What hath Jerusalem to do with Broadway? Well, a lot, actually.

I really enjoy musicals. I love the amazing acting (skillfully synced with great singing), the stage effects, and yes, the sappy, often cheesy, show tunes. Yeah, this is probably weird for a college-age male to admit, but I’m hooked on Broadway. For example, if you come across me dusting shelves or sorting books at my job at the library, tasks that allow the use of headphones, I will more than likely be listening to the Les Mis or Show Tunes channels on Pandora. I am not ashamed!

                                                                                              

But honestly, who can resist the catchiness of Wicked, the nostalgia of The Sound of Music, or the depth and complexities of Les Mis or Phantom of the Opera? Ok, maybe some can, but the point is that there is a quality about these productions which continues to grab audiences around the world, to the point that people are spending millions on tickets, soundtracks, and merchandise. Clearly, something is being done well to make people come and watch again and again. It’s unlikely that we can isolate the one thing that ensures the popularity of the musical. Some combination of catchy tunes, a colorful plot, and amazing stage design can be offered as an answer, but I want to focus on what I think to be the most important part of any successful musical, the resonance of the story with the deep questions in our own lives.

Take Wicked for example. Although I could hardly describe this production as “deep,” (It just seems more fun to me), it does challenge its audience in probably the most famous line of the show, “are people born wicked, or do they have wicked thrust upon them?” The whole production forces the viewers to reexamine what they thought they knew about the “Wicked Witch of the West” (the protagonist of the musical), who in reality, seems not to be very “wicked” at all, but really a victim of a corrupt, manipulative system. What is this if not the classic “nature vs. nurture” question? Are we born evil, or are we made evil by an evil society? Even more than that, what is “evil” or “good”? Do moral questions depend wholly on perspective, and are they therefore merely subjective? Behind the witty and catchy songs like “Popular” and “Defying Gravity,” there’s a worldview which audiences are forced to grapple with, whether they choose to or not.

My favorite at the moment is Les Mis, based on Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables (a brilliant and enjoyable novel for any serious connoisseur of literature). As the title suggests, this is in many ways a very dark story, grappling with issues like prostitution, excessive penal justice, and abject poverty. But there are also numerous sparks of hope, and if it can be described as a story of the failure and inadequacy of a society’s institutions, it is also a story of redemption. It centers on several complicated and vibrant characters, such as the ex-convict Jean Valjean, struggling to wipe away the stain and misery of his past, or Fantine, a young mother abandoned by her lover and forced into prostitution to pay for her daughter, Cosette. These deeply personal stories are masterfully woven into the larger context of the 1848 French Revolution, giving the overarching plot both macro- and micro- elements. While the captivating and deep humanitarian flavor of the story can be considered the most popular element in this production, the music is incredibly stunning.

Take this set of lyrics from the number, “At the End of the Day”:

 “At the end of the day you’re another day older

And that’s all you can say for the life of the poor

It’s a struggle, it’s a war

And there’s nothing that anyone’s giving

One more day standing about, what is it for?

One day less to be living.”

source: http://www.lyricsondemand.com/soundtracks/l/lesmiserableslyrics/attheendofthedaylyrics.html       

This song tackles a deep question which affects everyone, what is it all for? What are we working towards? Or take song made more famous by Susan Boyle, “I Dreamed a Dream,” sung by a distraught and dejected Fantine as she looks back on the dreams she had for her life in earlier years, and compares them to her current state of poverty and prostitution:

“I had a dream my life would be

So different from this hell I’m living

So different now from what it seemed

Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

We hear in Fantine our own struggles and failures to find true joy in this life. We sympathize with her as she examines the wide gap between reality and the ideal. With the futility of life portrayed in songs like these, it’s almost like the songwriters plagiarized directly from the book of Ecclesiastes!

And this is just the point: Like many other mediums within American culture, including cinema, art music, etc., musicals force audiences to engage with questions and problems we all face as human beings.

  • With Wicked, we ask: what is the root of evil?
  • With Les Mis, we ask: what are we living for? What do we turn to and hope in when all our dreams are destroyed?

The Bible is incredibly relevant here! It is an honest, trustworthy book that shows the problems and solutions to the human condition. While musicals are better, I think, at raising the questions and powerfully displaying humanity, the Bible doesn’t just raise the questions, but also gives the solutions.

