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Sherlock and the Mystery of Baptism

The BBC Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Strange) and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) is not a straightforward TV show.  Things you thought you might have seen happen, may not have happened.  That’s why I hesitate to share what I thought I saw happen in the season four premiere, “The Sixth Thatcher.”  If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to wait to read on—for my sake, too, as I’d be glad to hear your take from watching without having heard my take first.

It all starts with a baptism.  John and Mary Watson ask Sherlock Holmes to stand as godfather for their daughter.  It’s a funny scene, in which the priest is hardly heard as Sherlock can’t stop texting, his words playing on the screen.  We don’t see the actual baptism of the child, instead seeing Sherlock, in a moment of comparative solemnity, text on his phone behind his back.

And yet, what I saw through the rest of the show was a picture of Baptism drawn in a remarkably traditional Christian way.  What we don’t see in the comedic scene we end up seeing through all the rest of the drama.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).  The mystery of dying under the water to be made new actually fits "The Sixth Thatcher" to a T.

A lot happens in this episode, and to order our thoughts, we should first step back to look at the big picture.  Both Watson and Sherlock are moving on parallel character arcs.  Because of pride, they are blindly pushing forward on paths that betray those they love.  In the climactic scene, their pride is crushed.  They were both wrong, and they can’t deny it or take it back.

Throughout the episode, this has all been foreshadowed by the recurring image of a smashed bust.  One of six busts of Margaret Thatcher contains a secret.  Someone is tracking down the busts and smashing them to find the secret.  That’s the plot, but the image is important as a picture.  The TV show depicts the bust being destroyed in great detail, not once but several times throughout the episode. 

The shattered bust foreshadows the shattering of the self-image both John Watson and Sherlock Holmes have of themselves.  When we’re first introduced to the shattering of the bust, Mycroft Holmes remarks about meeting Margaret Thatcher and finding her proud.  The proud will be crushed by episode’s end to find out what’s inside.  That’s not just about the mystery; it’s about the characters.

Where do we see the crushing of the image of the proud?  We see it underwater.  Water is also a recurring image through the episode.  The scene’s climax happens at an aquarium.  To get to that scene, we watch Sherlock pass through the water.  The climax echoes an earlier scene, also showcased in water.

An indoor pool, in scenery that evokes steamy claustrophobia, is the setting for the first visible smashing of a Thatcher bust.  Sherlock is certain he knows what game is afoot.  He is certain he knows what is inside the bust.  He is wrong and wrong.

From the beginning of the episode, Sherlock assumes that his great foe, Moriarty, is plotting his course.  Perhaps by the end of the season he will become right.  After one episode, however, there is no evidence that Moriarty is pulling the strings.  Sherlock appears to be wrong.

This is also a theme in play throughout “The Sixth Thatcher.”  The episode recounts the ancient tale of the appointment in Samarra several times.  That Mesopotomian tale proclaims the inevitability of death with a strong fatalistic overtone.  We hear that Sherlock as a child tried to rewrite the story with the hero travelling to Sumatra and outwitting death.  Sherlock insists he can keep Mary Watson safe, but he cannot.  He is wrong and nearly dies for his wrongness.

In both underwater scenes, Sherlock is powerless to save himself.  In both scenes, he misunderstands the person who has power over him.  In both scenes, he could not escape death on his own, except that someone had mercy on him.

In the first underwater scene, Sherlock is warned that he doesn’t understand.  He fights a villain that turns out not to be a villain.  He smashes a bust and finds that what is inside is not what he proclaimed it would be.  He escapes death only by water and by the non-villain choosing to leave Sherlock alive.

In the second underwater scene, Sherlock still doesn’t understand.  He taunts the true villain until she chooses to do something he doesn’t expect, shooting at him.  Sherlock only escapes death because Mary Watson trades places with him, taking the bullet that was meant for him.

In traditional Christian theology, Baptism is a holy washing, a removal of sin as Jesus takes the place of the sinner, giving His life in our place.  “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).  Baptism, then, is not just a onetime event the Christian leaves in the past.  Rather, it is a stamping of a pattern onto one’s life, a promise that as the Christian humbles himself in repentance, his saving God will lift him up through faith.  That pattern holds to the ultimate humbling—actual death—and beyond, as the Father raises up those who bear His name.

So, underwater, Mary Watson gives her life for Sherlock, and he is changed.  He admits he is wrong.  He even goes to therapy.  Baptism is the place for the destruction of the idol of self.

John Watson has a similar experience.  The show reveals he had been cheating on Mary, texting and meeting with another woman.  When Watson finds Mary dying in the aquarium, she tells him he was the best of husbands.  Martin Freeman’s acting reveals Watson is not only hurt by her dying, but undone by her faith in him.  As he grieves in this scene, his face is hidden.  The mask is shattered. 

