Thoughts on ‘The Color Purple’; God and Sexual Violence

Being in New York over the fall break and the weekend, I decided to go watch a couple of musicals. And so, just a couple of days ago I had the privilege of watching ‘The Color Purple’. I wanted to watch a more ‘serious’ musical as the other musical that I watched, Cirque du Soliel’s ‘Paramour’, was decidedly frivolous, though I too had a good time with that. I had expected the musical to be artsy, thought provoking and proper, something along the lines of Les Mis and indeed it was no less than that — that cast was superb and the singing was both virtuosic and moving, though instead of the usual classical virtuosity, we were treated to the rhythmic and more improvisatory tunes of the characteristically black style. Yet the story both disturbed and deeply affected me, and the following are my thoughts following the show.

God and Sexual Violence?

The musical is set in the American South during the post-civil war era and begins with a seemingly pastoral scene. Two black teen girls singing a nursery rhyme and playing a game. It is not long, however, before we find out that one of them, the lead Celie, is pregnant with her step-father’s child. This is already her second one by him and he gives them away as soon as they are born. Following this, she is sold of by her step father to marry a man who desires her sister instead — being persuaded when her step-father offers to give him their old cow along with her. Her new husbands finds her downright ugly and despises and practically enslaves her. Along the way, she meets and forms a romantic friendship with her husband’s mistress, the singer Shug Avery, who loves and sees her inner beauty and who teaches her to stand up to the abusive men in her life. The story thus traces Celie’s transformation from an abused and domesticated woman to independence and self-confidence.

God echoes throughout the entire musical as an imperceptible interlocutor. Celie’s water breaks in the midst of a Sunday service and superimposed onto her delivery is the rest of the congregation singing, in the style of black gospel music, a song titled ‘God works in mysterious ways’. Celie prays often in the beginning of the film, asking for deliverance from her conditions, and turns to hate and blame toward God after believing her sister dead. The sexual violence and brokenness in the film disturbed me, and I found myself uncomfortable with the accusations Celie raised against God — is our God really compatible with the suffering of this world? The sorrow of death I have seen, but can I even fathom the pain of being raped by one’s stepfather or to be abused and enslaved by one’s own spouse?

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar

But whenever I start to have doubts about God when I see something in this world, it is probably because I have discreetly stuffed in my own ideas and fantasies, my own unbiblical presuppositions into thinking about God. As I consider again the biblical story, I find not dissonance with what I saw on the musical but a sense of familiarity. One need look further than the book of Genesis to realise that the patriarchs, the very fathers of Israel, had a bunch of totally [sexually] screwed up families. Consider the mess of Jacob’s family, he had two wives, one of whom he considered downright ugly and married after being duped by his father-in-law. This woman, Leah, would afterward give birth to Judah, from whose descendants the very Christ would come. And yet disturbingly again, his line is perpetuated after his daughter-in-law is widowed, sexually abused by Judah’s other sons (who are struck down soon by God in judgment) and then she tricks Judah into thinking she is a prostitute so that she might bear his children. What a mess! And from thus was the line in which Jesus Christ was to be born! In case anyone thinks this is some mistake, Matthew deliberately includes the names of five women in his selective genealogy of Jesus, of them, three are women of disrepute: one is Tamar, mentioned above, another is a prostitute and the last is an adulterer. God is not far from the brokenness of the world, he is in the midst of it.

Where then does this dissonance come from? I ask this not from Celie’s perspective from my own and on behalf of many comfortable men and women like me who are quick to point the finger at God. Have we been insidiously forming our own ideas of God instead of seeing him as he reveals himself in his Word? Often I see fellow christians quoting Lamentations 3:22-23; “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” The verse usually serves as the caption of a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Yet Lamentations mainly recounts the brutal suffering of Israel, and just two chapters later at the close of the book, Jeremiah would write:

Women are raped in Zion,
young women in the towns of Judah.
Princes are hung up by their hands;
no respect is shown to the elders.
Young men are compelled to grind at the mill,
and boys stagger under loads of wood.
The old men have left the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
(Lamentations 5:11-15 ESV)

Jeremiah wrote that very verse in the midst of violence and pain. Is my idea of God big enough to contain this? Have I closed one eye to the immense suffering recorded in the bible? The pain and shame that marks it and indeed is at the heart of the entire religion itself — the cross? If suffering is at the heart of the religion, why am I so surprised when I encounter it? I say this feeling the rebuke myself.

The Color Purple

Now the musical is hardly Christian, there are elements of lesbianism, and secular self-help seems to be at the heart of the story. I make no comment on those here, yet the gospel and grace rings also throughout the musical. Shug speaks to Celie after she learns of her sister’s death and berates her for blaming God for all her misfortune. She lists a number of ordinary graces in the world and reminds Celie of them: a blade of corn, a honeybee, a waterfall. And she mentions a remark from which the title of the musical is derived:

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

The world is awash with the evidence of the grace of God even in the midst of its pain and futility. Why don’t we have eyes to see it?

It never ceases to amaze me that it is the norm in many places for Christians to form the less privileged class of society. I have seen it firsthand in Myanmar, where it is not the main Burma tribe but the smaller minority tribes who are majority Christian. Something similar is true when one thinks of the Dalits in India. Many of the blacks who were freed after the civil war were deeply religious — I was moved when I read recently in an autobiography of Booker T. Washington, a black leader, that many of the older generation resolved to learn to read, that they might be able to read the bible before they die. This puts to shame my at times sloppy attitude toward bible reading. Why do such simple arguments from the grace of nature move them, arguments which we sophisticates would scoff as simplistic and uninformed? Perhaps in their pain they see something which we fail to. I recall in my previous study of the book of Exodus how the commentator would mention that the freed blacks found an especial resonance with this book, having understood the pain of long slavery themselves. Open our eyes, O Lord.

I wonder, as I write this, if anyone has been hurt by sexual violence and reading this. I pretend not to understand the pain or the shame or pretend that I have any easy, one-trick answers to these things. If such answers were available the book of Job would not be 42 chapters long and so darn difficult to understand. I have nothing. I have written this for my own benefit and for those like me who have been clouded by the comfort of their lives and so fail to grasp and understand the sublime sovereignty of the God who was broken for our sins. And yet, I know one who does understand, who has dwelled among a broken humanity and dwells among them still. So I wonder if we might consider together, as Shug asked Celie in the titular song,

“The colour purple, where do it come from?”

