Friday, December 27, 2013

Bill Cosby – From Doctor Huxtable to Doctor Toxic

I’ve long known that laughter can be both enjoyable and toxic and that we tend to suspend our critical thinking when we’re laughing; laughing can bring barriers down quicker than chug-a-lugging a Mason Jar of Virginia Recipe. There are things society endorses today that it prohibited fifty years ago; Hollywood had a hand in bringing the barriers down by getting us to laugh at them – we were culpable because we paid for the entertainment, we laughed at the entertainment, and now we are the entertainment. Make something funny or cute or sympathetic and there is a good chance of getting that something accepted. By the same principle take something serious like the Gospel, or sex within marriage, or faithfulness in marriage and caricature it, make jokes about it, belittle it…and again critical thinking is suspended and the floodgates of toxicity open to engulf society.

I haven’t followed Bill Cosby closely but for the most part what I’ve seen I’ve liked. When I was in junior high school I had a record of his stand-up routines, they were clean and I enjoyed them. In fact, until this week there is only one routine of his that I objected to and it was one in which he used the name of Jesus in a profane manner. Again, there may have been other objectionable routines of his that I’m not aware of for I haven’t followed him closely. But my opinion of Mr. Cosby has changed and he has gone from Doctor Huxtable to Doctor Toxic.

You may recall that Doctor Heathcliff Huxtable was his name on The Cosby Show which ran from 1984 – 1992. In the show he portrayed a husband and father who was kind, honest, faithful, with a sense of humor, and wise. In 2004 TV Guide ranked Dr. Huxtable the #1 Dad in TV history. While I didn’t watch many episodes of this series, what I did watch showed a loving husband and wife who loved their children.

With the above as a backdrop, Cosby has a new standup performance titled, “Bill Cosby…far from finished”, that has been released on DVD. The back jacket of the DVD says, “Whether he is talking about friendship, first love, marriage or raising children, the result is people laughing so hard their faces hurt, their sides are splitting, and they can’t breathe. This extended concert event is a must-see for your whole family.”

My recommendation is to keep this DVD away from your family and anyone else you care about. For 95 minutes (I recall one exception when he weaves a story about driving children to school) Cosby cynically attacks marriage by lampooning wives as the equivalent of prison wardens and portraying husbands as prisoners in their own homes and marriages – it is the story of the overbearing wife and the mousey husband who is trained to say, “Yes Dear”. Cosby inserts toxicity with humor, with comedic timing, with signature facial expressions, and by taking isolated things which can and do happen in marriages and making them the motif of marriage – and by doing so he deprecates marriage. Wives are portrayed as domineering tyrants and husbands as bumbling serfs just trying to get along.

The fact that it is Bill Cosby delivering the message makes his delivery a Stealth Bomber; after all, this is the guy who played Doctor Huxtable, this is the guy who makes it a point not to use curse words in his comedy, this is the guy we trust.

A confession: in retrospect I wish he had started his routine with a few curse words because then we would have turned the DVD off…as it was we watched the entire thing…my excuse is that I thought it would surely get better – poor excuse. Yes, this is a confession – I was a fool to watch the entire thing but I did. I kept thinking, “What message is this sending to young people in the audience? What message is this sending to women? What does this say about marriage?”

So you see I was watching somewhat critically, but as I hope you also see I agreed to be sucked into the morass, I made the decision to keep watching – I was a fool. Don’t be a fool with me.

The experience is interesting to me on a few fronts; one is that it shows how laughter can overcome critical thinking and how being favorably predisposed to someone can entice us to drop our guards. Another thing about the experience is that it is a sober reminder to me that I must never suspend critical thinking and that when I sense something is awry that I need to deal with it then…not later…because the more one sips from the Mason Jar of Virginia Recipe the easier each subsequent sip is to take…and before you know it the entire jar is empty and you don’t know where you are or how you got there.

The Scriptures tell us to gird up the loins of our minds and be sober; how we use our minds matters; thoughts reproduce and reproduce and then reproduce some more – what thoughts are our minds generating, what images, what attitudes? I want to think sober thoughts in line with reality, corresponding to God’s truth and God’s word – I don’t want to be drunk on the world’s toxicity. 

Here’s another confession…since I’m laying this all out in public…watching this was not honoring to my wife Vickie…and that, my friends, was sinful and stupid and I’m sorry I wasn’t enough of a husband not to turn the wretched thing off. Shame on me.

