Friday, December 28, 2007

New Year's Prayer

Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
--St. Francis of Assisi

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Candles in the Darkness

In the middle of our life journey I found myself in a dark wood.
I had wandered from the straight path. It isn't easy to talk about it: it was such a thick, wild, and rough forest that when I think of it my fear returns….I can't offer any good explanation for how I entered it. I was so sleepy at that point that I strayed from the right path. --Dante, Inferno, Canto I

You ask my thoughts
through the long night?
I spent it listening
to the heavy rain
beating against the windows.
--Izumi Shikibu

You can't conceive, nor can I,
the appalling strangeness
of the mercy of God.
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock

A man must wrestle til the dark centre,
that is shut up close, break open,
and the spark lying therein kindle.
--Jacob Boehme, On True Resignation

If all men knew what others say of them,
there would not be four friends in the world
--Blaise Pascal

Distrust everyone in whom
the impulse to punish is powerful!

What saves a man is to take a step.
Then another step.
--CS Lewis

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

As the Ruin Falls

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love --a scholar's parrot may talk Greek--
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

C S Lewis

Wrestling With Angels

One of the greatest challenges for today’s Christian artist is the Christian audience. Two things the average Christian looks for in art, no mater what the medium: religious content that makes him feel better about himself and the world in which he lives, and any immorality about which he can complain. To exacerbate matters, the artist must also contend with a market place that demands mindless art: an art that requires no thought and no mature sensibilities to admire or enjoy.

In making a distinction between admiring and enjoying a work of art, I have already presented a problem. For many, what is enjoyed is obviously “admirable” or we wouldn’t enjoy it! What is not enjoyed is just as clearly not admirable. This sentimental approach to art can also be seen in the pews where people evaluate the minister’s sermon, not by its theological accuracy, but solely by how it made them feel.

When evaluating anything crafted by a human being, one of our primary questions is about whether or not it is well made. And to answer this question, we must know what it means to be “well made” in regard to the object being evaluated. For example, what properties or attributes must a painting or novel possess for us to say this is beautiful or admirable?

Albert Magnus thought that beauty is the “splendor of form shining on the proportioned parts of matter.” Aquinas wrote that “the beautiful” object is one that has integrity, proportion and clarity. Of course, as Jacques Maritain and J.F. Scanlan note in Art and Scholasticism With Other Essays, “Integrity and proportion have no absolute significance and must be understood solely in relation to the end of the work, which is to make a form shine on the matter.”

Our enjoyment of a work of art has no primary place in our evaluations. I know what makes an opera admirable, but I do not enjoy opera. I admire certain paintings of Picasso, but I do not enjoy Picasso. Conversely, I thoroughly enjoy the drawings of my grandchildren, but I would not classify these drawings as being “admirable.”

(For a thorough treatment of enjoyable beauty and admiral beauty, I recommend reading two chapters in Mortimer J. Adler’s, Six Great Ideas: Chapter 15 deals with Enjoyable Beauty; chapter 16 with Admirable Beauty.)

Four Standards of Judgment
In Francis Schaeffer’s little book, Art & the Bible, he suggests that there are four standards in judging art: 1) technical excellence; 2) validity; 3) intellectual content, the world view which comes through; and 4) the integration of content and vehicle. While I do not always agree with how Schaeffer applies these standards, I do think this is an excellent place to start.

Technical excellence. It is not fair for us to condemn a work of art merely because we do not like the artist, the subject matter or the worldview that comes through. “If the artist’s technical level is high, he is to be praised for this, even if we differ with his world view.”

Validity. When an artist is motivated by the desire for fame or fortune, or when he or she aims solely to please the audience, the work done lacks validity.

In Letters of Flannery O’Conner: The Habit of Being, O’Conner (a Christian) speaks to this point as she evaluates a book that a friend sent to her. “[Her book] is just propaganda and its being propaganda for the side of angels only makes it worse. The novel is an art from and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it. I didn’t make this up. I got it from St. Thomas (via Maritain) who allows that art is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made; it has no utilitarian end. If you do manage to use it successfully for social, religious, or other purposes, it is because you make it art first…”

Content. Here, for the Christian, is where we evaluate the worldview of the artist by the standards of a biblical worldview. Can an unbeliever produce a work of art that exhibits a Christian worldview? Certainly.

Again, from O’Conner’s Letters, “In the gospels it was the devils who first recognized Christ and the evangelists didn’t censor this information. They apparently thought it was a pretty good witness. It scandalizes us when we see the same thing in modern dress only because we have this defensive attitude toward the faith.”

Integration. In any great work of art there is a “correlation between the style and the content.” One of the illustrations Schaeffer gives here is T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland,” where the poetry fit “the nature of world as he saw it, namely, broken, unrelated, ruptured.” If you have read this poem, you will remember that Eliot used “fragments of language and images and allusions drawn haphazardly from all manner of literature, philosophy and religious writings from the ancients to the present.” The style of the poem, its form, fit the artist’s content.

As you can see, evaluating a work of art is primarily an intellectual exercise, not an emotional one. Sadly, however, much of the criticism we hear and read from Christians tells us little more than the fact that they didn’t enjoy the artwork. There is little if any criteria for the judgments made: merely a visceral reaction.

All this being said, I don’t go to museums, read books or listen to music so as to evaluate the art. I do so because I simply want to enjoy the art. After all, art is not an abstraction; it is an experience. After the enjoyment, I begin asking myself why. If I didn’t enjoy it, I also ask myself why. And with great art, the meaning continues to expand, long after your first encounter.

Wrestling With an Angel
Serious artists seek to express or portray reality as they have experienced it with what talent they have been given. They are only limited by the depth and breadth of their experience. Accordingly, I want to vicariously “experience” something of what the artist is sharing with me; which, of course, requires that I get inside the head and heart of the artist, asking myself what it is he or she is seeking to “say.”

Initially, we should not approach art with a critical mind but with an aesthetic attitude: one that seeks to experience the work of art on its own terms. For as soon as we begin critiquing the art, we are no longer experiencing it. And if we cut short our experience, how do we know exactly what it is we are criticizing?

How can we evaluate a particular work of art if we do not know what the artist is seeking to share with us? Admittedly, this is sometimes difficult, but this should make us even more cautious in our assertions. Can I condemn an artist for not expressing something he or she has no intention of expressing? Can I fairly ridicule a novelist because I would have told the story differently? And if what the artist wanted to do was raise questions, can I justly complain that they didn’t give any answers?

As a writer, I sometimes have people tell me that I should have added other points to my essays. The challenge many of these people fail to appreciate is that one only has so many words allotted to him in an article. Artists have limitations regarding the dimensions of the canvas, the size of the stage, or the length of the symphony. And if any of these productions have been commissioned, they only have so much time before the work must be ready for showing.

No artist says everything he or she wants to say in a single work. Why would they want to? It would be like a minister seeking to tell us everything he believes in a single sermon. This is why we should be very careful about pronouncing “final judgments” on an artist because of a single work. As Schaeffer pointed out, it is the body of their work that will tell us about the true skill and worldview of an artist.

Given these limitations within which an artist must work, I believe we should add a degree of respectful empathy to any judgments we make about his art. Producing art is often painful. It is like Jacob wrestling with the angel. “I won’t let go—no matter how painful the process—until I produce what I see, what I hear, what I feel.” The process can be maddening and it often leaves artists with a “limp” in their personalities! Do you always say with perfect clarity what you intended to say? Have you ever walked away from a conversation and then later think to yourself, “O, I should have said this or not said that”? Artists do this with most every work they have ever created.

For most serious artists, producing a work of art is like delivering a baby. How would you feel if someone looked at your child and said, “Ugh, how ugly”? Even if the baby does have two heads and scales all over its body, have a little heart! (I stole this illustration from someone else but do not remember from whom!)

Few people take the time to educate themselves as to the nature and principles of various art forms. (Sadly, this doesn’t stop them from critiquing the art or the artist.) The attitude seems to be, “Either you have a taste for that sort of thing or not.” But if beauty and truth come from God, are we wise to approach the subject in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion? If the Master Artist has gifted people with the vision and skill to reflect something of Him and of His world, shouldn’t we learn to understandingly admire these creations?

For the artist, producing the work of art took hundreds or even thousands of hours of “wrestling with an angel.” We should at least take more than a few minutes of time wrestling to understand what he has produced, before pronouncing the angel with whom he wrestled was Lucifer.

