Thursday, December 29, 2005

The "happy holidays" story that everyone missed

Glad to be back from a Christmas hiatus -- Life gets kind of busy for a pastor this time of year, especially when Christmas falls on a Sunday (and I wasn't about to cancel Christmas worship services).

We cleaned up a bit and got the children in bed, and then settled down for our Christmas night routines. I take great joy in putting together my commemorative stamp set for the year. Every year since 1979, my mother has bought me the US commemorative stamp set (my brother has been getting it since 1976). She asked if she could stop getting it for us about 15 years ago, thinking we had outgrown such things. My brother and I protested loudly, and mom has diligenlty given us our coveted stamp sets each year since then. And so it is that every Chirstmas night, I assemble the set and enjoy the year's offerings from the hard working people at the US Postal service.

The Postal Service puts a lot of thought and care into the designs of their stamps. Postage stamps reveal what we like to believe is best and most important about America -- through these small pieces of art that we affix to documents that we entrust to the postal service, we celebrate the American experience every day (as is the case for each nation's stamps -- a way of celebrating their own unique heritage). The custom of issuing special commemorative stamps began in 1893. If you've never taken the time to browse through the heritage of US stamps, peruse this index of commemorative stamps from 1847-1970 and explore for yourself.

As an example to help you understand my enthusiasm, consider the stamps from 1948, which feature one of my favorites -- a commemorative of the 4 military chaplains who gave their lives so that others might escape the sinking of the USS Dorchester. This stamp commemorated faith, heroism, courage, self-sacrifice, and a value for life.

As I put together the 2005 set, I noticed something missing. Every year, the postal service at Christmas time has issued a "traditional" christmas stamp featuring Mary and baby Jesus (usually a miniature of some great work of art) and a "contemporary christmas stamp" featuring santa, reindeer, and other holiday themes. From time to time they'll celebrate other holidays, such as Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Eid.

What was missing for 2005 was the traditional Holiday stamp -- no Madonna and child. The holiday set was a block of four christmas cookies, one of which was an angel. But this seemed a bit of a letdown after seeing years of Madonna and child stamps. Given this year's flap over "Merry Christmas" vs "Happy Holidays" I was surprised that no-one had brought attention to this omission. I started going back through my collection. I found that in 2003, there was also no Madonna and Child at Christmas, while in 2000 there were no holiday stamps at all! Before that you have to go all the way back to 1974 when there was not a Madonna and child, but a classic Christmas angel.

I did some further research, and to my knowledge, there is no history of issuing holiday stamps of any kind until 1962. Sacred holiday stamps don't appear until 1965 (though there are stamps with sacred themes -- consider the 4 chaplains stamps that I mentioned earlier). There is a lapse in 1969, and then an unbroken string of sacred holiday stamps (mostly Madonna and child, though there are 1 or two Christmas Angels) until 2000, when no holiday stamps, traditional or contemporary, were produced. They were back in 2001, but then in 2003 no traditional and again this year in 2005.

Now this is not really a big deal -- the Postal Service doesn't owe Christians anything -- it's a nicety to have a sacred Christmas stamp. It makes us feel good to see. However, as I said before, postage stamps reflect how a country sees itself, and these recent omissions are ominous: a 30 year unbroken stretch now broken 3 times in the past 6 years simply goes hand in glove with the rapid secularization of our culture. I mean, this is really big news! And all we heard about was "happy holidays" vs. "merry Christmas"?

There are glad tidings for next year: the Postal Service has unveiled their 2006 commemorative stamps, which includes a very attractive sacred stamp (see below)

God bless us, every one!

Soli Deo Gloria

PS follow-up to interesting links that relate to this story:
From 2004 -- a customer who wanted to buy Madonna and Child stamps.
A link to the Bible Stamp Club -- who knew?
From this November -- Hear what Darleen Click experienced
And see a summary of the discussion on the internet about these stamps. Once again, this made big waves on the blogosphere, but the conventional media missed the story.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Off the Shelf: Good to Great for the Social Service Sectors

Many of you have read Jim Collins' teriffic book Good to Great. Following on the heels of his success Built to Last, it showed the qualities and disciplines that companies needed to transcend being good at what they do to achieve enduring greatness.

A quick recap of the book -- to achieve greatness, companies need:
1) Level 5 leadership (a humble tenacity to do what it takes to make the organization -- rather than the individual -- great)
2) First Who...Then What (get the right people -- ie dedicated and disciplined and self motivated people -- on the bus, THEN figure out where to drive the bus)
3) Confront the Brutal Facts - But Never Lose Faith (Be honest about the current conditions, but have dogged belief that you will find a way to persevere!)
4) The Hedgehog Concept (what is the intersection of the three questions: What are you best in the world at? What drives your economic engine? What are you passionate about?)
5) A culture of discipline (a culture of freedom and accountability filled with self disciplined people -- the key to greatness is more perseverance than brilliance)
6) Technology Accelerators (don't invest in technology for its own sake -- carefully select technologies to advance the hedgehog concept)

He closes the with the image of they flywheel or the doom loop. Companies in the doom loop spiral slowly from disorganization to chaos until they spin out of control. The flywheel, on the other hand, is the picture of success -- it isn't turned by one big push, but by an accumulation of consistent pushing over time. Once it gets going, the pushing becomes easier, but you don't stop.

One of the challenges of the book was applying it to Non-profit sectors (like the church). Many of the concepts resonated deeply with nonprofit leaders, but they centered around economic metaphors and a business structure that doesn't necessarily apply in the nonprofit realm. Now, Collins has released a 36 page monograph that applies his concepts to the social service sectors.

Here's the main points:
1) Measuring greatness -- non-profits can't measure greatness in purely economic terms. You have to define your inputs and your outputs -- then measure greatness in whatever your outputs are, even if those outputs cannot be quantitatively measured. For instance, the Cleveland Orchestra aimed at artistic greatness (not necessarily measured by ticket sales) -- they did this by asking "are we getting standing ovations" "are we booking tours in other cities and around the world" "are we being copied by other orchestras" "do composers seek to have their work debuted in Cleveland" etc.

Applying to the church is another challenge -- are our people growing in love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control? (Galatians 6:22) Are our people sharing stories of God at work? (one measurement we use -- are our people reporting prayer needs and praises in worship on Sunday) Are we recognized in the community for how we bring the gospel out of our walls and into the streets? You can come up with many more.

2) Level 5 Leadership -- getting things done in a diffuse structure. Collins rightly recognizes that working with volunteers in nonprofits requires more tact, care, and caution than is the case in the corporate realm where executives weild raw executive power. He distinguishes between the executive leadership of corporations and the legislative leadership of nonprofits -- exemplified in a quote from Frances Hesselbein of the Girl Scouts " always have power if you know where to find it. There is the power of inclusion, and the power of language, and the power of shared interests, and the power of coalition. Power is all around you to draw upon, but it is rarely raw, rarely visible." (10)

And so it is in the church. We rightly see ourselves as a body, with each member belonging to all the others (Romans 12:5). We are not mere appendages of some power broker leader, functionaries executing his will. Rather we are an organism. Presbyterian churches exemplify this with a plurality of elders and a system of checks and balances among congregations and higher governing bodies.

3) Getting the right people on the bus -- this is a challenge in the highly volunteer driven social sector -- Collins suggests getting around it by having high standards for new people coming on the bus. Don't fire the tenured folks (because you can't), but raise your standards for bringing new people on -- build a coalition of highly competent people and let the change organically develop.

This is challenging, for quite honestly in the presbyterian church, our nominating process encourages satisfaction of constituencies, rather than assessment of character and theological commitment (sure, we charge churches with providing officer training, but in many churches, that training is a mere formality, rather than a true process of discernment of calling). San Diego Presbytery has done some interesting work with their "essential tenets" documents for officer training, and yet there is still so much more that congregations could do. Let this one percolate in your brain for a while, for I have no easy answers.

4) The Hedgehog concept without a profit motive -- Rather than asking what drives your economic engine, ask what drives your resource engine -- what gets volunteers out of bed in the morning, what brings grant dollars, what compelling stories motivate people to voluntarily give of their time and talent? Sounds like Stewardship to me, and not just an annual fundraising drive, but real whole life stewardship. This is the kind of stuff we ought to excel at.

5) The flywheel -- building your brand. Every organization has a brand, like it or not. It is built in every interaction, every deed, every day. Congregations (and denominations) have to be aware of this.

So, now that I've summarized the main points of the book, why go out and buy it? Because Collins gives real life illustrations that breathe vitality into the concepts -- he makes it possible to say "We can do that" -- his writing crackles in the imagination and inspires us to dream greater dreams for our congregations.

