The Meaning of Beauty and the Ugliness of Pornography

What is “beauty”? What makes a piece or art or music or a landscape beautiful? Certainly we are dealing with something pleasing to the senses, something visually and/or audibly pleasing to us. And what pleases us is something more than the object’s utilitarian value. I have a beautiful desk set, given to me as a gift. It is a fantastic piece of equipment, a great place to work – but then, an ugly desk is also capable of being a sufficient place to do work. So the beauty of my desk must involve more than the use it serves. Its beauty is something I appreciate in and of itself.

The same is true, at a much deeper level, with what makes someone beautiful to us. There is an element of sensual delight in those we find beautiful – they are visually appealing to us. This differs from person to person, of course. You may not find a woman whose hair “is like a flock of goats” to be particularly appealing, or a man whose locks are “wavy, black as a raven” to be your type, but Solomon and the Shulammite were wildly attracted to those features!

So there is an aspect of beauty in people that involves our senses, something that the Song of Solomon celebrates. The lovers in that story revel in how one another looks, smells, sounds, and feels. He says to her, “You are beautiful, my love” (2:15), and she says the same thing to him (2:16). But there is more to the story.

As you read the various individual poems in the Song of Solomon, one thing that stands out is how much each lover delights in describing the other. Sometimes they also mention the pleasure they receive from the other,  but most of the descriptions are highly idealized portraits of how wonderful the other person is. In other words, what makes the other person “beautiful” to them is not simply the pleasure they derive from them, but the delight they take in them. Just as I see beauty in my desk apart from its utility, the lovers see beauty in each other.

This is a universal human experience.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade… (Sonnet 18 of Shakespeare)

Whether in Scripture or Shakespeare, what makes someone beautiful is not merely the sexual pleasure we derive from his or her body. It is the delight we take in that person – as an embodied person – that constitutes our sense of beauty. I don’t have to think a desk is beautiful to use it. A desk can be an end in and of itself. But a fellow human being is more than a tool to be used. As Roger Scruton writes,

Pornography, like slavery, is a way of negating the moral demand that free beings must treat each other as ends in themselves. Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, p. 133

And this is why pornography distorts and desiccates the concept of beauty. There is no delight in the person as a person – only as an object. No other woman is as beautiful to me as Kristi because it is Kristi as a person that I find so beautiful (and for some inexplicable reason, it’s also why she thinks I am beautiful). But pornography (like prostitution) eliminates any sense of the uniqueness of human personhood. People become objects, tools for selfish gratification, and thus as replaceable and as interchangeable as any other piece of equipment.

The case against pornography is the case against the interest that it serves –the interest in seeing people reduced to their bodies, objectified as animals, made thing-like and obscene. This is an interest that many people have; but it is an interest at war with our humanity. Scruton, p. 138

I recognize that many people in the world view the moral constraints of Christianity as prudish and repressive. But the real truth is the exact opposite. It is the Christian view of humanity, sex, and beauty that provides the only coherent basis for true pleasure as human beings. The real deprivation is the counterfeit versions of sexual love, which not only lack beauty, but at a more profound level, humanity.

Reflections on Job, Part 6: What Job Wants

Job’s Despair, by William Blake

Throughout the course of Job’s speeches, both in his dialogues with the three friends and in his final monologue, there is one thing that Job repeatedly says he desires: an audience with God. Job believes that God is punishing him unjustly. Given his commitment to the Principle of Retribution as the mechanism of God’s providence, that’s the only conclusion an “upright and blameless man” like Job could draw. While his confidence that the Principle of Retribution is the comprehensive explanation of God’s governance does begin to waver in his later speeches, Job’s desire to bring his case beforte God does not.

Here’s a selection of these requests for redress with God.

From Job 9-

32 For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him,
that we should come to trial together.
33 There is no[a] arbiter between us,
who might lay his hand on us both.
34 Let him take his rod away from me,
and let not dread of him terrify me.
35 Then I would speak without fear of him,
for I am not so in myself.

From Job 13-

3 But I would speak to the Almighty,
and I desire to argue my case with God.
4 As for you, you whitewash with lies;
worthless physicians are you all.
5 Oh that you would keep silent,
and it would be your wisdom!
6 Hear now my argument
and listen to the pleadings of my lips…

18 Behold, I have prepared my case;
I know that I shall be in the right.
19 Who is there who will contend with me?
For then I would be silent and die.
20 Only grant me two things,
then I will not hide myself from your face:
21 withdraw your hand far from me,
and let not dread of you terrify me.
22 Then call, and I will answer;
or let me speak, and you reply to me.

