atheism · Book Reviews · Books · Christianity · Faith · Ian McEwan

The Children Act – Review

Children-Act-3D

Ian McEwan’s latest book revolves around the world of family law. Fiona is a High Court judge working in the family division. She is constantly ruling on every known issue that could disrupt a family legally. As her marriage crumbles, the life of a Jehovah’s Witness family does as well. This family is fighting for the religious rights of their son who is soon to be 18. The state desires to save his life with a blood transfusion which goes against the teachings of The Watchtower. What follows is a clash of world-views with no clear winner.

Foundations

McEwan’s book presents what appears to be twopposing world-views, yet with closer examination, they differ very little. Fiona clearly believes in law and order. Yet for her, what is right and best is founded on society-imposed ideas that shift as the sands, flowing from one “enlightenment” to the next. She thinks to herself while meeting with Adam, the boy in question,

“As he said this, looking at her directly, with no particular challenge in his voice, she believed him completely; he and his parents, the congregation and the elders knew what was right for them. She felt unpleasantly light-headed, emptied out, all meaning gone. The blasphemous notion came to her that it didn’t much matter either way whether the boy lived or died. Everything would be much the same. Profound sorrow, bitter regret perhaps, fond memories, then life would plunge on and all three would mean less and less as those who loved him aged and died, until they meant nothing at all. Religions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a far distance, none obviously higher, more important, truer than another. What was to judge?”

Her world-view has started and ended with human thought. And with that as a foundation, the weight of any meaning in life cannot be sustained, all is meaningless.

The most interesting thing that the book does is try to set Fiona’s world-view against a sect of people who claim to know the truth and live by God’s Word. Yet when put to the test, their beliefs are shown to be all about them and the foundation was not God at all. Adam confesses to Fiona later in the book,

“My feelings came out of my religion. I was doing God’s will, and you and all the rest were plain wrong. How could I have got into such a mess without being a Witness…. Oh you know, wanting to suffer, loving the pain and sacrifice, thinking that everyone’s watch and caring and that the whole universe is about you…. That’s when I saw it as an ordinary human thing. Ordinary and good. It wasn’t about God at all. That was just silly. It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids who are making each other miserable and said, Come on, stop all the nonsense, it’s teatime!”

When belief is built on anything other than the immutable eternal, it cannot sustain the weight of pain, suffering and glory. Adam’s faith was about him, earning his place and suffering well for the cause as penance for forgiveness and acceptance by others and God. In the end, without a free gift of grace, his faith has no more meaning than Fiona’s.

Meaning

Through their shared experience, Fiona and Adam begin searching for meaning. Fiona asks Adam,

“So you’ve lost your faith”

“…Yes, perhaps. I don’t know. I think I’m frightened of saying it out loud. I don’t know where I am, really. I mean, the thing is, once you take a step back from the Witness, you might as well go all the way. Why replace one tooth fairy with another?”

“Perhaps everyone needs tooth fairies.”

Fiona is on to something. We need meaning in this world. The thought that this is meaningless and oblivion is all that awaits the other side of the pine box leads to nihilistic suicide. Later in the book, Fiona eats a meal with her husband as he pontificates about the bleakness of the human condition and the inconsequential nature of time. As he speaks, she can feel his words weighing on her, causing her to leave the table because of her discomfort. The logical end of her belief system confronts her and sickens her for it’s lack of purpose.

At the end of the book Fiona finds out that Adam’s leukemia has returned and that he refused treatment. She believes strongly that he denied himself treatment as a form of suicide. She thinks,

“Adam came looking for her and she offered nothing in religion’s place, no protection, even though the Act was clear, her paramount consideration was his welfare. How many pages of judgements had she devoted to that term? Welfare, well-being, was social. No child was an island. She though her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? He came to her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.”

The book ends with Fiona lamenting the death of this boy, his loss of hope and her complicitness in his death. The sadness is that the meaning she desires, the meaning that was never truly Adam’s, is the meaning they both need. Meaning can only be given if there is a standard set above us, if there is truth outside us and not dependent on us. Meaning can only come from the eternal perfect, not the temporal fallen. Thank God that there is meaning and hope beyond oblivion.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10 ESV)

Conclusion

Adam keeps chasing Fiona for help and “enlightenment,” but she has nothing else to give. It shows how the offer of shared knowledge (books and new ideas), art (music, etc.), and relationships (his wanting to live with her) can’t always go as far as we want them to, even though that’s often the culture’s prescription to problems. The Children Act is well written and McEwan’s prose sparkles as per usual. The though-provoking nature of this book, along with the lack of sufficient answers to it’s timeless questions make it worth the read.