One thing he skipped, that I think is a spot of hope: the concept of "Face the Brutal Facts -- but never lose hope" has special application to churches. This is our great gift as Presbyterians -- we believe in the soveriegnty of the Living God. In the face of adversity, we can have hope and confidence that our trials and challenges will not completely crush us -- the kingdom will endure. It's Psalm 121; it's Heidelberg Catechism question 1 "What is your only comfort, in life and in death? That I belong -- body and soul, in life and in death -- not to myself but to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ...." And that's a comforting thought indeed.

For your edification, here's more Christian Commentary on the monograph:
Tony Morgan
Bill Kinnon

Soli Deo Gloria

Feedback Please

The time has come to check in with Ye ever faithful readers of the Eagle and Child -- I'm wondering which posts have been most useful or most interesting to you. Bloggers from time to time host carnivals -- events when bloggers submit their best posts to a "host blog" who will then have a compendium (a carnival, if you will) of all the different bloggers. Readers can go and find new blogs that are of interest. That said -- what posts would you submit?

Secondly, I have a friend, Jonathan Phillips (also a friend of Scott Atkinson's) who is interested in doing a "God-cast" (from podcasting, basically an audio blog) -- he wants to discuss spiritual themes with me -- just kind of letting me explain where traditional Christianity is coming from. He's envisioning a series of quick 4-5 minute audio clips. Sooo, the question is -- what topics would you cover (remember, this has to be interesting)- what would you listen to.

Finally -- check out the new Squidoo index on my links list -- it indexes all my Squidoo lenses -- please go visit these lenses and give feedback on if they're actually helpful or not.

More to come later today -- I'm processing Jim Collins' monograph on Good to Great for the social service sector -- have some thoughts I need to get down.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Christians engaging Web 2.0

As I mentioned in my previous post Great Library Experiment and A Story that proves a point, I believe that Christians should engage in the instututions of our culture to make sure that we are fairly represented. In these prior posts, it was simply about requesting that the library stock Christian titles that are of interest to us (and then actually checking them out) -- Note, this does not entail asking the library to REMOVE objectionable titles. That's counterproductive and just ticks everyone off.

Now, the Web 2.0 offers a great opportunity for Christians to further present a Christian worldview in a positive and winsome way. Web 2.0 is the next generation of web design that is based on "social computing". Old websites were monodirectional -- companies/individuals put up their websites and fed you content and you the good consumer devoured said content. Much like Television or Radio.

Web 2.0 stresses interactivity and social networking. (see Joshua Porter's fine overview of the concepts) Blogging is a fine example -- blogs represent individual opinions, but they allow for comments, trackbacks, and opportunities for ongoing discussion. Now there are dozens of interactive tools out there that allow uses to share data and information -- here are a few of the most exciting opportunities I've found:

Wikipedia The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Here's how it works -- you go online and read the article -- you find something that's a little off, you simply log right on and edit it. It's that simple. What about abuse, you say? Someone going on to deface content or spread false information -- quickly corrected by the next person who comes along and edits. The Time Magazine article from early 2005 indicates that obscenities placed in articles are removed in roughly 1.7 minutes. It already has hundreds of thousands of more articles than the Encyclopedia Britannica. For an example, see my article on Wikipedia about Thomas Watson -- it has generated a few links back to The Eagle and Child.

Flickr This Photo sharing website allows you to browse millions of photos submitted by people all over the world. They can tag the photos by subject, so you can search by tag, you can see the portfolio of individuals, you can copy the photos and use them in your own search (many of the photos I've been using in my recent posts come from Flickr). As an example, look what photos have been submitted from all over the world that have been tagged with the label "Jesus".

Squidoo This is Seth Godin's latest attempt at social networking. Any user is allowed to create a lens to showcase his/her expertise on a particular area. The website provides the tools to build the lens. Again, there is tagging and the ability to look for lenses that are similar. The ranking system puts the lenses in the marketplace of ideas -- the better lenses rise to the top and are used more frequently (and thus generate more ad dollars). For an example, check out the Lenses I just built on Christian Worldview Thinking and C.S. Lewis - his life and writings

LibraryThing LibraryThing is Flickr for books. You can catalog your library, tag books with subject tags, and submit reviews. This has driven web traffic for the Eagle and Child, for every book review I do here gets a link on library thing -- interestingly, Farenheit 451 has brought more people here than anything! Check out my profile there -- please note that the library construction is still in process (perhaps the biggest drawback to this site -- the labor intensive early work).

Now, these may seem nice and all, but realize the power behind this communication revolution. You can present your thoughts from a Christian Worldview to anyone that shares your interests. I did a post a few weeks back about the Rankin Bass production of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and that has brought dozens of readers to the Eagle and Child -- here they get exposed to a Christian worldview in a way that a print magazine or bricks and mortar presence could not. Now magnify that by millions of people engaging in the social architecture of Web 2.0.

Go and make your voice be heard.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, December 12, 2005

A tale of two artists

Due to an interesting twist of providence, I found myself reading stories about two different contemporary artists within the past two days -- stories that illustrate vast differences in worldview thinking. The stories illustrate that ideas do indeed have consequences.

The first artist is Ray Beldner, who teaches a course at St. Mary's College on Pranking as a means of Culture Jamming (read article here). One of the assignments of the class is to create and submit false press releases in an attempt to get the news media to pick up on and publicize a false story -- essentially pranking to produce some sort of "social change":

"Beldner said he wanted to teach students how to bring issues to the public eye using creative methods. His course syllabus defines 'culture jamming' as 'a resistance movement to the perceived hegemony of popular culture.' 'These are serious-minded pranks,' he said. 'It's not just about people goofing around.'"

The concept of culture jamming is a broad one, far too broad to analyze here (see the wikipedia article for more info). However, an element that seems to creep into culture jamming, at least the strain propogated by Beldner in this class, is social revolution by destruction, or at least deconstruction, of institutions. Interestingly, Beldner does this in his art by taking objects and dramatically changing the context in which they are viewed. He created one series composed of paper money mutilated to produce other images -- often ironic images that lampoon consumerism and capitalistic interests. For instance, a portrait of Chairman Mao (copied after Andy Warhol's portrait) created from shredded dollar bills. (I must admit, I thought this piece to be both technically impressive and pretty darn funny)

The class on Pranking is but an extension of his other work -- subversive and deconstructing the target of the prank. Indeed, one could imagine that the very existence of the class is but another artistic subversion. Imagine the parent looking over his child's syllabus saying "I paid how many thousand dollars per credit hour for you to take a class in pranks?" That picture alone conveys the serious minded institutional subversion that Beldner seems to be after.

The second artist is Makoto Fujimura, (read the profile from World Magazine, or see his website). A Christian, Fujimura strives to portray the redemtive in his art. This doesn't mean that he only does naturalistic scenes -- quite the contrary, he is a celebrated abstract artist. He is also the founder of theInternational Arts Movement, an organization to help advance Christian worldview thinking in the arts.

His studio is located in the shadow of ground zero in New York. After the whirlwind of wrath that was 9/11, Fujimura was homeless, his apartment building shut down by the devastation. His children were out of school for months. The World Magazine story tells his response:

"He wrestled with the artistry of the terrorists, the penchant for destruction in his own heart, and the idols to modernism now fallen in his backyard. Then came the seed of an idea, and he wrote an e-mail to friends: 'Create we must, and respond to this dark hour. The world needs artists who dedicate themselves to communicate the images of Shalom. Jesus is the Shalom.'

Tribeca Temporary grew from that seed, a 'Ground Zero teahouse' and a community space for artists displaced by the attacks. With fellow painter Hiroshi Senju, Mr. Fujimura turned a studio into a place for restoration and healing from spiritual as well as artistic losses where, Mr. Fujimura said, 'beauty too is defined as a participant in the suffering of the world.'

Faced every day with the smells and sounds of Ground Zero, and at nightfall with its floodlights, Mr. Fujimura found more and more that the way to Shalom was through refining fires. In the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Dante he fixed on the line, 'The fire and the rose are one,' and launched into his own 'knot of fire' with imagery that, too, moved beyond destruction to redemption. Instead of the destruction in his neighborhood, he focused on what he calls the 'sacrificial art' of firefighters who protected his children. 'Rescue workers imagine saving lives, a beautiful and relevant use of imagination. The artist who tries to be vulnerable will intentionally suffer,' he said."