An alternative view of Baptism appeared in the sixteenth century among the Anabaptists.  For them, the washing in water with the Word was not about what God did, sealing His promises with the Holy Spirit.  Rather, they taught, Baptism was about the vow the Baptized made to God to be faithful.  That’s why, if the Baptized was thought not to have kept the vow, Anabaptists advocated rebaptism.

Throughout “The Sixth Thatcher,” the show’s protagonists are shown to be unable to keep their vows.  Sherlock’s vow to keep Mary safe was not only wrong, but he led her into danger twice.  The vows Mary made with the compatriots from her former life also failed to save them.  John breaks his marriage vows to Mary through his relationship with another woman.  When these human vows come undone, the hurting people turn against each other.

That is why it is important that Christians crush their idols in the waters of baptism.  The only escape route from death is through the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, through the leading and guiding of the One who truly is ordering the stories of our lives.

At the beginning of “The Sixth Thatcher,” we laugh at a man full of himself ignoring the baptismal pattern that will explain everything that follows.  By the end of the show, however, the empty vows made by the human beings are shattered.  The enduring power comes from the sacrifice made in love.

A Season of Reconciliation at Downton Abbey

Beware, spoilers afoot! Don’t read on if you haven’t yet watched the conclusion of Downton Abbey and want to remain unspoiled.

 

Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey concluded its PBS run this past weekend.  It was a “happy ending,” too happy for some.  More specifically, I’d say, Downton Abbey concluded with many happy endings, each a repetition of the same theme.  

 

Again and again, the theme of 1 John 1 was repeated for the characters of Downton.  

 

5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

 

John teaches us that trying to hide secrets from one another, especially our sins, only gives those sins continuing power over us.  Confession allows us to reconcile and move towards walking in the light, freed from our past.  This theme was played out in storyline after storyline of Downton Abbey’s final season.

 

Most powerfully, the finale saw the reconciliation of two of the strongest rivalries in the series.  In the midst of season one, who would expect the reconciliation of either sisters Edith and Mary or downstairs mainstays Thomas the footman and Bates the valet?  Those two pairs each tried to ruin each other.

 

Edith’s story moved to center stage for the finale.  She was tempted to keep covered up her out-of-wedlock child, Marigold.  Instead, she was honest with her potential judges.  It was only through such honesty that she found full and stable reconciliation.

 

It was not just on the main stage this theme played out.  Butler Spratt found he had nothing to fear from having his secret brought into the light.  Isobel found open and vulnerable confrontation was the only path to restoration with her love interest.  Mary’s realizations about why she feared a relationship humbled her, enabling her happy ending.

 

The pattern was repeated again and again.  Characters had darkness in their past they were tempted to keep hidden.  While they tried to keep it hidden, that darkness directed them away from their happiness.  Only by owning that past were they able to move towards a happier future, reconciled with the people who were important to them.

 

This theme was at its most potent in the story of Thomas.  Thomas was a conniving villain much of the show.  Though he secretly cherished the friends and family of the abbey, his aloof manner and penchant for insults kept him separated from the others.  Only through honestly revealing his sadness and longing was his reconciliation and final exaltation possible.

There is a great deal of irony in the New York Times criticizing British lord of the manor and Downton creator/writer Fellowes for penning an “American” ending.  One is tempted to say that it is very “American” for the New York Times to think it knows English writing better than one of the premier English screenwriters.  But it’s not a matter of the Atlantic divide here.  Fellowes is a practicing Roman Catholic.  He believes coming into the light can change the path of a person’s life.  It’s heartening to see that faith portrayed on the screen in such vibrancy.

A Post-"Apocalyptic" Novel about Vocation?

Emily St. John Mandel has written a wonderful book, Station Eleven, recognized with several award nominations, including being a finalist for the National Book Award.  She has taken a topic much dwelled upon in modern fiction—an end-of-civilization “apocalypse”—but approached it from a fresh perspective.

Much end-of-the-world fiction celebrates a new world where the expectation is that a simpler, survival-based existence strips the falsity of modernity away.  In those tales, zombie hordes are a metaphor for how we feel about the masses of people we live among; we hope not to gain their attention, for if we do, surely they will harry us.

Station Eleven, however, prefers to celebrate the wonder of modern civilization.  Mandel writes, “Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is.  We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all.  There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt” (loc 2626).  Station Eleven’s chosen protagonists fit this theme.  The book does not follow former-housewives-turned-battle-proven-warriors, but a caravan of performers, musicians and actors, bringing Shakespeare to the towns surviving along the Great Lakes. 

At first glance, the Traveling Symphony’s Star Trek inspired-motto, “Because survival is insufficient,” seems like it may be the theme of the book.  Yet the characters in the Symphony themselves find their motto insufficient.  The beauty of this world calls for celebration in poetry, art, the joining of human souls.

