Promises, Promises

If you read my post about moving this blog from here to randygreenwald.com, I mentioned that I was going to attempt to migrate the email subscriptions from this site to that.

I have been unsuccessful in doing that. I think. So, I encourage you all, right now (!) to follow this link, navigate to the side bar, and sign up to receive posts by email at the new site. It’s easy, really, and from then on you need never miss a post.

Thanks!

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The Future of Somber and Dull – Part 2

A little over a month ago, I wrote about “The Future of ‘Somber and Dull'”. The title concerned a few of you who were worried that I would be shutting the blog down. Your fears were only partially justified. I do no longer intend to post to this site. It’s been a great run and I will miss the irony and, shall I say the decency, to which that title referred. But in the end, too few caught the allusion and the name generally bred confusion.

So, the time has come for a re-boot. And so though “Somber and Dull” will no longer be updated, I will continue to write. Forthwith (rarely do I get to use that word) I will be posting at randygreenwald.com. For that title lacks in modesty and literary allusion, it gains in clarity.

If you navigate there,  you will find much to be the same. All the posts from my Blogger days and my WordPress.com days are there. Everything. The arrangement of the pages is slightly different, but I think no one will have any trouble finding their way around. If you do, please let me know.

I to soon return to a weekly or bi-weekly posting frequency. Recently, managing the migration has consumed most of my writing time. I’m still tweaking and adjusting the new site and if I know me, I’ll never be completely satisfied. But eventually I’ll leave it be and use my time more profitably.

Some of you subscribe to my posts via an RSS feed. You can continue to do so by simply directing your RSS reader to http://www.randygreenwald.com.

Others of you subscribe via email. I am going to attempt to port the email subscriptions from this site to the other. The key word there is ‘attempt’. I have a post that is scheduled to go live early Monday at the new site. If you are an email subscriber and have not received that post in your inbox by Monday morning, that will mean that I failed in the transfer. In that case, the solution is easy. Go to the new site and click on the subscribe button in the sidebar.

I may end up in time simply pointing the URL of this site to the new one so that any attempt to find “Somber and Dull” will lead directly to the new site.

Thanks for all who have stuck with me. I hope to see you ‘on the other side’.

Making Better Men

My contention in previous posts (here, here, here, and here) has been that we make better men by calling on men to be better people, not by building illusory models of masculinity imaginatively drawn from Scripture. Since posting, I’ve been gratified to stumble across others saying similar things, albeit with far greater erudition and eloquence. A recent post on the First Things site is entitled ‘Making Better Men‘, and it is worth a read.

Speaking of the male role models in his life, the author, First Things assistant editor Alexi Sargeant says:

The strength of both these fathers, physical and spiritual, was a humble one, in that they had no need to boast or domineer. They had the character to suffer wrongs patiently and trust in God rather than crave the accolades of men. I am grateful that my image of masculinity was formed by these men of faith and integrity. They modeled love and respect in their marriages and their friendships, building up the people God had placed in their lives with care, devotion, and joy. This unpretentious constancy is what men should strive for. When I ask my friends for their formative, positive male role models, the answers (real and fictional) were often men of quiet confidence and steadfast service, like St. Maximilian Kolbe or Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird.

That a lesser, as he calls it ‘a dingier’, sense of manliness is seemingly embodied in the popularity of Donald Trump is sad to me as I think it does reflect something of the confusion men feel as to what it means to be a genuine, or decent, man. Sargeant notes that

The virtuous man, by contrast, demonstrates both self-control and self-respect.

And he calls us to find, and to be, better role models.

To which I say, “Amen.”

Atticus Was Feeble

The virtues of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird hardly need to be sung by me. But if you are, like me, someone north of 50, a male, who does little to arouse the admiration of anyone, you will enjoy Scout’s ruminations on Atticus’ feebleness.

Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty. When Jem and I asked him why he was so old, he said he got started late, which we felt reflected upon his abilities and manliness. He was much older than the parents of our school contemporaries, and there was nothing Jem or I could say about him when our classmates said, “My father—”

Jem was football crazy. Atticus was never too tired to play keep-away, but when Jem wanted to tackle him Atticus would say, “I’m too old for that, son.”

