Lifted Up

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Admit it.  You like getting some recognition for the good things you do.  A little praise can go a long way in boosting our esteem.  No one likes to feel that they’ve added no value to the world (sadly, those who truly feel they have no value to add often commit suicide).  That’s not to say you are a vain person who seeks attention, but it is within all of us to need affirmation, and affirmation is a form of glorification. We have a desire for glorification, and that drive isn’t inherently wrong (Jn. 7:18).

God’s goal since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden has been to exalt mankind to our proper place in the cosmos.  We often refer to Adam and Eve’s sin as “the fall,” and rightfully so.  We fell from our glorious, valuable place by trying to usurp God’s place in the world.  Since then we’ve been concerned with regaining that glory, but without God we seek it in a very different, selfish way that can’t transcend the world.  Is it now even possible for us to be glorified?  If so, how?

Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die. The crowd then answered Him, “We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:27-34).

We cannot lift ourselves up.  We must be exalted through Christ.  Any other effort at glorification leaves us stuck on the earthly plane only.

I recently explored how the “Son of Man” in Daniel 7 represents true humanity in its rightful, glorified place in the cosmos.  Jesus appropriates the term “Son of Man” because he himself is the representative of the new humanity.  Paul affirms Jesus’ representative role for humanity, but in different terms.  Paul describes  Jesus as a “new Adam.”  Adam is also representative of the human race, but in its fallen form (Rom. 5:17).  As Adam represents mankind’s fallen nature, Jesus represents its exalted form.

Given Jesus is representative, his exaltation is therefore a new pattern for all humans who wish to be a part of the glorified humanity.  We don’t have to live Adam’s story anymore.  And what does the new story of exalted humanity look like?  Crucifixion.

It appears that one of the many reasons God chose to have Jesus crucified was to illustrate mankind’s exalted place in the order of the cosmos.  I’ve noted in recent posts that humans are supposed to be above the world, yet below heaven.  Man’s place is in between.  Humanity connects the two realms, since humans are both heavenly (spiritual) and earthly (physical).  We are conduits made to be a living connection between the two realms, but before Jesus came we had lost our connection to the heavenly realm.  The cross represents the path to mankind’s re-exaltation to its proper place.  What happens when Jesus is lifted up on the cross?  He is physically placed in between heaven and earth in all his glory, where mankind belongs!

This is, of course, the last way we would expect exaltation.  The glory of the new humanity looks like a shamed and powerless person.  More than just torture, the Romans displayed their enemies and criminals on a cross in public as a symbol of their own power and glory.  Their ability to strip power and glory from others supposedly displayed how glorious and powerful they were.  But God turned the message of the cross upside down by using it as a symbol of his power and glory through a new humanity.  The man on the cross is the most powerful and glorious, exalted above the earth.

If we want to share in Christ’s glory, we must share in his story as well: “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one” (Jn. 17:22).  We are invited to partake of Jesus’ glory by partaking of the cross ourselves (Mt. 16:24).

Jesus’ crucifixion is a story we never would have guessed on our own.  By the grace of God we now know that our path to glory looks completely backwards.  Anyone wishing to partake of the new glorious humanity must do so in the same way Jesus did.  The Son of Man (i.e. humanity) is the most valuable part of God’s creation and he’s shown us the way to be glorified again.  Praise God!

Ghosttown

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Madonna’s recent song “Ghosttown” expresses life in a cold, fallen world.  While I can’t speak to the intentions behind her lyrics, it’s clear from popular culture that ghosttown is an apt description of the world we live in.  The popularity of dystopian movies such as The Hunger Games, and the Divergent series attest to how the world feels to us today.  They are set in grand societies that have fallen in some way.  The glory of western civilization since the Renaissance with all it’s art, literature, and advances in understanding has run its course, and the advances of science aren’t really enough to overcome this feeling.  We live in the decay and ruins of a once meaningful world.