 

9/11 · abortion · atheism · Books · Christianity · ebooks · Film · Movies

Owl Post 9-11-2012

 

One World Trade Center: Construction Progress

After years of effort and numerous setbacks, three of the proposed seven towers to be built at the World Trade Center complex have “topped out,” reaching their structural maximum height. Seven WTC was completed in 2006, Four WTC topped out in June of this year, and the tallest, One World Trade Center (formerly known as Freedom Tower), just topped out at 104 floors on August 30. Financial difficulties have left the future of the remaining towers in doubt, and have raised concerns about the still-incomplete National September 11 Memorial and Museum, as the foundation that runs the memorial estimates that it will cost $60 million a year to operate. Gathered below are recent images of the rebuilding at ground zero in New York City.

The trouble with atheists: a defence of faith

Francis Spufford has heard all the arguments against Christianity. He understands the objections of Dawkins and Hitchens and he realises it’s a guess as to whether there’s a God or not. But here he offers a defence of his faith

Film and Theology… NO MORE?

The film… whoops, it was shot digitally… the movie introduces us to a wealth of storytellers: directors like Martin Scorsese,Christopher Nolan, George Lucas, David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez and cinematographers like Michael Chapman and Wally Pfister. While the transition that’s occurred over the last few decades has involved the obvious tensions – arguments sourced in nostalgia or rational comparisons of visual quality – the documentary reveals how much more involved the change has been, involving which part of the creative team has the most control, how it affects people’s employment, and even the different demands it puts on actors and those in front of the film or digital cameras.

Top 100 Teen Books

More than 75,000 ballots were cast in our annual summer reader’s survey — click here to see the full list of 100 books, complete with links and descriptions. Below is a printable list of the top 100 winners. And for even more great reads, check out the complete list of 235 finalists.

Reading for Worldviews

As a partial answer to that question, we’ve asked several Christian thinkers to examine the worldviews presented in the top 10 most-read books. Over the next several weeks we’ll present articles on each of the titles. Louis Markos, professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, provides our introduction to the series. You can also read Douglas Wilson’s take on The Lord of the Rings.

Reading for Worldviews: Lord of the Rings

One of the disadvantages we have with books written in our lifetime—as compared with classic books from other eras—is kind of obvious if you stop to think about it. We don’t know which ones will be classics. We don’t know who to put into the line-up. Other centuries are picking on us unfairly. Those other generations had their dreck too, but almost none of that survived the test of time. Our dreck is still alive and well, and selling briskly. So when we make a comparison, we tend to imagine that the 14th century had a Chaucer on every other corner, while ours has an E. L. James in every Starbucks

3 Media-Made Myths about Abortion

It’s election season again, and our country’s ongoing debate over abortion is raging. In watching newscasters and reporters comment on the abortion debate, I’ve pinpointed three common myths about abortion perpetuated by people in the media.

atheism · Christianity · Identity · mbird.com · Movies · The Avengers

Avengers – The Review

Avengers-Alternative-Minimalist-Movie-Poster-063I went into the theater with trepidation. So many summer comic-book movies have let me down in the past few years. Green Lantern was a CGI mess and Captain America and Thor left me wanting more. I have not truly been surprised by a comic-book movie since the original Iron Man. Avengers had a lot to live up to, especially since it involves the aforementioned characters, plus the Hulk, who has his own string of failed films. Lastly there are two characters who are relatively unknown; they have had very minor roles shoehorned into the previous Marvel movies. So, here is the good news (that all of America already knows because they have already seen the movie): Avengers is simply amazing. I highly recommend this movie to anyone who loves a thrill ride and a movie that will make you think, if you are paying attention.

