Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Human Creativity As a Reflection of the Creator

Many of us remember occasions when we’ve been enthralled by the beauty of forest, meadow, seaside, or desert.  For me, it’s the more “natural” or “wild places” of God’s creation that thrill the most; and generally not the urban environment.  However, this past weekend, I was enveloped in a literal sea of human creativity in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, Ann Arbor, MI
The 2014 Ann Arbor Street Art Fair occupied numerous streets in downtown Ann Arbor and extended onto the beautiful campus of the University of Michigan.   What a feast for the eyes as my wife Abby and I, and our son Brad and his wife Raquel walked the tree-shaded streets, each lined on both sides with the booths for artists from all around the country to display their creativity.  Paintings and photographs framed in all sizes and shapes; and in all manner of style and coloration.  Wood, delicate plant stems, and metal of all kinds were carved, shaved, pressed, twisted or imprinted into lifelike forms or intriguing abstractions.  Clay pottery was displayed in a rich variety of shapes and sizes, frequently glazed to produce inviting colors and patterns.  A memorable booth looked like a garden of colorful flowers and foliage fashioned in the finest detail-- out of clay!

Landscape necklace pendant, L & M Arts
Leather products and different fabrics were fashioned into garments, shoes, and hats.  I was intrigued by what appeared to be oil paintings on canvas that were actually collages of carefully chosen, dyed fabrics pieced together to represent portraits and beautiful landscapes.  Dean Myton’s booth from his Ironwood & Vine Studio in Akron, OH displayed lamps and other “functional art from found objects, unique recycled materials, and fabricated steel.”  Dean’s aim is to apply his creativity to give new beauty and functionality to materials otherwise destined to the scrap heap.  His slogan:  “Recycle, Rethink, Reuse, Rejoice.”

Many booths featured fine jewelry fashioned from metal and/or mineral components.  Abby and I were particularly drawn to a booth provided by Laurel and Michael Davern, owners of L & M Arts, in Lancaster, NY.  Abby chose a landscape necklace of Argentium sterling silver, hand-pierced to form wind-swept trees with a bird in flight, accented with copper and brass plating.  Of course, with such subject matter, friendly artisans, and the sweet smile of my lovely wife, how could I resist buying the necklace for her?

Larry and Elaine Schneider, Naturewood Art
Larry Schneider from Pittsburgh, and his wife Elaine, greeted us with warm enthusiasm as we admired their Naturewood Art featuring “paintings of nature on nature’s canvases.”   Larry paints birds and other wildlife on tree trunk cross sections.  Then, he produces a 3-D effect by adding appropriate objects from the landscape—driftwood, barbed wire, dried bones, etc.  My favorite was his Meadowlark painted as if singing while perched on a weathered fence post.

As we walked from booth to booth along the shady streets filled with art admirers, three things stirred my heart in praise to God, the Eternal Artist.  First, I began to realize that the amazing creativity on display here was an expression of the image of God Who created and endowed humankind with many of His personal traits.  These God-given traits include our creativity—and to our ability to admire the creativity of others.  Our admiration of the creative arts reaches deep within us.  Much deeper than the cognitive level, artistic expression can reach into our wellspring of joy and satisfaction, or it may stir up sadness or compassion.  I wonder if any other creatures can “enjoy” the wonders of creation like we can; I doubt it.

Meadowlark, by Naturewood Art
Second, I was reminded of the lavishness God has displayed in His creation.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).  Both God and humankind in His image are “creators” but only God created matter ex nihilo, “out of nothing.”  And, from that original formless and void state of creation (Genesis 1: 2), the Master Artisan and Engineer shaped the landscape of Earth and populated it biologically.  Every element of creation is designed like a deep treasure chest from which humans as stewards can draw out a seemingly endless variety of forms.  Among animals, God created basic kinds (canine, feline, bovine, etc.), each rich in genetic potential from which both natural selection and human artificial selection have produced widely divergent forms.   Likewise, humans have developed plant varieties through horticultural and genetic procedures.  The rich variety of biological, mineral, and metallic resources of God’s creation provides a marvelous “palette” to supply both the substance and the inspiration for the artisan.

Finally, I was most inspired by a sort of “one-act drama” performed at each booth we visited along the streets of Ann Arbor.  Each artisan that participates at the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair first displays his or her creative work within their booth—work that represents tireless hours of creative effort.  Then, the artisan sits and waits for people to come by the booth, admire their work, and perhaps purchase a piece or two as we did. 