The current reign of Scientism has helped turn the world into a ghosttown.  We’ve looked at the world and dissected it until it died.  There is no longer any deep meaning in the nature we look at.  There are only things, not meanings.  We’re too smart to believe in the seemingly enchanted world of the ancients.  They foolishly ascribed spiritual meaning to the world we live in.  We know better now.  Trees are just trees, and water is just H2O, nothing more.  Now that our belief in a meaningful natural world has been sucked dry, we live in a ghosttown, a world whose meanings have crumbled.  We get a glimpse of those meanings sometimes, just like we get a glimpse of the former beauty of the Parthenon by its ruins, but it’s only a glimpse.

So how can we thrive in this ghosttown of a world we live in?  Find the best person you can hold onto and create a world with them, according to Madonna’s lyrics.  Even if the cold world crumbles around us at least we’ll have our own little world together.  This is actually a step in the right direction, since people are the most meaningful part of creation, and it’s certainly a romantic idea, but ultimately it’s only a weak hope.  What if I never find someone to hold onto while the world crumbles?  What if the person I hold onto dies, or even worse, what if they desert me?  Then we’re left in a ghosttown all alone until we become ghosts ourselves.  We need the world itself to be meaningful.

Christians living in a world that has been disenchanted by science and stripped of greater meaning must learn, therefore, to re-infuse things with meaning.  Psalm 19:1-3 says “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard.”  The world is infused with meaning that tells us about God.  This is more than a simple “intelligent design” argument.  The earth around is is full of parables given by God for us to learn and express.

Notice, of course, that the earth has no actual words.  Christians give voice to the world’s deeper meanings through parables, just like their teacher.  By becoming astute readers of God’s Word, we also become astute readers of the world, humanity, and nature.  The wisdom that comes from God fills the world with potential meaning, and our job is to till the soil and cultivate that meaning.

A strictly rational explanation of the world we live in will not do anymore.  Purely logical explanations come across as formulas, and barren formulas are what created the ghosttown world we live in to begin with.  This isn’t to say that Christians should discard reason.  Things should still make sense, but pure logic becomes sterile if it’s not infused with meaning.

The ability to use knowledge in a meaningful way requires wisdom.  A Christian should be able to take the disenchanted ruins of the cold world we live in and resurrect them with meaning by transforming those ruins through the word of God.  A tree doesn’t have to be simply “a woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches at some distance from the ground” (Google’s dictionary).  It is also a parable about the righteous life, or transient life, or many other things.  God didn’t put trees in the world arbitrarily, or simply for our dissecting, but for our growth in wisdom and understanding.  Of course, secular artists have seen nature in a meaningful way without Christ, but ultimately, it is up to the church to show how the deepest and truest meanings reside in Christ alone “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).

The ghosttown we currently live in has already started to be infused with meaning again through Jesus Christ.  Human life without God is cold, sterile, and meaningless, but Jesus came and re-infused us with meaning and purpose.  It is the Christian’s job to continue that re-infusion.  If Christians will learn to create a meaningful view of the world in their communities, those seeking after meaning will be able to find it and have hope beyond the “ghosttown.”

[Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who take hold of her,
And happy are all who hold her fast.
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth,
By understanding He established the heavens.
By His knowledge the deeps were broken up
And the skies drip with dew.
My son, let them not vanish from your sight;
Keep sound wisdom and discretion,
So they will be life to your soul
And adornment to your neck.” (Proverbs 3:18-22)

My Refuge

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God’s my refuge, I don’t care who knows it
I’m not ever again gonna be afraid to show it
I’m supposed to be embarrassed that I ask for help
From a God in the clouds as mythic as an elf
Well, guess what, that’s not the god I’m praying to
I’m praying to Jehovah, God of me and you
The God heaven, earth and rain,
In just a little while he’ll make himself plain
His empire stretches from sea to sea
While the nations he rules shout out with glee:
God is dead, or God’s not real,
At best God’s just whatever you feel
He watches and laughs while he sits above
He tries to give these men his love
But he’s rejected again, chains cast off
The nations they look and they laugh and they scoff
This is your god, so easily dismissed?
What type of god lets himself get dissed?
How is he your refuge, how can you be proud
Of a god that doesn’t even make a sound?
But I’m unconcerned, I know what’s real
One day the entire world’s gonna feel
The power he holds, the lightning in his eyes
The shaking of earth and rumbling of skies
So until that day, I’ll bear the shame
Of wearing Jesus’ humble name
And pray to the God of all flesh and men
Jehovah, please come back again

The Resurrection of Caitlyn

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As the Caitlyn Jenner story makes another go-round, it’s good to ask the question: what kind of story are we witnessing?  During the ESPY’s it was referred to as a “new story,” and it was billed as a message of hope that will give life and save lives for transgenders.  There are plenty of people who have undergone transgender surgery, but this particular story is important to think about because it is representative.  Caitlyn Jenner is being used as a symbol for many messages, so the story is relevant for Christians who wish help those who are struggling in the same way.