Director Joss Whedon had a very important decision to make with these characters: Who should be the center of the film? Should it be the narcissistic, billionaire, genius, philanthropist playboy? Maybe the rage-weary scientist who can’t seem to keep a lid on his temper (and you won’t like him when he is angry)? There is the aloof demigod from another world who sounds like Shakespeare in the park. Or maybe the damaged spy with a thirst for redemption and salvation from a past filled with bloody mistakes. Penultimately there is the archer, silent and strong, but he was taken hostage by evil in the first 10 minutes. So this leaves us with the virtuous man out of time, Captain America (aka Steve Rodgers). Even his name harkens back to a bygone era where the name America did not engender hate, and being captain of it would be a badge of honor and courage. As the other “heroes” bicker and literally fight one another to prove that they are the most worthy, it is Captain America that serves as the voice of moral reason and sanity. Rodgers is able to stand between the other heroes and help them see that this is not about their petty differences and personalities; like a good soldier, he helps them to see the importance of the mission and teamwork to accomplish what none of them could do on their own. Rodgers gives us a picture of what has been lost to our past – a clear moral compass, a sense of duty and honor, and doing unto others as you would have them do to you. It is this heartbeat that that enables the team truly act as one in the end.

“Kneel before me. I said… KNEEL! Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.” – Loki

This is a huge part of the movie, this idea of freedom and subjugation. Loki says that all people are looking to be ruled and of course, as any good bad guy, he believes that he is the one best suited to do that ruling. He craves the adoration and the worship of others. He craves them because of the inferiority complex that he suffers because his brother is Thor, the biceped demigod of Asgard. In the end, Loki is as much a slave as we all are, driven by a desire to be loved and validated as a person. In his quest to rule he makes himself a slave to his need for control and power. Recently Joss Whedon made a speech in accepting the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from the Harvard Humanist Society. He is an atheist and was talking about what the atheist response should be to the world. He said,

How do we codify our moral structure without the sky-bully looking down on us telling us what we’re suppose to do?…..The enemy of humanism is not faith; the enemy of humanism is hate, is fear, is ignorance, is the darker part of man that is in every humanist, every person, in the world. That is the thing we have to fight. Faith is something we have to embrace. Faith in God is believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. (From mbird.com)

What I am struck by is that this flies in the face of reason and plays out in the movie. Loki, who longs to be free and to rule, is driven by his fear and feelings of inadequacy. Each of the heroes is also a slave – slaves to narcissism, pride, guilt, shame, fear, anger and so many other things. In the end, the axiom is proved that we are all slaves to something. I like the way cinemagogue.com puts it,

We lose our joy in a mad scramble for identity by attaching it to something lesser, binding our hopes and dreams to a celebrity, a politician, a spouse, a fictional universe or hero, a national identity, a career, a co-dependent relationship, or vicarious achievements through our children. We “freely” soil our knees on these shifting foundations hoping these things will satisfy, give us purpose and worth. Worst, we effectively see ourselves as “god”, the center of our own life and universe, and find ourselves kneeling to an identity that is certain to let us down, shackled to our own fallibility and finitude.

Loki is right again: we crave subjugation and lose our joy, chasing a “freedom” (that is actually enslavement) and declaring it as our identity.

We are constantly waging this fight for freedom and like Wheedon says, the last thing we want is some cosmic sky-bully telling us what to do. Like Adam in the garden we want to be like God, to know it all and be our own master, captain of our own ship. Bonnie over at Mockingbird.com says,

I agree with some parts of Joss’ point. He considers the “dark part of man” to be the enemy of humanism. And every person has this dark part inside of them. I don’t disagree that there is evil inside all of us (we call it “sin” or peccator). What I am surprised (and a bit confused, to be honest) by is why he would still put his faith in humanism if the enemy of humanism is in every person, including every humanist?

Is not looking for something different even after you have seen it proved again and again a definition of insanity? The thing is, we are meant to live in freedom, freedom from living as masters of our own fate and in submission to the one who is truly Master, even over death. The apostle Paul reminds us of our place in his letter to the Colossians:

He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)

It is only by understanding our place in the universe that we can truly have freedom, and this brings us back to the heart of the story, Steve Rodgers. It is his belief in good, right and wrong, and the duty of a soldier to put himself in harm’s way to protect others that give us the clearest picture of the gospel. It also flies in the face of atheism and the glorification of humanism and self. In the end, it is all the other heroes that take on the characteristics of Captain America and become willing to lay aside their desires and even their lives for the lives of others. This is clearly seen at the end of the film where Tony Stark, the most egotistical and self-centered hero in the group, is willing face to certain death to save the world.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13 ESV)

It is only in letting go and thinking of others before ourselves that we truly become free. We are not slaves to serving others, we are freely putting aside our insecurities and self to make others a priority. I can be a slave to myself or freely give to others. Which will you choose: the way of Loki or the way of Captain America and the Avengers?

