The word that follows that drawn breath: What the new year holds for us in class this term

There is that moment at the beginning of the academic year when the professor comes into the classroom, sets down his or her stack of papers and books, moves to the podium and begins class.   It is a very mundane moment in many ways.  Students chatter away, texting friends, drinking expensive espresso drinks in shimmering travel mugs with café logos you don’t get the reference to and you move your papers around, look at the technology that surrounds you more and more each year and take a deep breath as you launch into your ‘welcome’ speech.

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Yet as a faculty member those few seconds between setting down my briefcase and books and when I turn to face my new class and begin to speak is a sacred moment like no other.  Something happens in those brief moments that I wish I could explain to my students but I don’t think they would understand. Perhaps I sell them short in this.  I don’t know.   It is a strange rush of anxiety (“Is this class really going to come together?”) a thrill of introducing new students to material you hold so dear (“Can’t wait to read that passage to them”) and the look of strangers meeting in blank gaze who will become people who you will care about in ways that as a teacher who sees hundreds of students a year is always surprising.

This strange ability to not only care but deeply love these students is always a shock to me.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is.

This infinite capacity of the human heart to allow people you meet through the medium of an ancient text in the context of this artificial arena of the mind called a university classroom to touch you, hurt you, stir you to wonder, to break your heart and to awaken memories of when you also first heard a philosophical argument, a Chilean poem, a Shakespearean sonnet, a rising note borne on the bow of a cellist breathing life into Bach across the centuries or the darken light of a Dutch master whose subject is an aged women inclining her head over the Scriptures with such gentle purpose that angels seem to brush wingtips across the oils on the canvas in your midst is awe-inspiring to be sure.

And in those moments that appear and disappear oh-so-fleetingly over the weeks of a term will flame up unannounced like a roman candle in a subterranean cave – so sudden and crisp as to blind you before giving way to sight.  Yet they happen again and again – sometimes only a flickering flame on a wet match of a poorly thought out question, or sometimes akin to a signal flare of desperation as the student is grasping for anything to support not only their understanding of the subject in the churning sea  of material they are glupping down, but some buoyancy for their very soul.

In such moments something more than learning happens or mastery of material.  In such moments whether they are but a whisper or akin to Walt Whitman’s ‘barbaric yap from the rooftops of the world’ show us to be human at long last.  These moments allow us to step away from the world that swirls around us, the technology that blinds and deafen us to ourselves and the humanity of others, the self-consciousness and obsession with our own needs and problems and even separated from the so-called security of that which we put our trust in more than God which is the artifice of our public self.  Like the striking of high C to blast apart a wine glass from across the room, these moments explode with the tinkling of glass upon the floor as we open ourselves up to one another in the space of a question, a point of clarification, a nob of the head in agreement, a glance at the art on the screen with unveiled eyes and the sigh of resignation that what had been held as true in small or large ways is now forever changed.

When I stand at the podium on Monday, setting down my books and rustling papers to mask that breath I draw in deeply before I speak, this is what is rushing through my head.  That something more sacred than learning will happen in spite of my best efforts as a professor and the material I put before us.  No, what will happen is the parting of a sea that separates human from human and human from the God of the universe.

What happens is holy.

What happens is redemptive.

What happens is more than I could have ever planned and if I am not careful midst all the papers and exams and small group exercises I could miss it.

In that breath there is always the option to just say “no… I can’t do this again.  The price is too high.”  The option to walk away, to drive away, to fly away is always there for student and professor alike.

But on Monday I plan to draw my breath, look into the eyes of my students, and welcome them to this moment together.  It will be probably fairly anticlimactic for some – course assignments will be discussed, the texts we will read, who the authors are, when the midterm and final will be.  But these furrows into the soil that will seem mundane are the channel markers of Grace in ways none of us can expect.  I know this because this isn’t new to me.  I have seen Grace show up again and again which is why I know how vulnerable and painful this journey will be for some.

But I will draw that breath again as I have many times before.

And I will say the word that I am finding is a much deeper well than I could have imagined.

I will say…

“Welcome”

Posted in existential musings | Leave a comment

CCM as Lenten practice: Finding Larry Norman in the desert

Lent is a season of justice – it is a season of deep reconciliation, of bare bones truth-telling, a redirecting of hungers and longings that have gone astray, but it is essentially a season of justice.  As I will tell students as we enter Ash Wednesday that they are called to remember along with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19 that they too will “return to the ground from which they are taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Yet going back to the beginning of things – our dustiness – also means that we can allow new things to take root, to grow into full bloom, and perhaps bear fruit in ways we never would have expected.  As an exercise of justice, I challenge students to remember that Lent is a call to justice in three vectors:

- justice within ourselves,

- justice in relation to our neighbor,

- and justice with God.

Much of the focus in contemporary Lenten practice revolves around the first turn of justice as a move within ourselves and challenging the priority of the hungers/distractions that have taken us away from our true nature.  This is the call to fasting – be it from food, coffee, alcohol, Facebook, television, what-have-you – that people will take on board as a way to refocus on who we truly are before God and others without these things.  It is a good practice and an important spiritual discipline to be sure.  However, without the call of justice to and with our neighbor (found in renewed acts of generosity, service and hospitality) and in relation to God (found in renewed commitments to deep reading of Scripture, prayer, community worship and fellowship) then merely fasting from caffeine or American Idol doesn’t really amount to much.