Now take note -- it seems the artists are superficially on the same page: "the way to Shalom was through refining fires" sounds like it could promote the kind of culture jamming Beldner advocates. However, herein lies the difference -- Beldner seeks to set fires whereas Fujimura seeks to redeem them after they've been set. Please don't get me wrong here -- I'm not making any kind of implicit link between Beldner's advocacy of pranking and the 9/11 terrorists -- their motivations and methodologies vary widely.

That said, we can contrast Beldner with Fujimura and see a chasm of difference -- one acting subversively, one acting to heal.

Fujimura sees us as living out Jeremiah 29 -- building houses, settling down, and praying and working for the welfare in the city in which we've found ourselves. Being a creative and positive presence in the middle of a hurting and broken world. And therein lies all the difference.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS -- a special thanks to Presbyweb and Blogs 4 God, which linked to the posts on Narnia -- they helped push the Eagle and Child into a record number of visits -- pushing us over 1000 for the month of December (and still climbing). Thanks to all who have visited -- come back soon!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe -- It's just a movie!

I saw it today! I finally saw the film I'd been waiting for for much of my life. Ever since the fifth grade when I first read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, I had a yearning for fantasy land of Narnia -- I felt a longing for face to face enjoyment of Aslan's presence. I ached when the children found they couldn't go back through the wardrobe again, and I mourned when I turned the last page of the last book, knowing there would be no further written adventures in Narnia.

Thus, for the past year, I've felt a blend of anticipation and dread while waiting for the film adaptation -- I feared that Disney would ruin it -- they migh strip out some of the parts I loved. But at 10am Saturday morning, I sat in the Springdale theatre(thanks to Tammy graciously letting me go so I could stop whining) and bathed in Narnia again.

A fine and faithful adaptation, for the most part. There were necessary scenes of expostion (like the London bombing scene -- needed for a generation that didn't live through WWII), there were some dialogue changes, mostly for the point of streamlining or for cutting out archaic turns of phrase that would be lost on 21st century American children. Unfortunately, one of my favorite scenes suffered because of this editing: Peter and Susan's conversation with Professor Kirke. The scene barely registers at all in the film, and it serves more to paint Kirke as a whimsical old fellow, whereas the book portrays him as stern, but attentive and wise.

Top honors go to Tilda Swinton who nails her portrayal of the White Witch. In her first scene with Edmund, she captures the seductive danger of evil right on. And her cold malevolence, especially in the battle scene, easily bests the other great villan from this film season: Ralph Finnes' Voldemort (from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

Another winner was Georgie Henley, who played Lucy. She lives the wide eyed wonder, the innocence and the delight that I had always associated with Lucy. And she looks almost exactly like what I had always imagined Lucy to be like. Another inspired casting choice.

I could say a lot about the portrayal of Aslan (who gets far too little build up -- the book seemed to buzz with anticipation of Aslan, whereas the film mentions the anticipation only once). I also don't recall the children debating over whether to leave Narnia and not participate in the battle -- I seem to remember that they all have a sense of being up for the adventure. I could talk about the stunning special effects or the way they preserved the Christian imagery of Aslan's sacrifice to save the life of Edmund (and thus breaking the "old law" of the stone table).

Instead, I'll briefly mention one scene that stood out for me: the meeting with Father Christmas. That has always been a favorite scene in the book -- the Witch was able to shut down the celebration of Christ's Birth, and thus keep Father Christmas (that is, Santa Claus) out of Narnia. But as Aslan comes, he breaks the Witch's power to stop Christmas. Father Christmas gets through. And this Father Christmas is a thoroughly English version, manly and wise, without being saccharine. The inspired casting of James Cosmo (yes, he was Hamish's father in Braveheart) was perfect. He carried the part off without the usual sentimentality that is attached to Santa Claus -- even the costuming reflects that this Father Christmas is an untamed spirit in service to a Higher Power. Right On!

All told, I enjoyed the film. There were moments that I found myself tearing up --all the old emotions that I felt the first time kept coming back. It was like reuniting with an old friend and telling the old stories of which we never tire.

That said, permit a word of caution. This film is not the evangelistic opportunity of the decade. Remember the hype surrounding the Passion of the Christ? There is much the same hype going on in Christian circles. This film, we are told, will be an outreach opportunity like no other. Buy all the Narnia paraphanalia you can, we're urged, so you can effectively reach out to your neighbors.

I humbly remind what few parts of Christendom may come across this post -- it's just a movie. I believe that Lewis would say the same. The story is a story to be enjoyed and told to children -- but it does not take the place of the gospel nor does going to the film replace the work that we as Christians are called to do. It's a movie, an enjoyable and good movie that might spark some conversations. But it is just a movie. Don't get sucked into the marketing machine that sells this film as the sparkpoint of the next great awakening.

Remember that Lewis told the stories as a way of getting us to a greater deeper yearning -- My childlike yearning to go to Narnia was but a preparatory feeling to help me understand the longing for the Living God. Lewis would be shamed if we turned his tale into a false idol -- He'd look at us a little sternly and say "Didn't you actually READ what I had to say? It's not about Narnia, it's about what Narnia and Aslan point us to -- Christ!"

So go, enjoy, soak in the film -- and then let it push you to encounter the living God that is on the move in our midst.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Narnia under assault

Browsing yesterday's Presbyweb, I came across the startling headline "Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion." The link took me across the pond to the British Guardian Newspaper and their columnist Polly Toynbee (photo at right, click here to read the wikipedia article about her).

Toynbee zeroes in on Disney's marketing strategy for the film, raising innuendo about less than appropriate involvement with right wing politicians. She then reminds us that the Christian imagery and subtext of the film will likely be lost on most of the British children who see it (given the decline of church attendance in the UK). She recaps the story quite nicely, lingering on the resurrection of Aslan "It does not make any more sense in CS Lewis' tale than in the gospels," she writes. Teetering upon this precarious statement (for the resurrection makes sense to millions of people) she dives headlong into harsh invective:

"Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus's holy head every day that you don't eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told. So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion's breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged."

Wow -- can we be a little more clear here? The idea of the substitutionary atonement is repugnant. Well, Paul does tell us the gospel is foolishness and a scandal (I Corinthians 1 -- "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." continue reading the whole passage for greater context). Toynbee lingers on the sour taste of shrewish nuns ladling guilt -- and truth be told, evangelical Christians are quite good at ladling guilt (though that is not a province exclusive to Christianity -- pick your cause and you'll find people pouring out guilt like bathtub gin. Check out PETA's protests for a fine example of guilt mongering.)

Toynbee is an atheist, and in our open and free democracy she's allowed her opinion, though it is an opinion that saddens me. But then she steps onto my turf -- the turf of defining orthodox Christianity "Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman - he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials - has called Narnia 'one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read'." I'll discount the Pullman comment as another angry atheist spewing his opinion (Thank God there are actually some irenic atheists) -- again, he's entitled to it, but it hardly makes him authoritiative.

However, we remember that the Lion is a Biblical image of Christ -- from the Old Testament (Genesis 49:9 "You are a lion's cub, O Judah; you return to the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness -- who dares to rouse him? The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet...") where we see the lion used as a figure for a messianic king. And from the New Testament (Revelation 5:5 "Then one of hte elders said to me, 'Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.... Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne.") where the image of lion and lamb are combined to represent the triumphant Christ.

Indeed the image of the lamb conveys the very concept of the substitutionary atonement. The very concept that disgusts Toynbee lies at the root of the image she identifies with. Christ does identify with the meek and the poor and the weak -- but he also fills the role of a righteous and conquering king. We do injustice to the Biblical portrait if we leave one or the other out. Toynbee has every right in to say she dislikes the biblical picture, but she practices intellectual dishonesty in re-defining it.

Then she reveals her biases with this absurd claim: "Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peel in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong. This appears to be CS Lewis's view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis's earth."

Did she read the same book I did? The "distorted neo-fascist strain" that she describes is the methodology of the White Witch, not that of Aslan! The Witch uses force to bend all minions to her will. Aslan frees the creatures to be what they were made to be (of course, Toynbee might counter with saying that this is emotional manipulation and the real subtext is that of power games). The picture of four school age children defeating an adult witch of enormous power does not seem to me teach that the strong will be rewarded. Lewis prefers to honor the meek rather than the great and powerful (see his work The Great Divorce where a prominent artist is forgotten in heaven but a humble no-name housewife is one of the great ones there). Meanwhile, quoting Norman Vincent Peale as a spokesman for orthodox Christianity is like quoting James Doohan as an expert on particle physics (hey, he did play Mr. Scott -- he made physics look really cool and attractive).

Then she ends with a flourish: "Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass. Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan."

