Monday, March 19, 2018

People vs. Guns

Here's the way I have heard the current gun debate framed:
Children matter more than guns, therefore we need reform.
Our freedom matters more than fear, therefore we need guns protection.
The NRA proposes putting guns in the hands of teachers to protect the lives of children. In addition to ALICE drills, tornado drills, fire drills, and standardized testing, some are asking teachers to learn to wield a weapon. Can you imagine little, old Mrs. Smith with a Colt Defender in her top drawer next to her bag of blanched almonds? I can't.
The reformers, young and old, propose to raise the age for prospective gun owners, increase rigor of background checks, outlaw assault riffles, ban bump stocks, and have parents sign petitions to vote on their behalf. Can you imagine an enraged, mentally unbalanced, social misfit with a vendetta finding his way around reformed laws? I can.

But this does not mean I'm pro-gun and anti-reform. In fact, I'm simply, perhaps naively, pro-person.

And herein lies the problem: On both sides of the debate we agree that people (innocent children or free-thinking adults) matter. Yet we cannot seem to agree that people cause social problems. We want to blame policy, ideology, and (NR)associations.

Let's be clear: A changed law will not change hearts. It hasn't worked for the Moral Majority in our sexually-deviant culture. Roe vs. Wade has lasted. Same-sex marriage marches on. No Fault Divorce whitewashes a thousand little failures to love.

And we are naive to think increasing security and intensifying gun laws will squeeze the violence out of society. Violence will ensue as long as NFL remains king of sports; DC and Marvel churn out endless sequels; pornography strips humans their dress and dignity; political figures and media personalities win by shouting louder; survival of the fittest remains educational dogma; and CAPS LOCK SCREAMS FROM THE COMPUTER SCREEN.
Our gun problem points to a person problem. From blameless child to blaming adult, we are all capable of great evil. Christian thinkers have coined a term for this reality: total depravity. All have missed God's standard for moral perfection, the Scriptures teach (Rom. 1-3). Selfishness and rebellion are universal tendencies. On the other hand, total depravity does not mean each person achieves the greatest evil possible. Though we are misaligned, humans still reflect God's image (Gen. 1:26, 28; 9:6; Jas. 3:9). Thus we are capable of remarkable good (Luke 11:13).
Ironically, God used rather violent means to secure salvation for humanity. His innocent Son faced crucifixion. While people cried out for his blood, Jesus called out for their forgiveness (23:34). He knew people mattered. He did not come to reform laws but to redeem hearts. While this theological morsel may not appease the marching youth or soften the NRA, it remains public truth. A truth Jesus gave his life for.
But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8)

Monday, March 5, 2018

Humans vs. Dogs: People Matter More

My Golden Doodle nearly died today. He bolted into the street as a white pickup truck raced past. If a dog can truly be happy, then Zeb's happiest moment of the day is the morning walk. He rushes to the door, tail wagging, eyes wide, mouth agape. I leave him unleashed so he can gallop unfettered, free to pee on every plant, tree, and trashcan in sight.
I lead Zeb two blocks east before crossing the Main Street turning back. He will often often heed my voice before charging into the road; today he did not. Inches separated my rambunctious dog from roadkill. Tomorrow he will wear his leash.

When Zeb dies I will weep. In my married years, we have lost a cat, rat, two mice, several fish, and a Teddy Bear named Charlie. All the but the fish have garnered tears. But Zeb I love most. These pets feel like part of the family. They are part of the family. But they are not equal with the human members.

When I am dying, my children will not inject me with a shot as my head rests in their lap. They will not flush my lifeless body down the toilet or bury me beside the tulips. (At least, this is why I pay for life insurance.) No: I will have a memorial service, cemetery plot, and obituary printed in the paper. (How long before local newspapers habitually print pet obituaries?) And they will grieve me much longer than pets of yore. So I hope.

Just because something has personality, affability, and significance in our lives, does not grant it dignity commensurate with the imago dei. Even a human whose emotional intelligence does not surpass a three-year old, or one who loses her physical strength and mental agility bears the divine image. Domestic beasts and fresh produce reflect God's creativity; only humans reflect his relational, moral, volitional character.

