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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How Do We React to the Death of Someone Who was "Kind of a Jerk"?

As a panelist at Faith in Memphis, I was invited last week to write on death with dignity, and did:  The night before I turned in my post, Steve Jobs died after a long bout with pancreatic cancer.  And then Al Davis died this weekend past after a long bout with the NFL.  “Reaction” has become the word now to catch everyone’s—from family and close friends to the man-on-the-street—take on what kind of life the deceased lived.
“Man knows not his time,” in the words of the Preacher (Eccl. 9:12), although Jobs was terminally sick and Davis an octogenarian.  Both men lived large in the public eye—the popularity of Apple and the NFL is boundless—and so their deaths were subject to ubiquitous public “reaction” chatted up in media outlets, from trending Twitter epitaphs to published articles.
While you have to be Osama bin Laden to have your death celebrated, Al Davis was as destructive a personality as one would care to know.  And yet in the immediate reaction to his death his Machiavellian ways were softened to "maverick," his contemptuousness smoothed into "a complex personality."  In our scrupulous cultural deference to sensitivity, it is simply out of bounds to make any negative (read: true-to-life) comment about a guy like Davis for at least 24 hours, or until his meager positives have been extolled by those few people in his circle who try to tell the rest of us that we just didn’t know him well enough to appreciate him, so stop judging him.  But after the weekend's polite reaction, one sportswriter finally asked, “How are we supposed to react when a legendary figure who was also kind of a jerk dies?”  I’d like to take a stab at this question from a Christian perspective.
Let's begin with God, who says, "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked" (Ezek. 18:23; 33:11).  God's pleasure is turning the wicked into saints, not leaving us in our sins and jerky rebellion against Him.  I know that apart from His grace I could have easily been more like Al Davis than anyone.  And so the aversion we feel to focus on the most unflattering character side of a deceased person is a godly impulse.  Steve Jobs was also regarded by many as “kind of a jerk," though Jobs was something of a trophy of common grace in that his computer genius served the public good in extraordinary ways that many, including me, are grateful for.  From history’s vantage point, I expect Jobs’ accomplishments will be celebrated on par with Thomas Edison’s and Alexander Graham Bell’s.  He should be commended as a titan of technology.  The macabre way fans in Oakland dress is it's own kind of tribute to Davis, the penultimate raider.
I understand Jobs’ spiritual allegiance was to Buddhism.  If that's true and remained his confession to his last breath, then his eternity is a nightmare, not nirvana.  But if I'd tweeted that line on the night of his death as "reaction," it would have rightly been deemed equivalent to kicking a man not just when he’s down but out.  I would have been thought peculiarly insensitive and petty, a harsh Christian with a Westboro Baptist streak, scoring theological points at the expense of a man whose invention I would have typed the rebuke to his beliefs on.
Such is not tolerated in the great cloud of reaction, we know.  The public is expected to initially show respect and restraint, even if we all know the deceased was kind of a jerk.  But therein is a tension for Christians, at least evangelicals.  Based on what I know of them, Davis and Jobs were not bowing to Jesus in life, and thus in death each appeared before Him with uncanceled enmity still between Jesus and himself.  This is a sobering reality, and if in reaction we say nothing of this for fear that we'll look pressingly triumphant or opportunistically insensitive or hypocritically unappreciative, we then have a truncated gospel.  For, as my Sunday school teacher taught me years ago, the gospel is bad news before it is good news.
Luke 13 is reaction at it's finest.  Pilate, kind of a jerk, killed some Galileans and desecrated the day's sacrifices with their blood.  Jesus is probed for His reaction to this atrocity in Luke 13. He didn't expresses condolences but a warning about the need for repentance—for man knows not his time—those Galileans didn't, the 18 victims of the Tower of Siloam tragedy didn't, nor did Pilate, the jerk who signed Jesus' death warrant.  (I can think to the point of physically shuddering what it must have been like for Pilate the day he stood in Jesus' own court.)
So here's my suggested reaction for us when a person who was also kind of a jerk dies, and the public is weighing in on it.  First, praise and thanksgiving to God that He takes no pleasure in anyone's death, however negligent, abusive, or confused about His designs for them they were.  Second, sobriety that my own death will someday come and thus a renewed resolve to live repentant and more attentive to God.  Third, honesty about the deceased's life and legacy—every life conveys both example to follow and warning to heed—as I want those who will remember me to be honest about me.  Fourth, proclamation of the gospel of grace for sin to the living.  You ultimately want to be remembered as belonging to Jesus.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

On Dying with Dignity

I'm back at Faith in Memphis answering a question on death with dignity:

Monday, October 3, 2011

First Laugh Then Think

I caught a news story last week about the Ig Nobels. These are sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research. From the website: "The Ig Nobel Prizes award achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative—and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology."

