What is normal?


I’ve been catching up on some old Star Trek movies lately. I’m happy to report that I’ve now seen all of them. It’s shocking, actually, seeing that I would have called myself a fan. In any case, I had a good time, and there are some very interesting lines in there. Wrath of Khan is particularly good that way. There was one line from another movie, Generations which piqued my interest though. It’s a conversation between a Dr. Soran, who has kidnapped one of our protagonists, and Geordi La Forge (ship’s engineer), the aforementioned victim. Geordi has a birth defect which affected his sight – he’s never had the use of his eyes, and he relies on a visor to aid his visual perception. The good doctor asks him, “Have you ever considered a prosthesis that would make you look more, how shall I say, normal?” Geordi, with a slightly pained looked in his face replies, “What’s normal?” To which the doctor chuckles, responding, “Well, that’s a good question. Normal is what everyone else is, and you are not.”

What’s normal in your world? Are you an average Joe? One of the things I’ve found is that the things people in my circles consider normal, they actually aren’t all that normal when I look beyond us. The wider majority of people out there aren’t really serious and committed Christians. Most of the people out there don’t have real homes. A lot of folks don’t have running water, or electricity. Vacation – what’s that? You have clothes on your back? Got food on the table more than once a day? Do you have an education that allows you to read a book to yourself and your kids? Can you access and read this blog? That’s not really normal. Almost everyone else in this world lives a life that varies widely from this ‘norm’. The strange thing though, is that I don’t feel abnormal. In fact, in my mind, I feel too normal, too average, too boring. Why is this? How have I come to a place where my cushy existence is what passes for normal, or average? How have I been insulated from the reality and led to believe that everyone ‘out there’ is like me? Does this impact my faith in any way?

One thing that really comes to mind with force is that fact that the bible has to apply differently to me than what I thought it did. Whenever I read things like ‘blessed are the poor’, I think I always fancied myself in that category. When I look reality in the face, though, poor ‘is what everyone else is and I am not’. Sure, we like to compare ourselves with others within the same social strata (believe me, even missionaries compare themselves to other missionaries), and in some cases we come off better than others, at times worse. Or we look at the super rich, and think to ourselves that we are just hanging on. Francis Chan gave a sermon on this, called “Lukewarm and lovin’ it”. The reality is this – I am rich. Compared to the rest of the world, with what is ‘normal’ according to the numbers and not my experience, I’m one of the rich. So I should rather read the bible with this pointing at me, “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry…” (Luke 6.24, 25) and so on. My approach to God has been as one of the poor, while I’m actually one of the rich. I’ve acted as though I have nothing to relinquish whereas I have much to give up. I’ve acted as though I have no interest in this world when the reality is I’m invested in this world, in the status quo, and I have resources that I wouldn’t want to part with. I’ve acted as though I was the widow with the two mites when in actual fact I am the rich man who puts his gifts into the basket indifferently.

Something within me and my fellow middle-class (ers) balks at what I’m saying. All our lives we’ve probably been told, taught and thought that we’re just average. We’re not excessive. We’re not like ‘them’ over there that splurge on unnecesarries. We just try to get by, and yes, we do have a few comforts but they are earned. Without taking anything away from that, I think the failure of this view is that it’s too insulated. It looks sideways and upwards, but doesn’t spend enough time looking downward (if I can put it that way). We look at our peers (social) and we look at our ‘betters’. We have some inclination of the lives they lead because we roll in the same circles. You’ve been invited to a rich friend’s party at some point. You’ve seen his house, how he lives and all that. You have the magazines, the television shows that let you into that world. But it’s not the same with the poor. Aside from the news reports (which are not that pleasant to watch), and perhaps a relative here or there, we never really go into the world of the poor. There are no glossy magazines that are a gateway into their lives. Our society is structured in such a way that you’d have to make a deliberate effort to see how the poor live. And this is precisely what I do not do. And so I maintain my illusion of normalcy, I complain about crime, I hold onto what I have as tightly as possible, I tell myself I’m one of the little people, and I console myself that Jesus will come through for ‘us’ the down and out, when in fact I have no clue what I’m actually talking about. I look forward to His justice, to the time when he fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, without giving a thought to the point that I am one of the rich, and possibly one of the unjust rich. It’s a strange place to be in. If normal is what everyone else is and I am (we are) not, it feels rather like I’m a Martian living amongst Terrans.