We share widespread agreement that people matter, but not why they matter. Do they matter because they have life, much like a dog? Or do they matter because they have a different quality of life? If so, what determines the quality (and thus dignity) of human life? Is it tied to race, gender, religion, socio-economic status, mental health, independence, physical ability, or some complex of these features? Is significance it somehow inherent to humanity?

These are critical questions addressed in a book I've just finished reading, Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance (Kilner, [ed.], 2017). And in world enraged with sex scandals (#MeToo), gun violence (Stoneman Douglas H.S.), racism (White privilege), immigration laws (DOCA), gender equality (LGBTQ), and other "humans rights" issues, the masses have spoken. They agree: "All people matter." What they have failed to articulate, defend, or agree upon is why.

And perhaps Christians  have the best answer. We are more like gods than dogs--made in His image--knowing how to look both ways before we cross the street (Gen. 1:26-28; 3:5; 9:6; Ps. 82:6 cf. John 10:35).

Next week I'll summarize the five rival views and their weaknesses as laid out in the book.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Alexa vs. My Adopted Son

Alexa came home with us at Christmas. My mother bought her it for or my oldest daughter, gaining cool points, for sure, but also inching us closer to the Brave New World. When we first set up Alexa in my parents' guest bedroom, the girls spent hours with her it, asking for weather updates, song recordings, riddles, directions, and jokes.
For those unfamiliar with Alexa, she it is the personality attached to Amazon's Echo and Dot devices. She It interacts with voice commands, browses the Internet, sets reminders, plays games, tracks shipments, and communicates with other Amazon devices. My daughters send messages back and forth with their cousins via Alexa, causing a pulsing, yellow glow as new notices arrive.

The initial concern my wife and I felt about Alexa invading our home has subsided. Her It's morning weather reports have practical value. Her It's endless replay of "Shut Up and Dace" have inspired regular romps in the living room. Her It's five-minute timers have proven their worth for baking, making coffee, or quick cleaning sessions. Alexa has become a seamless member of the family.

There's only one problem. Alexa is not human. And we have to regularly remind ourselves not to use the female pronoun; Alexa is neither male nor female. Alexa is an it.

But Alexa is the beginning of Artificial Intelligence (AI) woven into everyday life (not counting Siri, push notifications, predictive search, Nest, etc.). And truth be told, Alexa is not too intelligent. More often than not, Alexa admits her it's ignorance. (Any Actually Intelligent Human (AIH) knows better than to say, "I'm sorry. I don't know that." AIHs make an answer up!)

As we accelerate toward the world of AI, it is important to firm up a definition of humanity. Otherwise we may continue to personify our devices and bestow on them greater dignity than they deserve. Worse yet, some persons whose social utility, motor skills, intelligence, and autonomy are called into question may be stripped of dignity and pushed into obsolescence (e.g., the rate of aborted babies detected with Down syndrome is near 100% in some European countries!) 

I'm sensitive to the issue not only because Alexa inhabits my home, but, more so, because Sensi does. My adopted son has several cognitive dysfunctions. He is language-impaired and learning-disabled. He is physically, socially, and emotionally delayed. His developmental specialist wants him tested for "institutional autism." Sensi does not function like most AIHs, but I have no doubt my son is human.
In spite of his limitations, Sensi displays all the core characteristics of an image-bearing human.
I subscribe to Dallas Willard's taxonomy of personhood. In Renovation of the Heart he details six characteristics: will, thoughts, feelings, body, social relationships, and soul. The soul comprises the whole person (material, immaterial, and social) working together. The "heart" and "spirit" are biblical images for our will. The "mind" governs thoughts and feelings.
God expects us to direct our whole self (inner person, fingertips, and friendships) to love him and others (Deut. 6:5 cf. Matt. 22:37). The very capacity to love is innately human, inherit to image-bearers. Dogs and dandelions cannot love, but certainly show loyalty and will to live.

In a battle of wits, Alexa will defeat Sensi every time. In a contest of emotion, it's a toss up. Their wills are equally matched; both Sensi and Alexa rarely take initiative and each excels at compliance. They daily repeat the catchphrase: "I don't know." Alexa's body requires a plug; Sensi's brain requires meds.

