Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders.

And he will be called:

Wonderful Counsellor

Mighty God

Everlasting Father

Prince of Peace

Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom,

establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness

from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
The Angel photo is a detail from one of the South windows at Covenant First.
God bless us, every one.
Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

With One Voice: David -- Israel's sweet singer and architect of praise

As Reggie Kidd works through his theology of the heart, he comes to a chapter where he focuses on King David. Reggie characterizes David with these two roles -- the sweet singer and the architect of praise. He uses the various portraits provided by Samuel and the Chronicler to sketch these different roles.

Samuel, according to Reggie, was likely composed in rough form during the reign of Solomon -- but reached it's final form (along with 1 and 2 Kings) during the Babylonian exile many years later. The stories of David's suffering, wrestling, repenting, and aching all would have struck a chord deep in the experience of Israel in exile. Characteristic of this narrative is the story of David playing for Saul to ease his suffering (Reggie points us to Rembrandt's painting as a fine portrayal of the human drama involved). We turn to the Psalms to find that there are 13 that are identified as coming from the experiences of David as a servant of Saul..
For instance Psalm 56 was written while David fled to Gath and pretended madness as a means of preserving his life. Even in the midst of such humiliation and degradation, David is able to sing of confidence in the Lord and His trustworthy word. Reggie writes “Within the exercise of crafting words to articulate his situation and express his feelings, David arrives at a deeper sense of the veracity of God himself. He can pretend to be confused – even mad – because he knows God’s Word is true; and what is happening outside himself does not threaten what is true within himself.” (55) Yet another instance where I wish I could write like that. Reggie also looks to Psalm 57 as an example of David's resiliency rooted in the Lord's provision, even in the midst of the adversity of being on the run, hiding in caves. "In a logic comprehensible only to a person who has learned that praise precedes understanding, David says he knows that Saul will fall into a trap of his own making." (56). Praise precedes understanding. I've been meditating on that phrase for a couple of days now. It brings into light the whole compass of Reggie's book -- we don't understand worship and then dispassionately engage it as an activity on par with attending a civic club or an interesting lecture. Rather, we give ourselves to heartfelt praise in trust that the Living One will shape our understanding.
"In the twists and turns of his fortunes -- embraced and then eschewed by Saul, shunted from Moab to Philistia -- David's singing has kept him anchored to a Rock who shows himself 'faithful to the faithful, blameless to the blameless, pure to the pure, and shrewd to the crooked' (Ps 18:25-26). He has been sustained by a vision of a God who saves the humble but brings low the haughty (v 27). Counter to the gloom that progressively consumed Saul and to the impotence that had Saul falling on his own sword (I Sam 31:1-7), David knows a God of light and power." (58) And therein was the difference between David and Saul -- Saul heard the songs of Zion as a refuge for a season in the midst of the pressures of administration and kingship. He looked to David's songs as a distraction to allieve for a time the inner angiush. David on the other hand, put his trust in the subject of the songs -- the singing wasn't totally an end in of itself -- rather it was David's instrument to express his trust and confidence in the midst of adversity. Singing wasn't escape, it was sanctifying.
Reggie shows this not just in his songs of confidence in suffering, but in his songs of penitence in the midst of sin (Ps 51 being the crown jewel of this theme -- but Reggie points out a slew of other songs of confession -- 6, 32, 38, 39, 40, 41, 51, 69. "This is blues of the deepest sort, blues sad enough to find redemption." (60). If David is the sweet singer of the soul, and he spends so much time in confession in his songs, then that in itself ought to train our hearts to greater self-examination and confession. David's songs become a mirror to our own hearts to dare us to look within and see our need for redemption. "In a way that is without precedent in the ancient world, David shows how we can come before our Maker and admit that at our core we are not right. All we have to offer is a song from a broken spirit and a contrite heart, and we can know that if we come in this fashion we will not be torn to shreds. David the singer introduces us to the notion that there is a blessedness that awaits those -- and only those -- who admit that rightness is nowhere within them, who look to God alone to account it to them for no motive besides God's own loving kindness (see Ps 32:1-5, 10-11)" (61).
As we turn from Samuel to Chronicles, the singer role recedes and the architect role comes to the fore. Chronicles was compiled during the restoration of Israel to the land and the rebuilding of the temple. The Chronicler focused on stories of David as a builder. Here we see music all over the place. Reggie shows how the account of the bringing the ark to the temple (I chron 15) is saturated with music (in contrast to the Samuel account where the musical component is played down). Reggie shows how David institutes a special assignment of Asaph and his family for leading the people in songs of praise (I chron 16:7-36) -- including a special song of commissioning. Now David has moved from being a singer to being a patron -- to establishing psalmody and singing as a part of the institutional structure. "David's commissioning of Asaph is the beginning of a whole new epoch of corporate worship. Beyond this particular occasion, David aggressively works to leave Israel with a tradition of praise, organizing the Levites...and setting in place commandments for music-making that would be appealed to in future generations." (67) Like the great patrons of art in the Renaissance, David was not only a sophisticated artist himself, but he understood how to weave it as a part of the institution -- he understood the power of song to shape souls, and paid special attention to keep song before his people.
"As no one before him, David realized that the atmosphere of God's presence -- and it is God's presence that the ark exists to symbolize -- should be made up of song" (68) "The Psalms themselves are as much a part of the building of God's house as anything else is." (68) This shows that togetherness and connnectedness are vital to David -- Reggie shows how the corporate singing of God's praise shows the high value of God's people together and connected in a symphony of praise, rather than a cacophany of solo voices each singing their own tune of self-expression.
The personal and the corporate -- blended together so nicely by Reggie's chapter here. David's songs and stories instruct us in both.
Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Visions of Grace: Artist Annie Ruth

Had one of those Providential moments this weekend -- I had taken Sarah Grace and Annalise to the Cincinnati Museum Center to see the Christmas train exhibit and to play in the Children's museum. As we were leaving the Children's museum, what do I spy tucked away in a side gallery off the lobby but an art exhibition. Always being one for forcing my children to have their two spoonfuls of culture, I dragged them over to see the exhibit. As we walked in, a smiling African-American woman warmly greeted us -- she was the artist, Annie Ruth.

