What’s In A Name?

Our culture labels and names everything. We’re desperate for a referent, for a common vernacular, and so we categorize everyone and every belief and every class of ideas so that we can identify them easily. Ironically, as we create more and more, it becomes more and more confusing. I remember writing an op-ed piece while in college about how I rejected being known as Generation X, about how I defied the label, if for no other reason than on purpose. 

More recently, it became dangerously apparent to me how this effects our faith. Early in  my Seminary studies, I discovered that everyone classified themselves according to a specific theological stance, and they wanted me to do the same so that they knew how to think of me. Was I Calvinist or Armenian? Was I a dichotomist or trichotomist? Even among the greater circles of Christianity, we engage in the same horrid practice. More than wanting to know if someone is a Believer, we want to know how they classify themselves. Are they Baptist? Methodist? Presbyterian? Emergent? Catholic? Anglican? The list of denominations astounds me as much as it makes me ill with the unBiblical nature at its core. 
The practice carries over to every other aspect of my life. Counselors identify themselves by what school of therapy they practice. Actors identify themselves by the method they utilize. The list carries over, I imagine, to every realm of life. 
Why do we have this need to limit those we know? Are we that afraid of them? Are we that limited in our mental capacities? Are we that overloaded with information? I think, even worse than all of these, is the truth that we are stripped of our individuality daily in our industrialized and conformist culture: forced to have a certain appearance for a good salary, forced to speak a certain way in certain situations in the name of politeness. We’re expected to fit a mold of tradition, and it robs us of who we are at our truest. 
Frederick Buechner theorized that to name something is to know it less. His example is how he knew trees as a child, without knowing what they were supposed to be. When he learned to name the tree, he knew less of it, because he knew it by a certain referent. 
As Karen and I contemplate names for future children, this weighs heavily on our minds. Names carry a huge importance throughout Scripture. When God changed someones identity, He gave them new names: Abraham and Paul are but two primary examples. It occurs to me that Karen and I both fulfill the etymology of our names, and I think that, for some reason, God created things to operate this way for a reason. That makes the responsibility of naming our future children a huge one, because we will be, to some extent, pre-determining their lives for them. 
Perhaps we are doing that with each other as well as we classify each other into different realms. We force our expectations for the other person onto that person, and they begin to fulfill the twisted prophecy we’ve unwittingly applied to them. What of our world do we color with our naming?  What do we undo? 
If we removed all of the needless labels and titles, and functioned with each other as human beings and with God as God, what would it look like? How would our daily existence change? 
I imagine it would be fundamentally for the better. 

Censoring the Future

Does art imitate life? Does life imitate art? Do we copy the violence and sexuality that we see and read in our media and literature, or does it copy us? 