And so, in a “post-apocalyptic” setting, Mandel can wax eloquent about something we might be tempted to see as kitsch. 

“Clark had always been fond of beautiful objects, and in his present state of mind, all objects were beautiful.  He stood by the case and found himself moved by every object he saw there, by the human enterprise each object had required.  Consider the snow globe.  Consider the mind that invented those miniature storms, the factory worker who turned sheets of plastic into white flakes of snow, the hand that drew the plan for the miniature Severn City with its church steeple and city hall, the assembly line worker who watched the globe glide past on a conveyer belt somewhere in China.  Consider the white gloves on the hands of the woman who inserted the snow globes into boxes, to be packed into larger boxes….”

Mandel continues to fill an entire page.  It is thematic:  “survival is insufficient,” so we band together to appreciate what we can make together.

What of the fear that the people around us might be hostile, or, at least, just sleepwalkers who only get in the way?  Before Clark (cited in the musing above) begins a museum of civilization in an airport sky-miles lounge, he had been a management consultant whose work consisted of determining if a struggling executive could be fixed or simply needed to be replaced.  While working on one report, a secretary seems to provide wisdom for more than just the report.

“He had been sleepwalking, Clark realized, moving half-asleep through the motions of his life for a while now, years; not specifically unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work?  When was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything?  When had he last felt awe or inspiration?  He wished he could somehow go back and find the iPhone people whom he’d jostled on the sidewalk earlier, apologize to them—I’m sorry, I’ve just realized that I’m as minimally present in this world as you are, I had no right to judge—and also he wanted to call every target of every 360Á report and apologize to them too, because it’s an awful thing to appear in someone else’s report, he saw that now, it’s an awful thing to be the target” (loc 2444).

This significant passage highlights two important themes: being minimally present in the actual world and the awfulness of being a target. The first theme is highlighted in the life of Miranda, in-world author of the comic book Dr. Eleven.  Miranda is drawn as an isolated figure in nearly every scene in which she appears, not coincidentally, a character utterly opposed to having children herself.

Dr. Eleven is her life’s joy, though she does not care to share her creation.  She gives two copies of the first two volumes of Dr. Eleven (Did she only, in the end, write just two volumes?  We do not know.) to her ex-husband, Arthur.  Without reading them, because Arthur is “simplifying” his life by removing “stuff,” he passes them off, one to his son, and one to a child actress who is working with him in the theater.

These same two characters keep the comics through the “apocalypse” of the novel.  Now here comes the SPOILER.  When those two characters finally meet, they are opposed, one ready to kill the other.  Yet the aggressor says something which evokes the comic.  So the potential victim tries to draw a connection from that work.  But no connection is drawn.  Art born of isolation, even if beautiful, fails because it does not wake the sleepwalker.  We are left minimally present in the real world.

The importance of being present in the world that is raises questions about the second theme, that of the awfulness of being the target.  Towards the end of the novel, Arthur, Miranda’s ex-husband, is playing King Lear.  He is sent on stage before the official start time, as the audience files in, to stare at his crown.  The first night, he broods, “regrets crowding in around him like moths to a light.”  He barely makes it through this unrelenting self-reflection.  The second night, remembering Miranda to once have said, “I repent nothing,” he decides, instead, to think of everything good.

This turn, similar to Clark’s awakening from sleepwalking, reminds of a theme fundamental to Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther:  incurvatus in se, being curved in on oneself.  The great theologians saw sin as a wretched turning in on oneself.  This inward posture keeps us from appreciating both Creator and creation as goods in themselves, twisting them to be our means for self-justification or self-adulation.

In classic Augustinian/Lutheran theology, then, preaching to repentance is meant to do what the secretary does to Clark, wake you up, get you to see you are a sleepwalker, not only wasting the breath given you, but harming those given to love you.

And in classic Augustinian/Lutheran theology, it is an awful thing to be a target of that preaching because it reveals you to be “dead in your trespasses.”  That awful diagnosis is meant to be followed with the good news of the Gospel, that Jesus, the Author of Life, died in your place, rose again, and pours out new life on all who believe.  It is that message which “makes alive.”  It is that message which is not present in Station Eleven.

So the religion that is present in Station Eleven is all isolating.  No historic religion is portrayed.  We might consider that the artifacts of the church are as gloriously connected as the snow globe, with a hymnal populated by voices across the globe and across time, with the church structures inspired similarly, built ages ago, and repaired and embellished generation after generation.

But in Station Eleven there is only “the Prophet,” a lonely voice with a message of his own making, who does not preach to the living but to the literal dead.  The Prophet does not preach repentance and reconciliation to his own flock.  He preaches division, that they are better than outsiders.