One area that I have challenged myself with during Lent has been to scroll through my CCM back catalog and see where God might show up in ways I just don’t expect.  For those who know some of my journey, I have had a strange relationship with CCM – the genre known as Contemporary Christian Music – and have come to the point of closing off my imagination to the possibility that God even speaks (let alone stutters) in anything found in the racks of Christian bookstores.  I make a point of ‘heresy hunting’ in CCM lyrics as I sit in worship services and struggling constantly with the poor theology found in much of what passes as ‘praise music’.  But this year I was confronted by the reality that perhaps my heart, akin to the Grinch, was three sizes too small and when I hear the Whos down in Whoville singing to Chris Tomlin, Stuart Townsend, Matt Redman, TobyMac, David Crowder or whomever, I need to explore what is behind this joy rather than steal all the Hillsong CDs from under the trees in the dead of night.

So I have gone back to my CCM tunes in the dusty recesses of my iPod (filed under ‘Gospel and Religious’ or ‘Religious’ or ‘Inspirational’ genres) and started to listen a bit each day as a form of penance, of desert wandering, and a form of reconciliation.  True, some of the music I am finding is fairly cringe worthy in both form and content – the 80’s electronic strings that soar in the third verse is an example – and yet there is still something going on that I have to admit is striving after God in ways I have dismissed.  Perhaps is it a sign of my age, but I actually am finding that some of the old Jesus Music stuff from the mid 1970s (Larry Norman, Keith Green, Randy Stonehill) and the Gospel numbers from the early 1980s (Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mavis Staples, Shirley Caesar, Fairfield Four, Blind Boys of Alabama) hold up and frankly musically bury a lot of what is being sold today.

One gem that I had completely forgot about was Larry Norman’s “The Great American Novel” from his 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet. On the song, Norman plays the role of the 60s flower child wandering through 20th century history and watching as history turns a blind eye to justice in favor of the complacent and the powerful:

And when I was ten you murdered law with courtroom politics,
And you learned to make a lie sound just like truth;
But I know you better now and I don’t fall for all your tricks,
And you’ve lost the one advantage of my youth.

You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter,
Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water;
And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on,
At every meal you say a prayer; you don’t believe but still you keep on.

And your money says in God we trust,
But it’s against the law to pray in school;
You say we beat the Russians to the moon,
And I say you starved your children to do it.

The song pulls no punches and has a ferocious, all-consuming commitment to seeking real justice and reconciliation in the realm of lived politics – things that effect real people in real life.

As I scroll through CCM recorded in the 80s and 90s let alone the first decade of the 2000s, I will admit being struck with how… dare I say it… bland… the music seems to be.

Where is the strong, clear, pointed concern for the poor and marginalized?

Where is the longing for justice and the seeing of Christ in the face of the downcast?

Lent is indeed a season of justice.  It is a season of reconciliation.  It is a season of going back to beginnings and finding what might have been overlooked and needs to be attended to. Sometimes, it means finding in CCM… of all places… a calling to justice and seeing the world anew.

Posted in CCM, contemporary christian music, Larry Norman, Lent, music, theology | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Love Wins” the blogosphere – thoughts on Rob Bell, universalism, and Christian cyber-fights

Either you only follow tweets for TMZ.com or ESPN Sportscenter or live under a rock away from the din and clang of the blogosphere if you haven’t heard the rumblings about Rob Bell’s upcoming book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011) which will hit bookstores on March 29th.  For those following the flurry of activity, the basic issue that arose this weekend started when Justin Taylor posted a blog posting entitled Rob Bell: Universalist?  and later John Piper, the grandfather of neo-Calvinism, Synod of Dort extreme sport TULIP revivalism mentor for Mark Driscoll, and author of Desiring God, offered a rather snarky and damning (pun intended) tweet that simply read “Farewell Rob Bell” in relation to claims that Bell’s new book espoused a universalist view of salvation and Bell has finally been shown to be in league with the devil.   There have been claims from neo-Calvinists for a while that Bell and his NOOMA videos were merely drawing people away from orthodox Christian faith.  Swords began to rattle and the blogosphere exploded.  As reported in Christianity Today’s blog this weekend, Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter Saturday… that is the top 10 trending of ALL Tweets globally. As of Saturday evening, about 12,000 people had recommended Taylor’s blog post on Facebook, which posts the article on readers’ personal pages. The article had about 680 comments as of this morning.  Taylor, who is a VP for Crossway Books which publishes some of Piper’s work, has since revised his article, softening the blows he delivered originally including aligning the fate and character of Bell with II Corinthians 11: 14-15 –  “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” [to be expected, this is from the ESV which is the authorized version of neo-Calvinist Piper fanboys (yes... boys) everywhere since, as we have been told, other translations such as the ill-fated TNIV are too "gender-inclusive" and leading to the feminization of the Bible].  As many have pointed out, Bell’s book has yet to be released and these comments are coming from people who have either only seen the book jacket copy or a promotional video that Harper Collins has begun to circulate in promotion of the book.  In short, the blogosphere is offering a premonition of things to come akin to the movie “Minority Report” where people are charged and convicted of crimes they haven’t committed but *might* in the future – taking them out now will save collateral damage.

Some passing thoughts on this bit of cyber rumbling:

1. At its most base level, these type of fist fights in Christianity only serve to remind the world that Christians are seriously wounded, angry people with too much time on their hands to muse about this stuff, are more interested in winning fights on grounds of certainty rather than faith (the fate of souls can be known with certainty?!) and seeming lack of critical faculties in regard to self-reflection so as to see how much damage this type of snarking does in the name of Christ.