Now…in all love and gentleness may I say…don’t let it be shame on you.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Out of My Bone – Book Review (Part 4 – with Associated Thoughts)

Continuing with one last segment from Davidman’s letter to H.H. Lewis: “My last criticism concerns content. Poetry must appeal to the imagination and the emotions; correct political statement is not enough…And to appeal to imagination and emotion, the poet must use both himself; he must work through the five senses, not through the power of argument…if you do not take the trouble to imagine your subject completely, how can you expect the reader to do it for you?

“Just stop reining in your imagination; let it go and take a look at the real lives and sufferings of real people on this earth. Then come back and tell simply what you have seen.”

While argument has its place in prose and public speaking, I’ve excerpted the above comments on poetry because of Davidman’s emphasis on the imagination. In an age of data and information our imaginations are atrophying, we also confuse imagination with imaginary – they are not synonymous.

Is what the Apostle John saw in Revelation Chapters 4 and 5, the Throne Room, imaginary? If so, we should forget about reading them. Can we see what he saw with our imaginations? Yes we can. Was Jesus walking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus imaginary? No it was not. Can we use our imagination to walk with them, to hear them, to feel the road beneath our feet, to experience the ache of weariness, the perplexity of hearing (on the part of the disciples) that the tomb of Jesus is empty? Can we sense the disciples’ intrigue with Jesus, their wonder when He vanished from sight?

I have often heard others say that they found the subject of history boring; then there are the few who tell me about a teacher who made history come alive. The former usually had teachers who told others about history, the latter had teachers who showed their students history, who gave them a guided tour of people and experiences, who transported their classes to walk and talk with those who lived and loved and died decades or centuries or millennia ago. But you can only escort others to where you have been yourself, otherwise all you can do is to give facts and figures and read words – data and more data and more data – what good is it to read about the road to Emmaus  over and over again if we haven’t walked it?

This is one reason why I love using the historical present in speaking and writing, it helps in transporting us back to the time and place of focus. It isn’t, “Jesus said, Let not your heart be troubled,” it is rather, “Jesus says, Let not your heart be troubled.” It isn’t, “And Peter and John ran to the tomb,” it is, “Peter and John run to the tomb.” Go back with me to the Upper Room, go back with me to Easter morning; hear the words that Jesus speaks as the apostles hear them, run with Peter and John to the tomb, don’t be a bystander, don’t sit in the bleachers, get out on the field and play the game.

But our audience can only get out on the field if we take them there, and we can only take them there if we have been there first, and we can only go there first if we use our God-given imaginations. The Bible is a book filled with images, images that we try to explain away and reduce to the mundane – how sad…all those images without people who will use their imaginations to experience them and thereby understand them with their hearts. I’ll tell you what, if you’ve ever been to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon you won’t forget it; nor will you forget if you find yourself in the Upper Room.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Out of My Bone – Book Review (Part 3 – with Associated Thoughts)

Continuing with Davidman’s letter to H.H. Lewis: “These defects [see the previous post] are thrown in sharp relief in your work by your habit of mixing styles. You will use the funniest, the least dignified of slang phrases in the same line with some of this pompous old stuff; and consequently the slang looks cruder and the fancy language sissier than ever. Once you pick a style, stick to it. It’s like the tone of your voice; it adds a great deal of meaning to the words themselves, and if you changed tones five times in speaking a sentence you’d confuse everybody.

While Davidman is writing specifically about poetry, her observation applies to all genres of communication; though I suppose in post-modernity many people might not notice – so accustomed are we to discontinuity and disjunction and disharmony. It seems that communicators and artists and musicians must be asking today, “How much noise can we make?” when engaging in what passes today for creativity. When I was a child we had “dot-to-dot” books (do they still publish them?). You drew a line from 1 to 2 to 3 and so forth and when you were done you had an image of an elephant or a dog or a house or car. In post-modernity a dot-to-dot book need not result in a discernable image. In today’s milieu a speaker or writer can change tones five times in speaking a sentence and few people will notice, so accustomed are we to our disjointed world.

Davidman continues, “Abusive epithets have no place in poetry; they belong on the back fence. Instead of calling Hitler a so-and-so, the poet must show Hitler doing something which at once makes it clear to everybody that he is a so-and-so; then you must have proved your case without even needing to state it.”

This is a tough rule to adhere to because it requires discipline and sweat and merciless editing. It is so much easier just to get to the point and call a spade a spade without describing the spade; it is easier but it is not memorable – not memorable for the audience and not memorable for the communicator.

When the communicator forces himself to show and not tell he is likely to gain a deeper understanding of what he is talking about, likely to discover nuances he didn’t see, likely to walk down paths previously hidden. Once the communicator takes the journey himself then he can describe the journey to others, once the communicator has seen something then he can show it to others.

