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Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Judas Dilemna and Human Nature

Here's a dilemna that I made up* that I think illustrates our sinful fallen nature.

You have 12** good trusted friends, but one day you discover that one of them has betrayed you. You don't know which one it is.

This is a horrific and painful dilemna made worse by the uncertainty. The devil loves to use this situation to destroy the friendships because the devil hates fellowship. Most people because of our fallen nature will naturally end up losing or seriously straining all 12 friendships. The knowledge creates a cloud of suspicion that taints all 12 friends. Even though mathematically the probability of innocence of each friend is 11/12, the suspicion will make all appear to be guilty.

An evil person (I'm thinking of someone like Saddam) resolves it easily by crushing all 12 friends. To this person, it is more important for the traitor to be punished so he doesn't lose any sleep over sacrificing 11 innocent people.

A weak-minded person will quickly succumb to paranoia and in his mind the cloud of suspicion will turn it into a conspiracy theory where all 12 friends are conspiring against him. The conspiracy will become so real to him that if, later, he were to learn the truth about the identity of the betrayer, he will choose not to believe it. In any case, the taint of suspicion will forever ruin his feelings toward his former friends. Finding out they were innocent will not restore his feelings toward them. He will never admit even to himself his culpability in his response.

Our fallen natures makes this type of dilemna especially difficult for us. Because our intellects are clouded, we will find ourselves suspecting person A on Mondays and Wednesdays, and persons B and C on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Our conflicting thoughts and contradictory assumptions will spin around in our head like a roulette wheel; now the ball will land on this theory, now on another theory. If our emotions weren't so busy screaming betrayal! betrayal! all the time then maybe we'd have a chance to think things through clearly. Maybe.

A person who strives to be righteous will take his problems to God and use his faith to get through it. Faith in God is necessary to help keep his faith in his friends, and God knows the truth (He is Truth) so relying on Him will bring us closer to the truth. He would rather forgive the judas than lose a single friend. Because in the end our friendships demand the same kind of faith that we have in God, but it is our faith in God that orders and guides our faith in our friends.

Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light for my path. (Psalm 119: 105)

*I don't know if someone's thought of it before, but it seems too basic and obvious for me to be the first to think of it.
**I picked the number 12 so I could call it the Judas*** Dilemna, but also it has to be a large number of friends so that you can see that mathematically speaking most of the friends are innocent (1/12 chance that a friend has betrayed you), which shows how destructive that the cloud of suspicion is.
***Of course Jesus didn't have this dilemna with His apostles. Being God, He knew everything that was going on.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Mary vs Eve

Just as Jesus is the New Adam, Mary is the New Eve. But all I'll say on this for now is this poem that I love, by the Sisters of the Mississippi Valley (via First Things).

To set it up for you, it is about an imagined encounter between The Blessed Virgin Mary, pregnant with Child, and a sorrowful Eve, who has just been kicked out of Eden with her husband Adam. Mary says to her:

My mother, my daughter, life-giving Eve,
Do not be ashamed, do not grieve.
The former things have passed away,
Our God has brought us to a New Day.
See, I am with Child,
Through whom all will be reconciled.

O Eve! My sister, my friend,

We will rejoice together
Life without end.

Christianity and Truth

Christianity is based on claims that are very hard to believe. That Jesus was a man and also God. The Trinity. That He died for our sins. That He rose from the dead after three days. That He ascended to Heaven after forty days and will come again in glory at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. That He is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament.

At the end of the day these are all just beliefs, right? And it's good to believe in something because it helps a person be good and have a nice life.

Well no, any Christian will tell you the only reason to be Christian is because you believe it's true. If it's not true then to hell with it, no matter what the side benefits.

Then you may wonder how Christians can really believe all these strange things? I'll tell you the secret.

Actually, people convert to Christianity after encountering Jesus. The object of faith is not a belief or belief system; the object of faith is Jesus Christ Himself. People then accept all the other teachings on the basis of their faith in Jesus.

Because when they encountered Jesus, He wasn't a ghost or phantom--He was (is) more real than anything, even themselves! That one encounter left them gasping and longing to be with Him forever to the point where they would give up everything in their life to go after Him.

Then the rest of their Christian lives consist of fleeting glimpses of Him interspersed throughout endless days, some of them quite terrible, looking forward to death, the day of their reunion with the Lord.

