The True Value of Halloween

A woman once wrote to C.S. Lewis in great distress. It appeared, she said, that England was becoming a very pagan nation. By “pagan”  the woman meant the culture of Britain was reverting back to pre-Christian belief systems of spiritism, idolatry, and nature-worship. She expressed this concern earnestly to professor Lewis to see what analysis or prescription he could give to the state of the nation.

Lewis’s reply was unexpected. “You fear England’s returning to paganism,” he wrote. “Oh that it would!” Lewis explained that, though paganism was false, it was truer than materialism and a much preferable place for a culture to be. A “pre-Christian” culture, Lewis argued, would at least entertain ideas about reality that allowed for the unseen, the metaphysical, and the supernatural. The militant, materialistic atheism of Lewis’s 20th century Oxford had no such upward view.

One of Lewis’s great gifts was pointing that which is so obvious that we probably missed it. Christians have a completely different definition of reality than the rest of the world, but nowhere is the difference more significant than with materialists and philosophical naturalists. The gospel cuts across every rival worldview, whether spiritualistic or agnostic, but for the person who believes that things like resurrections and advents cannot happen in this world, Christianity is totally unintelligible. Christianity doesn’t merely feature the supernatural and miraculous, it demands them. Christianity is an universe in which the otherwordly and metaphysical are not just occasional guests but permanent residents. The Gospel tells us that that the natural world is not the only world; in fact, the natural world isn’t the realest world.

I’m afraid that this fact isn’t just a stumbling block for atheists, but for many Christians as well. This time of year many Americans will be celebrating Halloween. Even as many evangelical Christians have deep concerns with the casual costuming of the demonic and the spiritually dark (and those concerns are valid!), it’s possible that we may have missed an obvious fact: Halloween is one of the few cultural institutions we as a country have left that invites contemplation on the realities beyond our immediate physical world, realities like death, spirits, and evil.

In a way, American thinking about Halloween is more Christian than its thinking about Christmas, a holiday that has been overwhelmingly loaded with secular symbols of youth and and wealth and Western self-satisfaction. What is Santa Claus but a secular savior, a perpetually positive grandfather who stops by once a year to tell you what a good life you are living?

Santa Claus, as a symbol, requires no serious thought about the permanent, the unseen, and the immortal. By contrast, the ghoulish symbols of Halloween may be less “family-friendly” than Santa, but they are grounded much more deeply in fundamental truths about good, evil, and death. There is no jolly old man waiting to give gifts to the good children, either in the North Pole or in heaven. Death, however, is real. Demons are real. Evil is real. In our contemporary society, it’s almost as if the doctrines of Christianity are much more evident in the ghastly images of Halloween than the comfortable, consumeristic images of Christmas.

That is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because, in truth, Christmas is not merely a contrast to Halloween but an answer to it. The deathly realities of October are no match for the advent realities of December. It’s true that evil and death are real, but they are not as real as Immanuel. In Halloween, death takes on flesh. At Christmas, life takes on flesh, as Jesus Christ enters the world to destroy the works of the prince of demons. To lose either of these realities is to filter the gospel through what is ultimately a materialistic, unbelieving lens.

I’m not at all saying that Christians must lose whatever reservations they have about Halloween. After all, if there are indeed spiritual realities in the symbols of Halloween, we must take how we treat such symbols more seriously, not less. There are good reasons to place practical boundaries on ourselves and on our children for how we engage the holiday. And the same is true of Christmas. It is no good to ban Halloween from our families and our churches on account of its darkness, and then celebrate the Christmas season just like our materialistic, legalistic culture. Both Christmas and Halloween have the potential to be nothing more in our lives than monuments to our worship of fun and food. But it doesn’t have to be that way, not if we know the gospel that gives weight and meaning and history and truth to these days.

I’m probably going to see some Christians on Facebook this weekend decry the ugly, offensive symbols of Halloween, and implore parents to remind their children that they must not associate with such things. I won’t protest that. But I do hope that, in an age where most young people grow up to ultimately believe not in ghosts, Holy or otherwise, but mostly in themselves and their own right to self-actualization, we do not despise every opportunity to remind ourselves that life and youth do not last forever.

 

You Get What You Pay For

I didn’t grow up wealthy. My dad was a minister and we were firmly in the “working class” category that economists overuse. When it came to using money, we weren’t free spenders. But I’m thankful that neither did we squelch when a little extra was called for.