I hate to argue, but Aslan is a character -- one may find Lewis' characterizaiton of him flawed, one may find his dialogue stilted or his motivations feeling artificial -- but these are all very subjective. Yet Aslan is a character -- not some abstract moral compass that in the end we define for ourselves. I suppose that's why atheists (or at least this particular atheist) object so violently -- for who wants to be in the unenviable position of objecting to a person who others find so very compelling. Mired in a worldview that refuses to recognize a living God, it is no wonder Toynbee spits so much poison toward Narnia and Aslan. And yet, it is so incredibly sad.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS -- the Blogosphere's been hopping about this one -- lots of people who think Toynbee's gone way overboard. Including one very thoughtful and articulate atheist -- indeed, he gives some of the best commentary I've read on the article.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Why I'm thankful for the DaVinci Code

Mention the DaVinci Code in evangelical circles and listen for the grinding of teeth and muttering of imprecations that inevitably follow. Christians may devour this fanciful page turning adventure, but they only do so in the dark of night with the shades drawn and behind closed doors.

I knew this book would make waves when I saw the push marketing at Barnes and Noble. Congregation members asked me about it. I read it and quickly developed a class that answered the claims of the book from a biblical historical perspective. See the notes here. I went back to the writings of the early church in the 1st-3rd centuries, before the Council of Nicea, before the faith was officially institutionalized by Constantine. To address the claims of the book, I had to look at what the early church writers were actually saying.

Please understand, Dr. Hill at RTS encouraged us to take study of patristics (that is, the study of the writings of the early church) seriously. After all the books are readily available on CD-ROM (I got mine from Galaxie Software's Theological Journal Library-- including the now public Domain Schaff edition of the Early Church Fathers, a classic work for any scholar). Truth be told, I didn't heed Dr. Hill's advice until the Da Vinci Code came out. Now with the film scheduled to come out next year, I read the early church fathers. Perhaps if more evangelical Christians would find their way back to these writings, they'd see that the shallow challenges of the New Age movement and contemporary syncretism were already addressed centuries ago -- clearly there is nothing new under the sun.

Just last night and this morning, I was working through the first apology of Justin Martyr (c 110-165). He wrote to emperor Antoninus Pius to ask that persecution of Christians be stopped. Contra the DaVinci Code, Justin makes clear that the early church thought that Jesus was the fully divine, pre-existent as the Logos of God. Justin makes clear that he believes in the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, and a final judgment.

What is so lovely about Justin's first apology is how he openly acknowledges the similarities between the Christian understanding of Jesus and the mythical stories of the sons of Zeus (Hercules, Bacchus, Aesculapius, Bellerophon, etc). He then goes to great length to show how Christ is a historical figure who really died and rose, rather than a mythical archetypal story.

Why is this lovely? Consider the work of Joseph Campbell, the famous scholar of myth and religion who posited that all the great religious traditions and myths pointed back to universal archetypes. Basically, the truth of the stories lay in the universal themes rather than the historicity of the events. This is the concept behind the Da Vinci code -- myth and symbolism and stories point us to deeper archetypal truths that have little to do with the historical reality of the stories. According to the DaVinci Code, Jesus himself taught this kind of archetypal understanding of spirituality. It wasn't until Constantine that there was a "takeover" of Christianity for the more orthodox understanding that we have today.

And then we read Justin, writing in the first half of the second century -- within 100 years of Christ's death and resurrection. Justin not only lays out a belief in Christ's actual divine nature, but he also makes very clear that Christians BEFORE Constantine were quite settled on the importance of the historicity of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. The comparison with the sons of Jupiter anticipates Joseph Campbell and the Da Vinci code by 1900 years and deflates it outright.

Even better -- the DaVinci code posits some kind of "sacred feminine" that is sweet and benevolent and life affirming. Interestingly, Justin mentions the "sacred feminine" as well -- not addressing it outright, but rather addressing the popular pagan custom of leaving infants exposed to the elements. Justin asserts that such infants are routinely taken up and raised to be temple prostitutes -- a quote from chapter 27 of the First Apology illustrates:

"...we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution. And as the ancients are said to have reared herds of oxen, or goats, or sheep, or grazing horses, so now we see you rear children only for this shameful use; and for this pollution a multitude of females and hermaphrodites, and those who commit unmentionable iniquities, are found in every nation. And you receive the hire of these, and duty and taxes from them, whom you ought to exterminate from your realm. And any one who uses such persons, besides the godless and infamous and impure intercourse, may possibly be having intercourse with
his own child, or relative, or brother. And there are some who prostitute even their own children and wives, and some are openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy; and they refer these mysteries to the mother of the gods, and along with each of those whom you esteem gods there is painted a serpent, a great symbol and mystery."

So the "sacred feminine" that is supposed to be so life affirming is actually associated with sexual abuse and a ritualized form of slavery. Of course, this account doesn't tell the whole story -- Justin may be exaggerating for his own purposes -- but remember, he's writing a defense of Christianity because Christians are being persecuted. He's not in the position of an oppressor trying to suppress some upstart faith. Also, he's writing to the emperor in Rome, who knows very well the religious practices of pagan faiths. So even though we must not take Justin for the final word on the actual practices of goddess religions, his testimony does carry weight.

And all that to say, we should be thankful for the DaVinci Code -- for it drives us to take a look at the real evidence of what's there. When we look at the evidence, the classical understanding of the Christian faith comes off looking pretty sound. (right on Dr. Hill!)

(as a partially related aside -- check out the article on Anne Rice in the Dec 3 issue of World -- it talks about how she returned to faith in Christ -- and as she did, she confronted all the scholarship that discounts the historical faith -- a quote "'The skeptical New Testament scholarship tries to prove to you that the Gospels don't hold up. It takes great fortitude to subject yourself to that kind of literature, to seriously take notes, to follow the arguments, to draw conclusions. You could come out destroyed.' But she came out concluding the skeptics were wrong, perpetrators and victims of some of the worst scholarship she'd ever seen, built with poor research and reasoning on a foundation that presumed the Gospels weren't true." WOW)

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Problem of Pain -- a new book for your consideration

Pain cannot be avoided -- it is an unescapable fact of life in a fallen world. We spend much of our cultural capital on futile attempts to avoid, delay, sidestep, or medicate pain. Even so, pain comes.

Thus it seems wise and prudent to wrestle with the problem of pain while we are in a relatively pain-free season of life. And we ought not think ourselves as having "arrived", but rather, from time to time, take the pains of others to re-evaluate our own foundations. These past five years of pastoring, I've seen in naked detail the pain of life, which brings me again and again to the task of re-evaluating my understanding of pain and how we as Christias approach it. Just this month, I finished a terriffic book that has helped me once again consider the topic: If I were God, I'd end all the pain by John Dickson.

This book delivers, with concise thought and deceptively simple language, a straight to the heart analysis of the problem of pain. Dickson does not explore the contours of subtle differences in theological systems -- this is not a book for the technician or the theologian staking out turf in the intellectual playgrounds of the academy. Rather this is a book for the pastor in the trenches grasping for words to tell the angry teenager in his office. It is for the bemused office worker struggling to answer the smug skeptic. It is for the seeker asking if there is anything more to the faith than "God has a wonderful plan for your life".

Dickson begins humbly by saying he doesn't have all the answers -- but that he thinks that when confronting the problem of pain, Christianity offers the best option out there. He sketches in broad detail the approach taken by Hinduism (suffering restores karmic balance), Atheism (suffering is a natural part of things), Islam (suffering is God's predetermined direct will), and Buddhism (suffering is illusory).

Then he begins explaining the Biblical view "One of the distinguishing things about the Good Book's approach is that it stops short of providing a single, all-governing, answer.....Like a great rock song, as opposed to a formulaic pop song, the Bible offers a rhyme, rhythm, ambience, and climactic anthem that surprises you each time you listen to it." (33). Dickson backs this statement up with scripture -- pointing to our right to question God (Psalm 22 as but one example of a whole genre of psalms of lament). What a liberating concept! We can bring our confusion and frustration to the Maker -- but a dangerous concept, for when we bring it to Him, He will not leave us alone in it.

Then Dickson deals with the issue of the corruption of the human will. He sidesteps the issue of working through human free agency and God's sovereign will -- and many hard core Calvinists will fault him for that -- but remember, this is not a work of subtle theology. Dickson refers us to great resources (including DA Carson's How Long, O Lord for wrestling with such deeper issues. Here, Dickson simply makes the point that human nature is broken, and a lot of pain arises out of that brokenness.