Copyright 2005, Monte E Wilson

An Aesthetic Habit of Mind

Habits are interior growths of spontaneous life,
vital developments which make the soul better in
a given sphere and fill it full of vigorous sap.
Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism

Years ago, my friend Colonel Doner and I were in St. Petersburg, Russia, on business. One day, our host, Father Sorokin of the Russian Orthodox Church, arranged a tour: the tour group included various ministers and heads of charities from the U.S. who were also in the city. It was an amazing experience: both because of the art we were able to see, and because of the Philistines who accompanied us.

The Hermitage consists of six buildings that were the home of the tsars. One of my favorite paintings on display there is by Leonardo da Vinci: his Madonna and Child (little Madonna). One of the houses contains over 300,000 items that reflect 1,000 years of Russian history. Here you will find everything from famous icons of the 14th century, to the carriages and clothing of Peter the Great, to portraits of Catherine the Great. Faberge’s models of the Imperial regalia, as well as many of his other creations are also housed here.

Upon our return, Father Sorokin gathered us together and wanted to know about our experience. One young man stood and asked, “Why don’t you guys just sell all that art and feed the poor?” I guess this explained why these men rushed through the museum as if they feared contracting some exotic Russian disease. Visibly shaken, our host could barely gather his thoughts, so I decided to help him out.

“First of all, you could start a war with Georgia or Ukraine, as each State believes some of this art is rightfully theirs. Second, do you remember what Jesus said about the poor, how they would always be with us? Well, the poor will always be with us but there was only one Leonardo da Vinci, one Faberge!”

What goes into the mind of someone who looks at a great work of art and immediately thinks about what you could do with it?

A Habit of Mind
All of us have a “habit of mind.” There is a certain quality of the mind that determines how we look at the world. Some people have an aesthetic quality about their mind, where they can stare at an object for hours and hours, allowing the values embodied in the object to wash over their souls. Others have a more utilitarian habit of mind, where they look at the world around them with two questions in mind: What is this, and how can it be of use to me?

St. Augustine refers to these two mindsets when he makes a distinction between the use of a thing (uti) and the communing with the thing (frui), noting that these are the two basic attitudes toward the good. It is appropriate to look at a computer and ask about its usefulness (uti). However, when looking at a work of art, it is appropriate to commune (frui) with the object.

A person’s habit of mind directs his or her awareness to the world around him. As it is impossible to pay attention to all the information that is bombarding our five senses at any given moment, our attention must be selective. What directs our focus and guides our behavior is our unique perspective (habit of mind) of the world that, in turn, gives us unique purposes and goals in life.

Our unique habit of mind guides our responses to all the various stimuli we encounter: it keeps us acting in harmony with our immediate and long-term goals. “I will look at this—I will not look at that. I will say yes to this—I will say no to the other.”

When I am driving down the road, there are cars all around me, the radio is playing, someone in the car is talking, and there are pedestrians, birds flying overhead, buildings and billboards to see on every block. If I intend to arrive at my destination safe, sound and with no police seeking to pull me over, or ambulances rushing to an accident that I caused, I must focus my mind on the immediate goal of arriving safely. I select what to look for and what to ignore.

As I live my life, I intend to be useful. I am committed to making a difference in the world. As I gradually decide how specifically I am going to do this, I begin to perceive the world around me according to my long-term goals and purposes. “This will serve my ends, that will not.” Furthermore, just as driving a car becomes second nature to me, and allows me to “unconsciously” pay attention to all that I need to focus upon, so does my purpose in life become second nature. Without even being aware of it, my responses to the world around me are dictated by my long-term goals in life.

The practical habit of mind is most helpful in the world of commerce, rarely wise in the world of relationships, and never appropriate in the world of art. Art was not created to be practical. Therefore, we are never to approach a work of art and ask, “Of what use are you to me or others?”

The aesthetic habit of mind does not look at objects of art with any ulterior purpose. It looks so as to see and experience. In fact, serious artists do not create art with a view to anything other than the work to be done, and seeing to it that the work is well made. “Art operates for the good of the work done…and everything which diverts it from that end adulterates and diminishes it.” (Maritain) There is no utilitarian purpose for creating art, and none for communing with it.

Contemplating Art
An aesthetic mindset contemplates a work of art: it communes with it, seeking to penetrate the surface of what is seen, so as to experience the “truth” that it incarnates. As the late John Peale Bishop said, “You can’t say Cezanne painted apples and a tablecloth and have said what Cezanne painted.” To get at the truth of Cezanne, we must get beyond the details and allow the artist’s work to penetrate our hearts.

Practical people approach art with a demand that it move them, teach them, shock them or edify them. These people have already decided what art must “do” for them: how specifically it can be useful to them. Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), author of Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness and other such classics, comments on these people, suggesting they may not be looking deeply enough.

"(A)nd if the [artists] conscience is clear, his answer to those who in the fullness of a wisdom which looks for immediate profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused; who demand to be promptly improved, or encouraged, or frightened, or shocked or charmed, must run thus: My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there, according to your deserts, encouragement, consolation, fear, charm, all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask." (Quoted by Flannery O’Conner in Mystery and Manners.)

Art is not an abstraction to identify or figure out; it is an experience. Therefore, in contemplating a work of art, we must be open to it, giving it a chance to move us on its own terms.

I am not suggesting that we should stand passively before a work of art. In contemplation, we are fully aware of and awake to what the artist has produced. Contemplation includes the cognitive: it is utterly conscious of being affected by the values within the work it is experiencing. When I contemplate the artwork before me, I absorb its truth, goodness and beauty.

Think of contemplating a passage of Scripture. As we reflect on what was written, we do not demand it tell us what we want to hear. We are, rather, receptive to what the author offers to our perception. In much the same way, we should have a sympathetic mindset to the art we are contemplating, allowing it to show us what it will.

Contemplation is not analytical. While there is a place for and even need for analyzing art, it is post-contemplation! As soon as we begin critiquing and analyzing, we have ceased contemplating, and the experience is over; at least for the time being. The challenge for us is to refrain from anything that would restrict the full experience of the work of art until we have penetrated and communed with the thing (Augustine), so as to actually know what it is we are analyzing.

John Dryden said, “We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” If you wish to expand as a human being, utilizing more and more of your God-given capacities, you must take on new habits: habits that, in turn, will re-make you. Merely because you have yet to develop an aesthetic habit of mind, doesn’t mean, “God didn’t make me that way.” It simply means you have yet to begin establishing a habit of mind that will allow you to see and experience more of God’s reflected beauty in the world of art.

Copyright, 2005, Monte E Wilson

When Art is a Mirror

Most Christians have matured beyond the knee jerk rejection of any art that does not have a Cross firmly planted in the middle of whatever medium is being utilized. However, many are still troubled by art that reflects darkness, tragedy or sin in a realistic manner. It doesn’t seem to occur to these people that God didn’t have quite the same scruples, as the Bible contains stories of rape, illicit sexual relations, treachery, and battles with high body counts.

As creatures made in the image of God, creativity is our birthright, even our mandate. Understanding the purposes and functions of art is paramount to any intelligent analysis of its value. Historically, art has been a mirror that reflects societal values, religious beliefs, personal fears and passions, as well as sometimes just being a tool for propaganda. Unfortunately, at times “Christian art” is only propaganda, containing none of the artistic elements that would give it any standing in a civilized society.

Sometimes I wonder if part of the problem is with King James English. For us Americans, an individual with a British accent is immediately perceived as being quite intelligent, even sophisticated. If President Bush and Prime Minister Blair gave identical speeches, Americans would “ho-hum” the President, and applaud the intelligence of the Prime Minister. The King James English of scriptures has the same effect on stories of violence and sex: it just all sounds so proper!

“But Monte, the Bible does not use graphic language and imagery in its description of violence or sex.” Go back and read the battles where God told Israel to kill everything that breathed: cows, ducks, sheep, men, women and children. When such scenes are depicted in a movie, then, why do we start criticizing “the graphic nature of the violence”? Or what about Song of Solomon? Why is it that when comparable love scenes are flashed on the Big Screen or written into a novel, they are ipso facto deemed inappropriate?

As I see it, the problem is not with violence or sex, per say. The problem is contextual. Is the artistic mirror reflecting what life is in our society, or what it can be? Both are legitimate arenas of exploration for an artist. But as educated viewers, we must look at the context in which an idea is presented in order to understand its meaning.