Familiar territory is dangerous territory; we think we know the familiar and we think we can walk right by it and tell others about it without slowing down, stopping, and pondering what we think we know. This is one reason why working with children is both challenging and enlightening at the same time; it is challenging in that we need to communicate descriptively, we can’t take shortcuts by just telling them things (or at least we shouldn’t take shortcuts); it is rewarding in that as we force ourselves to describe subjects and objects we see new images which lead to our own greater understanding. Adults let us get away with laziness, children don’t. If children don’t see what we’re saying they’ll let us know one way or the other – by words, by body language, or by looking for something else to do.

A couple of years ago I read a popular biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer, at times when the author was dealing with Hitler and Hitler’s ideas he resorted to what Davidman was talking about in her letter to H.H. Lewis; I recall a passage about Mein Kampf; Hitler’s book was dismissed out-of-hand without any description of what Hitler wrote in the book – this was not helpful and it was lazy…it was also poor writing. There was so much of this type of thing in the Bonheoffer biography that I felt I was watching a DVD with gouges in it, stopping here and skipping there – shame on the editor.

Back to the danger of the familiar; some years ago when preaching through the Gospel of Mark I came to Mark 12:28 – 31 in which Jesus says that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. I’d known that passage since I was fifteen years old, it was one of the first passages I learned by heart after meeting Jesus, but preparing to preach that passage by showing what the passage meant required more sweat and pumping iron than just about any passage I’ve ever taught; one of the most familiar passages to me required the highest degree of work, of dogged determination, of perseverance. I also knew that while my audience may not know the passage by heart that it was a passage whose concepts they had heard and therefore were likely inoculated against – I needed to take them on a journey to explore and see the passage. The result was a message that I could see and illustrate and could show to others.* If you were to put me on a plane land me in an unfamiliar land without Bible and notes, by God’s grace I could preach and teach that passage because I’ve seen it and showed it to others. I like to think that my listeners were turned into viewers that morning and that they could also share the images of that message with others. If my listeners haven’t seen then they haven’t heard.

Joy Davidman understood the difference between telling and showing; perhaps this is one reason she was a gifted collaborator with both William Gresham and C.S. Lewis; Lewis’s Till We Have Faces would likely not be the book it is without Davidman’s partnership. Her advice is a bastion for those who strive to maintain clear and meaningful communication in an age of incoherence; her advice was needful when she wrote it in 1943, it is indispensable today. 


*The message title is; A Ladder or a Loveseat? Is our relationship with God based on climbing a ladder to earn His acceptance, or is it sitting on a loveseat with Him in Christ, loving and being loved?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Out of My Bone – Book Review (Part 2)

Anyone contemplating reading Out of My Bone, who has not read Lyle Dorsett’s biography of Davidman, And God Came In: The Extraordinary Story of Joy Davidman, might want to consider reading the biography before reading the letters. The biography will provide context for the letters; this is particularly helpful since the range of correspondence in Out of My Bone is limited.

Davidman, who was born in 1915, had a remarkable intellect, graduating from Hunter College in 1934 and then from Columbia University with a MA in 1935 (she graduated from high school when 14). Considering that she died when 45, I can’t help wondering “what might have been” had she lived longer; what books and essays might she have written, what might her literary and intellectual and spiritual partnership with C.S. Lewis have looked like, and how might have she continued to grow in her relationship with Jesus Christ?

One of Davidman’s letters that struck me was written to Harold Harwell Lewis (dated June 7, 1943 – no relation to C.S. Lewis) in her capacity as an associate editor of New Masses, the magazine of the Communist Party of the United States.   It begins: “Dear H. H. Lewis, I’ve been looking over some of your poems, and I’ve been impressed with the broadening scope of your work…You are certainly growing as a poet.”

Well into the letter Davidman writes, “Another way in which your work is getting above the heads of the audience is in its diction…Our task is to bring poetry back to spoken English; a good rule is to use no expression in poetry that you can’t imagine yourself using in conversation.”

When you show that you know more than your audience, it should only be something that your audience really needs and wants to learn. You have another trick of inventing words, using hyphens to create what are known as neologisms – horrible things; and using a jawbreaker where a simple one-syllabled word will do.

Not only do big words look grotesque; they are also limp and colorless, because they have no associations. A reader will get a mental picture when you say tulip tree, but if you call it Liriodendron tulipifera you will leave him blank. Or imagine using “maternal progenitor” for mother.