She explained the exhibit to us: Lighting Candles: Embracing the Spirit of the Holiday Season. It was designed to be a celebration of the festivals of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. As I went through the exhibit, I found it to be great exploration of the sanctifying and sustaining work of the Holy Spirit. The theme paintings (pictured here) particularly capture that quality -- the photos here don't do these mixed media work justice -- you can't see the rich textures and the vibrancy of the color. The main painting is titled "Seven Golden Candles (Lighting the World). In it are pictured six sets of hands holding candles to the center -- underneath the hands are shadowy faces of elders. Each of these candles has a different word inscribed on it: City, Home, Family, Children, Community, Public Service. Underneath the hands is the inscription "I am the light of the world. Lighting the lives within my community-- Impacting my world -- Rising above my circumstances -- Empowered with faith, hope and love -- Living life -- Empowered with the legacy of giving sharing and believing by simply being that little light that shines." The great power of the piece comes from the glow of the seventh candle in the center from which all the other candles take their light. It is center top, the traditional place of the Holy Spirit in art (see the images in my earlier post on the connections between paintings of Pentecost and the inscriptions of Akhenaten's adoration of the Sun -- now add this picture to the mix). Matthew 6 immediately comes to mind "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matt 6:14-16)
There were other thought provoking pieces -- She had a whole series of works that featured two different images cut into strips and then interspersed with each other. At first I found these disconcerting -- but one of the paintings, titled "My Angel" clicked for me: One image was of a figure standing above a child figure -- the other image (interspersed with strips) was that of a large broad shouldered African American man supporting the two figures. The technique dramatically demonstrated the parallel and interconnected nature of spiritual and physical reality.
Another winner was called "Prayer Request" -- at first it seemed like a total abstract piece consisting of texture and gold glitter. And then I began to discern a figure, kneeling with head tilted back and eyes shut in ecstasy. The hands (oversized for the painting) were extended forward in a position of prayer. All of this figure was shadowed over by a glittery cloud which recalled to me a graphic image of the Shekhinah glory cloud of the Old Testament.
A quick visit to her website showed me a lot more about Annie Ruth's work -- not just her art, but her writing (she very graciously gave Sarah Grace a copy of a children's book that she had authored). Stumbling around there, I found a link to an article in which she gives her testimony of faith -- a powerful story of how the Holy Spirit brought healing and wholeness in Christ after abuse and adversity. Read the story for yourself -- but here's how she wraps it up:
"I am here to fulfill my divine destiny. Before the foundation of the world, God called me. While I was in my mother's womb he set me apart. He instilled the artistic ability within me to minister to a dying world. Creativity is in my genes. And although, at this time, He has not called me to a title, as a child of God it is my obligation to proclaim that "Jesus saves!" God has called me in a nontraditional role. You don't hear about too many Holy Ghost filled believers telling the good news through the painting on a canvas or in a collection of narratives and poetry. God has called me for this purpose. In this calling, He has told me two things -"Be real" and "It's not about you Annie Ruth." I aim to be real and be that vessel who He is calling me to be."
Amen and Hallelujah, Annie. Amen
Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A new kind of numismatics

I used to collect coins -- still am in fact. I've been enjoying the State Quarters series (though I'm a little hesitant about the US President dollar coin series -- that will get a mite expensive).

But I heard on the radio this morning a story about coin collecting of a different sort -- collecting pennies and nickels and melting them for resale. Apparently, the cost of copper and zinc have risen so high as to make pennies and nickels worth far more than their face value. The story said that the mint has even passed a temporary rule restraining melting of these coins. I went out to the US Mint website (a pretty fascinating website -- they actually market our currency -- I'm not sure I understand why currency needs to be marketed -- isn't it something we all need? A little help from business gurus please) -- here's an excerpt from their press release:

The United States Mint has implemented regulations to limit the exportation, melting, or treatment of one-cent (penny) and 5-cent (nickel) United States coins, to safeguard against a potential shortage of these coins in circulation. The United States Mint is soliciting public comment on the interim rule, which is being published in the Federal Register.

Prevailing prices of copper, nickel and zinc have caused the production costs of pennies and nickels to significantly exceed their respective face values. The United States Mint also has received a steady flow of inquiries from the public over the past several months concerning the metal value of these coins and whether it is legal to melt them.

"We are taking this action because the Nation needs its coinage for commerce," said Director Ed Moy. "We don't want to see our pennies and nickels melted down so a few individuals can take advantage of the American taxpayer. Replacing these coins would be an enormous cost to taxpayers."

I'm pretty sure there is a simple solution here -- change the metal. During World War 2, pennies were made with steel rather than copper. I'm no metallurgist, but I see no reason we couldn't go to different metals. What do you all think.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Arts as Soulcraft -- Introduction

GK Chesterton, in one of his essays on Shakespeare (regrettably, I forget which one, and he has a corpus of work that is as large as his physical corpus was), critiqued protestants for a shallow view of Shakespeare’s work. He said that Protestants were always looking for “a lesson” or “a teaching” in Shakespeare’s work, rather than simply enjoying it. Sadly, his comment does hit close to the mark. Ever since the Reformation, with its right return to Sola Scriptura, protestants have had an uncomfortable relationship with the arts – save music and poetry, which flourished as means of telling the story.

Protestants were suspicious of visual arts as objects of “popery”. They were known for stripping paintings and ornamentation from houses of worship, and thus gaining a reputation for being anti-art. That reputation is somewhat unjustified, for the scruples were against using images as an aid to worship and against having representations of the Lord. Cromwell and other Puritans had no problem with secular paintings that were used to adorn the home – indeed the protestant sense of exaltation of the homey and common led to the whole Dutch school of painting and a democratization that brought art out of the realm of the elite and into the realm of the everyday man.

Even so, protestants have often had issues with the arts for promoting sinful behavior and leading people into temptation. This led some of the more fundamentalistic branches of Christianity into a broad rejection of the arts – no dancing, no movies, no theatre, no entertaining novels of any kind (unless they contained a good moral) – the arts existed to be exemplary, not anything else. Thus, protestants have not developed a deep independent understanding of the arts.

There have been many laudable efforts – Schaeffer in his Art and the Bible and Phillip Ryken’s Art for God’s Sake have been diligent efforts at laying down a theology of Arts. However, most protestant efforts have centered around a biblical justification for the arts – starting with Bezalel and Oholiab as examples and moving through all different sorts of arts, they work to show how the arts are justifiable means of bringing praise to God. I’m not terribly interested in reduplicating the work, and indeed I question the necessity of it. After all, none of us feel the need to biblically justify the work of physicians. Seldom do we see anyone pointing to Jesus command to shake the dust off your shoes as a justification for the profession of cobbler. Lydia’s trade in purple cloth is not often used as a justification for engaging in trade. We recognize that most professions (yes there are one or two notable exceptions – but these exceptions are often perversions of a legitimate profession – and that is an idea that must be worked out in a separate essay) are fields in which righteousness or villany are worked out --- truly Paul says in Colossians “…whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17)

I’m interested in exploring how the arts are a vehicle for growing in our sanctification. How is it that the arts make us stronger in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)? Theologically, we all understand that such growth is a gift from the Holy Spirit, and we ought to pray and diligently seek it. Of course, we’re all aware that, relying on grace alone, we engage in the discipline of obedience to God’s word as a way of responding to Christ’s love. However, we also know that our spiritual lives are worked out in the fields of the world on a daily basis. I don’t propose to come up with a definitive framework – for sanctification is necessarily a personal process of drawing closer to God and becoming more Christlike. I do however believe that we can look at the arts through the lens of each one of these fruit of the spirit and ask “how is it that we’ve seen God at work through the arts to accomplish this end.”

So that’s what I propose to be chewing through over the next several months – not posting every day, but if I’m lucky once a week or every couple of weeks. These are just stumbling beginning thoughts, and I hope for your thoughts as we move forward. I’ll likely take them out of order – mainly because I have some thoughts around Patience that I would like to work up. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

With One Voice -- The Psalms

Reading Reggie's With One Voice is something like eating a well made pound cake -- the prose is rich and sweet with hints of subtle flavors (citrus, almond -- pick your recipie), but it's not so heavy as to leave you feeling fat and bloated and your head swimming in a sugar fog. He's got moments of prose that are so apt and right, that I had to copy whole paragraphs into my notes. I keep finding myself teetering on the tightrope between "Wow!!" and "Man, I wish I could write like that"

This second chapter introduces us to the book of Psalms as God's way of working on our hearts (just as the law works on our minds and the prophets work on our actions). He begins with the broad sweep of the book of psalms -- a slow movement from lament and struggle to ending with triumphant praise.

