Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Hell of a Story

The story referred to can be found in Luke 16:19-31.

One of my favorite podcasts is “The Tobolowsky Files.” It is a series of stories told by Stephen Tobolowsky, one of those actors whose face people know better than they do his name. He’s been in many movies, including “Mississippi Burning,” “Thelma and Louise,” and “Memento.” He is also a staple on TV. His two most recognizable roles share a surname. On “Glee” he is Sandy Ryerson, the former Glee Club teacher and sometime conspirator with Sue Sylvester. But he is best known as Ned Ryerson, the insurance salesman who annoys Bill Murray everyday in “Groundhog's Day.” Tobo, as his friends call him, is a born raconteur, with a wealth of stories about his professional and personal life. He has been thrown from a horse and broken his neck, suffered amnesia, had his apartment broken into as he lay medicated and helpless in his bedroom, formed the "Dangerous Animals Club" with boyhood pals, lived with a brilliant but maddening playwright, battled squirrels and skunks in his garden, written the film “True Stories” with David Byrne of the Talking  Heads, and chatted with an irrepressible Holocaust survivor he met at his synagogue, whose experiences are the basis of his podcast entitled “A Good Day at Auschwitz.” Tobo’s stories are funny, sad, nostalgic, mystical, bizarre, dramatic, romantic, heartbreaking and heartwarming. If you just want to hear a good story, well told, Google “The Tobolowsky Files,” go to the website and click on any of the podcasts. You will be spellbound.

Besides a compelling plot, one of the keys to making a story memorable is good details. Details can flesh out a story, make it more vivid, more arresting. Jesus was a good storyteller and one of his most memorable tales is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In 2 sentences Jesus sets the stage. The rich man wears purple and fine linen and feasts every day. In contrast a poor man lies at the rich man's gate. He would be satisfied with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table. And instead of being covered with fine linen, he is covered with sores. Which the dogs lick. That detail, besides making us go “Ick,” creates sympathy for Lazarus.

Note that the poor man has a name. The rich man doesn't. Tobo says the worst parts for an actor to play are those without a name, just a title, like “the Judge” or “Loudmouth Executive.” Those characters are never fleshed out. And, indeed, Jesus’ rich man has no distinguishing features. For that reason, among others, it is unlikely that Jesus is talking about specific persons or a real situation. That’s not the point of the story.

The stage is set. It’s time to call “Action!” In this case, the 2 men die. Lazarus is carried by the angels to Abraham's side; in other words, heaven. The rich man finds himself in Hades. He sees Lazarus and Abraham far off and asks the father of the faithful to send the poor man with a mere drop of water to cool his tongue. But every story needs an obstacle. Abraham says there is an uncrossable chasm between the 2 places. So the rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Abraham replies that they have Moses and the prophets to tell them how to live. The rich man says that he won't do them any good. But a man coming back from the dead will impress them. Abraham begs to differ. If the moral arguments of Scripture won't move them to turn to God, neither will the miracle of a man brought back from the dead.

There are a couple of things to note. First, the layout of heaven and Hades cannot be taken too literally. Hell is separation from God. Here it's within hailing distance of heaven. But if the rich man and Abraham couldn't interact, the story wouldn't work. So the chasm that prevents crossing over but not conversation should be seen as a plot contrivance. It makes it possible for us to see what the story is really about.      

And what it's about is not that the rich go to hell and the poor go to heaven. The man's sin was not being rich but not helping Lazarus. The poor man was lying at the rich man's gate. He couldn't enter or leave his house without stepping over Lazarus. But he couldn't even be bothered to give the man his table scraps, much less treat him as a fellow human being. We are commanded to love our neighbor as we do ourselves. The rich man's actions are anything but loving. He reserved all the pleasures he could afford for himself. The rich man suffers in the afterlife what he avoided in this life. Lazarus, deprived of all physical and social comfort in this life, is comforted in paradise. So it’s not about how much you have but what you do with it. The man isn't condemned for being rich but for being selfish and not even thinking of helping his neighbor.