Her letter to H.H. Lewis covers six pages in Out of My Bone and I’m going to quote from it more in the next post; consider the time and thought Davidman is putting into encouraging and critiquing her correspondent, this is quite the investment – and one which Davidman is willing to make with those who “have an ear to hear” what she has to say. Unlike the passive communication style that our 21st century society is perfecting, Joy Davidman gets to the point, expands the point, and then gets to the next point without apology or without using phrases like in my opinion.

Her above-quoted advice is good for writers and speakers today, even writers of emails. I recall once, in Boston, hearing a seminary professor speak at a breakfast of business and professional people and cringing at his theological jargon – even if his audience could deduce the meaning of the jargon the process of deduction would have distracted it from following the speaker’s line of thought, it would have been akin to taking the wrong exit ramp from an interstate highway and then figuring out how to get back on the highway.

In terms of emails, how often have I read an email from someone trying to impress readers and thereby coming across unnaturally, using words that they would never use in normal conversation – and sometimes using words whose meanings they sadly do not know.

I like words, and I like increasing my vocabulary, and I like using different words, including words that aren’t used very often (because if I use them I’ll learn them) – and therein lies the danger if I forget my audience and forget the message – the goal in communication (unless your goal is subterfuge) is for the listener or reader to see what you’re writing or saying – it is incumbent on the one doing the writing or speaking to do it well – and that means to do it with the audience in mind.

There are writers and speakers that are Gnostic in the sense that they portray an air of mystery and secrecy; follow them to become initiated into hidden wisdom and knowledge; use their jargon and “voice” to enter the inner circle of acceptance and ascendency. We see this in art, we see it in religion, we see it in academia, we see it in literature; I suppose we see it just about everywhere – why I even see it in business with buzz words and phrases and in thinking that often has no foundation and that is not logical. We think fancy words indicate learning, knowledge and wisdom – too often they indicate shallowness and egotism. Davidman could see through fa├žade, some people appreciated that and some didn’t. I think Jesus probably would have said to her, “Behold an Israelite, in whom is no guile.”

To be continued…

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Out of My Bone – Book Review (Part 1)

I just finished reading Out of My Bone – The Letters of Joy Davidman, edited by Don W. King, Eerdmans, 2009. There is a particular challenge in reading this collection in that there are two distinct sections of letters, the first section covers pages 1 – 159; the second section pages 160 – 358. The letters in the first section are dated from August 18, 1936 to October 29, 1953; the letters in the second section cover November 14, 1953 through July 2, 1960 – Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis died on July 13, 1960.

The challenge comes in the second section, for the vast majority of the letters are to William (Bill) Gresham, her first husband, and their recurring theme is his lack of financial support for Joy and their two sons, David and Douglas. After Joy’s marriage to C.S. Lewis, on April 23, 1956, the focus on money shifts to the support of the two boys and is not as pronounced as prior to her marriage to Lewis; this is because Lewis has taken up the financial slack; in fact previous to their marriage Lewis was already helping Joy financially. Here are some snippets from her letters to Gresham:

“Check for $25 arrived. How long is Valley Forge going to last?” March 8, 1954.

“Why no, all is not well with me and the boys. How do you expect it to be, on five-dollar checks?” March 25, 1954.

“I supposed I’m a fool to go on being patient; any other woman would go to court.” January 14, 1955.

“Gee thanks; this month, for once you’re less than $100.00 behind!” March 25, 1955.

“You know, I get tired of labouring the obvious; you know as well as I do that $20 a week isn’t enough for me to bring up two boys on even in England.” November 28, 1955.

“Same old inflexible – ignore everything I say and go on paying as little as you please.” March 14, 1956.

The challenge in reading the second section is at least two-fold; firstly it is repetitiously dreary, with the monotony only breaking somewhat after her marriage to Lewis. Secondly, because her letters to Gresham dominate the second section, the reader has to remind himself that he is only reading a facet of Joy Davidman’s life through these letters – there was much more to this woman during these years than is reflected in the letters. Having said that, there can be little doubt in reading her letters to Gresham how finances influenced her activities and her health (she couldn't afford a balanced diet); they also restricted her ability to engage in activities that might have opened up opportunities for writing and speaking. In her letters we see a gifted thinker and author reduced to typing manuscripts for others in order to make ends meet.

One thing that comes through clearly in her letters is her love for her boys and her determination that they have educational opportunities and the best life possible under reduced financial circumstances. She writes to Gresham as a mother first and a soon-to-be former wife (and then former wife) second. She also shows genuine concern for Gresham and his new wife, her cousin Renee; Bill and Renee had an affair that was a catalyst in Joy and Bill’s divorce.