From Job 23-

3 Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his seat!
4 I would lay my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
5 I would know what he would answer me
and understand what he would say to me.
6 Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; he would pay attention to me.
7 There an upright man could argue with him,
and I would be acquitted forever by my judge.

From Job 31-

35 Oh, that I had one to hear me!
(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
36 Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;
I would bind it on me as a crown;
37 I would give him an account of all my steps;
like a prince I would approach him.

In contrast to these repeated desires to see God and talk with Him, it is quite glaring that Job never indicates he wants any of his losses to be reversed. He never asks for his possessions, his health, or even his children – though all of these losses were incredibly painful (29:1-6). Job is singleminded in his desire to make his case before God.

Whatever else we make of these requests by Job, I think it is fruitful to consider them in light of the key question of the book – “Does Job fear God for no reason?” (1:9). And it seems significant to me that at the climax of the book, God gives Job exactly what he wants – a personal encounter with God.



Reflections on Job, Part 5: Job’s Breakthrough

In my previous post I discussed what one commentator calls the “Triangle of Tension” in the Book of Job. Given the principle of retribution (the law of sowing and reaping), these three points cannot co-exist: God’s justice, Job’s righteousness, and Job’s suffering. If the wicked always suffer and the righteous always prosper, then either Job must not be righteous, or God must not be just. Job’s friends deny Job’s righteousness, and Job denies God’s justice.

Toward the end of the cycle of dialogues between Job and his friends, it seems to me that Job has a bit of a breakthrough moment. In chapter 21, Job counters the relentless defense of the principle of retribution made by the friends by pointing out that he has seen exceptions. Sometimes wicked people prosper:

Why do the wicked live,
    reach old age, and grow mighty in power?
Their offspring are established in their presence,
    and their descendants before their eyes.
Their houses are safe from fear,
    and no rod of God is upon them. (21:7-9)

Similarly, Job has also seen innocent people exploited and oppressed:

Behold, like wild donkeys in the desert
    the poor go out to their toil, seeking game;
    the wasteland yields food for their children.
They gather their fodder in the field,
    and they glean the vineyard of the wicked man.
They lie all night naked, without clothing,
    and have no covering in the cold.
They are wet with the rain of the mountains
    and cling to the rock for lack of shelter.
(There are those who snatch the fatherless child from the breast,
    and they take a pledge against the poor.)
They go about naked, without clothing;
    hungry, they carry the sheaves;
among the olive rows of the wicked they make oil;
    they tread the winepresses, but suffer thirst.
From out of the city the dying groan,
    and the soul of the wounded cries for help;
    yet God charges no one with wrong. (24:5-12)

This is a significant departure from Job’s own acceptance of the principle of retribution implied by his offerings in 1:5. Perhaps his own experience of suffering as a “blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8; 2:3) opened his eyes to the reality of unjust suffering that had always been around him but that his prosperous circumstances had filtered out of view. Since it is the assumption that the principle of retribution unconditionally governs reality that lies behind the agony of Job, the unraveling of that assumption is the first step toward Job’s eventual comfort.

What, then, are we to make of the principle of retribution? After all, Scripture does say,

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8)

How does this square with what we have learned in Job? The key here is the frame of reference. Paul’s frame of reference in this passage is eternity. What Paul means is that from an eternal perspective we will reap what we sow. “The one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” Paul believes that there is more to our existence than this life, that there will be an afterlife, and what that existence will be like is going to based on God’s judgment of how we have lived in this life (2 Corinthians 5:10).

But what Job is dealing with is the question of reaping and sowing in this life, not in eternity. The concept of an afterlife and eternity was not yet revealed to Job and his friends, so the only consequences they could envision were in this life. But that’s the rub – in this life, things don’t always work as smoothly as the simple principle of retribution suggests. Sometimes wicked people prosper, and sometimes righteous people suffer. On balance it is indeed more likely that you will prosper as a righteous person – the Book of Proverbs is filled with statements to that effect. But proverbs by their very nature are general observations, not iron-clad laws. And as books like Job and Ecclesiastes show, there are significant exceptions to such proverbs.

