a short poem written from my office chair, about sitting in booths.
*photo by Mary E. Dienner.
a short poem written from my office chair, about sitting in booths.
*photo by Mary E. Dienner.
*This post is part of a series dealing with a very difficult topic. It contains some mature language and themes.
The second argument I will examine is from Dr. William Loader. Loader is “widely regarded as the foremost scholar on sexuality in ancient Judaism and Christianity.” He received his doctorate in theology from Mainz, Germany and has contributed five scholarly volumes to the academic literature surrounding sexuality in ancient culture.
Loader is one of the two writers I’ll cover who affirm same sex union in the church. While many affirming viewpoints tend bend over backward to interpret scripture in a way that allows for homosexual practice, such as raising questions about Greek words found in the text, Loader does not take that approach at all. Instead, he applies a rather traditional hermeneutic in understanding Paul’s writing in particular.
Loader begins by observing
“Not all people are simply male or female. The matter is even more complicated because one’s orientation can change over a lifetime, and for some their orientations is in both directions, homosexual and heterosexual. Most have long since abandoned the belief that any such variations are to be accounted for by deliberate perversion on the part of the individual.”Loader, 18
He then gives an account of the experience of many gay individuals, “The argument has been mounted that Scripture does not judge a person because of their orientation…it’s okay for them to be gay and have homosexual feelings as long as they do not act on them.” (pg. 19). Loader claims this position is a “softening” of what the text really says, which is that the orientation itself, not just sexual acts, as a symptom of sin.
Loader points to Paul’s chain of reasoning in Romans 1 and claims, “In part it is a psychological argument.” *Here I will quote the book passage as laid out by Loader* Paul writes, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts [minds] were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise they became fools” (Rom. 1:21-22) That is why, explains Paul, they “exchanged the glory of immortal God for images made to look like mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (1:23). Then Paul continues, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts [minds] to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (1:24).
So, Loader argues, Paul is claiming that God gave people over to their perverse passions because they changed the truth of God for a lie and failed to worship God as God. “It is not just that they now had strong homosexual passions and acted on them, but that they had homosexual attraction at all.” So the attraction is seen as a psychological malfunction which is contrary to the created order. These desires are not neutral, to be acted on or refused, they are a manifestation of a state of perversion. According to Loader, Paul’s writing indicates that having homosexual feelings is in fact a result of a perverted state of mind and contrary to how we ought to be.
Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, Loader deems it a false comfort to urge those with homosexual feelings to simply remain celibate. If his reading of Paul is correct, a perverse understanding of God has led to a perverted understanding of both God and themselves, and this has led to their state of desiring the same sex rather than the opposite. Paul categorizes homosexual passions with other results of a depraved mind, “envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossips, God-haters, arrogant, boastful…” (Rom. 1:28-32) In his conclusion, Loader sums up by saying, “Paul sees (homosexuality) as sin generated by the sin of not acknowledging God’s true nature. If we are serious about letting Scripture speak for itself and reading it in context, then we will avoid all such attempts from left and right to explain it away, however compassionately motivated our misreadings may be.” (pg. 43)
In the end, Loader presents three possible ways forward, which I will briefly summarize.
This option asks those who have homosexual desires to repent of their corruption and seek to be “made right” sometimes through the use of conversion therapy or other means of getting gay folks to be straight. The church has largely (almost wholly) rejected conversion therapy as a way forward, thankfully. However, another move in this direction could include “seeking to help them find ways out of their sin and its effects. (pg. 43)” In the end, the orientation must be reversed before gay people can be deemed “normal.”
This route seeks to hold together what the scripture seems to be saying and what we observe in real life. This approach is able to accept gay folks the way they are (does not condemn their orientation as sin), but it requires celibacy. Being gay is nothing to be ashamed of, but sexual expression is not permitted. Of this view Loader writes, “It seems very unfair and inconsistent to tell people that it’s OK to be gay, but not OK to give natural expression to their sexuality. This does not really do justice to gay people.” (pg. 44)
Loader’s stance aligns with this third option. He writes,
“The reason why Paul argued as he did is that he, like other Jews of his time…, believed that all people were heterosexual, male or female. Given that assumption about human reality, his conclusions make sense.”Loader, 45
Loader argues homosexuality is one of many areas in which it has become necessary to supplant first century understandings with more contemporary ones. “To do so is not to show disrespect for biblical writers, but to stand alongside them in their commitment to truth and willingness to change as essential to their faith.” (pg. 45)
From Loader’s perspective, Paul in Romans absolutely condemns same sex erotic acts. In fact, Loader claims that Paul is even condemning a homosexual orientation. Many theologians read Paul to be condemning gay sexual acts, but Loader claims Paul is actually equating homosexual orientation (attraction to the same sex) as a result of a perverted mind. According to Loader, Paul’s whole argument is based on humanity trading its knowledge of God for worldly knowledge. The result is disastrous in a multitude of ways, and homosexual acts and desires are part of the consequence. In case it wasn’t clear enough, both homosexual acts and feelings are sinful as they are the result of a depraved mind.