But Sensi functions as an autonomous, image-bearer, capable of giving and receiving love. His will, thoughts, feelings, body, and social relationships--held together in his soul--make him more human than any battery-operated, Internet-intelligent device will ever be. Long after Alexa outlasts her welcome or grows obsolete, Sensi will continue to brim with life in our home.
God created humankind in his own image,in the image of God he created them,male and female he created them.God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen. 1:27-28, NET)
Next week: I'll continue to reflect on God's view of humanity by comparing it to rival views. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Good Creation vs. A New Gnosticism

God created flesh and blood, bone and marrow, male and female. He created plants and animals, land and water, morning and evening. His creation reflected a complimentary style - filled with part and matching counterpart - and he paid his handiwork a great compliment as each day ended: "It is good." He repeats the assessment day after day (see Genesis 1:1-2:3).

Laying aside arguments about the age of the earth (a compelling suggestion made by John Walton in The Lost World of Genesis One), even the most cursory reading of the creation story exposes the resounding goodness of God's work. "Good. Good. Good. Good. Good. Very Good," sings the chorus.

And the goodness does not vanish after Adam and Eve's rebellion in the Garden (Gen. 3). Tarnished, it may be, but good it remains. The overwhelming testimony of Scripture says as much (Ps. 19; 104; 1 Tim. 4:4). And the bodily resurrection (of the embodied) Jesus foreshadows creation renewed, where the stain of sin will be eternally wiped clean. "Good. Very Good. Eternally Good."

While the secular world may agree with God's "good" evaluation as it relates to polar bears, ice caps, and rain forests, I've sensed a growing discontentment with God's crowning achievement: humanity. God's flesh-and-blood image-bearers are not so good. The evidence? Our tolerance for torture and war, our advocacy for gender reassignment and cryogenics, our policies for abortion and euthanasia, and our algorithmic depersonalization of every smart-phone-wielding, Internet-browsing, social-media-posting data source.

Humans must make way for the next wave of evolution. We are mere "meat machines" growing obsolete as we wait for an upgrade -- which includes anything from loading our mind into a computer, living vicariously through an avatar, implanting machinery beneath our skin, or freezing our heads in cryonic containers until technology advances beyond our weaknesses.

Ironically, this desire to escape our flesh is nothing new. Gnosticism, one of the earliest heresies the church battled, held a similar aim. Gnostics thought secret knowledge might take them to a higher plane of existence. They generally deemed their flesh-and-blood reality a bad one. The modern longing to shake off gender, slip out of our skin, and transcend death is merely a new variation of an old theme. Gnosticism has resurfaced.

One of the spokespeople for cryonics, Natasha Vita-More, reflects well the feelings of a contemporary Gnostic: “If this body fails, we have to have another one. You could die at any moment, and that’s unnecessary and unacceptable. As a transhumanist, I have no regard for death. I’m impatient with it, annoyed. We’re a neurotic species—because of our mortality, because death is always breathing down our necks.” (O'Connell, To Be a Machine, 40)

But I've stumbled across other Gnostic voices. And what frightens me is how their message is both suggestive and seductive, using stories directed at adolescents.

Take for example the inner dialogue of the lead character, Wade Watts (aka, Parzival), from Ernest Cline's bestselling book and soon-to-be movie, Ready Player One. SPOILER: Upon discovering his disembodied, best friend, Aech, is not a White male, as his avatar portrayed, but a Black lesbian, Wade quickly overcomes his shock. Cline writes:
As we continued to talk, going through the motions of getting to know each other, I realized that we already did know each other, as well as any two people could. We'd known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We'd connected on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation." (pg. 321, emphasis added)
Cline's dualism is both endearing and damning. The hint of truth makes his message that much more compelling. But even Cline cannot sustain his gnosticism as he closes the book (SPOILER) with two characters holding hands and sharing a kiss. Perhaps, our bodies increase intimacy after all.