As difficult as the second section of her letters can be to work through, the reader will certainly sense that he has walked with Davidman through the peaks and valleys of life and will take special delight in Joy finding joy and peace in her marriage with Lewis…it was all too brief…but it was also a time of beauty for them both.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz

I came upon the following story while reading Professor Roy E. Ciampa's webpage, he had it in his resource section; it certainly applies to reading the Bible.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mona Lisa

Consider two scenarios:

A visitor to the Louvre, a lover of art, is contemplating the highlight of his trip to France, the Mona Lisa. Suddenly a woman runs toward the painting and throws an open can of red paint on the priceless portrait yelling, “Down with art!!!”

A visitor to the Louvre, a lover of art, is contemplating the highlight of his trip to France, the Mona Lisa. As he beholds the mystical portrait an employee of the Museum approaches the painting with palette and brush and begins making changes to the painting. When the visitor protests the employee explains, “We’re making changes to the painting so it will be more relevant to this generation. There is no need to present the painting as conceived and executed by Leonardo da Vinci; what matters is what we think of it today, how we interpret it, and how we can better present it.”

Which, I wonder, is the more painful experience? Seeing a priceless work of art desecrated by a vandal or by a well-meaning devotee of art? Suppose art museums the world over began “improving” on priceless treasures, making them more familiar to the contemporary eye? Suppose a new way of thinking permeated the art world that held that all art should be modified from generation to generation in order to meet the expectations of each generation, and that each generation should leave its artistic interpretations on the Mona Lisa and other renowned art treasures?

The vandal’s actions are but the actions of one person, but for the entire art world to adopt a way of thinking that leads to the work of Leonardo da Vinci and other Masters becoming indecipherable – that would be a tragedy of both action and of thinking – that the conservators would become the vandals – no matter how well intentioned – that is almost beyond imagination, akin to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in which the job of firemen is not to put out fires but to burn books.

Thus it is particularly disconcerting when Christians approach the Bible with professed respect but with functional disrespect. It is not the goal of Christians to vandalize the Bible, and yet our approach to the Bible is often one of vandalization, for when a Bible study reads incomplete passages of Scripture, when it fails to take in the Biblical context of a passage, when the readers fail to wrestle with the words and images and ideas presented in passages – and instead force passages into preconceived molds of thought – this is akin to the guardians of the Mona Lisa deciding to improve upon da Vinci’s work. Another way to look at it is that suppose the Louvre decided to only display a portion of the Mona Lisa? Come on Monday and see the lower one-seventh of the painting, come on Tuesday and see another one-seventh of the painting, and so forth. Imagine never seeing the entire portrait at one time? It doesn’t make sense does it? And yet we insist on not interacting with entire passages of the Bible at one time, we insist on not building context and interpreting and experiencing the Bible within its context.

I was once in a study (I have been in many such studies) in which a portion of a Biblical discourse was read and then we stopped reading and the facilitator (a man who dearly loves Jesus and the Bible) started asking questions about the Biblical speaker and the speaker’s audience. Most of the answers were speculative; they were speculative because we stopped reading midway through the discourse. Many of the answers were in the second half of the discourse but since we didn’t read the entire discourse people didn’t have the complete picture, they were viewing fifty percent of the Mona Lisa. This approach to the Scriptures is repeated time after time after time in Sunday schools and small groups and, sad to say, in many sermons. Sound bites do not make a symphony; the Bible is a symphony. A “Top 40” song may last only 3 – 5 minutes, the Bible is not a Top 40 song, it is God’s symphony.

How do we vandalize the Bible? By not submitting to the text but rather insisting that the text submit to us. By not investing time in the text but speeding through it. By not, as a first impression, interacting with the text directly but rather relying on a mediator (the study Bible syndrome!). By not reading the entire text we are working with, but rather reading and interacting with the text piecemeal. By not daily reading and meditating on the Bible in order that, among other things, Biblical thought patterns, contexts, and points-of-reference are formed in our mind, heart, and character.

The Bible is like the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, it is visibly small but it leads to something immense. The outside tells us nothing about what is inside nor where the inside leads to. It may look like other books, but it is not like any other book – for it is more than a book, its passageways lead to ages past and ages future and to the eternal “now”, they lead to the throne of God and intimacy with the Trinity. The Bible is more majestic than all the natural wonders of the world combined…who would be a world-traveler in the Scriptures? Who would be a time traveler? Who would experience the transcendence of the Almighty?

Jesus Christ cries, “Come meet Me in My Word!” And we reply, “Can’t you just send us a tweet?”