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“I am Reaching, but I Fall”

Earlier last week, I attended a performance of Les Misérables at the Esplanade — it was really enjoyable. I love the story and the music is great. But since this was probably the third or so time I watched the musical, I had the chance to take a step back to undergo deeper reflection on the structure and themes of the musical. I am no musical or literary expert (haven’t read the book, apologies to the purists), but I noticed a single running thread across the musical during this re-watching that I wish to reflect on in this post. It is difficult to provide a succinct summary of this theme, but provisionally let’s call it the tension between idealism and realism (both used in the ordinary, non-philosophical sense).

I noticed this thread as I watched the last scene where we see both Eponine and Fantine as they lead Valjean to heaven. It puzzled me to see Eponine there along with Fantine, since, well Valjean barely knew her. But as I reflected on the entire musical, I discerned some kind of structural parallel between Fantine and Eponine at the beginning and the ending of the first act. Both of their main songs as well as their stories reflect a similar theme — one of the stark contrast between the intensity and tenderness of their idealistic hopes and dreams, almost to the point of delusion, as well as the indifferent and uncaring realism expressed in their circumstances.

Fantine expresses her longing and hope for the bygone days as well as the darkness of her present situation in her song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ before she sells herself into prostitution, loses her innocence to a random man and is violently beaten:

“I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving …

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now, from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed”

Eponine expresses a similar sentiment in her song, “On my own”, as she describes her impossible longings for Marius’ affections and her own pathetic comfort in pretending that he is with her. Soon after, she will die in Marius’ arms trying to protect him, her feelings ultimately unrequited;

“On my own, Pretending he’s beside me
All alone, I walk with him ’til morning
Without him, I feel his arms around me
And when I lose my way I close my eyes
And he has found me …

I love him, But every day I’m learning
All my life, I’ve only been pretending
Without me, His world will go on turning
A world that’s full of happiness
That I have never known”

This theme surfaces elsewhere in the musical — consider the revolutionaries, their high idealism as they hope to throw off the monarchy and establish a fair republic, and yet the unmitigated brutality of their eventual deaths. Valjean’s life expresses this as well, his hope at a better life and yet the crushing circumstances he ultimately finds himself in; even Javert’s life, to a lesser extent, demonstrates the dissonance between a man’s idea of the world and yet the world’s painfully subverting reality. A pivotal line that they both sing poignantly highlights this theme; Valjean sings it in the beginning of the musical as he wrestles with his wretchedness and the grace shown to him and Javert at the end as he too wrestles with the mercy shown to him by Valjean:

“I am reaching, but I fall.”

Realism and Idealism

There is something about this tension that resonated deep within me; it had an uncanny ring of truth. Art succeeds when it transcends reality in order to truly represent and communicate it, and these two themes are as true in our day as ever.

Let’s take the unrelenting realism represented in the film first. Surely our world is not much different from that depicted in the musical. Reports of terrorist killings fill the papers nowadays on a daily basis and I’m sure that closer to ourselves, we know of the random, perplexing, and sometimes absurd tragedies that befall those around us. A desperately broken family, a friend lost in his youth and an old man having to amputate his leg because of a car accident. The world resists formulation into neat, nice categories; it is inscrutable and indifferent to our hopes and dreams, to our conceptions of justice (think Javert) and indeed to the very demands of justice.  J.I. Packer, in his classic ‘Knowing God’, speaks of the ‘wisdom’ of the Book of Ecclesiastes in this manner:

“Look (says the preacher) at the sort of world we live in … You see life’s background set by aimlessly recurring cycles in nature. You see its shape fixed by times and circumstances over which we have no control. You see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard; its coming bears no relation to whether it is deserved. Humans die like beasts, good ones like bad, wise ones like fools… Seeing all this, you realise that God’s ordering of events in inscrutable; much as you want to make it out, you cannot do so.”

What of the similarly unrelenting idealism the musical expresses? That too speaks deeply to the human soul. I have written elsewhere of the strange glory in the strivings of man and indeed there is nothing more human than to hope. Despite the bleakness of the lyrics and their context, there is something utterly beautiful about the two songs ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘On my Own’ — a kind of tender and heartbreaking sublimity is expressed in them.

One response to this tension might be to moderate our expectations. Perhaps we should simply think that the world is a little less decent and cosy as we might have thought and at the same time be a bit less optimistic in our dreams. Such a response would be mistaken — we would be falsely portraying the bleak nature of the world and at the same time be betraying our dreams. No, the world is not a little less cosy than we think, it is full of sorrow and brokenness, and we shall not budge one inch from our hopes. Our pessimism must be as black as night and our optimism as bright as the sun. Chesterton expresses this artfully:

“It will be said that a rational person accepts the world as mixed of good and evil with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance. But this is exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective … what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralise each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.”

A Christian Pessimism and Optimism

How are we to live with this, this heartbreaking dichotomy between our deepest longings and the harsh realities that the world presents us? This Christian worldview holds the key as to the reason for both our hopes and our broken world. It tells us that this world feels broken because it is. It truly is not as it is meant to be. The naturalistic atheist can tell you that the world is unfriendly to our transcendent longings, and yet he cannot say that the world is not as it should be, for to him the world simply is. But that is false, the world is in a state in which it ought not be; it has fallen since the dawn of man, since our ancestors cast scorn on God’s love and decided to trust in themselves. This world has been cursed and it now frustrates us. Yet more, it is not merely the world but ourselves in our inward being we have fallen; we have all turned aside from God and his love and all our desperate attempts at finding meaning elsewhere is painful and disappointing. To stare in the face of this is to no doubt call for a bleak pessimism about the world and the human condition.

Yet this, in a paradoxical manner, calls us also to hope. As Chesterton (again) discovered, that the Christian worldview …

“entirely reversed the reason for optimism. And the instant the reversal was made it felt like the abrupt ease when a bone is put back in the socket. I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do NOT fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the WRONG place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.”

Do not avert your gaze from the horrors of this world, but neither grow desensitised to the extent where you no longer grieve at them. Instead let its darkness draw you to despair of both the world and of yourself, and then look to that familiar silhouette of a man on the cross. We bear our crosses to follow him in this world, and with him both forsaking the world and yet loving and giving ourselves for it. Jesus is our hope for forgiveness and glory, and it is through him that we shall one day have the privilege to see

“a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

The Normativity of the World; Thoughts on Heidegger

[Long and technical post alert!] One of the philosophers I enjoyed studying the past semester was Martin Heidegger — not the easiest philosopher, I probably understand maybe 20% of him, and certainly not the nicest guy in Christian or even secular terms either (he was a registered Nazi) but I found many valuable insights into the human condition in his seminal work, Being and Time. The chief insight I have gleaned from him and which I discuss in this blog post is this: one cannot give a purely descriptive account of the world, instead all our observations of the world are always shot through with normativity. Now, to understand the jargon I just said, some discussion needs to be made about the difference between description and normativity. I shall do that and then talk a bit about how Heidegger bridges the gap between description and normativity and then draw some implications from this. Hopefully in some future post (because I realise that this is already too darn long) I might engage more critically with some of these implications.