Mandel’s book is elegant as it is.  She may have chosen not to grapple with actual historical religions simply because they would have been too large for her theme and scope.  As I, a Lutheran pastor, read Station Eleven, however, I find her work crying out to be addressed by the Gospel handed over to me by generations past, the Gospel which seeks to unite people of all tribes and languages.  Lutheran theology sings along on several of her verses and adds a chorus to replace the discord of the lonely prophet.

The theme, for example, of the marvel of the snow globe has long been meditated upon in the Lutheran doctrine of vocation.  “Vocation” indicates our stations in life.  I am a husband.  I am a father.  I am a pastor.  I am a writer.  I am a son.  I am a brother.  I am a customer.  I am a patron of the arts.  I could go on.  God has placed me in these vocations, offering me opportunities to connect with other human beings.  These bridges from one to another can sometimes feel like duty-bound burdens, tempting me to be minimally present.  But when I embrace these duties through humble service, I find myself caught up in endeavors that transcend my lonely self, even as they remain mundane.  The baker goes about his daily grind, even as he is part of the answer to so many prayers, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  For more on vocation, a reader does well to turn to Gene Veith’s book God at Work.

Finally, the theme of repentance is, of course, central in Christian theology.  Luther himself had to learn the point of repentance.  Luther once spent the better part of a day in confession, listing everything he did wrong.  The purpose of repentance is not to wallow in what can’t be changed.  The purpose of repentance is to humble yourself so that you can become more present, not just to your fellow men around you, but to the God who renews you.  Repentance prepares you for a message which always cuts against isolation, the Gospel of Emmanuel.  The Son of God was born into this mundane world to live among us to show grace in this fallen world.  He’s promised an eternal restoration, He remains with us in grace.

Station Eleven is well worth a read.  It presents a disappointing picture of religion, but, after all, there are plenty of misleading religions.  Besides, the wisdom it does present is not only harmonious with traditional Christianity, it is the kind of book to open ears to hear that wisdom.

Remembering Maggie

The pun in “@crosspurposes” reflects two foundational Christian truths.  Jesus defined His ministry and Christian discipleship by the bloody cross which was used to kill Him (Matthew 16:21-25).  Therefore, the way of the cross, which is a way of shame, suffering service, and death, is totally at odds with the usual way of the world, a way that seeks pleasure and glory.

Yesterday, two news items reflected these kinds of cross purposes in stark lines.  My morning began with the sad news that Dr. Margaret Karner had died.  Maggie Karner had given service through her life to LCMS Life Ministries, working in world relief and human care and advocating for pro-life policies.  Maggie was suffering from brain cancer.  So, a year ago, when the American entertainment-news media began to glorify the decision of Brittany Maynard, also suffering from brain cancer, to kill herself, Maggie wrote a beautiful, pleading testimonial for the grace and dignity of a life lived even amidst suffering.

Yesterday evening, I saw something much different, a video which nastily misrepresents Christian beliefs and claims for the sanctity of life.  The video doesn’t come across as bitterly malicious, though.  It’s highly edited, of course.  It’s polished and the speaker appears to take the high road of reason.  I thought, “What would Maggie say?”

I thought about what Maggie would say because of the grace which she brought to these discussions.  An easy, natural tendency when someone is knowingly lying about you is to get angry.  But, see, it’s precisely what’s at stake in the arguments Maggie made that affected the way Maggie offered those arguments.  One of the central arguments in American culture today is about whether a human life, when in a stage without full faculties or when burdened with great pain or disability, is dignified.  If you believe in the dignity of the unborn, the aged, the suffering, the demented, then you believe even opponents in debates should be treated with dignity.  Maggie Karner believed in that dignity and lived her life accordingly. 

Bill Nye advocates against that dignity, and it’s not surprising to find his style of argumentation follows suit.   Bill Nye, once known as “the science guy,” has recently moved from entertainment/education about science to working for progressive political action.  His new shtick relies heavily on his older work, trying to give the sheen of science to questions outside Nye’s expertise.

In Nye’s video on abortion, for example, there is no scientific evidence given.  Rather, Nye uses a type of argument scientists often look down upon when used by religious figures, the argument from authority.  Nye tries to use his authority as “science guy” to say that opponents of abortion do not know the science about embryology.  But not only does Nye misrepresent his opponents’ position, he also misrepresents established embryology.

Nye claims that religions teach that every time a man and a woman have sex, a baby results.  I am aware of no religion that teaches this.  Certainly Christians do not teach this.  What Nye is practicing is called a straw man argument.  This is when you misrepresent your opponent’s teaching to make it look easier to reject.