2. As Scot McKnight recently noted in a recent Christianity Today blog, this type of activity serves the book publishers best – in this case Crossway and Harper Collins are the winner –  as the church burns itself to the ground and should be a warning to leaders who choose flippancy rather than true compassion and reconciliation as their response in the very public age of social networking:

I’ve not seen anything like it. And, yes, the quickness of social media have made this such a big issue … today … and in a week it will all be gone. Justin Taylor once generated almost 100 comments by quoting a blurb of mine that was on the back of IVP’s book by Tom Wright on Justification.

Justin may be right about what Rob believes, but if he is wrong then he owes Rob Bell a huge apology. I want to wait to see what Rob Bell says, read it for myself, and see what I think of it. Rob is tapping into what I think is the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today, and this fury shows that it just might be that big of an issue.

The publicity approach of HarperOne worked perfectly. They got huge publicity for a book. They intended to provoke — and they did it well. I think it is wiser to wait to see the real thing than to rely on publicity’s provocations. Justin bit, and so did many of his readers.

Frankly, John Piper’s flippant dismissal of Rob Bell is unworthy of someone of Piper’s stature. The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.

3. I will ‘out myself’ as someone who respects what Rob has done, how he thinks, and frankly his deep and abiding concern for the well-being of all people who Christ died for – and I do mean *all* people as testified to in Romans 5:18.  True, I don’t find all his theology to be my cup of tea, but that is what makes him real to me… Rob actually has the humility to say he doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t try to offer a one-stop shopping for everything.  Quite refreshing actually.  I will certainly read the book and look forward to seeing what Rob actually says… not what people who haven’t even read the book think.

4. On whether universalism is something worth a theological fist fight about, I suppose it matters as far as our dialogues move us toward humility before a God who is as mysterious and unknowing as He is revealed and apprehendable.  As a theologian I work with students who struggle with the final end of things all the time.  As a pastor who has performed many funerals for children, adult suicides, and family members who are atheists and well as asked the ultimate fate of those who don’t profess a faith in Christ nor have prayed the sinner’s prayer per our traditional understanding and therefore I get asked the questions of heaven and hell quite a bit.

Where we put the cross matters…

My short hand answer begins with where we have put the cross in our midst. For many the cross is iconically viewed every Sunday in church sanctuaries as something bolted to the wall at the end of the sanctuary, high above the ground and therefore beyond our grasp:

In this view there is only one way to approach the cross – it is a 2D thing in our 3D world that is unmovable, without blemish, and only reached through our reason since we cannot touch it or experience in any way that is existential.  There is a front door and no back door to this cross and there just one way to get there.

But what if we consider the cross as something that is truly in the center of our lives and not merely bolted to the wall? What if the cross that Christ died on and made the way forward for overturning the pattern of Adam as we hear in Romans 8 actually offers a new way, a new path, a new centerpoint for our lives that is truly 3D and in our midst:

Golgotha was a real place in the three-dimensional world with a cross planted in the midst of everything and in the presence of and for all people (Romans 5:18) that could be approached from all directions for this was a death offered for all the world (John 3:16) and not merely those who find the one aisle or doorway our small tribes might conjure as essential in phrase or practice.  This is a cross that is in the middle of everything we are about and everything God wishes for us.  What a shame to bolt that gift to a wall like a prized trophy head captured and preserved safely above all the muck and mire of real life.

Now, am I advocating for an essential universalism whereby everyone is saved and taken to paradise whether they like it or not?

No.

I stand on the belief that my ability to choose is something God counts as so precious as to give me a choice to love or not and thereby I can opt out of relationship with God, deny the offer of paradise, and build my own Hell whether on earth or in the afterlife akin to Satan’s famous aphorism from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “For it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”  I say this with all the Reformed theology in my bones as one who affirms God’s sovereignty in all things, understands depravity as the result of being deprived of God’s grace in a broken world and twisting that which is good into a disordered and not ordered form of love.  To put it even more bluntly, if Heaven is akin to a junior high lock-in night where you can’t leave and I am locked in, then love doesn’t matter does it?  But if I am choosing to be embraced by the love of God as God is choosing to embrace me through the grace and mercy of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, then the last thing I am looking for is the proverbial door.  To put it bluntly, eternal security and damnation are code in neo-Calvinist rhetoric for simply not trusting in God’s ability to continually choose us and would rather have a once and for all “yes” that is final and ends the conversation so the relationship is always submissive to certainty in our own doctrine rather than God’s sustaining providence. Put that in your Piper and smoke it…

Is there Hell? Scripture and the tradition of the Church says that this is as real as the world in which we live.  In fact, Christ is fairly pointed in declaring that perhaps Hell is already here and we have a chance to do something about it for folks who are living in this very real and not imagined Hell everyday… and not merely blogging about it.  In this regard I believe in Hell because I can see, taste and touch its stench all around me in the lives of the marginalized and down-trodden, the broken hearts and afflicted, the ironic and the nihilistic.  To that end my thoughts on whether Hell is real have more to do with the hope and prayer that by the time we catch up to the action of Revelation 20 that God has already put into play that Hell will be as empty as freakin’ possible and that Satan and all the demons will be left alone and tormented by the reality of a cross that stands in their midst as well… a cross that is not impotently framed on a wall like an IKEA wall hanging but holds the door open for all time so that all who seek entrance to this place of separation have to try and get by it first.

