Saturday, 21 April 2012

Whitney Wisdom IV - Houston, We Have A Problem

I am engaged in a long running battle of wills with my iPod. For several weeks now I've been trying to persuade it to play Sweeney Todd. Easy, of course, when you can use your hands, but the battle always takes place when I'm cycling, and at such times I prefer to keep my hands on the handlebars, so voice control is the order of the day. Maybe it's the London traffic, or maybe it's my peculiarly dulcet vocal style, but voice control when I try it is not like in the movies. Let me furnish you with a sample transcript:

Me: Play Sweeney Todd.
iPod: Playing songs by Stelvio Cipriani.
Me: Who?

3.5 minutes later

Me: Play album Sweeney Todd.
iPod: Playing songs by Clodagh Rodgers.
Me: Eh?

3.5 minutes later

iPod: Shuffle on.
iPod: Playing play list "Songs to listen to while cutting your toenails."
iPod: Playing Whitney Houston.

Although I have yet to hear Sweeney Todd, I have listened to a lot of songs I didn't know I had, and, last week, my iPod's triumphant clincher was indeed Whitney, which served as a timely reminder that I have yet to finish the great Whitney Houston essay I started writing way back in December. So here it is, Whitney Wisdom Part IV. (And I promise I didn't start this whole series just as an excuse to use the 'Houston, we have a problem' line. Honest.)

In case you are late to the Whitney Wisdom party, here is the story so far. (Don't feel you have to read them all, it'll take forever.)

Whitney Wisdom Part One - In Which The Author Reveals How He Made A Tit Of Himself, And Introduces The Concept Of His Top Ten Heretical Pop Song List.

Whitney Wisdom Part Two - In Which The Author Talks At Length About His Getting Hit In The Nuts With A Music Stand, And Expresses His Belief That The Assertion Made As To The Nature Of The Greatest Love Of All In The Song "The Greatest Love Of All" Is In Point Of Fact Deeply Heretical.

Whitney Wisdom Part Three - In Which The Author Rants About How Loving Yourself Is Not, In Fact, The Greatest Love Of All, But Is An Impotent Solution To The Problem Of Self Worth And An Open Invitation To Toxic Levels Of Narcissism.

So finally we arrive at Whitney Wisdom Part Four - In Which The Author Reveals What The Bible Says Is The Greatest Love Of All.

Ready? Right. Here it is. The Greatest Love Of All, according to the Bible:

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it:

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 8:8)

Okay, it doesn't scan as well as Whitney's version. It's not quite as punchy. And it's got odd words in it, like "propitiation" and "sinners". So permit me now to attempt to explain why the greatest love of all is the greatest love of all.

Quick, get me two more idiots in shiny suits and a giant ball, and
let's play ten pimp bowling.

Back in Part Three I introduced two characters, representing, if you will, the two extremes of the self-worth spectrum. In the blue corner, Melody Hossaini and everyone else who has ever appeared on The Apprentice - the mouthy little idiots whose reality-divorced levels of self-deluded confidence make for such compelling car-crash TV viewing. In the red corner, Frank Spencer and his poor pusillanimous ilk, who struggle through life beneath the crushing weight of their own fractured self-image.
Both these groups of people have a problem. One group needs some serious encouragement. The other group needs a good slap upside the head. What to do?

I ranted at some length in part three about how 'fridge magnet apophthegms like "Learn to love yourself" just pour water on the burning oil of such problems, because if you don't value yourself, you won't value your own love, and if you already value yourself too much, then "love yourself" just means "carry on being an ass". If learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all, then the Beatles were totally wrong when they sang "All you need is love"*.

The Bible's definition of love, on the other hand, provides both the huge encouragement and the stinging slap in the face. In fact, the two are inseparably entwined. If you take away either part, you are left with nothing. Nothing good, anyway. You can't know the love if you don't feel the slap. So let's look at the slap.

The Slap

It's Britney, and she's slapping some guy for being a womanizer.
That'll learn him.

How do we typically demonstrate our affections? A box of chocolates and a bottle of wine are good fall backs. Maybe a nice card. Possibly some random Cath Kidston thing, if it's for a girl. It doesn't matter what, as long as it has that irritatingly ubiquitous Cath Kidston flowery design all over it. Girls love that. 
So how does God show his love for us? Like this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. A bit unconventional, that. An odd way to say "I love you". In fact, there's only one way it makes sense...

and that is if we actually deserved to die.


In Britney, Booze and the Bible III I talked about the human heart, and how there is something deeply wrong with it. Mine, yours, Britney's, Mother Theresa's, they are all skewed, distorted, pointed in the wrong direction. When we're told to do one thing, we automatically want to do the other. It's human nature... but there are consequences to it. Especially if it is God who we are disobeying.

The Bible calls it sin.
And the punishment for sin is death.

