Poppins and Perception

Mary Poppins

Gritty realism

When we were young, one of my siblings got her hands on a VHS copy of Mary Poppins. Children have a high tolerance for repetition, and so for what felt like an endless succession of days, weeks, and months, my brothers and I were subjected to a daily dose of Supercalifragelisticexpialidocious and Feed the birds / tuppence a bag. Eventually, there was no sugar that could make that medicine go down, and we taped an inconsequential local football game over it in protest. My irrational hatred of musicals may have something to do with such scarring childhood experiences. Continue reading

Temptation: Me is out to get me

In a rather difficult section of Romans, namely the later verses of chapter 7, Paul seems to me to be describing the conflict and consternation that is caused by the presence of sin within the Christian. He says something odd: “If I do that which is against my will, it is no longer I who performs it, but sin living in me” (7:20). If Paul is talking about the Christian in this passage, it would seem to suggest that normal Christian experience is a little schizophrenic. For obvious reasons, one would want to avoid such a conclusion if possible, but I wonder if there isn’t something to it?

James in his letter seems to make much the same kind of argument as Paul does, and it is in fact a fairly critical theme in James, as far as I can see. In 1:8 and 4:8, James has coined a wonderful word: ‘dipsychos’, literally ‘two-souled’, but rendered colourlessly as ‘double-minded’ in translations. ‘Double-minded’ inclines us to think of occasions when we have been what we’d call ‘in two minds’. Do I take the blue one or the maroon? I think James means more than just this, as one of his early metaphors makes clear.

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:14-15)

James seems to me to be using rather vulgar imagery, which, because we have an unshakable conviction that the New Testament ought to be polite and biblical, we tend to largely ignore. Proverbs is fond of using the adulteress or the prostitute as the symbol of the destructive tempter who lures young men to their destruction. James makes us both protagonist and prostitute. One side of us, which James calls ‘desire’, lures and entices the other part, dragging ‘good me’ off to her bed-chamber. Desire then conceives and gives birth to sin, and eventually (if the love child is fed and schooled) matures and puts you to death.

This rather adult image suggests that the ‘two-souled man’ experiences far more than indecisiveness. The Christian is prone to experiencing internal conflict in which one ‘soul’ wants to live in faith and wisdom, a path that leads to a crown of life, but lives under the threat of another ‘soul’ who would satisfy desire with no care of the cost, a cost that ultimately is death. Toying with temptation, the inability to decisively follow the strenuous path of wisdom, is the double-minded man’s folly.

As we all possess sin’s splintered psyche, and as we are all capable at any time of allowing desire’s foolishness to beguile us away, the decision for single-minded vigilance and perseverance is a daily one. Mercifully, the ability to carry out such a task, says James in verses 17-18, finds its source in the single-minded will of God to extend to us His gifts.

How long will you waver between two opinions? (1Kings 18:21)

Zuma, King James and Moral Codes

Jacques Rousseau has written a good article on our government’s proposed task team on moral regeneration. You can (and should) read it at:

http://www.thedailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2010-03-03-lets-talk-about-our-moral-code

Given that our country is a mess of different cultures, traditions and beliefs, the article essentially highlights that moral discussion in plural society cannot be relativistic. The assumption under which this moral discussion is to take place seems to be that our cultures and traditions are of equal importance, and we must learn to mutually affirm that value. As Jacques points out, this is an assumption that precludes discussion altogether.

Having Jacob Zuma calling for moral regeneration sounds to me like good old King James who supported the Protestant movement because it was less rigid on divorce than the Catholic alternative, and he was itching to move on from wife number 1. Despite the moral laxness that motivated him, we would argue that the Protestant movement was a step away from superstition and into grace, and that the first officially sanctioned English Bible, translated under his auspices, was a wonderful cultural, educational, and spiritual achievement for the English-speaking world. In other words, good came from it. One can only hope that JZ’s moral duplicity nevertheless leads to better things for South Africa’s collective morality. That our president seems to be calling for discussion because he’s tired of people calling him immoral means that we’re off to a bad start.

Of further concern to me is the body that is heading up discussion. The National Interfaith Leadership Council (NILC) has significant Christian representation in its ranks, including its chairman, Rhema’s Ray McCauley. Being a somewhat moderate prosperity preacher, the McCauleys of the world are almost certainly ill-equipped to understand deeply enough the Biblical morality that they claim to be representing. If Biblical morality is wise, it is only so when properly understood, and so I worry that whatever gets aired over at the NILC is likely to be ham-fisted traditionalism of the kind that happily pastes favourite selections of the Old Testament onto modern South Africa without any further analysis.

A body that sets out to discuss morality with a mandate that excludes discussion — and with leaders who are likely to misunderstand the best of the ready-made moral codes available to them — does not fill me with the greatest of confidence.

Providence and Fate

The Bible seems clearly to teach that God is thoroughly in control. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground without His say so, according to Matthew 10. The Bible doesn’t even shy away from making God active (though not culpable) in the midst of evil. When Babylon and Egypt were at war, the Prophet Ezekiel has the Lord calling the sword of the Babylonian king His own sword (Ez. 30:25). God’s providence over His creation is total.

Fate
The fact that God controls everything had me wondering in what way providence is different to fate. Fate is the idea that our lives have been laid out for us in a fixed pattern, but not by a benevolent force. Fate is not good or bad; it’s just the unchangeable stuff of the universe.

Relationship
If fate is impersonal and morally neutral, but God is a person who names things good and evil, what changes? Well, God cares about his world, firstly, which validates our mutual care for one another, for God, and for creation. The Stoics apparently tried to suppress emotions related to unhappiness, choosing happiness regardless of the direness of circumstances. I find something to admire in that, yet, there is also something desperate and artificial about facing tragedy with a denial. When God names evil and death as enemies, it indicates that there is a deep reality to tragedy and pain, as well as to rejoicing and pleasure.  We are in a relationship with God as children to a Father; a Father who knows us and has incorporated our will into his plan. We are not leaves blown around in the impersonal wind of fate. Relationships admit pain and joy; fate does not.

Tragedy
God’s providence also drastically alters our outlook when ‘the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away’. If God provides us with suffering or tragedy, it is appropriate to mourn, as scripture even points out on occasion. However, God’s providence means that we do not mourn in the same way as unbelievers do. Because we are convinced that God gives us suffering for our ultimate good, and because we know that mourning belongs to this earthly country that is fleeting, but not to our home country that is forever, we can mourn with abundant hope. Our mourning is not the denial of the Stoic, or the defeat of the unbeliever, but a resolute testament to an enemy living on borrowed time.

Blessing
We receive good things differently to the unbeliever too. When the Lord grants us prosperity, for example, we hold onto it with a loose hand. We are free to recognise and enjoy the blessing, if we have the capacity to do so. Yet in rejoicing, we do not enjoy the gift and forget the giver. In contrast to the rest of the world, what characterises Christian blessing is Christian thanksgiving.

We also know that prosperity is given for a purpose, and with an eternal goal. Being rich in this world means that you are automatically viewed as a successful person. A wealthy man is forgiven all but the most unbearable character flaws. Wealth buys security and opportunity. However, from an eternal perspective, being wealthy is neither success nor failure yet. What it will become depends on the one who has been gifted with it. Money can be a source of pride and evil, or it can be a tool for the Kingdom. Do we believe the lie that our money makes us important, or will we recognise that money frees us up to pursue our calling as servants?