There are three important elements to this transformation to note.

1. Bruce Jenner decided that Bruce no longer had value as he was.  He decided that the only way to happiness and peace was to put Bruce Jenner away.

2.  So, part of putting away Bruce means wearing a new name.  In order to let go of Bruce, he must rename himself.  He has taken on a name that he chose to represent his new life.

3.  What makes this story so sensational is that not only is he putting on a new name, but a new image as well.  He has transformed his image in the most literal way possible.

A Christian should recognize what type of story this is.  The transformation of Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner is a resurrection story.  A Christian is someone who has decided that their old life was not worth living.  A Christian believes at some point that they ought to be someone different than they are.  They are people who have looked at their broken life and realize that the only way out is to die completely and be raised as a new person: Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).

Along with that death and resurrection comes a new identity and a new name (Acts 2:38).  While a Christian is still called by his or her physical birth name, it is the name of Christ that unites all Christians in their new identity.  Finally, Christians have put away their own self-image for the image of Christ.  This includes a new body because “the Lord Jesus Christ… will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has” (Phil. 3:20-21).

The fact is that everyone attempts a resurrection story throughout their lives, Christian or not.  Bruce Jenner’s struggle is a more visible version of the difficulties that all people face. Struggles such as a mid-life crisis, a career change, or a new relationship can be used as a way to “redefine” who we are.  There’s no end to the ways that we try to resurrect our image into a better one.  All people have the urge to give new life to themselves.  The difference between Christians and everyone else is not so much that Christians have a resurrection story, while everyone else lacks one, but that they have access to true resurrection (I’m sorry, but the Christian claim is exclusive – Jn. 14:6).  And it’s not because Christians are so smart that they figured out something other people couldn’t, or that they’re simply better people.  Were it not for the grace of God showing us true resurrection in Christ, we’d all be left in the dark trying to figure out how to give ourselves life.

As mentioned before, Christians who don’t like their body, or feel “trapped” in it have a hope for a new body.  God will come and transform their bodies in his own time, but they must wait.  What Caitlyn Jenner has attempted is to transform his body and give himself life and a new name on his own terms, and by his own power.  The major problem with trying to resurrect yourself on this side of eternity is that your “new life” will still end in death.  No matter how much we change, we can’t truly give ourselves new life.  We can’t even really give ourselves a new body.  We can only change the one we have.  We need a power greater than our own to make such a transformation (Eph. 1:19-20).

All Christians should be able to sympathize with someone who wants a different life.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that desire.  It’s part of living in a fallen sinful world.  The role of a Christian, then, is to shine the light of God’s word by gracefully exposing the vanity and inconsistency of attempting resurrection on our own terms and power, and helping people see the way to a more powerful transformation.  Christians ought to offer that story without prejudice or hatred.  The message is for all.  Christians aren’t better than Bruce Jenner or more deserving of a new body and image than he is.  Christians are blessed to have found the true path to resurrection by the grace of God.

The resurrection of Jesus the Christ from the dead is the only story that represents true hope, true life, and powerful transformation.  It is a story that is representative of the plight of all people, yet still offers a way forward, not just in this age, but also the age to come.

truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:21-24).

Nations of Mutants

Daniel 7 Beasts

Why do we root for America to lead the world in education, economics, and virtually every other positive category?  Because it exalts us.  We can be “superhuman” in relation to other humans.  If America is greater in every way, then I’m greater in every way.  Every nation attempts this exaltation in some way, yet every nation ultimately fails.  How do we know? Because every nation crumbles, no matter how high they temporarily rise.