More chilling was the effect of the following trailer (made worse by the fact that I came to the movie theater to mindlessly enjoy The Last Jedi, not have my anthropology challenged):

The trailer's magical elements, youthful actors, and musical feel masks its Gnostic doctrine: "We are not our bodies, but merely held captive by them. Love transcends physical appearances."

Another hint of truth. Another seductive lie.

It agree our bodies are fallen and fragile. I agree we should look beyond mere appearances. I cannot agree that our physical frames have no bearing on our personalities. They inform each other. They frustrate each other. Together they are good, but far from perfect.

The whole person needs redemption. And next week I'll tackle the question: What makes a person? 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Christmas as a Dual Citizen: On Being a Christian and a Consumer

I feel my dual citizenship most acutely during the Christmas season. Am I a Christ-follower or consumer? The answer is yes.

As a Christ-follower, the wonders of the original Christmas story captivate me year after year. God's motley cast of characters stand out in the genealogies and birth narratives: Rahab the prostitute; Ruth the Moabite; barren Elizabeth; virgin Mary; old Anna; mute Zecharias; devout Simeon; righteous Joseph, Herod the Grinch; the angel Gabriel; a caravan of wise men; and, of course, the shepherds watching their flocks by  night. My picture of these figures often aligns more with ceramic nativity sets and dusty hymn books than the writings of Saint Matthew and and Doctor Luke. But it does not stop my heart from swelling as I join carolers singing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen or Joy to the World.

On the other hand, I cannot deny the thrills of  decorating the house, hanging lights, using Kohls Cash, buying popcorn tins, watching Elf, opening presents, drinking Egg Nog, eating cookies, and hosting friends and family for seasonal celebrations. Our family drinks deeply from the well of Consumer Christmas. And we like it.
Well, perhaps, I don't like all of it. Daily trips to Wal-mart throughout December get a little exhausting. Coordinating schedules with family and its extensions becomes tiresome. The steep slide of my checking account causes some anxiety. And the lingering guilt of not giving enough reflection to baby Jesus but giving too much attention to buying presents pricks the conscience.

Can't I have both? I am, in fact, a dual citizen. Can't I enjoy gifts and love God? Can't I practice the "liturgy of the mall" (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 93-103) and rituals of Advent? Can't I have my fruitcake and eat it, too? (Strike that: I don't want fruitcake.)
Boldly, I say, "Yes." But I hedge my confidence with a caveat: We can only have both Consumer Christmas and Original Christmas if we put them in the proper order. Original Christmas must take priority. Incarnation precedes consumption.

And here's the simple trick to keeping a proper arrangement: We shouldn't wait until Christmas to reflect on the wonders of Jesus's first coming. If we don't actively recall this world-shaping event until retailers set out their stock of holiday wares, we've already yielded to Consumer Christmas.

Regularly reading the Gospels, regularly attending corporate worship, regularly taking communion, regularly serving the "least of these," and regularly putting giving ahead of receiving creates a "liturgy of Incarnation." Day by day, week by week, the work of Jesus shapes our imaginations. And when Christmas season rolls around, our reflections on the arrival of Jesus are but a louder variation of a carol we've hummed all year.

If we get the order right, then we can delight in trappings of Consumer Christmas guilt-free. As C.S. Lewis wrote, "Aim and Heaven and you get Earth 'thrown in': aim at Earth and you get neither." Put Advent first, then place your orders on Amazon.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Writer's Life - A Professional Update

Editing has been my theme word for 2017. It came to fruition in ways I did not expect. To the best of my imagination, editing meant trimming the fat from my ever-expanding list of duties. I am happy to report I quit one ministry team in 2017 and officiated the funeral of one outreach event at our church. Otherwise, I fattened my schedule with new responsibilities.

To my surprise, these additions primarily revolved around writing projects. I caressed the keyboard and wielded my red pen more in 2017 than any previous year. Highlights include the following:

But of all-things-editing in 2017, I've found the greatest joy in contributing to a forthcoming commentary on the book of Philippians. Kregel Academic plans to publish The KERUX Commentary Series geared to help pastors combine careful study of the text (i.e., exegesis) with creative preaching elements (i.e., homiletics). KERUX transliterates the Greek word for preaching.