From there, he moves to suffering caused by nature -- and he demonstrates that that creation itself is broken. As with the corrupted human will, Dickson brings before us, using scriptural support, God's design for restoration. Finally he brings it all together in Christ -- the capacity of Christ to experience suffering is God's great identification with us in our sufferings. We can know that the triune God whom we worship is not some iceburg in the sky, rather our God understands suffering. But Dickson makes clear "Christ's death is more than an identification with us. The Bible makes it clear it is a substitution for us. On the cross God not only stands alongside us, he stands in our place." (68).

Dickson peppers the whole treatment with his own wrestling with the loss of his father and other stories that resonate well. It's an easy read, done in one night. While it lacks the precision demanded by a scholarly work, it is not lightweight. The book is full of heart, and I recommend it for your library.

Read Kieran Robertson's Review

See customer reviews at Amazon

I especailly recommend the article from the good folks at Hippocampus Extensions

Order the book from Matthias Media

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving. May you remember God's abundant blessings in your life: for me, family, friends, enjoyable work, a sense of wonder in approaching the natural world all about, heritage that goes back through generations, health, relative financial prosperity, a fine wife and delightful progeny, and a predilection for dumb jokes (among many other blessings).

In celebration of the holiday -- links to some sites that I've found to be helpful. These articles remind us that Thanksgiving is not a gluttonous speed bump between Thanksgiving and Christmas -- it is not to be some baccanalian start to the Christmas shopping season. Rather it is a holiday season in its own right, and we ought to pause and remember:

Excerpts from William Bradford's On Plymouth Plantation

Chuck Colson's commentary on Squanto

Christian History Magazine on The American Puritans

Soli Deo gloria

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Now Playing: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The fourth Harry Potter film has arrived, and Tammy and I (thanks to my parents' willingness to spend the evening with Sarah Grace and Annalise) have already had the chance to see it -- something of a rarity in this stage of our lives.

First, our reaction -- we loved it. Tammy summed it up best as we were retiring for the evening last night -- she said "Don't you want to go back to the movie and be with the people in it?" What a great summary of the feeling the books inspire. What I've always loved about Rowling's style is that she captures a sense of rightness about a place. Hogwarts is not unlike Camelot -- a dreamy ideal place that enchants and delights -- it is warm and safe and good. When I finish the books, I want to go back, because the place feels right!

That's where the third film went horribly wrong for me -- it focused so much on darkness and angst that it feld there was nothing at stake. Hogwarts and the people there were not portrayed with any warmth or affection. And I was glad to leave the theatres. However in this fourth film, there is warmth, affection, friendship, and goodness. Indeed, everything that drives the plot is the threat to the idyllic world of Hogwarts.

That said - the film recaptures the importance of the friendship of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It rightly puts the Weasly twins as the center of comic relief (it also introduces some wonderful business with Filch and Dumbledore that is subtle, but very very funny -- watch for the premature shooting of cannons). Ralph Fiennes nails Voldemort, but Brendan Gleeson steals the show as Mad Eye Moody. (see comments from IMDB for more reviews of the content.) Finally, there is no fat in the film -- the narrative is lean and every scene propels us forward.

Now, as to a Christian perspective -- (see other Christian reviews at Christianity Today's website). The first issue that arises is one of the use of magic -- for me this is a total non-issue. This is an imaginative world in which magic is portrayed not as occult practice, but a quasi-scientific development of fantastic gifts. In many ways, the rules of magic in this series are not that different from the rules of science in the superhero sagas of Marvel comics (watch X Men sometime for a close parallel - mutants with inborn fantastic powers who have to develop their skills and stay hidden from public view).

What is really important in this magical realm are the choices people make -- the lines between good and evil, between self aggrandizement and self sacrifice. Here we find ourselves on much more solid ground (though not as solid as we could hope). Harry clearly inhabits a moral world with something worth protecting from the forces of evil. The story clearly lauds the value of friendship and self-sacrifice.

However, because this is a world in which evil operates and tries to destroy good things, it is also a terrifying world. These are not stories for little children. I would suggest that a child ought to be as old as Harry (at this point, 14) to read and appreciate the books and the films.

There's so much we could discuss on this -- but it's bathtime for Sarah Grace, and I've got to go!

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Heidelberg Catechism -- Week 4

I propped my feet up on the desk as we took turns reading the next questions from the Heidelberg Catechism. Katie was the first to read:

"Q. Is not God unjust in requiring of man in his Law what he cannot do?
A. No, for God so created man that he could do it. But man, upon the instigation of the devil, by deliberate disobedience, has cheated himself and all his descendants out of these gifts."

Without taking my eyes off the page, I continued with the next question and answer set:

"Q. Will God let man get by with such disobedience and defection?
A. Certainly not, for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven, both against our inborn sinfulness and our actual sins, and he will punish them according to his righteous judgment in time and in eternity as he has declared 'Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, and do them.'"

And Victoria finished the reading:

"Q. But is not God also merciful?
A. God is indeed merciful and gracious, but he is also righteous. It is his righteousness which requires that sin committed against the supreme majesty of God be punished with extreme, that is, with eternal punishment of body and soul."

John slipped into the room, dragging a chair behind him. Our group was complete: two twenty-something Young Adult Volunteers, one House Church Planter, and a thirty-four year old pastor, all trying to make sense of a five hundred year old statement of theology and faith.

I posed the question of whether we actually believe in God's wrath, trying to get a rise out of them on such a controversial issue. But no takers; we all take God's word at face value as it talks about wrath. None of us are very comfortable with it - it's not a doctrine that we curl up and snuggle with on a cold winter night. It's simply one of the truths of living that we have to deal with. None of us were under any illusion that this would win us friends -- for we know that when you tell people that you believe in God's wrath, they look at you as though you were the one who was dispensing wrath.

Soon, the term "federal headship" floated out in the room. We were in deep theological waters pretty quickly, and had to clarify the meaning of the term. Four amateur theologians grasped at words slippery as wet soap: we talked about how Adam represented us all when he made that fateful decision to disobey. It seems unfair to us democratically minded Americans, for we have forgotten the days when the king WAS the will of the country. The king spoke for all his people, and nobody cared what those people might have thought. Then we flirted with the question of the creation stories and their literal truth - but didn't stay there too long.

John brought up the interesting point that theology, by it's very nature, is a summary, devoid of narrative. But God gave narrative -- God tells stories masterfully. These stories depict relationships that pulse with heart and passion and betrayal and drama; they are devoid of the clinical precision that theology demands, and if we read theology without going back to the stories, then we miss a lot of the meaning. Therein lies a danger for those who would "do" theology (or rather "think" theology) absent a grounding in scripture.

The room weighed heavy, as though the topics of wrath and sin had brought a storm front that didn't erput. We quickly moved to the next week's reading -- about the redeemer.... (coming soon to a blog near you)

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Open Source Culture -- continuing the conversation on Darknet

Following my post on the book Darknet, I came across several critiques of the almost lazzeiz faire attitude toward information sharing propogated by the book.

First I saw an article in Forbes (no, I don't subscribe -- it was at the library) critiquing bloggers and their impact upon business (read the article, but to do it online, it'll cost you two bucks). They told stories about vigilante bloggers who did their best to ruin businesses based on unsubstantiated rumor. Shortly thereafter, Michael Kruse gave some very thoughtful comments on my post: "Not everyone wants there ideas widely spread. Take investment banking research reports. Part of its value is that the consumer is one of only a few who get the benefit of the analysis. They want their information controlled and exclusive." -- the idea is that some people want to control data, not because of image control (like Disney for instance) but because the data itself is the value that they provide. Then, of course, it just took a little thought for me to remember that the cleverness of humanity in harmful behavior will not be trumped by open source data. Indeed, all open source data does is provide more tools for us to express our sinful nature or to express a redeemed nature.

In face of the critiques, however, it does seem that the zeitgeist is toward open access to as much data as we can get -- open access and open ability to remix and blend it at will. Witness Douglas Rushkoff's latest book -- he's releasing the main ideas on his weblog as "thought viruses". He's basically giving away the content of the book, in hopes that people will be interested enough in buying it. In fact, the latest thought virus is on this topic of the "open source" society.

Then there is the concept from -- the Idea of Generation C -- the creative generation who finds it perfectly natural to create content rather than passively receiving it. These are people who actively engage in life, and they engage in all of it -- and they feel it is their right to remix and work with the data that they think is cool to them.

Clearly the zeitgeist is in the way of open access to information. But content creators want some control of their ideas (and indeed deserve to be fairly compensated for their work). Individuals want some control over their private data (I really don't want my face superimposed on top of a image of a monkey -- Mt. Rushmore perhaps, but not a monkey -- and just by saying that, I've thrown a gauntlet for some joker to do it).