Is and Ought

The difference between a normative statement and a descriptive statement is that a descriptive statement tells you how the world is or describes a certain state of affairs in the world whereas a normative statement tells you how the world ought to be. For example, ‘The bible and a book of Platonic Dialogues is on my table’ is a descriptive statement whereas ‘I ought to read my bible more instead of Plato’ is a normative statement. One describes how the world actually is while the other tells me something that should be done.

Many times in ordinary speech, we derive normative claims straightforwardly from descriptive claims. For example we see that genocide results in thousands of deaths (a descriptive claim) and say that genocide should be stopped (a normative claim). However, philosophers have noted that we cannot make such a derivation straightforwardly. Why is this so? Such a move would fall foul of what is called Hume’s Is/Ought gap. The idea is that you cannot derive a normative claim (what you ought to do), from a purely descriptive claim (about what is going on in the world). This is because claims about what one ought to do are different in kind from claims about what states of affairs hold in the world.

To see this, consider the normative claim ‘We ought not commit genocide’. We cannot derive this simply from purely descriptive claims such as ‘genocide kills thousands of people’ or ‘genocide discriminates against a certain race’ — a normative claim needs to be established, such as ‘If x results in thousands of deaths, one ought not to do x’. Thus, to claim that ‘We ought not commit genocide’, we need to do more than make purely descriptive assertions of the states of affairs that would result from genocide, we need to establish some kind of claim that connects the normative with the descriptive. Such a claim, as ‘If x results in thousands of deaths, one ought not to do x’, is said to be able to bridge the Is/Ought gap and thus allow one to legitimately derive normative claims.

The problem is with deriving such a bridge principle. We all know where to get descriptive statements — we just get them from observation of the world around us. But a normative claim cannot be found anywhere in the world. A scientific account of the world providing say a description of genocide can tell you that it results in multitudes of deaths, that it disadvantages a certain race and that it ravages a nation in socio-economic terms— but why should these be reasons for us to prevent genocide? The scientific account is silent.

Philosophers have, of course, various ways of circumventing this problem, but this discussion is simply to flesh out the difference between descriptive and normative statements. Heidegger’s conception of human beings provides some resources into overcoming this and through him we shall see that in fact, a purely descriptive account of the world is impossible.

Being-in-the-world

In Being and Time, Heidegger attempts to give an existential analytic of the being of Dasein. Dasein is simply the type of being which we are ourselves, which Heidegger claims is ‘the being for whom its being is a question’. The thought is that for human beings to exist simply is for them to take a stand on the type of being they wish to be at every moment of their life — in other words, humans are the type of being that leads its life. For reasons that I will not go into, Heidegger calls this type of being Dasein (lit. being there) and his book attempts to analyse and give an account of Dasein.

Heidegger claims that philosophers since at least Descartes have an impoverished view of human beings because they have been attempting to explore the world as if we were spectators looking in from a detached viewpoint. This assumes that our human existence is one that is fundamentally isolated from the world. The world is as “a play staged before us; and the world of a play is one from which its audience is essentially excluded.” (Mulhall, 2005) However, Heidegger asserts that such a picture is mistaken. According to him, human existence cannot be comprehended apart from its being ‘in’ the world. Try to think about human beings without them existing in a world — it seems incoherent to call what you are still thinking of a human being at all. This reveals a tight conceptual connection between Dasein and the world, which Heidegger formulates as Being-in-the-world.

Now, if Dasein is essentially engaged in the world, it can never be a mere spectator and thus cannot give a detached, purely descriptive account of the world. Heidegger explains this by saying that objects in the world are primarily conceived as ready-to-hand as opposed to present-at-hand. A present-at-hand account of objects is one that simply observes and describes properties e.g. we give a present-at-hand account of a hammer by talking about its shape, material constitution etc. A ready-to-hand account, however, considers our engagement with objects as equipment; our actually using the hammer for a certain task. Heidegger notes:

“[H]ammering does not simply have knowledge about the hammer’s character as equipment, but it has appropriated this equipment in a way that could not possibly be more suitable. . . . [T]he less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is – as equipment … The kind of Being which equipment possesses – in which it manifests itself in its own right – we call readiness-to-hand.” (BT 15:98)

A present-at-hand account of objects cannot exhaust the meaning of an object — I can describe the hammer and know how it functions, but I primarily encounter the hammer in the act of hammering. I do not fully understand the hammer if I just look at its properties until I start hammering. As noted above, Heidegger considers our engagement with objects as more primordial than our descriptive account of them. A more crucial point is this: we stop hammering and enter into a mode of exploring the properties of equipment only when it fails to serve its ready-to-hand function:

“If knowing is to be possible as a way of determining the nature of the present-at-hand by observing it, then there must first be a deficiency in our having-to-do [i.e. engagement] with the world concernfully …” (BT 13:88)

For example, we stop to examine the properties of the hammer in closer detail when it becomes unusable as a tool and we want to fix it. A descriptive enterprise is thus undertaken when a piece of equipment becomes unhandy for a larger task. This implies that the descriptive enterprise can never be purely descriptive, for its very undertaking is to the end of using the object as equipment for a larger project. All our present-at-hand accounts of knowing are always embedded within a larger picture of ready-to-hand engagement.

In other words, even though a scientist does experiments in the lab and makes the seemingly purely descriptive statement ‘The gravitational constant is 6.67408 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2’. This statement, as he makes it, has implications on his life and the lives of others because the scientist, as Being-in-the-world, can only make such a statement from the context of his own practical dealings with the world. Thus, the scientist’s analysis of a substance in the laboratory always happens in the context of other more practical human concerns. If Dasein is Being-in-the-World, any descriptive enterprise it undertakes can therefore never be one that is wholly detached from its engagement with the world.