Yes, there are aspects of every culture that will diametrically oppose the truth of Scripture. This is definitely the case in musicals. For instance, we are led to the conclusion in Wicked, that the concept of “evil” is really just based on one perspective (ie., there is never a clear-cut good vs. bad dichotomy). In this sense, it is a very “postmodern” musical.

Even so, we must be willing to point out what important issues our media addresses, as we attempt to engage with this culture in a way that more and more people can understand.

So next time you sit down in your comfy theater seat in New York or Chicago (or even in your local high school auditorium!), ask the Lord to teach you something through this enjoyable production. Don’t let it pass as an opportunity to learn more about society, and as an opportunity to share the hope you have with those around you! 

A Divine and Supernatural Light

I recently read Jonathan Edward’s sermon entitled “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” based on Matthew 16:17, where Jesus calls Peter blessed because it has been revealed to him that Jesus is the Christ. In short, Edward’s main thesis is that the knowledge of the truth and goodness of Christianity is a knowledge that cannot come from purely human understanding. It must come from God’s direct revelation to an individual, who can only see the goodness of Christian truth when the Holy Spirit reveals it to them.

 

This knowledge cannot come from conscience or imagination. These are human faculties that everyone shares, although God can and does use these faculties in revealing the truth. This spiritual light “primarily consists in the . . . real sense and apprehension of the divine excellency of things revealed in the Word of God.”

In other words, if a person does not have this spiritual light, then the Bible is just another book, containing some interesting stories and moral truths. A “great book,” but not divine. But when someone becomes a Christian, the Bible suddenly takes on the characteristic of actual divinity. Now, the words of Scripture sound as if they actually come from the mouth of God!

 

There is another important point that Edwards makes about this doctrine of supernatural light; it’s rational. What he means is that it makes rational sense if God has spoken through the Bible, that it takes upon itself a divine quality held by no other book. Additionally, it is rational that this type of revelation should not come from purely human efforts. If we are all sinful and naturally blind to the truth of the Bible in and of ourselves, it only makes sense that God would have to supernaturally intervene to show us His goodness through his Word.

 

I think that two important conclusions can be made from what I think is a correct understanding of divine revelation:

1)    Christians have no right or reason to be proud for knowing the truth. If truths such as the divinity of Christ, the realness of sin, and the veracity of the Bible, are truths that can only be fully revealed to an individual through the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit, then we do absolutely NOTHING to receive salvation, and therefore have no reason to claim that we are somehow “special” in knowing the truth. It’s 100% an act of God. We should NEVER look down on people who don’t know the truth. Every single one of us would be ignorant of salvation if God had not supernaturally intervened.

2)    Christianity is rational, AND irrational. What I mean is that when the truth is revealed to us, the Christian worldview makes rational sense. The problems of the world are easily seen to be caused by sin and it makes sense that there needs to be an atonement, etc. BUT if the truth has not been revealed to us, then Christianity does  not often make much sense. This is the ‘irrational’ aspect of Christian faith. A better word is probably super rational. It is impossible to understand the truth of Christianity from a purely human effort, therefore, if someone assumes (emphasis on assumes), that there is no supernatural realm, then Christianity really seems like complete foolishness! In fact, this is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1, where he says that to the Gentiles in his day, the cross of Christ was foolishness. It just does not make sense that a god would die in such a bloody manner, and then be called a “victor” by his followers! Now, I would say that there are many purely rational evidences that can point to the truth of Theism and Christianity (why is there something rather than nothing, Jesus’ resurrection seems to be the only rational explanation for the rapid growth of Christianity, etc.), but  no one can be fully convinced of the truth unless God will supernaturally reveal that truth.

Our New Best Friend: Mr. iPhone

It’s hard to count how many sci-fi thrillers have been made, where mankind’s machines become self-aware all of a sudden and begin to eradicate “imperfect” humanity to make way for some perfect, microchip-based world order (Terminator, I, Robot, The Matrix, it could go on for a while). There’s a fascination with the idea that mankind’s most complex creations will become its own destruction, that our slaves will become our masters, etc. But it highlights what we could describe as a love-hate relationship we have with digital technology. It’s almost impossible to find an American home without at least a couple televisions, but most of us end up complaining that we watch too much TV, that we need to go outside more, talk more, turn off the X-Box. It can all be boiled down to how too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Technology like cell phones, laptops, Apple products, are all “good” (you can’t help but be thankful for their usefulness), but when do we need to rein in our excitement a little?