The rich man still hasn't learned his lesson because he asks Lazarus to do for him what he wouldn't do for  Lazarus--give him a morsel of mercy, in this case, a drop of water. Only when he is told that it is impossible, does the man in Hades think of others.  He asks that Lazarus be sent to warn his 5 brothers. This time Abraham doesn't say that what the man asks for is impossible. He merely says that the warning his brothers need can be found in what Moses and the prophets have revealed. And indeed, you can't read the Bible open-mindedly without noticing that God expects us to take good care of others, especially those too poor to afford food, water and shelter. The prophets routinely connect bad religion with a lack of concern for the poor and the powerless. So Abraham is right. If the brothers would only heed the commandments of their own religion, they will avoid the rich man's fate.

The man knows his brothers only too well. They won't listen to God’s Word. They need something more startling, like a resurrected Lazarus. (And what does it say about the brothers that they, too, saw Lazarus at the gate often enough to recognize him should he return from the dead?)

So Abraham drops the bomb. If the man's brothers won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they probably won't listen to Lazarus.

But wait! Why wouldn't a resurrected Lazarus convince them? I mean if someone you knew came back from the dead and told you to change your ways so you don't go to hell, wouldn't you listen? Or would you run to a psychiatrist, terrified you were going crazy? On Easter, even the disciples had doubts. They thought the risen Jesus might be a ghost. Contrary to popular belief, it was hard for them to get used to something that went against what they had previously thought about reality, as well as the beliefs they had grown up with. The Messiah was meant to sit on a throne, not hang from a cross. So it took 40 days of encountering the risen Jesus for the new reality to take hold. Would a mere acquaintance have much effect on the brothers?

There’s another reason why sending Lazarus might not work. True, he might put the fear of hell into the brothers but that's a pretty negative motive to do good. It’s like putting a gun to someone's head and saying, “I want you to be a good person.” You may change their outward behavior but not their inner attitude. They would still be acting out of selfishness--self-preservation.

God is Love. He made us in his image. He wants us to emulate him by loving him and each other. Love requires free will, including the option to reject the lover. You can't make someone love you or anyone. So as Abraham says, if people are not touched by God’s Word on justice and mercy, they won't be changed by any external event, no matter how spectacular.

But wait! Weren't the disciples changed by the resurrection of Jesus? Yes, but only because they had already been touched by his words. When many others turned away from Jesus because of his difficult preaching, he asked the Twelve if they were going to leave as well. “To whom can we go?’ they replied. “You have the words of eternal life.” What the resurrection of Christ did was confirm what they already had begun to believe--that  Jesus is the Messiah. And rather than putting fear into them, it took their fears away. If Jesus conquered the realm of death, what else was there for them to fear?         

So just as Dorothy has to go to Oz to realize that there's no place like home, the point of Jesus’ story of a man who goes to hell is that the existence of hell isn't sufficient to change people. If they don't respond to God’s Word, to the values it promotes, to the perspective on life it gives, to the just and loving God it reveals, to the good news that Jesus proclaims, they won't respond any better to miracles or even fear. That's the twist to Jesus’ story.

The best stories change the way we look at things. “A Good Day at Auschwitz” lets the listener see the  Holocaust through the eyes of a man who could find moments of joy even in hell on earth. In today’s parable, we see that heaven and hell are not so much external places but internal states of the spirit. Those who live for themselves alone are cut off from God, the source of love, even in this life. They are deaf to the Gospel. Wrapped up in themselves, their exile from God is self-imposed. As C.S. Lewis said, the gates of hell are locked from the inside.

Those who love God and others, not just with their lips but with their lives, are already part of the community of God and in this life and the next, they can look forward to greater intimacy with God.   

Character is destiny, especially if you live forever. The good news is we can change. If you let the Spirit of God grow you into his image in Christ, then, as you reach out and connect to others, the Body of Christ grows and the Kingdom of God expands. The Kingdom, Jesus said, is among you, is in you. Heaven is not where you are going, it is what you are becoming.

Think about it. There is no place you could put Hitler that would not be hell for him and for others. He carried his hatred and rage and love of destruction with him. By the same token, anywhere Jesus is can be paradise.  So the ideal place for him is in your heart, your mind, your life.