Sounds horrible? Oh but it's wonderful.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Interesting Lecture on Divine Truth

Here is a terrific lecture on Divine Truth: the Heart's Deepest Longing (lecture #2) by Peter Kreeft. His writings are here.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Christian Reviews Napoleon Dynamite

The whole article reproduced here:

Napoleon Blown Apart

Michael E. Bailey on the Pauline Aliens of Preston, Idaho

Napoleon Dynamite entered American movie theaters in 2004, having earlier garnered unexpected buzz at the Cannes Film Festival, and within a short time became a cultural phenomenon. Two years after its release, the comedy remains a perennial student film favorite as measured by the all-authoritative standard for college campus life, FaceBook, as well as by the ubiquity of “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts.

It follows the struggles of young Napoleon Dynamite, a Preston, Idaho teenager whose social ineptness at high school compounds the misery and loneliness of his wretched home life. An orphan, his family consists of his guardian grandmother, a short-tempered woman who lives a mysterious double life of fun on the sand dunes, and Kip, his unemployed 32-year-old stay-at-home brother, whose chief activity is chatting for hours “with babes” on-line.

Napoleon’s Hope

Hope enters Napoleon’s life when he befriends new classmate Pedro, an immigrant from Juarez, Mexico, and Deb, a girl who meets him while selling glamour shots door-to-door. The plot, insofar as the movie can be said to have a plot, revolves around their awkward but developing friendship as they campaign for Pedro’s improbable candidacy for school president.

Complicating matters is the overbearing Uncle Rico, who serves as guardian to Napoleon and Kip(!) when their grandmother is injured in a bizarre dune buggy accident. Uncle Rico and Napoleon clash immediately and continuously, and Uncle Rico does not hesitate to humiliate Napoleon in front of his new friends. Home is no refuge for Napoleon, and Uncle Rico’s actions threaten to undermine his friendships and only source of dignity.

At first glance, the movie’s appeal to young people is no surprise; after all, it’s a teen movie with lots of physical humor and distinctly defined characters with highly imitable voices. Yet it stays remarkably clear of most teen-movie props and clichés: It is virtually free of profanity—Napoleon says “Gosh!” and “Dang it”—and it features neither female nudity nor a randy male trying to lose it or have sex with pies.

Napoleon Dynamite is a funny teen movie, but its refusal to play by the rules of most teen movies indicates that it is not, well, just another teen movie. Certainly the bookends of the movie, which show Napoleon on two forms of transportation, suggest that something important has happened to him in between.

In the movie’s opening scene, a sullen and sighing Napoleon, wearing a wild stallion t-shirt, boards a school bus with children half his age and works his way to the back. In the movie’s closing sequence, Napoleon rides a “wild honeymoon stallion” to his brother’s wedding, looking half-like another famous Napoleon.

At the risk of elaborately describing the clothes of a perfectly naked emperor, I think that the underlying theme of Napoleon Dynamite is (though the movie was made by Mormons) consistent with the moral anthro-pology of Christianity: to show us how we become genuinely human.

The point of the movie seems to be this: “Flying solo,” that is, the individualistic pursuit of one’s own happiness apart from the good of others, culminates in misery, and the only way to grow as a human, or even to become human, is through a thick community of support, responsibility, and love. Playing by oneself, as Napoleon is wont to do at the tetherball pole, is unrewarding and pitiful.

The “Decroded” Heart

Since Napoleon Dynamite may well be the most quoted movie in recent years, it seems fitting to elaborate upon three key lines that compactly reveal its meaning. Napoleon utters the first to buoy up his friend Pedro before he gives a campaign speech to the student body. He says: “Pedro, just listen to your heart. That’s what I do.”

Napoleon’s life is such a study in frustration and stunted hopes that it is difficult to believe that he actually follows his heart. But follow his heart he does. Consider the opening lines of the movie. Napoleon plops down on the last seat of the school bus and a boy less than half his age asks him, “What are you going to do today, Napoleon?” To which he responds peevishly, “Whatever I feel like I want to do. Gosh!” And then he proceeds to do exactly what he wants—though he rarely gets what he wants—for the rest of the movie.

But Napoleon is still miserable. What does it matter to follow one’s own heart when one’s heart is small and petty or, to use a favorite word of Napoleon’s, “decroded” (i.e., decayed and corroded)? Thus the film reveals a radical deficiency of individualism: Following your heart does not bring you happiness.