 

Sherry Turkle wrote an interesting opinion piece for CNN, describing her experience as a panelist for a “cyberetiquette” conference in Boston (http://edition.cnn.com/2012/05/27/opinion/turkle-ted-technology/index.html?iref=allsearch). During the meeting, a woman asked the panelists whether it was a “right” of hers to ignore a cashier in a grocery store, trying to make conversation with her, while she was using her smart phone. Turkle was disturbed that most of the panelists sympathized with the woman over the  friendly cashier. This cashier, Turkle argued, had a greater right for some “human exchange.” She notes that such a case shows how many people are beginning to “expect more from technology and less from each other.” Somewhat disturbingly, she also relates how several younger people have told her that “they hope that in the future, Siri [a digital assistant] will be even more like a best friend to them.” When I read that, I felt a little scared. It seems absolutely ridiculous that a machine will very soon become a “best friend” for some people. Unfortunately, it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds, and some of my own experiences have confirmed my fears.

 

When one of my roommates moved out of our apartment a few months ago to get married, he took along with him his flatscreen TV. At first, I was glad that the black box of wasted time was going away. Finally, the temptation was removed, and now I would be forced to focus on more productive tasks!

 

A few weeks later, and I was feeling some serious withdrawal effects.

 

Whenever I got “tired” of reading, writing, or ran out of errands, I found myself wanting to reach for that remote and turn on the Discovery channel to watch some lions killing a wildebeest, or . . . something like that.

 

I didn’t think that going cold Turkey on TV was going to be so difficult, but the experience showed just how much I had learned to depend on TV as a source of distraction and entertainment.

 

Now, most of us wouldn’t say that technology has begun to “replace” our friends. But then again, it has in a sense. When another roommate left for home this past weekend, I lost one of my main sources for “entertainment” and human interaction. Something that helped fill that “void” was watching movies on my laptop. I guess that isn’t an extreme case of “tech-pendency,” but it personally shows me how I often need some sort of technological input to get me through the day.

 

Going back to the question posed earlier (when is it time to rein in our tech use), maybe a good rule of thumb is that technology has become more of a problem than an asset when it begins to substitute for real, human interaction. If it becomes the case that families, friends, and coworkers cannot share good one-on-one conversation because they’re all busy deepening their relationships with Mr. iPad, and Mr. X-Box360, then something just isn’t right. If this is the rule of thumb, then it seems as though our society is already consistently breaking it. I once heard someone jokingly describe coffee shops as places where people go to be lonely . . . together. Paradoxically, we all want to be around one another, but we often don’t really want to interact much, unless that interaction is mitigated by a computer screen with the word ‘facebook’ in the upper left hand corner.

 

This is something I need to preach to myself more (as I write this out on my iPad!). We all need to take some time to “unplug” and have some good ‘ole face-to-face interaction with a fellow human being. Against all odds, maybe we will somehow be shaken out of our tech-induced stupor, and become a society that doesn’t need such advice.

The Self-Defeating Materialist

Just a short conversation I wrote out between two people, one who views the world as not ‘necessary,’ and a materialist that doesn’t really see any wonder in the world anymore.

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Non-Materialist: “It’s a strange world we live in.”

Materialist: “No it’s not.”

Non-Materialist:”Why not?”

Materialist: “Because it’s the only world there is.There couldn’t have been another world. What happened, happened. It’s all words, ‘strange,’ ‘magical.’ What would be a ‘normal’ world, anyway?”

Non-Materialist: “I don’t know. Maybe trees would be upside down. Maybe horses would ride people, or something like that.”

Materialist: “‘That’s a waste of time! The point is, this is what we’ve got. We have to do the best with what we’ve got.”

Non-Materialist: “What is the best?”‘

Materialist: “A world without poverty, war, or money.”

Non-Materialist: “Hmmm, sounds kind of like a world with trees that are upside down.”

Materialist: “That’s different!”

Non-Materialist: “No it’s not.”

The Trouble with Scientism

The Trouble with Scientism

I think it was Albert Einstein who said that scientists make very poor philosophers.

Well, he’s right.

Not only do Christians say that science can only go so far to explain the human condition, but also secular humanists. An article by Philip Kitcher in this week’s issue of the New Republic, demonstrates how scientists’ tendency to make sweeping, general statements on all of life (or a “theory of everything”) is a gross overstepping of its boundaries..

