Saturday, January 26, 2013

Review of Embracing Obscurity

If there is one universal mindset, it is that each of us wants to be important, to be significant, to have our names known; to be known for something--anything. It is a frame of mind that, admittedly, is vigorously self-glorifying. Some sectors of the modern evangelical church have hijacked this mentality and attempted to redeem it without changing the locus. They have tried to justify the shadiness of self-aggrandizement of significance seeking by making it about entitlement--God's way of reward for piety.

The author of Embracing Obscurity turns that idea on its head by making a solid case that, as Christians, we should marvel and imitate Christ's disposition of humility, service, sacrifice, suffering, and mystery and surrendering our own to God's glory.

The first thing to note is that the author of the book is anonymous. He (I assume it's a male author based on the tone and content and will, for sake of ease of reading, use the masculine pronouns in this review) explains in the introduction that it is the height of irony to write a book about how Christians should not pursue the spotlight of fame or recognition. Consequently, the author chose to not attach his name to the book. He even said that he hid the writing of the book from family to  prevent anyone from "accidentally" giving him recognition.

The author first spells out the chronic condition of significance. He writes, "We're intoxicated with a desire to be known, recognized, appreciated,  and respected. We crave to be a 'somebody' and do notable things, to achieve our dreams and gain the admiration of others. To be something--anything--other than nothing."

If, in moments of reflection and conviction, we are honest with ourselves, our hearts resonate with this truth. Even as Christians, called such because we profess and declare to pursue the character of Christ, must admit that we want to be known in some way even if it's by a small group of people with home we associate or have influence.This is evidenced by the number of us who have Facebook, Twitter, and other social network accounts. These accounts, with their regular updates, are about us, our thoughts, our activities, our pet causes, and our demonstration of how intelligent and socially savvy we are. We are, as much as anyone, about self-promotion.

The author says this is sin and that it's serious. "[It's serious because] it kills with the same force as the 'big sins' from which we distance ourselves."

The solution: embracing obscurity. "Embracing obscurity is not about wiping ourselves from existence but rather, voluntarily, becoming nothing in light of everything God is and has promised us. Why? So we can bring Him greater glory. It's about making Him, not ourselves, look good."

The author rebukes the church because it "has come so fair in imitating the world's tenets of success that we can barely distinguish the two. There's a sense of urgency in our condition I think few of us us realize. And unless we find the antidote soon, we'll live and die in our self-deception."

The scriptural reference used throughout the book is Philippians 2:5-11
 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The book is divided into ten chapters. In the first chapter, the author strives to humble the reader by pointing out that that each of us is only one in over 7 billion people on the planet and only one of a many of God's innumerable creations both on earth and outside of earth (though man was the "very good" creation in His own image). In the context of sheer numbers, we are almost nothing.

Having taken the reader down a notch, he goes on in the remaining nine chapters explaining some of the implications and outworkings of embracing obscurity.One of the notable chapters is Chapter 7, Embracing Suffering. The author explains that many Christians live according to what he calls the Joseph Principle: the idea that if I am suffering today, God must be preparing me for something better. He points out, rightly, that we like to view every setback through the lens of inevitable success. The reality is that this is rarely true. Our suffering does not buy us privilege or obligation for future success. Suffering is most often unending. There is no change of fortune "just around the corner." His point is that we shouldn't simply endure it, but embrace it, allowing God to use suffering to shape us more and more into Christ's image.

Another notable chapter is Chapter 9, Embracing the Spotlight.There are times when God gives certain people a position of influence, authority, or notoriety. If we are given such a time in the spotlight, we must decide whether to use it for God's glory or our own. The spotlight isn't itself evil, but how we steward the gift can be. Three purposes are identified for one's time in the spotlight: 1) to make God's name great; 2) to advance His kingdom on earth; and 3) serve others.