What if our pursuit of our heart’s every desire causes our hearts, like the Grinch’s, to become two sizes too small? What if our feverish pursuit of individual happiness causes us to neglect the communities that, in reality, make us happy? What if, like Napoleon, in our isolation or in our broken communities we have little chance of ever realizing our potential even when we follow our hearts?

Napoleon throws out of the bus window a doll-sized action hero attached to a string. I do not think it much of a stretch to conclude that this doll represents Napoleon. For the greater part of his life, he has been strung and bounced along the road of life face down in the dirt. Life is largely something that happens to Napoleon.

Napoleon is, in effect, the anti-Ferris Bueller. He doesn’t want to have fun so much as simply to survive. He has no friends (at least at first), he gets bullied at school, and he is scared of chickens. In his fantasy life, in contrast, he is a superhero who shoots wolverines, joins gangs who want him for his skills, and forges alliances with wizards and our “underwater ally,” the Loch Ness Monster.

Seek happiness all you want, the movie seems to suggest, but if your heart is decroded, you will still be miserable, a man in body, perhaps, but still just an unhappy boy on the school bus.

No Man Should Be an Island

The absence of Napoleon’s parents is the key to unlocking the underlying serious message of the movie. The threat of social isolation, of loneliness—of being left behind—looms constantly in the film. Virtually every time the filmmakers show a house, it stands by itself, isolated.

Apart from a few school sequences, there are perhaps ninety seconds in the film that show what could be described as a neighborhood or community. This is a movie of vast empty fields, lonely playgrounds, and isolated houses. In one of the film’s few visually arresting scenes, Napoleon, who has been abandoned by his Uncle Rico and is late for the school dance, is shown running to town on an open road that cuts through an immense and remote valley. The scenery mirrors Napoleon’s life.

Certainly the filmmakers go out of their way to show how Napoleon is a misfit. Another way of saying this—a Pauline way of saying this—is that Napoleon is an alien, that is, he is alienated from the world in which he lives. He is not at home in Preston, Idaho. To make sure we don’t miss the point, in the credits sequence the first item taken out of Napoleon’s wallet is a card with his name on it and a picture of—what else?—an alien.

The film’s other characters are also ill at ease in the world. Napoleon’s friend Deb is a very sweet but notably plain girl who runs a glamour studio. Pedro is literally an alien, an immigrant, living in a puzzling new land. But at least he is comfortable in the world of reality, unlike Napoleon’s brother Kip, who lives in the Internet world of chat-rooms and on-line dating.

Uncle Rico is hilariously unerotic about the present yet hopelessly romantic about the past. One of the more subtle jokes in the film is that Uncle Rico attempts to time-travel back to 1982, when the town is still stuck in 1982, judging by the music and fashion styles of the place. His attitude about the present is revealed in this line: “We can’t afford the fun pack.”

True Dreams

The film follows Thomas Hobbes in suggesting that life without community is isolated, nasty, brutish, and possibly even short. But it also suggests that life in community is possible, if difficult. Even in light of alienation, the film ends hopefully, even cheerfully. Just as Pedro predicts. In his campaign speech for school president, Pedro had concluded by saying, “If you vote for me, all of your wildest dreams will come true.”

This is the second key line of the film. The moviemakers seem to be saying through Pedro that if this kid can become class president, then anyone’s wildest dreams really can come true. But here’s the rub: Pedro’s dreams cannot come true without the support of the community. Through Pedro, the filmmakers call on the community to support him and, indirectly, one another.

The movie teaches us that friendship and community, like God’s grace, can come when least expected and in the least expected manner. Several times in the movie, we see Napoleon, like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, being rescued by the kindness of strangers. Recall Napoleon on that isolated road, running back to town to meet his date for the dance. Abandoned by his uncle, Napoleon is given a lift and thereby saved from his predicament by strangers, Pedro’s tough-cut cousins.

Pedro himself is an outsider to the community, whose friendship emboldens Napoleon and gives him new direction and purpose. Deb offers him an unexpected source of friendship and caring that is otherwise missing in his life. The individuals who should have been his bulwark and support—his brother, his Uncle Rico, and his grandmother—fail him completely, so Napoleon builds a kind of family with Pedro and Deb.