Will there be solitaire in the world to come?

I’m already assuming that there is a new world to come. I’m certain of it. What I’m not so sure about is what it will look like, what the scent of grass will evoke, or the touch of other human beings. Will the woman who’s been abused all her life by men be finally able to embrace her brothers in Christ without any tremors or doubts about their intentions? How will the formerly hungry react to the tree of life, which yields its fruit regularly and banishes even the thought of starvation? And how will we be towards others when all traces of our selfishness and pettiness are taken away? The formerly rich toward the formerly poor? I can’t even imagine.
A little while ago I posted something on Facebook, asking people if there would be solitaire in this perfect world Jesus is going to bring about. Perhaps it was a silly question, phrased simply, but I did have a very serious thought behind it. One of the things about us is that we are broken relationally. In terms of how we relate to God (we’re not at peace with Him), ourselves (our thoughts are sometimes unbearable even to ourselves, hence the big business that is mp3 players and such), and other people (we just don’t trust ‘em). It is within this context of existential unease with everything and everyone that we have created the game called solitaire. Hours of endless, mindless fun. Alone. Well, mindless in the sense that there is no tangible good that comes of the exercise, as far as I can see.
Don’t get me wrong- I love solitaire, in all its manifestations. I can play it for hours on end. And don’t think I’m one of those people that think that whatever we have made in this world post-Genesis 3 is of necessity bad. No. I just wonder if in a world of perfect relationships, solitude and its accompaniments will have a place. Again, not knocking being alone. Those who know me know I love my alone time, more so than most people. But many of my reasons for wanting to be alone stem from wanting to run away from people or from God, and sometimes even myself. I’m asking the question of solitude since that is my default posture, but the same question can be asked of those who party to rid themselves of the chance of spending time with themselves. Will such people learn how to party in a sanctified fashion, a way which doesn’t work to silence their thoughts that may be accusing them, but in a way that glorifies God, realises their own humanity and that of others around them? So I ask, “Can solitude and solitaire be sanctified, or are some things beyond all redemption?”