The one scientific-sounding argument Nye makes refers to the fact that many eggs are fertilized without successfully implanting in the uterine wall.  Sometimes mothers are never even aware that this happened.  Nye declares that the failure to implant means they were never human.  This is yet another logical fallacy, circular reasoning which begs the question

The issue he raises, however, is effective in raising doubts for some about the humanity of fertilized eggs.  Ironically, it’s usually bothersome for people because of theological reasons.  If each fertilized egg is considered a human being of equal dignity to all other human beings, then why do so many of these children fail to thrive?  In other words, why does God allow so many of these to die without living the life we know?

This is not something the Scriptures give a definite answer to.  However, the Scriptures do describe God’s commitment to write the story of each human being, even from their time in the womb (Psalm 139).  We also know God is better able than us to put the human life on earth into the context of eternal human life with God.  A child “lost” to us after only days of life is not lost to God, not kept from future bliss.  The tearful service parents give to the children they do not get to hold in their arms but do bring into life is valued and cherished by the Father of all.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,” Jesus taught (Matthew 18:5), taking the Golden Rule and making it for us into effective worship.  When a mother receives an initially unwanted or soon-to-be-grieved child, she serves as Mary once did.  When in a debate, we give dignity to opponents and treat their arguments with respect, this, too, is worship.

Bill Nye has been an admirable entertainer for many years.  It’s a shame his recent work undercuts his scientific educator’s legacy. 

It’s no wonder, on the other hand, that Maggie Karner's life ended with the same grace, dignity, and faith that she advocated for throughout her life.  It’s the same teachings of Jesus which inspire Christian charity, inspire Christian advocacy, inspire Christian living.  Christians fail all the time to live up to Christ’s teachings; no doubt our sister Maggie repented for her share in her time.  But we can still celebrate, give thanks, and share the life we saw in Maggie, the life given through the cross.

Atticus Finch and How to Set a Watchman

The publishing of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been a fascinating event.  Lee wrote Watchman before To Kill a Mockingbird, but was told by her publisher to scrap it and rewrite the story from a different perspective.  It was precisely that advice that led to a book, To Kill a Mockingbird, so popular it can score ahead of the Bible in “most inspirational” book polls.  The effect of Go Set a Watchman, however, is not nearly inspirational, and some are finding it downright depressing.

Go Set a Watchman radically changes many readers’ perceptions of a modern hero, Lee’s character Atticus Finch.  This radical change actually mirrors the change in understanding that Atticus’ daughter, Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, undergoes in watching her father through the plot of Watchman.  In Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is the lawyer who stands against racism for equal representation before the law.  In Watchman, however, an older Atticus Finch stands with his hometown Maycomb, defending Jim Crow.  Jean Louise, visiting from her new home New York, finds her father disgustingly racist.  She is disillusioned and undone.

Many reviews find this portrayal of Atticus Finch “awkward” (WSJournal), “disturbing,” and “disorienting” (NYTimes).  Some are even in denial.  Megan Garber at The Atlantic warns of “a dent in the universes” unless readers simply reject Watchman’s portrayal.

 On the other hand, others are claiming to have long known Atticus Finch was a racist.  One of the best commentaries on the paradox of an Atticus who can seem both ahead of his time and behind his time on race was actually written before both of Harper Lee’s novels.  Walker Percy was a contemporary Southern novelist to Harper Lee.  In 1957, in his essay “Stoicism in the South,” Percy says,

Until a few years ago, the champion of Negro rights in the South, and of fair-mindedness and toleration in general, was the upper-class white Southerner.  He is their champion no longer.  He has, by and large, unshouldered his burden for someone else to pick it up.  What has happened to him?  With a few courageous exceptions, he is either silent or he is leading the Citizens’ Councils.

Percy’s paragraph is a neat summary of Go Set a Watchman, where Jean Louise Finch is disturbed at her father’s participation in a Citizens’ Council.  (Citizens’ Councils were local groups organized to oppose desegregation in the 50s and 60s.)

Percy’s essay goes on to explain how, in his view, the earlier proponents of “fair-mindedness and toleration” represented classical Stoicism.  The nobility of the Stoic was

the stern inner summons to man’s full estate, to duty, to honor, to generosity towards his fellow men and above all to his inferiors- not because they were made in the image of God and were therefore lovable in themselves, but because to do them an injustice would be to defile the inner fortress which was oneself.

In this way, Percy explains the confusion Southerners were feeling in the 50s and 60s as the voice of the church and the voice of Southern tradition could no longer be heard in harmony.  Southern Stoicism felt ennobled by showing generosity to the inferior.  The Bible had all along ruled out the idea of inferiors, for all are made in the image of God.

In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch struggles to apply her Southern American Methodist catechesis with the actions of her home town, Maycomb.  She accuses Atticus of saying on the one hand that Jesus loves everyone, but that for some that love only goes so far.