Here’s one way the Bible illustrates this.  In Daniel chapter 7, Daniel sees a vision of succeeding world superpowers. They all have something in common: they’re all beasts. But they’re not just beasts, they’re like beasts. They’re mutants.  The first beast has human feet and a human mind. The second beast “resembles” (NASB) a bear, the third beast is “like” a leopard, and the fourth beast is indescribable, but he does have eyes “like the eyes of a man.”

These beasts are representative of nations of people.  If America were on the list, we might get the description “like an eagle.”  Of course, these aren’t just any nations.  They are the dominating powers of the world during their heyday.  The Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans represent some of the greatest civilizations known to man. They represent the best man has to offer, a “greatest hits” album.  Yet the greatest civilizations ever can only be represented as some sort of half-man half-beast at best.  They are mutants that have tried to exalt themselves and eventually they pass away.

The last beast boasts toward God (v.8,11).  He wants to usurp God’s throne.  In the Bible the battle between God and anything else is anti-climactic.  If this were a Hollywood production, the battle between God and His creation might be epic, but it’s not, although this movie clip represents something of what the battle might look like.  The great beast is dispatched in half a verse (v.11), and God removes the dominion of these nations.  Man has become a beast by trying to exalt himself, but God will only rule his creation through mankind, not mutants. So what’s God going to do?

In verses 13 and 14, Daniel sees someone “like a Son of Man.”  He’s like a man, but better. He’s riding on the “clouds of heaven.”  He is exalted above the earth, yet below the throne of heaven, in man’s rightful place in the cosmos.  Just as the beasts represent societies of people, this “Son of Man” represents a nation, not just one man  It is a nation whose “mascot” (for lack of a better term) is a fully human image, not a beastly image.  God removes dominion from the mutant nations, and the nation represented by the  Son of Man is given “dominion, glory, and a kingdom” (v.14).  And this nation never crumbles.  Humanity has been restored.

Compare this passage with the recent X-men movies (or virtually any superhero movies) which are about humans who are “evolving” into the next (“exalted”) phase of humanity. They’re called “mutants” because they’re like animals, but are mostly human.  Supposedly, combining humans and animals will give us the best of both.  However, animals are meant to be below humans (Gen. 1:28), so lowering to their level by taking on their image cannot exalt us.  Yet the best thing mankind can come up with for our “exalted” superheroes is to make them like animals.

To be exalted, we should move up the ladder, not down.  Humans become more powerful when we take on God’s characteristics (Gal. 5:22-26).  What do humans look like when they take on the image of God?  A servant.

Jesus, of course, is the Son of Man who represents a new kind of “superhero,” the new humanity in all its power and glory.  For all his power over creation, one of the greatest things we are in awe of is Jesus’ humility.  We are in awe of the power of animals and nature, yet we often fail to be awed by the things with the most power to take our breath away. Have you ever known someone that you thought was too proud to apologize come to you and say they were sorry with sincerity? It is awe-inspiring.  Have you ever witnessed a person go out of their way to serve someone they didn’t have to?  It can take your breath away.  The crucifixion represents the most humble act in history.  Now imagine an entire nation of people who are that humble.  That is superhuman. Really, it’s just human. Everything else is a mutation.

 

Movie Review: Inside Out

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Warning:  I make no attempt at keeping away from spoilers.  I can’t give an overview of the messages of the movie without potentially giving something away, so if you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to come back later.

Also, this is a review of the message of the movie, not an artistic critique.

Summary:  The movie is about the inner emotions of a little girl, Riley, and it’s main purpose is to illustrate the complexity and interaction of emotions.  It’s a story about Riley’s journey toward emotional maturity while she transitions from childhood to adolescence during her family’s traumatic move from Minnesota to San Francisco.  The story is told from the perspective of the emotions themselves.  The main conflict in the movie is the relationship between Joy and Sadness.  Joy and Sadness eventually get lost in Riley’s outside of the control room (in Riley’s mind) and must get back in order to help her get through the stresses of the family’s move.