Our father didn’t do anything. He worked in an office, not in a drugstore. Atticus did not drive a dump-truck for the county, he was not the sheriff, he did not farm, work in a garage, or do anything that could possibly arouse the admiration of anyone.

Besides that, he wore glasses. He was nearly blind in his left eye, and said left eyes were the tribal curse of the Finches. Whenever he wanted to see something well, he turned his head and looked from his right eye. He did not do the things our schoolmates’ fathers did: he never went hunting, he did not play poker or fish or drink or smoke. He sat in the living room and read.

I can relate.

Deliver Us from Evil

Scott Derrickson is a thoughtful Christian filmmaker. This fascinating and frank interview (abbreviated in print – the video version is very much worth the time) challenges us to consider how Christians can make art that is both true and good. And though Derrickson has ventured into sci-fi and will tackle the (Marvel) comic book world with the soon to be released Doctor Strange, his preferred canvas is horror. Hence, this is one Christian director whose movies are not being screened for churches.

Deliver us from evilMy wife and I just watched Derrickson’s 2014 release Deliver Us from Evil. It is a police drama with, shall we say, a twist. Or two. Sargent Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) is a lapsed Catholic serving the Bronx. A string of inexplicably odd cases lead him into a relationship with a tough and hard drinking Jesuit priest, Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), who insists sainthood is not about being a moral exemplar but being a life giver. And that is what he proceeds to do. Without apology the priest speaks an honest faith into the life of the struggling cop, and it shakes him deeply.

We have been lead to believe that good theology and good apologetics are not to be found in a major Hollywood release. That is far less true than we might imagine. They are certainly found here. At one point, Sargent Sarchie is explaining why he has no room for God in his life. He says,

You see, Father, as we speak, every day, out there, someone’s getting hurt, ripped off, murdered, raped. Where’s God when all that’s happening? Hmm?

Father Mendoza is nonplussed by this. He responds:

In the hearts of people like you, who put a stop to it. I mean, we can talk all night about the problem of evil, but what about the problem of good? I mean, if there’s no God, if the world is just “survival of the fittest,” then why are all the men in this room willing to lay down their lives for total strangers? Hmm?

As an apologetic approach that isn’t ground breaking, but Mendoza speaks as one who believes, but does so without being pushy or in any way condemning. A saint is a life giver.

The story is well told and engaging. The dialog is smart and the images well drawn. There is a good pace that keeps the viewer engaged. And so the film’s 28% Rotten Tomatoes rating is a surprise, but not inexplicable. Some reviewers fault him for his dependence on horror conventions. I can’t evaluate that. But I suspect that the fault most find and don’t speak is that Derrickson takes the reality of evil seriously. The demonic for him is not merely a convention of the genre; it is the reason the genre exists. Horror is the place to confront and expose and consider a reality that we in our churches prefer to dismiss and ignore and disbelieve. That he takes it seriously is something that some critics can’t comprehend.

I find his serious take a challenge. Unlike Sargent Sarchie, I don’t spend my days staring into the worst of human behavior, or what Father Mendoza calls ‘secondary’ evil. I need to be reminded of the reality of what he calls ‘primary’ evil. Therein lies the real enemy. Our senses only take in part of what is real. Our battle in this world is not against flesh and blood, and it is good to be reminded of that.

The NY Times movie reviews are always worth reading if only for their ratings info at the end. For this movie, we read

Deliver Us from Evilis rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) because it has gore and cursing and is disturbing as, you might say, hell.

Disturbing as hell, for sure. But encouraging, too, because, in the end, hell does not win.

More on Manliness

It was our date night, and my wife wanted to shop for some shorts. I was willing to set aside my natural aversion to shopping, and shopping for women’s clothes in particular, on a date night no less, in order to accompany her cheerfully and to earn some serious husband points in the process.

After visiting several stores we ended up at a Montgomery Ward department store, which dates this story a bit. As she was holding up a pair of shorts to the light, I said, “Why don’t you just buy this pair?” I suspect my patience was running out. She said something like, “Oh, I wasn’t going to buy anything; I’m just looking.”

I realized then what was meant by those who had said in messages about the differences between men and women that women shop, but men hunt.

That’s been a fun distinction to think about and, to an extent, joke about. When I go to the store, I set a bullseye to this item and a bullseye on that item. I grab them and throw them in the cart and leave. Barb will stop and read the labels and pause and think and consider. We cannot go to the store together. She shops and I hunt.