There is a difference between the violence in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando. Contextually, it is impossible to truly appreciate the sacrifices for freedom that William Wallace and his fellow Scots made in Braveheart, if we do not understand the sort of violent battles they were willing to undertake. However, in the movie Commando, the violence is utterly gratuitous.

In Clint Eastwood’s classic western, Unforgiven, the violence of gunplay is masterfully displayed so as to show the viewer how such violence corrupts the soul. The gunplay was not romanticized. The chief characters—Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman—are portrayed as neither black nor white (heroically good v. diabolically evil) but as various shades of grey and black. The best of us wrestle with darkness; the worst of us still have sparks of light.

In visual art, Edward Munch’s famous painting The Scream is an excellent example of art that reflects pain. The contorted face of the emotionally tortured face is in the foreground while the world seems to swirl in turmoil all around him. It is a brilliant portrayal of psychological pain that is not reserved only for non-Christians.

The Spanish artist Goya painted graphic images of violence in paintings like The Third of May. This painting was executed after Napoleon’s men slaughtered unarmed Spaniards in the streets: the artist said that he painted it so that men would remember and never allow something like this to happen again. Likewise Picasso’s famous painting Guernica shows the horrible results of a Nazi bombing training raid on an innocent village.

But consider what happens when the artist’s mirror is too narrow.

In Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, we are given an allegory of boxing with themes of hope, steadfastness, sacrifice and redemption. Maggie Fitzgerald (played by Hillary Swank) would rather fail at boxing than get to the end of her life, never having tried. And while she is seeking to fulfill her dream, she refuses to take any handouts but insists upon paying her own way. However—

Toward the end of this movie, one of the characters has an accident that leaves them a quadriplegic who cannot even breathe without a ventilator. After days of soul searching, a friend pulls the plug on the victim. Of course, the Christian community is up in arms because of Eastwood’s depiction of euthanasia in an “understandable” and empathetic light.

On one hand, I applaud Eastwood’s courage in confronting the issue of euthanasia. This was no “I want your life insurance so I can buy a new house” presentation, but one that displays a deep sense of love and pity. On the other hand, as a Christian, I believe the story line and artistic value of the movie was weakened by the fact that, while we get a glimpse of the consequences of such a choice, we do not get a full picture of the aftermath of this decision in the life of the “compassionate” individual.

Franky Schaeffer once said that he had what he thought was a great story line for a movie. The story would open with a young high school girl confessing to her parents that she had become pregnant. The father immediately directs his daughter to get an abortion. Later, the father is in an automobile accident and left on life-support systems.

As the daughter considers her dad’s predicament, she easily decides to pull the plug on him: not because she hated him, but because he had taught her that some lives are not worth living. The movie would end with this scene. No one gets “saved,” the daughter is not seen weeping over her decision. Here, the logical consequence of abortion is euthanasia.

The problem for the artist and the audience is not the violence of battles, gunplay, boxing or abortion and euthanasia: the problem is the context of that violence. Do we get to see “the whole picture,” or are we left with a skewered or even perverted view of reality?

Art forms that depict violence are not the only challenge for Christians. Probably a far more troubling issue is the depiction of all things sexual. Take Tom Wolfe’s, I am Charlotte Simmons, for example.

I am Charlotte Simmons is a story about college sports, fraternities and sororities, keggers, and sex: all told through the eyes of Charlotte, a bright, beautiful and young freshman lady who was unprepared for life at fictional Dupont University. The language and imagery is graphic, i.e., x-rated.

With his masterful eye for detail, Wolfe has held up a mirror before college life, and it is not a pretty picture. This is college life as it is.

The question for some Christians is this: is this really art or is it pornography? However, again, the issue is context. Is the language and sex gratuitous or is it necessary to the story? If the language and sex were diluted or even deleted, would we get a clear picture of what is happening within the culture of our Universities? Would we see, hear and feel exactly what is going on in this context? I suggest that the answer is, no, we would not.

Actually, one of the areas where Wolfe exceeds expectations—mine, anyway—is how powerfully he shows us the consequences of choices. This is especially the case in the deflowering of Charlotte (which takes a full chapter). The sex here is not beautiful, it is not romantic: there is absolutely nothing noble or good about what happens. It is gross and ugly. And the consequences for Charlotte psychologically, relationally and academically are tragic.

I have repeatedly recommended Charlotte Simmons to high school teachers and parents whose children are about to go away to college. “You want to see what your students/children are going to be facing? Then read I am Charlotte Simmons.” The mirror of Charlotte’s story reflects this part of American culture as it is.

Even if you believe Wolfe has gone too far, the point here is that we cannot categorically assert that all things sexual are taboo for an artist. Life in this world includes sex. Sometimes the sex is pure, beautiful and filled with love. Other times the sex is dirty, ugly and self-centered. Both are legitimate expressions for an artist.

Art does not merely produce pastoral poetry, or paint idyllic scenery, or score majestic symphonies. Sometimes life is not beautiful but ugly and tragic. Art can help us see and even to feel the full impact of both the beautiful and the ugly.

As an individual, I find far more enjoyment in art that reveals life as it can be. I love stories of heroic struggle where the hero maintains his or her virtue and discovers the Holy Grail. As I see it, however, when we shun, or at least shy away from art that confronts us with painful or troubling realities, we are not being holy: we are rejecting a truth that can set us free.

“They Lied to Me!”
I have a friend who was raised Pentecostal. For him, movies were as evil as drinking, dancing or playing pinochle. When he became a minister, it was, for him, doubly so. For years, he refused to see any movie, believing it would taint his soul and destroy his reputation.

As time went on, he began to wonder about the distinction between “all movies” and “some movies.” Finally, he decided he would find out for himself, and decided to go to the movies. Still being concerned for his reputation, he dressed in an overcoat and put on a hat that he could pull down low across his forehead.

When the movie began, he said that his heart was beating so hard he could barely hear the movie. However, after a while he settled down and began, at first, to cautiously enjoy the movie, and then gradually to actually become enthralled. And then it happened: when Julie Andrews began singing The Hills Are Alive With The Sound of Music, he could take it no more. He jumped up in his seat on the last row of the theatre and yelled, “They lied to me!”

It is not always easy to distinguish between biblical standards of holiness and those imposed upon us by our religious cultures. Tragically, for many of us, the standards were set by weaker brethren and Pharisees, rather than by the more mature members of our communities. This is especially true in regards to the art we judge as good or bad, holy or sinful.

I am not suggesting that if you have no desire to see Unforgiven or read I am Charlotte Simmons you are a Pharisee or are somehow artistically challenged. I do believe, however, that, like my Pentecostal friend, many of us have been lied to. Moreover, that lie is keeping us from a world filled with meaningful insights that can provoke, enrich and enliven us as humans.

The tragedy for my friend was not merely that he was lied to, but that it took him so long to go and judge for himself, so as to strengthen his own standards and beliefs. How many of us would rather remain deaf, dumb and blind, rather than having to judge for ourselves the meaning of a particular work of art, so that we never have to face the fact that we may have been lied to?

Jesus did not come to earth to only experience the good and the beautiful: He came and embraced the full range of human experience. Yes, He experienced the joy and beauty of life (life as it can be), but He also embraced pain and suffering (life as it is): all of which made His death on our behalf even more poignant.

In his book, Art & the Bible, Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Christianity is not just involved with ‘salvation’ but with the total man in the total world.” Art reflects the entire gamut of the human experience: joy and suffering, good and evil, beauty and ugliness. To restrict the artist’s focus to only one side of life would be the same as counseling Jesus to only embrace the good and the beautiful.

Obviously this is a very complex issue, but it is a subject that we evangelical Christians need to wrestle with. Not merely so as to decide what works of art are “permissible” for a Christian to enjoy but more importantly to more fully investigate the very nature of Christianity itself. For, if we say that Christianity only speaks to or embraces what is “uplifting” or “affirming,” I suggest that what we are advocating is not the Christian life but the lies of Romanticism.

Copyright 2005, Monte E Wilson

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Welcome to Sardinia!

Here are a few photos of the Board Meeting
of our Italian Charity.

Welcome to Sardinia!

Patrizia and Davide Zaccariello
Davide manages the Italian Charity
His wife Patrizia oversees the office and bookkeeping.
I have only known Davide a short while
yet it is as if we have known one another
our entire lives. An incredible human being,
and a great friend.