That “love of Jesus” described by the Finches is not the love described by Jesus’ own Apostles in the New Testament.  The Finches' “love of Jesus” is the Southern Stoic variety.  In Watchman, Atticus says, “Hypocrites have just as much right to live in this world as anyone.”  The Stoic’s love is “live and let live.”  “Live and let live” does build walls, often telling people just where to live so our messy lives don’t messily intersect.  Contrast that with the Apostle Paul trying to maintain congregations where Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female all came together: 

For Jesus Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16)

Jean Louise, as a true-to-life Southerner coming of age in the era of Watchman, faced the moral confusion Walker Percy described.  No more could the Christianity of the Bible and the Stoicism of the South be reconciled.  If Jesus loved all His little children, the walls had to come down, even if that meant sacrifice.  But the “Christian” South could not abide the walls coming down.  So Watchman shows a moral rite of passage, a painful rebirth through the shattering of Atticus’ perfect image.  Jean Louise began as a character completely trusting Atticus’ rectitude.  She is reborn, developing her own conscience.  But it is not a Christian conscience she embraces.  Through the midwifery of her Uncle Jack, she develops her own Stoic conscience, able to tolerate even the racist hypocrite.

This is precisely why the novel is so dissatisfying for modern readers.  Harper Lee tried to preserve a Southern Stoicism that Walker Percy more sagely recognized as headed for extinction.  American society did not come to tolerate racism.  For many in modern American culture, prejudicial thinking is the one unforgiveable sin.

Jean Louise in Watchman is particularly disturbed that Atticus could still be a gentleman while failing to have the right political views.  Go Set a Watchman takes its title from Isaiah 21:6.  In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, the watchman is the prophet, alone given the Divine insight to know which is the “right side of history.”  In the context of Harper Lee’s Stoic ideal, each individual must guard her own heart, developing a conscience that progresses past the generation who raised her.  Jean Louise had let Atticus be her watchman, stunting her imagined moral growth.  His fall was necessary for her ascendency.

Indeed, this view of comparative moral maturity stands behind the viciousness of modern American moral culture.  It is easy to imagine you have the right views about prejudice.  It is much harder to bear with the failings of your neighbors.  Go Set a Watchman is awkward to read because the latter half of the novel follows Jean Louise treating her neighbors, friends, and family horribly, all in the name of her imagined greater righteousness.

In his book i told me so, Gregg A. Ten Elshof describes how the modern, a-Christian worldview has not cured racism even as it has elevated racism to the greatest of evils.  The problem, he suggests, is that whenever we calculate a particular sin as worse than others, it becomes harder to recognize our own failings in that sin category.  “If racism is worse than we thought, then it’s harder than it used to be to admit to yourself that you’re a racist” (11).

The American Stoic’s identity requires the self-image of a better-formed conscience than her neighbor’s.  This very identity is in direct contradiction to the Christian identity where the meek inherit the earth, where daily repentance constantly humbles the man who lives by grace.  The American Stoic’s pride curses each generation to a lonely homelessness and creates the modern need for generational echo chambers.

Go Set a Watchman is an “awkward” novel because it does not satisfactorily resolve the tension it creates.  It cannot, for its answer, Attican Stoicism, is part of the problem.  On the other hand, Go Set a Watchman does a service in revealing not only the historically accurate “dark side” of Atticus Finch, but the self-destruction inherent in a progressive conscience.

As our country continues, 150 years after the Gettysburg Address, 70 years after the Voting Rights Act, to grapple with race relations, it’s far past time to recognize that each of us pretending to be the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird has not enlivened the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

My own son is about the same age as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  We watched him grapple with encountering racism while reading Little House on the Prairie.  The story is filled with heroic characters, yet several express despicable attitudes about Native Americans.  My son could not understand why some people so good could think that way.

It is precious and heartbreaking seeing the innocence of youth recognize the injustice of prejudice.  We live in a world where Little House characters and Atticus do express ugly prejudices.  But it’s not just Little House characters and Atticus.  Real heroes have thoughts of persistent dehumanization mixed into the way they think about things.  Rather than pretend to be the Atticus of Mockingbird, we all would do well to recognize ourselves as the Atticus of Watchman.  We, too- I, too- have prejudices hidden within that are worth uncovering, repenting, and turning from.

Jesus once spoke to a Pharisee named Simon who thought he had a progressive conscience, better than his neighbors.  Simon wanted to reveal Jesus as a sinner, so Simon set Jesus up, inviting the Nazarene to dinner only to insult Him once there.  A woman described as a “sinner” saw the offense of Simon not washing Jesus’ feet, not greeting Him as a rabbi.  So she washed His feet with her tears.