Kitcher points out that there are some questions about humanity that are “‘beyond the scope of natural scientific inquiry.” Now, he does not write much on what this implies for the spiritual side of things (he comes off as purely secular), but this implicitly agrees with the beliefs of Christians (and most “average joes” around the world) that life can’t be just about what you can concretely observe through a telescope. Many biologists would like to say that all human behavior can be explained purely through natural selection, and that culture is simply a product of blind forces, moving in no particular direction. It’s funny how often many scientists talk about “progress,” all the while assuming that there is a general consensus of what “progress” is. What is the ideal state of humanity? Most don’t have a ready answer.

This drive to generalize scientific conclusions and impose them on the rest of humanity (when in fact those conclusions come from a limited perspective within a particular field), can be incredibly dangerous. Kitcher rightly states that “the political ramifications of conclusions about human beings only reinforce the demand for modesty.” We require caution and modesty, if we really want to steward this world well.

http://blog.acton.org/archives/32633-if-christ-is-lord-everything-matters.html

http://blog.acton.org/archives/32633-if-christ-is-lord-everything-matters.html

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/05/20/how-to-be-political-but-not-partisan/

Ok, so I know that spending time in a university program where the background of ideas for Western political institutions is unveiled, tends to create a kind of apolitical snobbery. What I mean is that when I came to better understand how a lot of political thinking is formulated, I became a person who tried to remain “above” base, petty, partisan politics, with the result that I simply stopped caring about most contemporary political debates. It promoted a sense of disgust and pointlessness toward politics. I naively began to think that Christians didn’t have to concern themselves much with “dirty” squabbles between Repubs and Dems. I was beyond such earthly thinking; I’m all about the heavenly things!

Well, here are two resources that have recently helped me shift my gears into what I think is a more biblical and helpful understanding of the relationship between faith and politics (or Jerusalem and Rome).

The first is a good article on why everything matters, including, you guessed it, politics.

The second gives a good framework for how Christians should approach politics, without necessarily towing the party line. You can speak clearly and loudly on the issues you care about, but you also don’t have to agree with all that one party promotes (ie, you can adamantly oppose abortion, but you can still promote heavier taxes on the wealthy)

Infinite Immensity of Spaces

When I consider the brief duration of my life absorbed in the eternity that lies before and after. . . the small space I occupy and can even see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces I do not know and that do not know me, I am frightened. . .” Blaise Pascal, 1658

I have always loved looking up at the stars. It is so easy to lose yourself when you look and ponder how vast, open, and enormous is this universe, populated by billions of “balls of gas, burning billions of miles away” (Pumba, from The Lion King). There is almost a sense of comfort when you realize your smallness.

“I am not the center of the universe.”

In fact, just yesterday I looked at the New York Times from my birthday in 1990, and I found no mention of the birth of Alex Wright. There was something about George Bush, and Saddam Hussein, but no mention of the red-headed child born in Kissimmee, Florida. Who knew? The world did not stop on my account, and it will continue long after I’m gone.

 I said earlier that there is a sense of comfort in realizing your smallness. But there is also discomfort, right? This is a tremendously vast universe, and you and I are very, very, very, small and seemingly insignificant. David himself recognized such a fact while he said to God “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8). What has modern science and technology done but confirm and even exaggerate David’s point, that compared to the size and scope of the natural world, mankind seems insignificant.

This is what Pascal experienced almost four-hundred years ago. When he examined himself in comparison to the size of the cosmos, he became frightened. The thought that such a person as Blaise Pascal, with his intellect and insight (he invented one of the first calculators, after all!) comforts me, because I have felt very similar.

If we are so infinitesimally small, what business do we have criticizing its creator? Could we ever imagine the immensity of this universe, let alone its originator? Louie Giglio, a pastor/touring speaker, loves to use astronomy to illustrate how vast the cosmos is and how tiny we are within it. After going through countless examples of how incredibly tremendous the universe is in scope and beauty, he notes, very rightly, that sin has an incredible tendency to “shrink” God in our minds, to a more “manageable” size, and then puff ourselves up. WE somehow become the experts in how our lives/society/government/traffic/etc. should go. We are so forgetful of the power and wisdom of a God who can “breathe out stars” (Psalm 33)!

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