What I should NOT do, however, is to generalize from my own limited personal experience to say that this is a ‘masculine’ trait, an aspect of what it means to be a man. I should especially not hit the Christian speaker circuit (as if anyone would want me to) drawing that and other distinctions of dubious value which I doubt would stand up under clinical scrutiny. In fact, I suspect that there are other couples where the husband is more likely to shop, and the woman more likely to hunt. Is he therefore less man-like?

The effort to find a so-called ‘biblical’ masculinity is fraught with this danger. We ought never to generalize from our own cultural or personal experience distinctions which we observe as if they apply to all men or women. Nor should we legitimize these distinctions by calling them biblical. Whether I hunt or shop of course is fairly innocuous. But we baptize other instincts as ‘manly’ or ‘masculine’ such as dominance or vengeance or, even so-called ‘locker-room talk’. These may be in fact sinful instincts best overwhelmed by a pursuit of decency.

Film director Scott Derrickson noted recently that things such as racism and misogyny are in our American DNA. It’s worse than that. It’s in our human DNA. That’s not pessimism. That’s good theology, and rings more true than the hunting/shopping distinction. Untaught, unrestrained, unaddressed, and well fed it will grow into a cancer that will consume us. What is needed is a community of ordinary men and women embracing a contrary ethic, an ethic of decency, to lead us not to generalized and perhaps imagined standards of masculinity and femininity, but to be a people reflecting as much as we are able, the standards of the kingdom of God.

Models of Biblical Decency

The BBC drama Foyles War starring the perfectly cast Michael Kitchen as an unflappable British detective during and after WWII is, for me, must watch television. Watch it. Watch every episode. Savor it. And as you do, consider Inspector Foyles’ character. Note his integrity and the hints of compassion and kindness. Note his perseverance and wisdom and attend to his gentle longing to be reconnected with his estranged son. And then, in one of the final episodes, listen carefully as another in his world speaks of Foyle saying, “He is a decent man.”

Christian men aim for more than decency. I get that. We are to be godly and Christ-like. But we could do little worse than to find models of mere decency and learn from them.

To find such models requires searching not because they are rare. Rather, decent men are not bombastic and they do not promote themselves any more than is necessary for their particular calling. Find men who care for their corner of the world and do so faithfully. These will be the decent men. Flawed they will be, for sure, and broken in ways they themselves may not be able to see. But their humility will lead them to face those flaws and seek to work beyond them. Reflect for a while, and you will think of men who bear the attributes that draw us: compassion, mercy, and kindness, with an ear quick to listen and lips that are careful to build up and not tear down. Decent men should be our models.

Popular culture gives us super-heroes whose impulse is to fight and exact vengeance. More people know of John Wick or Jason Bourne than of Christopher Foyle. Others should be known. Many know of Atticus Finch, the courageous and quietly compassionate attorney in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m struck, too, by the decency of Tom Robinson, the harassed and falsely accused black man whom Finch defends, or of Boo Ridley, the reclusive rescuer of children. Decent men, they are, functioning as best they can in a broken world.

In Alan Paton’s wonderful novel Cry, the Beloved Country the Zulu South African Anglican pastor Stephen Kumalo lives with his wife in poor, desolate Ndotsheni. There he cares for his church and all who live in its vicinity. He loves them and they love him. Circumstances lead Stephen to the big city of Johannesburg where tragedy and heartbreak await him. Though he gives in to the impulse to hurt others at times, his repentance is real and deep. Most of the time he sees the right thing to do, and does it though it costs him dearly. His decency is so real that I have a hard time remembering that he in fact never existed. I want him to exist. He is a decent man.

I’m drawn as well, as have been many others, to the fundamental decency of the Reverend John Ames, the congregational pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead, Home, and Lila. The Rev. Mr. Ames, too, is flawed. And yet those who meet him in these novels will remember his tenderness, his kindness, and his integrity. We walk away from time spent with him understanding that he is a decent man whom we wish to know better.

Decent men (and women) are those who, in spite of their imperfections and weaknesses, act in a direction that reveals genuine character and virtue. The men profiled here never existed. And yet they exist quietly all around us and should become our models, models of biblical decency.