This design may change, but was released at recent ETS Annual meeting.
I fuel most of my writing efforts with the limited energy of artificial deadlines. On Mondays I blog because I thought I should. At the beginning of the month I edit Pastor's Perspective articles because I said I would. In the winter and fall I has out curriculum because the timing seemed good. These self-imposed dates keep me from procrastinating. But if I don't blog (no offense to you), no one is clamoring for it (not even my dear old mother!)

Writing for a legitimate publisher feels different. Deadlines are given to me. I may have some room to push back, but I'm not the driver. So I make steady gains, day after day, to avoid the sloppy push to the submission date. I wake up extra early to write. I sneak away on the weekends to write. I find an open hour and warm cup of tea every few afternoons to write.

Writing and editing does not come easily. It is a slug fest. It is a staring contest. It is a hold-your-breath-underwater sort of task. But when you see your name on the cover of the book or your readership reach new heights, you're ready to bound your knuckles, fix your eyes, and take another dive.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Sensilton Timothy Sprankle the First: An Adoption Update

Sensi has lost his celebrity status. Eighteen months after his settlement on the Sprankle homestead, he has, well, settled. He is a bump on our couch. He is a seat in the classroom. He is a face in the crowd.
A year ago, students jockeyed to hold his hand and usher him through hallways. Today, he walks alone. A year ago, adults greeted him eagerly in doorways. Today, they offer him a polite "Hello," and let him shuffle past.

The novelty of the adopted, Ethiopian child has worn off. The reality of the child who pays little heed to anyone has taken shape. I grieve this reality, but I choose not to blame my son. He was dealt a defective Thyroid and unfortunate family situation (sick mother, under-employed father). He spent five years in two orphanages stocked with children but short on resources. I envision five-year old Sensi nestled in a corner flipping through the same ragged book; sitting alone on a bench, silently assembling the same simple puzzle; his verbal, social, and cognitive development a glacial drift.
Since coming to our home, Sensi's progress has exploded. He speaks, reads, draws, plays, runs, makes associations, and identifies shapes. Great teachers, therapists, and special instructors have accelerated his learning. More importantly, they have loved him. We have loved him. I cannot understate the improvements from day one, where my son turned his back on the entire family at mealtimes.

But I remain shocked at the infancy of his thinking and information gaps (chasms, really) carved in his neural circuitry. Examples abound:

  • Sensi's stock answer to every question: "I don't know." What did you do at school today? "I don't know." Who did you play with at recess? "I don't know." (He doesn't seem to know anyone's name.) What do you want for a snack? "Snack?" Yes, snack; what do you want? "I don't know." What do you know? "I don't know."
  • What Sensi does know is the day of the week. It's always Sunday. Is this because he's a pastor's kid? Probably not. He just knows it's a day, so the answer will pass.
  • This morning Sensi came downstairs with his USA shirt on backwards. I don't think this was an unpatriotic statement. But I am certain he didn't know his shirt was on the wrong way. (He often wears them inside-out, too).
  • "Chew with your mouth closed," has become a refrain at the table. "Take smaller bites," is the chorus. Sometimes I gently place my hands over his lips to press them together. Nonetheless, every meal is a chomp-fest.
  • The preschool toy aisle has a magnetic pull on Sensi. If the object lights up, makes sounds, or spins, my son must touch it. The Charlie Brown snow globe in our home has a similar effect. For the sanity of the family, we may ban Charlie Brown for the remainder of the season.
  • And then sometimes, often, Sensi simply fails to acknowledge others exist.

None of this steals our love for our son, it just stretches our capacity to consider it pure joy. We continue to teach and train him, read to and play with him, hug and kiss him, enfolding him into our family rhythms, even if  he's content to burrow in a corner of the couch.

And if the going gets really tough, we've started to wrestle and mess with him. Recently, we've begun to call him Sensilton Timothy Sprankle the First. 

"I'm not Sensilton. I'm Sensi," he retorts, grinning.

"Okay, Sensilton," I say, and he growls. 

Then I pin him to the ground until he fights back. And he's beginning to assert himself. This is a good sign for Sensilton Timothy Sprankle the First, because fighting makes your brain fire. 

May God set his mind ablaze.