Then Reggie zeros in on Psalms 1 and 2, confessing that he's using them not only to introduce us to the purpose of the Psalms, but also to show us the personal soulcraft that has worked on him through the songs of Zion: “We are all inveterate idolators, little Pinocchios trying to work our way from puppethood to independent personhood. In this chapter, I want to confess my own false gods, because my passion for the importance of a snug theology lies in the way God has used music and song to carry out his campaign against my pet idols. Others may worship elsewhere, but I worship at the twin altars of Reason and Action – also known as Knowing and Doing.” (35)

Reggie tells the story of his coming to faith -- how he had started as a hard nosed intellectual who lusted for a clean and tidy intellectual system overseen by an aged-english actor type God (imagine John Geilgud portraying a Great Unmoved Mover). However, in college, he met Mort, a Presbyterian Pastor who challenged him with a vision of a God who intervened and meddled in the universe -- and by so doing, this God suffered wounds and hurt and bled:

“One night Mort heard me sing and play on the guitar one of the many love songs I knew. ‘From the way you seemed to feel that song, it sounds like you’re going to need a bigger God than just Someone who can explain why E=mc2 works,” he mused ‘Okay, but what did you think of the song?’ was my rejoinder, but some other voice inside of me muttered, ‘So he knows.’ Finally, there was the night Mort, frustrated after an extended conversation about whether God existed, blurted, ‘Reggie, I thinkyou worship your doubts. Could it be you just enjoy being the aloof inquirer?’ While part of me looked for a clever repartee, a deeper part confessed ‘He’s right.’ My intellectual curiosity was a smoke screen for a psyche that wanted to stay untethered. I wanted a God I could manage, not a God who would meddle. I was having a hard time admitting that I needed a God who would do a lot more than meddle – that I needed the God who had scarred himself to heal the broken and out of control places I hid from everybody else. Within a few days, I succumbed to Christ, figuring that any remaining riddles needed to be worked out from inside
of the faith. I sensed it was wiser to accept faith’s mystery than continue in unfaith’s befuddlement. I was starved for what Mort’s intrusive God offered.” (36)

Then Reggie talks about how he began to experience this overwhelming intrusive God through music, particularly a performance of the Messiah:

“I was completely unprepared for the experience. It’s not that I had never
heard any of the music before. But I had never heard it in context, all at
once, or more importantly, from the inside, from a posture of faith.
Minutes into the program I was weeping. I was overwhelmed by the beauty,
the majesty, the poetry, the melding of passion and thoughtfulness, of lovliness
and truth – the things that make Handel’s Messiah the special phenomenon it
is. I felt bathed in a new existential awareness: what Christ
brought was more than truths to learn or disciplines to master. It was
more like his coming made me – made all of us – the object of a passionate
courtship.” (37)

I've talked about having a similar kind of experience in seeing Les Miserables on Broadway. I've always taken this as being touched with an experience of glory -- yet Reggie here sounds the experience out in more detail than I've ever been able to. It's that experience of leaving the performance and feeling better, cleaner, brighter than you were before. I'm not sure if this is what Aristotle meant by catharsis in his poetics -- maybe it is catharsis viewed through redeemed eyes. And the book of Psalms points us toward having this experience on a regular basis through the songs of Zion. “Psalm 1 tells us that God simply does not care to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of coolly aloof inquirers: his passion is for dragging ugly wallflowers onto the dance floor. When we come to him looking merely for a respectable philosophical system, he not so subtly reshapes the question: ‘So it’s truth you think you want? Come sing in my choir, then we’ll talk’ In other words, learn to praise. Understanding will follow.” (49)

Reggie moves from there to talk about Psalm 2 -- how are we to understand God's interaction with the world -- particularly in the face of injustice. He retells his early passion for social justice, particularly in combatting the rascism that he saw so evidently in the 1970s South. He was desperate to show that Evangelicals cared for social justice and were thinking Christians.

“My zeal over race left me with little energy for other spiritual practices, whether personal holiness or individual evangelism.” (44) In a class on modern theology, he was studying liberation theology. He reports how the class was almost monolithically angry because of the inequities revealed in the book – how the haves oppress the have nots. Finally, one class member spoke up “The thing that troubles me about this book and the approach to God it represents is that, well, there’s no joy in it. There doesn’t seem to be anything to celebrate.” (44) Reggie at first internally objected, but then realized that the theologian they were studying had indeed abridged the gospel to a political platform. He instantly had an inner memory of sitting with this student and others singing songs of praise and realizing that one of the ways we build the city of God – and just as necessary as social action – was the worship of the people of God. Being shaped and formed by singing the songs of Zion. He saw that there wasn't a dicotomy between "worship Christians" and "social justice Christians" -- joyful worship should send us forth to be salt and light in a watching world so that they may see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven.

“I realized then that our outlook on history and society is anchored in the conviction that above us stands a God who laughs. He mocks the arrogance of the exploiters who misperceive the kind restraint of his wrath and refuse to repent. He laughs at the folly of sin’s residium in a redeemed person’s rascism. He scoffs at the demons who mock my redemption, as though the besetting sins I have yet to shake in thirty years of following Christ could lessen my Father’s commitment to see my salvation through.” (46) The laughter of God is a key component of Psalm 2 (and 37 and 59). Reggie wrestles with the discomfort of this concept, but finally finds peace in it -- for we are included in the objects of God's laughter.

In many ways, Reggie hits on the theory of literary comedy -- Think of Shakespeares comedies -- they are all about wandering pilgrims faced with various tight lipped naysayers and villans. But in the end, even the rogues are reconciled, so long as they learn that the joke is on everyone -- as long as they stop taking themselves so seriously. I think Reggie's point here is that we need to stop idolizing our own actions, thinking that in our hustle and bustle and planning and conferences and efforts we save the world. We need to rest in the laughter of God who is sovereign and has called us according to his purpose -- we are called to be pilgrims with a song on our lips and blessings from our hands.

Heavy thoughts -- More to come next week.

Soli Deo Gloria

A hero for our time: Henry Orombi

This week's World Magazine has named African Archbishops Peter Akinola and Henry Orombi as "Daniels of the Year" (World's effort to celebrate christians who stand firm in the midst of pressure and trial).

Orombi's story particularly gripped me. I learned about his apprenticeship to Archbishop Janini Luwam, who was murdered by Idi Amin's thugs. He was there the night Luwan was killed -- the thugs came to the house and forced their way in "They forced him to go everywhere," says Orombi, "the chapel, the bedrooms -- under the pretext of looking for guns. Finally they came to this room and on this table was a Bible. 'This is my gun' Luwam told the men. Not long after, Idi Amin's men shot and killed Luwam" -- What a mentor -- what courage under pressure -- what composure in the face of evil.

Meanwhile, Orombi was jailed. What a trying time for a man who had dropped out of high school to become a mechanic, but found no gift for it. His father had sent him to a teacher's college where he became a Christian -- and opened up a love of children's ministry. He went on to study theology in Kampala (at what is now Uganda Christian University) and then for three years at St John's College, Nottingham. It was during his time as a seminary student that he worked with the Archbishop, and jailed.

Needless to say, he was eventually released and became a priest. His adminiatrative skill won him a bishopric -- he began the term in a new diocese with no infrastructure. Within a decade, he had established a complete system that included churches, schools, training centers, missionary airstrips and rural and community outreach that was a model for Anglicans around the globe "I did it by preaching the gospel fiercely" he said. He was soon appointed archbishop.

Now he ministers in a land that is torn by violence from 20 years of war with rebels in the Lord's Resistance Army (though a peace agreement has been recently settled). This is a man who is acquainted with suffering on a daily basis. All these things, I learned from the World Magazine article. This man is a hero for Christianity.

I did some checking on weblogs for comments about Orombi -- had to go back a few months to get material that wasn't just regurgitation of the article (which I provided nicely for you above)
  • GadgetVicar says: "What a cool Archbishop! He is passionate, funny, Jesus-centred and humble. A wonderfully encouraging hour in which the Lord drew near to me in a lovely way."
  • Terry in Singapore speaks of his visit there to promote the Alpha Course: "It was so good to meet Archbishop Henry Orombi from Uganda, who was in Singapore this week for a series of revival meetings. We were very blessed by his ministry."
  • Space in a Place that Nobody Knows gives a personal account of a vacation in Uganda spent with the Archbishop (apparently they are old family friends)

Other Posts on African Christianity:

Whose Christianity is it Anyway?