As visitors to many booths at the fair, we were participants in the “drama” with the artisans, and we observed how they responded to our appreciation of their work.  They know that most visitors will stop to admire but few will buy.  Yet beyond the monetary gain, they surely must enjoy the satisfaction of seeing many admiring faces and hearing words of praise for work well done.   I realized two things:  that, the artisans are creative and industrious like their Creator God Whose image they bear; and, like their Creator God, artisans gain a sense of joy when they receive praise for the work of their hands.

And so, our visit to the art fair with our son and daughter-in-law was both very enjoyable and inspiring to me.  I left with great respect for the creative ability and skills of the artisans, and also a great appreciation of God our Creator for providing the richness of the material world as a “palette” for His creative image-bearers. 

The psalmist in Psalm 104 recognizes the awesomeness of God and the grandeur of His creation. Then, he marvels that his God Who lacks nothing should find joy and gladness when He looks upon His creation—just as an artisan finds joy in looking over his own finished work:

O LORD, how many are Thy works!
In wisdom Thou hast made them all;
The earth is full of Thy possessions.

Let the glory of the LORD endure forever;
Let the LORD be glad in His works;
He looks at the earth, and it trembles;
He touches the mountains, and they smoke.
- Psalm 104: 24, 31-32

A few verses later in Psalm 104, the psalmist displays the kind of awe and praise that comes spontaneously from one who bears God’s image and can appreciate the beauty and wonder of creation in some imperfect way like our Creator.  But, the psalmist also understands that his heart of praise is both a fitting response to God’s greatness and a “pleasing gift” to his Creator and the Redeemer of his soul as compared to the response of those who deny God and abuse His creation for selfish gain. 

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
Let my meditation be pleasing to Him;
As for me, I shall be glad in the LORD.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
And let the wicked be no more.
Bless the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD!
- Psalm 104: 33-35

Monday, July 7, 2014

Top Ten 'Good Countries'—But What is "Good"?

Mr. Anholt,
I was intrigued by your online TED lecture on the subject of “Which country does the most good for the world?  I will begin my response here by quoting from your intriguing lecture in which you challenged your audience to consider that a “good country” is not necessarily the richest or fastest growing country. Then, you concluded, “I want to live in a ‘good country, and I certainly hope that you do, too.” 

I’m sure you would join me in agreement that there are people all over the Earth who yearn for their country to be “good” or “better.”  We might also agree that this same yearning is strong in America, not just for economic recovery and more individual income, but that “goodness” would replace the current divisions and ranker that are all around us.  Like you, I believe that indices such as your “Good Country Index” (GCI) can stimulate more objective thinking about a subject that has many components. I also appreciated your emphasis that the greater value of the GCI is to serve as a framework to stimulate discussion rather than a product of a finished work.  In that spirit please permit me to share a few points for you to consider.

First, although one may draw upon an extensive database to develop a index as you have done, I believe indices are like computer models in general.  They are only as good as the presuppositions and inferences built into them.  In particular, you presuppose that “good” can be objectified in the GCI without an objective foundation for defining “good.”  Instead, you attempt to define “good” as “the opposite of selfish.”  But isn’t “selfishness” also subjective?   For example, a father can appear selfish by prohibiting his son from drinking his beer when in fact the father doesn’t want his son “drinking and driving” for safety reasons.  Or, consider that some would judge the USA as being a selfish warmonger for stationing defensive missiles in Europe and occupying Germany and Japan for decades after World War II.  But, others argue that American “policing presence” has deterred Russian aggression into Western Europe.  In support of my argument, in recent weeks we are witnessing Russian aggression on the rise in Crimea and Ukraine.  Many analysts believe the heightened aggression stems from the current administration's "please be 'good'" policy which has convinced Premier Putin that America is weak and has lost the will to oppose.

“Good” can also result in evil when “good intentions” are extended with limited knowledge.  Western attempts to teach primitive cultures in tropical regions to “wear clothes like us” have resulted in more fungal infections and other diseases new to these cultures.  Banning DDT has led to an upsurge in malaria.  The one-child policy in China and stringent human reproductive control in Russia and other Eastern European countries has led to sharp population declines and demographic challenges such as providing for the needs of the elderly.  Therefore, given the subjectivity and limited knowledge we constantly face, it would seem necessary to provide an objective foundation for defining “good.”