Normativity in the World

And so any description that is given is always and inevitably shot through with normativity. Mulhall makes this point when he observes that “the utility of a tool presupposes something for which it is usable, an end product – a pen is an implement for writing letters, … This directedness is the ‘towards-which’ of equipment.” To encounter objects as ready-to-hand is to engage with equipment for a certain goal or purpose. The descriptive facts about the equipment which are derived from a present-at-hand analysis therefore contain normative implications, because they are derived in the context where the object is a piece of equipment ultimately for a certain goal that Dasein wishes to achieve. As Heidegger notes:

“[When dealing in a ready-to-hand manner with] ‘a hammer’, there is an involvement in hammering; with hammering there is an involvement in making something fast; with making something fast, there is an involvement in protection against bad weather; and this protection ‘is’ for the sake of providing shelter for Dasein — that is to say, for the sake of a possibility of Dasein’s Being” (BT, 18:116)

A conception of Dasein as Being-in-the-World is one where Dasein encounters the world primarily as equipment and thus where descriptions of objects in the world carry normative implications. Conceiving the relationship between Dasein and the world this way bridges the Is/Ought gap. We can derive normative implications from descriptive statements because those statements are never purely descriptive, they are made from within the context of active engagement.

I don’t think Christians can accept everything Heidegger says uncritically. For one, Heidegger’s view does not provide a set of objective norms (he ends up with a kind of ‘ethics of authenticity’) because he makes it seem as if the normativity of the world is derived primarily from the kind of being we are as opposed to there being some sort of independent standard. Nonetheless, I think that his conclusions are mainly right in elucidating our relationship with the world around us. Let me draw two implications that are important and right from a Christian point of view that I might reflect on in some future post:

  1. Descriptive statements have normative implications. This is probably the main thing I have been talking about. Not just statements about the world, but any descriptive statement we make, about ourselves, about God will inevitably have normative implications on us because of the type of being we are. We must not talk about theology or even philosophy while imagining that these things have no impact on how we should live, for they will inevitably will have such an impact! Failure to think about these things will only mean that we are naive or uncritical about the normative implications that holding certain positions have on us already.
  2. There is no neutral or presuppositionless position from which we observe and study in the world, instead even if we try to enter into a detached state in order to make empirical or philosophical observations, we still bring along with us our practical concerns. Indeed we can only enter into such a detached state by being extremely interested in something in the first place. All our descriptive inquiries are made in the context of practical concerns with their own presuppositions.

Finally, I hope that despite the technical discussion you can see something wondrous from Heidegger’s conception of the self and the world. Our living in the world is dynamic and living instead of static and lifeless. We engage and interact with the world not from a detached perspective but as readily occupied in it. To use an analogy my professor constantly employed, we deal with the world not as one stares at a violin and examines its shape and material, but as one plays the violin along with the orchestra of a thousand instruments. The world is more an object of wondrous engagement than of detached observation.

Knowing Persons

Hey, I’m back! Sorry for the long period of absence. I did not have as much material/ ideas to write on for this semester, as I only took one content module for Psychology— Personality Psychology. My understanding of the module was a little all over the place (which I believe is inherent in Personality Psychology, given its relative newness, and that it is traditionally learnt through the presentation of various alternative theories by pioneering theorists in psychology, rather than through a coherent synthesis) until it was consolidated while preparing for finals, particularly, through the reading of McAdams & Pals (2006).

In this post, I wish to share my learning of the complexity of human personality (particularly, from the McAdams & Pals article), and I dearly hope that a more nuanced understanding of persons would help us better speak biblical truths into the lives of our fellow brothers and sisters.

Biblical truths, for the sake of brevity, can be quickly summed up by Romans 3:23-25, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation (i.e. wrath absorber) by his blood, to be received by faith.” Specifically, we “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, “because we [they] exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature (which includes ourselves) rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever”.

These are great truths that must be spoken as we counsel/ encourage one another in this walk of faith, but these truths must not simply be unloaded onto the other, without taking into consideration the person that we are interacting with. Indeed, we need to consider the various aspects of an individual, some of which are like all other persons, some of which are like some other persons, and some of which are like no other persons (Kluckhohn and Murray, 1953).

In the remaining of the post, I will be extracting “5 fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality” from McAdams & Pals (2006), which will then be accompanied by comments on how this might help us administer to our brothers and sisters as persons.

Principle 1: Evolution and Human Nature— Human lives are individual variations on a general evolutionary design. An integrative framework for understanding the psychological individuality of persons must begin with human nature and with the ways which every person is like all other persons.”

Comments on Principle 1: I do not wish to discount evolution; I believe that there is a role and place for it in our understanding of people. However, what I wish to challenge is its role as “Principle 1”. In my opinion, just as how evolution is a fundamental belief in secular psychology and therefore forms the primary principle of understanding individuals, biblical truths, which are our fundamental beliefs as Christians, should form the primary principle of our universal understanding of individuals. That said, we need to bear in mind that just as it is foolish for anyone to think he understands a person just because he knows evolution, it will be equally foolish for us to think we can fully understand a person just because we know biblical truths which speak of human nature.

Principle 2: The Dispositional Signature— Variations on a small set of broad disposition traits implicated in social life constitute the most stable and recognisable aspect of psychological individuality. Dispositional traits are those broad, nonconditional, decontextualised, generally linear and bipolar, and implicitly comparative dimensions of human individuality that go by such names as extraversion, dominance, friendliness, dutifulness, depressiveness, the tendency to feel vulnerable, and so on.”

Comments on Principle 2: In walking with others, it is important to consider the fact that God designs each of us uniquely, and gives each different personality (which can either be our gifts or area of struggle). By doing so, it could help us shine gospel truths into the life of others, while being sensitive to their needs and struggles. Let me present you an example of an introverted and slightly depressive sister who gets very frustrated (to the extent of being bitter) at having to devote a significant proportion of her time to people around her. It would be necessary and good to point out to her the problem of selfishness/ love for comfort etc, which manifests in how tightly she guards her time and space and her bitter responses. However, if you were only to do so, chances are, your well-meaning advice will fly past her head. She needs you to counsel her through her struggles which occur in light of her introversion and depression. Remember, she responds not only to the fact that people are taking out time from her, but she responds also to her anxiety, tiredness, and lowness of mood which comes about as a result of the former interacting with her dispositional traits.