But don't think you can keep him to yourself. Nothing can contain Jesus. Hell couldn't. And even today, if you keep your eyes open, you'll see Jesus in the damnedest places. He is irrepressible. And thank God for that. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Physics of Inconvenience

I'm not a scientist but I read a lot of science. I know that there are classical physics, which govern the mechanics of most of reality. There are quantum physics, which are quite different and govern sub-atomic particles. On the quantum level, objects can move from point a to point c without passing through the intervening space, or be in 2 places at once, or changing the direction of the spin of one electron can  change the direction of another electron that is not touching it nor even near it. Very weird.

I heard of some physicists who worked out that there is a scientific reason that Christmas lights are always in a knot. Apparently, there is a law or principle that causes strings and cords to get tangled up in themselves. And that news got me thinking: what other laws are there that govern common objects, things neither as big as planets or rocks but not as small as mesons? My son say we should name this branch of science the physics of inconvenience and I have a few laws to propose.

1) Small objects, when accidentally dropped, will not land directly below the point from which they started but will move horizontally along the floor at least twice the distance they were dropped. (That is, if dropped from a height of 4 feet, an eyeglass screw will travel 8 feet along the floor.)

2) Small dropped objects are attracted to dark places under furniture or appliances. (Scientists have discovered that the universe is mostly dark matter but can't find all of it. I think it is under our sofas and refrigerators...tiny black holes sucking small dropped objects into parallel universes.)

3) If the part is not dropped over the floor, but over a piece of furniture or a car engine or inside a car, it will fall into the narrowest space imaginable, usually one in which it can be seen but not reached.

4) The part's inaccessibility is directly related to its importance and the difficulty of obtaining a replacement.

5) When trying to remove or disassemble something, all but one of the fasteners (ie, lug nut, bolt, screw) will be relatively easy to remove. The remaining fastener will not budge, despite Herculean efforts to loosen it.

While we're at it, a whole branch of this field should be devoted to probability theory and motor repair.

6) The likelihood of a vehicle or major appliance breaking down is inversely proportional to the availability of a repairman. (Thus your car is much more likely to break down while between small rural towns in Montana than in the city of Chicago and the odds that your fridge will go on the fritz go up sharply after hours weekdays and exponentially on weekends and holidays.)

7) The likelihood of a vehicle or major appliance breaking down is inversely proportional to the amount of your bank balance. (The lower your balance, the higher the probability that something expensive will break.)

8) The exception to the above rule occurs when your bank balance is temporarily increased by a windfall, such as an IRS refund or bonus. The cost of repairs will approximate the windfall.

9) The lower the cost of a car part, the greater the portion of the engine that must be removed to get at it and replace it. (Eg, a $1.00 part will require the removal of the entire engine block.)

And here are a few laws that apply to medicine.

10) The more costly a medical test is, the more likely it is to reveal nothing of interest.

11) The more inconclusive tests you undergo, the more likely you are to recover without actual treatment.

If you have formulated laws of a similar nature, please share them in the comments section below.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Religion and Violence

I have a sermon suggestion box in the back of my church. Parishioners put their questions on cards or slips of paper and put them in the box. On the last Sunday of the month I randomly draw one out. The next Sunday I preach on it. Colleagues have told me I'm brave. I reply that I have a good library and access to the Internet. Christianity is 2000 years old and most of the questions have been posed and variously answered by others. In a week I should be able to research and craft at least an adequate answer. This topic was drawn, believe it or not, just 2 weeks ago and this is the sermon I gave last week. It it amazingly appropriate for this day. 