As Scot McKnight wisely stated, this whole cyber spat will probably just blow over by the time we go to work on Monday and that is a shame in some regards since what we believe does matter… and it certainly matters more than making arguments about a book nobody has even read yet.

So… what are your thoughts on all this? Does it matter? Why or why not?

Posted in belief, Bible, culture, emergent, Eucharist, existential musings, faith, Jesus, John Piper, Love Wins, Mark Driscoll, Rob Bell, secular, theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

True Myth – there is no faith without fantasy

Artist Dan Meth recently posted a map of the ‘fantasy world’ that pulls together over 30 different fictional/fantasy worlds into one glorious landscape – Narnia, Middlearth, Earthsea, Wonderland, Never Never Land, Oz, Whoville, Florian, the Land of the Lost, you name it.  What I love about the map is how by glancing at it I am drawn back into the narratives, characters, plotlines and epic grandeur of these places that are so very remote from the so-called ‘world’ in which we live day-to-day yet so real in deep and abiding ways.

One of the things that fiction does is allow us to see the imagination as a necessary part of what it means to be human.  More than mere escapism, fantasy literature draws readers into a world that pushes us to wonder ‘what if’ rather than ‘what is’ and it is shift into the possible (albeit improbable) that allows to live into a life that pushes against and even challenges the all-too-readily accepted way of things.

As I have argued in many ways throughout my writing over the past decade and most recently in Freedom of the Self, one of the most important moves in the Christian narrative is when Jesus framed the way for the community to remember him was to be ‘poetic.’   In Luke 22: 19, Jesus caps off the directive to celebrate the Eucharist with the now famous injunction to ‘do this in remembrance of me.’   The directive of Jesus for this remembrance is a creative act as seen in verse 19 where the ‘do this’ (poieite) of remembrance recalls poiesis, the root of ‘poetics’ or what we term ‘poetry.’  To ‘be creative/make poetry’ in remembrance of Jesus is a threatening move for many people.  Much of Christianity is hemmed in by a commitment NOT to be imaginative – that somehow the drive and focus of the Christian story is to never change, to hold fast to well-worn narratives, to guard the past and not seek any voices or advice that could suggest that perhaps there is a new day dawning and new voices to add to the choir.  As congregations dwindle in numbers, as younger generations leave communities of faith in droves, I wonder if some of this is that Christianity lacks the imagination to see these young people as unique, unrepeatable miracles of God – voices that will certainly challenge, renew and yes, reimagine what it means to live into a world that seems to have gone mad.

When we journey to Middlearth, Narnia, Earthsea and many of these other so-called fantasy lands we celebrate the impossible made possible and feel a leap of purpose and conviction that was once the animating factor in faith for the early church.

To this end I continue to feel that we need more fantasy in our theological diet today.  People need to read the fantastical and strange in order to release our hearts and souls from the predictable and staid so that the faith and hope ‘for that which is not seen’ can be believed and faith can once again rise like the roar of a lion and the song of a mere Hobbit.

What fantasy books do you think create a space for faith to arise?

What have been those grand narratives for you?

Posted in art, belief, columbine, culture, Eucharist, existential musings, faith, Fantasy Literature, Freedom of the Self, Imagination, Middlearth | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Theological echolocation: trying to find people and places to call ‘home’

One of the tasks that many people struggle with in their search for meaning is locating people and places where they can feel at home.  This notion of ‘home’ is deep within us – that place where we experience peace, we are embraced by those around us, and the language and movements around us feel in resonance with who we are made to be or, better yet, called to be.

My daughter was recently doing a report on bats and the way some members of the animal kingdom have an ability called ‘biosonar’ or ‘echolocation’.  Similar to sonar used in submarines, echolocation is a biological event that creates context and discerns meaning:

Echolocation, also called biosonar, is the biological sonar used by several animals, most notably microchiropteran bats and odontocetes (toothed whales and dolphins), but has also been demonstrated in simpler form in other groups such as shrews, one genus of megachiropteran bats (Rousettus) and two cave dwelling bird groups, the so called cave swiftlets in the genus Aerodramus (formerly Collocalia) and the unrelated Oilbird Steatornis caripensis

One way to think of echolocation is the ability to send out a distinct signal that when it hits an object with bounce back in waves that will form the shape and contour of the surface that the sound came in contact with.  In bats it looks like this:


This seems relatively basic – sound goes out, sound returns.   The bat balances the dissonance of the echo in a stereophonic means between its right and left ear resulting a mental picture of that which cannot be seen with the eye, but is still apprehendable to the mind.

I think there is a ‘theological biosonar’ of sorts as well. As people try to make connections with others, find faith communities within which to call ‘home’, and to get a sense of place in both theological and sociological meaning, we all send out signals hoping that the image that echoes back is one of home.

Contemporary Shibbóleths – deep calling out to deep

We all use certain phrases, terms, actions or ‘shibbóleths’ (שִׁבֹּלֶת) to ‘feel people out’ as it were and determine our location in reference to self and others.  Do we belong? Is this a place called ‘home’? The notion of a shibbóleth is like this notion of echolocation.  The term is taken from Judges 12 in the Hebrew Bible:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שיבולת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סיבולת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.