Really liked this video from Cinemagogue.

atheism · Books · C.S. Lewis · Christianity · Stories · Tolkien

The Narnian – A Review

The Narnian

Alan Jacobs

HarperSanFransisco, 2005 342 pages $25.95

Alan Jacobs has written a superb biography chronicling the life of C.S. Lewis. Unlike other exhaustive works on Lewis, this one is focused on how his life led him to create the enduring works The Chronicles of Narnia. What enables this boy with a wild imagination who created “Animal Land” to become an atheist? What was the catalyst for turning away from atheism, “…kicking, struggling, resentful and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape”?(129) It was this turn that had the largest impact on the creation of Narnia.

For Lewis, his undoing as an atheist was his love of story and myth. “What alternative was there to the materialist’ suspicious undermining of all myth and the supernaturalist’ universalizing of the Christian story?”(142) The real light switch for this was his friendship with Tolkien who, “…the question of myth…had much occupied…for many years, and his thinking on the subject was therefore considerably more sophisticated than Lewis’s.”(142-143) What did myth have to do with Christianity? Tolkien’s answer was, “…to perceive the Creation truly we must move beyond knowing what stars are ‘made of,’ and because we are fallen and finite creatures, this we can do only by image, metaphor, and myth.”(145) For Lewis this is the beginning of understanding. He had always longed for joy, and this longing had plagued him for years since there never seemed to be a way to satiate this desire. “So Tolkien goes on to ask a countering question: ‘Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream’? That is, if materialist philosophy is true, why do we even have such dreams and desires?”(145)

Here Tolkien was reaching to the heart of his friend. Lewis had focused all his attention either on what Joy was or how to get it, but Tolkien was forcing him to consider the matter in a wholly different light. It was not Joy itself but its presence in a biological organism comprised largely of water, nitrogen and carbon that constituted the greatest puzzle. That we dream and wish at all is a powerful element in the case for the belief that myths communicate some truth that cannot be communicated in any other way.(145-146)

Lewis’ lifelong desires had been pointing him to something greater – his love of myth and storytelling had primed his heart for the truth that he was discovering.

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with the tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing himself through ‘real things.'”….”the ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that wh. God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.” That is, the language of actual historical event, such as can be narrated in mythical form, is a more truthful language than the ‘concept and ideas’.(149)

Jacobs does a wonderful job of showing how so many of the things in Lewis’ life make their way into the Narnia stories: the death of his mother, the horrible treatment he received at boarding school and even his own time as a teacher – each one of these things makes an impact. Almost every part of Lewis’ life influences Narnia in one way or another, and Jacobs’ masterful grasp of his subject adds to a deeper understanding of Lewis’ life and his most famous works.

I first read a book by C.S. Lewis 25 years ago, and I have been reading his work consistently since then. I know his voice quite well, as well as I know anyone’s; it is utterly distinctive. And the most dominant feeling I get when I read his early letters – that is, those written in the first 30 years of his life – is that in none of them does he sound like himself. That pre-conversion Lewis is, though obviously highly intelligent, neither a particularly likable nor a particularly interesting person – at least in his letters. He may have been delightful to know, but I doubt it. But once he “admitted that God was God,” it is as though the key to his own hidden and locked-away personality was given to him. What appears almost immediately is a kind of gusto (sheer, bold enthusiasm for what he loves) that is characteristic of him ever after.(131)

I recently read another well-written biography, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I was struck by how similar geniuses seem to be – they are driven and usually end up challenging the status quo. But there is something that separates these men, Lewis and Jobs, and it really makes all the difference. Jobs continually fights in his life to be important, to do something meaningful and be remembered. When he did not get his way, he would literally throw a tantrum. The driving force in his life was himself, and in the end it left him empty. Lewis was headed down that same path, but something grabbed him and altered his very foundation.

What brought the comparison of these two men to mind was Jacobs’s description of the change that belief in God had on Lewis. Isaacson talks about the perfecting nature of Jobs and his pursuit of greatness that drove him, and when he failed it left him longing for more of what he could never seem to obtain. Lewis on the other hand is able to find the fullness, the joy, that he had always been looking for by surrendering to God. It was only through this surrender that Lewis was able to give us Narnia.