A legion of moral ambiguities and misconceptions

I just watched the movie Legion last night, starring various regulars such as Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson and Charles S. Dutton. Interesting to say the least. And what I found most intriguing about it was its commentary on God. What is God like, and who would be best placed to answer such a question? I suppose those closest to Him, such as angels (or God Himself?). The answer we get though is less than orthodox, but it’s very contemporary. God is portrayed in this tale of modern day impending Armageddon as a somewhat capricious, shortsighted administrator of the universe who at times requires His underlings to clean up what would turn out to be a rather big cosmic mess.
The film starts with a man falling out of the sky, landing in the middle of a dark alleyway. He whips out an interesting-looking knife after scurrying into a corner, and with it he proceeds to rid himself of some mysterious looking collar, as well as removing what look like heavy wings. This is an angel; Michael, in fact, and he’s very sympathetically played by Paul Bettany (of the DaVinci code and the upcoming manga adaptation ‘Priest’). It turns out as events unfold that Michael is rebelling against God, and the stage for this is set at a remote diner in the middle of the desert. An unborn child, whose mother works at this diner, is the center of it all- he will decide the fate of humanity, and Michael will work to make that happen.  So the story unfolds in typical Hollywood fashion, in a rather predictable way. Some of the visuals are eye-popping, though there’s nothing revolutionary here. I won’t bore you with details.
What I found most fascinating in the film was the commentary that it was making on God, humanity, and the subversion of archetypes that we’re all used to- such as that the angels are the good guys. In scenes very much (I believe) tailored to echo the Exorcist and other movies, we see people being ‘possessed’ by angels, and these people then attacking other humans. It’s bizarre, and at times you catch yourself asking the question- “whose side am I on? Who’s in the right here?” I think that’s the brilliance of the movie. It plays on visual and story stereotypes, subverting these to make the point that good and evil are not so obvious and easily distinguishable.  Angels manifest themselves and act like demons, the ethereal and the physical are confused as bullets are fired at angelic beings (who happen to have very cool bullet-proof wings). God, who has lost faith in humanity, doesn’t look at all like the God of the Bible. Sure, references are made to biblical characters and events such as Gabriel, the Genesis flood etc, but God here seems like some sort of inept administrator. He’s angry with man, ‘tired of the BS’ as the film puts it and He’s trying to get rid of humanity.
It gets interesting here because God is apparently not doing what He needs, but what just pleases Him now and He’ll probably regret it in the morning. Really? It takes Michael to see clearly that God needs to be merciful, and the film gives much foundation for saying he’s right in challenging God. His wrath seems ill-advised; humanity is more deserving of love than it is of judgment, even though we do mess up at times. This god is a far cry from the God of the bible, who has ‘no wickedness in Him’,   ‘great is the Lord and most worthy of praise’; He judges the world ‘in righteousness and the peoples in his truth’; ‘righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne’. And ‘who has understood the Spirit of the Lord, or instructed Him as His counselor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten Him, and who taught Him the right way? Who was it that taught Him knowledge or showed Him the path of understanding?” And “no one can hold back His hand or say to Him: ‘What have you done?’”
All of this contrasts quite starkly with the god in Legion, as described to us by Michael and later thwarted by him as well. I suppose we could ask God Himself what He’s like- wouldn’t he know? The humans are also portrayed as well-meaning, whatever their flaws, and surely judgment is an over-reaction by any standard. The angel that brought news of the impending judgment was dismissed out of hand as a ‘Jesus freak’. Intriguing.
There are so many misconceptions, dumbing down our deserved wrath, and basically taking ourselves off the hook, and pointing the finger back at God in this movie. It echoes the 21st century cry whenever one speaks of God judging us: “why would God judge us? What have we ever done to Him?” What indeed…

The horror and the wonder of the cross


“When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the prince of glory died…” so the song goes. It puzzles me how someone of royal lineage would die in such a crude way, and that by choice. My experience of power and those who have power is that it is meant to insulate you from discomfort, grief and pain. Who discards power and chooses to be killed by peasants in an utterly humiliating fashion?
The conundrum gets more interesting when you pause a moment longer to consider the One who died. The prince of glory. God himself. How could God die? It feels like we’re standing on the precipice of a chasm of wonder and fathomless depths. He surrendered Himself to death, even death on a cross. How though? The mechanics elude me, but like Lewis said, understanding precisely how the thing works isn’t the be all and end all- it just works. So, here is a God who has all power, yet He casts/sets aside His life, power, majesty and subjects Himself to death and humiliation. It says a lot about Him. It also says a lot about us. I wouldn’t do such a thing. The reason I know is that in everyday interactions with people I tend not to relinquish power. I want the upper hand. I want to be the smartest in the room. I don’t want to be belittled, or ignored, or treated in a way less than my rank deserves (whatever that may be- it varies depending on whose company I’m in). Maybe I grab onto power because I have too little? Perhaps, but that’s arguing contrary to the facts as they are- I can only speak from what I am and have done.
 The humility I see quite clearly evinced by Jesus in His life and death is something I don’t have by nature. And I suspect I’m not alone in this. I’ve been pondering the various ‘revolutions’ going on in North Africa at the moment. On my continent, leaders seem quite reluctant to step down from power, to become plain citizens again after having graced the halls of power. Would they ever bear a cross, public humiliation? In many cases, leaders fear prosecution for crimes that they perpetrated- would this not be a just cross to bear though? Unlike Jesus who allowed himself to be punished unjustly, they would be suffering a humiliation that has been earned. The wonder of the cross is that God would subject Himself to us, allow us to kill Him. That is awesome, in the traditional sense of that word. The horror it reveals is us- our desperate wickedness, desire to hold onto power by any means, our lack of humility. It shows us as we truly are- people that would rather kill God than yield to Him; in other words, power hungry little despots, rebels holed up in trench warfare against the King of the universe. Oh, the horror. The horror.