Why I Love Barbershop: Reason 5 – It Has Made Me a Better Person

Tonight several thousand people will jam into the Axis Theater is Las Vegas to watch ten quartets compete in the finals of the international quartet contest. It is a thrilling event to witness, and unbelievably exciting to be a part of. Some friends and I will stay up late tonight to watch the live webcast. I can’t wait!

This week I’ve been reflecting on the many reasons I love barbershop. Monday I described how beautiful the music is. Tuesday I talked about the joy of performing. Wednesday I discussed the blessing of friendship it offers. Yesterday I looked at the nobility of earnest competition it offers. In this final post on barbershop, I want to explain how it has made me a better person.

But first, let me clarify an important point. Christians believe in something called “common grace,” the notion that God has endued the created order with blessings that are free to everyone to enjoy. God sends rain and sunshine for the just and unjust, the evil and the good (Matthew 5:43-45). I believe that the human capacity for music is one of those common graces of God. The same is true of the innate ability we have for deep and abiding friendships. So when I talk about how “barbershop” has changed me for the better, I just want you to know that what I really mean is how God’s grace – given through the many wonderful dimensions of barbershop – has changed me for the better.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17).

With that caveat in place, here are some ways barbershop has made me a better person.

It has given me new skills. I first heard about barbershop when I was in college, but I did not  pursue it as a hobby because I didn’t think I could read the music, or sing very well. I played the violin all through school, but the only singing I did was at church. Our hymnals used “shaped-notes,” a form of notation which uses a coded set of symbols to tell the singer if they are on “Do,” “Re,” “Mi,” etc. Without that system (which my granddad taught me at age 11), I didn’t think I could read music as a singer. And I certainly had no vocal training.

But when I finally mustered the nerve to join the Society, I discovered that with a lot of work, I could transfer my knowledge of shaped-notes (or the system of solfege, for you choral people) into the new style of music I was reading. As to the issue of vocal ability, well, one out of two ain’t bad! Seriously, I have learned a great deal about proper vocal technique, all of it gained from Society publications and from the directors I’ve been privileged to sing for.

Any hobby that gives you the chance to enhance a skill, to develop a previously unrecognized potential, is a great hobby. And when you can do this while having a blast, that is a special form of grace.

It has helped me overcome deep feelings of inadequacy. When I finally joined the Society, I was in awe of the quartets I heard at my little chapter in Valparaiso IN. And when I went to my first international to hear the best of the best, I was simply blown away. I never dreamed I could be in a quartet that was worthy of the international stage. If someone would have told me in 1998 that some day I would be in a quartet that sang at Carnegie Hall, that performed in countries around the world, that received thunderous standing ovations at international, I would never have believed them!

And in some ways, I still don’t! My experiences with my quartet (Lunch Break) were so far beyond my wildest imaginations that it all seems very surreal. Even this week while watching the quartet contest semifinal round I had to remind myself that I actually made the finals once. I’ve just always thought of myself more as a fan than anything else, and it is hard for me to believe that I could enjoy a little bit of the same success so many heroes have.

I suppose a lot of my feelings of low self-worth stem from fatherlessness – it is a bit of a burden to know that your own father wanted nothing to do with you. And being overweight and often feeling helpless to do anything about it doesn’t enhance your self-image. But barbershop has taught me that with enough hard work, with the help of lots of friends (especially a GREAT group of guys to sing with), and with the love that the Society shares, you can overcome a lot of (imaginary) obstacles.

It has made me a better preacher. One of the unexpected blessings of barbershop for me has been the positive impact it has had on my preaching. For example, striving to achieve at a high level musically requires a tremendous attention to detail. Over time, this becomes a habit that translates into other parts of your life – in my case, as a more meticulous student of Scripture. In the same vein, hundreds of performance opportunities has developed a better sense of timing and audience rapport which is extremely valuable as a public speaker.

Further, involvement in the Society has helped me see the challenges that face any non-profit volunteer organization, which has tremendous applicability to my church work. And through my years as a faculty member at the Society’s primary educational outreach (Harmony University), I have studied and taught about subjects like leadership and the brain-music connection that have intersected with my preaching life in all sorts of unexpected ways.

And maybe the primary way barbershop has enhanced my preaching is through my relationships with my non-Christians friends. As a preacher it is easy to be surrounded by other Christians all the time. Experiencing a much more diverse social outlet has made me far more sympathetic to some of the challenges facing my church members who sometimes work in environments that are not always faith-affirming. And, discussing very sensitive and controversial topics with my non-christian friends in barbershop has helped me understand far better those opposing views.