Today is the 9th anniversary of the acts of destruction committed by Al Qaeda terrorists on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It’s probably also a major reason why many atheists have gotten so outspoken about the dangers of religion. Most rational people cannot understand how someone could do something so horrible as to fly planes full of innocent passengers into buildings full of innocent people and kill oneself in the process. And most atheists really don't understand religion (in the way that some people really don't understand opera or poetry or the attraction of certain sports.) Since this outrage was done in the name of a religion, atheists have said, “Ah, ha! That explains it! These two irrational things, religion and indiscriminant  violence, must go together. Eliminate one and the other will likewise disappear.”  Never mind that suicide bombing was created by the Tamil Tigers, a non-religious terrorist group entirely motivated by the desire to create a politically separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. Until recently they produced more suicide bombers than Muslim extremists did. Islamic insurgents got the idea from this secular movement. The notion that eliminating religion will stop people from harming each other is as naive as a new parent thinking that if she just takes a disputed toy away from squabbling children, they will get along. As beautiful as John Lennon's song “Imagine” is, I can't imagine how any observant father could believe its central conceit, that conflict comes exclusively from external sources. 

That said, our sermon suggestion wants to know “why Islam allows the promotion of violence against opposing views?” To explore that question, we need to look at the history of  Islam.

Muhammad was a poor orphan who married the wealthy widow he worked for. When he was 40, he said that the angel Gabriel had come to him as he meditated in a cave and told him to read. He protested that he couldn't read. Each time he said that he was seized with pain until he asked what he should read. The angel recited several verses of what became the Quran, which means “the Reading” or “the Recital.” Since he was illiterate, Muhammad had to ask others to write down the verses as he recited them. Over 23 years, through dreams and visions, Muhammad recited more than 6000 verses and 114 chapters. Since these revelations continued up to the last month of his life, some of these reflect situations he was encountering. And a lot of what he encountered was violent opposition.

Muhammad’s message that there was only one God was not well received by the tribes of Mecca. They did not want to give up their gods and surrender (the meaning of “Islam”) to Allah (previously a generic term for deity, like our "god.") After 2 years of being persecuted, Muhammad’s entire clan was exiled to a barren valley, miles from the city, to starve. His wife sickened and died. The Christian king of Abyssinia accepted many Muslims as refugees. Eventually, Muslims were permitted to return to Mecca. More than a decade later, Muhammad's powerful uncle and protector died. Getting wind of an assassination plot against their leader, the Muslims fled to Medina where there were already many converts. The first mosque was built in Medina, while Muhammad wrote the city charter, and received revelations concerning civil and criminal laws , as well as social rules.

Fearing the growing power of Medina, the tribes of Mecca launched a number of invasions and guerilla attacks against the rival city and the growing faith of Islam. After a series of desperate battles, the Muslims managed to defeat superior forces and take Mecca. In the last 2 years of his life, Muhammad conquered the rest of the Arabian peninsula, united its tribes, and held off the Byzantine and Persian empires. After his last pilgrimage to Mecca, he died of a fever, his head cradled in the lap of his favorite wife.

As you can see, much of Muhammad's religious life was occupied not only with spiritual matters but with tribal warfare. Also within the lands he ruled were Christians and Jews, who initially approved of his stance against idolatry and for monotheism. So some verses of the Quran honor the other two Abrahamic faiths, reflecting the times when their followers were his allies.

However, the Quran retells key stories of the old Testament, some drastically altered, holding that the Bible does not contain the authentic writings of the Hebrew prophets. As for Jesus, he is given the title of Messiah but is not considered divine since Islam holds that it is not like Allah to have a son. They all take second place to Muhammad, God's last and greatest prophet. So after first finding acceptance by Jews and Christians, Islam was eventually rejected by the majority of them. This opposition and perceived betrayal is reflected in other verses of the Quran. It is these passages that give militant Muslims plenty of ammunition when they want to attack infidels, especially if they ignore the verses that speak of living in peace with Christians and Jews.

During the Middle Ages, Islamic civilizations dominated northern Africa and the Middle East. As caliphs ruled large empires, they found themselves with large urban populations of Christians and Jews. Provided these non-Muslims paid a special tax and did not seek to make converts, they were usually protected from persecution. Like most successful empires reigning over diverse peoples and cultures, the Islamic ones became more tolerant. This was reflected in medieval Muslim scholarship and their commentaries on the Quran and the Hadith,  a collection of stories about the prophet's life and sayings which is another source of Islamic doctrines.

