we’ve heard is to go back and hear again. But this time, not muffled by some church leader’s understanding of what the music is saying. This time, the music itself - what the apostles heard from Jesus and passed down to us - loud and live, until our ears are ringing and our hearts are pounding and our feet are moving.
   We won’t mind at all sharing that, I think. In fact, it’ll come as naturally as sharing a favorite song with someone we love.
    And our world will be able to hear the song of the ages. And some will even dance.