Monday, May 28, 2007

Star Wars and Pretension

Yes, the thirtieth anniversary of Star Wars is a big deal. Before I knew Aristotle, Nietzsche, or Wittgenstein, I knew Yoda. Before I knew Athanasius, John Calvin, or David Bosch, I knew Obi Wan Kenobi. For better or worse, the movies helped define me. I understand the heroic partly thanks to Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo. Yes, I am a geek.

As pretentious as that last paragraph, I was overwhelmed tonight by the History Channel’s special, Star Wars Revealed. They trudged out religious scholars, classicists, film critics, journalists, and the rest. Everyone spoke such grandiose and intellectual cheese that I needed a good reality check.

The story of Luke Skywalker and the redemption of Darth Vader is more based on westerns, war movies, and pulp science fiction than heroic myths and biblical motifs. If the movies connect on larger themes found in classical literature, that only acknowledges that our culture is saturated with those themes. George Lucas, when he is at his best, is simply a good story-teller. When he is at his worst, Howard the Duck.

He also grabs and borrows from everywhere. Tatooine, The desert homeworld of Anakin and Luke Skywalker, bares a striking resemblance to the planet Dune in the books by Frank Herbert. Coruscant, the political center of the Star Wars universe, is cribbed from Trantor, a planet in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

Unfortunately, Joseph Campbell came along and claimed that Star Wars fit his broad generalizations of the world’s mythologies. Although interesting, many of the connections seemed forced. Steven Hart does a pretty good job deflating much of the myth of Campbell’s analysis. At one point, Hart writes,
If this is the level of analysis at work, then why should this myth-mongering stop with Lucas? The original "Rocky," released the year before "Star Wars," follows Campbell's mythic template much more closely than "Star Wars": just imagine Burgess Meredith as the wise old sage, Burt Young as the guardian of the threshold and Carl Weathers as Darth Vader. (Pop quiz: Where do the pet turtles fit in?) Campbell's approach can give any adventure story, from "Bulldog Drummond" to "The Perils of Pauline," a place in the pantheon. In fact, his acolytes are hard at work doing just that with such movies as “The Matrix” and “The Wizard of Oz.” It adds up to little more than a party game for drunken grad students, or a smoke screen for filmmakers covering their tracks.
Star Wars helped define my generation, but it isn’t profound. It’s a Rorschach test on celluloid. For many, Darth Vader and his Storm Troopers stand in for Hitler and his Storm Troopers. One black film critic from the History Channel special noted that Darth Vader reminded him of pimps from inner-city Detroit. As viewers in Prague saw Star Wars for the first time in 1991, there was no doubt that the evil Empire was the Soviet Union. The Emperor Palpatine is George W. Bush, Clifton Kirkpatrick or Dean Wormer depending on your perspective.

Unfortunately, as George Lucas added the prequels and modified the originals, he has actually muddied the waters. The Force which was never very coherent, now makes little sense. “Trust your feelings,” we are told, yet a Jedi must set aside his emotions. The midi-chlorians turns the Jedi from a order of space Jesuit/Ninjas, who have received the proper training and discipline, to a group of supermen with the right blood.

Still, I love the movies. I enjoy sharing them with my son. Perhaps, the best advice is Han Solo’s to Luke Skywalker as the Millenium Falcon makes its escape from the Death Star, “Don’t get cocky, kid.”

Friday, May 25, 2007

Albert Einstein: God and Ethics

Albert Einstein has been making a splash in the popular culture lately. I am aware of about a dozen recent references to Einstein in articles and on television and radio. I realize that Walter Isaacson has recently published a biography of the scientist, Einstein: His Life and Universe. I also understand that this biography was partly based on recently released letters. Still, I don’t know if the excitement has been generated by the book or if the book was generated by the excitement.

Recently, NPR aired an essay of Albert Einstein for “This I Believe”. Although NPR science correspondent, Robert Krulwich, read the essay, it was originally aired in Einstein’s voice in 1954.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the Mysterious — the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty.
The words are poetic. The words also summarize the faith of the man who famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” However, the god of Einstein is not the God of Abraham or Jesus.
I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, or who has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves.
Einstein’s faith is rooted in natural theology. He rejects a god who is personal or who has a will of his own. Einstein sounds much like a Deist from the 18th Century. Please don’t get me wrong, I realize its inadequacy, but frankly, I prefer the Einstein’s Deism to Richard Dawkins’ atheism any day. The question remains, however, can Deism resist the devolution into atheism.

Einstein then turns from the cosmic to the human.
Man's ethical behavior should be effectively grounded on compassion, nurture and social bonds. What is moral is not the divine, but rather a purely human matter, albeit the most important of all human matters.
Ethical human behavior, according to Einstein, has nothing to do with God. It is rooted in historical circumstances. Unfortunately, there remains a problem, a “crisis“ in Einstein‘s words.
His position in society, then, is such that that which drives his ego is encouraged and developed, and that which would drive him toward other men (a weak impulse to begin with) is left to atrophy.
In other words, our society does not provide proper motivation for the love of justice or the love of our neighbor. Einstein suggests a possible solution.
It is my belief that there is only one way to eliminate these evils, namely, the establishment of a planned economy coupled with an education geared towards social goals.
When I first heard this essay, I was perplexed. The mystery of the cosmos and a “planned economy” seemed a strange mix. However, Einstein is a smart guy. He didn’t just make this up. I realize now that he was completely consistent in his argument.