“It is a reasonable hope,” Lewis writes, “that of those who heard you in Oxford many will understand that when poets of old made some virtue their theme they were not teaching but adoring, and that what we take for didactic is often the enchanted.” Lewis is known as a moralist, but I think we can infer from this comment that his teaching is often a function of his adoration – so that the moral elements if his writing are not so easily distinguished from the enchantment of storytelling and story-loving. It is the merger of the moral and the imaginative – this vision of virtue itself as adorable, even ravishing – that makes Lewis so distinctive.(xxiv)

I am thankful that Lewis was dragged kicking and screaming to the Lord and that his whole self was unlocked for all the world to benefit from. This book is well worth the read and you just may finding yourself longing to revisit Narnia soon after.

abortion · atheism · Google · Government · Marriage · Mars Hill · Politics · porn · Republican · sleep · stress · Texas A&M · The Gospel Coalition · Tim Challies · tolerance

Owl Post 3-1-2012

I know there are a lot of links here; I have not had the time to share them recently, but they are all worth the read.

60 Second Summary: After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?

The Gist: Since it is currently permissible to kill prenatal children because they are only potential persons and do not have full moral status, then we should be able to kill postnatal children for the same reason. Link

Atheist Alain de Botton Insists Society Needs Guidance From Religion:

Famed atheist Alain de Botton, also a best-selling Swiss author and philosopher known for challenging Richard Dawkins and what he calls his “destructive” atheistic theology, has in a recent interview highlighted many ways in which religion is useful even for secularists. Link

The Hope Amidst Porn In A Marriage:

The sin of pornography is not just a male issue. In fact, recent studies show that one third of people who are looking at porn are women. But, men are still the ones who primarily struggle with this sin—and implicate their wives in doing so. Link

The myth of the eight-hour sleep:

We often worry about lying awake in the middle of the night – but it could be good for you. A growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests that the eight-hour sleep may be unnatural. Link

Contemporary Tolerance Is Intrinsically Intolerant:

The notion of tolerance is changing, and with the new definitions the shape of tolerance itself has changed. Although a few things can be said in favor of the newer definition, the sad reality is that this new, contemporary tolerance is intrinsically intolerant. It is blind to its own shortcomings because it erroneously thinks it holds the moral high ground; it cannot be questioned because it has become part of the West’s plausibility structure. Worse, this new tolerance is socially dangerous and is certainly intellectually debilitating. Even the good that it wishes to achieve is better accomplished in other ways. Link

If Only:

Feeling inadequate and out of control of any number of life stresses, I feel small and weak. Instead of being humbled, I tend to reject the discomfort of my need, and become prideful. I demand control, believing that if I regain control, I will be restored. My wandering, grumbling heart searches for some end to my familiar fatigue. Link

There’s Lots of Yelling in Campaign to Break This Glass Ceiling:

COLLEGE STATION, Texas—This week, a student-body vote at Texas A&M University could make Samantha Ketcham the first female cheerleader—make that yell leader—in school history. Link

Don’t Assume: 

As one of our society’s most popular verses, it is also one of the most misunderstood. Too many people, non-Christian and Christian, take Jesus’ words to be a blanket rejection of all moral evaluation. But given that Jesus alludes to his opponents as dogs and pigs five verses later, it’s safe to think Jesus wasn’t condemning every kind of judgment. We see from the rest of the Gospel that Matthew 7:1 is not inconsistent with strong criticisms, negative statements, church discipline, and warnings about hell. Judgmentalism is not the same as making ethical and doctrinal demands or believing others to be wrong. Link

The Reasons Google+ Is Still a Ghost Town:

The Wall Street Journal has boiled down the failure of Google+ to make a dent in the social network dominance of Facebook, which we have noted for months to two simple stats: users spend about three minutes per month on Google+ compared to six to seven hours a month on Facebook. After all the hype and hope of being the next “It” social network, what happened? Link

Five lessons learned from the Republican presidential race:

Eleven states have cast their votes in the Republican presidential nominating contest. Ten more will do so in six days time, the biggest single day of voting in the GOP race. Now then seems like as good a time as any to take three big steps back and look at what lessons the first two months of votes have taught us about the Republican race. Link