Baby, it IS cold outside

Full confession: I’ve never really liked the song “Baby, it’s cold outside”. I always have found it a bit creepy, and I’d certainly like to keep my children from hearing it enough to start singing along with it on the radio. In other words, I won’t miss it if it goes to the cultural guillotine, as many are calling for.

Still, I have to say, I’m a bit surprised: When did we start caring about song lyrics?

We didn’t seem to worry about them much this April, when Lil Dicky got a number 1 hit for musing about what it would be like to have other people’s genitals, their lists of hoes, and their freedom to throw the n-word around. Where was this outrage when Robin Thicke was making non-consensual assumptions about a “good girl” in “Blurred Lines”, or Ben Harper was crossing State lines to follow (also known as stalk) a girl who apparently didn’t want to see him, so that he could “Steal My Kisses”? And these guys are just normal. I recently noticed that more than half of the top ten songs on iTunes were marked as explicit. Once, on State-sponsored RTÉ radio, I heard a news report about Ireland’s deepening drug problem, followed immediately by a song called “My Happy Little Pill”. Seriously.

And we’re outraged by “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”?

Maybe it’s just a song I don’t like. Maybe I won’t miss it. But I do think this cultural moment marks something much bigger than any song in itself. There’s a corner being turned in the western world, and around the bend is a road we’ve been on before: censorship.

But this new censorship is different from the old variety. The old censorship was based on a logical moral system, and whether you agreed with it or not, it had a kind of consistency to it. Obviously, many of its proponents were hypocrites, and the system in Ireland was corrupt, but what of the new censorship? What is its logical foundation? Now that we are beginning to allow speech to be censored again, how will we judge what kinds of speech make the cut? I’m asking because so far, it seems fairly inconsistent. The outrage falls unexpectedly, destroying one song and leaving other (obviously worse) songs unscathed. What is our standard? What kind of new conformity are we aiming for, and how strictly are we willing to enforce it?

Without any universal standard to go by, the only foundation left for the new censorship is the shifting sand of popular opinion, shaped in large part by those powerful enough to make their voices heard. If this is how we’re going to do things now, there will certainly be a chill in the air over free speech. I’m beginning to think maybe it is cold outside.

I Refuse To Be Content With Shorthand-Reality This Christmas

In front of me, there is a rectangle with rows of little squares on it. On each square a little symbol is emblazoned; bits of circles, lines, or a mash up of the two. Whenever I push on one of the squares, the symbol transfers to my screen, and I call this “writing”. Even more amazing is the fact that you can read it, because we’ve agreed by consensus with our forefathers that these funny little shapes on my keyboard correspond to real sounds, and that the sounds can be mixed together to make words, and that the words can serve as a shorthand way of communicating about real things, real concepts, and real people.

The words themselves are not the reality. They are only a crude substitution for the purposes of communication. It would be tricky, after all, to have to hold up a real tree anytime we wanted to talk about one, or a real lion, for that matter. And intangible things like love and mathematics could hardly be spoken of at all without our language of squiggles and sounds standing in for them. For the most part, having a shorthand system to use for talking about reality is a great advantage. But there is a downside to it as well, coming from the fact that words can only mean as much as we already know. For example, if I write my own name:

Seth Lewis

The words by themselves mean nothing unless you already know something about the living, breathing human who goes by that name and is writing these squiggly shapes for you to read. Even with shorthand, there’s no getting around the fact that it takes time to learn the meaning of most realities, and especially so for personalities. This is why novels must devote so many pages to character development – we need descriptions, thought processes, conversations, and reactions to various situations before we can even begin to build a realistic idea of what shorthand words like “Seth Lewis” actually mean in the reality of living flesh.

It should be no surprise to us, then, that the same is true of the word “God”. By itself, it is a funny-looking set of circling squiggle-lines.

But what is the reality behind it?