Human ethics demands a foundation. If the God of the universe is unwilling to take the job, then we must do it ourselves. The state must use force to compel its citizens to do the right thing. Granted, the state uses force all the time. The state uses violence or threatens to use violence to curb people from killing, stealing, etc.

However, in the past, we also would remind people of their duty to God or the natural law. As Christians, we even believe that the Holy Spirit can generate compassion and love in a person‘s life. These softer appeals, although not universally applicable, have a greater ability to influence society.

In contrast, Einstein inadvertently rejects those quieter influences by rejecting a God who cares about human behavior. Einstein’s hope for a compassionate society can only be achieved through force. Einstein praises the morality rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, yet he wants the ethics without the God.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

This I Believe

Since I received an Ipod in March of 2007, I’ve been a regular listener to “This I Believe.” National Public Radio recently revived a radio series started by Edward R. Murrow in 1951. Back then, Murrow described the series in this way:
This I Believe. By that name, we present the personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women in all walks of life. In this brief space, a banker or a butcher, a painter or a social worker, people of all kinds who need have nothing more in common than integrity, a real honesty, will write about the rules they live by, the things they have found to be the basic values in their lives.
In it’s current manifestation, NPR airs essays weekly from ordinary and extraordinary people about what matters to them. Some of the essays, I find touching. Others, I find disheartening. I’m still waiting for someone to quote the Nicene Creed a la Stephen Colbert, but you can’t have everything. It’s a good window on American culture.

Tomorrow: A look at Albert Einstein's essay.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

New Churches, Renewed Churches

Last week, Presbyweb provided a link to a news article out of the United Methodist Church. Apparently, the Methodists want to start 650 new churches by 2012. I applaud the effort. New church development is essential to the life and vitality of a denomination. I have often been frustrated that the PCUSA doesn’t seem similarly interested. In Palo Duro Presbytery, for example, no one remembers the last time a new church was started. Granted, the overall population of the Texas plains peaked at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Still, there is potential in some of the urban areas of the presbytery.

Although I was inclined to be sympathetic, I became quickly saddened. Rev. Thomas Butcher, the chair of congregational development in the United Methodist Church tried to explain his rationale for focusing on new churches.
…the common outcry among United Methodists, Mr. Butcher said, is for renewal, not new churches. His response? "It's easier to give birth than to raise Lazarus from the dead," he said in a report to the Council of Bishops.

New churches, he said, need to have a younger and more diverse membership to reach the changing demographics in the U.S. About 35 percent of the nation's population don't attend church.
I’m disappointed that Rev. Butcher seems so dismissive of existing congregations. Why do we have to choose between new church development and congregational renewal? Do only folks in growing suburban areas need churches that are vital and faithful?

Established congregations are less desirable because they are set in their ways. They are filled with curmudgeons who are unable to draw church members of an attractive demographic. Rather than call people to repentance and a deepening faith, it is easier to start with a self-selecting group who feel comfortable with the culture of the new church. Renewal is hard work. It requires leadership, sacrifice and love. It is not for the timid.

Thankfully, the majority of established churches have signs of life. There are men and women in those congregations earnestly seeking to be followers of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, some established churches can be stubborn, mean, and even faithless. Some have been dead for more than three days and “stinketh” (John 11:39, KJV). Jesus, however, is the resurrection. Even Lazarus can be raised from the dead.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Thus Spake Jeffy

Here's a new way to enjoy your favorite Bill Keane comics and express your existential angst at the same time. The Nietzsche Family Circus combines random Family Circus comics with random quotes from Friedrich Nietzsche.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Newsletter: Our Calling: Equipping the Church

Over the past year and a half, our congregation has been engaged in a process of discernment. Instead of focusing on our wants and desires, we have actively sought out God’s will for the First Presbyterian Church. We have turned to prayer and Bible study. We have examined our heritage, our ministries and our community. Through all the efforts, we realized that God is calling us to a particular ministry here in this place and time: We are equipping the Church for the life of faith.

As Christians, we affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord. We accept the historic teachings of the church. We acknowledge our faith must be lived out in word and action. Moreover, we believe that God wants our congregation to take seriously Jesus’ command “to make disciples.” We are called to walk with others--to equip the Church for the hard work of worship, study, service and witness. Beyond simply imparting the facts of faith, we must equip the church on how to be Christ‘s ambassadors, how to develop the disciplines of prayer and Bible study, how to make the tough choices. Nonetheless, it would be the height of hubris to think we do this alone. In fact, we are merely instruments of God’s grace.

Now is the time for leadership. In the coming weeks and months, we will be practically applying our calling to our life together. What does worship look like in an equipping church? What is the best way that Christian Education can equip others for the life of faith? How do we do mission? What is stewardship? How can our facilities serve our calling? This won’t be an easy task. It will require energy, intelligence, imagination and love. Still, these are exciting times for the First Presbyterian Church as we respond to God’s call.