Colonel Doner and Joseph Spiccia (wearing cool
shades). Colonel is the creative genius behind
the our Group, Uber Fund Raiser,
and best friend. Joseph is a Board Member
of our Italian charity, business consultant
extraordinaire and for over 20 years
has been one of my dearest friends.

Sitting on Colonel's left is Wally McCall:
omni-competent business manager, and
a wonderful lady whom we affectionately
refer to as our Dorm Mother. With what she
puts up with, no doubt God has some awesome
rewards waiting for her in heaven.

Derek Hammond
He oversees all of our African Projects
He is also the Go To Guy whenever there is
a catastrophe where we want to send in aid.
And he is the greatest friend a man could ever have

View from the deck of my hotel room

Monte enjoying his friends...and Italy

Thursday, September 6, 2007


The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer

is a very rare and difficult thing;
it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.
--Simone Weil

The other day I was speaking with someone who is suffering terribly with an illness. During the course of the conversation, he said, “I rarely speak of my illness because I have no desire to be a downer or a whiner. But I also hate it when my well-wishing friends begin spouting off all their spiritual bon mots.” I know what he means.

Why is it that we think saying something like, “There is always a rainbow after the storm,” is all that comforting to those who are suffering? “Riiiight,” they say to themselves, “but the pot at the end of the rainbow is going to be filled with medical bills.”

Some of the weirdest things you have ever heard are spoken in hospital rooms. It is as if you were in a room filled with people who had gotten their philosophy degrees in a Hallmark store. “Go with God and he will go with you.” “God is doing something very special in your life.” “With faith, you can take this lemon and turn it into lemonade.”

When we see someone suffering, it is the nature of love and care for us to want to do whatever we can to help alleviate the person’s pain. But what do we say, what do we do? Most of us simply say, “I am praying for you,” and then stand there in awkward silence.

Of course, True Believers do know what to say.

“Praise God…In everything give thanks.”
But St. Paul told us to weep with those who weep, didn't he?

“Chin up, brother: endure and keep marching for Jesus.”
But Stoicism is not Christian faith!

“Rebuke the devil, sister.”
One of my favorite cartoons is of a man lying in a hospital bed wearing a body cast, with a minister standing at his bedside. The caption reads, “Rebuke the devil? Reverend I am in no condition to be aggravating him!” Anyway, I remember where St. Paul kept rebuking the devil and Jesus said, “Enough, Paul: the thorn in your flesh stays.”

Friends do want to help. If they don’t then they are not friends. Of course, we don’t want to be like Job’s friends who “helped him” so much that he cried out, “Enough…will you never get enough of my flesh?”

The first thing friends need to remember is the physician’s oath: Do No Harm. This is no time to be practicing medicine or performing exploratory surgery. “Hey, I just read this great book…maybe it will help you.” “Bind it, loose it, embrace it, confess it away, blah, blah, mindless blah.” And if you are going to say the suffering is the result of sin and that they will be healed if they repent, you had better be a prophet and know the specific sin that brought on the pain. But remember this: if they repent and the suffering remains … we stone false prophets.

I think we should also respect the sufferer’s right to choose his own counselor. If they do not ask for your counsel, don’t give it. Frankly, I think we should be cautious with any advice, even if we are asked.

We should also realize that the individual who is suffering is not a case study; she is a human being. The Bible is not a computer where you punch in Problem 303 and get an answer. They don’t want to hear all the Bible verses we have memorized that relate to their suffering. Besides, while I do think the one who suffers should seek to remember that millions have suffered as they do, we should remember that every person’s suffering is unique to the individual. There are no pat answers, no one-size-fits-all remedies.

What do they want? What do they need? They want a friend who is simply there for them. We really don’t need to say all that much, other than that we love them and want to serve them in anyway possible. They don’t need any Hallmarkian philosophy. What they Do Need is for us is to offer to Be There for them.

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2007

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Nature of Love: Loving Others as You Love Yourself

The biblical injunction to love others as we love ourselves has always intrigued me. If for no other reason than that it smacks down the pietistic foolishness that true spirituality has within it a great degree of self-hatred. Come to think of it, this probably explains why so many of these people hate everyone who is different from them, who disagrees with them, and who refuses to submit to their anti-godly standards of (so-called) holiness. “Thou shalt hate others as you hate yourself.”

It is one thing to believe that, “Hey, we all have clay feet, all have weaknesses, all have fears and foibles,” and then act with compassion and empathy toward others (Galatians 6). It is something else entirely to believe that we are all scum—“But of course your scum is worse than mine.” Understanding that we all wrestle with difficulties and then offering the mercy to others that we receive so generously from God, is a different mindset from one that says, “We are both despicable worms,” and then go about judging and treating others with the same harshness with which we treat ourselves.

On the other hand, there is no implicit permission here to become a narcissist. The idea is not to worship self but, rather, to consider how I am to love others. For example, just as I ethically and wisely see to it that my basic needs are met, so too will I consider the basic needs of those around me. Moreover, just as I seek God’s best for my life, so too will I then seek God’s best for others.

I think the key to staying away from narcissism is seeing that I am loved by God and have been graced by him to share that same love with others. With this understanding I then “love myself” because he first loved me and is now granting me the high calling of introducing that same love to the world around me. I am not the center of the Universe: The God Who is Love is the center.

On Loving Your Self:

It is difficult to act lovingly toward others, if I am a psychological or physical basket case.

It is almost impossible to love others, if I am under such a burden of debt that all I can do is spend every waking moment focused upon servicing that debt.

If I am not seeing to it that I am constantly aware of and grateful for God’s love for and within me, then I will not be all that aware of how I can demonstrate that love to others.

In loving myself, I take care of my needs—spiritually, psychologically, and physically. If I do not do this, if I do not care for my “self,” then I am going to be fairly bankrupt when it comes to the need for demonstrating God’s love to others.

Think of it like this:

First, there is God’s love for me.
Next, there is God’s love working within me.
Finally, there is God’s love flowing through me to others.
(Obviously there is no first-second-third, as each works along side and with the other, but it helps me make a point so don’t get distracted!)

Once I truly believe that God loves me, I will also see that he has poured out this love within me. As this becomes my reality, I begin conforming my life in its entirety to his desires for my life. Subsequently, as his love is re-creating and re-newing me, it is inevitable that this same love will begin flowing out toward others. And if it isn’t? Then I have as yet to fully grasp his love for me, and the demands that it places on my life.

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2007

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Nature of Love: “Laying Down Your Life”

Loving people is not always a “pleasant experience,” for us or for those whom we love.

Jesus demonstrating his love for us by suffering and dying on the cross was not a pleasant experience for him. Nevertheless, because of his love for his father and for us, he gladly sacrificed himself. Telling the Pharisees they were a brood of vipers, because he loved them enough to speak the truth, was not a pleasant experience for the Pharisees.

Acts of love are often difficult, which is why the NT uses the metaphor of “laying your life down” as a picture of how love behaves.

Jesus gave his life for us, even though we were at war with him and running as fast as we could in the opposite direction of his open arms.

God pursues us before we are even aware of our need for him.

God’s love is freely offered and, while we may reject that love, he never ceases offering it to us.

God’s love is, at times, perceived as impotent because he refuses to force himself on us.

God’s love sometimes moves him to leave us alone, where we can discover just how deep our need for him is.

God loves us so speaks the truth-that-will-set-you-free to us…even if it makes us angry or hurts our feelings.

God’s love is not blind: it is, however, filled with grace and mercy.

Paul tells us that God’s love has been poured out into our hearts. This means that, as we learn to express and demonstrate both who and what is within us, we will increasingly find ourselves loving others as he loves us. (See Above.)

Copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Nature of Love: One Love

When I was a child I thought there was only one kind of love. You love your family, you love your friends, you love your dog: love is love.

When I became a young man and read CS Lewis’ The Four Loves, he confirmed something I had begun to experience: there were all kinds of love—affection, friendship, eros, and charity.

Now that I am older, I think there is only one kind of love. O, to be sure, this love manifests itself in various ways: with a lover it is thus, with a friend it is like so, with an enemy it is like that. Nevertheless, each manifestation comes from the same source. Love gives itself in various ways, manifests itself differently from context to context, but it is always self-giving, always self-sacrificing, always about the other.