My second point follows upon the first. You have chosen not to include moral components in your Good Country Index because you believe there are plenty of other indices that address the moral component.  However, in my humble opinion, your exclusion of moral considerations seems unwise and shortsighted.  As you know, any consideration of "good" and "evil" has major moral and ethical considerations.  One might argue that “evil” doesn’t exist or that it is not a practical notion in our pursuit of “good” in the world today.  However, as an example, Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech and his subsequent effort to develop “peace through strength” with the Soviet Union was, to me, an important step in bringing more peaceful relations with the Soviets.  In telling Premier Gorbachev truthfully on objective moral grounds that he viewed the accumulation of nuclear stockpiles at the expense of humanitarian aid as “evil" policy, Reagan was also able to develop a relationship of trust with his Russian counterpart that led to an important defense treaty and reforms leading to the fall of the “iron curtain.”  I would argue that without such American presence and policy toward Europe and the Soviets during World War II and the “Cold War,” none of your “Top Ten Good Countries” would be “free," or perhaps even in existence today.

Instead of excluding morality from your index, why not make the Good Country Index more complete and comprehensive by including a “morality component?”  For example, such an inclusion might incorporate “human rights”, abortion rate, percentage of children living in a home with two parents, and whether or not the country is on the list of state sponsors of terror.  Each of these parameters is a major determiner of “moral good” in a country.  They might even determine whether you and I would want to live there.  But even beyond the parameters within the index, without an objective reference, who can define “good?” 

One objective standard of moral good is found within the Judeo-Christian Scriptures which teach that our freedom comes from God, not from government.  The Bible also provides standards for "good laws" and their enforcement by “good leaders."  These in turn depend upon strong families and communities of virtuous people that are “good” to the extent that their children are taught such timeless truths as, “Honor your father and your mother;” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  What person or country would reject either of these moral teachings if they truly desire to be “good?”

Thank you for considering my recommendations.  I look forward to your response.

John Silvius
Wooster, OH

Saturday, July 5, 2014

High Court Defines & Defends Free Expression

The Supreme Court ruled this week that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, two for-profit corporations, do not have to provide certain contraceptives to their employees pursuant to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) if such provision is deemed in violation of the employer’s faith convictions.  Less widely reported by the media was the fact that the two “closely held corporations” had already included sixteen other contraceptives in their employee health coverage.  In addition, the wages provided by these corporations are so generous (Hobby Lobby employees start at $14/hr and $9.50/hr, respectively, for full-time and part-time employees) that even a part-time employee could purchase a month’s supply of contraceptives (estimated, $9.00) on their own for approximately one hour’s work.
Supreme Court case was about more than "women's rights."
Nevertheless, the respective corporate owners, the Green Family and the Hahn family, were taken to court for refusing to include four additional contraceptives as mandated under the ACA.  Why?  These four products are known to destroy the human embryo.  Thus, including them along with the 16 products they had approved would compromise their faith position which holds that each human life begins at conception.

In the 5-4 opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court held that the ACA contraceptive mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  Alito was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy.   Monday’s close decision is now highly contested in the court of public opinion.  Opponents of the decision argue along the lines of Justice Ginsburg’s opposing decision.  Ginsburg claimed that the Court was wrong in denying free access to contraceptives to thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga or dependents of persons those corporations employ...who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith.  Thus, the case is being targeted by opponents as a “women’s rights” violation. 

Defenders of the Court’s decision do not see their victory as imposing unnecessarily on the rights of women. First, the two corporations had already been providing insurance coverage for all approved non-abortificient products.  Second, as noted above, both corporations are very generous with their hourly wage schedule.  Therefore, defenders of the court decision have honest reason for celebration which defends their deeply held conviction about the rights of the unborn.  More broadly, the decision affirms the right of people of faith to act upon their belief system outside church doors and in their workplaces.