It was this more relaxed version of Islam that was challenged by the 18th century scholar, Muhammad Ibn-al-Wahhab. He wanted to return to a stricter interpretation of the primary texts. He incited his followers to end the veneration of Muslim saints and to level their elaborate tombs. He also brought back disused practices such as the stoning of adulterous women. Two of his students were brothers of Ibn Saud, whose descendants would conquer and rule Saudi Arabia. Saudi royalty funded the building of Wahhabi religious schools  throughout the Muslim world, spreading this fundamentalist version of the faith and influencing most militant Muslims.

Like fundamentalists of all ideologies, Wahhabi Muslims pick and choose which parts of  their source documents to emphasize and which to turn a blind eye towards. Thus warlike passages are highlighted whereas verses that prohibit killing women, children and non-combatants are ignored or torturously reinterpreted. Certain terms are redefined or their meanings narrowed. The best known is the word "jihad." It simply means “struggle." and in the Middle Ages, a distinction was drawn between the Lesser Jihad or warfare and the Greater Jihad or one's personal struggle to surrender to God. But today the first thing that comes to mind when we hear “jihad” is "Holy War." Similarly, a “fatwa” is simply a religious ruling on any matter but it has come to mean, popularly, a call for the death of someone, like Salman Rushdie, for offending Muslim sensibilities.

And as they do with Christian fundamentalists, the media focuses on their colorful and controversial pronouncements more than the teachings of more mainstream and moderate Muslims.

We have a similar problem in Christianity. Some preachers emphasize parts of the Old Testament that chronicle the wars of the ancient kingdom of Israel and try to apply them to modern America. Others relish the violent imagery of the Book of Revelation, a work steeped in symbols, choosing to to interpret some parts literally when it suits their agendas. They also read into it things that aren't there, like a battle of Armagedon or non-existent references to Christians fighting. Thus a book that was meant to send a message of comfort to persecuted Christians, coded to disguise it from their oppressors, is instead perverted into a call to fight God's battles for him.

To those looking for excuses for violence in the New Testament, today's Gospel (Luke 14:25-33) provides plenty of fodder. Some cults take Jesus' words literally, rather that recognize them for the Semitic idiom they are. “Hate” is a hyperbolic way of saying “love less” and is used in the same way in other parts of the Bible.  Jesus is heightening the offensiveness of what he says to make a point. In a culture in which parents were all powerful, and family loyalty was of the highest priority, for Jesus to say that his disciples must love him more than these was outrageous. He might as well say that they were to hate their families or tribes. It was the same thing as far as they were concerned.

But aside from giving him top priority,Jesus doesn't say we should do anything hateful to others. Unlike Muhammad Jesus never led an army or killed anyone. He told his disciples to put up the sword when they tried to stop his arrest. Jesus gives no sanction to those who choose not to turn the other cheek or go the second mile. His command is unique: “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.”

It’s easy to get people to hate others. And, because religion is about things of Ultimate Value, it is a common leadership technique to invoke God's name when you really want to motivate people. Tell them that what you are asking them to do is God's will. Tell them that those who oppose what you are doing are God's enemies. It works really well. Especially if you demonize them. Especially if you neglect to mention that they, too, are created in God's image. Especially if you care more about your righteous objectives than about people as the rightful objects of God's love and redemption. 

The Quran has no New Testament, no volume that goes beyond the early tribal turmoil that gave birth to the faith and conceived of a spiritual Kingdom of God, separate from and superior to the kingdoms of this world. Politics and war are part and parcel of the holy book of Islam.

It’s not that different for other religions. The most typical role of religion is to bless society's status quo. I remember seeing an old newsreel of a Russian Orthodox priest walking past a row of the Czar's soldiers on horseback, sprinkling them with holy water, literally blessing the instruments of war. That parallels the rituals radical Muslim terrorists enact before going out to kill non-Muslims, or Muslims of a different school of thought. Extremist Hindus and Jews similarly justify killing in the name of God.