Not by Bread Alone

Food plays a weirdly prominent role in this movie. Scarcely five minutes roll by without some reference to or shot of food or drink. In the cafeteria, Napoleon stores up tater tots like a squirrel. Nachos, hot dogs, eggs, cake, “danged kesadillas” (pronounced by Napoleon’s grandmother “case-a-dill-a”), steak, fruit, bleached milk, “chimini changas,” and delicious bass all make appearances.

The characters are clearly starving. But what are they hungry for? Security? Respect? Love? Or just food? The movie credits begin by identifying characters through plates of food, a visual metaphor playing off the phrase, “You are what you eat.”

But is that true, are we just the stuff we eat? Or do we live by something more than bread alone? Is life nothing more than keeping the body free from pain and death for as long as possible?

Scripture says that he who wishes to save his life will lose it, and he who is willing to lose it for God’s sake will find it. The movie confirms this view. Napoleon subjects himself to near-certain humiliation by performing an elaborate (and comical) dance in front of the student body for the sake of Pedro’s election campaign. That the students go wild for his performance should not cause us to overlook his incredible daring.

Napoleon’s dance is an act of love. That the movie wraps up in a lovely package of warmth and hope immediately following Napoleon’s dance reveals the central message of the story: We are made complete only by first becoming vulnerable for the sake of love. No one is beyond love’s redemptive power.

Kip utters the third important line of the movie, when he says of his now in-the-flesh love: “Lafawnduh is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m a hundred percent positive she’s my soul mate.” Lafawnduh, met on-line, is a woman who arrives in Kip’s life from Detroit, sight unseen, of unknown history and of questionable profession. She is black. After meeting her, Kip, who is unquestionably the single whitest character in the history of film, wears bling and works on his street moves for her.

From initial appearances, the relationship is ill-fitted if not just plain nuts. But who doesn’t believe that he is better off with Lafawnduh? Any real human lover for Kip is better for his soul—that is, makes for a better soul mate—than the relationship he had with his beloved technology. Kip’s virtual life was pathetic. His new life is weird and unorthodox but, by comparison, a ride into the sunset.

Love Triumphant

Napoleon Dynamite is a humorous but touching critique of the inevitable loneliness and meaninglessness of individualism when it is stripped of the context of genuine community. Its message is consistent with a Christian moral anthropology, that human beings are not intended to “fly solo,” but made to live in a community marked by the vulnerability and sacrifice of love.

The movie ends in a quietly triumphant celebration of love and friendship. Pedro has won the presidency. Kip marries Lafawnduh. Uncle Rico is possibly united with his girlfriend. And Napoleon is no longer playing tetherball by himself, but is now playing with Deb, who is looking lovely and womanly. One can imagine them growing up to live happily together.

As Napoleon would say, “ Lucky!

What is Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy needs to be better defined, I think, as people tend to have different definitions of it.

As a Muslim my definition was more political. Based on the Qur'an I thought a hypocrite was a Muslim with a subversive agenda, meaning a Muslim who hoped to cause divisions or make changes in the religion, especially innovation (bed-aat) which is always a bad thing. Sometimes I thought it meant anyone who is against Islam, whether or not they are Muslim. This concept was a scary one for me, because it seemed it could be any group or another (even me and the thought came up every time I had a question about Islam), and only Allah knowing for sure. This is because the word for hypocrite is monafegh, which is a person who causes dissent or fitneh. Its definition is based on the consequences. So if two Muslims have a disagreement, one is probably a monafegh, but which one? If the disagreement is between groups, the larger group (the "status quo") would be the correct one and the smaller group would be monafeghs. At least more for Sunni Muslims, whereas Shiite Muslims are better used to the idea of being a minority group that's in the right, but for them the right group is defined by syed blood line, similar to apostolic succession, but in most conflicts (where that is not relevant) they go by the status quo too. Or the group that loses or is less popular are the monafeghs. This always sets the odds against reformers as being suspected monafeghs.

The American concept is simply that a hypocrite is someone who doesn't practice what they preach. This sounds easy but this leads to a common problem in practice. For example, a father who drinks and smokes doesn't want his children to do the same but he feels like a hypocrite to say anything to them. Or a mother who had a bad past doesn't want her daughter to follow her footsteps but she feels she no longer has the right to say anything. That is why religious people are commonly accused of hypocrisy. So this definition is wrong because then nobody can preach the ideal of perfect conduct and virtue because no one is perfect.