It’s popular these days to say that the reality behind “God” is whatever we personally desire: Whether I want a cosmic Mother Nature, a mindless Force, or a Holy Father, I can fill that word however I like, and live my life accordingly. The problem with this idea is that if there is any such real being as God, my personal desires won’t be likely to change his fundamental realities. If some strangers online become firmly convinced that they have the truth about what a Seth Lewis really is, how a Seth Lewis really acts, and how I really think, it still won’t change the actual reality of what I am. In the same way, if we want to know the reality of God, we’ll need something better than our gut feelings and natural preferences to tell us.

Thankfully, we have something better: words from God himself, describing to us in detail how he acts, thinks, converses, and works in various situations. Even more than that, we have the historic appearance of God himself in human flesh – the reason we celebrate Christmas this month – to translate himself into our reality. This means that we can now see how this God thinks, converses, acts, and responds to the various situations of life on earth, as a human. This Christmas season, I don’t want to be content with my current understanding of the old familiar shorthand: God, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, and such. I want to take time instead to mine the gospel accounts carefully and get to know more about the reality those shorthand words represent. More about the Reality that made himself an infant, brought heaven to earth, and reshaped eternity. More about the Reality that has already changed my own reality more than anything or anyone else. I already know the shorthand. I want to know more of Him.

Beyond The Frozen Past

I’ve a treasury of moments, frozen now, and stored. A freezer full of timesicles I’ve carefully preserved. I love the smell of happiness these memories still hold, and yet I know the beating life in them can never be restored. Each moment past is frozen fast, unchanging to eternity: a monument carved in the stone face of Time, a smile, laughter, a frown. The image of life with it’s breath removed, the death-mask of vibrant Now. As my timesicle collection grows, I understand more and more why the simple act of living a few decades seems to leave humanity looking over our shoulders in wide-eyed amazement at the pace of life. The shock of seeing so many living, breathing moments frozen behind us can’t be easily shaken off. The thought of today’s warmth joining them soon, followed closely by all our tomorrows, can draw the cold air right out of the freezer and encase our hearts in icy fear.

Don’t give in.

The cold fingers of Time may lock up the past, but that doesn’t mean we have to hand him the future early. The warm breath of living Now is here beside us, chest heaving with all the wonder of this moment. Yes, our time here is limited. Yes, our lives are framed like a painting by the hard lines of birth and death. Eventually the art we leave behind will be completed, for better or worse, to hang frozen and unchanging in the gallery of history.

Will anyone see it there?

Do our frozen lives even matter?

Yes. The builder of this gallery carefully selected the exact wall and space for your painting, chose the colours you would use, and the size of the canvas you would create on. Your life is one work in a massive collection that is the magnum opus of the original Artist, shaped together out of millions of parts to tell the story of the universe with every possible colour, shade, and dynamic included. Yes, the past is frozen. Frozen like a statue of a warrior in his moment of triumph, reminding the world of his victory over all the forces of evil. Frozen with the weight and shape of the glory of God, revealed through time and climaxing in the only death that could conquer the power of death forever. And someday, when history itself has run out of breath, the gallery will stand complete and God’s children will roam it’s halls, admire its intricate detail, and finally understand how their own framed and frozen brushstrokes fit in the master plan of the master Artist.

…and live on in the power of Jesus’ resurrection to spend eternity in living, breathing, creating Now.

The Pilgrims At The First Black Friday

When the Pilgrims landed in the New World after fleeing religious persecution in the Old, they faced incredible hardships straightaway. Learning to survive in a wilderness with a different climate was difficult, and the addition of more settlers who arrived without provisions brought them to the point one winter when the daily ration was a mere five kernels of corn. Somehow they made it through, and with help from Squanto and the Wampanoags, learned to live in a new context. After a bountiful harvest the next year, they declared a day of Thanksgiving, and celebrated it with a joyful feast and games (apparently not American football, but it’s hard to say for sure) shared with their Wampanoag neighbours.