Principle 3: Characteristic Adaptations— Beyond dispositional traits, human lives vary with respect to a wide range of motivational, social-cognitive, and developmental adaptations contextualised in time, place, and/or social role. Characteristic adaptations include motives, goals, plans, strivings, strategies, values, virtues, schemas, self-images, mental representations of significant others, developmental tasks…”

Comments on Principle 3: One of my favorite axioms of the socio-cognitive approach to personality (a subset of characteristic adaptations) is that people don’t simply respond to events, but that people respond to their construal/ interpretation of events. Interpretations, and its close relative, appraisals (e.g. very crudely, whether the event is positive or negative), often occur in relation to goals, motives, and self-schemas. As such, counselling a person cannot only entail challenging the behavior in response to an event, but must also entail challenging the goals, motives, and self-schemas from which construal of events arise.

Principle 4: Life Narratives & The Challenge of Modern Identity— Beyond dispositional traits and characteristic adaptations, human lives vary with respect to the integrative life stories, or personal narratives, that individuals construct to make meaning and identity in the modern world”.

Comments on Principle 4: We are all meaning-makers, and we seek to make meaning and construct coherence from the events that occur in our lives. Typically, new events, especially significant events that occur in an individual’s life fit into a bigger narrative. Similar to Principle 3, we don’t necessarily respond objectively to events, but respond to them in light of how they fit into the bigger narrative. For example, I have rather recently responded rather violently to a possible change of future career plans. I was well aware of ungodly pursuits, but that did not seem to cut to the heart on why it was so difficult to lay my career plans down. Not until a sister pointed out to me that my career plans were in reality a replacement to broken dreams I had experienced previously. In my life narrative, my future career plans had unknowingly become events to help me make sense and create hope out of my past broken dreams. My response was violent, not so much because of the career in and of itself, but because I had not laid my narrative of healing from a broken dream before the Lord, and instead sought to find healing in other ways of my own.

Principle 5: The Differential Role of Culture— Culture exerts different effects on different levels of personality….Culture..rich mix of meanings, practices, and discourses about human life that prevail in a given group or society.”

Comments on Principle 5: Not much comments on this; I think it’s rather self-explanatory– it is always good to consider how culture affects narratives, characteristic adaptations, and expression of behavior as we walk with others.

 

References

Kluckhohn, C. E., Murray, H. A., & Schneider, D. M. (1953). Personality in nature, society, and culture .
McAdams, D. P., & Pals, J. L. (2006). A new Big Five: fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality. American psychologist, 61(3), 204.

Man in the Museum

A couple of days ago I visited the National Museum of Singapore. I actually meant to visit the National Gallery but was confused by the two… nonetheless a highlight there was the ‘Treasures of the World’ exhibit featuring artefacts from the British Museum. Relics were present from places spanning the entire globe, from Europe, Asia to Africa and so on. There was something about looking at millennia old artefacts that is arresting. Many of these artefacts were from cultures far removed from my own, but it seemed as if I was looking at the culture of my own forefathers; I was looking at the culture of Man.

There were certain commonalities in the objects on display; some where household items, a number were religious artefacts, there was even pornography and of course a large number of royal regalia. All reflected a still recognisable facet of man today. Why might the mere passage of time result in this universalisation of particular, otherwise ordinary, objects? I have no answer. Perhaps the everyday objects of every particular culture have always reflected the universal heritage of man, but it is only when they have been defamiliarised by the distance of a thousand years that we see them as they are.

Dust

What do these artefacts as a whole speak about Man? What first came to mind was our futility. This was evident especially as I observed many of the Royal Regalia. They were to be symbols of power, often divine or supernatural power, meant to inspire awe and terror. The objects are left limp in the museum, while their bearers themselves are gone. Man strives to leave a legacy, but their very legacy is but a testament to our vanity. Shelly notes in his famous poem about one such artefact:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Solomon himself claims:

“I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts … man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20)

Glory

And yet this cannot be all, for the very artefacts too are a testimony to the glory of Man. Many of the artefacts were beautiful — they were awash with colour and made with intricacy. There was a beautiful Chinese screen divider which depicted the four seasons and the sun and moon and a number of ritual masks that were as detailed and complex as they were terrifying. What sort of creature is this? The terror and subtlety of the artefacts surely reflect the strangeness and the glory of Man.

And I am then reminded of Lewis’ by now cliche remark:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

The artefacts in the museum are astounding and amazing, yet they testify not to themselves but to another more wondrous creature. Lewis calls us from Man and Culture as considered in the abstract to the people around us, and so should the artefacts in the museum lead us to see their makers afresh. The glory of civilisation is indeed the glory of man; the people around us whom we live with and hate and love — they are the more appropriate and deserving objects of our wonder than any object in the museum.

And so we are left with this odd paradox, Man the wretched accumulation of dust and Man the being of utter glory. What shall we make of this combination of our futility and yet our beauty? The bible says that we were made to reflect the very glory of God himself, and yet by choosing to turn away from the source of all life, our very existences became futile and transient. Our lives now express this duality — there is yet glory and goodness left in all of us but in the end all our strivings will be  in vain.

Behold, the Man

Another image in the Museum caught my attention — it was a painting of another kind of exhibition. A man wearing a robe and a crown of thorns was thrust before a large crowd to be put on display before them. The robe and the crown indicated that he was some sort a glorious king and yet they were clearly meant to mock him at this show trial. I lingered over this painting for a few moments before passing on. In reflection, I realise that this man represented us all — our glory and our shame mingled in a beautiful and wretched sight.

Jesus was the source of our glory, and yet he took upon himself our shame and futility that we might from thenceforth be free of it. What shall we say in response? There is no need to innovate,

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
(Psalm 8:3-8)

Mindfulness: Mindful of God and His Creation

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Sometime last year, while in Abnormal Psychology class, I was briefly introduced to this practice called “Mindfulness”. To be honest, I was initially rather wary of it because of its origins from other religions. As usual, being kind of a nerd, I read more about it. As of now, my personal opinion is that it is no more dangerous or safe, and no less dangerous or safe, when compared to other forms of secular psychotherapeutic practices. I will not be discussing the pros and cons of practising psychotherapeutic practices as Christians, but I just wanted to share about how Mindfulness has helped me to delight and be in awe of God even more.

Before we move on, let me first clear up a common misconception of mindfulness/ meditation (that I also had previously). It is NOT the emptying of one’s mind such that one’s mind is occupied by nothingness. This instead is the definition of Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a type of awareness that focuses on the present moment with an attitude of friendly curiosity (Baer, 2014).