Strength: Emotional maturity and complexity.  While attempting to get back to the control room, Joy leaves Sadness behind, presuming she’s more important.   Before that, Joy tries to relegate Sadness to a small circle and tells her not to move.  Eventually, Joy has a breakthrough in seeing the purpose for Sadness when she realizes that Sadness set the stage for a joyous “core memory.”  From that point they get together and find their way back to the control room where Sadness takes over the board at a critical moment for the girl.  Up until the end of the movie all of the memories have been one color, representing one emotion.  The last memory produced is multicolored (yellow=happiness/blue=sadness), and it represents a pivotal moment in emotional maturity for the young girl.

It’s easy to label events and emotions in a simplistic manner, and given that this is a children’s movie it’s good for teaching that not every situation is “black and white,” but that events can represent a complex interaction of emotions, all of which are potentially helpful and necessary.  Given that the movie is about emotions, it is a successful message that can be helpful.  Life and emotions are complex, always interacting.

However, the fact that it centers on emotions also leads to a weakness.

Weakness:  Failure to appreciate thought.  At one point, Joy and Sadness are being led to a train station that will take them back to headquarters.  In order to get there, they take a shortcut through the tunnel of abstract thought.  Sadness warns them that it’s dangerous in there, but they continue, and as they travel through, the tunnel gets turned on.  The characters begin to lose their shapes, first turning into cubes, then going from 3D to 2D in their shape.  They barely escape the tunnel before coming out and returning to their 3D selves.

The message: abstract thought flattens things, and therefore is dangerous.  While we may agree that abstract thought for its own sake isn’t helpful, nevertheless, it is not something we should be afraid of.  Abstract thought has the potential to give more richness and fullness to our emotions.  How would the emotions in the movie mature if they didn’t reason through their issues?

The reason for even telling a story like this in the first place is to send the message that the key to life is managing emotions.  EQ instead of IQ.  Emotional intelligence is primary.  The problem is that there’s no reason to sacrifice either.  Christians are called to be in control and utilize all aspects of our humanity and they don’t demean one aspect in order to appreciate another (“I am fearfully and wonderfully made” – Psa. 139:14).  By pitting emotions against abstract thought, the makers of the movie have, ironically, created a person that is only two-dimensional.  The movie does have a “Train of Thought,” and abstract thought should be the tracks on which it rides.  Given that the movie recognizes the complexity of interaction between emotions, it’s interesting that they fail to give a nod to the complexity between thought and emotions.  If it seems like I’m making too big a deal out of one scene, I would submit that this scene represents the very reason for making an entire movie about life being emotion-driven to begin with.  The “Train of Thought” and “Abstract Thought” don’t get personified.  They’re lifeless machines.

A movie like this makes sense in our culture.  We’re afraid that science and technology have turned us into abstractions, so we must find a way to feel “human.”  Mathematical abstractions can’t make us “feel,” so the human element of life is in the emotions, because when we feel emotions we know we’re not an abstract pattern. So is EQ the answer?  Not entirely.  A wise person should learn to appreciate and handle emotions properly: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov.25:28).  Yet a wise person controls him/herself because they are thoughtful about emotions.  A wise person can see patterns of emotion (abstract thought!), and learn from it.

Two more notable points stand out:

In the first scene, the child’s “light” is turned on, and she sees her parents holding her.  Her first moment of consciousness (i.e. “life”) happens outside of the womb.

Finally, the men in the movie are morons, and one-dimensional.  The only time the father makes a major contribution, he comes across as dumb and ruled by thoughtless anger.  The emotions in the mother’s head come across as wise, while the father’s emotions aren’t thoughtful at all. When the father tries to make up for his outburst, he simply tries to be goofy, but to no avail. The emotions of Anger and Fear are also portrayed as men, and they contribute little to the film except comic relief.

I wouldn’t use this critique to say that Christians shouldn’t watch this film, but I do believe that Christians should watch with their eyes open to how messages in movies like this shape our thinking and our children’s thinking.  Even the writer of the movie states that he’s trying to change the way children think.  As the title of this blog states, our goal is to take “every thought captive,” and that includes the entertainment we consume.  So feel free to enjoy the movie.  It’s funny and worthwhile.  Just make sure to hold its message up against the picture of humanity as revealed in God’s Book.