Thursday, September 29, 2016

old square toes: sympathy for the devil

It looks like studio executives at Fox have decided to give the devil his due, at least for one more year.

Now in its second season, the TV show “Lucifer” builds its premise around an idea originally presented in “The Sandman,” an award-winning comic book by Neil Gaiman. In the TV show, as in the comic, the devil has grown tired of overseeing the torments of the damned. He has abandoned the war with heaven, moved to California, and opened a nightclub. In order to hang a weekly series around this concept with Lucifer as the main character,  20th Century Fox made it a police show.

I first heard of the show mid-season last year, when I read that the American Family Association and its affiliated web site One Million Moms had objected. I object too, but not that the show has sown “spiritual confusion,” as the association claims. My concern is that the show has been squandering a great idea. I mean, a police procedural? Really?

In “The Sandman,” Lucifer marked his abdication by throwing the damned out of hell along with their tormentors. The next time we see him, he is lounging on a beach in Perth, Australia, admiring the sunset. Later, in the penultimate story arc to the comic, we find him running his nightclub and playing Cole Porter tunes on the piano.

Try and tell me that you don't find that idea at least a little amusing.

When we first read “Seasons of Mist,” my best friend and I spent days imagining other career paths the devil could have opted for. Plenty of possibilities suggested themselves. Studio engineer or record producer for a major record label. President of a fantasy roleplaying game company.

For a while we even pictured him as the managing editor of a local newspaper who would enjoy playing folk music on his acoustic guitar during open mike nights at the local coffee house. As a bonus, he would be oblivious to the bar fights that unfailingly would break out during his set.

It wouldn't matter whether he sang “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance,” or “Oh My Darling Clementine”; conflict was inevitable. The devil might be tired of running hell, but we were less optimistic than Gaiman about his ability to quit being who he is, no matter how hard he tried.

One thing we were sure of, though: Lucifer Morningstar would never seek political office. There are some depths even the devil won't sink to.

Amusing as all of this may be, and as fascinating a story as it can be in the hands of a talented writer, none of this exactly matches the traditional story of the devil as understood in popular culture. And that is without doubt the source of some of the opprobrium the American Family Association has directed at the show.

In traditional understanding, Lucifer was first in the order of creation. Of all beings, he was second only to God in power and majesty. He was captain of the other angels, the light-bearer and leader of worship in heaven. He was proud, and he was beautiful. There was none like him.

When Lucifer discovered that God intended to create humanity, and to elevate humans to a place of honor higher than the angels themselves, it was too much to take. He disagreed with God so sharply that he actually rebelled, intending to depose the Almighty and take the throne from him. Such was his beauty and magnificence that fully a third of the other angels joined him.

The rebellion went the only way it could. A match would have had greater success extinguishing a hurricane than Lucifer had against God. The angel was cast into hell, and all his followers fell with him.

Since then, Lucifer has been Satan, the Adversary. The very avatar of evil, he has continued to war with heaven, determined to mar Creation as thoroughly as possible. Christians see him as the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to disobedience in the Garden of Eden, and often perceive his hand in the slaughter of Hebrew infants in the time of Moses, and in the Massacre of the Innocents in the gospel of Matthew.

In the devil's war with heaven, earth is the battleground and the souls of mortals are the prize. Every soul that finds itself in hell is a victory in his campaign against God Almighty. But in the end, of course, the final victory goes to God, along with all the glory. The story ends in the book of Revelation when the devil is thrown into the lake of fire, and God makes his dwelling with humans, as he had planned all along.

As stories go, this is one of the best. Obvious themes include the majesty, sovereignty and glory of God; the dangers of arrogance and pride in one's position; and the folly of resisting God's purposes and will. By incarnating sin and evil in the person of the devil, the story presents us with a moral lesson about sin and rebellion so that his story serves as a warning to us.

Add a motivation – some people say Satan rebelled because he was jealous that God intended humanity to be higher than the angels, though I've also heard suggestions that he disagreed with God's notions of justice – and you have a character in an eternal drama who serves as a potential rebuke to our own sense of entitlement and moral absolutism.

The “Lucifer” writers have turned this into a weekly police procedural where the devil is a funny but likeable social misfit who, instead of marring Creation, helps the cops solve drive-by killings and kidnappings. Rather than opposing the will of the Almighty, his chief concern is that the officer he works with keeps rejecting his advances. It should surprise no one that a petition on the American Family Association web site to stop the show garnered a reported 134,331 signatures before the first season pilot even had aired.

There's just one problem with outrage over “Lucifer.” The story about Satan's rebellion and subsquent fall from heaven is found nowhere in Scripture. It's all told in a poem by John Milton called “Paradise Lost.”

Once we understand that, we stand to gain a lot more spiritual clarity than we ever would have lost from a simple TV show.

Copyright 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

'nearer my god to thee'

Here's a song I don't believe I ever heard growing up, not even in church. Written in 1841 by Sarah Flower Adams, "Nearer My God to Thee" is loosely based on the story of Jacob at Peniel, where he had a vision of a ladder that touched heaven and earth.

Legend has it that this was the final song played by the orchestra as the RMS Titanic sank. The melody is a beautiful one, and its beauty of the song lends this portion of the movie a weighty poignance. I don't care for "Titanic," but this scene did teach me to love "Nearer my God to Thee." I love the moment of acceptance in the eyes of the first musician, and then as it spreads to his fellow players as they join him.

Their music is an act of communion as they see death slowly rising up the deck of the ship, and it compares well to the grace and acceptance of the other passengers on the ship: the mother who tells her children one final bedtime story, about living forever in the land of Tír na nóg; the elderly couple as they calmly wait for death, together in bed; the ship architect who is weighted down by conscience over his failed enterprise; the quiet despair of the ship's captain as the unthinkable unfolds around him and Death presses against the helm; and of course the loud and panicked despair of the crew and passengers as they realize there will be no escape.