Loader arrives at an affirming view by arguing that we now have a greater understanding, of the world and sexuality, than Paul and other ancient writers of scripture did. Loader writes, “Biblical writers held beliefs and attitudes which for good reason we no longer share.” (pg. 20) And he points to such things as age of creation, the sequence of creation, origin of women, the origin of labour in giving birth, in working poor soils, in controlling weeds, the origin of languages, the world as a flat, the status of women, marriage and divorce, and slavery. “In all of these we have needed to update the biblical writers’ understanding and assumptions and respectfully acknowledge that their witness…was expressed in the language and thought-world of its time.” He then asks if homosexuality is another of these beliefs about which we need to update our understanding.
He advises us to go beyond what Paul has taught and make space for gay couples in the church.
Loader’s argument hinges on the idea that we understand the world more fully than Paul was able to. Scientific inquiry into human sexuality simply didn’t exist when Paul was writing. The word of every author bears the marks of the time period and the culture of the writer. Paul understood the world and the people living in it very differently, and in many ways less fully, than we do today. This is a strong point of Loader’s argument. Loader is also correct in pointing out ways in which the church has deemed some of Paul’s teaching to be culturally specific and no longer applicable (e.g. women in the church). I was raised in a theologically conservative environment, and so I find Loader’s conservative interpretation of the text very familiar.
The weakness of Loader’s argument lies in his view of scripture. It is disconcerting for many (most even) to acknowledge that we’re alright “moving beyond” or that we now understand more fully than those writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The obvious question is if we can move beyond whenever we feel we’ve gained a better understanding, what are we tied to? Still Loader insists we can (and already do) recognize where first century, and much earlier, writings no longer reflect the situations believers find themselves navigating. While Loader is certainly genuine in his view that we can respect the authority of scripture, this does pose a lot of difficult questions and place a lot of authority in the hands of the contemporary reader. Since the Reformation, when the power of interpreting scripture was ripped from the hands of the clergy and given to the common people, we have largely moved away from reading and interpreting scripture in community. Loader’s view of scripture in a context where readers are deriving their own meaning seems to have tumultuous implications.
While I am intrigued by Loader’s angle into this issue, it seems significant that there have been no orthodox church fathers (or extremely few) who have taken this position. Loader’s view stands in direct opposition to more than a thousand years of church tradition. It seems most of my classmates were not persuaded by his arguments. I do see evidence of Loader’s claim – we have moved beyond New Testament Biblical teaching in some other areas. And some horrific practices (slavery in the antebellum South) were condoned by pointing to scripture, i.e. slaves obey your masters, which have now been updated. Still, it’s not clear to me this is an area where we can move beyond Paul’s teaching. I don’t know what to do with Loader’s claim that Paul assumes homosexual attraction is evidence and manifestation of sin. Perhaps we could say (as Holmes does in part 1 of this series) that all our desires, gay – straight – and otherwise – are broken and in need of redemption.
*This post is part of a series dealing with a very difficult topic. It contains some mature language and themes.
I’m writing this series of essays as a way of processing Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, the book edited by Preston Sprinkle, published by Zondervan, and used in my Critical Issues in Theology class (THE-423). (*for more on the why of this series of posts, please see the introduction*)
Stephen Holmes is one of the four theologians to contribute a position to the book, and he holds a non-affirming view of gay marriage in the church. Dr. Holmes has “published widely across the disciplines of systematic and historical theology, and into practical theology, philosophical theology, and patristics as well” (ivpress.com). He is the head of the school of divinity at the University of St. Andrews. His writing here relies on a strong appeal to tradition enforced by scripture and focuses on the ethical argument for a traditional view of marriage.