Jesus told a parable in this moment that speaks exactly to our reluctance to uncover our own prejudices, to our desire to see our own consciences as having evolved past the generation before.  Jesus spoke of two people, one who owed a small debt and one who owed a great debt.  When both debtors were forgiven, Jesus asked which would love the forgiver more, the one with the greater or smaller debt.  Simon could only answer that it was the one with the greater debt.  Jesus brought His point home by saying that the reason Simon loves little is because he thinks he is forgiven little and the reason the “sinner” loves much is because she knows she is forgiven much.

Prejudicial thinking is sinful because it fails to recognize the image of God in every human being.  It is not unforgiveable, however.  And the way to replace prejudice with love is not to pretend it cannot infect us.  We, too, can love more by being forgiven more.  "We love because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

Abortion and the Good Samaritan

I was asked, “Does the Bible ever use the word ‘abortion’?” this week.  The short answer is that the Bible does not use it in the way the questioner meant.  Nowhere do we find a command, “Thou shalt not abort.”

There are all sorts of moral issues to which the Bible does not speak directly.  Nowhere do I find a verse that says, “Thou shalt not drive drunk.”  It’s not just modern issues.  There is no command, “Thou shalt not eat human flesh” despite the fact that the Bible clearly sees cannibalism as one of the horrors of siege warfare (cf. Jeremiah 19:9).

Still, the Jews had a common understanding of the basic outlines of the Scripture's views on right and wrong.  Luke 10:27 records a lawyer summarizing the Law:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus affirmed this understanding.  When the lawyer found that he and Jesus agreed, Luke says he wanted to “justify himself,” so he asked another question:  “And who is my neighbor?”

That is the question that led to Jesus’ great parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  Jesus tells of a man, attacked and dying on the side of the road.  Two men cross by on the other side of the road.  They were those expected to be holy, priests and Levites.  Finally, a good man attends to the victim, sacrificing his own time and resources.  This good man was one expected to be inferior, the Samaritan.

Samaritans were a class of people who lived near the Jews and claimed some common faith, but they also rejected much of the Jewish orthodoxy and mixed with idolaters.  They were precisely the kind of neighbors whom Jewish lawyers would be tempted to count as un-neighbor. 

But Jesus is not content simply to count the un-neighbor as neighbor.  His parable turns the tables on the question “Who is my neighbor?”  When Jesus finishes His parable, He asks, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor?”  For Jesus the question is not, “Who can be classified below ‘neighbor’ so that he has no moral claims on me,” but “Am I acting like a good neighbor myself?”

This is relevant to the abortion question.  “When does a fertilized egg become a human being?” is certainly another form of “Who is my neighbor?”  Like the priest and Levite who pass by the man on the side of the road, a fearful mother may want to deny that the child within has any moral claim on her.  Similarly, society as a whole may wish to deny those children and their mothers have any moral claim on all of us.  Like the Samaritan who does choose to care for the wounded man, any mother who cares for a child will be sacrificing her time and treasure.

That’s precisely why the twitter movement #unplannedparenthood has been so beautiful.  Story after story has been filed under #unplannedparenthood describing how an unplanned pregnancy brought love, grace, wonder; the stories are endless.  Do yourself a favor and read them.  One of my favorites:  

When I see someone in need, their humanity is not at stake.  God knows that person and loves them, no matter their age/ability/race (Ps 139:13-16).  What is at stake is my own humanity.  When I act as a neighbor, I am more.  When I pass by, I am less.

Most of the women who consider abortions are in positions where the people around them have already made their own decisions not to be a neighbor.  Worse, the people sadly influencing the pregnant mother have often refused to be a father or a grandparent.  Telling stories of the joy and grace of unplanned parenthood can encourage pregnant women to embrace the gift that is given within by the only Creator of life.

Yet if we stopped at only telling stories, we’d miss one of the great points of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Jesus did not just sit around and tell stories about being a neighbor.  He acted in grace.  He saw us, dying on the side of the road.  He did not hesitate to sacrifice all He had for us.  But it was also “for the joy set before Him [that Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2).  Jesus suffered for us, but He rejoices in us today.  Isn’t that the story of parenthood?

 

In Search of Men with Chests

In his 1943 work The Abolition of Man, scholar CS Lewis predicted the fruit of modern education.  An education drained of moral content, he wrote, would produce “men without chests.”  Lewis described these pseudo-intellectuals: “It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out.  Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary:  it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”

Moral wisdom at its richest has a religious source, “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 9:10).  But there is a lesser richness, available even to those without religion, which can flow from the generous emotion of compassion.  The compassionate man identifies with his neighbor.  That sympathy powers living by Jesus’ Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

This month, we have exhibits one and two of men without chests. 