Christianity ought to be different. Jesus did not kill his religious enemies and neither did his disciples. For the first 300 years, Christianity was not a legally recognized religion in the Roman empire and so at times it was severely persecuted. Unfortunately, things changed when it was made the official religion of the empire and later, of almost all the nations in the West. But there have always been those who remember what is distinctive about Christianity and and who seek to revive those features when they are in danger of being forgotten: things like God's loving nature and forgiveness and our call to imitate Christ, Love Incarnate. These reformers bring the church back to its basic values whenever it threatens to become just another religion.        

Islam is not unique in its susceptibility to be used for violence. No ideology, religious or secular, is. Jesus is unique in his command to love even our enemies and to repay evil with good.. And when that command has been obeyed, by folks like St. Francis, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale and others, the world has been changed.  We need to heed God's call to treat all people as if they were Christ until the day when it is unthinkable to kill anyone in the name of God.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Gospel According to Dracula

I have a confession to make: I love monsters. When I was a kid,  I never missed an episode of  the Outer Limits. I bought every issue I could of “Famous Monsters of Filmland.” I saw just about every movie Vincent Price was in. But what I really loved were those old Universal Pictures that they showed every Saturday afternoon on Channel 11, the only independent TV station in St. Louis. I saw every movie about the Mummy, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster. But there was no doubt of who the King of the Monsters was: Dracula, that suave corpse in a cape. He had the strength of 20 men, could change into a bat or wolf or even into a mist. He could hypnotize people to do his will. And he slept in a coffin. Cool!

And that was about as sophisticated a reaction as you could expect from a 9 year old boy. But here I am, nearly a half century older, and I have to admit that I might still stay up late to watch an old Christopher Lee/Dracula film. What is it that attracts us to this evil creature? Why does he have such a grip on the imagination? Why is it that of all the various types of monsters that Hollywood keeps coming up with, vampires are the most frequently portrayed? 

Vampire stories are nearly universal, occurring in some form in almost every culture. And those without native stories have adopted the Eastern European version popularized by Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” and its endless cinematic reincarnations. In fact, in this global culture, Dracula has swallowed up his rivals, so to speak. Why?

Well, for one thing, Stoker based his vampire on a real person. In doing his research he came across a Romanian warlord named Vlad Tepes. Tepes ruled Wallachia and is a national hero for resisting both the Turks and the Hungarians. It is said that he discouraged the invading Turks by lining the roads with countless people impaled on huge stakes. After marching several miles surrounded by these grisly roadside markers, the Turks turned and left. They decided not to fight anyone who had so little regard for the lives of his own people. This gave the Romanian prince his nickname, Vlad the Impaler. But we know him by another name. His father was called Vlad Dracul, which may mean “The Dragon.” He was a member of the Order of the Dragon, established in 1418 to honor Christian rulers who opposed the enemies of Christendom. But Dracul might also mean “devil.” So Vlad Tepes was called Dracula, literally “Son of the Dragon or Devil.” How could Stoker resist making this bloodthirsty tyrant into his evil king of vampires?

Another thing Stoker’s creation has going for him is that most vampires in folklore are not that attractive. They tend to look like corpses or have grotesque bodies or facial features. The Chinese Kuang-Shi has green fur and the African Adze looks like a hunchbacked dwarf . Vampires may not even be human in some cultures. In Yugoslavia, for some reason, they have vampire watermelons! And American parents think they have trouble getting their kids to eat their fruits and vegetables.

But even Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not the matinee idol his portrayers tend to be. In the novel, he has pointed ears, hairy palms, long nails and bad breath. Stoker’s fiend compensates by being cultured and possessing old world charm. But movies are a visual medium and it would have been a real challenge to communicate the Count’s charisma  if he looked like that. (In an unlicensed version of the story, the silent film Nosferatu,  the vampire's appearance  was closer to Stoker’s description. Even today Max Shrek’s makeup is uber-creepy.) It was a smart bit of casting that gave the role to Bela Lugosi, who won fame in his native Romania playing Shakespeare’s Romeo. With few exceptions, vampires have since been portrayed as physically very attractive.

