Monday, April 18, 2011

Cloud of Witnesses

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Hebrews 12:1

Those who make up this biblical cloud of witnesses—Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Rahab—are impressive figures, but most of the time, to me at least, they seem distant and untouchable. Almost not real. And because of that, they’re not quite the examples they’re meant to be.

But I have my own cloud of witnesses. I’ll bet you do too. Here are a few of the people who inhabit mine:

C.S. Lewis. Novelist, scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature, and Christian apologist (1898–1963). How many people can trace their conversion, at least in part, to a C.S. Lewis book or essay? Millions, I’m sure, including millions of children who learned to love the lion Aslan before they knew who Jesus was.
Thérèse of Lisieux. French Carmelite nun (1873–1897). Although Thérèse wanted to remain unknown, she also aspired to greatness—in God’s sight. Being “small” in her own eyes, her path to greatness was her “little way” of small (but costly) sacrifices. Her autobiography Story of a Soul, as it was later titled, written at the request of the prioress of Lisieux and published a year after her death, is one of the most moving and thought-provoking works in Christian literature.

Rich Mullins. Songwriter, singer, musician, and author (1955–1997). In the 1970s Rich Mullins was a youth pastor and music director at his Kentucky church. In the early 1980s he moved to Nashville and started a successful career in Christian music. And in the late 1980s he gave it all up. He went back to school, got a degree in music education, and moved to New Mexico to teach music to kids on the Navajo reservation. Rich probably earned millions of dollars in his lifetime, but he insisted on being paid each year no more than what the average salary in the U.S. was. He gave the rest to charity.

Keith Green. Songwriter, singer, and musician (1953–1982). Keith Green is the first contemporary Christian music artist I remember hearing, though I have to admit I’m not that fond of his music now. (It’s, well, very 1970s CCM.) It’s his life that interests me. Before he became a Christian, he delved into Eastern mysticism and drugs, fighting Jesus all the way. After he became a Christian, he opened his house to homeless kids and prostitutes. When he was released from his last record contract in 1979, he never again charged money for his albums or concerts. People gave only what they could, and the profits went to Keith’s Last Days Ministries. When I read articles and books about Keith, the same word keeps popping up: “radical.”

Corrie ten Boom. Dutch Holocaust survivor and author (1892–1983). Ten Boom was arrested, along with her entire family, for helping to hide Jews and resistance fighters from the Nazis. She was imprisoned at Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her father and sister died in the camps. Corrie survived and went on to write her memoir, The Hiding Place, among other works. After forty years, The Hiding Place is still in print.

What about you? Who is in your cloud of witnesses?


Monday, April 4, 2011

Howls of Derisive Laughter

I recently saw a video of a speech Christian musician Rich Mullins gave in 1986 to a Christian youth organization in which he said he’d given up watching Monty Python movies. “This was a hard one for me,” he explained. “Because I love Monty Python movies, and I had to stop watching them, because I realized that they laugh at life and they scoff at life.”

Here was a guy who dove into living, who railed against Christians who try to construct neat little lives insulated and isolated from the rest of the world. Give up Monty Python? That harmless comedy troupe? Why not talk about giving up smoking, drugs, Tarot cards?

Maybe because laughing and scoffing at life—cynicism, to put it in a word—devalues life in a way that Tarot cards and a host of other no-no’s can’t. Cynicism refuses to treat God and life as good and precious. It views human beings as self-serving hypocrites. It’s too clever to fall for the “lie” that there is a God in heaven and meaning to life.

The cynic avoids natural sentiment because it makes him vulnerable. The Christian risks playing the fool. The cynic sees in Mother Teresa’s struggles with faith a “gotcha” moment—score one for atheism. The Christian sees a woman who persevered in serving God despite her doubts—the very definition of faith.

What makes cynicism so dangerous is that it’s too easy to be cynical in our culture. Beyond easy: you’re rewarded for it. Cynicism is a mark of intelligence, of a willingness to face the world as it is. It’s funny. It’s the robust, grown-up way to look at things.

But cynicism is none of those things. It’s gutless. It dislikes and distrusts beauty. It elevates ugliness simply because it is ugliness. It stands apart from the “unwashed masses,” commenting from on high. It’s passivity, not action. It’s the lousy abstract painting that any monkey with a brush can paint (and then call art).

It’s easy to mock life, to let loose with—as the Pythons say in one of their more famous sketches—“howls of derisive laughter.” All you have to do is cave into the culture. Let your thoughts fall into and roll down that old bowling-alley gutter. It takes effort to keep the ball out of that gutter and treat life as precious.

And I think that’s where giving up Monty Python comes in. We’re told to keep our minds on what is true, noble, just, and lovely (Phil. 4:8), and while that doesn’t mean we should spend our lives skipping through meadows and sipping drops of dew from flower petals, it does mean, I think, that we shouldn’t deliberately fill our minds with things that crowd out the true and noble.

The strange thing is, when I gave up Monty Python—among many other things, since I had such a taste for snarky humor—I found I developed a different perspective on life. I was no longer “feeding the beast,” so to speak, and a world of real, warm humor opened up to me. And Monty Python? They’re just not that funny anymore.