Along with the Supreme Court Ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy filed a concurring opinion which is a valuable reminder of the constitutional nature and intent of the founding fathers regarding religious expression under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Justice Kennedy wrote (emphasis mine):
Justice Anthony Kennedy
In our constitutional tradition, freedom means that all persons have the right to believe or strive to believe in a divine creator and a divine law. For those who choose this course, free exercise is essential in preserving their own dignity and in striving for a self-definition shaped by their religious precepts. Free exercise in this sense implicates more than just freedom of belief. It means, too, the right to express those beliefs and to establish one’s religious (or nonreligious) self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community.

Secularists applaud “tolerance” of differing views as a virtue.  However, the rules of tolerance do not apply to folks with “religious views” because they "force their views on others.”  This week the Supreme Court affirmed
the right of all Americans, whether “religious” or “non-religious,” to hold to a world-and-life view, or worldview.  Furthermore, the Court held that regardless of their worldview, free exercise is essential in preserving their own dignity and in striving for a self-definition shaped by their religious precepts as relates to their daily participation in our larger community.

When I read Justice Kennedy’s concurring decision affirming my right to express and practice my Christian faith in public, I said, “YES!”  But then it struck me.  The Constitution also guarantees free expression to those who hold very different beliefs from mine or who are enemies of America.  Then, I realized that “free expression” in this great “land of the free” will only be possible if we are willing to take individual responsibility to be respectful of differing views.  As the Apostle James writes, we must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (James 1: 19-20).   

In a world that is increasingly divided over issues and resentful of Christians attempting to apply the salt and light of the Gospel to these issues, we will need to exercise gentleness and mercy.  As Os Guinness wrote in A Free People’s Suicide (emphasis mine),

It is possible to be free at the constitutional level in terms of the structures of liberty, but to lose freedom and become servile or anarchic at the citizens’ level in terms of the spirit of liberty.

When asked by Marvin Olasky (WORLD Magazine, June 29, 2013) if this is already happening in America, Guinness responded (emphasis mine):

It is happening.  Freedom is the greatest enemy of freedom.  We’ve got a permissiveness in almost every area, and Americans have lost the capacity to say “no” to things that are wrong.  A general ungluing, unraveling, permissive license leads to chaos.  Freedom requires and assumes you know who you are and who you’re to be.  It’s not just a formlessness; it’s the power to do what you ought, as Lord Acton used to put it.

How should God’s people function in a culture where the moral compass is being abandoned and where self-definition is lacking?  Guinness is critical of the Christian right for, in his words,
trusting politics to do more than politics can do.  He elaborates in the same interview:

To put it in the language of William Wilberforce, they did the Lord’s work, but in the world’s way.  Wilberforce had an incredible love for the people who hated him, mugged him, and attacked him physically twice—but he prevailed through love, and he wasn’t gushy in any sentimental way.  The Christian right often shamelessly demonized and stereotyped, and we’re paying for the bad ways they fought it.  But on the issues, I’m with them.

In response to Justice Kennedy’s decision, Jennifer Raught Brock, a Cedarville University graduate, expressed to me some of the hard challenges of true servants of Christ who exercise the right of free expression of their Christian faith in their public life for the glory of God and for the service to their neighbor.  Jennifer wrote:

For Christians, kingdom work includes redeeming culture. Loving one's neighbor involves promoting justice and freedom. It's not an earthly, political kingdom we seek; God never promised us religious freedom. Nor did God promise freedom from pain. Yet that shouldn't stop us from trying to alleviate suffering.  He never said we should expect financial stability, but that doesn't mean we don't work hard or give to those who are poor.  He informed us that we're all going to die someday, but that doesn't mean that we refuse medicine when we're sick or that we fail to care about the overall quality of medical care in our society.

Supporting free expression of faith in the "larger community."
Our “free expression” comes at a great price through the sacrifice of Christ Who laid the foundation for our spiritual freedom; and later, the sacrifices of American men and women who have fought and died to give birth and then defend this nation during more than two centuries.  Many did so because they believed
that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  May God help us to exercise our freedom in a Christ-like manner with firmness and boldness, yet with gentleness and reverence.

If we are in Christ, the Apostle Paul states, we are new creatures (2 Corinthians 5: 17), no longer conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12: 2).  Of all people, being set free from sin and self, now free in Christ and free under the Constitution, we ought to know who we are, who we’re to be, and have the power to do what we ought.  We ought to be “about” self-definition, but more basically, “all about” Christ-definition as we give witness to the fruit of His Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control as we participate in the broken and divided political, civic, and economic life of our larger community.