The term “Shibboleth” (שיבולת) and “Sibboleth” (סיבולת) are so similar yet the difference would mean life and death.  Sure, we can wrap ourselves up in frustration at the ‘little things’ that people hold so tightly to, yet when it comes down to whether this is a place to be trusted or a place to fear… the little things matter quite a bit.

Petty though they may be, I have started thinking about my sense of echolocation – what are the shibbóleths that I listen for in order to get a sense of whether I am ‘home’ or not? What are the sometimes odd, quirky things that I hold to that have become a tuning fork for whether the place I am at is a place to call ‘home’?

Some of the things I have come up with (like most of life – it is a mix of the serious and mundane) are as follows:

- Equal access of both men and women to all forms of ministry

- high value of social justice and holistic responsibility

- salvation as living a ‘faith of Jesus’ rather than merely ‘faith in Jesus’

- both Tillich *and* Barth have things to contribute to the theological conversation

- more serious novels contain theological depth and conviction than most theological texts

- churches that don’t let kids put artwork on their walls need to turn the keys over to the next generation

- tattoos and comic books matter

- even numbered Star Trek films are superior to odd numbered ones and the original three Star Wars films are a dish best served on VHS tape

- if more contemporary Christian music (CCM) had the vision and artistic integrity of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, and Nick Cave I might listen

- watching It’s a Wonderful LifeThe Paper Chase and Moulin Rouge once a year is not repetitive

- writing in books is part of reading a book well

- three television shows in the past decade worth deep discussion are The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and Fringe

- having a coffee shop that you go to regularly and not shared with others because you want a ‘fortress of solitude’ from the places you dwell is not a bad thing

- Monty Python never gets old

- Partick Thistle rather than Rangers vs. Celtic

- adulthood is overrated… childhood is not

- shopping malls are soul-sucking prisons of doom

- Porter and Stout are the only options for grown ups

- any dog less than 30 lbs should be called a ‘cat’

- two greatest living theological writers in America at present are Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King

- April may be the cruelest month… but August is the greatest one

- Any advent liturgy that doesn’t dwell deeply on the genealogies of Matthew and Luke is akin to starting with season 2 of Battlestar Galactica… simply wrong.

- The one thing I agree with Michael Jackson on is that ‘children are our future’

- While ‘Highlander’ was a fairly lame movie, the ideas of blending Scottish and Japanese cultures with the question of humanity facing immortality is epic

- French press trumps drip; matcha green tea trumps earl grey

- “Yes” to Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything and Almost Famous

- Being a reformed pastor and theologian doesn’t mean embracing a Synod of Dort legalism and reminding people that Wesley and Calvin have much more in common than not.

OK… that’s a start…

what would *you* add?

Posted in belief, Bible, emergent, existential musings, faith, Glasgow, secular, theology | 3 Comments

50% discount on seminary? Welcome to SPU…

How about doing a seminary degree for 50% off at SPU?

SPU is offering a tuition benefit of 50% discount off tuition costs for full-time and part-time staff who are employed with the following organizations:  InterVarsity, the Navigators, Young Life, Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade and World Vision.

The program will:

  • Apply to all programs offered through the Graduate School of Theology (M.Div, M.A. in Theology and the proposed Graduate Certificate in Christian Studies)
  • Apply to all current and future course delivery methods.
  • Apply to tuition costs for the first 40 credits of course work.
  • Take effect for the academic year beginning Fall of 2011.

Contact Raoul Perez for more information – raoulp@spu.edu or (206)281-2342

Spread the word to those you know who are working in parachurch ministries – pass this on!

Also, if you are interested in learning more of these programs, come to the Discernment Weekend February 25th and 26th at SPU – experience Taize Worship at St James, meet faculty, here from church and ministry partners in the program:

More information is here: http://www.spu.edu/depts/theology/events/discernmentweekend.asp

Posted in World Vision, Young Life, Youth For Christ | Leave a comment

MTV’s Skins: where teens are both consumers and products in America’s increased tolerance for child porn

As a theologian who works in areas of media culture and youth ministry education, it should come as no surprise that I have had a number of people encouraging me to comment on the latest MTV program Skins. For those not familiar with this latest attempt by MTV at capturing the coveted teen viewing market, Skins is a scripted TV show that first aired in the UK and surrounds the drug and sex fueled lives of teens where each episode casts the core characters in increasingly questionable scenarios: drugs and booze flows freely, kids regularly jump into bed together, take erectile dysfunction pills and spend the show with erections openly displayed, and parents leave for days at a time whereby teens hold parties with no boundaries and no end in sight. And this is only the first three episodes.  One of the things that has caused a bit of a media firestorm is that the show is not employing older actors playing teens like other teen dramas in the past where teens we put in explicit and questionable scenarios (think: Fame and Saturday Night Fever).  Here the youngest actor is 15 years of age and given the legal definition of child pornography puts MTV into some dangerous legal waters.  The public outcry has been significant enough that some major corporate sponsors such as Chevy Volt have pulled out of MTV entirely over the show.  However, the show is a huge hit thus far for the network with some 3.3 million tuning in to its première which has set a new first-episode record for MTV viewers ages 12 to 34.  The show is rated TV – MA which means that in order to view the show online via MTV.com, you have to enter your birthdate testifying that you are over the age of 18.  One can only wonder how many of the 3.3 million within the 12 to 34 range have shifted their birth date to mirror not their chronological age, but the maturity level that see themselves at. In a recent New York Times article in relation to the show, MTV spokeswoman Jeannie Kedas made the following statement assuring concerned adults that the show will continue to focus on key standards that are important to viewers:

“ ‘Skins’ is a show that addresses real-world issues confronting teens in a frank way.  We review all of our shows and work with all of our producers on an ongoing basis to ensure our shows comply with laws and community standards. We are confident that the episodes of ‘Skins’ will not only comply with all applicable legal requirements, but also with our responsibilities to our viewers.” (emphasis added)

One has to wonder how MTV understands *what* their responsibilities are to their viewers.  MTV is a network owned by Viacom, that major cable giant who also gave the world Jersey Shore which is not show that has announced a return to Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best by any means.  As a network that has struggled with its brand for quite a while, this move in ‘reality child porn’ seems to be hitting a nerve in many ways – people are buzzing about MTV as a cultural force again, seeing the network as beyond edgy and willing to even face censorship and pornography charges for the sake of ‘real television’ about ‘real teens’.  What Skins announces for me is the apogee of Western cultures’ ultimate goal of taking children out of the equation all together as responsible, caring soon-to-be adults in the making and sell them to themselves as mere products of flesh without souls.  As such Skins is a true nexus point of teens as both product and consumer, nothing more and nothing less.  Akin to the horror porn films such as the Saw series and The Human Centipede, it is another instance of a case study whereby we sit and watch young people devour each other in a supposed Dionysian frenzy of liberty and self exploration as something we tell ourselves is simply “seeing kids as they are” but that in the pit of our stomach we know that we are watching youth who only want to be admired and liked then destroyed for our momentary escape from our malaise.  I may sound prudish in my comments here, but I suppose it is also the sound of lamentation.  As much as we are told this is a show showing us “the real deal” of teens in our culture, it is also a wish-fulfillment decades in the making. As far as I can tell, Skins is ultimately a sick indictment of Western cultures’ fetishistic, pornographic and deep hatred of youth (yes…hatred… not idolatry) as something that is forever lost in all its innocence and optimism in the wake of a culture utterly lost east of Eden without a compass, without hope, and therefore must destroy anything that reminds us of what we sacrificed in our gluttonous self-indulging of the bloated ego.  As Troy Patterson at Slate.com noted in his review of the show, perhaps the show is really just showing us how we wish teens would act:

I think I’m paraphrasing a Don DeLillo character when I say that Skins is not created as pornography about children but as a kind of cultural pornography for them. As such, it belongs to a tradition dating back at least to Blackboard Jungle. The show—a sporadically excellent adaption of a British teen drama—is superlative teensploitation, enabling youth to rejoice in the fantasy of their corruption, among other things. (Chief among those other things: To celebrate their music as if they invented the concept of dancing alone in their rooms?) Pissing off people’s parents is among the functions of its existence and the indices of its success. The audience is decorating its space on the far side of a generation gap.

To this I think Patterson is probably correct, but not for the reasons he gives in his review.  True, the show does take care to allow teens to see that ‘pissing off your parents’ is probably just part of being a teenager, but what I don’t agree with Patterson is that the so-called script that Skins is offering is not a descriptive script (just showing us what teens are like) – but rather a blatantly prescriptive one (how culture wants teens to be).

The “Animal House factor”

It is this prescriptive emphasis that is not-so-subtle and a raging current throughout teen focused media which I call the “Animal House factor”.  Movies like Risky Business and Animal House provide a prescriptive script for teens to fulfill, offering a road map for coming-of-age that has little to no spiritual or psychological grounding and results in teens merely acting these scripts out in hopes of finding the yellow brick road to the Wizard’s door after all the sex and drugs are over and perhaps given a chance to just go home at long last.  What we as consumers of shows like Skins are telling teens is that this is a way forward down that golden path.  What we *don’t* tell them is that we blew up Oz long ago, the ruby slippers were gambled away with other dreams that died with our innocence, and no one wakes up to find family – be it Auntie Em or Toto – around your bedside welcoming you home anymore.  No, what we have left are the moment-by-moment distractions, the entertainment machine that needs more young bodies poured into it daily, and the deepening sense that if we don’t turn up the soundtrack a little louder, the High Def a little crisper, the jump cuts and fade outs a little quicker, then we will see the angel with the flaming sword marking yet again how far we are from Eden and just how hopeless and lonely we truly are.

If our children are destroying themselves, then perhaps they won’t be able to see our true faces either.

Posted in columbine, emerging adulthood, ethics, existential musings, faith, moral therapeutic deism, MTV, MTV Skins, Skins, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When The Fantastic Four becomes Three: Learning about life when death isn’t real

Today Marvel Comics released Fantastic Four #587 which continued the story that began some 50 years ago with four people whose life was changed forever by a gamma radiation blast in space which changed them into the comic book heroes known as The Fantastic Four.  Yet issue #587 is a game changer of sorts.  Over two years in the making, the storyline for the Fantastic Four has come to an end with the death of Johnny Storm (The Human Torch), the brother of Sue Storm (The Invisible Girl) and brother-in-law of Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and BFF of Ben Grimm (The Thing).  Death is something that is not uncommon in the world of comic book superheroes, even the most overtly messianic superhero Kal El – better known as Superman – has died.  Yet death in pop culture is rarely death as we who live in the so-called real world experience it.  In an interview on CNN, Marvel Editor-in-chief Tom Brevoort didn’t even deny that the possibility of rebirth stands over the newly deceased Human Torch:

“It’s very easy to develop cynicism about the stories we tell,” Brevoort added. “The only way to combat and conquer it is to have a story that touches on the humanness of people that has emotional resonance and truth to it. The fact of death is something every human being can relate to. I would argue that a well-told story of a character’s demise is not necessarily undone by them coming back later.”