The first example happened in a metro train car in Washington DC on the Fourth of July.  An 18-year-old, Jordan Spires, tried to take the cell phone of 24-year-old Kevin Sutherland.   Spires is described as 125 lbs, 5’5”.  There were about ten other people on the train just feet away.  They watched.  They watched Spires hit Sutherland until he fell to the ground.  They watched as he stabbed Sutherland over thirty times.  They listened to Sutherland moaning.  They huddled together just trying to avoid Spires’ notice.  A witness said, “I watched [the attacker] drop-kick him in the head several times, like he wanted to kick his head off.”  The witnesses told each other not to intervene.

After the event, one of the men who witnessed the attack wrote of his soul-searching.  “My wife and I have spent the last couple days going over and over what happened, trying to think about what we could have done differently…. What I don’t wish is that I had somehow tried to attack the assailant.  I am a little bit larger than he was, but I would not have won.  It’s scary, because if we had been sitting closer and had seen the attack start I probably would have tried to help, and would have been stabbed.”

I cannot say whether I would have the courage to intervene if I was in this situation.  As an able-bodied man, I hope I would have done my best to stop the murder, even at risk to my own safety.  If I had one of my kids with me, maybe I’d just be focused on protecting them.  But I am sure if I stood by for three minutes and watched the brutal attack, I would regret not intervening physically.  All it would have taken to save Kevin Sutherland on that train were two men with chests

We are not, however, a culture that trains self-sacrificial morality.  We are trained to watch safely from the couch, fed by a steady diet of commercials to arouse other appetites to spur our ongoing consumption.  In this world, our trained first responsibility is to keep consuming.  Our culture’s “heroes,” the ones who confront violence for us, are fashioned as spectacularly “other”—Asgardians, billionaires in batsuits, and Jedi.

So, what happens when, instead of having this violence thrust upon you in the close confines of a train car, it appears as an online video, an interview secretly filmed, describing institutionalized violence, happening in each major city of the country?  Exhibit two is the response to the video showing a Planned Parenthood executive talking about organ trafficking from abortions performed in their clinics.

Abortion is sold in this country by dehumanizing the unborn.  We sympathize with the mother, especially those confronted with the responsibilities of a child whose father refuses to help, but our sympathy does not extend to the child hidden within her.  Abortion advocates describe the fetus as just a “clump of cells.”  But when we hear about how an abortion provider can profit off of organ trafficking, we are forced to recognize the child.  As Robert George, Princeton professor of law, put it,

But if children in the womb with lungs and kidneys and other “useful” organs are human beings, then what are we doing, not just in abortions that enable trafficked organs, but in every abortion?  The essential response of Planned Parenthood’s defenders is to do everything they can to avoid that moral question. 

For example, Cosmopolitan magazine did its part in urging, “Nothing to see; move along” in an article by Robin Marty, “That Planned Parenthood Video Isn’t the Scandal; Abortion Opponents Are Making It Out to Be.”  Marty begins with her bona fides, telling us she’s done her due diligence in looking at the supposedly incriminating documents, but “Frankly, I’m just going to yawn.”  And yet, she admits that her initial reaction was to shudder and be upset.  This, moving from shudder to yawn, is precisely the numbed rationalization required by any perpetrator of institutional violence.  What first provokes moral outrage must be calmed by the amoral pseudo-intellectualism:  “This is just how the world works.” Of course, Marty and similar propagandists (for example, see the piece by Amanda Marcotte in Slate which follows the same talking points) are right in their premise that what Planned Parenthood is doing can only be wrong if you think abortion is wrong.  If you’ve dehumanized the fetus, and you can kill it, then why not harvest its organs for scientific experiment?  It only evokes moral sympathy when it becomes him or her.

But mind yourself (if not your neighbor), for once you’ve numbed your conscience against one group of human beings, you may be more liable to do the same to another group.  Marty and Marcotte both turn their articles against the producers of the video.  Marty makes an astounding claim:  “In the end, it doesn’t matter to abortion opponents if their accusations can hold up to scrutiny or not.”  Really?  Why are they doing all this if not to create arguments that change people’s minds?  This lack of sympathy for her opponents leads to Marty littering the rest of her piece with strawmen and misrepresentations. 

Rather than go through those claims point by point, let me encourage you, when involved in a disagreement with such moral consequence as our ongoing debate about abortion, to put yourself in the shoes of the people involved.  Stop reading sources that dehumanize the people that disagree.  Recognize the biases of sources that claim objectivity.  Compare, for example, the response to this story from Abby Johnson, who used to work at Planned Parenthood herself.

Most importantly, realize that the culture we are in demands work at cultivating a conscience that is empowered.  We need to be in regular Bible study together.  We need to engage in serious moral conversation that answers disagreement respectfully.  Without a healthy “fear of the Lord” and a healthy sympathy for our neighbor, we will be left on the couch watching brutality, saying nothing more than “Frankly, I’m going to yawn.”

Rather, “ ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:14-16).

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