Many commentators feel that this is the primary appeal of vampires. They are sexually attractive. They feel that the novel was a thinly disguised attack on prudish Victorian morals. I don’t deny the probably unconscious symbolism in the book, which as become more and more explicit in the movies. But I think it is the theological symbolism that Stoker deliberately put into the story that gives it such power. “Dracula” is not chiefly about physical seduction; it is about the seductiveness of evil.

It was Woody Allen who once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it through not dying.” As Queen sings in the theme to “The Highlander,” “Who wants to live forever?” Well, just about everybody. And for the past two millennia the church has been preaching the way to eternal life. Ah, but this way requires commitment and sacrifice. Those who wish to enter the new life must observe certain rules of conduct. We must turn the other cheek. We must go the extra mile. We must even--Choke!--love and forgive our enemies! For many the cost of eternal life seems too high.

Dracula is a fantasy of another way to live forever. Vampires can indulge in just about any kind of behavior and get away with it. And, yes, women find Dracula irresistible. He is powerful and rich. Isn’t that worth a little bloodletting?

But like real evil, this fantasy doesn’t bear up under deep scrutiny. The vampire is a predator who extends his life at the expense of others. Far from being a liberator of women’s libidos, he is a lethal Lothario, the ultimate in “love ’em and leave ’em…dead.” Dead and worse than co-dependent. Dracula is at the apex of a truly worst case scenario pyramid scheme, in which everyone involved ends up a slave of an all consuming hunger. It’s tempting to see it as satire of our dog-eat-dog world. I think it is a parody of something else.

Dracula, the Son of the Devil, drinks the blood of his followers condemning them to eternal death. He is a fictional parody of Christ, the Son of God, who shed his blood to free his followers of sin and death. And so it is appropriate that Jesus is represented in the book by the consecrated host, the body of Christ. The movies usually substitute a cross, a bigger, more visually arresting, and more obvious symbol. But understanding the theological underpinnings makes Dracula’s repulsion by holy things more comprehensible.      

Dracula is opposed by a group of people bound by their love for his victims and led by the learned and compassionate Abraham Van Helsing. Again the contrast is sharp. Dracula is the ultimate user, charming and amoral. He may seem to be a cooler character than stodgy professor Van Helsing but Van Helsing is willing to risk his neck for others. Dracula will snap the neck of his followers, if they become assertive or inconvenient.

What does this have to do with real life? I said that Dracula can be seen as a commentary on secular life. This world promises a lot: wealth, health and ever longer-lasting youth. But the price of these is often never-ending strife and consumerism. The world rewards those who grasp the most and are the most adroit at stealing credit and betraying others--in other words, grabbing, blabbing and backstabbing. The irony is that what you give up is often worth more than you gain. Vampires give up normal family relationships, sunlight, and, to prevent their detection over the centuries, even their original identities. Those who play the world’s game likewise often sacrifice their families and even, the case of celebrities, who they really are. Those who achieve the pinnacle of worldly success often find themselves surrounded by soulless yes-men, not much different from the living dead who serve Dracula. And don’t many of us who toil far from the top of the heap sometimes feel like zombies, shut away from sunlight and our families, slowly being drained of the joy of living?

How do we fight these evils? Let us follow the lead of the good Dr. Van Helsing and arm ourselves first with faith. We must inoculate ourselves against the seduction of evil by placing our trust in God’s goodness. We must commit ourselves to the proposition that his ways are better, even though the world inverts them. One of the best protections is to remind ourselves continually of God’s never-failing love and forgiveness, especially in our own lives.

Next comes wisdom. Van Helsing knows his vampire lore. Let us be sensitive to the signs and symptoms of selfishness, greed and materialism. Let us get to know ourselves as well. The vampire cannot stand mirrors and the person who has bought into this world cannot endure self-reflection because he will see how hollow are its promises and how empty he is. Similarly he shuns the light because in the light of the truth, the lies he tells himself evaporate.