So this takes us right to the realm of ethics -- we as Christians need to articulate an ethics for an open source world. And this means that we can't just go about ignoring the law with impunity -- it means that when we use creative content, we have to consider our responsibilities to the original creators of that material. What will be the ethical questions for the digital generation -- right now, it's kind of a wild west out here in the blogosphere -- anyone can say anything.

Thoughts, comments, ideas. I'm shooting in the dark on this one!

Soli Deo Gloria

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Growing up, I loved the old Rankin-Bass Animagic specials: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Year Without Santa Claus, and my favorite, Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

Authored by Romeo Muller, also known as Mr.Christmas (see the fan info written by George Zadorozny), Santa Claus is Coming to Town has some of the catchiest tunes and funniest lines of all the Rankin Bass specials (I love the Winter Warlock shouting out "I guess I'm not such a loser after all!") And except for The Little Drummer Boy, it is the most Christian of the bunch.

The story, narrated by postman SD Kluger (voiced by Frad Astaire), tells of the early life of Kris Kringle, an orphan adopted by the Kringle Family of Elves. These Elves were the first toymakers to the king, but now they didn't deliver their toys anymore because the Winter Warlock on his mountain blocks the way to the villages on the other side of the mountain. When Kris grows up (voiced by Mickey Rooney), he volunteers to take the toys over the mountain.

In the village of Sombertown, he finds that the Burghermister Meisterburger (one of the more entertaining villans of animated history-- strangely, the only person in the village with a german accent - but remember this was 1970 -- germans still weren't too popular then -- think East Germany under soviet domination) has issued a draconian decree forbidding toys. And so Kris delivers his wares, and runs off to the mountain where he is captured by the enchanted trees of the Winter Warlock. But through the gift of a choo-choo train, he melts the warlock's heart and makes him good.

The rest of the story shows how Kris overcomes Meisterburger's silliness, falls in love with the town schoolmarm, Miss Jessica, and eventually moves to the North Pole.

At this point you are thinking "Most Christian, Russ -- at what point is the gospel even mentioned?" OK, don't think this too much of a stretch. Watch the scene when Kris and Jessica are wed. Astaire clearly says "they went before the Lord" in a grove of pine trees because they were considered outlaws. As they come into the grove, you see how the elves and forest creatures have decorated the trees -- and chief among the ornaments are Christian Crosses. But most surprising is the Winter Warlock, who has been "dis-enchanted" and lost all his magic powers. Just as the wedding is about to begin, he prays "please, give me just a little magic" and the trees light up with Christmas lights. Let me write that again THE WINTER WARLOCK PRAYS.

Then, as Kris and Jessica decide what single night to do the deliveries, Astaire narrates "He chose the holiest night of the year, a night of profound love..." Christmas Eve.

And then, my favorite subtle gospel insertion is also in my favorite song. Kris has just given the Winter Warlock a gift -- nobody gives mean old warlocks gifts, you know -- and that icy heart just melted away, revealing a kindly looking old man. Winter then says "Ah, but will it last, at heart I'm a mean old warlock" -- and Kris says being good is just as simple as putting one foot in front of the other -- leading into the peppy song:

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you'll be walkin' 'cross the flo-o-or
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you'll be walkin' out the door.

You never will get where you're goin'
If you never get up on your feet
Come on! There's a good tail wind blowin'
A fast walkin' man is hard to beat!


If you want to change your direction
If you're time of life is at hand
Well don't be the rule -- be the exception
A good way to start is to stand.


If I want to change the reflection
I see in the mirror each morn
Oh, you do?!
You mean that it's just my election
Just that!
To vote for a chance to be reborn.

[chorus x2]

Re-read that last verse -- sung by the warlock. "...a chance to be reborn" is not accidental language (neither I think, is the word play with election). Now before you get all hyper-calvinistic on me, let me state that I'm well aware that the song seems to teach "bootstrap redemption" -- just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you can be good. Such teaching flies in the face of everything that is true about grace (go back and read Ephesians chapter 2). However, remember that the song only comes AFTER the warlock's heart is melted by an unmerited gift that he didn't deserve! (admittely, the gift is a choo-choo, but this is, after all, a children's story)

I'm telling you, there's good stuff going on in this flim. After thanksgiving, break it out and watch for yourself -- I hope you'll be delighted at what you see.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Off the Shelf: Darknet

Yes, I know the title sounds like a third rate syndicated TV show (the kind you only see on after midnight, featuring cheesy special effects). In actuality, Darknet (by JD Lasica), subtitled "Hollywood's war against the Digital Generation" is about the ongoing battle between entrenched media giants and the digital pioneers who make information malleable and easy to use. (read the reviews from readers or see the promotional webpage with blog and other resources)

The thrust is this -- new technology makes image, text, film, and sound easily accessible and easy to manipulate. This means that anyone with a computer and a little software can become their own media producer. This also means that they have the capacity to use existing material to make their own montage.

According to the book, the big media conglomerates hate that concept -- they want to keep control of media creation and distribution. Accordingly, they want to establish laws and protocols that will prevent end users from mixing or even appropriating existing material.

Consider the story of Chris Strompolos, who as a middle schooler was so enthralled by Raiders of the Lost Ark, that he decided to recruit his friends to re-shoot the film. They went all out, and the project took them seven years. They built elaborate sets in their basement, they asked for special effects pieces for Christmas and Birthday presents. And after 7 years, they had created a faithful re-creation. It was a labor of love. Spielberg got hold of a copy and he loved it. But you'll never be able to see it, because the studios hold extensive copyright control, and they'd never let you see it. (Lasica tells the story much better than I can -- Read his retelling, quoted straight from the book)

Lasica makes a strong case for "open access" to all kinds of media as a way of encouraging ongoing creativity (it also adds value to the existing work -- anytime someone references my intellectual work -- it further spreads my ideas -- as Mae West once said "i don't care whether what you write about me is good or bad, just don't misspell my name". Seth Godin (marketing guru) constantly emphasizes that the point behind blogging (and much of the new media) is to spread your ideas -- not to make a sale. That's where the Hollywood types don't get it -- they're more concerned about the bottom line and keeping their captive audiences than they are about producing quality products. Is it any wonder that labors of love that The Lord of the Rings, The Passion of the Christ, and Farenheit 9/11 were major successes? They were works with heart (whether you liked them or not -- their directors did them primarily as expressions of passion).

The thesis behind Darknet is that the regular person also has this artistic impulse and would really like to have access to lots of digital material to indulge said impulse. If the major corporations will block that impulse (see what they did with Napster), then people will still get the digital information from hidden parts of the internet -- called the Darknet. The latter half of the book traces the careers and techniques of the digital freebooters and pixel privateers who pirate movies and make pristeen copies available via invite only secret lairs on the web -- kind of like a movie buff's batcave on the net.

All said, the book is worth a read for people of faith (one story is about a pastor who shows movie clips in his sermons -- this is kosher under the fair use of copyright law. However, he breaks the law because he copies the clips from his DVD to his laptop -- that act of copying is a violation. And the interview explores the ethical concerns involved). This will be an interesting field of ethics in the coming years -- Big media are quick to cry "theft" for any appropriation of intellectual material. And there is a lot of theft going on. There is also a lot of sampling that is the digital equivalent of quotation or allusion -- which has been within ethical bounds of fair use for centuries. Again, I don't suggest a purchase -- this isn't a classic you'll refer to again and again. Check it out from the library and give it a good detailed skim.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, November 07, 2005

Heidelberg Catechism -- week 3

I know I've not posted on weeks 1 and 2, but I just never got around to it. Here's the background info -- We have a discussion group at our church where we're working through the Heidelberg Catechism week by week. The other three folks are all under 30 and I'm trying to orient them to some of the confessional foundations of the church. This discussion group is good for me too -- it keeps the confessions fresh in my mind.

For those of you who have no clue what I'm talking about -- a little background is in order -- our denomination has assemlbed a Book of Confessions -- historic theological statements from various eras of the church. These statements summarize the teaching of the Bible, and guide our present day understanding (that is, if we take the time to actually read them).

Catechisms are theological documents that are stated in question and answer format. Heidelberg was written early in the Protestant Reformation, and is still used as the standard for churches in the Dutch Reformed Tradition. The first two readings deal with defining mankind's only hope, and our inability to fully keep the law of God -- so we pick up in week 3 with the case already being made. For these posts, I'll give the reading that we did (quoted directly from the book of Confessions), and then summarize the discussion. As always, the floor is open for your comments and thoughts!

"Q. Did God create man evil and perverse like this?
A. No. On the contrary, God greated man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that he might rightly know God his Creator, love him with his whole heart, and live with him in eternal blessedness, praising and glorifying him.