In pop culture there is always this playfulness with the life cycle given the fantastical way in which life can be expanded beyond the limits of mere mortality – people change into superheroes, learn to become wizards, transport through time and space, and meet talking animals on the other sides of wardrobes.  So battles occur, people die, and death takes for some but not all and not for all time.  We cheer when our hero leaps up and saves the day in the darkest hour as we munch our popcorn.  Then we blink at the light of day as we leave the movie theater and get into our car and have to face a world that is seemingly random, often painful, and rarely just in regard to who dies and who lives.  And when people die… they stay dead.  But life does go on, and we remember those who have passed from this mortal coil, living from our memories and continuing their life as a legacy of our own.

So will the Human Torch appear again in some distant new comic book?

It is pretty likely.

Does the knowledge of this cheapen the death scene in issue #587?

Yup.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I love comic books, anime, manga and think that, along with the character Elijah Price/Mr. Glass from M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable, that they are indeed telling stories – albeit fantastical – that are more ‘true’ than we care to realize.  But the comic nature of death is not something that I can believe in anymore.  Yes, as a Christian I belief in a life that extends beyond the temporal but this everlasting-ness of life is also rooted in the death and life around us everyday.  Death is a very serious thing and an ugly thing.  There is no rhyme nor reason to it.  It is indeed a release from pain and suffering, but it is also a loss of life pure and simple – it is a loss of loved ones, of beauty we behold everyday, the stillness of water on a clear lake, the sound of children’s laughter and the feel of morning sun on your face.  It is as Hamlet mused ‘the final frontier’.

 

So… what do you think?

Does the promise of rebirth in comics help us expect a rebirth as well and therefore take away ‘death’s sting?’  Or does this pop culture cheapening of death distract us from the reality of death?

 

Posted in art, belief, Comic books, culture, Death, Marvel, The Fantastic Four | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Glasgow, the stoning of Stephen and a lack of theological imagination

Doug Gay, a colleague who teaches Practical Theology at University of Glasgow, recently posted a citation on his Facebook page from Alastair Gray’s stunning 1981 novel Lanark that gave voice to much of what I been wrestling with for the past two weeks. For those not familiar with Lanark, it is reminiscent of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses with echoes of William Blake’s poetry, Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass, and George McDonald’s Lilith and splashes of Irvine Welch and David Foster Wallace. Like Joyce, Gray is tearing away the facade of society and looking deep beneath the images toward a deeper notion of what is really animating life. Like Joyce’s Dublin, Gray sets much of his wanderings in an unsympathetic repose of Glasgow in all its decay and longing. Rather than trying to universalize humanity in abstraction, he instead drives us to the particular, the intimate and the real. The central character in the first two books is named Lanark who akin to Joyce’s characters is a persona in constant transition. Lanark’s name changes to Thaw in the second two books for no explicit reason but this further goes to illustrate the liminality of identity. In this passage, Thaw ponders the lack of imagination for people in the city of Glasgow and the cost of this lack of imagination

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”

“Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw. McAlpin lit a cigarette and said, “If you want to explain that I’ll certainly listen.”

“Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in painting, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. what is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or a golf course, some pubs connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and library. And when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

While I had visited Glasgow prior to moving there, I didn’t imagine life in Glasgow nor how I would reimagine the world because of that city and its people. Yes, I thought about my life in the university as a research student, serving in the Cathedral as an Assistant Minister, and relationships we would be establishing. But I never considered how this city with its poverty, its joy for living, its working class and upper class sitting side-by-side in the Tinderbox on Byers Rd. or singing the same songs at a Partick Thistle game would cause me to reimagine how I was to live, to serve, and even to believe. Over the six years we lived in Glasgow, my imagination shifted in ways both subtle and dramatic. Seismic shifts in how I saw faith, life and the resources I would draw from to make meaning in the world. Like Lanark’s Thaw, I only allowed myself to consider Glasgow as a parody of sorts – a place Belle and Sebastian made music, where AL Kennedy wrote her novels, and launching pad from which to see the Highlands and Islands of the Celtic twilight. What I didn’t take into account was that I would grow to see that much of what I learned was deeper than a renewed reason and was really a transformed heart. But this always comes with a cost and part of that cost was seeing and listening to the world in different ways, seeking out conversation partners that would not be valued (read: not authoritative) by some, and even dreaming of a world that was not the world of others.

This morning our church reflected on the stoning of Stephen in the book of Acts. In chapter 7 Stephen, one of seven deacons of the followers of Christ, is charged with sedition and treason (“We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God” – Acts 6:11) and as such is sentenced to death before the Sanhedrin. Chapter 7 of Acts is Stephen’s grand sermon where he challenges the lack of theological imagination of those who consider themselves stewards and guardians of the faith. He rolls back time to recount from the very foundations of the faith that there is an expansiveness and wideness to God’s working in the world that is now ushering in a new way and depth that not only continues on all the God has been doing, but will increase it even further to the very ends of the earth. Stephen is so passionate about this vision he has that he essentially turns to the so-called guardians of the tradition and utters these words:

“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” – Acts 7: 51 – 53

With this Stephen is put to death with stones emblematic of the cold, hard, unchanging and unbending hearts that surrounded this first martyr of the renewal movement now called the Church.

