Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray--A Review

I read this book in 2010 and wrote a blog on it that I never posted. I referred to it in a recent post and then realized I'd never put it on my blog. So here it is--three years late!   

I recently read the book The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. It’s a book set in 19th century England about a handsome young man whose good looks and persona inspire others to desire to be like him. For this reason, he can get whatever he wants, and he centers his existence around himself and his own pleasures. But in an odd twist of fate, Dorian Gray’s life takes a unique twist after an artist’s portrait captures his soul. So while on the outside, things look great: He’s energetic, creative, and appears youthful even as he ages; on the inside Dorian Gray’s soul begins to shrivel. And somehow little by little the painting mysteriously changes, revealing his self-absorbed and self-centered ugliness.

Fearful of being discovered for what he really is, Dorian Gray hides the painting in a room in his home to which he alone carries the key. Over the years he regularly visits the room and watches in horror as the painting, revealing the real Dorian Gray, becomes despicable, hideous, even grotesque. His withered soul was hidden from all but Dorian Gray himself, and it tormented him. The possibility that he would be revealed for what he really was, terrified him.

The Picture of Dorian Gray examines human nature through a modernistic lense. Several of the characters, including Dorian Gray himself, appear to take an objective view of life. Their perspective and emotion is tempered by their even keeled scientific method. But the sheer emotionally vacuous analysis of life events that, in the end, should pierce their souls does not. In the end, Dorian Gray lives out the Hedonism that his friends all wish they could but don’t or can’t. Ironically, those whose lives intersect closely with Dorian Gray end up devastated or destroyed. But none are as twisted and destroyed as Dorian himself. Without even knowing, it he destroys himself.

The book is worthwhile reading and made me wonder what realities there are about myself that can’t even be conveyed or even called blind spots because they are so hidden--not just from me but from others as well!  The moral seems to be: face what’s real, don’t hide it or it will destroy you. It did to Dorian Gray. 

Oscar Wildes must have been an interesting man. What secrets was he keeping about himself that he never revealed, yet in the end, destroyed him?

Philosophy and Culture

I’ve been reading philosophy lately. One of my physicians suggested I read a book by Jim Holt, Why Does theWorld Exist. Before you pick up a copy be warned. This is a tough read. I find reading Jonathan Edwards easier! (For those who don’t know, Edwards was an 18th century Puritan whose English is—shall we say—tough to understand) At any rate, Holt does a good job of addressing, in story form, a variety of philosophical themes including the existence of God, the meaning of moral virtue, the reason for existence (the key theme in the book), and perhaps even a smattering here and there of epistomology.

I’m not a philosopher but I’ve been struck during my sabbatical by the extent to which philosophy and culture effect our thinking. In some cases, without us even knowing it, much of what we thoughtlessly accept as common sense in society, from both Christian and distinctly non-Christian world views, are inextricably connected to philosophy and thought in our culture. We are simply parroting what our culture believes and may even do so while uncritically validating it (in some cases this seems to happen in some Christian psychology).

I’ve also finished reading the newest biography on Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas and was struck by the same thing. Barth and Bonhoeffer were both independent thinkers who fought the liberalism of the 19th century German theologian Schliermacher, etc. but who never got to the same thoeological orthodoxy that some in modern Evangelical America embrace. I’ve also read a short bio of Nietzche, as well which detailed all the ways his philosophy has entered a variety of disciplines in modern thought, to the extent that its become cultural wisdom. For example, the author suggested the idea that, The highest virtue is to be true to oneself as well as You can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself both come out of Nietzche’s thought. [Of course, one must always be careful with these things. Because even though Nietzche disdained Christianity, when Nietzche and Jesus agree on anything, its probably true! But that’s a different post topic.]

Francis Schaeffer in his book Escape from Reason, describes how this seems to have happened by explaining this as a shift from Grace (The belief that the central theme of our western cultural worldview has to do with faith, God, the heavenlies, the invisible, etc) to Nature (The belief that the central theme of our cultural worldview has to do with the created, earth, the visible, etc). Our current national preoccupation with separating church from state is a product of this. At any rate, its been thought provoking and stimulating.

I think for me, the critical “take away” is awareness and responsibility. Will I be aware of what I’m automatically buying into and believing and search for its roots. And will I take responsibility to be as honest as I can with what I believe to be truth—especially when I preach, teach, or write. I’m writing all this to say that I think that we—that is all of us who are alive right now— are more influenced by our culture than we think. And for that reason, its critical to step back and ask, “Why do I think this way? Why do I  believe this way?” I for one believe that truth is certainly found in reason and science but that complete truth has its roots in revelation—all truth is Gods truth—that goes beyond reason and science. There is simply too much “truth” for even the greatest of minds to assimilate or discover. We need revelation and all of us, even those who disbelieve in God, seek that revelation from somewhere. I, for one, get mine from the Bible. I think that makes sense, more sense than from other sacred writings. Obviously a lot of people, maybe even most, will disagree with me, but I stand on the authority of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. Otherwise solutions to our greatest problems become arbitrary.