Throughout the book, the author drives home the point that obscurity is of both heart and position. He concludes soberly:
Obscurity in this life--either assigned or chosen--is actually a great gift.a great gift. Our anonymous sacrifices get touched with immortality. By serving others now, we get credited with serving Christ later. By choosing to live mysteriously in this life, we'll live like kings for eternity...The imminence of eternity must outshine the lure of fame today. Forever has to eclipse the day-to-day desires and pursuits of our ordinary lives.
I found Embracing Obscurity to be convicting. I've long sought to be more than I am; more than an average guy, with an average job. I've squandered time and opportunities to utilize the gift of insignificance in anticipation of significance I knew would likely never come. This book was a good wake-up call to use the time given on earth to quietly, humbly, serve others, and serve God.

The content of the book is solid. Some might make the accusation that the author proclaims law not grace.However, this charge is unfounded.There is a clear focus on the dependence on Christ's grace to make changes to the reader's heart regarding obscurity. Also, the only works the author encourages are the same that are exhorted in the Bible: to seek to be Christ-like.

I can only identify two critiques of the book, both being form rather than content. First, the narrative is written in a verbal style almost as if transcribed from a series of teachings. While this style would work well if listening to an audio book version of this book, it caused a lack of fluency in reading. Secondly, there was in my view, an inordinate use of cliched colloquialisms and phrases that were, at times, almost flippant. Undoubtedly, these were included to provide a sense of levity to an otherwise weighty discussion with great gravity. Despite these minor quirks, I would commend this book to all.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Love of Sports: One Man's Perspective

I am a fan of the Houston Texans. I have been since they started as an expansion team ten years ago. Through the worst of seasons to this season, their best yet, I've been faithful to claim them as "my" team. I also like teams in other sports (except basketball) as well as competitors in individual sports (golf, NASCAR racing, and UFC).

It's fun to watch some people who are rabid fans of teams. Their demeanor is determined, in large part, by the success of the team they support. They strut around arrogantly when "their" team is winning; they get violently angry when "their" team loses.

It's also curious how people include themselves as part of the team they are fans of. When they speak of "their" team, they speak in first-person, as if they were on the team and had an actual stake in the success or failure of the team.

This led me to wonder about the nature of our love of sports. I don't mean the "why" of our  love of sports. Explanations for why we love sports are legion and vary from sociological to psychological, to physiological. What I want to consider is the nature of our passion for sports from a Christian worldview.

At its most basic, sports is about competition. Though not all people are sports-lovers, almost everyone is a lover of competition, whether they see in themselves or not. Consider the popularity of "reality" television shows such as Survivor, The Amazing Race, Big Brother, American Idol, The X Factor, America's Got  Talent, and on and on. They are all, basically, competitions. Viewers of both sports and "reality" television pick their competitor(s) from the available choices and live vicariously through them.

We all, through competition, seek to be, or be associated with, the best individual or best team or best organization or best institution. We want to have the experience of, not just better, but best.

What does this say about us? I think it speaks to two related concepts: 1) an innate desire for excellence; and 2) an intrinsic understanding that not everything is excellent; that there is inferiority and mediocrity. Said another way, we understand that there's something imperfect (even broken) about the world, in general, and each of us, specifically. And we are hard-wired to desire something better. We desperately seek out an expression of the excellence we know isn't currently, but could be, even should be. Sports are simply an expression of that quest. Though sporting events existed in agrarian times, they escalated in popularity with the advent of the industrial revolution and more so with the technological revolution. People in our culture no longer have to spend all their waking hours just to survive; we have discretionary time. We work to afford a greater and greater standard of living--to get more. We spend our discretionary time vicariously living through others (sports stars, musicians, actors, etc.) in a perpetual struggle against inferiority and mediocrity.

We live in a constant tension between the dream of perfection and the reality of our own inferiority.

What is the nature of our hope for perfection? God. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are hard-wired by God for a deep longing for perfection in all aspects. We live presently in the reality of the curse brought on by the fall. Adam and Eve knew and experienced perfection; they walked with God. All was right. Then they rebelled and what was once effortless was suddenly difficult. All was no longer "right." As they sweat and toiled, they did so with the memory of what it was to have had perfection. That knowledge of perfection haunts us to this day. And it drives us to pursue excellence. It compels us to vicariously associate with those individuals or teams or organizations or institutions that are closer to, though not nearly achieving, the perfection mankind was created to be a part of.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Movie Review of Zero Dark Thirty

I saw Zero Dark Thirty in the theater this afternoon.