Compassion is next. Van Helsing does his work out of compassion for its victims. He uses all of his knowledge and skills to save Mina and Lucy from the curse of the undead. Even when Lucy succumbs and begins feeding on children, what he proposes doing to her is a mercy. He enlists her fiancĂ© and suitors in putting her soul to rest. In the real world, God does not sanction driving stakes into bodies. But sometimes when a loved one is in the grip of something that threatens to destroy him or her, we are called to perform an intervention. Without glee or gloating we may have to get to the heart of the matter, no matter how much it hurts. In the book, the reward is the look of peace on Lucy’s face. It is interesting that just before Dracula’s body crumbles to dust, Mina notices on his face “a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.” In real life the reward is the peace of the person who has stopped struggling against God and accepted his healing love.

Along with compassion, we need community. In the novel, the group that fights Dracula are originally rivals for the affections of Lucy. As she sickens they band together to save her, even giving their blood in the then-risky medical procedure of transfusion. After she dies they say together, first to rescue her soul from living death and then to end the evil reign of the vampire king.

Finally there is sacrifice. In the novel, one of Lucy’s suitors is mortally wounded just before he dispatches Dracula. While we may not be called to die for our faith, we can expect to make sacrifices for it. Just as a parent makes sacrifices for his or her children, we may have to deny ourselves certain pleasures or trinkets if it impedes our spiritual growth or even that of others. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the good news will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?”

Look at Dracula as a parable about what happens to a man who gives up his soul in order to gain the world. Look past the glamor and you will see that the world he gains is one of darkness, death and decay. Then look closer and you will see a small band of ordinary people, bound by faith, wisdom and self-sacrificial love. They are the true heroes. They know the true secret of eternal life is not giving in to the desire to take all that you want but surrendering to the love that asks for all you can give…so he can give it back again a hundredfold.      

Monday, September 6, 2010

Too Good to Waste

What led me to enter the 21st century about 10 years in? As trivial as it seems, I came up with a title I considered too good to waste.

I've been contemplating blogging for some time now and oddly enough, my hesitation was not that I would have nothing to say. Nor was I afraid that I would duplicate the kind of stuff already out there. All my life I have been told that my thought processes are unique (not actually the words used but we don't want to resort to the adult filter at this point). And occasionally people have said that my way of approaching a subject has made them think about it differently. I really can't take credit for this; it's simply the way my mind works. Since childhood, I have been making serious observations that provoked laughter and making jokes that others have taken to be  way too seriously. So I had to develop an internal sense of how things might sound to others and then tailor the presentation to the desired reaction. (Although, sometimes it's fun and useful to go for the laugh or the startled, "He can't mean that" moment to make a point.) I have worked in radio, theater and the pulpit and honed that sense fairly well. (Not perfectly, though, as my family likes to remind me.)

 What held me back from blogging was an appropriate title. It's not merely vanity. I used to be a copywriter and I knew I needed some hook. I needed a title that both teased, but gave the websurfer a faint idea of what s/he might encounter. It also had to be elastic enough to cover the jumble of things I think about: theology, science fiction, medicine, TV, books, gadgets, current events, superheroes, economics, the media, geekery, history, British writers, popular misconceptions, logic, and the weird elements of reality we consign to the junk drawer of life.

Currently, one of my jobs is working as a nurse on nights. I've always been a night owl but it's tough to stay up all night if you switch back to the normal world's schedule on days off. So I have become nocturnal even when not working. Which my wife doesn't like. And it means I'm super-tired after leading services on Sunday. But I used to work nights about 30 years ago when I first entered nursing and the switching back and forth pretty much ruined my ability to sleep more than 5 or 6 hours straight. So I'm trying to stick to one schedule for the time being.

As I'm sure my fellow insomniacs know, there ain't a lot of good TV after 2 am. And staying awake between 2 and 4 is the hardest part. I could simply surf the net but I feel I'm wasting my waking hours. So I'll blog. And that's when the title came to me. I felt I had to claim it before someone else did.

I intend to do more than post sermons. I intend to post enough thought-provoking commentary here to make checking this blog out a few times a week interesting.  How thought-provoking?

How about The Gospel According to Dracula?

Stay tuned for that post. Same Bat Channel.