A perpetual debate if ever one existed, and one I’ve talked about here on many occasions before. Whenever it leaps back to the forefront of discussion, however, I’m compelled think it through again. This morning, the debate was at the front of a conversation about the MPAA rating system, and how its closed inner circle of raters is supposed to be performing a public service, and yet are anything but public. There will forever be social scientists among us who want to scream about statistics and observable studies claiming that youth spending time with violent video games and watching violent movies are more likely (depending upon other risk factors) to engage in violent criminal behaviors. While I appreciate the soft sciences…indeed, I make my living in them…I’m forced to quote one of my undergraduate psychology professors here, and note that statistics are evil: you can make them say anything you want them to say. As an artist, I inherently and fiercely rebel against the de facto censorship that is our rating system, and is, in fact, from whence it came. Shouldn’t shielding children from this content be the parent’s responsibility? Yet, as that portion of our societal structure continues to decay, it is arbitrarily decided to legislate it, and thus censorship continues to exist, if not thrive. 
Part of the irony I find is that conservative religious factions were a large part of the outcry that led to the establishment of this system in the first place. Yet, those same religious persons who cling to the Scriptures apparently read them with selective insight. The violence and sexual content of the history and poetry of the Old Testament alone would, if placed on film today, earn at least an “R” rating (as it did in The Passion of the Christ), if not NC-17. So, instead of permitting themselves to become engaged in story, those who cling to religion as a license to be forever comfortable place control boxes on their televisions that censor out language for them (yes, pick your jaw up from the floor, it exists), and search Internet sites that spend their time criticizing the “questionable” content of a movie instead of the artistic content (i.e.: if there’s cursing, its bad). 
The bottom line is, artistically, that violence and sexual content are often necessary to relay the story. If we shield ourselves and  our children from that, then we are depriving them of story (a principle method which Christ used to communicate truth). This doesn’t excuse the gratuitous use of violence and sexuality present in much popular culture media and literature, where it exists simply to raise ratings, and often in a much more intense form than was necessary for the story. Perhaps our focus should be on guiding our children toward quality media instead of allowing popular culture (synonymous with non-substantive) media to be consumed. 
I went to a play last weekend. In the program, on the front page beneath the cast credits, was a bold-typed warning: “There will be gunshots during this production.” I was prepared when the character drew his pistol and let off a blank round on stage. Perhaps the ratings system should be abolished in favor of simply placing information up-front: “There will be violence and strong language in this film.” Then let the parents decide. Of course, that assumes that parents are functioning as parents, which seems to be the exception rather than the rule in our culture. 
Not only does art provide a mirror to life, it predicts it. This was Tillich’s concept of art, that artists are prophetic in the sense that they see where their culture is, and foresee the dangers of where it is headed before anyone else does. Ironic then, that we silence the voices of artists by censoring them in the name of protecting our children. If we listened to substantive art instead, I think, we might warn them away from where their culture may tragically arrive far sooner than we expected. 
Of course, we can only do that if we’re not too busy protecting them…and ourselves… from discomfort. 

Wisps of Cosmic Consternation

In the mood to worship? Do some research on the solar system.

Not deep scholarly analysis, mind you, but just go back a review some of the basics you learned while in middle school. I remember making a model of the solar system, painting little styrofoam balls in different colors to represent the different planets; the painstaking detail that I put into Earth’s colors and Saturn’s rings were astounding.

Seriously, I found myself in awe today. I focus so existentially and so exclusively at times on our world, our humanity, our culture, and how to not obscure God in all of this. Its been forever since I explored what we know about the solar system in which Earth resides, and what we hypothesize about the universe beyond. Amazing that I let this slip my mind, being as much of a science fiction nerd as I am, but I do. Genesis gives us an account of Earth’s creation, and our creation. But I wonder what was going through God’s infinitely creative mind as he fashioned the other planets with which we share this space, and the other solar systems? I wonder what He might have been attempting to symbolize? The painstaking detail with which each planet is designed, the quirky differences between them and us, is astounding. Did you know that Jupiter’s year is the equivalent of 12 earth years because of how slowly it orbits? Or that Neptune rotates on its side? Bits of rock that has come to Earth from Mars have revealed what scientists believe to have been some form of bacterial life. The fascination with “Martians” coming to get us in the science fiction genre was born from the scientific fact that, if life exists elsewhere in our solar system, then Mars is the place most likely to hold it.

I ponder sometimes what other life God has created out there. To say that we are the only life in the universe is pretty narcissistic to me. Where does man rank in this life? We are the object of angel’s fascination in Scripture, because God would choose to go to such lengths to give us a way back to Him. What might the other life have experienced? Might there be a mankind out there that never experienced a Fall? Some other bizarre species whose spiritual heritage we could only imagine? What might lie out there, that we may never know about? What might be the truth behind the conspiracy theorists who spend their days imagining Area 51? Might this other life out there experience art as we do? Do they have theatre? What are their scientific advancements? What could we learn from each other?

I wonder what other parts might be beyond our vision in this great multi-media piece called the universe? As God looks down upon the finished product that He so lovingly created, what might He see?

I imagine it might just be breathtaking when we finally get a view for ourselves.