Finally, barbershop has made me a better husband. Well, I think so – Mrs. Scott may not! Much of this has to do with the lyrics of classic barbershop music. Songs like Always or The Sunshine of Your Smile – lyrics that allow a man to reach into his own heart and express things to his love that otherwise seem impossible to put into words.

I’ll never forget a chorus rehearsal in which we prepared to sing one of these classic love songs by sharing with each other the moment we knew that we were in love with our sweethearts. After several very heartfelt stories, one of the oldest men in the chorus spoke up and said, “The first thing I’m gonna do when I get home is kiss my wife!” The combination of fraternity and harmony is powerful – it makes us better men, and as better men, better husbands.

Men who join a hobby to escape from their wives are a sad caricature of what real manhood is. But through its richly evocative music, barbershop offers me a chance to sing with my buddies but think a lot about my wife. That’s a win-win!

Kristi and I married pretty late in life. I often prayed that God would bless me with marriage, but for many years it seemed like an impossible dream! But then we reconnected, and she came with me to the 2010 convention, where my chorus sang these words:

Time after time
I tell myself I’m so lucky
To be loving you
I’m so lucky to be
The one you run to see
In the evening
When the day is through
I only know what I know
The passing years will show
You kept my love so young
So new
And time after time
You’ll hear me say that i’m
So lucky to be loving you
Even writing them now causes me to tear up. What other hobby reinforces by word and music how lucky a husband is to be married to his wife?
These are just a few of the ways barbershop has made me a better person – that God’s common grace has made me a better person. Psalm 13:6 says, “I will sing to the Lordbecause he has dealt bountifully with me.” The blessing of barbershop has indeed been a bountiful one to me.

Here is a little documentary that was made of my quartet’s final contest appearance. It captures so much of what I’ve talked about this week.

Why I Love Barbershop Music: Reason 4 – Competition

Today is the international chorus contest at the Barbershop Harmony Society‘s convention in Las Vegas. Hundreds of men from around the world are about to step foot on stage and deliver in roughly eight minutes the results of hundreds of hours of rehearsal and preparation. And tomorrow night is the finals of the quartet contest, in which a new international quartet champion will be crowned. All of this brings me to the fourth reason I love barbershop – competition.

Competition can certainly bring out the worst in people. It sometimes creates jealousy, resentment, and even hatred. The world of barbershop is not immune to these dark emotions. But the reason that some people sink into this ugly mindset is because they misunderstand the true purpose of competition. Scripture offers some crucial insight into genuine value of competition.

The Bible frequently uses the imagery of an athletic competition to describe the discipline and determination we need to serve the Lord. The ancient city of Corinth hosted a prominent athletic festival, which may explain why the apostle Paul used running and boxing to illustrate the self-control demanded by Christianity:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

“Run that you may obtain it.” Run to win! This kind of language only makes sense to me if the apostle believed there was a way to reconcile competition with consecration. But how?

Here is the key. Competition can be God-honoring, as long as we understand that competition is not an end. It is a means to an end, and that end is to glorify God and not ourselves.

The objective of competition is to glorify God – that is the purpose of everything we do. “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). My mission as a human being is to magnify the God who made me, using the blessings He has given me. Competition is a vehicle for the exaltation of God. How does it do this? Because competing with someone else brings out the best in us, and our best is precisely what we all should give the Lord.

From this point of view, the real measure of victory is not necessarily a score or a medal. Michael Jordan would beat me a million straight games of one-on-one – but what would be the point? He could beat me without breaking a sweat. I break into a sweat typing! The real issue is not what a scoreboard or a judging panel says. The real issue is, have I used what God has given me the very best that I can to glorify Him, and competition elicits from us the best we have to offer.

This mindset transforms my attitude toward other competitors, particularly if they outscore me. If competition is God-centered, then I can rejoice in the success of others as long as I know I have given all I can to glorify God.  But a person who resents the success of others is self-centered, and destined to a lifetime of jealous misery.

When Kristi and I started dating, she very sweetly decided to come to one of  the Society’s international conventions. After a couple of days, I asked her what she thought. And her response was interesting. She said what really stuck out to her was how supportive everyone was even when they were competing against each other. And that is indeed what barbershop at its best looks like. It is not at all uncommon for the member of one quartet or chorus to coach a group he will be competing against. Can you imagine Coach K offering to help Roy Williams out with his offense? That would never happen in a lot of competitive environments, but it happens in barbershop all the time.