Just look at our contribution to the greatest love of all:
"Not that we have loved God" - because we didn't.
"The propitiation for our sins" - because we are not innocent.
"While we were still sinners" - because our hearts are messed up.

God is doing all the loving. We are doing all the hating.

Not exactly a crowd-pleasing revelation, right? I had the choice of writing this post, or publishing my list of The Top Ten Dowdy Nightdresses In A Movie Musical Number, and I was very tempted to go with the nightdresses - partly because I know it will cement my standing as a Guru Of The Internet, and send my blog stats rocketing into the realms of super-stardom, but mostly because I don't really enjoy saying hell-and-brimstone things like "We're all sinners and we all deserve God's wrath."

But look what happens if we rewrite it without all the disturbing sin stuff:

"In this is love, that we loved God and that he loved us and sent his Son to do something we had absolutely no need of."
"God shows his love for us in that while we were definitely not sinners, Christ died pointlessly."

This isn't a demonstration of love - this is a demonstration of Lynchian levels of insanity. This would be like me trying to prove my love for Britney by sending a team of petticoat-clad dwarves to assemble cheap flat-pack furniture outside her house. Actually, it's worse (that would be kinda cool, after all). If God sent Jesus to die for no reason, then he's either an idiot or a monster. Not really the behaviour you'd hope to see from the guy who is supposed to be in charge.

As I pointed out in part three, it is nice to feel loved... but only if we value the love of the lover. The love of a loser, an idiot, or a psychopath, is not especially encouraging... and if we adopt the box-of-kittens God-is-love-and-we-are-fine approach, then that's all we are left with - the love of a loser.

That's the slap.

The Love

Nothing says "love" like a smothering avalanche of grotty plastic tat
coated in seizure-inducing pastel floral patterns.

Now, assume that the Bible is right about the human heart: let's say that my heart really is evil. (Probably not hard for one half of the population to believe, after my comments on Cath Kidston). Let's say that, by nature, my heart hates God. That I'm his enemy. And let's assume that this really is a crime that is justly punishable by death. Now read this again:

"In this is love, not that Dave loved God, but that God loved Dave and sent his Son to be the propitiation for his sins."
"God shows his love for Dave in that while he was still a sinner, Christ died for him."

An innocent man dying to save a guilty man who hates him? Impressive.

God dying to save a guilty man who hates him? There's your demonstration of the greatest love of all.

Dwarves, petticoats and flat-pack furniture

Let's finish with a quick look at what this means to our friends on the edges of the self-worth scale - and to everyone else in the world, who, I'm sure, find themselves bouncing around between the two.

The Angel Of Music. (Yes, I went there.)

To the Frank Spenceresque self-loathers:Yes, you suck. But you are loved. And this is not the love of a loser, this is the love of someone who, according to the Bible, can hold the oceans in his hands. Someone who can fling stars into space. Someone who could, quite literally, bring you the moon on a stick. Though let's hope he doesn't, because it would play havoc with the tides. And this is not a passing-infatuation beer-goggle one-night-stand love. This is the love of someone who would actually die for you.

To the Apprenticesque self-lovers:God doesn't love you because of your incredible business acumen. He doesn't love you because you are a field of ponies, or because you give 110%. He doesn't love you because you look good in heels, because you had a scholarship to Sandhurst, or because you work with the understanding that there is a purpose greater than yourself.** Get off your onanistic little podium. If Sir Alan can see right through all that, God certainly can. God sees the rot in our hearts. He loves us anyway.

That, poorly and roughly explained, is the greatest love of all. It is both really good news, and really bad news. It can help the afflicted, it can humble the proud. It lies at the very heart of Christianity.

And you can opt in or out of this love.
If you like the sound of all this, and you haven't done so already, maybe you want to opt in. A few chapters after Paul's definition of love, he goes on to say that "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9). Have a read through one of the Gospels - Mark would be a good place to start - and see if it gives compelling evidence that Jesus is indeed Lord and that God really did raise him.

On the other hand, if it all sounds like total hokum and hogwash to you, then you have opted out. Fair enough. But I'd politely like to caution against opting out through apathy, ignorance, or arrogance. The Bible can't easily be dismissed as myth or mistake. The death of Jesus was a historic event, well testified to by reliable witnesses. The Bible's explanation is that it was God's great act of love, to rescue a guilty people who otherwise face punishment... Don't opt out unless you have a better explanation.

And whether or not you think I'm a crazed Bible-thumping imbecile after all this stuff, please do come back for the next post, which will be the long-awaited top ten dowdy nighties list. It was unbelievably difficult to compile, so don't miss it.

Good night.

Possibly not what Stuart Baggs meant, but I could no more pass up this
opportunity than I could pass up the "Houston we have a problem" line.

* Also, semolina pilchards have never, to my knowledge, climbed up the Eiffel Tower.
** Isn't it amazing how, with just ten minutes of googling, I can give the impression that I've actually watched the Apprentice?

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