Q. Where, then, does this corruption of human nature come from?
A. From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden; whereby, our human life is so poisoned that we are all conceived and born in the state of sin.

Q. But are we so perverted that we are altogether unable to do good and prone to do evil?
A. Yes, unless we are born again through the Spirit of God."

The first thing we ought to note is the use of that little word "perverted" in the last question does not mean that we are all slobbering maniacs -- It means that we are diverted from our original design. We are not able to do what we were made to do in the first place.

That said, we come to the oh so popular main theme of this reading: depravity. It's a common theme in literature and art (see my previous post). It's a wonder that secular novelists see this truth as clear on the nose on their faces, but many religious folks balk at the idea.

Depravity is the T of the Tulip of the five points of Calvinism:

*Total Depravity
*Unconditional Election
*Limited Atonement
*Irresistable Grace
*Perseverance of the Saints

A lot of people really have problems with the concept of depravity. But our discussion group didn't. Among us, we had all hit our heads against the wall enough times to have an understanding of self-doubt. As one friend told me a long time ago "I'm a sheep that has to stay close to the shepherd" -- That's an experience I identify with. Depravity means my capacities for good decision-making, right discernment of truth, rightly oreinting my emotions, and just about everything else, are undermined. Every human faculty is stained.

But counterbalanced against that is the dignity of humanity, as stated in question 6. Humans are created good and in God's image. And so the question that arose in discussion was how did the fall affect that dignity. Was the image of God (imago Dei) lost? Was it broken? or was the corruption simply an inability to perceive truth rightly? Are we like a TV set that is smashed beyond repair, or are we like a TV set with the antenna removed? I came down on the idea of asserting that we continue to have the full dignity of bearing the image of God (hence the reason that love your neighbor like yourself is the second greatest commandment behind love the lord your God) but that we have the full corruption of depravity. Full dignity, full depravity. That's us.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Now Playing: Stage Beauty

While widely compared to Shakespeare in Love, Stage Beauty, struck me as a very different movie. Shakespeare in Love is a romantic comedy that happens to feature Shakespeare's penchant for gender confusion as a plot device. Stage Beauty, on the other hand, is a drama exploring gender identity which happens to employ a romantic plotline. About all the films share in common are a performance of Shakespeare's play in which a woman takes a leading role.

Confused? Don't be. Stage Beauty is a clever tale set during the restoration of the English Monarchy under Charles II. During this era, only men were allowed to perform onstage, and the best actor at playing women's roles was Ned Kynaston. The conflict in the play is driven when the king makes an edict that women will be allowed to perform, and Ned's assistant, Maria, becomes the first actress on the English stage. Ned's career is ruined, and Maria is quickly joined by other actresses who are much better than her. But the problem is that they all use the same stiff acting style based on formulaic gestures. Ned is enlisted to help Maria improve her skills -- and they finish the film with the climactic murder of Desdemona from Othello.

This is where the great themes of the film come in. Ned has spent his whole life working masculinity out of his every gesture and tone. To play a woman, he has forsaken his masculine identity. But his understanding of women centers around his idealized sense of their beauty. For example, when Maria asks Ned why he doesn't play male roles he replies "Men aren't beautiful. What they do isn't beautiful either. Women do everything beautifully, especially when they die. Men feel far too much. Feeling ruins the effect. Feeling makes it ugly. Perhaps that's why I could never pull off the death scene. I- could never feel it in a way that wouldn't mar the -- I couldn't let the beauty die. Without beauty there's nothing. Who could love that?"

A little bit later, Maria throws this moment of self revelation back in Ned's face when in a fit of anger she shouts "Your old tutor did you a great disservice, Mr. Kynaston. He taught you how to speak, and swoon, and toss your head but he never taught you how to suffer like a woman, or love like a woman. He trapped a man in a woman's form and left you there to die! I always hated you as Desdemona. You never fought! You just died, beautifully. No woman would die like that, no matter how much she loved him. A woman would fight!"

Ned's confusion about his gender has led him to be objectified by men and women alike -- in his longing for an idealized beauty, he is made into a sexual trinket to be posessed by the aristocrats of the era. It is only when he realizes that there is more the femininity than beauty that he's able to help Maria transform her performance. Together they put on a show that is radically different from what came before -- and it electrifies the audience.

The film also does a fine job of showing the decadence of the Restoration era -- it is a culture centered around sensation -- not much unlike our own culture.

While The critics are mixed in their evaluation of the film, Tammy and I both thought it was pretty teriffic.

And I have to share one of the greatest lines -- When the king is justifying letting women on the stage, he says that the French have been doing it for years, to which one of his aides replies "Whenever we're about to do something truly horrible, we always say that the French have been doing it for years." Sacre bleu!


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Gospel According to Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus (part 2)

Sorry I've been incommunicando for a week -- below is the post I intended to put up last Tuesday -- the class went well, and perhaps I'll do a follow-up post later.

For you regular readers, i need your help for the next play, Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. It goes up in January. I'm going to try to do some preliminary blogging on it in December. It would really help me if you would read the play, and lend your comments to the blog. I hope you can join me in making the class a great experience of Christian Worldview thinking! More to come on that later -- below is the unedited post I had originally intended:

After the slew of comments that I received from part 1 (please note the ironic tone), I've decided that perhaps Shakespeare is not the most appealing topic for readers of the Eagle and Child. Admittedly, I was envisioning scads of people searching on Titus Andronicus searching in Google, and suddenly coming across my site and being dazzled by my insight -- but alas I'm not even in the top 150 sites on Google's list.

Nonetheless, I'll continue, mainly to get my thoughts worked out before class on Wednesday. Your comments, thoughts suggestions really do help -- let me know if any of this stuff is making sense at all.

Those reading the last post will be struck by the gore and violence in the play. What are we to do with this? Just as a recap: We see human sacrifice, murder, rape, mutilation, random killing of incidental characters. The violence is so over the top that critic Harold Bloom, in his work Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, says that Shakespeare intends the work as a parody of the violent plays of colleagues Kidd and Marlowe.

The "hero", Titus, begins the play by turning a deaf ear upon pleas for mercy and then killing his own son for the sake of preserving his notion of honor. By the end of Act I, we've lost all empathy for him -- it seems that he's really the monster. But then, over the next three Acts, we see his great suffering -- the violence returns to him and breaks him. We cannot help but feel for the man -- his son in law is murdered and two of his sons framed for the deed. His daughter raped and mutilated, his own hand cut off in a vain attempt to save his sons lives. Then, as the messenger delivers his sons severed heads, Titus says "Now let hot Etna cool in Sicily And be my heart an everburning hell! These miseries are more than may be borne..... When will this fearful slumber have an end?" Titus' brother Marcus bids him weep: "Rent off thy silver hair, thy other hand, Gnawing with thy teeth, and be this dismal sight the closing up of our most wretched eyes. Now is a time to storm? Why art thou still?" Titus responds by laughing -- Marcus asks why? "Why, I have not another tear to shed." Quite possibly the most heartbreaking line in the play. Anthony Hopkins delivers this line in the film version with such pathos that all my antipathy for Titus earlier deeds was lost.

And we wallow with Titus in grief for a while only to have him become a monster again in the climactic scene. Rather than bringing the villans to justice, Titus enacts an even more cruel revenge, if that is possible. Taking the idea from classical mythology, Titus kills the offending murderers and bakes them into a pie, feeding them to their mother, Tamora (who guided the whole campaign against Titus). Then, as he reveals what he has done, he kills his own daughter (supposedly relieving her of the living hell of being without hands and tongue) and then leaps across the table to kill Tamora. Then Tamora's husband the emperor kills Titus, and within moments the emperor is killed by Titus' one remaining son.

Given these events, we're left with an ambiguous feeling -- we want to like Titus, but he's proven to be unlikeable. In this respect, he's not all that different from the Biblical heroes from Judges. The book of Judges is the Titus Andronicus of the Bible -- it drips with gore and violence -- a sword plunged in the fat belly of an evil king, a tent peg driven through the skull of another villain, a raped and murdered concubine cut up and sent to twelve tribes as a message, the near extermination of one of Israel's tribes. Judges is not entirely a pleasant book. And many of its heroes are ambiguous: Japehth who wins a victory, but in his hastiness, vows to sacrifice the first thing coming out of his house as a celebration -- which turns out to be his daughter. Then there's Samson, a great warrior, but a petulent fool.