So to my barbershop friends at Vegas who are believers, “Sing to win!” Just remember what winning really is. It is not competing against someone else, but with someone else, in order to extract the very best you have, to the glory of God.

Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine,

Let every game’s end find you still upon the battling line;

For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,

He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game.

From Alumnus Football, by Grantland Rice

And since I mentioned my wife, here is her favorite barbershop contest moment, courtesy of the Ambassadors of Harmony!


Why I Love Barbershop Music: Reason 3 – Friendships

I am a proud member of the Barbershop Harmony Society which is hosting its international convention this week in Vegas. Since I can’t be there to enjoy the fun, I’m listing the reasons I love this hobby. Monday I talked about how beautiful the music is. Yesterday, I reflected on how fun performing is. And today, I want to talk about friendships.

But first a little backstory.

Not long before I joined the Society I was preaching in northwest Indiana. One of the guys in my church was very involved in theater, and he decided to start a little community theater group in the township where his family lived. He knew I liked music and was a ham, so he asked me to audition for a couple of the productions. I played “Marryin’ Sam” in Lil Abner, and the mayor in Bye Bye Birdie. It was a lot of fun! And since several of us from church were involved, it was a great way to be together.

One night after we finished Bye Bye Birdie, several of us decided we wanted to hang out, and since I had a parsonage, I invited the cast to come to my place. As it turned out, none of the other cast members that went to church with me came, but several other cast members did. And as we sat in my living room playing games, I realized that this was the first time I had people in my house that I had no church connection with since…well, forever.

And so I decided that night that if I was going to follow the example of Jesus, who made a point of befriending people outside of the circle of disciples, that I needed to do the same. So I made a New Year’s Resolution to join either a Toastmasters club or a barbershop chapter, searched for a local chorus on the internet, and the rest is history.

That decision has paid off in ways I could never have imagined. I’ve made friends all around the world, from an enormous variety of religious, political, and social backgrounds. I’m missing a lot of them this week!

It is no secret that America is a deeply divided nation. The level of vitriol on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter is astonishing. There are lots of reasons for the fragmented nature of civic life in our country, but one of the biggest factors is that too many Americans are content to live in tiny ideological bubbles, listening only to media sources that they agree with, socializing only with those who share the same beliefs. Barbershop provides a beautiful outlet to break out of these sorts of cocoons and do what sociologist Jonathan Haidt recommends:

Make an effort to meet someone on the other side. Only with people who challenge us can we find the truth.

Through barbershop I’ve engaged in incredibly interesting – and for the most part, amiable and respectful – discussions about sensitive issues like belief in God, the basis of morality, and same-sex marriage. These exchanges have helped me better understand those who disagree with me, and those friends have forced me to sharpen my own thinking. It is all too easy to dehumanize the people who disagree with us as opponents and enemies. But you can’t dehumanize someone you are ringing a chord with!

But most of all, I am thankful for the love and support this wide network of friendships has shown Kristi and me as she has battled cancer. We are blessed with a large circle of friends through our church connections, but in addition to that fellowship, we know that there are people all over the world who are a part of the barbershop family who are praying for us. It means more than we can say.

Longfellow once said that “Music is the universal language of mankind.” Sharing it with each other is a powerful way to transcend the Babel of division and learn to understand one another. Barbershop harmony offers a path for me and many others to seek the deeper harmony of our shared humanity.

For a powerful example of the transcendent power of harmony, enjoy this championship performance from New Zealand’s Musical Island Boys!


Why I Love Barbershop Music: Reason 2 – Performing Is Rewarding

This week I am celebrating the joys of being a barbershop singer while the Barbershop Harmony Society is holding its annual international convention in Las Vegas. Yesterday I focused on how beautiful barbershop harmony is. Today’s topic is how much fun performing is.

When a novelist or a filmmaker creates something, the feedback is not instantaneous. There is often quite a bit of lag time between the production of the novel/movie and its actual reception by readers/audiences. But when a musician performs in front of a live audience, the response is immediate, and that is extremely gratifying.

So performing is fun – especially when everything clicks! And the hobby of barbershop gives amateur musicians like me a chance to perform. Whether in a chorus (which is how most of us initially experience the hobby) or in a quartet (which is the coolest way to experience it in my opinion), singing beautiful music to an appreciative audience is a blast.