The 2011 Ig Nobel recipients included research into whether driving while desperately needing to urinate affects attention span like intoxication or sleep deprivation does, and why certain kinds of beetles try to mate with Australian beer bottles. A group of Japanese scientists who invented a fire alarm that smells like wasabi took home an Ig Nobel, as did a researcher, one Arturas Zuokas, who solved the problem of illegally parked cars by crushing them with an armored vehicle. For this Zuokas was awarded the Ig Nobel for Peace. My favorite prize was awarded in the Physiology category to a group who presented their findings under the title, "No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise." Yes, I too expected none.

Last year, the 2010 recipients included (this in the Engineering category) a research team who collected whale snot with a remote-control helicopter. Their report was entitled, "A Novel Non-Invasive Tool for Disease Surveillance of Free-Ranging Whales and Its Relevance to Conservation Programs." And back in 2009, a brassiere was invented that can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks. This took home an Ig Nobel—for those times when your lungs need more support than your chest, I suppose. Again, these are achievements that first make one laugh (or gross-out), then think.

I've decided I like these scientists and researchers and inventors who march to a different drumbeat. I like their inquisitiveness, curiosity, and ingenuity. I like their willingness to probe questions and concerns no one has yet looked into or even thought about. What if it turned out that whale snot actually has more relevance to cancer treatment than conservation? The "happy accidents" of scientific pursuits are often generated by the mirthful providence of a God who delights in giving red-footed tortoises the ability to yawn in the first place.

I think the church, after we've laughed, should think about what we can learn from the Annals of Improbable Research's Ig Nobel Prizes. The Bible contains a lot of improbable people and events, does it not? Waters part, walls fall, sun stands still, a donkey reproves, chariots of fire, Jonah covered in whale snot, Peter walking on water, Paul and Silas' bleeding hymnody in stocks.

But who among us evangelicals is probing what it would mean if God did such wonders again—a kind of faith research into realities and possibilities inspired by a worshipful inquisitiveness, curiosity, and ingenuity? Or do we think this is somehow fundamentally unnecessary now in the age of a closed canon, maybe even ignoble?

The Ig Nobel winners may be the true weirdos of the scientific community for all I know. Or they may be the real adventurers. And if something is starkly missing in most of our lives of faith it's adventure—what Canadian author Mark Buchanan once termed as stepping into the "holy wild."

Most of the Christians I know are more interested in respectability and predictability, in establishing routines and patterns so familiar the red-footed tortoises are yawning at us—though apparently not in unison. Sometimes—how do I put this—I think we're just more wimpy than wasabi. What an old priest observed of himself is true of too many of us: when Paul went into town there were riots; when he went there was afternoon tea.

Or as Annie Dillard put it memorably, in Teaching a Stone to Talk:
"On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

Some of us have never properly researched this "power we so blithely invoke." The result is tameness and sameness, as if we really don't "believe a word" of the gospel as Dillard's critiques it. Leave it to someone else to figure out how armadillos digging into archaeological sites altered the course of history (a 2008 Ig Nobel winner). Do you believe someone could be seriously intrigued by that? Well, it depends on how much you care about the course of history being changed. Shouldn't Christians have an insatiable interest in that since we believe the advents of Jesus, both the first one and second one to come, change everything? (By the way, erstwhile eschatologist Harold Camping was awarded an Ig Noble in Mathematics this year, "for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.")

I look forward to the Ig Nobels each year now. They're fun and the recipients (most of them, anyway—probably not Camping) enjoy the recognition of their work that makes us laugh and think. Somebody has to show us that armadillos aren't just roadkill, but burrowing shapers of history.

But I also look forward, longingly, to what the church achieves when she steps out with curious, adventuresome courage to truly prize her Savior's interests as her own. It may evoke laughter when we do, even scorn. But it also may astound—and spur people's interest in God.