Advice from Africa: Start with prayer

Sometimes its good to go hungry

Bi-Okoto -- an African Experience

Soli Deo Gloria


Monday, December 11, 2006

Chirstmas books for children

Last year, Tammy and I talked about starting a new tradition for Christmas -- we'd go as a family to the bookstore and buy a special Christmas book that we can all enjoy together (as if we need more children's books....but that's a different subject).

We've not yet had the chance to pick out our book for this year, but I so enjoyed last year's book (now gracing our coffee table again after its long spring/summer/fall's nap), that I thought it worth commending to you: Mortimer's Christmas Manger. It's the story of a little mouse who comes out of his dark cold hole in the wall looking for a warm place to stay. He finds the family's manger scene -- and kicks out all the figures. Each day he comes back to find all the figures replaced, and kicks them out again. Finally, he overhears the parents reading the story of the birth of Jesus and he understands that the Nativity scene is there for -- the mouse gives the manger back to the little baby Jesus -- and he prays that Jesus would help him find a new home. And then, the book closes with the mouse finding the new Gingerbread house.

Now before you groan too much -- I am well aware that many Christian children's books are pretty corny -- and the story may sound like it's another festival of corn -- the mouse prays???. But somehow, this one works. Perhaps it's the high quality of art. I spend a lot of time looking at children's books -- I know high quality illustration from low quality. Illustrator Jane Chapman's work has a warmth and depth to it -- not like the lyrical beauty of Jan Brett's work, but more like the whimsical wonder of Felicia Bond. Also the story doesn't have the singsongy tired rhyme that characterizes second rate children's books (there are some authors that do the rythmic rhyme well -- think Dr Seuss, for example -- but often in imitators, it comes off poorly). The story is warmhearted and kind, without being syrupy. It just comes together as being right. We've found it to be a sweet funny little story (Sarah Grace howls at the illustrations of Mortimer schlepping the wise men out of the manger), and we've come back to it many times.

I did a little sniffing around about the author. Karma Wilson (who has several other books -- of which we have Frog in the Bog) has published several other volumes. In this online interview, she talks about her goals in writing:

First of all I want my writing to be nourishing. Not "messag-y" but substantial. I want it to do what it sets out to do. For instance, if it's a humorous book I want to really make kids laugh--not just the "cheap" and "easy" jokes, but jokes that make them think. Let's face it, if you write "fart" or "booger" you can make a kid laugh. I'd like them to laugh because they actually "get" a joke. In essence I would rather write a book like a turkey dinner with big side salad and rolls than a book like a McDonald's happy meal if that makes any sense. My kids like happy meals, but they like turkey dinners much more and are better off for them. The happy meal books might be "easier" on the writers and the kids, and they have their place, but they should be minimal part of a kid's book "diet".

I would also like my books to be wholesome. Call me sentimental, or eventrite, but kids get enough "harsh reality" on TV, in their music, even in commercials. Cynicism
and sarcasm reigns these days and I detest it. I was almost sucked into that view of life, and I feel obligated not to go there in my writing. I don't aim to write books that are "realistic" in a worldly sense. I want kids to have something above the "norm" to look to and hopefully to strive for. I also want to write more books that share my faith in God, who is the hope of my life. There are a lot of great Christian books, but
many of the Christian books written are one of two things, messag-y or solemn--and far too many are both. These books aren't like turkey dinners but more like tofu and
brussel sprout dinners. Sure they're very healthy, but how do you get a kid to eat it? I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with "messag-y or solemn", but it gets old after awhile, and then what's the point? Too many Christian books are "preaching to the choir". So I aim to share my faith in a way that's hopefully fun and even humorous while also sharing hope, faith and Love.

I love this analogy she makes to reading and nourishment -- do you want turkey dinners or do you want fries with that? To be nourishing, the content doesn't have to be obnoxious about faith or values -- it has to be organically a part of the work. I think she's accomplished this in Mortimer's Christmas Manger. Hats off to you Karma and Jane -- you've given us a fine addition to our library....

Now we have to figure out what book to find to top it this year -- any suggestions?

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Have a Coke and a Smile

Healthbolt has this terrifying post about the effects of drinking one soft drink on the human body. I'll admit that I've pretty much given up soft drinks (save on the occasional basis) a long time ago. But I still love a big dose of Iced Tea, southern style (that is with lots of sugar), and my guess is that it has a similar effect.

Sigh. All the fun stuff is really really bad for you.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Better than I'd thought they'd be

It's been a while since I've done a positive movie review -- so here's a two fer

Over thanksgiving, I went to see Casino Royale, the new James Bond film. It's a complete re-do of the franchise. Gone are the obsession with bizarre gadgets and tongue in cheek humor (and you can forget about Q, the gadget master). Gone is M's secretery, Moneypenny. Gone is the "shaken, not stirred" tagline (indeed, there's a bit where Bond orders a martini and the bartender asks "Shaken or stirred" "I don't care" replies Bond).

Taking the place of such traditions are grittier and icy cold fight scenes. This is a bond who actually gets hurt -- a lot. And because this Bond gets injured, he's actually much tougher. In the 80s, Bond became this kind of uber-cool superman. Now we've got a Bond who just barely survives -- this is a bond I can identify with. He hurts, he bleeds, he's human. He also falls in love and has his heart broken. It all works, and it works well.

Then, this weekend, the first DVD of Firefly arrived from Netflix. I'll be honest -- from all the hype I've received about this show, I thought I'd hate it -- "a space western" they told me. Space ships and six shooters and cowboy slang. I didn't think there was nny way this would work. And yet, the first episode into it, it's working great. Easily some of the best sci-fi dialogue I've heard in a long time. The plots are tight and the characters complex.

I especially like how they've worked in a preacher as a heroic character (not to mention, this is 500 years in the future, and it's the only sci-fi show I've seen to actually incorporate some kind of nod to the Christian faith).

Both Bond and Firefly are gritty, and contiain violence and sexuality (though not over the top -- it's there in the story, but the filmmakers don't linger and glorifiy in sex and violence). But the heroes in both reflect a deep understanding of human depravity -- they're up against villans and they confront these villans not with rosy colored eyes, but with understanding the human sin nature.

The feel of both is characterized by one of the characters in firefly who tells a new crew member on the ship "We're all lost in the woods. The difference is that the captin likes it." All the characters are making their way in a dangerous world where people are ambiguous and the heroes are tough on top with a soft spot underneath.

Good Stuff

Thursday, December 07, 2006

It's a Bird...It's a Plane....It's Vitamin T

Found this website through the previously mentioned Trendwatching briefing. Vitamin T is a website that lists daily "tips for living". I know this has been done before: Heloise in the newspaper, little hints in almanacs, Lifehacker weblog.

But this one is different -- for every tip you submit that they publish, they'll pay you $3 -- that's right, three whole smackers!

And some of the tips are pretty handy, too.


New Media and the Church

Web 2.0 is the buzz in all the tech/business circles. This is the big idea that most web content is being created by end users all across the globe and shared in networks. Rather than relying on the elite creatives to entertain us, now everyone can have their Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame. Trendwatching labeled this trend as Generation C - a generation of creatives who were sharing photos, creating videos, and writing their stories online.