Holmes begins his chapter by acknowledging the pressing nature of the debate around homosexuality in contemporary culture. In spite of the pressure, he sees no reason for the church to deviate from its long-held positions on marriage. He writes,
“I accept without question that the churches of the West have discriminated in demanding a far higher standard of sexual ethics from LGBT people than straight people…I argue that the right response to this is not (primarily) to become more lax in our pastoral dealings with LGBT people, but to become more rigorous in our pastoral dealings with straight people. We need…to recover a Christian understanding of human sexuality as primarily ordered towards procreation, not towards pleasure, and to restate an ethic that takes this orientation seriously.”Holmes, (168)
Augustine developed his theology of marriage in the 4th and 5th centuries, and it has remained a strong foundation for the Christian understanding in the West.
The linchpin of Holmes’s position is an Augustinian view of marriage in which there are three goods: procreation, faithfulness, and sacrament. Procreation means children are a result of the marriage. Faithfulness “refers to the exclusivity of the marriage union.” Sacrament “refers…to the permanence of marriage.” While it may be argued gay marriage could fulfill the goods of faithfulness and sacrament, it is not possible for procreation to happen. Holmes makes a strong case and urges the church to hold fast (or return) to the Augustinian view.
Throughout his chapter, Holmes clearly points out his view that all desires of fallen beings are warped. However, he writes, marriage can serve as a vehicle, a journey, through which twisted desires are transformed and redeemed. “Marriage is a school in which our desires are reordered…a place where desires are contained and reordered, where we grow in holiness and continence” (172). He agrees fully with Augustine that the goods of marriage involve procreation. As such, no homosexual union could provide a legitimate space where transformation would be possible and God-honoring.
Many churches, he argues, have erred in their endorsement of all sexual acts within marriage. Marriage must be oriented towards having children, and more to the point, “A relationship not ordered towards procreation may be good and right and holy, but it is not marriage” (189). He urges the church to understand marriage as it has the last 1500 or so years; if procreation is not the primary goal of marriage, we have broken from tradition.
Holmes also has much to say about the brokenness of our desires.
“At the heart of a Christian sexual ethic, and a Christian theology of marriage, is a confession that the erotic desires of every fallen human person are misdirected, warped, and broken. This is true indifferently of straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual – and indeed asexual – desires.”Holmes (170-171)
Holmes sums up his this portion of his argument nicely by saying, “The traditional Christian position…is emphatically not that any and all forms of sexual activity within marriage are permissible and even praiseworthy . . . Marriage is a place where our wayward sexual desires are reordered, not a place where we are permitted to indulge such wayward desires” (175).
The hypothetical situation conceived by the author was the most surprising part of his chapter. Holmes imagines a scenario in which science has developed beyond its current understandings to allow a lesbian couple to conceive and bear their own child. He speculates that the DNA from the one woman could be used to fertilize the eggs of the other, thus actually creating a child. Holmes says this would be a case for gay marriage which would have to be legitimately considered since the relationship could fulfill the goal of procreation. I found this argument both consistent and baffling.
In the end, Holmes spends little words dealing with the prohibition passages in scripture which mention homosexuality. He takes it as a given that the biblical witness is clear as it has been understood and upheld for over a thousand years by the church. Therefore, he writes to urge the contemporary church to realize and return to an Augustinian theology of marriage, where procreation, faithfulness, and sacrament are in full view and understood as the primary goods of marriage. Holmes also points out pastoral accommodations have been made – contraception and even remarriage after divorce in many denominations – he sees these as minor modifications, not rejections, of the Augustinian understanding.
At the end of they day, Holmes is self-aware of his reliance on tradition and is very honest about it. He writes as part of his conclusion, “What if an Augustinian theology of marriage is just wrong? If it is, all my arguments here are irrelevant” (pg. 193). This is not to say the non-affirming position is irrelevant, but Holmes realizes his position is anchored in an Augustinian understanding where the telos of marriage is procreation, faithfulness, and sacrament. However, he feels comfortable resting the weight here because the church (western at least) has done so for a very very long time.