It is not really a story of Bin Laden. In my view, he was incidental. The narrative was about Maya, a new CIA operative who spends a good portion of her career pursuing a target. At first, her motive seems to be duty--she's doing her part to bring to justice those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. After the death of several of her coworkers, her pursuit becomes personal. She risks her career and life to achieve her objective. During the film, which spans over a period of ten years, you see her progress from a young, reserved operative who finds it hard to stomach the tactics used to obtain "intel" to an aggressive, move-heaven-and-earth-to-achieve-the-objective veteran.

The story is told in chapters,with chapter "titles" appearing on the screen. This was a little distracting in that it caused some discontinuity in the narrative. However, due to the details of the sequence of events, it seemed necessary in order for the viewer to understand the progression and timeline of the movie.

The movie is quite long--about 2 hours and 40 minutes. And except for the occasional explosion of terrorist attack, there was no action. I started squirming in my seat after about an hour and a half. The first two hours and ten minutes were build-up for the climax of the last 30 minutes (the military operation). The first two plus hours served to show 1) what lengths the CIA (on behalf of the US) went to in order to get intelligence (including "water boarding) and 2) political machinations of the intelligence community. The writer and director did a good job of conveying the humanity of detainees during interrogation. This view of humanity was offset with graphic displays of violence by the terrorists.

Although the build-up was very long, I believe shortening it would have detracted from the final scenes, particularly Maya's reaction to the accomplished mission in the closing moments of the movie. This woman spent a good amount of her career working on one objective. It had cost her dearly in terms of lack of relationships, loss of coworkers/friends, etc. Then, what she had worked toward for so many years, was done. Jessica Chastain did a great job portraying Maya and the crush of overwhelming emotions she must have felt. The movie concluded with Maya boarding a C-130 transport (I'm not military, but I think that's what is was). The pilot told her she was the only passenger and that she must be an important person. He then asks her, "Where do you want to go?" Maya does, perhaps can't, respond.

The only real critique I have of the movie, other than its length and use of chapter titles, was the portrayal of the SEAL team during the operation. They were portrayed, to some degree, in my opinion as 1) almost sloppy--militarily undisciplined at times (almost casual) during the raid on the compound, and 2) as calloused killers who enjoyed taking lives. For example, two SEALs bragged to one another they "popped" so-and-so while still involved in the raid. And upon returning, they were all giving each other high-fives. I don't have experience with the military, and other movies I've seen about elite military units may have been cleaned up a lot, but I can't imagine a military unit being as cavalier about killing people, even terrorists.

Otherwise, this was a decent movie. I can't say it was a "must see" as described by fans and critics. Nor do I think it will garner many, if any awards.

Normally, a typical guy would walk away from a military action movie with testosterone pumping. That wasn't the case here. Even though there were some cool first-person shots of the SEAL team during the incursion, I left feeling deflated--as if I were anticipating this grand finale that never really materialized. I really think that was intentional by the director. As a nation, we rallied behind the idea of "getting" the man behind 9/11. Then when it happened, we almost feel cheated out of the "thrill" of revenge we thought we'd experience. Maybe that's sort of how Maya felt as she sat on the plane, feeling the weight of the closure of the many years of single-minded focus, and unable to gain any sense of satisfaction.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Reluctant Beginnings

Having written a few posts on Facebook that some have enjoyed, I've been encouraged to write a blog. I must admit I approach this venture with trepidation. I've started several blogs before, some simultaneous, but lacked either the commitment or content to keep them going. 

Around my keyboard are numerous sticky notes, slips of paper, notebooks, note cards, and a few white boards, each with a bit of information written on it. Individually, they don't reveal much. Together, they form a sort of narrative about my passions, interests, and hobbies. That is how I envision this blog. I'll post thoughts, insights, quotes, lyrics, off-hand comments, and prayers. Each will stand alone. Together, maybe, they will form a coherent, textured narrative. And maybe, just maybe, it  will compel us both to think.