This principle came from my dad, who instilled in me a sense that you get what you pay for. If you want something–if you really want it, not just if you want other people to know you have it or want to spend–then that something is worth paying for. So, for example, if you want an MP3 player, and you want one that will actually last for years and is good quality, then it’s worth paying a little extra for the iPod. If you need a new jacket, and you want it to keep you warm for many winters, then it’s worth paying a little extra for one with better and more durable materials. Once you decide that something is worth buying, my Dad thought, then it’s worth buying well, because you get what you pay for. Paying less money for something that isn’t quite as good and won’t last quite as long or won’t do exactly what you’re wanting it to do makes less sense–and is a poorer use of money–than simply waiting.

It seems to me that we live in an era of American culture that is awash in the cheap and unsatisfying. I’m thinking now of entertainment. Think of how streaming services like Netflix and iTunes now dominate the entertainment economy, when just a decade ago most people still frequented brick-and-mortar retailers like Blockbuster. The appeal of Netflix is its cheapness; for $10/month, you can stream hundreds of movies and TV shows at will, without ever leaving your home. You don’t have to be a math major to see how Netflix was successful at this.

But there’s a sense I think in which Netflix (and its musical counterpart, Spotify) is actually the cheaper, less satisfying product. After all, a subscriber to Netflix doesn’t actually own anything. The Netflix collection that he treasures can disappear at any point, for any reason (and often does). Netflix determines what’s watchable and what’s not, and there’s no other Netflix “location” you can visit to see if it has what you’re looking for. What Netflix offers is cheapness and convenience, and in exchange it squelches on availability, selection, and, if we’re being honest, often quality. This relationship isn’t incidental. The ease of Netflix exists because of its flaws, not in spite of it. You get what you pay for.

I’m not just thinking of entertainment here either. We’re only weeks away from a presidential election in the US, and can you imagine an election cycle that more exemplifies the tradeoff between easy and good than this one? Our national politics seems to have fallen squarely in the Netflix trap. We are often drawn to candidates, on either side, who embody identity politics and confirm our worst suspicions about the “other side.” As long as a politician can make us feel correct and victimized, we somehow find ways to ignore serious faults in character, honesty, and personal morality. We want the politics of the easy and the convenient, and are willing to get less quality leadership in return.

This is why it’s important to remember that wanting a better national politic entails a better electorate.  Last week I was sad to hear that a great publication, Books and Culture, was closing. I immediately thought how difficult it is right now to produce high quality writing by high quality writers, when the internet is page after page after page of third-tier, amusing, often trivial content. The concept of writing itself is being defined down by Buzzfeed and social media. What’s the appeal here? It’s all free! It’s all easy! But so little of it is good. You get what you pay for.

Ours is a culture of cheap, low-quality entertainment; cheap, low-quality politics; cheap, low-quality religion; cheap, low-quality education. We are so adapted to the tradeoff between inexpensive and mediocre that we hardly notice it anymore–until, of course, we have nothing else to choose from except the vulgar, the dishonest, and the middlebrow. And at that point, often a point of no obvious return, we lament, “How on earth did we get here?”

I’m not sure what the answer is. But I have a feeling it starts with taking Philippians 4:8 seriously. What if obedience to Christ and the renewal of our minds means that we submit even our money to the pursuit of that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and praiseworthy? Faithfulness to this command may not be as convenient as we might think. It may look less like an instant streaming service or a listicle, and more like a trip to the video store and a well-edited magazine. Want the good, the true, and the honorable? You get what you pay for.

 

 

Review: “Sully” (2016)

“Sully” is a film about how two kinds of people respond to immense pressure and impending doom. The heroes—a copilot, stewardesses, the coast guard, and of course, an elderly captain—all respond with calm, clear headed thinking, decisiveness, and courage. The villains, by contrast, respond with paranoia and panic. We don’t normally think of these competing characteristic as what “heroes” do as opposed to “villains”; but perhaps Clint Eastwood’s accomplishment here is to show us just how much can depend on how average, everyday people choose to react. Sometimes, it’s even the difference between heroism and manslaughter.

You know the story. In the stinging frost of a January day in 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks) landed his U.S. Air commercial jet on the Hudson river. All 155 passengers survived, the day was called “the miracle on the Hudson,” and Sully was deemed a hero of impossible skill and supernatural intuition. In the doldrums of the economic meltdown, Sully’s story was more than a miracle; it was a cultural moment, a reminder (especially in New York) that airplanes don’t always explode when they fall, and that hope could still be rewarded.

In “Sully,” the only one to miss this memo is Sully himself. The film opens with Sully’s plane crashing into the Manhattan skyline and erupting in a fireball that evokes memories of 15 years ago. This is, of course, a dream; we learn quickly that Sully’s nightmare comes from his sense of self-doubt and anxiety over his action on that day. Though he saved lives, the National Transportation Safety Board believes he could have landed at a nearby airport instead of in the river (or as one character later clarifies, “on” the river). Thus, an insurance company and an airline now have a financial stake in whether Sully unnecessarily endangered the passengers he somehow rescued.