When we look at the history of the church, the are perhaps few teachings we could point to which are as grounded and longstanding as the Augustinian theology of marriage. I like how concise this theology is in its summation of the purposes of marriage. This traditional view of marriage has been the position of churches in many different climates and ages as it faced a multitude of oppositions. Holmes does a good job of setting current cultural pressures in the context of history. This teaching is not one the church has developed as a reaction or out of desperation; it has long been tried and long been held. Holmes also does a good job pointing at ways in which the contemporary church has strayed from its moorings, and his call to return to a traditional sexual ethic is clear.
While Holmes finds comfort in the longevity of an Augustinian theology of marriage, one could also point to other views the church has held and only recently come to renounce. We ought to be quite thankful the church has not held to Augustine’s rather low view of women, essentially as lesser forms of men. Likewise, we are glad the church doesn’t use the Bible as a tool to promote slavery as it did a few hundred years ago. If Augustine’s world and its practices look almost nothing at all like the 21st century the church now finds itself in, are his views of marriage still valid? It seems many within the church no longer act as if they hold an Augustinian theology of marriage. If companionship has been elevated to a position equal to or above procreation, it would seem the church is already laying the Augustinian understanding of marital goods to rest.
Prior to reading, I had no idea the church had so long held to an Augustinian theology of marriage almost across the board (maybe not in eastern traditions), and I have much to learn in this regard. It’s hard for me to reckon with Holmes’s statement that a relationship not ordered towards procreation may be good and right and holy, but it is not a marriage. I appreciate Holmes’ articulation of the fallenness of all desires, gay, straight, or otherwise, and the idea that marriage is the place those desires are transformed, not merely fulfilled. I find his hypothetical situation interesting but not compelling. Perhaps this speaks to my own view of marriage which elevates the “good” of companionship and space to become through sacrifice to nearly equal, at least, with procreation. I get the sense the two becoming one flesh is as important as the two making more flesh.
At the end of the semester, we have to decide and defend what we’ve come to believe. Let me explain.
As a college student, there are classes I cannot wait to attend, and there are classes which require a considerable amount of determination to sit through. I’m thankful my experience has been mostly the former and dotted with the latter. This semester, I’m a senior taking five classes: three are related to communication/cultural studies, and two are related to biblical/theological studies. In the I can’t wait to attend vs I would rather be anywhere else dichotomy, I’m 4 for 5. One of the classes I really enjoy is called Critical Issues. We’re working through three books examining traditionally difficult disagreements in the Christian faith under the instruction of Dr. Vena. These are: homosexuality, the historical Adam, and gender roles.
Currently, we’re reading “Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church,” a book published by Zondervan which tasks four theologians with outlining their views. William Loader and Megan DeFranza will argue in favor of the church affirming homosexual union, while Wesley Hill and Stephen Holmes will argue for a traditional view of Christian marriage, that is marriage being only between a man and a woman. As students, we do the reading, and someone prepares and presents the current author’s argument to the class. It may sound like a recipe for all out war, but it’s actually been really great so far.
Once we’ve worked through all three books, heard all the positions presented, and been given ample time to mull it over, we write a paper outlining our positions on these critical issues. This will be a very formative exercise for me. I identify pretty strongly with the enneagram 5 (the observer), and as such have the ability to hold opposing views in tension and still live in harmony. Some folks no doubt see this as a defect, but it’s the way we fives are built. We’re prone to do a lot of reading and come away at peace knowing neither position is a definite conclusion. This exercise will force me to acknowledge a position and attempt to defend it.
I don’t know what to think about homosexuality in the church. Nor do I have a hard and fast opinion concerning the historical Adam (whether or not Adam was a real person or an archetypal figure in the creation myth). My third perspective is less of a mystery; I think I know where I’ll come out on gender roles. At its best, higher education in the humanities shows us our place in the historical landscape and gives us the tools we need to think well about the issues at hand. It’s a space in which we are invited to become who we will be. It is not indoctrination – I really don’t know what the professor believes – but a formative process which challenges us to hear and choose, to look and to build.
My goal is to summarize each of the arguments made by the four authors on homosexuality. And I hope this enterprise will help me to think through their positions. If it also helps the reader gain a broader view of the issue (which is not obvious), or to locate herself in the contemporary discourse, that would be good – though not the primary goal. I fear that too often teaching masquerades as the final word instead of one answer gained through one specific method of interpretation.
I can’t wait to dive into these four positions on homosexuality in the church. I trust I will become a better person of the Christian faith for having tangled with the arguments at hand, and I hope, in some way, you might too.