In I Corinthians 13 we read where love is primarily a behavior: it never behaves this way (rude, arrogant, etc.), and it always behaves that way (kind, believing the best, etc.).

Paul didn’t make this stuff up but learned it from Jesus. When Jesus told people to love their neighbors, he didn’t describe what sort of feelings they should have toward them but how they should behave toward them. And who is your neighbor? Anyone for whom we can do good…even if doing good requires personal sacrifice. And anyone includes your lover, your friend and your enemy.

Of course, loving our neighbor doesn’t mean we like them or even approve of their lifestyle. Loving our neighbor simply means we get about doing what we can for their sake…for love’s sake…for goodness sake…for God’s sake.

Fundamentally, love is a lifestyle, a way of living our lives. Rather than a life that is all about me, or all about my small circle of buddies, love demands that my life becomes all about sharing God’s love with others.

Copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Nature of Love: How Love Behaves

What strikes me about Paul’s description of love in I Corinthians 13 is that it is all about how love behaves. There is nothing here about the subjective experiences we usually think about when speaking of the nature of love. This is not to suggest that feelings are not an ingredient of love, only that as far as Paul was concerned feelings were not the primary or defining ingredient.

Here is how love does not behave:

  • It does not envy
  • Doesn’t strut around saying "look at me."
  • Is not prideful (“Look how loving I am.”)
  • Is never rude – Love has manners: it offers itself but never forces itself.
  • It is not out for itself, is not self-seeking: it never says, “What about me and my needs?”
  • Doesn’t get provoked (isn’t thin-skinned), and doesn’t keep lists of wrongs suffered
  • It thinks no evil, and certainly does not rejoice when evil takes place (This includes not wanting to sit around and always talk about the evil in our denomination, in that movement, or in this house.)

How does love behave?

Love suffers long, bearing all things
Love is kind
Love rejoices in the truth
Love believes the best
Love hopes the best
Love endures

Love…believes all things…hopes all things…endures all things. I think this about sums it up.

Love believes all things
Love’s first instinct is to believe others, to trust them, to trust what they are saying. This doesn’t mean that love is blind or na├»ve, only that it is by nature trusting rather than cynical or skeptical.

Love hopes all things
Love is positive and hopeful, big hearted and open. Love is always ready to forgive and give people a second chance. Love hopes for the best in and for others.

Love endures all things
Love perseveres. Love bears the rejection of the Prodigal, allowing him to leave and then searches the horizon everyday for his return. Love leaves the ninety-nine for the one. Love goes to the cross for the sake of others.

Why does God love us? I certainly do not think it is because we are that loveable. He loves because that is who he is. Our love must increasingly mirror the love of God. As with God’s love, we don’t base our love for others on who they are or what they do, but, rather, love because it is who we are.

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Nature of Love: The Principle of Mutuality

I have always been intrigued by the fact that St. John was referred to as the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved. There were the 12 Disciples, then there were the 3 (Peter, James and John)…and then there was this one, John, “whom Jesus loved.” Obviously, Jesus loved all of his disciples, but there was something special about the 3, and even more special about the one: John.

I think the key that unlocks the door as to why John was special can be found at the foot of the cross. John was the only one of The Twelve that didn’t cut and run. I think the reason John was special to Jesus was the fact that John was more truly committed to Jesus. There was a mutual commitment and love that wasn’t found to the same degree with the other eleven men.

Yes, I know that Jesus was the God-Man and therefore there was no way that John’s love for Jesus could even come close to mirroring Christ’s love for him. Nevertheless, it did come closer than that of any of the other men.

Which brings me to the concept of mutuality within our relationships. I believe that sooner or later most relationships will gravitate to a mutual commitment…or, more accurately, a mutuality of giving and receiving. Those that do not are in for some rough waters.

Let’s start with Paul’s admonition that Light can have no fellowship with Darkness. Why is this? Because there can be no mutuality at the most fundamental levels of the relationship. People of the Light live according to a different standard, have as the source of their life the divine life of God, and have arranged their minds, hearts and lives along lines that are as yet foreign, if not down right contrary, to People of the Darkness.

Another example where there can be no mutuality: Consider the maxim in Proverbs regarding the need to not even waste our breath or time on fools. There is no mutuality here when it comes to decision-making and how to live life. If you get tied up to a fool, you are headed for destruction.

Other examples (to various degrees) of relationships where usually there is a disparity between giving and receiving would be the parent-child relationship, and the Discipler-disciple relationship. (Jesus: From now on I will no longer call you disciples, but friends.)

But what about normal relationships between friends or family members: how does this principle of mutuality work here?

Say you have a “best friend.” You enjoy one another. You have mutual hobbies, passions and visions. It is obvious that there is a compatible mutuality, correct? Well, maybe yes, maybe no! What if you are the one who always calls and initiates the get together, always invites the other over for dinner, and always the one who organizes the times for playing tennis, serving at the Women’s Pregnancy Center or whatever. Unless the person is an introvert, I am suggesting there is evidence that you may be attributing a higher degree of intimacy and importance to the relationship than the other person is.

Of course, if you are aware of this and are fine with it, then there is no problem…unless you invest yourself in the relationship as if there were a mutual giving and receiving. If you do this, you are living as if a fantasy is reality and that usually ends in a painful experience where you are disabused of your illusions. (This is called “disillusionment.”)

Within all relationships there is giving and receiving. We give love and receive love: we give and receive kindness, give and receive affection, give and receive loyalty, etc. Of course, there is always the ebb and flow of life where at times one is giving more than the other. However, over the course of time, there will be a mutual giving and receiving. But if there isn’t?

If there is no mutuality a number of things can happen. The one who is giving less and, consequently being offered more, will begin feeling uncomfortable or uneasy or even guilty. At this point they may begin starting arguments without even knowing why (they are seeking to get the “giver” to back off) or will simply begin fading out of his or her life. None of this is necessarily conscious mind you. In fact, unless both parties are very self-aware individuals, there will never be an actual conversation about what is happening.

Something else that may happen is that, without the giver even being all that aware of what he is doing, he will begin to back off relationally. Intuitively, the giver will begin to mirror the attitudes and actions of the receiver or taker. There is nothing essentially wrong with this, and it probably is the wisest thing one could do. Although, it would even be wiser if both knew what they were doing and why!

Isn’t it rare for a wealthy person to be best friends with a person from the middle-class? Why: because the rich guy is arrogant? Not necessarily. Quite often it is because the guy with all the money can give so much financially—paying for dinner at the Ritz, buying more expensive Christmas presents, etc.—and the person with less money will most always feel a tad guilty, as he or she is not giving as much as the other person. Mutuality will kick in and the relationship will seek a more appropriate degree of friendliness where both people feel comfortable. The only way this relationship will work on any but the most surface of levels is where the middle class person is bringing something to the relationship that both of them sees as equally as valuable.

Okay, Wilson. But where does “laying your life down for others” come in here?

Glad you asked.

If one of the parties is always needing to lay his or her life down for the other—and let us assume that in this case it is in keeping with the laws of love and not something driven by some martyr's complex—to what depth will the friendship/relationship grow during this process? I suggest that while it is potentially opening the door to a great friendship in the future, it is demonstrably not a friendship as we typically define that relationship. Someone is doing all the giving and the other person is doing all the receiving.

Even when God is pursuing us, seeking to pour his love out on us, showering us with blessings and etc., until we turn and give ourselves back to him, are we “friends” with God, or are we a lost and wayward people?

If you want to maintain healthy and vital relationships, watch out for mutuality.

In your friendships, are you giving as much as you are receiving? If not, is this a conscious decision on your part? Is the other person aware of the actual value you place on the relationship? I am not suggesting you handle this difference as some sort of confrontation, but it is something that the laws of love require you to address and act upon. Or so I believe.

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Nature of Love

O Corinthians! We have spoken openly to you, our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted by your own affections. Now in return for the same (I speak as to children), you also be open. 2 Corinthians 6: 11-13 (NKJ)

This is an incredible demonstration of how someone who has been filled with God's love will behave. After all the accusations, the condemnations thrown at Paul by the Corinthians, and the denigration of his contribution toward their spiritual welfare, Paul’s heart is unrestrained and unrestricted toward them.