On the very next day, the Pilgrims and Wampanoags realised that true happiness and contentment could not be achieved through mere gratefulness. What they really needed was wagonloads of new things, purchased at mind-blowing discount prices. So they came together and declared another holiday; a day dedicated to knocking one another down in a quest to gather as many deals as possible so that they could fill their houses and teepees to overflowing with comfortable and impressive things that would prove their worth and make their neighbours drool with envy. They called this second holiday “Black Friday”, and although the origins of the term are cloudy, some historians believe it came from the fact that many of them ended up black and blue in the mad rush to be the first to get a good deal on the latest convenient oil lamp model, stylish hat, or diamond-studded saddle.

This, of course, didn’t happen. Apparently, the Pilgrims and Wampanoags were actually content with their joyful feast and the provision God had supplied. In fact, it took us 400 years to achieve the cognitive dissonance necessary to turn the day after Thanksgiving into a National Day Of Unbridled Consumerism. Could two consecutive days contrast each other any more? We spend one day in thankfulness for all the gifts we have received from God, then wake up early the next to trample each other in our quest for more!

Some think the world of the Pilgrims was dour and cold, even though history shows them to us singing, feasting, and playing games. We can think what we like about the Pilgrims and their flaws. I wonder, though, if the Pilgrims could see our celebrations this week, what would they think of us?

Health Committee Doesn’t Mind A Bit Of Suffering

Through much of her history, Ireland has been well acquainted with the reality of pain and suffering. Yet one of the beautiful things about this nation is that in the face of her own pain, she responded by growing stronger in her compassion for others who are in need. Her willingness to stand up for people and animals who face pain and suffering at the hands of others is well established – which makes her government’s decision last week to allow intense pain for some living beings on her very own shores hard to understand.

No, I’m not talking about the financial pain of skyrocketing rents or the ongoing suffering of thousands on long medical waiting lists and hospital trolleys. Those are pressing issues that desperately need attention. Let me draw your attention in another direction, though, and stay with me – I believe this is something we can all agree on, even if we disagree on the surrounding issues:

The Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy bill, which would officially legalise abortion in Ireland, spent some time last week in the Health Committee as 180 possible amendments were considered. One of those amendments was a simple requirement that “A medical practitioner who carries out a termination of pregnancy shall take all steps as may be appropriate and practicable to avoid causing pain to the foetus.” This amendment was rejected by the Committee. Why is this significant?

It is significant because it cannot be denied that foetuses feel pain prior to birth. We don’t have to agree on humanity, personhood, rights or any such thing to know this. We have the technology, and the only thing we’re still debating is exactly how early pain can be felt (with answers ranging from 8 weeks to 27). The timing makes little difference, however, because the abortion legislation being proposed for Ireland allows for some terminations (cases where there is a “condition likely to lead to the death of the foetus”, Section 12 in the legislation) without any set limit as to the gestational age or viability outside the womb. In other words, even if they are only a small minority of cases, some foetuses will still be able to be aborted under this legislation at stages when there is no doubt about their ability to feel the intense pain of their surgical destruction. So why would the government refuse a common-sense amendment that would have simply required that in such cases we “avoid causing pain to the foetus”? We have good painkillers. We already use them on foetuses when preforming foetal surgeries. Why not use them for terminations as well? Would we knowingly sanction similarly unnecessary pain for any other living being in our care? The definition of “termination of pregnancy” in the proposed legislation is: “a medical procedure which is intended to end the life of the foetus”, so recognition of the presence of life is agreed. Shouldn’t we also be able to agree on offering basic relief wherever possible to living beings who are known to feel pain?

Many who voted to repeal the 8th did so in the name of compassion. No matter where we stand on the ethics of abortion, we should all be able to agree that causing unnecessary pain to living beings is the opposite of compassionate.

Gospel Music: The Happy Song That Grew From Suffering

We’ve all heard of the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. From the 1500-1800’s, more than 12 million souls were captured, torn from their families and homes, and sold across the sea – with almost 2 million dying before they even landed. Those that made it were treated as sub-human property by their new masters, to be used and tossed aside at will.