In the meantime, you might enjoy last week’s podcast episode in which we take a look at some positions on homosexuality in the church.
In Phoenix this summer, Aleisha and I tried all different kinds of sparkling water. And then we rated them on a scale of 1 to 5.
I recently set up Stripe, so I could use this platform to earn money at some point. The form below is evidence!
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Wow, that was pretty cool of you. Maybe we’ll do more reviews.Contribute to Javen and Aleisha’s beverage fund.
Aleisha: “The shape of the can is cool. It burns a little, lots of carbonation. I love the light peach flavor.” 4 stars
Javen: “Its aroma is nice, very peachy. But it doesn’t have a lot of flavor. Peach is faint. A sip is good – a whole can and I’m pretty tired of it. 3 stars
Aleisha: “Feels like drinking very carbonated, salty water. Artificial tasting. Nice, hold-able can shape” 3 stars
Javen: “Lots of flavor, very lemon. The 35 mg of sodium is very present, it’s a little salty, but I don’t hate that. It pairs nicely with the citrus tones.” 3.5 stars
Aleisha: “10 calories for water?! The thought of ‘real fruit’ is cool – the blackberry is sour.” 1 star
Javen: “The blackberry has almost no aroma, but it tastes rancid, too sour for the small amount of flavor.” 2 stars
Aleisha: “Smells just like a strawberry when you crack it open. Refreshing, could be stronger flavor.” 4 stars
Javen: “I don’t love strawberry drinks, but this is good. It’s light and fresh.” 3.5 stars
Aleisha: “Well-carbonated. The flavor is not very strong. Mild grapefruit. Little artificial.” 3.5 stars
Javen: “Super-refreshing. Perfect amount of tangy and smooth.” 4 stars
Aleisha: “The can design is fun. Candy, artificial lemon.” 4 stars
Javen: “Very crisp. Punch, artificial lemon flavor.” 3.5 stars
This one is simply amazing. It is the best. Top two at least. – Javen
I saw an advertisement yesterday heralding, “Unbiased News from a Christian Perspective.” In the comments, more than a few people pointed out the irony of that statement.
It is the job of news media to make sense of the world. Some networks take a very active approach (Tucker Carlson giving energetic speeches in attempt to persuade his audience), and some take a less active approach (C-Span televising a court room without any commentary). By virtue of trying to make sense of the world, to organize the events of society into something relatively coherent, news networks must choose what to show, how to show it, when, etc. In this, they are imposing their values, their agendas, their narratives, their subjectivity on the world. And this is an honorable undertaking.
“The Media” or “The News Media” is all the rage these days, which makes for an exciting time to be studying mass-media communication. I’m particularly interested in an idea I’ve been encountering frequently: I just wish I could find an unbiased, objective news source. And since that sentiment keeps on raining down, it seems we haven’t found one yet. It’s worth considering what exactly one would look like, should we stumble across it. If bias is presupposition or even a state which is bent towards certain outcomes, we would need a news source with none of these things, no values.
Some argue, of course we can never achieve a state of being objective and unbiased, but we ought to try. And I for one can’t think of anything more horrible or undesirable than that. To achieve perfect un-bias, total objectivity, would require the complete removal of the subject from the process. Any time a news report airs, it can be assumed the subject matter was chosen from a list and the rest of the list discarded. Every time Tucker Carlson or Don Lemon preaches a sermon, the topic has been chosen, and all the other topics left behind. To present one topic and not another is bias, subjectivity. Further, every time something is said, a hundred thousand other things were not said. To live is to choose to inhabit each moment in a way that necessarily leaves behind all but one of the options. The present is manifested by abandoning all but one of the ways forward into the future.
The problem with saying just give me the facts is of course, “which facts would you like?” and “from which perspective?” The facts are literally infinite and would include time tables, train schedules, weather reports from the Amazon jungle, ocean temperatures in the Artic, performance times for concerts in Russia, and any number of conceivable “truths” about the spinning world. In choosing what to say, in choosing who will say it, in choosing when to air it, a network imposes itself upon the world and enters into the task of sense making. If you want a truly unbiased, objective news reporter, I suspect your best bet would be hiring a genderless individual who had grown up in no culture, who spoke no particular language, and had no particular education – you would show “it” footage of the world from space, and it would report your news using binary code.