God has given us humans a great gift–that of conscious awareness, and that we may use it to worship Him. Yet, how often is it that we move through life on “autopilot”, planning the next moment, such that we never are really consciously aware of the present moment. Here is where I have found Mindfulness help in my fight for joy in and awe of God– by being in the “here and now” of God’s creation. The above picture was a beautiful sunset I captured from my window some weeks back. Our most common tendency is to look, without really looking, and then to subsequently be buried again with the work we need to do. But Mindfulness teaches one to pause, to look at the sunset and to be fully conscious of every sensory experience– the hues of the sky, the sound of the wind blowing and birds chirping, the feeling of our breath.  Can you see such a sunset, and not be captured by the majesty of creation? Can you be captured by the majesty of creation and not be in awe of The One who created all these? Indeed Psalm 19 v1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

Finally, as the Psalmist says (Psalm 8:3), “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” When we consider the majesty of God’s creation, the moon and the stars, how can we help but feel, the smallness of man. How can we help but ask, what is man that you are mindful of him? What is man, that you should pursue in love, making a way through your beloved son Jesus Christ at the cross, that we may dwell and not be destroyed in your presence…

Really tasting God’s majestic creation can help us to be in awe of His glory, and to taste the greatness of His salvation as ever more sweet. This is where the practice of mindfulness has helped in my delight in and awe of God.

 

 

Evolution of the Gaps

Guest post by Paul Yuen

A few nights ago, a good friend shot this question at me: how can I, as a medical student, possibly believe in a miraculous deity? Maybe it was the time of the night (or morning), but we foolishly jumped into a 3 hour long discussion that ended with the sun arisen. Nevertheless, it is a powerful question that well reflects the tension that many feel exists between Science and Religion. As one being schooled in the medical sciences, I am taught the virtues of evidence-based medicine and randomised controlled trials. I learn to observe the world at human scales with my eyes, and at microscopic scales with microscopes. One might say that medical science is of the surest proofs of the benefits of Science and the legitimacy of the scientific method – and one would be right.

On Religion, and Theism in particular, such praise is rarely lavished. Religion is the opiate of the people, said Marx. God is dead, said Nietzsche. Religion is merely wish fulfilment, said Freud. The new atheists, Dawkins at their helm, are only too happy to feast as vultures on the rotting corpse of Theism, all the while cawing the evils of Religion. In particular, they like to point out that science provides (or will provide) all the explanation necessary for man to understand everything. And so Genesis was displaced by the Big Bang, the divine breath of life with primordial soup, the mind-body duality with star dust. Much ink has already been spilled on both sides of the fence, and people much smarter than me have duked it out in public debates (see John Lennox vs. Richard Dawkins at the Oxford Museum of Natural History on ‘Has Science buried God?’). Here, I present not a defence of Theism, but a small challenge to Science which, we shall soon see, are not as straightforward as it first seems.

But first, to define the terms. Science is that field of study involving the gathering of data by the senses and the synthesis of that data to reach a general conclusion. Put another way, Science takes what we can see/hear/smell/taste/touch, puts it all together and presents a statement or law that describes what we saw/heard etc. Medical science is simply Science applied in Medicine. Theism is the unequivocal assertion that the Divine is ultimate reality. Or, Theism says, “this is true: God exists.”

On to the challenge then. We begin our journey in the control hub of a tiny E. coli bacterium – the nucleoid. All around us is a long, colourful ribbon made of scarlet, indigo, azure and verdant (or red, purple, blue and green for the more boring amongst us). And everywhere we turn we see little machines splitting the ribbon down its length and all of a sudden, there are two ribbons, exact copies of each other – fantastic. We know from school that we just witnessed Binary Fission, the duplicating of DNA, the act bacteria use to reproduce; and our teachers don’t hesitate to tell us that bacteria reproduce according to the law of Natural Selection – fitter, stronger bacteria survive to bring forth children bacteria and in this way, everything in the little E. coli cell gradually came to be.

So here’s the question: if
1. Everything in the cell came about by Natural Selection
2. Natural Selection works by the fit reproducing more than the weak
3. The ‘ribbon’ and ‘machines’ are what effect Binary Fission (the reproductive process)

Then where did the ribbon and machines come from? … Evolution? But if so, what can Evolution really do without Natural Selection?

The challenge increases in intensity when we consider that DNA (the ribbon) codes for mRNA, which codes for proteins, including the enzymes needed to replicate DNA (the machines), and to make DNA (by processes called De Novo Purine and Pyrimidine Synthesis). So how can the ribbon come about if there was no machine? And how can the machine exist without the Ribbon? This presents the idea of irreducible complexity. It is the chicken or the egg question at the heart of Biology.

Now it is obvious to any serious Science student that Natural Selection is real and observed, and that Binary Fission is effected by DNA and certain enzymes. That is, statements 2 and 3 above are true. Indeed, the problem lies not with them, but with statement 1: the assertion that everything in the cell can be accounted for by Natural Selection.

[[By now, the astute reader will realise that I have left my arena of very questionable expertise: Science. Obviously, I could not come to a definition of Science through the gathering of data etc. Indeed, I was dabbling with the Philosophy of Science (if our resident philosopher will forgive my trespass), and not Science itself. I must therefore tread very lightly.]]

In the same way, not all statements made by Scientists are statements of Science. Hiding behind statement 1 above are the philosophical assumptions of Naturalism – that (very crudely put) ‘the Cosmos is all that is, was, or ever will be’. This is not a scientific statement because it is not something available to testing by Science. No one can say with any scientific backing that they, with their powers of observation, have synthesized and deduced a general law that supports Naturalism. The claims are simply too far removed from us in time and space for us to test.

It is clear to all that men and women of great intellect, scientific giants, stand on both sides of the issue – which is not between Science and Theism (or religion), but between Theism and Naturalism; between the claim that “God is ultimate reality” and “The Cosmos is ultimate reality”. Just to name two, on Theism’s side stands Newton, who having discovered the laws of gravity did not conclude God’s irrelevance, but instead wrote in his Principia Mathematica that he hoped his work would lead thinking people to belief in a deity. While on Naturalism’s side stands Hawking – one of the preeminent physicists of our time, the brain behind Black Hole Hawking Radiation.

The real question is not how I, a medical student, can believe in Christianity, but which side does Science support more – Naturalism or Theism. The argument from irreducible complexity is just one of many arguments pointing Science towards Theism. Other arguments include the reality of the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of the cosmological constants, the constraints of evolution, the Origin of Life, and the origin and nature of information. Outside science, there is the argument from morality, the existential thirst for meaning, and many others.

But there is one more card thrown around these days, one I feel may have been behind my friend’s question after all. Miracles violate the laws of nature, therefore miracles cannot be true. What if the laws of nature were like arithmetic, and miracles like a thief? I will let C.S. Lewis end this little write-up.