But there is a trap here. The thrill of performing can easily become a self-centered enterprise in which the music is all about you as the performer rather than the audience. That’s when it becomes tacky, like the husband who gives his wife a “gift” that’s really more for him than her. An audience can sense that it is a mere bystander to a performance that is all about the performer. On the other hand, an audience can also feel when a performer is putting it all on the line to give it a great show, and when that happens, the connection between musician and audience is magical.

My quartet (Lunch Break) does a lot of silly stuff, which means that we get an even more immediate sense of feedback from the audience than other performers do – we hear laughter (sometimes!) during our numbers. In a very real sense, the audience becomes a part of the performance when you do comedy – you are virtually inviting the audience on stage with you. So when it comes together, it is truly a team effort.

But when we started singing ten years ago, I had no idea just how much of an impact comedy could have on an audience. One of our very first shows, after the performance went out to the lobby to meet and greet those who attended. A woman came up to us and explained that she had lost her husband some time ago, and had not laughed since then – until our show. This floored me – we were just four guys acting goofy on stage. But to her, this performance meant something much more.

Over the years these stories multiplied. Those grieving the loss of loved ones; children with special needs; a cancer patient who nearly took his own life until he watched our DVD. Story after story like this made me understand that performing can be about so much more than getting applause. It can be an act of ministry, a way to serve those who are in need of the soothing balm that music provides.

And ironically, by shifting the focus of the performance from me to the audience, from getting to giving, I found that I enjoyed the experience so much more. Instead of being gripped with tension over how well I performed, I was free to focus on how to serve the audience.

Jesus once said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Performing in barbershop has helped me to understand more keenly how true this is. I love this hobby because it has shown more that performing is rewarding in ways I could never have imagined.

And for an example of a quartet giving itself to the audience, enjoy this performance by Crossroads!


Why I Love Barbershop Music: Reason 1 – It Is Beautiful

This week is the international convention of the Barbershop Harmony Society. Many of you have probably never heard a barbershop quartet before, much less that there is an international organization devoted to this musical style. But there are thousands of people all over the world who are members of this organization, and every year the Society has a convention the week of July 4th. The convention offers classes, workshops, and several contests (including a quartet contest and a chorus contest). It is a great week for those who enjoy this hobby!

And I am one of those. I joined the Society in 1998, and it has given me more fun and more friends than I could have ever imagined. I can’t make it to the convention in Vegas this week, so instead, I thought I would participate virtually by reflecting on why I love this hobby so much. So this week I will give five reasons why I love being a barbershopper.

And here’s the first – the music is beautiful. Continue reading

Reflections on Job, Part 4: The “Triangle of Tension”

To understand the ebb and flow of Job’s exchanges with his friends, we must first understand the assumption that they all share. Compare these two statements, first regarding Job-

His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and consecrate them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually. (Job 1:4-5)

Second, from the first speech of Eliphaz-

Remember: who that was innocent ever perished?
    Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
    and sow trouble reap the same. (Job 4:7-8)

Anytime his children get together Job continually makes sacrifices on the mere possibility that they may have cursed God and drawn divine ire. In other words, if they do something wrong, God will punish them. Eliphaz argues that there is a simple explanation for suffering – you reap what you sow. “Plow iniquity and sow trouble” and you will reap a horrible harvest.

Job and Eliphaz believe in what some commentators call the Principle of Retribution. Good people prosper, bad people suffer.  We are probably more familiar with the terminology of Paul in Galatians 6:7, “whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” This principle is plainly taught in Scripture. It undergirds many of the proverbial statements about successful living, like these:

The reward for humility and fear of the Lord
    is riches and honor and life.
Thorns and snares are in the way of the crooked;
    whoever guards his soul will keep far from them. (Proverbs 22:4-5)

But the question of the Book of Job is this: does the Principle of Retribution comprehensively explain all suffering?

At the start of the book, it is clear that Job and his friends believe that it does. But this presents a problem. Job is suffering, and yet he is righteous. If God is just, and the Principle of Retribution describes His governance of the world without exception, how could Job be righteous and suffering at the same time?

In his commentary on Job, John Walton describes this as the “Triangle of Tension.” Given the Principle of Retribution, how can all three of these facts be true at the same time?

Well, all three can’t be true – at least not on this view of the Principle of Retribution. If you’ve ever dealt with a building contractor, he may have used a similar triangle – good, fast, and cheap – and explained that you can only pick two of those three options! Well, given what Job and the friends believe about the Principle of Retribution, only two of the three points of the Triangle of Tension can be true.