This experiment would be quite fun. Still, better yet I think, would be to allow a real person, with real values and virtue and goals and talents and experiences and culture, to help you make sense of the world. And if you go roaming through the digital landscape and choose dear Tucker or Mr. Anderson or Walter Cronkite or Shapiro or Bloomberg, good for you. Take comfort in finding a person whose sense making you enjoy – heck, maybe even pick more than one! But don’t deceive yourself into thinking you’ve found a robot who’s just giving you the unbiased, objective facts. No person or group of people could ever achieve that, and no viewer really wants it anyway.
This is not to say all reporting is equal, or all values are equally desirable. Not in the least. And if your values correspond with the values of Fox or CNN, it probably feels better and is more effective at “making sense” when you listen to them. Yet we are further ahead if we can recognize narrative and agenda as fundamentally part of the process. Once we understand the nature of these texts (pieces of news), we can move toward seeing the trajectory of the narratives being imposed. And then we can choose to accept the story/identity offered or to resist it. Or as stated by Helen Fulton,
“Only by understanding the mythic nature of these narratives…can we begin to choose whether to accept the seamless identity laid out for us or to find its contradictions and resist.” – Helen Fulton
There is no unbiased news, and we shouldn’t wish for it. That would present a dull reality to be sure. Making sense of the world is a formidable task which requires our active participation. By understanding the nature, goals, and assumptions of the stories we’re being told, we position ourselves to make better decisions in our accepting and resisting.
Collin and I are both beginning our senior year of college. It doesn’t seem like that long ago we were riding in a silver Ford Focus, I turned toward him and asked, “So are we actually gonna go to college?” And he said we were.
Somewhere along the way, we both decided to transfer and finish our bachelor’s degrees at Toccoa Falls College – and we also started a podcast at the college radio station where I”m the manager.
Earlier this week we sat in the studio and recorded the first episode of season 3 called “Art, Wearing Masks, and Being Homeless.” We start off talking about the best things we’ve read and watched over the summer. Then we move into talking about wearing a mask, the fall of Eric Metaxes, and how it feels to be a young Christian in the American south. We’ll be releasing new episodes each week on Thursday or Friday.
In this episode I admit how hard this season has been for me as a young person trying to figure out what it means to be a Christian. The best way I’ve been able to articulate my experience is “homelessness.” Collin speaks to this sense as well and lends thoughts to living well in a divisive day.
You can listen by tapping the button below, or by clicking the “listen to our podcast” banner on this site’s homepage, there you can choose where to find it (Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or our show’s website).
I recently read an article written earlier this month by Kristina Grob, a professor at South Carolina University, and published in America, the Jesuit Review. In it, she argues for the usefulness of philosophy degrees in the workforce – hence the title “Want a Good Job? Major in Philosophy.” The article comes in the wake of several universities scaling down their philosophy departments, not the least of which Liberty University which dissolved its philosophy program altogether.
A few paragraphs down, Grob speaks from her teaching experience.
Students arrive in my classes believing that if there is not a single “right answer” to a question, then anything goes.”
The article itself is good, but the final paragraph struck me, and I’ve been thinking about it for the past week. Grob argues one of the chief benefits of philosophical training is the ability to recognize wrong answers, not arrive at a singular right answer. It may seem obvious, but this simple maxim is changing the way I think about learning and wisdom.
And this leads me to believe the wisest among us are those who are willing to trade up. Life is too nuanced and complicated to be “right” about much, but not all answers are equal. If we hold the perspective that we are moving towards the truth, or turning towards the light as Socrates says, then we can accept that the answers we have today are better than those we did yesterday and lesser than those we’ll gain. The wise person is always ready to trade a good answer for a better one, and he is compassionate to those fellow travelers as well.
“All technological change is a trade-off.” – Neil Postman
This perspective has further implication: wisdom not is something you amass like a hoard of gold, rather its the product of growth, of trading up. Neil Postman writes about five things we need to know about technological change. and first on the list is “All technological change is a trade-off.” It’s not as if we had 5 technology last year, 7 this year, and will have 10 technology next year. It doesn’t stack on top and grow so much as replace itself. We trade what we have for what we will get, losing some things and gaining others. And not all trades are good ones.