It defies logic that a pilot who saved lives on an airliner without either engine could be forced to retire as a result. Throughout “Sully” I kept thinking how easily Eastwood could have made this film into an infuriating jeremiad against bureaucrats and insurance corporations. Wisely, he did not, but still.

The film’s drama centers on the investigation that the NTSB carries out, and whether they will determine that Sully was indeed at fault. For his part, Sully resents his new celebrity, and hallucinates reporters who decry him and more exploding planes. It’s obvious that this is an honorable man of duty. His copilot (Aaron Eckhart) showers praise on him, his wife (Laura Linney) believes in him, but Sully cannot rest if he doesn’t know for sure that he did the right thing. The election cycle of 2016 is desperately short of people like this, and we need to be reminded often that they’re out there.

“Sully” has an undeniably authentic feel. The crash sequence isn’t as technically masterful as, say, the one Robert Zemeckis achieved in Flight, but it is staged and photographed well. One thing Eastwood captures is the crucial knowledge and decisiveness of the flight crew during the chaos of the un-boarding. There’s no doubt in my mind that a lesser prepared team would have lost some lives during the frigid wait for rescue. These weren’t
marines or professional disaster handlers. They were flight attendants and copilots and stewardesses, with the same fear for themselves that everyone onboard had. Yet they preserved life.

Hanks is a good choice as Sullenberger. The role demands little of him, but that’s OK, because we are not meant to marvel at how great a human being Sullenberger is but at how ordinary. Laura Linney gives the film’s best performance as Sullenberger’s wife; the two never appear in the same shot, but their affection is evident.

Sully is a flawed movie. The script seems unsure if it wants to delve into Sullenberger’s past and psychology. There are a couple flashback sequences that show his love of flying and his remarkable instincts, but these scenes feel like they would be better in a different cut of the movie. There’s also a tactical mistake in editing that gives us what is essentially the exact same sequence twice. Given the scene’s relative lack of mystery, this is a test of patience rather than a tension builder.

Quibbles aside, “Sully” is a worthy documentation of a day that will be long remembered, if not by American culture, then certainly by 155 living, thankful passengers. The film reminded me of the greatness people are capable of when they refuse to panic, and simply do their job. We need more of that, especially now.

InterVarsity

In reflecting on InterVarsity’s recent decision, two things occur to me.

The first is that critics of the decision need to realize that, even though fealty to IV’s evangelical doctrinal heritage was clearly the decisive factor here, it wasn’t conservative evangelicalism that forced this kind of move. Rather, the political and cultural pressure has been coming from Obergefell champions and theological revisionists. Consider that a couple years ago the organization was “de-recognized” by the California State University system, because of its policy requiring members to hold to a New Testament ethic of sexuality. Progressive columnists praised California for enforcing its ideology and mocked evangelical concern that such a move represented a hostile posture toward historic Christian doctrine. Fast forward to this past summer’s showdown between the Golden State and Biola University, and the reality is unmissable: Organizations and institutions, no matter how much they serve students and taxpayers, are subject to sexual revolutionary tests.

What this means is that InterVarsity was given a choice, not by evangelical subculture, but by the cultural headwinds: Either you can curry favor with states like California by adopting doctrines on marriage and gender that run afoul of your history, your heritage, and your mission, or you can risk alienating some students, staff, and the right side of history, for the sake of the right side of the faith. That was a choice given to them by one side, not the other, and not both.

Second, it seems pretty clear to me that InterVarsity didn’t make this decision because they wanted to “win.” If you were a person in charge of making sure that IV had political protection, sufficient funding, and great PR in the next few decades, would you have advised them to adopt this policy? Of course not. And this is important because it gets to the heart of what many progressive evangelicals accuse traditionalists of–namely, exploiting the culture war for gain. For years, mainline Protestants and others have argued time and time again that conservative evangelical institutions thrive when they play culture war. Thus, it is reasoned, we have an obsession over issues like homosexuality and abortion, rather than mercy and justice, because the former are politically profitable and the latter are not.

But can anyone with a shred of intellectual responsibility look at the cultural and political landscape that InterVarsity finds itself in, and argue that they are engorging themselves on wedge issues? One point that needs to be said repeatedly is that by adopting a formal policy, InterVarsity is showing its LGBT and affirming students and staff that it has no interest in profiting from their confusion. I’m sure this is a difficult time for some who love InterVarsity, but by playing both ends against the middle, never saying anything certain but always nodding a head in both directions–is that really a better culture for InterVarsity to build for those on opposite sides of this theological divide?