Now, Trendwatching's latest report is a riff on this concept -- it's called Generation C(ash): this is the idea that this legion of independent creators can earn some cash from their volunteer efforts. Now, instead of the A-list stars making all the money -- those of us and the J-list or below can get some extra jingle in our pockets for our efforts. Case in point -- you'll note that The Eagle and Child has an "Our Sponsors" section now. I was contacted out of the blue by a sponsor and asked about rates. I'd never considered selling advertising before, but why not? So I did a little sniffing around and negotiated a rate.

Now, this is where the Church comes in -- I consider this weblog an extension of my, I asked that the (very very very modest) proceeds from this advertising be sent to Covenant-First Presbyterian. It's kind of weird to blog about because it sounds like I'm tooting my horn -- but remember, this is a small (tiny, diminuitive, miniscule) sum of money. My point in telling the story is simply to show that Web 2.0 is a valid place for Churches not only to spread their message, but also to find new ways of generating funds for ministry.

From a different angle: Just yesterday, I came across Seth Godin's little document on 6 ways non-profits can use Web 2.0 for getting their message out -- again, the same subject. Seth encourages nonprofits to use YouTube, blogging, and other tools to establish an online presence that makes an impact. I while ago, I wrote a post about Blogging as the new town square. Now, in light of Seth's article, I think that needs to be modified into Web 2.0 as the new town square. And if that is the case, then it behooves us as Christians to sally forth into it in winsome and refreshingly honest ways. I made a few suggestions as to ways to do this in the Christians Engaging Web 2.0 post (almost a year ago), but as I look back at that post, I see that so much has developed since then. Social networking (such as MySpace) has exploded. In my original post, I had focused mainly on text sharing sites -- but whole new networks for sharing creative photos (such as Flickr), video (YouTube), or gaming (pick your online gaming world) compel much more traffic. It's no longer sufficient for an organization to have a web page and maybe a blog -- it needs a web presence across several different social networking sites.

Finally, As we wrestle with what it means to be a christian presence in Web 2.0, I commend to you John Schroeder's thoughts on Christian Blogging -- this is a theme that he comes back to again and again and I find his thinking to be sound, humbling, and quite honestly, convicting. Essentially, what will set apart Christians in Web 2.0 is the tone -- the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit working within us. Yes we have lots more opportunity to get our message out and to raise some funds for ministry -- but do we undercut the message by the way in which we present it? Are our words seasoned with salt and thoughtful. Does our creativity reflect truth, beauty, and goodness?

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

80s Nostalgia

Anastasia at Ypulse put up a great post about 80s MTV videos finding a new life on YouTube. Ah, this brings back memories -- and so, for your viewing enjoyment, here are some that I still remember fondly, the Russell Smith Top five cool video countdown:

Number 5:
Phil Collins: Don't Lose My Number
The ever creative Phil gives us the best parody of making a video about making a video -- with stories told in westers, Mad Max, Shogun, and king arthur style and takeoffs of videos from the Police, the Cars, and Elton John.

Number 4:
38 Special: Back Where You Belong
Not one of their more popular songs, but the video was an inspired cross between Hill Street Blues and the Keystone Cops.

Number 3:
Huey Lewis and the News: If this is it
One of my favorite bands of the era -- it's hard to pick a favorite video, but this told a good story, and I liked seeing Huey get the nice girl in the end.

Number 2:
Scandal: The Warrior. Strange post-apocalyptic costumes combined with Patti Smyth's gutsy singing -- a perfect combo for the teenage boy in the 80's.

and the Number 1 Russell's cool video is:

Asia: Don't Cry. My favorite band of the 80's. This song came from the sophmore effort Astra (far inferior to Alpha), Don't cry had the distinct advantage of playing off the Indiana Jones craze of the early 80s.

The videos all had stories -- they appealed to the imagination -- they were poppy tunes, most of which centered around romance. And, like much of the 80s (the early 80s at least) they were lots of fun.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

With One Voice -- the Singing Savior

I've had the book for about 6 months, but I've just not gotten around to it. This week I finally treated myself to starting through Reggie Kidd's With One Voice. Reggie was one of my profs at RTS. He teaches Pauline Epistles and Worship. On top of that he is the dean of the chapel, designing all the chapel worship services. I found his leading worship to be rich, thoughtful and Christ centered. His classes were a melange of art, music, scholarship, and spiritual exhortation. He came out with his work on worship last year, and so I'd like to process it together with you all.

One of the great things about Reggie is his lyrical writing style -- the man is a theologian with a poet's sensibilities. He begins with a quote from a sermon he heard once: "A theology that can't be preached is not worth having." and as he interacts with the quote he quickly tosses out the addition "A theology that can't be sung is not worth having either." Thus he begins what might aptly be called a theology of the heart. Before digging too deep into application, Reggie traces the Redemptive Historical line of singing through scripture and into the early church on to the Reformation and beyond.

In this first chapter, Reggie lays out this vision that our singing functions as a spiritual discipline to help us draw closer to God, it functions as a comfort in times of darkness (in this section he relates his own wrestling with melanoma and the experience of Eva Cassidy who died of melanoma -- a powerful tale of spiritual comfort in the valley of hte shadow of death), and it functions to help us hear the ongoing song of God (he gives the illustration of the barbershop quartet, which when they hit their notes just right, they hear a fifth voice -- “That aural illusion created by harmonics is, I believe, a divine whisper of something that is absolutely true of our singing when we gather in worship.” (citing Jesus leading us in worship as spelled out in Hebrews 8:2 and 2:12).

Then Reggie hits his stride as he lays out the missional purpose to our song. He asserts “disbelief today is not a function of logic; it stems from a loss of imagination.” (22) Reggie states that many students who hear faith assaulted in college acquiesce quickly because they have not seen the faith lived out in a community -- they haven't experienced a full-orbed, enfleshed living out of the faith that gives what thinkers call a "plausibility structure" to help concretely understand the ideas of faith. “…God’s people, gathered in life, in belief, and in worship, are his ‘plausibility structure,’ God’s people – loving one another, submitting to a common life, praising his name, and telling his story – are the case God makes to a watching world, both visible and invisible.” (23)

Reggie keeps pressing: “in the face of the deconstruction of the Christian view of reality, the great cultural task of Christians is the reclamation of the imagination. This needs to be worked out across a broad front – from the way Christians conduct themselves in the marketplace and in politics to the way they educate the next generations and shape their churches. As vital as anything is the way they engage the arts: painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, cinema, dance, architecture, and, of course, music.” (23)

And again: “Music opens the imagination to the possibility that what we see is not all there is. Felix Mendelssohn composed no religious works until he encountered Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew – after that, his work was God-soaked. Our singing says clearly that all other loves are idolatries without the love of God.” (24)

Finally, he lays out the plan of the rest of the book -- not a theology of worship in terms of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. But rather a theology of worship that focuses on a Biblical picture of what the Holy Spirit does to us through worship.

I'm going to take this one slowly and savor it like fine Belgian chocolate -- likely doing a chapter a week. Hope you'll pick up the book and join the conversation.

Soli Deo gloria

Monday, December 04, 2006

Bi-Okoto -- an African experience

Honestly, I normally wouldn't have chosen it as tops on my list for evening entertainment. But one of our congregation members was performing in the recital -- and Tammy and I wanted to support her. So we sprung for a babysitter and tickets and went to see this weekend's performance of the Bi-Okoto Drum and Dance Theater.

I'm glad we went -- and I know we'll be back. Sure there were more than a few technical glitches -- they were performing in a new space and working out kinks with the sound and the lights. But when it came to performance, this troupe was on fire.