As a minister, you are quite often being judged, sized up, evaluated and found wanting: usually because the standard being used is “my needs,” “my preferences", or “my opinions.” For many, the pain of these judgments can become so overwhelming that, almost unknowingly, they begin to shut down their hearts. And in doing so, they restrict their ability to show forth the love of God, as well as to receive love from others.

It is not merely ministers who are faced with the temptation of shutting their heart down, of course: it is a battle for most all of us.

Few relationships of any depth are without some pain. Loving someone causes us to be vulnerable to that person. The greater the degree of love, the greater our vulnerability…and this vulnerability opens us up to the potential of even greater personal pain.

We can’t have it both ways: we can’t be invulnerable to pain and open to both giving and receiving love. To the degree we close ourselves off from pain, to that same degree we close ourselves off from giving and receiving love.

The reality is, however, that sometimes we are so wounded that our psychological survival demands we shut down. The challenge here is to only shut down for as long as it takes to be healed. Sometimes this will take a very long time. In such a case as this, we must constantly be offering our hearts to God the Father and seek to remain aware that our present behavior, however understandable, is not what God ultimately wants for and from us.

Another reality is that there will be people in our lives where wisdom demands that we not trust them with our hearts. In this case, it is a conscious decision based upon wisdom, not a reaction to being hurt.

Let’s say you loan your car to a friend and this friend brings it back all scratched up. He asks forgiveness and you easily say, “Of course.” The next time you loan your car to the friend it comes back minus a bumper. This time the forgiveness is a bit of a stretch but, seeking to “believe the best,” you grant the individual forgiveness and, once again, loan him your car…that he brings back with the right front door all mangled. He weeps, he grovels, and he asks forgiveness. What do you do?

You forgive him, of course. Nevertheless you do not loan him your car again. Why? Because your car is a gift from God over which you are to remain a good steward. The same holds true for your heart. (By the way, for those Christians who think love demands that we give ourselves to all who ask of us, consider this: what do we call a person who gives their body to anyone who asks for it?)

The choice to not give our possessions, our lives or our hearts to specific people must come from a sense of wise stewardship, however, not as a reaction to pain.

And if someone dares ask, What Would Jesus Do? Tell ‘em to go read John 2: 23-25. After performing some miracles, many who witnessed these signs believed on Jesus. What did he do? Well, as he knew what was (or was not) in these people’s hearts, he chose to not commit himself to them. The superficiality of their faith meant that either they would be uninterested in "following him" as disciples or that, as soon as the trials began, these people would be the first in line to pick up stones and start firing away at him.

Jesus didn’t refrain from giving himself because he feared being hurt. He didn’t run away from a relationship with these people because he was fed up with abuse. Wisdom demanded he move on in search of those whose hearts were willing to be his.

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

Sunday, August 26, 2007


The most sentimental thing in the world
is to hide your feelings;
it is making too much of them.
GK Chesterton

I came into this world a very sensitive, emotional person. God in his wisdom saw to it that my father was not.

I remember the first time I heard Beethoven’s 9th Symphony: I was so moved by the grandeur of the music that I wept. I was 10 years old. When my father saw this, he yelled out to my mother, “Billie…he is crying…OVER THE MUSIC!” This greatly troubled my dad and continued to do so until I brought home my first girlfriend.

My dad spent considerable time teaching me to master my emotions and to utilize my reason. When I would begin crying during an argument he would respond by saying, “Tears do not persuade me: where is the logic of your assertions?” --Or some other such rational comment. And for this I am grateful. However…

Somewhere along the line I became frightened of my emotions, “making too much of them.” And this fear took on a religious veneer when I entered the world of Reformed Theology. (Or, as I now like to describe it, The Land of Vulcans and Stoics.)

It seems to me that much of conservative Christianity is void of emotions: no joy, no passion, and not even any real peace. Okay. There are a couple of emotions I do see from time to time: for example, anger during arguments or a passionate condemnation of those who are In The Wrong. But you get my point.

The fact that God gave us humans a capacity for emotion, gave us the ability to feel, tells us that he thinks emotions are a good thing. Certainly, there is the proclivity for perverting them or for making too much of them, but to rule out of hand all emotional responses appears to me to be a denial of the gifts God has given us.

Where we should celebrate our emotions some of us have a tendency of being embarrassed by them or even of downright hating them! Why is this? Because we have been lied to. We have been told that emotions are dangerous: are they any more dangerous than our minds? Yet we are constantly being told to repress our unruly emotions (“emotions” are most always described pejoratively) and listen to logic and reason, as if our logic and reason have always inexorably led us toward Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

I believe that when we disown our emotions we are choosing to deny our humanity. In fact, I believe that people who repress and deny their emotions are refusing to become fully human. After all, isn’t it our emotional responses to the world around that let us know that we are becoming conscious—that our minds and souls are waking up?

When we deny our emotions we are denying a part of our self, and this is incredibly unhealthy as it keeps us from knowing ourselves, keeps us from encountering a part of us that either needs healing or celebrating.

God comes to us, reveals his self to us not only through our minds but also through our emotions, through our senses. Refusing to utilize our senses, then, we are refusing to know and experience more of God.

When we push away our emotional response, say, to beauty or ugliness, we are choosing to be incongruent…refusing to have a corresponding and appropriate emotional response to the beautiful or the ugly. Consequently, we detach and disassociate ourselves; thereby choosing to not be authentically engaged in the life God has graced us with.

By the way, one of the reasons some people express their beliefs by saying, “I feel that…” is that their beliefs have an emotional component. They feel strongly about what they are asserting and so find it only natural to describe the belief as a feeling. (This is especially so for people who are kinesthetically oriented.) That’s why they look at the person who snidely exclaims, “I could not care less about what you feel but want to know what you believe” with such dismay: their beliefs and feelings are congruent. One is synonymous with the other. (Not that this makes their belief True or Wise.)

When Lazarus died, Jesus wept: he grieved over the loss, grieved for his friends. His response was not merely intellectual (don’t you know I am the resurrection and the life?), but an emotional one. Mind and heart operated together, congruently. He felt what he believed. Death was an enemy to be hated and overcome, something to be grieved over, yet with a sure hope.

To repress or deny our emotions is, as Chesterton noted, “making too much of them.” Yet, it can also be a case where we are not making enough of them, not giving them the weight they require, not listening to what they are telling us about ourselves. Either way, to deny our emotions stunts our growth as humans and restricts our ability to know and enjoy God. I don’t know about you but this doesn’t feel like all that wise of a choice.

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

What Women Deserve

Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, is one of my all time favorite stories. It is about an orphan’s metamorphosis into a lady of conviction and strength. Bronte’s ability to delve so deeply into the soul’s of her characters, giving her readers such a brilliant study of human nature, makes this book a masterpiece.

It is difficult for the modern reader to comprehend that this novel caused such a considerable amount of pandemonium when it was first published. It was not a particular aspect of the story that caused the brouhaha. No, the mayhem erupted because the author was a woman! In the 1800’s a woman’s place was hardly next to a Thackery or a Macaulay. Now if she had simply written a delicate little book of Christian devotion all would have been fine, but to pen a book full of romance and intrigue was out of the question.

Understanding the times in which she lived, Charlotte published the book under the pseudonym, Currance Bell. It didn’t take long, however, before the world discovered exactly who had defied the winds of public opinion and political correctness. Some of the critics were brutal. Even her Uncle Hugh ran to his minister for advice on how to weather the family’s certain storm of public scandal. Gratefully, his minister—along with many other literary critics—thought the novel was an excellent work.

We laugh now at such narrow-mindedness. Our times are so different from Charlotte’s that we can barely fathom the battle she and her female peers faced. We are so accustomed to reading Dorothy Sayers, Annie Dillard or J.R. Rowling that we tend to think female writers have been with us since Gutenberg’s press.

Without understanding the circumstances surrounding a certain novel, its significance can be obscured. In Charlotte’s case, we appreciate her book more fully, knowing the battle she had to fight as a female artist. Now, when we read the following passage the words make more sense to us:

"It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility. They must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people the earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute stagnation suffer precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow minded in their more privileged fellow creatures to say they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex."

Knowing the author’s circumstances, we read this passionate outburst and realize that we are hearing the heart of the author. I gained even more respect for Miss Bronte when I realized the courage she was displaying in writing a passage that many men would read as only so much arrogant drivel.

Historical Context
Knowing the historical setting of a particular author and book makes all the difference in the world in how we evaluate the author, her life and her art. Which brings me to how we read the scriptures.