I keep a running list of books I’ve read, and last night I was counting it. Though it seems if this is true, it really doesn’t matter much how many books we’ve read as which ones. Hopefully, by reading good books we’ll make our way to great books and so on, but I think the wisdom of a person is not how much knowledge they’ve amassed as how able (and willing) they are to recognize better answers to the right questions and move towards them. As Billy Collins writes in his poem “Forgetfulness,” we end up forgetting most of the old books we read anyway. Still, they were necessary at the time and helped us along.
The name of the author is first to go,
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel . . .
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones,“Forgetfulness” – Billy Collins (Sailing Alone Around the Room)
Might we say the same about belief systems themselves? Most everyone goes to summer camp and ingests a rather shallow, emotionally charged theology, or we’ve basked in the glow of sermons we later realized were quite heretical, sat around campfires solving the world’s problems with answers we are later secretly grateful no one got around to using.
Should we outlaw summer camps? Only let people with a master’s degree teach Sunday school class? Make sure no one at the campfire gets it wrong? Maybe the better answer is to realize we’re all on the same ocean paddling toward the same thing. Instead of being right, clinging tightly to “absolute truth,” it’d be better if we focused on trading up for better answers. The absolute truth is a person, not a canon of beliefs about his life or teachings. True sight emits from the Word, not denominations erected in its honor.
The battles we’ll wage about which answers are better are inevitable. Yet I hope, for myself at least, these negotiations can be done from a place of respect. I’m leaning into the path Christ is taking me down, and hopefully I can believe the same about you. I don’t expect, or want, to be holding all the same beliefs in ten years – I’ll look back and see the stepping stones. I’ll leave behind what I didn’t need and laugh at most of it. And with love for those around, ahead, and behind me, I’ll keep trading up.
We are endlessly the heroes of our stories,
It doesn’t seem to matter how tired
We must be getting, or who we’re fighting,
We’ve “fought a million battles, never lost a one,” *
We are Abel, and Jacob, and Abraham,
Never the murderer, tricked, or uncalled,
Noah, Joseph, the children walking out of Egypt,
Not the drowned, the liars, or the Pharaoh,
Defeatedly, the prophets tried to tell us,
And our parents listened and then tried to tell us,
Thousands of voices standing adjacent to our stories,
“The story is true – but that isn’t you,”
We are endlessly the heroes of our own stories,
And out for the blood of naysayers,
Like Christ, pulling out a chair and smiling,
“Come, sit, you poor, tired idiot,”
*Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done – Woody Guthrie (1942)
*Cover photo by Aleisha Bear
“I finish things; that’s what I do, and I’m going it alone.”
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a tall, white-haired, racist veteran of the Korean War trying to make sense of a changing America. The enjoyment he once found sharing his neighborhood with white folks has morphed into abjectly watching Hmong immigrants invade the homes around him. Faithful dog on one side and case of Pabst Blue Ribbon on the other, Walt is the weathered remnant of an America gone by. And while he’s a man who hates change, it’s ultimately the unfamiliar which serves as the gateway to his transformation and absolution.
Gran Torino is nicely characterized as a melodrama, but it also resembles both a western and a post-Vietnam war film. Director Clint Eastwood has worked on war films (American Sniper), westerns (Unforgiven), and dramas (Million Dollar Baby). With more than thirty films under his belt as a director, Eastwood is well equipped to pull off Gran Torino, a war film without a single scene of battle, a western set in a middle class Michigan neighborhood, a melodrama culminating with a gunfight. However you wish to categorize Gran Torino, it’s a work which stands out in Eastwood’s filmography. The feature has won multiple awards and is the first mainstream American film to cast Hmong Americans in primary roles.
My most vivid experience with an Eastwood film up to this point was Unforgiven, and the similarities between the two films are striking. Gran Torino’s main character, Walt Kowalski, and Unforgiven’s William Munny (also played by Eastwood) are both gunslingers living on the fringes of society, men whose sense of right and wrong won’t let them integrate into the mainstream. Undoubtedly, Eastwood is playing a western character in both of these films – a weathered, experienced fighter who speaks low and evenly. We’re familiar with this character in the context of a western, but I was interested to see what he’d look like living in the suburbs of Michigan.
The film wastes no time in acquainting the viewer with its protagonist. We see Walt in a church standing beside his wife’s casket and grimacing at the presence of his emotionally indifferent family. Time and again, his own sons disappoint him; they only call to ask for favors, visit to weasel deeper into the will, and push pamphlets for nursing homes. The glory of serving his country has long worn off, his wife is gone, and there never was much emotional connection with his family. Walt drives a square body American-made truck and owns a beautiful 1972 Ford Gran Torino, which he helped assemble on the line in the Ford factory. He buys American. He drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. He protects his yard with a carbine rifle from his days in service. And now, he is resigned to sitting on his porch, waiting to die alone, in a neighborhood being claimed by Hmong immigrants.
In the first act, Walt’s commitment to defending his own territory requires him to pull a gun on a gang harassing his Hmong neighbors. The old man finds himself a celebrated hero of the Hmong community. Though at first Walt is resentful of the interaction with his no longer white neighbors, he’s slowly won over by Sue (Ahney Her), a teenage Hmong girl who pursues his friendship, invites him to a party, and even gets him to drink rice liquor. This is the friendship that will lead to Walt’s own transformation. Scene by scene, he acknowledges the honor of his position as neighborhood protector and eventually becomes a sort of grandfather.
Behind his unapologetic demeanor, Walt is tortured by what he later confesses as four sins: avoiding taxes on a boat motor, kissing a woman not his wife, failing to connect with his sons, and, chief of them all, killing a young Korean boy who was trying to surrender. Compounding his shame is the silver star sitting in a chest in his basement. He was decorated for the killing, and the memory of taking the life of a Korean boy haunts him every day. After being harassed, a young Hmong boy named Thao (Bee Vang) seeks revenge and asks Walt what it’s like to kill someone. Walt’s response crystallizes as one of the film’s main thrusts: “It’s goddamn awful – the only thing that’s worse is gettin’ a medal of valor for killing some poor kid who wanted to just give up.”
Even while he’s tormented with guilt, Walt hates the prospect of going to confession. He is particularly opposed to being ministered to by Father Janovich, “a boy fresh out of seminary.” The young priest (Christopher Carley) pursues Walt the entirety of the film, in accordance with the wishes of his late wife. The irony of a young man trying to teach an old war veteran about life and death isn’t lost on Walt. Like the next-door neighbors, the priest does make some headway and even earns the privilege of addressing the old man as “Walt” instead of “Mr. Kowalski” after sharing a beer with him. When Father Janovich finally sits across from Walt in the confession booth, what he hears shocks him. He’s left with the reality that the redemption Walt Kowalski needs is beyond what he can prescribe.
Gran Torino is ultimately about absolution, about the redemption of a soul all but gone. The tension lies in the space between the Walt in act one and the Walt in act three. He must be transformed from a man who would shoot a neighbor crossing the boundary line into a grandfather who will sacrifice himself, from the soldier who killed a helpless Asian boy to a man who dies on his behalf. The question addressed by Gran Torino is, what can initiate that forgiveness and transformation? The efforts of church and family will not be enough – in the end, only the genuine and unreciprocated love of a young Hmong girl will be enough to break through.
In Eastwood’s western Unforgiven, the catalyst for act three is the news of death. When a messenger girl tells Will Munny his partner has been shot, he gives up his sobriety, takes a long pull of liquor, and executes a ruthless vengeance. The same scene happens in Gran Torino. Walt watches his best friend Sue come through the door; her eyes are swollen, her face battered, and blood is dripping down her legs. She’s been raped and beaten by a gang of thugs. Walt drops the glass of liquor in his hand, and the shattering glass is the gavel of judgement from a man who finishes things.
The difference is that in this scene Walt walks toward the evil with the full intent to give his life as a ransom. With a single deft movement and the words “Hail Mary, full of grace,” Walt takes the full force of the evil onto himself. This is an act of judgment, as he condemns the gangbangers to live with his blood on their souls. But, more importantly, it’s his absolution.Walt has been transformed. He’s still a cussing, strong-willed old man with a racist vocabulary, but he’s crossed from killer of the helpless to defender of the innocent.
Gran Torino manages to communicate more about war than many films devoted to the genre, and it does so without ever showing a battlefield. By using dramatic force, this film poses question of life and death, guilt and absolution, within the context of everyday life. It demonstrates the power of formative experience and boldly claims that humanity can overcome the sins of its youth. A man can travel full circle from his front porch in Michigan, from guilt to grace, from death to life. Gran Torino is as hopeful as it is troubling, and there’s plenty of trouble to go around.