Those are my musings now. More later.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

You Gotta Get Along

People just don’t know how to get along. I mean, really! People don’t know how to talk to each other, don’t know how to be civil. Take, for example, the most recent tool for contlict—email. Some of the email messages people send out in the name of "caring" are horrific. I can’t imagine what they are thinking when they send them. But they do. Here’s a list of things to do to learn to get along. I’ll admit this is somewhat moralistic and doesn’t connect to the reason behind the reason for the list, but that’s for another post. You do the following, you’ll be better able to get along—with anybody!

Don’t send complaints to people via email—EVER! You’ll be more likely to be nice in a phone conversation or face to face and you’ll probably get better results too.

When you find yourself upset, ask, “How did I contribute to this?” If you are really brave, ask someone who knows you well to help you understand. But count the cost. If you are married, your spouse will be more than happy to tell you. I guarantee it.

Listen well. Don’t assume you know whats going on. You probably don’t. In fact, repeat back to others what you hear them saying. Most of us love to talk and we’re lousy at listening. More often than not people need to be cared for, empathized with, and heard. This takes a lot of maturity because some of the conflict we experience has little to do with our actions towards another and a lot to do with their perspective.

Realize that your perspective is your perspective and that’s it. You have only a part of the truth of what happened. This is hard to communicate to those who think that “they are right.”

People really do bad things. You do bad things. So be careful to not be overly judgmental. Another thought along these lines would be that people do what they do for reason. Try to figure it out and you'll often solve the conflict. 

Hang on to yourself. By that I mean that even people of faith, who believe that they are created in the image of God, have a uniqueness to them that reflects that image differently from anyone else. Some conflict has to do with differences with reference to that uniqueness, that others cannot reconcile with, and will invariably attach moral attributes to. Be careful here. And don’t read behind the lines. I'm not trying to hide anything in this sentence. Keep this in mind: sameness doesn’t equal intimacy. Think about that for a while. It could change your life. The conflicts I’ve often seen in church are not so much over issues of morality, as issues of culture or difference or preference.

Submission doesn’t mean subservience. By that I mean that being submissive to authority doesn’t mean you’ll do what those in authority tell you to do all the time. For example, the boss or your husband or your wife doesn’t have the right to tell you to do something wrong. Its not submission, biblical or otherwise, to do evil in the name of resolving conflict. For that reason, sometimes truly solving a conflict feels like conflict. Which leads to another thought….

Disrupt the false peace. You read it right. There is a peace that is a false peace. That peace isn’t peace at all but conflict disquised as peace. Disrupt it. If you are at a restaurant with a group of people and you order $20 worth of food and others order $40 worth of food and someone comes up with the bright idea to “split the tabe equally” then say, “Nope. I’ll pay $20 and that’s that.” You’ll have disrupted the false peace and maybe even created an argument but you’ve resolved a conflict. There are miriads of these kinds of examples.

If you are uptight with someone, go talk to them. Don’t go talk to someone else unless that person is needed to help you gain perspective. To bring someone else into the conflict is called Triangulation and its death. Run from it.

When talking to others say something like this, “Help me to understand the reason you….” Then listen. Nine out of ten times the conflict will be resolved.

If that doesn’t resolve it then say, “I notice….. and I feel…..I’d prefer….. Then you let them respond. By putting things in the “I” you’ve taken away much of the ugly attack that comes when people say, “You did….” This is tough to do and demands maturity. Good luck.

If they won’t negotiate a solution, or even acknowledge a problem, and you are in authority, then you use your authority to address the issue. If you have no authority to address the issue further, avoid escalation by holding firm to the scerenity prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Lots of conflict is rooted so deep in people’s lives and cannot be resolved apart from an act of God. I’ve come to accept this in recent years.

Much of this comes straight out of the Bible. But there is a lot of common sense things that people can do to make relationships work. The bottom line is this, because Jesus resolved our deepest conflict—the conflict we have with a holy God--those of us who are Christians can too. That’s the bottom line. But for everyone else, these simple guidelines (which are coming off the top of my head at this writing and which I’ll update on occasion) can work quite nicely. Peace!

The Mirror

I looked in the mirror the other day. It’s something I do pretty much every day. I’d run six miles and was pretty sweaty. Hair all over the place, sweat dripping down my forehead, shirt discolored around the neck and armpits; you know the look. You’ve had it too. But then I looked again--I looked old! Yeah! I mean, real old. “If this is what running is doing to me, maybe I should stop,” I thought.

My mind went back to the book by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. If you remember the story, Dorian Gray was a handsome young man who somehow found himself painted in a picture that captured not only his outer attractiveness, but his inner soul. Over time, while he retained his good looks, the picture became increasingly distorted. He kept it locked in a room to which there was only one key—a key he went to great lengths to guard. He didn’t want anyone to see the picture. On the outside, he seemed to never age regardless of the abuse he put his body through. The picture, on the other hand, not only aged but over time, grew grotesque. With each passing year, and each degrading action, the picture of Dorian Gray grew more and more ugly. I’ll not tell you the end of the story. But its really interesting.

Aging is a fact of life. So while my physique shrinks and becomes eventually becomes infirm, I hope my soul grows stronger. In fact, is it possible that in a room in some far off place there is a picture of Dave Miles under lock and key, that grows ever more handsome, ever more beautiful, ever more debonair as I become more and more like the One who is most beautiful? It’s the opposite of Dorian Gray! It’s described in some ancient literature, “…though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day…So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”