How often have we passed right over the lives of Rahab, Mary or Phoebe because we failed to understand the significance of who they were or what they did? How many people ever stop to think about how radical it was to even mention their names in the first century?

Consider Rahab, the friendly little lady with a red light over her door. Her only claim to fame was hiding a couple of Jewish spies form the bad guys. And where does her name pop up again? In Hebrews 11: The Fall of Fame for People of Faith. Imagine the spasms her name—along with those of Ruth, Tamar and Mary—caused the average male reader.

For the typical male of the First Century, women were nothing more than ornaments or tools to be used as men saw fit. Why in the world would the New Testament make a big deal about some frilly little ladies? And what’s the deal with Jesus allowing women to be some of his closest friends and supporters? This is revolutionary stuff. While most of the male population saw women as not much more than instruments with which to produce more males, Christ made them an integral part of his ministry!

I think that one of the things that made the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel so significant for the men of his day was the mentioning of women. (“Argh! Who cares who the Messiah’s grandmother was!”) By doing this, however, Matthew, along with his fellow Apostles, were declaring that Jesus, and thus Christianity, had a different take on women than other religions had.

In most every one of his letters, Paul commends specific women for their contribution to the cause of The Faith. What strange new practice is this? Why in the world would he mention the names of Phoebe and Mary along side those of Timothy and Titus? What had they accomplished? Had they prepared a particularly delicious meal? Had they produced ten sons? Perhaps they had sewn Paul a spiffy looking robe? Let’s take a look at one of the ladies to see what the hubbub was about.

When Paul applauds Phoebe for her valuable service, many historians believe it was because she had brought his letter to the church in Rome. Think about that. Saint Paul’s theological masterpiece entrusted to a woman. She traveled mile after mile across roads filled with thieves and murderers, carrying the heart of Paul’s theology—all by herself.

Consider the loss to Christianity had she lost the parchments. Certainly such a task should have been given to a man. Paul, however, saw Phoebe’s value and trusted her.

Wherever consistent Christianity has been established, women have been elevated. From the very beginning, the Church saw women as fellow-heirs and co-workers with their brothers in Christ. Even women outside the faith were not looked down upon but, rather, were seen as creations of God worthy of respect and endowed with significant gifts and talents for the good of others.

One of the world’s most respected sociologists of religion, Rodney Stark (not a Christian), had this to say about Christian women in the first century.

"Christian women had tremendous advantages compared to the woman next door, who was like them in every way except that she was a pagan. First, when did you get married? Most pagan girls were married at 11, before the age of puberty, and they had nothing to say about it, and they got married to some 35-year old guy. Christian women had plenty of say in the matter and tended to marry around 18."

"Abortion was a huge killer of women in this period, but Christian women were spared that. And infanticide—pagans killed little girls left and right. We’ve unearthed sewers clogged with the bones of newborn girls. But Christians prohibited this. Consequently, the sex ratio changed and Christians didn’t have the enormous shortage of women that plagued the rest of the empire." (Interview in Touchstone Magazine, January-February 2000, pp. 44-47.)

And Christianity’s liberation of women continued century after century. Did you know, for example, that battered, abused and abandoned women fled from across Europe to Calvin’s Geneva?

On The Other Hand
None of this is to say, however, that their brothers have always and everywhere treated Christian women with the respect and dignity due them. Sadly, if Charlotte Bronte were a member of a fundamentalist or hardcore conservative church today, the odds are that she just may have to revert to a pseudonym.

Part of this, I think, is due to the overreaction of such Christians and churches to the radically feminist message that there are absolutely no differences between the sexes. Seeing the devastation this brought to the lives and families of women and men who fell for this weirdness, these Christians reacted in the extreme. Rather than simply holding to the biblical message regarding women, these well-meaning people took the position that if the Feminists are For It, then they were Against It. For example, when the feminist were asserting that women could and should enter the market place and compete on an equal footing with men, the fundamentalists and conservatives, with no biblical warrant for their position, said, No Way. This Is Evil. Women Must Stay Home.

It is appalling to see Christian men treat women as lower class citizens whose existence is defined solely in terms of marriage and family, denying that along with their brothers women too “must have action.” And what do you say about churches who relegate women to a handful of places where they can serve (nursery, kitchen, music and floral arrangements) other than, What Utter Nonsense?!?

Do women not have callings, brains, wisdom, talents, gifts, visions, dreams, and aspirations? Are they only to act as cheerleaders for the men in their lives? Are they not permitted independent thought or are they merely a conduit for the thoughts of their dads, brothers, or husbands? Can they differ with their brothers without being told they are in rebellion?

By the way, the next time you hear some husband refer to his spouse as The Wife or The Little Lady what you are more than likely hearing and seeing is a man who treats his wife as an object for his own personal use. Go ahead: smack him in the back of the head and tell him that slavery was outlawed years ago.

No human should ever be treated as an object: it is demeaning, undignified and a sin against a fellow creation of God. Or so I believe.

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

Learning From Others

Here in the US, for the most, our education is via teachers talking at students. The “teacher” can be a parent sitting across from us at the dinner table, a person standing behind a desk or lectern, someone we listen to on a CD, or the author of the book we are reading. We listen, we take notes, we memorize, we reflect, and, if we are hungry for truth, we carry on an internal debate with our teacher. However, while this certainly can be an effective model for education, it does have some weaknesses.

One of the challenges of the teacher-talking-at-student model is that there is often very little discussion, and, when it does occur, it is rarely a rigorous give-and-take regarding the subject matter. Is the student actually grasping the material intellectually or is he or she merely memorizing for the upcoming exam? Is the student learning to categorize, compare and contrast, and integrate the subject at hand with the larger base of knowledge he presently possesses, or is each subject placed in a mental file where it is never allowed to interact with other fields of knowledge?

Intellectual types have a particularly unique challenge regarding this model. Intellectuals go after teachers/books as a person dying of thirst reaches out for water. They listen to lectures/sermons, they take copious notes, and then they go home and begin comparing what was just taught with all the other outlines of teachings they have received in the past. If it is a book, they underline passage after passage, often creating their own indexes for each book they read, and then begin pulling book after book off of their library shelves, creating a debate in their mind between themselves and various authors. All great stuff…yet, nevertheless, problematic. How so?

Books and scholarship are wonderful things. However, there are some subjects—some experiences—that cannot be learned by being talked at or through the reading of books. What is needed is a protracted debate, on-going questions and answers with even more questions, with other individuals who are sitting there with you.

Think Socrates. Think about the advantages of having a living individual who never accepts simple answers, the parroting of accepted “dogma,” or the assertion of one model to the neglect of all the other infinitely possible models. “How do you know?” “Who said?” “What did he actually mean by that…what was the historical context?” “How are we to define that word?” “How does your notions line up with this philosopher, that theologian, or this artist’s contrary assertion?” And so forth.

Think Jesus. “Here is how you pray for the sick/cast out demons/pray…watch me. Now, you do it, report back and let’s see what happened.” “Follow me and I will make you…I will help form you and shape you into the people you were destined to become.” While Jesus gave them information, his goal was life-formation (I will help make you into someone)--and life-formation does not happen solely by listening to lectures or reading books.

You are a parent who, for the first time, is telling one of your children to go wash his hands before coming to the dinner table. Do you sit him down in the living room and lecture him? “This is a bar of soap. It was first created by the Babylonians in 2800 BC and consisted of various fats and ashes,” or do you take him into the bathroom, turn the water on, putting his hands under the water, rubbing them together with the soap? Imagine if churches and schools utilized this method of instruction!

It seems to me that this is a particular challenge in most Christian settings, especially in Reformed circles where there are so many intellectual types. Listen, Listen, Listen, Read, Read, Read. Then, after Regurgitating Knowledge so as to impress all who will listen, there follows more listening and reading. Yet what of the character of such people? Where is the Fruit of the Spirit? What has their knowledge produced in their soul’s that is good, noble, praiseworthy and beautiful? Is their head larger than their heart? Has their knowledge puffed them up or has it produced more love for God, more love for others? Furthermore, have they honestly wrestled intellectually with theologies that are different from their own? Have they seen the holes, the weaknesses in various aspects of their own models or systems of theology?