A better definition of hypocrisy is a hypocrite is a person who preaches what they don't believe. It means pretending to believe that lying is wrong, but not believing it personally. To read more on this concept, read this (a great article called The Truth About Hypocrisy).

Now I submit to you that religious people can be hypocrites, including myself, but in a different way than we are accused. Most of the time our hypocrisy comes when we are afraid to state our convictions because of what people will think. Because faith talk is uncool at best and offensive at worst, we modify our language in the presence of unbelievers. So Christians tend to be hypocritical by downplaying their beliefs, and this is because our message is so radical that no one can bear to hear it.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Reason for the Incarnation

The Incarnation refers to the most central event in human history, when God entered our history and became Man around 2000 years ago. This event of course is so central to our history, that we have arranged our calendar around it, BC means Before Christ, and AD means Anno Domini. Because of the Incarnation history now means HIS-story, everything before Christ is seen in the light of Christ's coming; everything after Christ is seen in the light of Christ having come, and in anticipation of His future Second Coming. Marana tha!

(Indeed, the Christ is the key to understanding the Bible, where Christ is concealed in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament. More on this in a separate post.)

Many people have trouble believing this concept, either in understanding how it happened or why it happened.

As to the why of it, here is a nice little story that might be helpful to explain it, that I found here:

The Reason for the Incarnation

There was once a man who didn't believe in God, and He didn't hesitate to let others know how he felt about religious holidays, like Christmas. His wife, however, did believe, and she raised their children to also have faith in God and Jesus, despite his disparaging comments.

One snowy Christmas Eve, his wife was taking their children to a Christmas Eve service in the farm community in which they lived. She asked him to come but he refused. "That story is nonsense!" he said "Why would God lower himself to come to earth as a man? That's ridiculous!" So she and the children left, and he stayed home.

A while later, the winds grew stronger and the snow turned into a blizzard. As the man looked out the window, all her saw was a blinding snowstorm. He sat down to relax before the fire for the evening. Then he heard a loud thump. Something had hit the window. Then another thump. He looked our, but couldn't see more than a few feet.

When the snow let up a little, he ventured outside to see what could have been beating on his window. In the field near his house he saw a flock of wild geese. Apparently they had been flying south for the winter when they got caught in the snowstorm and couldn't go on.

They were lost and stranded on his farm, with no food or shelter. They just flapped their wings and flew around the field in low circles, blindly and aimlessly. A couple of them had flown into his window, it seemed.

The man felt sorry for the geese and wanted to help them. The barn would be a great place for them to stay, he thought. It's warm and safe, surely they could spend the night and wait out the storm. So he walked over to the barn and opened the doors wide, then watched and waited, hoping they would notice the open barn and go inside. But the geese just fluttered around aimlessly and didn't seem to notice the barn or realize what it could mean for them.

The man tried to get their attention, but that just seemed to scare them and they moved further away. He went into the house and came out with some bread, broke it up, and made a bread crumb trail leading to the barn. They still didn't catch on.

Now he was getting frustrated. He got behind them and tried to shoo them toward the barn, but they got more scared and scattered in every direction except toward the barn. Nothing he did could get them to go into the barn where they would be warm and safe.

"Why don't you follow me!" he exclaimed. "Can't they see this is the only place where they can survive the storm?" He though for a moment and realized that they wouldn't follow a human. "If only I were a goose, then I could save them," he said out loud.

Then he had an idea. He went into the barn, got one of his own geese, and carried it in his arms as he circled around behind the flock of wild geese. He then released it. His goose flew through the flock and straight into the barn--and one by one, the other geese followed it to safety.

He stood silently for a moment as the words he had spoken a few minutes earlier replayed in his mind: "If only I were a goose then I could save them!" Then he thought about what he had said to his wife earlier: "Why would God want to be like us? That's ridiculous!"

Suddenly it all made sense. That is what God had done. We were like the geese--blind, lost, perishing. God had His son become like us so He could show us the way and save us. That was the meaning of Christmas, he realized.

As the wind and the blinding snow died down, his soul became quiet and pondered this wonderful thought. Suddenly he understood what Christmas was all about, why Christ had come. Years of doubt and disbelief vanished like the passing storm. He fell to his knees in the snow, and prayed his first prayer: "Thank you, God, for coming in human form to get me out of the storm!"

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government will be upon His shoulders He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace." (Isaiah 9:6)

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