They performed the expected traditional African drum and dance routines -- which were interesting and high energy. But rather than two hours these routines, the Bi-Okoto threw a few surprises. After the second number, three young men came out to sit behind the keyboard, drumset, and bass guitar on Stage left. Then four elegantly dressed ladies came out and took their place behind microphones -- the three men struck up a reggae beat and the ladies began to sing a gospel tune, first in English, then in Ghanan. This group was the Hyssops African Praise Band.

After intermission, the Hyssops band was back, but this time with help from Mama Lizzy, a Ghanan woman leading a group of drummers. Mama Lizzy told us about the first song they would all perform together (in Ghanan) -- the lyrics were simply "I've been delivered by the blood of Jesus". After an inspiring set with that song, Mama Lizzy invited members of the audience to come forward and dance -- about 15 people went down and learned a few steps -- and then as the drums and the band continued with a dancable beat, each person took a few moments in the spotlight as a dancer. Then, after all the amateur dancers were thoroughly exhausted, Mama Lizzy told us about the next song: "It shall be well" -- encouraging the people that even in the midst of adversity, all shall be well through their faith and trust.

At that point, my heart was rejoicing. I had heard the gospel sung in Ghanan; I had seen people dance before the Lord (at least a few of the people were dancing before the Lord, for one of the audience dancers whom I know to be a Christian told me that she felt the presence of the Holy Spirit down there as she danced), like David bringing the ark home. Scripture kept ringing in my head: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) All the nations find their union and ultimate fulfillment in Christ. "For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshippers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering." (Zeph 3:9-10) -- that new tongue is not necessarily a new language, but a purifying of all languages that every nation, every tribe on this terrestrial ball would ascribe Him majesty. And I love the imagery "From beyond the rivers of Cush" -- Cush being Nubia (today's Sudan). From the heart of Africa will come praise said the prophet -- and so it does.

Africa is reminding the world what it means to call upon the Lord. I didn't expect such a reminder in a cultural presentation of traditional African dance -- but I was truly blessed to experience it. Praise God!

Other Posts on African Christianity:
Whose Christianity is it Anyway?
Advice from Africa: Start with prayer
Sometimes its good to go hungry

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The instinct to care for animals

This story in Sunday's Newspaper got my mind thinking:

ENTEBBE, Uganda (AP) -- A baby chimpanzee found alone, helpless, in the forest. An African rock python caged and taunted by villagers until it cracks its skull on the metal bars. A rare shoebill crane, a tall, gray-feathered beauty,discovered in the trunk of a smuggler's car. Dozens of animals like these are being rescued,nursed back to health and given a home at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center, a kind of halfway house for animals in trouble - wildlife under pressure on a continent where human encroachment and poachers' greed are pushing many species toward oblivion. "We give them a second chance," says the center's executive director, Andrew G. Seguya. Some are released back into the wild, while those at greater risk are given a home here for life.

By encouraging visitors to its site, which recreates Uganda's grassland savanna, its wetlands and forests, the center hopes to inform Ugandans about the need to conserve their wildlife resources by showing them the variety and uniqueness of what they have to protect. There's the story of Sarah, for example, a 4-year-old chimp being used for witchcraft when a trafficker's go-between bought her for a few dollars. Probably bound for Europe or the Middle East, Sarah raised such a ruckus as she was carried away in a bag that police intervened. She's now been accepted by the center's 11-member chimp colony. Each of the site's 35 shelters has such sad stories with happy endings, as illustrated in ... portraits by Associated Press photographer Kirsty Wigglesworth. "We want to change the way people perceive wildlife," Seguya said.

The story reflects the instinct that many of us have to preserve and protect wildlife. It seems almost innate to us to provide care and support for suffering creatures. Why is it that we care about extinction of species or not? Is it something that's hard wired into who we are as divine image bearers?

Gene Veith had a wonderful editorial in World about two years ago -- suggesting that Green party types and evangelical Christians could work together on some common causes. One of those was on human cloning, but another was on nature:

Still, Christians should be nature lovers. Christians believe in the doctrine of creation, that nature is God's handiwork. Christians have also historically seen God's moral law as having been built into that objective creation. Not that we look to nature—that realm of predators and prey—for moral models, rather than God's Word, but moral transgressions violate something in human nature and in God's created design....

If we can take over some of [Greens'] arguments, which seem uniquely persuasive to people today, and get them to fight on our side, we may have to give them some concessions and support them on some issues in return. For example, they are concerned about endangered species. And while this can be easy for us conservatives to mock, Christians, having a high view of creation, might pause.

We believe that God created the snail darter, which means that God willed that there be snail darters. On what theological grounds can we justify driving the snail darter or any other species to extinction?

Veith hits a rock solid argument that conservative christians would have a hard time dismissing. God created all creatures good -- and God decreed that humanity should have dominion over the earth, accountable to God. Thus humans are not set up as despots, but as stewards who will have to give a reckoning. Thus we cannot be terribly cavalier about our attitude toward the creatures of the earth. The existence of zoos like the Uganda Wildlife Education Center show us that these concerns are built deep into our being - we were designed to care for these creatures.

I'm also aware that our sin nature also produces the impulse for little boys to fry ants under microscopes and for witch doctors to torture chimpanzees -- how do we know which of these deep hard wirings is truly godly? That takes us back to general and special revelation issue. General revelation (through insight, nature, instinct, reason, etc) can only take us so far. It takes special revelation to point us to which line of reasoning, which inner drives are holy and godly. It takes special revelation to tell us we're stewards responsible for the earth, but that we're not one with the earth.

And thus, as Christians, and stewards of the earth, we can rejoice when strange new species are found, such as these species found buried in caves -- for God has been glorified by these species in their very existence unbeknownst to mankind for millennia. Now God's glory is made more widely known in their coming to light.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Farewell to the Pilgrims -- Bradford's view on Economics

I'm still not done with Plymouth Plantation, but I think it time to move on in my blogging activity -- but one final passage that caught my attention. When the Pilgrims arrived, they held all their land in common -- thus the fields were common fields that everyone took their turn working in and then the crops were doled out accordingly.

This process wasn't producing the results that they needed to survive, so Bradford came up with a solution. He assigned each household a plot of land on which they would grow their own crops.

“It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could devise, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better satisfaction. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and inability; and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression....The failure of this experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times, -- that the taking away of private property, nad the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went), was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort. For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompence. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc. than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice.” (115-116)

Now bear in mind that they still held the fishing boats in common and doled out the catch accordingly. They still divided up the provisions sent from England (rare that they were) as though they were held in common. Even so, we see the early inklings of the value of privatization.

I also think it extraordinarily cool that we have these people struggling to make a go of it here in the wilderness....and Bradford is engaging with the political thought of Plato! Who talks about Plato in the wilderness??? All the Puritan greats were rooted in a classical humanistic education -- and they brought that education to bear in their work. Very very cool stuff.

Soli Deo gloria

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

In our age when we are tempted to fixate on what is wrong, dissatisfying, annoying, or plain unpleasurable, it is a fine thing to have a holiday to remember this one truth -- we are blessed.

Happy Thanksgiving to all you readers of The Eagle and Child -- I count you all among the many blessings (far too many to enumerate here -- but family, friendships, and faith are among the top three) that God has bestowed. Your comments, wit, willingness to verbally tusssle, and overall graciousness have all been a blessing to me. May God bless you all abundantly.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Plymouth Plantation -- take that, Christmas!

Around here, the Christmas decorations started going up in departments stores before Halloween. Radio station 94.1 switched to an all Christmas music programming schedule about a week and a half ago. So where did Thanksgiving go? I'm still talking about Pilgrims and Plymouth plantation over here.