There are lyrics, of course; and there are many videos available where they are capably sung. But thanks to the beauty and grace of this scene, those feel almost superfluous. Played well on strings, this tune has a staying power all of its own.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

'thus says the lord' (part two)

I feel I should say that I no longer have doubts about the fitness of our church youth group leader for that role.

If you're a regular reader of this blog -- though, to be honest, I wonder at times if I am the only person still to use this platform -- you may recall that back in June, I had some concerns about the things Paul G. was teaching in youth group. At the time, I even described his teachings as Froot Loops and suggested that the activities he was encouraging were too extreme even for Socially Awkward Penguin.

I no longer have doubts. They are resolved, and I am determined that he will not be teaching my children anything. I'm meeting with a few church leaders to make the case that he needs to be removed.

Youth group at our church meets Friday nights. Last night, he approached a few of the teens -- and it just hit me that every teen I've heard whom he approached was a girl, why are they always girls? -- with a word he had received from the Lord about what they should do with their lives. I wasn't there and I don't know exactly what happened, but since Middle Daughter was one of the children approached, I asked her repeatedly to tell me what he said. I wanted to know the wording, because that can make a big difference.

Middle Daughter is an actor. She aspires to be one professionally. Now a student at a performing arts high school, she plans to attend college in New York and launch a career performing on Broadway. She's passionate about this. If you talk with her for five minutes you'll discover that it's so.

So it's not surprising that Paul G. knows. And while it might be a little odd for him to weigh in on her career goals, that's what he did Friday night. From what my girls told me, Paul G. approached Middle Daughter and said, "I was praying, and I think God wants you to go to Hollywood."

And that is completely inappropriate.

Let's not make any mistakes about what is going on here. Paul G. has been entrusted with providing some spiritual education to the teens of a church. It's one thing to use teach doctrine like "it is impossible for the unsaved to understand the things of God," it is something else to get sidetracked into irrelevancies like six-day creationism, and something else again to get into extrabiblical mysticism like claiming authority over and rebuking spirits, and visualizing people to verbally harass at Walmart.

There is no justification or excuse that will ever cover claiming to speak on behalf of God and tell other people what they should do. And let's not be coy about it, that's exactly what he did. He may have added a qualifier like "I think," but when you are talking to someone under your authority and a potentially impressionable child, the take-away is not "I think" but "God wants."

There is nothing positive to say about this. At its worst, such talk is abusive, controlling and manipulative. Even viewed charitably, it is horribly misguided and shows a tremendous lack of good judgment. If you're going to presume to speak for God, you'd better be prepared to put your divine imprimatur on the table for inspection. I have left churches over this sort of thing.

So I am talking to the lead pastor-guy on Monday morning, more in his capacity as a friend of mine than as the pastor-guy. And then I plan to speak to the elder in charge of the youth ministry, and I expect I'll talk to Paul G. as well. I need to talk with them by Friday, because Friday evening the youth group leadership is going to talk with the parents during the youth group meeting, and I really would rather have this dealt with before Friday than blow the whole thing up on Friday. But the truth is, this has to be discussed in the open, and it needs to be clear either that church leadership is OK with this kind of teaching going on at youth group, or it needs to be clear that they are not OK with it, and are dealing with the issue head-on.

I am not OK with it. If he continues to lead youth group, my children will not attend; and I know one pair of parents that's even angrier than I am.

Friday, September 09, 2016

'thus says the lord'

Twenty years ago I was a member in good standing of Easton (Pa.) Assembly of God. That all came crashing down in one Sunday school class.

Laverne Webber, the wife of our church's pastor, was teaching a class on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is a fairly significant doctrine in the Assemblies of God; essentially it holds that there is a special encounter with God made manifest by glossalalia, the ecstatic utterance in unknown tongues.

I had questions. I still do. That's how I work. I ask questions until I understand, not to someone else's satisfaction but to my own. So I asked, and when the answers weren't satisfactory, I pressed. Other members of the class I found wanted to hear the answers too.

Well, Laverne kept leading the class, and I kept attending; and you know, I never did start speaking in tongues, and neither did anyone else in the class.

One week Laverne approached me. She had been praying and God had spoken to her. About me. The way he does.

"David," she said, "I really feel the Lord is saying you need to stop questioning, and just have faith."

I nodded agreeably, but inside I was thinking "Well, four more weeks, and then this session of children's church is done. I'll wrap up my commitment, and then I'll go."

I had helped to lead the children's ministry at church for two years. I had helped to write the curriculum because what we had been given was so stupid. They lost that commitment and support. I was headed toward a breakup with this church for a number of reasons, but two things hastened that split.

One, don't ever tell me to stop thinking and just "have faith."

Two, don't ever tell me what God wants me to do unless you're prepared to show me proof that he has authorized you to speak on his behalf. That is abusive and manipulative at its worst; and when it's at its best and just misguided, it still is the key to messing up impressionable minds.

If you are actually going to claim to speak for God -- even if you try to couch it terms of "I think God wants you to do thus-and-such" -- then you don't have the maturity to be in any sort of leadership.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Jedidiah Horca: 'Because He Lives'

We used to sing this hymn growing up at Saunders Station Presbyterian Church, though my clearest memory of it comes from 1992, when we sang it at my grandmother's funeral. I've never heard of the singer before, but this is a fantastic, folksy arrangement: no organ, just nice use of a guitar with a few other instruments lightly used, easy on the amps

Two final notes: I never got motion sickness growing up when we sang this song at church, though I do get it watching this video. Also, is it just me, or does the name Horca make it sound like the singer is going to attack the members of a mining colony?