Of all the people in the world, these are the last you’d expect to hear singing. Yet sing they did, with such passion and rhythm and hope that they eventually created a whole new kind of music: Gospel, a genre still popular enough today that I recently attended a concert at the Cork City Hall along with hundreds of other people who all paid €40 for the privilege of hearing the Blind Boys Of Alabama sing about Jesus in their toe tapping style. I looked on in amazement, because it doesn’t add up: Take a group of men who have personally known the depths of the hate and oppression this world has to offer (they lived through segregation in Jim Crow-era Alabama, as well as a world war), men whose ancestors were stolen and enslaved, men who began life with every disadvantage society could give them already built in – then add on top of that the further disadvantage of physical blindness. Now tell me what you think these men will sing. Why didn’t we hear the angry tirades of many modern rappers and rock stars? Wouldn’t that anger be justified? Why not at least the sorrow of a country tune lamenting all that has gone wrong? Surely they have more right to anger than Tupac or Eminem. Surely they have more to lament than the cowboys of Nashville.

How can they be so happy? How can music born in such suffering and pain have the power to lift anyone who hears it and make them want to dance for joy? And how is it that we who enjoy all the advantages they were denied choose instead to sing so tirelessly of our misery, heartbreak, and loss?

The Blind Boys know, and they were quite clear when they visited Cork: “Jesus is the answer” they said, and sang, and demonstrated with their obvious joy in the face of all they have known and experienced. Jesus is the Gospel behind the music, the reason toes can tap in joyful rhythm even in the midst of earthly oppression and disability and war. Jesus, the most innocent man who ever lived, who let himself be oppressed and unjustly killed, who did it “for the joy set before him” – knowing that his victory over the death our sin deserved would open the door to the most glorious and enduring celebration ever known, a celebration that the Blind Boys tapping toes are inviting us to glimpse and taste as we wait for their voices to join with all God’s rescued children in the Gospel Music Session of the ages!

Banksy Grabs Headlines, Even As Millions Of Masterpieces Shredded Daily

Last Wednesday the anonymous British graffiti artist known as ‘Banksy’ sold a few prints at an auction in Paris. This is notable mainly because of what didn’t happen: the last time Banksy art was sold (earlier this month) it self-destructed only moments after the gavel went down on a  bid of over a million British pounds. Banksy had installed a shredder inside the frame, which was remotely activated as soon as the sale was complete. It sounds a bit like the stuff of spy movies, and certainly was a first for the art world. Or was it?

It’s true that it had never happened at an auction before. But outside the auction halls, it’s actually quite common. Take a walk down the street from the now-embarrassed Sotheby’s in London, and before long you’ll find yourself in Hyde Park. One of the city’s large Royal Parks, Hyde Park boasts a beautiful variety of autumn colour this time of year. In other words, a profusion of striking colours fill the air with beauty as an entire natural gallery begins to transform, without any need for remote activation, in a synchronised rhythm of mass self-destruction.

Autumn in Hyde Park, London

Take a walk through the park, and you’ll hear the satisfying crunch of Autumn under your feet. Bring a magnifying glass with you and marvel at the intricate design of millions of tiny cells, each containing libraries of design plans stored in organic memory more sophisticated than any device Silicon Valley has produced, boasting internal machines with the power to convert raw sunlight into energy more efficiently than any solar panel. All of these engineering marvels are spread on eye-catching canvasses with a wide variety of symmetrical shapes and blazing colours, and some of them have found their way into your shoe. You crush them under your feet as the trees release more into the breeze with a similarly careless disregard. All over this half of the world, billions more trees are releasing billions more leaves in a wanton self-destructive shower of ticker tape, not even caring if anyone is there to appreciate their dying display or jump in the gathered piles of art that used to hang in their lofty galleries.

When God creates art, he is anything but sparing. He spreads it far and wide, covering the earth not merely in repeated prints but in billions of fantastically unique originals, and then destroys them in seemingly heedless abandon, gathering their decaying canvasses into the soil to give nutrients to a new generation of art ready to burst out in Spring. You don’t have to go to exclusive auction houses or pay a million pounds to enjoy it – the art is growing in profusion all around you, all free, all given for your daily enjoyment by the greatest Master the art world will ever know.

Banksy was original, but not as original as the leaf in your shoe.