So a quick reminder here to put things in historical perspective. As I understand it, the Pilgrims understood Days of Thanksgiving as special feasting days for games, celebrations and praising God for His abundant goodness -- hence the roots of our contemporary celebration complete with parades, feasting, and football. The Pilgrims weren't as dour as we paint them to be, but they were precise in what was to be observed. The leaders of a congregation could declare days of Thanksgiving (or days of Humiliation -- fasting and repentence) at just about any time. We commemorate the harvest Thanksgiving celebration, but there were other opportunities.

However, the Puritans frowned on extra-Biblical religious holidays. That makes pretty much the whole liturgical year out of bounds. Easter, Christmas, Good Friday, Palm Sunday, Pentecost -- forget it. The Pilgrims saw no warrant in Scripture for celebrating such holidays as religous festivals. It's not that they didn't honor the birth of Christ or the other events commemmorated -- rather they honored God so much they wouldn't worship in any way that they saw was not expressly commended by Scripture. This even included singing -- they would sing only psalms rather than other religous texts set to music.

And thus, on Christmas day 1620, the new colonists celebrated simply by beginning construction on their homes. On Christmas day 1621, Governor Bradford went to arouse the colonists to work. Several new colonists had arrived earlier in the fall, and their response to the summons to labor prompted this remembrance:

“but most of the new company excused themselves, and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them, if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he went with the rest, and left them; but on returning from work at noon he found them at play in the street, some pitching the bar, some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their games, and told them that it was against his conscience that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of the day a matter of devotion, let them remain in their houses; but there should be no gaming and reveling in the streets.” (95)

Don't get me wrong on this -- I'm not going so far as to say we shouldn't celebrate Christmas -- The Pilgrims were reacting against liturgical excesses of their day. However, it does prompt one to a little more self-examination, doesn't it....

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, November 20, 2006

Plymouth Plantation -- the landing of the Pilgrims in Cape Cod

It is hard for me to imagine -- in this era of connectivity when we seem never to be by ourselves, I find it hard to imagine how the Pilgrims must have felt. Perhaps the TV show Lost, about a band of castaways struggling to survive on a remote Pacific island, captures the sheer enormity of the situation most.

They left the comforts and securities of familiar territory; they abandoned the known struggles of civilization; they ventured across a hostile and dangerous ocean during the last throes of autumn before winter grumbled in. They arrived facing a vast expanse of untamed wilderness, fearing a harsh welcome from the natives (who were justifiably suspicious because of their previous encounters with English slavers). When they arrived, they were isolated and huddled together, ready to face the harshness of the New England winter.

And yet, somehow God sustained them. In spite of the death of half their number in the first winter, God held them up. Even though their first encounters with the Native Americans fared poorly, God sent friendly help through Samoset and Squanto, the Native Americans who brought about a peace agreement that held up for decades. Governor William Bradford, when looking back at that moment of first arrival, writes in his history: land “What then could sustain them but the spirit of God and His grace? Ought not the children of their fathers rightly to say: Our fathers were Englishmen who came over the great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice, and looked on their adversity….Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good, and His mercies endure forever. Yea, let them that have been redeemed of the Lord, show how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered forth into the desert-wilderness, out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord his Loving kindness, and His wonderful works before the sons of men!” (66, Vision Forum edition of Plyouth Plantation).

Their courage was memorialized in the Bas Relief sculpture shown above -- a part of the US capital building rotunda. A brief visit to the website of the Architect of the Capitol will show other homages to the courage of the Pilgrims. Take for instance this painting of the Pilgrims in prayer prior to their departure from Delft Haven Holland. The commentary on this 19th century Robert Weir painting states "Protestant pilgrims are shown on the deck of the ship Speedwell before their departure for the New World from Delft Haven, Holland, on July 22, 1620. William Brewster, holding the Bible, and pastor John Robinson lead Governor Carver, William Bradford, Miles Standish, and their families in prayer. The prominence of women and children suggests the importance of the family in the community. At the left side of the painting is a rainbow, which symbolizes hope and divine protection." It was placed in the Capitol Building in 1844.

The pilgrim memorials in the Capitol complex remind us that their story is a part of our story -- a part of why we celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday. May we pause and remember and give thanks to God for Providential care.

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, November 17, 2006

Now Available: A M'Cheyne Devotional

Long awaited news for Covenant First Presbyterian -- Brook Perkins has released the first volume in his M'Cheyne Devotional Series.

Some background for you. Robert Murray M'Cheyne was a 19th Century Scottish preacher and evangelist. During his time as minister of St Peter's Church in Dundee, he developed a reading plan for his congregants so they could work through the entire Bible in a year. The plan consisted of four readings, two in the morning, and two in the evening. Following the plan a congregant would go through the Old Testament once in a year and the New Testament and Psalms twice in a year. One would also be in four different places in the Bible, and thus exposed to the dramatic unity of scripture.

This unity is what inspired Brook -- as one of our elders overseeing Study ministries, he felt a real calling to lead people deeper into daily work with Scripture. So he started taking each day's reading and looking for the common themes among them and creating thought provoking questions that he'd email out to anyone on his "M'Cheyne study" list. The list grew and grew, and after some encouragement, Brook decided to edit the study and publish it in four volumes (one volume for every three months)

He now has the first volume ready for purchase on -- it's a devotional for the January-March readings. Perfect for a Christmas present for people on your list- or for assisting you in your New Year's resolutions to take Bible reading more seriously.

Realize this is not a volume that exposits the readings -- it simply looks for a common theme across them and asks probing questions. It truly is more of a devotional than a study. However as such, it is a good way to get started on the discipline of the M'Cheyne study. I'm particularly excited about this because Brook is one of our elders and I think his material is pretty teriffic. You can be sure I'll let you know when volumes 2-4 come out. Go preview the book at and buy many many copies.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Now Playing: Borat

True confession time. Despite my better judgment, I took in a showing of the hit critically acclaimed film "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"

This farcical mocumentary features an actor pretending to be a Kazak journalist doing a documentary -- and in so doing, he pramks dozens of unsuspecting Americans by putting them in absurd and uncomfortable situations. Not only is this concept unoriginal (remember Candid Camera anyone?), the producers execute this with a cynical cruelty that just saps all the fun out of it. The opening and closing sequences feature the main character Borat in his home village -- and all the strange, bizzare, and crude characters there. We laugh at how over the top the portrayal is -- thinking these are all actors in a set piece in hollywood. And then we hear this story about how the producers went to a real village and snookered the poor folks there into playing part -- not letting them know what was really going on. The producers played these poor folks for fools, and they laugh all the way to the bank.

We laugh at the moronic college students that Borat encounters along the way, and then we hear this story about how the producers got the students really drunk and gave them the hard pressure to appear in the movie.

We laugh at the antics on TV news broadcast upon which Borat appears, until we read this story about how the producer lost her job and wrestled with depression for months as a result of the experience.

We laugh at the stern looking feminists that Borat interviews early in the film, and then we read about how these people were duped into being a part of the project.

My initial contact came from Chelsea Barnard, a name that, in retrospect, might have tipped me off to a set-up (I’m still not sure if it was real or not). In a chirpy e-mail, Chelsea said she heard about me because I am on the large board of Veteran Feminists of America, a New York group that highlights the successes and history of women leaders such as Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Coretta Scott King. My role with the group has been to mount shows of my works to engage people in the arts at public events.

Chelsea said she was working on “a documentary-style film about America” —although by this definition, “The Daily Show” is a documentary, too. “We are working in conjunction with Belarus Television and a foreign correspondent,” Chelsea wrote, covering up even the fictional nationality of Borat. She wanted to arrange “a round table discussion about the recent history of feminism.” Members of the producing team have worked on productions about women war correspondents and female boxers, she reported.