“If this week I put a thousand pounds in the drawer of my desk, add two thousand next week and another thousand the week thereafter, the laws of arithmetic allow me to predict that the next time I come to my drawer, I shall find four thousand pounds.

But suppose when I next open the drawer, I find only one thousand pounds, what shall I conclude? That the laws of arithmetic have been broken?

Certainly not! I might more reasonably conclude that some thief has broken the laws of the State and stolen three thousand pounds out of my drawer.

Furthermore, it would be ludicrous to claim that the laws of arithmetic made it impossible to believe in the existence of such a thief or the possibility of his intervention.

On the contrary, it is the normal workings of those laws that have exposed the existence and activity of the thief.”

Addendum: Why does secular literature so readily dismiss Irreducible Complexity as pseudoscience?

For the benefit of those who may have wiki’d ‘Irreducible Complexity’ and are reeling from the jargon, I have included a response here.

According to Wikipedia, Irreducible complexity (IC) is a pseudoscientific argument that certain biological systems cannot be evolved by successive, slight modifications to a functional precursor system through natural selection acting upon a series of advantageous naturally occurring chance mutations.” Fittingly then, Central to the creationist concept of intelligent design, IC is rejected by the scientific community, which regards intelligent design as pseudoscience”. And lastly, “Pseudoscience is a claim, belief or practice presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to the scientific method.”

It strikes me as very odd that some authors have placed Irreducible Complexity in the same category I have for ideas like homeopathy, the idea that ‘like cures like’. Homeopathy teaches that if one is poisoned by a snakebite, the cure would be something like a drop of the same venom diluted to one part in 10 with many 0’s following behind, so many in fact, that it makes Avogadro’s Number, L=6×10^23 look small. For the uninitiated, L is the number of molecules in a solution of concentration 1mol/dm^3 – the implication being that in the ‘curative solution’, there is something like 0.00000125 of a venom molecule in there. This of course makes no sense – at the molecular level, part of a molecule is not the same as the whole molecule; just because hydrogen peroxide is H2O2 doesn’t make OH half the amount of hydrogen peroxide. It is a wholly different molecule altogether.

Indeed, homeopathy works like this:

  1. If you get bitten by a snake, a really small amount of venom can cure you
  2. We can make that venom solution by diluting it – a lot
  3. If you drink our really dilute venom solution, you can get better

The big problem? The really dilute venom solution does not contain any venom at all – it’s plain water.

I am explaining homeopathy, an actual pseudoscience, to draw a difference between it and Irreducible Complexity. In homeopathy, statement 1 is supposedly backed up by scientific study but science itself (specifically Chemistry) says statement 2 is intrinsically impossible – half a venom molecule is not half as much venom as 1 molecule, on the contrary, it is not venom at all. Irreducible Complexity, on the other hand, works like this:

  1. We, through our powers of observation, have elucidated the biochemical events at the molecular level (that is, beyond the level of individual cell parts)
  2. These events interlock tightly with each other to form systems and pathways to perform certain functions, so much so that to remove one event from the system is to lose the function
  3. These functions are essential to life
  4. Hence, these functions with their constituent events must have arisen simultaneously

Statement A is undoubtedly backed up by scientific study. Statement B provides the foundational explanation for what I’m learning – pathology. Statement C is empirically verifiable in every hospital morgue. Which leaves only Statement D open to debate, and hidden in here is the crux of the difference.

Homeopathy claims that a venom molecule split in 2 is half as venomous as before. To affirm this is illogical. Hence, we must affirm the negative: that venom molecules cease to be when split.

Irreducible Complexity claims that the constituent biochemical events that provide essential functions for life are so interlinked that that must have arisen simultaneously. The negative is: that these constituent, interlocked events essential for life must have arisen sequentially. The example with homeopathy is so self-condemning logically that we have no need to consider it. But the positive and negative claims of Irreducible Complexity are not in that category – it does not strike me as ludicrous to demand evidence for both the positive and the negative stand. Because here’s the issue: homeopathy as a statement of fact fails to correspond with what we clearly know, through science, of how reality really is like; on the other hand, the negative of Irreducible Complexity, namely that the events came about sequentially, is something deeply challenged by Science. Hence, it is because of Science that I reject the negative claim, and accept the positive claim of Irreducible Complexity, that is, Statement D is true.

But hold up, someone cries. What do I mean that science challenges the sequential appearance of these biochemical events? Well, I mean something far stronger: Science refutes the sequential appearance of these biochemical events and points very clearly to a simultaneous emergence. To go into the meat of this is beyond the scope of this essay, but listen to John Lennox speak on Youtube on the subject, or read his book ‘God’s undertaker’ for a broad, deep but generally accessible introduction to the arguments.

The question I set out to answer here is why secular literature so readily dismisses Irreducible Complexity. The definition given by Wikipedia provides strong hints: Central to the creationist concept of intelligent design, IC is rejected by the scientific community, which regards intelligent design as pseudoscience. Does it not strike one as very unscientific to reject Irreducible Complexity not on the basis of evidence, but on the grounds that Irreducible Complexity provides the grounding for Intelligent Design? Indeed, the secular world a priori rejects Intelligent Design because for them, the cosmos is all that is, was, or ever will be – there is no possibility of a designer in their thinking.

(I have noted some of the arguments in the Wikipedia article. The arguments are hollow, and the sources are dubiously quoted or sourced.)

And that is why secular literature dismisses Irreducible Complexity so. It is not a war between Science and Design, but one between Theism and Naturalism that sits near the bottom.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:18-23

Indeed, they exchanged the glory, the honour of the Designer, the Creator by teaching that the Creation created itself.

The New True Meaning of Christmas

[This isn’t really a post about philosophy, but since its the Christmas period I feel obliged to write something related. What I plan to do here is to analyse our culture’s worldview by looking at my favourite non-Christian Christmas song (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’). Unfortunately, my training in philosophy compels me to write a short summary in the introduction to the biblical framework of idolatry that I use for completeness sake — its largely just the understanding of idolatry from the reformed tradition. I have been much helped in my understanding of this by reading “For Their Rock is not as Our Rock” by Daniel Strange. (Which is really an update and summary of the thoughts of many earlier thinkers.)]

Christmas is a time of celebration, and as a Christian what I celebrate is the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into our broken world to identify with sinners and ultimately to die for their sin. But everyone celebrates during Christmas, and clearly not everyone is a Christian, so it begs the question: what exactly are they celebrating? Some Christians may immediately shoot back: “Materialism!” (i.e. the insatiable consumption of goods. Not to be confused with the metaphysical hypothesis of the same name.) Perhaps some really do see Christmas as an opportunity to satisfy their endless desire for consumer products, but when we see other non-Christians decrying the same materialistic strain during Christmas, we know that this cannot be the root of their celebration.