Titus reminds us that at times and seasons of history, our heroes are ambiguous. The reason why the truly great are so great is that they're rare. Judges shows how God will use even such people -- with streaks of nobility and wrath -- to accomplish His ends.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Gospel According to Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus (part 1)

Next week, I begin our Gospel According to Shakespeare class with Titus Andronicus. The concept behind the class is to show that good art reflects Biblical truth. Shakespeare opereated in a world dominated by a Christian worldview (albeit a medieval, transitioning to Renaissance, worldview -- a reformation-era-conflict worldview, but a Christian worldview nonetheless).

I'm following along the season of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, and therefore, the play was basically chosen for me. Which presents a difficulty, for Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's most violent play -- dealing with murder, rape, mutilation, and cannibalism. There's a reason the Shakespeare Festival chose to put on play at Halloween! Given the gore, is it possible to find biblical themes? (readers of the book of Judges already know the answer)

If we hold that all truth is God's truth, then we'll find, even submerged beneath the gore, some redemptive themes. (as an aside, realize that the gore was not that unfamiliar to the residents of London at the time. Greenblatt's Will in the World shows us that public executions were common; indeed, one of the bridges over the Thames river was adorned with the mutilated bodies of traitors to the crown. Death and gore were thrust in the faces of people of that era in a way we cannot fully appreciate.

But concomitant with such gore comes questions of justice and mercy -- lack of which drives the conflict in the play. We begin with Titus, a Roman general, victoriously returning from wars in Gaul. He brings in tow the captured Tamora, queen of the Goths, and her three sons, and the bodies of his slain sons. His surviving sons demand the life of one Tamora's sons in exchange for their brothers who died in battle. Andronicus, despite Tamora's pleading and tears, grants their request

"TAMORA: Andronicus...Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods? Draw near them then in being merciful. Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge. Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son.
TITUS: Patient yourself, madam, and pardon me. These are their bretheren whom your Goths beheld alive and dead, and for their bretheren slain, religiously they ask a sacrifice. To this your son is marked, adn die he must, t'appease their groaning shadows that are gone."

Tamora's appeal immediately takes us to the realm of the eternal -- divine justice is tempered by mercy. Perhaps the laws of war do permit the taking of a hostage -- but mercy is the higher virtue. Titus' religious claims strike us as hollow. He's simply saying "there's nothing I can do" when in reality Tamora has hit the nail on the head -- mercy is the mark of divinity.

Surely this longing for mercy puts us squarely on gospel grounds. God in his mercy graciously grants us new birth (see John Piper's exposition on this theme). Ephesians 2:1-10 is all about this mercy "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions." (v4 -- see my sermon from Sunday for more on this passage). We have an inner need for mercy -- God graciously grants it not because He has to, but because He delights in showing mercy.

However, Titus does not take such delight. Tamora's son is executed and she vows revenge. And her revenge is awful. With her sons and the villanous Aaron the Moor, Tamora arranges for Titus daughter, Lavinia, to be raped, her hands cut off and her tongue cut off. As Lavinia begs for mercy, Tamora says to her sons "Remember, boys, I poured forth tears in vain To save your brother from the sacrifice, But fierce Andronicus would not relent, Therefore away with her; and use her as you will; The worse for her, the better loved of me." Again, we see mercy begged for, and mercy denied.

The revenge doesn't stop there -- Lavinia's husband, Bassianus is murdered, and Andronicus' two sons are framed for the murder. They are executed for the crime. But before the execution, Aaron the Moor brings a message that they will be spared if someone in Andronicus' family cuts off their hand as a peace offering to the emperor -- Andronicus in desperation to save his sons' lives, cuts his own off and sends it. The hand is returned to him along with the severed heads of his sons -- Aaron has pulled a wickedly cruel joke.

Now Andronicus is the one begging for mercy. His pleas for mercy for his son's lives were unheard by the government -- and with bitterness he says to his one remaining son "...Rome is but a wilderness of tigers...Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey but me and mine." Titus articulates an insight on depravity. Mercy is not intrinsic to the human heart. We may have a natural longing for it, but not an intrinsic desire to grant it. We see demonstrated once again the desperate need for spiritual rebirth to stop the cycle of revenge and violence.

Andronicus finally loses grip a bit -- we see a heartbreaking scene where he gathers his near relatives, equips them with bows and arrows. Tied to each arrow is a note to one of the pagan gods -- a request for their divine intervention for justice. He has had immense wrong done him, and he longs for things to be set right. "...sith there's no justice in earth nor hell, We will solicit heaven and move the gods To send down Justice for to wreak our wrongs." This scene is almost Job like -- Titus sending his complaints for divine justice.

But Titus is no Job -- he does not hear the voice of God in the whirlwind saying "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand...." (ch 38ff). Instead, Titus takes matters into his own hands -- he seizes an opportunity to take Tamora's remaining sons -- and then he out cruels her cruelty. He murders them, drains their blood, crushes their bones, bakes them into a pie, and serves the pie to Tamora at a banquet aimed at establishing peace between the warring houses (and for Rome) -- of course Tamora was planning her own betrayal, so any kind of mercy from either side was unexpected. In the end scene there is a bloodletting where Titus dies, Lavinia dies, and we wonder at the carnage left behind.

Yet we cannot forget the two figures longing for mercy, yet never granting. Longing for release from the cycle of violence, yet escalating it nonetheless. Locked in a struggle destined to consume both their lives and destroy their families. Full of the sound and the fury, signifying nothing -- to quote another play.

The redemptive element is to show that these are not mindless killers (ala a Jason or Michael Meyers or any of the other horror show villans of today). These are characters with an innate sense of mercy and longing for it. And they throw the deep human need for a new heart, birthed by grace, into unmistakable view.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, October 17, 2005

They've already lost....

Hyde Park Community Methodist Church is one of the most respected churches in Cincinnati. I've liked most of the people I've met who work or worship there.

But they're knee deep in the hoopla. And they don't know it, but they've already lost...

About a year ago, they announced an aggressive 9 million dollar building campaign -- with the money, they would flatten an old monastery that they own and build a slick new multi-use building that will serve as a vibrant community center, attracting people to their place to work, play, and rub up against Jesus -- at least that's the vision that the church hopes -- as articulated in their vision statement:

"The determined policy of this church is that it should be a seven-day-in-the-week community church. Just so far as physically possible it will be thrown open for the use of all community gatherings, community interests, community programs. We hope to make it a meeting place for everybody and everything that has the highest interests of the community at heart. Questions of faith, church membership, etc., will not be raised. All are welcome.

The program aimed at is of such breadth, purpose, and atmosphere that people will rather "be at church" than not. We want the youth and childhood to find their fun, their pleasure and enjoyment at the church and just as near to the altar of God as possible. We will be nearing our ideal when the children and young people of all the community will prefer to be "over at the church" than anywhere else. We repeat that we are not building to make Methodists. We will be glad to have folks join any church they desire.


I commend their missionary motive -- their desire to make everyone welcome, and then to introduce them to Jesus Christ. But the problem is that they're ticking off people surrounding the church. Now this is bound to happen when a building campaign begins -- neighbors worry about what will happen to their community. But I've never seen anything like the backlash. Driving around Hyde Park and the surrounding neighborhoods, you will see signs in hundreds of yards (not just a few yards, these signs are omnipresent). The signs say "Honor Your Promise", referring to a promise the church made years ago not to undertake massive new construction that would alter the character of the neighborhood. And the press that HPCM church has been getting has been awful. See yesterday's article in the Enquirer for a taste -- it seems to indicate that only half the congregation is on board with the aggressive building campaigns. And this has been stewing for some time -- see the article from March 9, Cin Magazine. and the May 11 Enquirer article. The protesters even have their own website.

Here's the rub, though. HPCM church is still operating from a mindset that has been phasing out since the 1950's. They still operate in the build it and they will come. Now I realize that I'm pastoring a church that also has a large building and we're trying to grow our ministry and reach out to new people -- but I'm also not involved in fights with the local community. Once the yard signs went up, I knew that the church had lost. The community was against the aggressive plans -- the people who will be attracted to the church for their nifty programs and neato facilities will be the very people who will move up the street to Crossroads church for the next big thing in a few years. In addition, George Barna identifies a whole new trend of "revolutionaries" who seem to be turning their backs on the large big box congregations (read the story here) -- that does not bode well for the churches engaging in these multi-million dollar expansions.

Commitment to a congregation isn't based on gee-whiz stuff, but upon relationships. Now to advance ministry, sometimes you have to tick some people off, and there will be relationships that will be broken. That happens when we're sinners dealing with sinners. But we're not talking about a few internal relationships that are being strained, we're talking about the relationship that the church has with the very community in which they find themselves placed. They need to do some pretty aggressive relationship maintenance there, and that means giving up some of the grandiose plans.