I find a lot of commonality in Stephen and Thaw and will admit that after the past few weeks wondering whether we live in a world where renewal and change will ever come to the venerated institutions that guide and manage our public discourse, our view of the Good, our vision for humanity and even the so-called orthodoxy as to what passes as true faith and right belief. I wonder with Thaw if all that we sometimes truly offer the world around us is more of the ‘same’ – the repeated refrain of old sayings that are safe and don’t cause mischief, the repose of the theologically rigorous yet little of the prophetically bold, the caution of partial activism that only serves to justify my life yet offers little enduring justice for others, and an economy of sacrifice that is measured carefully and with restraint and therefore costs me so little as to seem like a fad rather than faith. And yet here is Stephen, pounding out the faith story to the point of death and taking no prisoners along the way. Here is Stephen, caring so much for the future to be realized in the now that he will stand at the gates of power and no longer be silent. Here is Stephen, not even an apostle of the Church and merely a deacon, willing to engage the collected powerful and remind them that faith is only seen in what we release from our grasp and not in what we guard and protect at all costs.

There are times when people need to reach ever deeper into their hearts and ask with all sincerity whether the world is truly that which they ultimately desire and for those that we call our neighbors.

Is this all – as Alastair Gray’s Thaw muses in relation to Glasgow – that we offer the world and ultimately all we offer ourselves? Are we so tied to the way things have been that we cannot hear the worlds of prophesy when they knock on our door and preach to us truth?



Posted in Alastair Grey, belief, Bible, books, church, culture, economics, facebook, Glasgow, Jesus, Lanark, missional, theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

EB White on Christmas and Relative Pronouns

One of the things I enjoy about Christmas are the occasional essays written over the years reflecting on how people understand, struggle with, celebrate, or simply tolerate this Yuletide season.  The following s a wonderful essay by EB White (author of the famous “Elements of Style” and the classic children’s novels “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little”) celebrating the wonder of Christmas as seen through the essays of a grammar fiend – who knew Christmas was a relative pronoun?

EB White on Christmas and Relative Pronouns

We had a Scrooge in our office a few minutes ago, a tall, parched man, beefing about Christmas and threatening to disembowel anyone who mentioned the word. He said his work had suffered and his life had been made unbearable by the demands and conventions of the season. He said he hated wise men, whether from the East or from the West, hated red ribbon, angels, Scotch Tape, greeting cards depicting the Adoration, mincemeat, dripping candles, distant and near relatives, fir balsam, silent night, small boy sopranos, shopping lists with check marks against some of the items, and the whole yuletide stratagem, not to mention the low-lying cloud of unwritten thank-you letters hanging just above the horizon. He was in a savage state. Before he left the office, though, we saw him transfigured, just Scrooge was transfigured. The difference was that whereas Scrooge was softened by visions, our visitor was softened by the sight of a small book standing on our desk – a copy of Fowler’s “Modern English Usage.”

“Greatest collection of essays and opinions ever assembled between covers,” he shouted, “including a truly masterful study of that and which.”

He seized the book and began thumbing through it for favorite passages, slowly stuffing a couple of small gift-wrapped parcels into the pocket of his great coat.

“Listen to this,” he said in a triumphant voice, “‘Avoidance of the obvious is very well, provided that it is not itself obvious, but, if it is, all is spoilt.’  Isn’t that beautiful?”

We agreed that it was a sound and valuable sentiment, perfectly expressed. He then began a sermon on that and which, taking as his text certain paragraphs from Fowler, and warming rapidly to his theme.

“Listen to this: ‘If writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice of either the most or of the best writers.’”

“It was the practice of St. Matthew,” we put in hastily, “Or at any rate, he practiced it in one of the most moving sentences ever constructed: ‘And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.’ You’ve got to admit the which in that sentence is where it ought to be, as well as every other word. Did you ever read a more satisfactory sentence than that in your whole life?” “It’s good,” said our friend, “It’s good because there isn’t a ten-dollar word in the whole thing. And Fowler has it pegged, too. Wait a minute. Here. ‘What is to be deprecated is the notion that one can improve one’s style by using stylish words.’ See what I mean about Fowler? But let’s get back to that and which. That’s the business that really fascinates me. Fowler devotes eight pages to it. I got so excited once I had the pages photostatted. Listen to this: ‘We find in fact that the antecedent of that is often personal.’ Now, that’s very instructive.”

“Very,” we said, “And if you want an example, take Matthew 2:1 ‘… there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ Imagine how that simple clause could get loused up if someone wanted to change that to who!”

“Exactly,” he said, “That’s what I mean about Fowler. What was the sentence again about the star? Say it again.”

We repeated, “And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”

“You see?” he said, happily. “This is the greatest damn book ever written.” And he left our office transfigured, a man in excellent spirits. Seeing him go off merry as a gig, we realized that Christmas is where the heart is. For some it is in a roll of red ribbon, for some it is in the eyes of a young child. For our visitor, we saw clearly, Christmas was in a relative pronoun. Wherever it is, it is quite a day.

- EB White, “Relative Pronouns” from Writings from The New Yorker 1927 – 1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).

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