From the point of view of the friends, what must give way is Job’s righteousness. In their view, God’s justice can never be questioned, and therefore Job’s suffering is manifest evidence that he is not righteous. By the end of the cycle of dialogues between Job and the friends, Eliphaz will allege:

Is not your evil abundant?
    There is no end to your iniquities. (Job 22:5)

From Job’s point of view, since he assumes the Principle of Retribution is the exclusive explanation of God’s providence, and since he knows he is righteous, his only option is to conclude that God is not just. Here’s a sample of that outlook-

It is all one; therefore I say,
    ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’
When disaster brings sudden death,
    he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
    he covers the faces of its judges—
    if it is not he, who then is it? (Job 9:22-24)

This is why Job longs to speak with God, to “take God to court,” so to speak. He is convinced that God has it wrong about him, and that if he could make his case before God, then God would see that Job is indeed just and undeserving of divine retribution. The friends? Well, Job thinks they are mere “yes-men,” willing to justify anything God does because they are afraid of Him.

But I would speak to the Almighty,
    and I desire to argue my case with God.
As for you, you whitewash with lies;
    worthless physicians are you all.
Oh that you would keep silent,
    and it would be your wisdom!
Hear now my argument
    and listen to the pleadings of my lips.
Will you speak falsely for God
    and speak deceitfully for him?
Will you show partiality toward him?
    Will you plead the case for God?…
Though he slay me, I will hope in him;
    yet I will argue my ways to his face.
This will be my salvation,
    that the godless shall not come before him.
Keep listening to my words,
    and let my declaration be in your ears.
Behold, I have prepared my case;
    I know that I shall be in the right. (Job 13:3-8, 15-18)

And so through three cycles of speeches Job and the friends debate which point of the Triangle of Tension is to be denied. No real breakthrough can happen until they recognize that the underlying assumption they all share – the Principle of Retribution – is not the answer to everything.


How Do You Define “Marriage”? The Organic View vs the Synthetic View

Cosmopolitan Magazine, December 20, 2016

Two years ago today the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right, and that states could no longer refuse to recognize such marriages. If an alternate universe existed in which I was forbidden to marry Kristi, and then the legal landscape changed, I would be ecstatic! So the jubilation on the part of same-sex marriage proponents is something I can empathize with.

And this ruling was celebrated by many more people who are not themselves same-sex attracted, but who cherish the notion of equality. Indeed, that is how this issue was framed – “marriage equality.” What could be more central to our political system than the notion of equality under the law?

But while I am sensitive to the deeply emotional aspects of this question, and while I grasp the impulse for equality that drives this issue, I believe the Court was profoundly mistaken in its decision. And the reason for this has nothing to do with any animus toward homosexuals, or with any grievance with the desire for equality. It has to do with the meaning of marriage itself.

The slogan of “marriage equality” is effective as a piece of rhetoric, but it is crucially deficient as a matter of policy, because the key issue here is not the meaning of “equality” but the meaning of “marriage” itself. To illustrate, let me just make up a word – globberstinkle. Now, if I were to launch a campaign for “globberstinkle equality”, the first item on the agenda would be to define what  globberstinkle is, and only then could I advocate that the right to globberstinkle be recognized in an equitable way. Likewise, the root issue in the case of same-sex marriage is not equality, but marriage itself. How is marriage to be defined?

It seems to me that there are two ways to define marriage. One way I will refer to as the organic definition, and the other I will call the synthetic definition. My argument here is that same-sex marriage depends upon a synthetic approach to defining marriage that ultimately collapses into incoherence.

But first, what do I mean by an organic definition? Organic food is that which is made without the addition of chemically formulated (or you might say, synthetically formulated) compounds. It is grown naturally. When I speak of the organic definition of marriage, then, I am speaking in terms of a definition of marriage that arises from the natural order itself.

What does such a definition look like? Well, here are the bullet points:

  • Men and women are different.
  • By virtue of this difference, men and women can reproduce.
  • For human beings, producing children involves a long-term commitment to teach and train children with the uniquely human features of rationality and conscience.
  • The same act that produces children also creates a tremendous physical, emotional, and psychological union.
  • This union, to be a true union, is mutual and exclusive and permanent.
  • Thus, male-female sexual complementarity points to a mutual and exclusive and permanent union which is the context in which children may be raised – in other words, marriage.