Man and Worship

The bible’s thesis about humans is that we are all worshippers — all of us have been made to know and to worship God and it is as we come to him that we find our deepest longings and needs met, when men reject God they do not cease to worship but the bible says that they begin to deify and idolise something in creation. Men “claiming to be wise, [have] became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:22-23) Idolatry is not confined simply to physical idols made of wood or stone — idols are whatever our hearts, the core of our beings, find rest, comfort, identity and indeed salvation in; they are whatever we long for and sacrifice and worship.

These idols are counterfeit gods — that they are counterfeit means two things: (1) they reveal something about the sinful hearts of men who created them (2) they reveal something about the God of which they are a counterfeit. To understand what one worships points us to the sin of man, but because we are made for God, even the idols we make resemble God as a cheap imitation. Christopher Wright thus notes:

“The fallen duplicity of man is that he simultaneously seeks after God his Maker and flees from God his Judge. Man’s religions, therefore, simultaneously manifest both these human tendencies.”

A New Christmas Liturgy

What we find in the modern celebration of Christmas is an almost literal exchange of the worship of God for the worship of other things. The best way to understand the new worship is to look at our new liturgy, one manifestation of which is the secular Christmas songs that are heard alongside the old hymns in shopping malls. Some songs are of course, utterly frivolous — ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’ don’t really reveal any of the deep longings of humanity. Others, however, do reflect some kind of deep longing, such as ‘White Christmas’ and ’Last Christmas’. The song we will look at is ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. I confess this is partly because its my favourite non-Christian Christmas song — the tune is excellent and the lyrics are utterly poignant. But more importantly I do believe the song reflects something of the heart of modern Christmas. For those who don’t know the song or do not recognise the title:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
Next year all
Our troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
Next year all
Our troubles will be miles away.

Once again as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us once more.

Someday soon, we all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

(These lyrics are from the original song sung in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”)

‘Once Again as in Olden Days’

The first two stanzas hint that we look to the Christmas holiday as an opportunity to rest, to escape from the myriad “troubles” that we face. The world is broken and messy — we are bogged down and exhausted by turmoil at work and relationships and there is the expectation that we will find rest at some place. I think many of us expect this rest to come during Christmas. Even secular people who bemoan the consumeristic materialism of our age and during Christmas as well seek rest from the spiritual exhaustion of chasing after the next flashy consumer product. But what exactly is the rest that we look forward too?

The heart of the song, I believe, lies in the third and fourth stanzas — here we see what we worship, what we long for during Christmas. There are two interconnected elements (1) a sense of nostalgia and (2) the warmth of family and friends. When we come to Christmas, we are overcome with nostalgia for the innocent times of our childhood, perhaps memories of when as children we looked forward to Christmas as the time when there would be parties with our families and all seemed rosy. If we never experienced this in our childhood, Christmas sells us the idea that we can recreate that experience which we never had. Consider the first line of another song, ‘White Christmas’: “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”.

There is something sublime that we look for during Christmas, something intimate and precious. We think that we will have it by revisiting the olden days, by gathering our dear friends and family back again. It is to these that we have turned to seek and find our rest. Yet anyone who has been to any Christmas party since their adolescence knows that the hope of recreating what we thought we experienced is a lie — we are made to long for it, but it never finds its fulfilment as we attempt to recreate our past or gather our loved ones.

C.S. Lewis gives an insightful analysis of this longing:

“Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

The last thing we see in the song is the bleakness of the secular worldview. The possibility of reunion is left to blind fate and until the next Christmas, we drag ourselves through the year. Some versions of the song have edited and changed the line “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” and replaced it with the utterly facile “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”. The original better reflects the sentiment of Christmas — it is the time we huddle as we peer over the dark precipice of the coming year of bustling emptiness. The final instruction is deeply poignant: “So”, in light of the muddle of our world, “have yourself a merry little Christmas now”. We must create and seek these precious moments now, before they are taken forever by the dead fates.

That Little Town of Bethlehem

No, this hopelessness cannot have the last word. The Israelites of old held in their hearts the promise of a day when those who walk in darkness will see a great light (Isaiah 9:2) but indeed this is the longing of all our hearts. We all long to cast off this sense of emptiness and dread and guilt that we feel and to be reconciled to something. Christmas reignites these longings, but we have been looking for this reconciliation in recreating our childhood, by being surrounded by our loved ones — soon we are alone again and the cave is even darker now that the small candle has gone out.

But the image of that town, that manger, draws me in again. The theological paradox which is the incarnation, God become Man, becomes strangely warm. In the still of that night, Christ was born. He was born into a life of labour and loneliness, ultimately dying forsaken — he would become one that men would shun and reject and spit on. But he holds a strange attraction to all who have known brokenness in some way both within themselves and without. Chesterton rightly said that this is “the place where God was homeless and all men are at home”. Christmas day comes and the same strange longing comes to me again as it does to everyone else, but as I think of Jesus it hits me afresh, ‘Ah! This was what I was celebrating all along.’ And then I sing:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Cognitive Triad

In Abnormal Psychology class last semester, we learnt about Aaron Beck’s Negative Cognitive Triad, which describes the cognitive (thinking) patterns of individuals with depression. They triad comprise of negative perception of the self, negative conception of the world, and negative projection of the future. In very casual terms, these are the thoughts characteristic of each component:

Self— I am so lousy/ terrible/ stupid/ filthy.

World— Everyone out there are out the hurt and exploit me./ Everyone looks down on me./ Nobody will accept me.

Future— I will never succeed in…/ I am going to remain like this (in some perceived crappy and undesirable state) forever…

I ended up wondering instead, how the “Christian Cognitive Triad” might instead look like. Here are some quick thoughts:

Self— I am sinful and broken, but God has sent his son Jesus to bear my condemnation. Jesus has said that “It is finished.” Christ is sufficient for all my inadequacies and failings.

World— There is much pain in the world; this is a reflection of the brokenness of our human condition. Nonetheless, there is good to behold, for this was how God created the world to be before The Fall occured.

Future— There will come a day where Christ will come again, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore. We will dwell with our Creator in all eternity.

Not at all saying that Christians will not be susceptible to the Negative Cognitive Triad, but when they do, this might just be a possible alternative triad they can be telling themselves. (: