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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Sunday, August 10, 2008

China, Greece, and Providence

The Summer Olympics in Beijing have begun, and I love it. With all the televised coverage that’s taking place, it makes one want to quit his job just to see it all. Alas, the bills won’t pay themselves.

Many are boycotting the Olympics this year, due to China’s horrendous human rights record. The Free Tibet movement tends to be a focus, though China’s involvement in the abuses in the Sudan have been noted as well. But the issue of Tibet is a cause celebre. With the ongoing Western fascination with Tibetan culture, Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, yoga, Eastern meditative practices, etc., I have a hard time not being a bit skeptical. Rarely does one find a person in the media who is as interested in any civil unrest one might find in the West. And I understand the interest. There is much beauty in Eastern cultures. But I fear that what is at play here is really a subtle Western paternalism (no matter how much those with such interest would like to escape said paternalism) and the ongoing myth of the noble savage. I believe the West has done lots of wrong. But I don’t believe we’re to blame for everything that’s gone wrong in the world. Tibetans are sinners, too. And I also sympathize with those who would like to see Tibet free. I’m in favour of seccession in principle, when it is the will of the people. But my opposition of Western paternalism is wrapped up with my opposition of American interventionism. It isn’t our duty to solve the world’s problems. This, again, is a theological problem. If we were to believe in the doctrine of Providence again, to which our founding fathers referred with such regularity that the word still passes us by without a thought as we read them, then we would trust God to work out the world’s problems when it isn‘t any of our business. Ours is essentially a Pelagian foreign policy.

Those who call for our government to “do something” about China and Tibet are just asking for a different form of Socialism. As I recall, Socialism in China is the problem.

So I won’t be boycotting the Olympics. If I had been called upon, through business or some other means, to participate in them in a more active way, such as attending them, I don’t know what decision I would have made. But so long as my involvement lies in nothing more than turning on the TV, I don’t expect any “boycotting” on my part would effect a political revolution in China. That will take place through the faithfulness of an estimated 60 million Christians in China, who worship God mainly underground, and through our prayer for them, in addition to any missionary activities we can carry out in aid to them. As the West continues to crumble, it will only be a matter of time before the East becomes the center of Christendom once again.

Also, I can’t help but wonder if exposing those in China to so many Westerners through the Olympics won’t actually be a benefit. Certainly, there’s much in the West that I hope the East never adopts, though Japan, sadly, seems to have already done so. Still, there’s a certain effectiveness to killing with kindness. Maybe, in a world shaped by the dictator, the last thing China needs is for the West to be dictatorial.

On a different note, why is Shaun White’s HP commercial getting so much airplay during the Summer Olympics? He’s strictly Winter Olympics, isn’t he? Somebody help me out here.

Today, of course, was the Sabbath, and I was successful in resisting the temptation to waste away in front of the Olympics all day. As a Sabbatarian, one of my personal commitments is to stay away from commercial TV on the Lord’s Day (though I’ve never sworn any sort of oath along these lines). The commercial aspect, combined with the belief that the Lord’s Day should be preserved for worship, study, and rest, lead me to this practice. As early as last night, as I looked on the NBC website at the TV schedule, I began to wrestle with the decision of how to handle today. And I’m not joking when I say that the case of Eric Liddell came to mind. As popularized in Chariots of Fire, God honored Liddell when Liddell honored the Lord’s Day. But would God still have been honoring Liddell if He hadn’t let him win the Men’s 400 meter race? Yes, though one might get the impression from the movie that if we obey God that we’ll always come in first place in whatever we attempt in this world. God honored Liddell through a blessed career as a missionary in China, and the underground church in China is one way in which God has chosen to honor Eric Liddell. The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the church.

So God honored me today with a three hour nap, which I needed much more than I needed to watch the Olympics. I did go out and take a brief walk around the neighborhood late this afternoon. Liddell (in the movie, at least) said he felt God’s pleasure when he ran. I wish I could say I felt God’s pleasure when I walked, but instead I only felt a pain in my right foot that wasn’t there when I started out the door. I trust the Lord was pleased with me nonetheless. After all, the reality of God’s blessing rarely consists in how one feels.

Those who missed the opening exercises of the Olympics missed a treat. The amount of time and money put into the display was well worth it, so far as the rest of the world goes. Here the boycotters of the Olympics, however, may have a point. “How much better would it be if that money were used for the needs of the poor throughout China?” they would say. Nonetheless, I am reminded of the occasions when two different women (this appears to have happened twice - see Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12) anointed Jesus with a very expensive flask of oil, and the disciples considered this to be a waste, as the ointment could have been sold and the money used to feed the poor. (In the case of Judas, in John 12, we are told that his real motivation was one of greed, though we are not told that this is the motivation of the other disciples.) Jesus’s answer is one of eschatology. “The poor,” He says, “you always have with you, but me you don’t. These women are anointing my body for burial.” But the question is, did these women know that’s what they were doing, or did they see their actions merely as an act of worship? It could be that they had listened to Jesus’s teaching so well that they knew He was about to die, and that this was their reason. If so, then we have a lot to learn from them about redemptive-historical hermeneutics - would that we were so understanding of Jesus’s teaching! Nonetheless, my assumption has always been that this was simply an act of worship on their part, as they were being led by the Spirit, and that God Providentially worked these things out to have eschatological significance.

I am also reminded of Jane Dempsey Douglass’s foreword to Paul Corby Finney’s book Seeing Beyond the Word: Visual Arts and the Calvinist Tradition. The book shows and discusses the tradition of the visual arts as they emerged out of the Calvinistic wing of the Protestant Reformation. Part of Calvin’s commitment to simplicity in worship, notes Douglass, is born out of his concern for good stewardship. It is inappropriate for the church to be ostentatious in its décor, thought Calvin, while the city is full of poor people. This was particularly felt in Geneva in Calvin’s day, a city that had its share of those who were poor. Douglass also seems to imply that part of the issue was the church’s image to those outside of her. If the church is “wasting” money on visual arts, while those right outside the church doors are starving, then why would those who don’t believe have any interest in knowing this God that the church purports to represent?

I haven’t actually read Calvin on this, so I am merely basing my thoughts off of Douglass’s words. And I’m not fully aware of the situation in Geneva at the time. Also, I don’t doubt the behaviour of the Roman Church at the time influenced Calvin’s thought to some degree (I am thinking particularly of the events surrounding the fundraising for and building of St. Peter‘s Basilica). But while I believe there is something to Calvin’s idea here, I think it may be a bit overstated. There are certainly those who are genuinely poor in the world, and it is the duty of the church to take care of those people. Nonetheless, many who are poor are so because of their own laziness. While those people may need some financial help, it is also the churches duty to exhort such people to repentance, and possibly to cut off help to them if they refuse to work (as Paul says that a man who doesn‘t work shouldn‘t eat). Also, while Jesus’s words point out the eschatological dimension of his anointing, His words still ring true that we will always have the poor with us. As with much of the international interventionism I mentioned earlier, both of the Left and the Right varieties, there is much utopianism in the thought of those who promote social welfare policies. Great strides can be made in the church being faithful to its calling, but if we think we’ll ever get it exactly right this side of the eschaton, we’re wrong. Also, as Doug Jones has pointed out in a number of his lectures, it is our tendency, being post-Enlightenment, to think that aesthetics lies on the periphery of life. But nothing could be further from the truth. We are visual beings, created in the image of a God who created an elaborately beautiful world for our enjoyment. It is only normal for us to want to imitate Him, particularly in our worship of Him.

In short, I think an argument can be made for ostentatious churches. As God commanded that both the Tabernacle and the Temple of the Old Testament be elaborate in their beauty, and as Christ’s body, which He spoke of as the Temple, was anointed with expensive ointment, I think it is appropriate that our churches in the New Covenant, which is called the better covenant, be clothed in beauty. Along the same lines, I think a good argument can be made for elaborate displays outside the church such as took place in Beijing this past Friday. Whether I’m right or wrong, I enjoyed the show anyway.

I found it strange that the “Summer” Olympics would be taking place so late in the summer. In my mind, Summer is almost over. The government school year, around which so much of my life and culture is based, and which is about to begin, still largely shapes my view of the calendar year. But it’s also a change in climate that directs my view of the seasons. The first hint of change from summer to autumn, though subtle, took place this past Thursday evening. I went out to my car for something late that night and felt the first cool breeze I had felt in months. Autumn is my favourite season, and so familiar sentimental feelings soon came upon me. One aspect of fall that quickly came to mind is one that is a late addition to my life, and that is the Greek Festival held every year here in Greensboro at The Dormition of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church. I first attended one evening several years ago with some friends, and that night I began to develop a fascination with Greek culture that carries on to today. By that point in my life I had developed a disgust with American “culture”, if you can call it culture. Meeting with Greek culture was a breath of fresh air like no other. Good food, dancing, music, and the beauty of the Greek Orthodox Church was overwhelming to me. I understand fully how this could influence Protestants to join the Greek Church, as I probably would have myself a long time ago, were it not for serious theological disagreements with Eastern Orthodoxy. If nothing else, I wish Americans would learn something on how to do culture from the Greeks. Until the American church learns something on how to do worship from the Greeks, however, I suppose this is a distant hope.

My memories of the Greek Festival left me longing for some Greek food. There are a couple of Greek delis that I’ve often thought of trying out but haven’t, and so when my hunger for Greek food started, I began contemplating when I could visit one of them. I ended up going to one of them on my way home from work Saturday night and grabbing a gyro with lamb and beef. Man, those Greeks know good food.

One thing I learned Friday night in watching the opening exercises of the Olympics was that the parade of the athletes always begins with the Olympians from Greece, since the Olympics originated in Ancient Greece. That’s appropriate. It wasn’t until after I had eaten some leftover Chinese food for lunch on Saturday and began thinking of getting Greek food for dinner that I began to realized the coincidental nature of my meals. China, Greece…Chinese food, Greek food… ah, life’s little Providences…

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