These are just the bullet points, of course, mere summaries of centuries of reflection on what constitutes marriage across many different cultures. The defense of each point would require much more elaboration – which is exactly what we see in the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, the biblical tradition of Judaism and Christianity, the religious tradition of faiths as different as Islam and Hinduism, and the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment. Though these strands of thought would disagree on many important issues, they share this definition of marriage that derives from the natural order. That is what I mean by the organic definition.

This organic definition grounds the definition of marriage itself in male-female complementarity. (As an aside, notice that it has nothing to do with other issues, like race. The redefinition of marriage to mean marriage between only those of the same race was a tragic and illogical departure from the organic understanding of marriage.) And by grounding the definition of marriage in the conjugal union of one man and one woman, the organic view also limits marriage to two parties.

Perhaps you don’t accept this organic definition. What’s the alternative? The alternative is the synthetic definition. By this I mean (as Webster’s defines it) something “devised, arranged, or fabricated for special situations to imitate or replace usual realities.” In contrast to the organic view which defines marriage based on logical deductions drawn from the nature of male-female complementarity, the synthetic view argues that this natural order is irrelevant, that marriage is purely a social construct, and that we are free to re-arrange the components of a marriage any way that we wish.

Justice Kennedy eloquently summarized this synthetic view in his opinion two years ago:

The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.

However, my contention is that once the definition of marriage is loosed from its organic moorings, this synthetic view quickly undermines the very concept of marriage. How so?

In the first place, there is no logical reason that the synthetic view of marriage should limit it – as Justice Kennedy did – to a bond of two persons. If the issue here is the freedom of “expression, intimacy, and spirituality” as he claimed, then why should three or more persons not be permitted to enjoy these freedoms in the context of a group marriage? On the same day that the Court issued the Obergefell decision, the respected Politico website published an op-ed in favor of the legal recognition of group marriages. As the author argued:

Polyamory is a fact . People are living in group relationships today. The question is not whether they will continue on in those relationships. The question is whether we will grant to them the same basic recognition we grant to other adults: that love makes marriage, and that the right to marry is exactly that, a right.

It does no good to respond by saying that polygamous marriages should be prohibited because they place women in an unjust and abusive relationship. This article isn’t simply proposing one-man-plus-multiple-women marriages; it is arguing for the legal acceptance of all forms of group marriage, whether three men, two men and two women, or any other synthetic combo you can think of.

Without the organic backdrop of male-female complementarity, which inherently involves a duality, the synthetic definition of marriage has no legitimate grounds for denying legal standing to group marriages, other than sheer prejudice.

Further, why should marriage be limited to two persons? Is it not possible that a person may find “expression, intimacy, and spirituality” with something other than a person? Just a couple of weeks after the Obergefell decision, Arizona State law professor Gary Merchant argued in a piece on Slate that humans should be able to marry robots (when I first read it I immediately thought about James Franco’s guest appearance on 30 Rock!). In the stirring conclusion of his article, Merchant declares:

But as the court emphasized at the close of its opinion in Obergefell, the issue comes down to the “fundamental right” of a person in a free society to choose the nature of the relationships and lifestyle they choose to pursue, providing they do not unreasonably harm others in exercising their choices. Robot-human marriage is not about robot rights; it is about the right of a human to choose to marry a robot.

What could be more “synthetic” than the marriage of a human and a synthetic object like a robot? And how would someone who rejects the organic view of marriage deny a person such a right?

For that matter, why should marriage be about anyone or anything else at all? An article from the December 20th issue of Cosmo featured a story about a young lady who decided to marry herself.



In the months since the wedding, Erika has truly committed to herself, she says, fixing up her apartment, traveling, and working on her book. When people ask if she’s married, she says yes, and introduces people to her other half.

“For so many years, people had been telling me I was a great catch,” she says. “I caught myself.”

How can the benighted Justice Kennedy deny this person her right to find “expression, intimacy, and spirituality” in marriage merely because she doesn’t accept his archaic version of marriage as between “two persons together”? Shouldn’t she have legal standing to enjoy this most precious of all freedoms?

My point is that the synthetic definition of marriage, divorced from the natural order of male-female complementarity, has no grounding for a definition of marriage other than the arbitrary wishes of those making up the definition. As Humpty Dumpty told Alice, “It means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” And if “marriage” can mean anything, then it means nothing. And therefore the phrase “marriage equality” has as much meaning as “globberstinkle equality.”