If our learning processes includes a Socratic discussion with individuals who differ with us, I think the potential for a deeper understanding of our own beliefs and how they are to be lived increases exponentially. (We also just may discover that we don’t know what we are talking about, even if what we are asserting is the Truth! Of course, we might also discover we were wrong. “The Horror…the Horror.”) Imagine the benefit of respectfully and empathetically listening to and being challenged by people whose beliefs, worldviews and experiences are different from our own.

Imagine the difference it would make if our learning processes include a mentor, pastor, coach who walks along side us and helps us to see where our knowledge is not being lived out or applied consistently. Imagine having someone who was not satisfied with theoretical knowledge but insisted we experience and live what we have learned on an intellectual level.

I don’t know what I don’t know. Neither do you. Whether it is the reading of books or listening to a lecture, I don’t know what I missed, what I misunderstood or how I am misapplying (or not applying) what it is I think that I have learned. When I make assertions regarding the beliefs or practices of those with whom I differ, if I have not entered into an honest and empathetic debate with those who knowledgably adhere to such beliefs and practices, then I will most likely misrepresent them, will I not? And exactly how will this affect my cause with honest seekers who are listening to me?

Some people need to read more. Got it. But some of us need more interaction with other humans—especially with humans who differ with us--if we are truly to “learn.”

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

Your Weaknesses are Part of Your Strengths

I see it all the time. People go to war against what they perceive as weaknesses in their personality, only to discover that they have shot and mortally wounded their strengths. Rather than merely tempering their weaknesses or guarding against some of the more potentially dangerous consequences of these weaknesses, they wish to root out the buggers tooth and nail. They then wake up surprised that they have lost their edge.

The sensitive poet seeks to steel his emotions only to discover that he can no longer see, hear, and feel the words that use to flow out of his soul.

The utilitarian businessman seeks to become more altruistic and loses half his earnings, has to lay off loyal employees, and has to battle insurrection in with his stockholders.

The scientist that never accepts dogma without question after question decides that she must be a bit more submissive toward conventional thinking…and begins falling prey to old stale thinking that leads to paths of ever increasing ignorance.

As I understand human nature, God has given us all certain talents and gifts that go a long way toward shaping our personalities and informing how we as individuals will move through life. The poet was made in such a way as to make music with words, the businessman intuitively knows what will and will not produce a profit, and the scientist was born asking “What if…?” Each gifting will then express itself in unique ways within the personalities of these individuals.

Your unique combination of talents and gifts come with certain personality traits that compliment them. Not being endowed with all possible talents and gifts there are some personality traits that you are not inclined toward, just as there are some tasks that do not appeal to you, and some things that you will never desire to master.

This is not to say there is never any need to stretch yourself, only that, for you, your capacity for exercising certain traits will not be the same as your friend’s who is gifted and, subsequently, shaped in others ways.

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Legendary Leaders

For many a petty king ere Arthur came
Ruled in this isle and, ever waging war
Each upon the other, wasted all the land;
And still from time to time the heathen
Swarm’d over-seas, and harried what was
And so there grew great tracts of wilder-
Wherein the beast was ever more and
But man was less and less, till Arthur came.
For first Aurelius lived and fought and
And after him King Uther fought and died,
But either fail’d to make the kingdom
And after these King Arthur for a space,
And thro’ the puissance of his Table
Drew all their petty princedoms under him,
Their king and head, and made a realm and
Tennyson’s, The Coming of Arthur

Before they come, morale is low, turf wars abound, and an increasing amount of people behave more like beasts then the humans they were created to be. After they come, the air is permeated with excitement, all the ‘petty kings’ put away their private agendas and band together for the sake of “the vision,” and people begin to behave with dignity. What is it about Legendary Leaders that inspire us, direct us and ignite a desire within us to be more than we ever thought possible? And how do we become such Legendary Leaders?

Whether it is corporate debacles, the war against terrorism, the disintegration of families in our neighborhoods or the chaos in our public school system, everywhere we turn we see the need for Legendary Leaders such as portrayed in the myth of King Arthur and his building of Camelot. Without such men and women the enemies of truth, goodness, nobility and beauty swarm across the country, leaving us in a wilderness of lies, immorality, degradation and ugliness. Legendary Leaders, by their very nature, not only resist such enemies, they create healthy families, businesses, schools and societies that, like Camelot, are an example of the sort of greatness that we humans are capable of.

Great Souls Achieve Great Things
In referring to “their very nature,” we begin with the core of what makes a person a Legendary Leader. There is something about them that sets them apart, something about who they are that inspires people to trust and follow them. It is not merely that they have superior skills, although this is important; it is a case of their skills being infused with a certain life or grace or power.

I suggest that what makes Legendary Leaders is how their souls are shaped. There is an unalterable commitment to maintaining their values and an inexorable promise to themselves to achieving excellence and greatness in all that they do. There is nothing small or petty about such people: they have large visions, huge hearts and lofty standards to which they hold themselves accountable.

Lofty standards are not all that popular today. It is often thought that, to achieve greatness, one must be prepared to do some shady and ethically questionable things. Maybe a priest or a parent should hold to such high standards but a business executive? The presupposition is that the executive’s bottom line is the value of the company’s stock at the end of each quarter: this is all that matters in the end and one must be prepared to do whatever it takes to keep the stock holders happy and feeling secure. Whatever it takes.

Looking reality square in the face is absolutely necessary for an effective leader. But does reality honestly justify lying to stockholders or winking at the purposeful destroying of the reputation of competitors through slander or innuendo? Is there no longer any place for the leader who has the courage of his or her convictions? And who doesn’t think that the majority of stockholders in the US have been introduced to the consequences of short-term thinking and unethical business practices?

There must be some point where we say, “This far and no farther.” Are there to be no standards other than profit-at-any-cost? Aren’t there any ethical standards whose boundaries will not be crossed? Are there no lofty values worthy of our allegiance? And even from the most pragmatic viewpoint, in the long run is only taking care of the short-run a wise strategy for achieving greatness? It may be sufficient for short-term profit but it is an obstruction for the person whose commitment is to taking the quest toward becoming a Legendary Leader.

Legendary leaders are leaders whom, after they are long gone, are still legends. Their achievements stand the test of time; their successes are a legacy that lives on long after they are laid to rest. And how was it that they were able to accomplish this? For one thing, their code of chivalry, the lofty standards to which they hold themselves accountable, did not evolve from a desire to merely do great things but to become great individuals.

Great leaders relentlessly seek to attain and maintain their values, even when these values run contrary to their cultural milieu. How valuable is a value that we cast aside as soon as it cost us some discomfort? Did you see the movie Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s rendition on the life of William Wallace? What was Wallace’s highest value? Hint: what was his last word before being executed? Freeeeeeeeedom! How different his life would have been had he traded freedom for security.

It is a small and blind soul that discards the sort of values that create a life capable of great achievements. In the heart of a Legendary Leader you will find such values as honesty, fidelity, courage, productivity, honor, justice, and excellence: each being supported by a sacred promise to God and to self to maintain these values regardless of the cost, which is the very definition of true integrity.

When Arthur began choosing Knights for his Round Table, these Knights had to take a vow: they were to pledge their fealty to Arthur and his code of chivalry. There was a dream that was Camelot and this dream could only materialize if the people who were fighting for its realization aligned their behavior to the dream. There was to be no murdering of innocents, no treason, and mercy was to be given to any who asked for it. The weak and defenseless were to always be given aid and comfort. This code was to be held as a sacred trust because such behavior would ensure the integrity of Arthur’s reign through maintaining the moral high ground from which he would extend his kingdom.

Is there any other path to Legendary Leadership than an honorable and noble code that is used as a compass? Well, it depends upon the nature of the legend you wish to create, doesn’t it? Do you want to be the leader who made slaves or the one who freed them? Do you want to be remembered as the leader who paved the path for the creation of long-term wealth or the one who raped and pillaged and left the corporation on a life-support system? If an honorable legacy is of concern to you—if the future welfare of your family, your business, your culture, your world—is of paramount importance to you, than the path to avoid will be as clear as the one to choose.

Think of some legendary leaders whom you greatly admire. Now. They can be men and women within your industry or they can be people from all walks of life, living or dead. Choose the one you most admire and ask yourself this question: What has to Be There for this person to be able to lead as they do? What beliefs do they hold, what values do they maintain, what states of mind do they possess, what skills have they honed to perfection? Like Butch (played by actor Paul Newman) asked the Sundance Kid (played by Robert Redford), “Who are these guys?”

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007