You may disagree vehemently with InterVarsity. But what everyone, regardless of conviction, should agree on is that we have here an example of people who are selling out to principle. Right or wrong, truth or fiction–that’s worthy of respect, and also worthy of a moment of grief for a society that so often encourages the opposite.

Eaten By Lions, Facebook Style

What does Proverbs 22:13 have to do with social media, politics, and conservative evangelicals?

The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!”

Now, you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Old Testament to know that waking up near a lion was not an unheard of event in the life of an average ancient Israelite. David, the father of Solomon, lived among lions daily while tending sheep. So what the sluggard says in this Proverb isn’t far fetched. He’s not talking about Bigfoot or an asteroid.

What makes the sluggard’s trepidation laziness is the reason why he’s saying it. The sluggard is using the fear of a lion to justify his refusal to leave his tent or get out of bed. A lion could appear; but the actual probability, the reality or unreality of a lion, isn’t the point. The point is getting out of work. That’s what makes the sluggard a sluggard.

In other words, sometimes people will say things, and the things they say aren’t really the point. Whether something is true or untrue or half-true is immaterial. The point is what the suggestion of the Something means for the sayer. It creates noise and confusion that benefits the person saying it, and in the end, that’s what matters.

Over the past couple of years I have watched in frustration as evangelical friends, many of whom I respect a great deal, have trafficked in some of the most wild, ridiculous, and silly conspiracy theories that money can buy. Facebook seems to be our cultural HQ for conspiracyism. Many times I’ll see a Facebook friend post a link from a website and I don’t even have to click it to evaluate; the website will be a known fabricator, or even a self-described parody, and I’ll know without looking that this otherwise intelligent, reasonable person has been duped yet again. These links almost always purport to show something incredibly scandalous that the “mainstream media” (a term that usually applies to any source that doesn’t happen to back up this particular story) is suppressing.

Do major media outlets put lids on news stories that interfere with an ideological or political agenda? Absolutely, and Planned Parenthood is very thankful. But for the conspiracy circles of Facebook, this reality is used as a trump card to sell the most hallucinogenic fantasies that an over-politicized mind can dream up–hidden microphones, secret stepchildren, etc etc, ad nauseum.

A few days ago I happened to notice that a friend linked to a column by Ross Douthat. Douthat is one of the country’s most articulate and most intellectually sturdy political commentators, and he happens to be a well-known conservative. This column made some critical remarks about the Republican party and their candidate for president. They were criticisms made, of course, in a context of conservatism; whether one agrees with Douthat or not, it is an objective fact that his analysis comes from a worldview that is fundamentally conservative.

My friend’s post attracted some comments, and one in particular stood out. This commenter was offended by Douthat’s critiques, and offered his explanation of why the columnist must have made them: He was a liberal mole, hired by the New York Times to prop up the illusion of having a conservative op-ed writer.

I got a headache doing the mental gymnastics required to believe that this was a serious comment from a serious person. The suggestion runs afoul of virtually everything you can read from Mr. Douthat’s career. It is an assertion made in gross neglect of every objective fact and shred of evidence. It was, nonetheless, this brother’s chosen theory of why a conservative would choose to find any fault whatsoever in the Republican party.

This comment bothered me. How could this person, a Christian by all appearances, traffic in such delusions? How could a person who presumably believes in absolute truth be willing to contort the reality in front of him to fit his political narrative? That was when it dawned on me: This is a “Lion in the street!” moment. What matters right now is not the entirety of Douthat’s writing, nor the many evidences of his political philosophy. What matters is the mere possibility that a grand conspiracy could be afoot. What matters is the angst and dread that comes from the slightest chance that we are being played for fools by “media elites.”

The appeal of conspiracy theories is that they offer a counterintuitive kind of comfort: If the conspiracy is real and if the deck really is stacked against me, then that means that the world is fundamentally not my fault. I am right about the way things should be; in fact, that’s the way things really are! The problem is that these people in power over me are using every waking hour to keep me in the dark. Change is impossible because it’s not in my hands. Life can go on as normal.

That’s precisely what the sluggard does. It’s true that lions exist. It’s also true they can come up into the camp. But every available piece of evidence–every modicum of reality at the moment–says there’s no lion outside. The sluggard knows this. But he wants to stay in bed. If he stays in bed instead of going to work merely because he feels like it, then people will shame his sloth. If, on the other hand, he stays in bed because he doesn’t want to get eaten–well, that’s just choosing the lesser of two evils.