As a former teacher in the arts, I often extend myself to talk to younger generations and people from afar, and have even traveled to Japan to talk about women artists. When I said I would consider participating, Chelsea rushed to my studio. A dark-haired “LonelyGirl15” type, she was earnest in a pre-interview. One question was odd: What television shows do I watch? I later learned that Borat/Cohen doesn’t like encounters with people who know that he’s the guy from “Da Ali G Show.”

The filming was scheduled so rapidly that I had little time to investigate. A six-person crew and Chelsea arrived the next morning to interview me and two others, although Borat was not with them. I was on the Internet at the time, checking a friend’s assessment of the banal-sounding company listed on Chelsea’s card, One America Productions. “It looks like a front,” she said, suggesting a right-wing cover. “Ask who their funders are,” said another. There was no mention of 20th Century Fox, Borat, Cohen, or a comic movie-in-the-making.

As the crew — obviously professional — set up in my art studio, “Chelsea” handed me a contract. I asked more questions. Chelsea said the funding comes from Belarus Television and deftly clicked my computer to its website. She further persuaded me about the value of the project: she said that they were interviewing former Mayor Ed Koch. As an extra step of precaution, I decided to put in a call to his office, and Koch’s secretary, Mary, confirmed that this was true.

I finally agreed, although I admit that I failed to read the fine detail on the “Standard Consent Agreement.” Since I thought this was a documentary, I probably would have signed it anyway. When I did study it later, I realized that it’s anything but “standard.” Buried are statements asserting that I waive claims for “offensive behavior” and “misleading portrayal” and “fraud (such as any alleged deception or surprise about the film or this consent agreement).” While I’m no legal expert, I can’t believe that you can agree to be defrauded — or wouldn’t every used car dealer use the same clause?

Chelsea paid me the grand sum of $200 — cash — for my appearance. Since I’m fairly successful as an artist, the amount of money didn’t concern me, but the payment convinced me that the project had backing and wouldn’t be a waste of my time. She also paid me another $250 for the use of my premises. Chelsea left and finally, Borat showed his face, bounding into my studio, rumpled suit and all.

The fake journalist began legitimately, asking me to describe my sculptural torsos. These works of Women Warriors draw upon iconic female figures, including Wonder Woman, a character who emerged in the midst of World War II “to further the cause of peace, equality and security in a world that seems to be spiraling madly toward perpetual war,” according to original DC Comics introduction. As I pointed out the various materials in the work — wood, metal and stone — Borat listened closely.

But it wasn’t long before the fake journalist started switching and baiting, performing like a Howard Stern wannabe. Women in his country must walk behind men, he said. Condoleezza Rice is the “chocolate lady,” he claimed, implying that she beds foreign diplomats. He gestured his interest in large-breasted women. His goading produced predictable results. Right before I kicked him out, he declared — as the clip shows — that women have smaller brains than men.

Newsweek covers this story pretty well too.

This kind of intentional cruelty does not become us. I've been the victim of radio pranks -- it's not fun to be the object of ridicule. And I get very frustrated by the old catchphrase "It's just a joke -- it's all fun". No, it's not. This film has hurt unsuspecting people. The producers invaded people's spaces with high pressure fast talking con jobs -- and the producers are making a mint for doing it. These guys are no better than the "girls gone wild" producers. But make no mistake -- this isn't reality -- it's abuse.

CS Lewis alerts us to the danger in the Screwtape Letters -- as the demon Screwtape tells of the advantage of humor:

The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction, and it is specially promising among the English who take their "sense of humour" so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame. Humour is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is "mean"; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer "mean" but a comical fellow. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humourous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can be passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful -- unless the cruel can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke....Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be "puritanical" or as betraying a "lack of humour."

Nailed. We're letting the con men tell us what's funny and laugh all the way to the bank. In the process, lives are ruined and a level of public trust is lost. Pay attention Fox films -- your distribution of such films is exactly why I find your Fox Films play to the Christiam market to be cyincial and disingenuous. You show that you don't care who gets hurt, as long as you make the money. When will you bring on the gladiators?

Classical Presbyterian has a really good post on this one too. In the comments to that post, we find the silver lining -- where God seems to be working to bring some redemption to this film: a renewed compassion for the Roma people, who were exploited as the villagers in the film:

To support the Roma, you may want to consider this Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship project.


Perhaps God will use this cruelty to bring relief to the plight of people who are suffering. Meanwhile, don't waste your money on Borat.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

of Plymouth Plantation -- a saddening quote from William Bradford

I'm reading Of Plymouth Plantation to help get the right frame of mind for Thanksgiving. William Bradford relates the reasons why, after 12 relatively peaceful years in Leyden, the Pilgrims decided to emigrate to the New World. He enumerated 5 reasons:

1) the hardships of urban life in Holland were such that few would leave England to follow them (though they might seek opportunity in the colonies)

2) old age was wearing down the colonists in the urban envirionment (most of them had been country folk in England, and they longed to be invigorated by the country again)

3) Thinking of the children -- many were wearing out from being forced to work in the urban center -- many others were being lured into temptations by the decadence about them.

4) “Last and not least, they cherished a great hop and inward zeal of laying good foundations, or at least of making some way towards it, for the propagation and advance of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in remote parts of the world, even though they should be but stepping stones to others in the performance of so great a work.” (21, Page citations from the Vision Forum edition)

After spirited debate, they decided to go -- they were looking to build something new and good and Godly. When communicating to their agent in London to help secure a ship, the Pilgrims wrote "We are knit together as a body in a most strict and sacred bond and covenant of the Lord, of the violation whereof we make great conscience, and by virtue whereof we hold ourselves straitly tied to all care of each other’s good.” (28)

And this gets to the sad quote -- The edition I have of this text has a footnote which indicates that Bradford later penned in the margins of his journal this quote:"O sacred bond, -- whilst inviolably preserved! How sweet and precious were its fruits! But when this fidelity decayed, then their ruin approached. Oh that these ancient members had not died (if it had been the will of God); or that this holy care and constant faithfulness had still remained with those that survived. But alas, that still serpent hath slyly wound himself to untwist these sacred bonds and ties. I was happy in my first times to see and enjoy the blessed fruits of that sweet communion; but it is now a part of my misery in old age to feel its decay, and with grief of heart to lament it. For the warning and admonition of others, and our own humiliantion, I here take note of it.” (28)

How sad that such great hope, promise, effort and unity would somehow dissipate. Bradford is very forthright in his work -- not sentimentally indicating that they all had tea and cookies and sailed off to the New World. He unabashedly portrays the tears, difficulties, struggles, fears, and disagreements of his group. Though the quote is saddening, it is heartening to know that these herioc figures were by their own admission, human. Somehow this humanity makes their expression of thanksgiving all the more poignant.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

King Tut -- Akhenaten -- and Pentecost

"You have been summoned to see the king" read the promotional flyer that came in the slush pile that is my office mail. On the cover was the famous funeary figurine of Pharoah Tutankhamen. Thus began the plans for our recent jaunt to Chicago. The main reason we went was to see the King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum.

Since I started this interest in Egyptology earlier this year (as a way of better understanding the Old Testament), I've been on the lookout for good opportunities to learn more see some of the artifacts for myself. The Cincinnati Art Museum has a nice, but humble, collection of Egyptian antiquities -- two cases full and a mummy. It is nice and helpful, but it only scratches the surface. The arrival of a major exhibit like King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs presented a great opportunity for me to expand my interest.

This exhibit is the largest travelling exhibit of Tut's treasures to have come to the states -- twice the size of hte last one that came. It contains artifacts not only from Tut's reign, but also from his father's and grandfather's (thus setting the stage for understanding the context). And herein was my primary interest -- for Tut's father was none other than Akhenaten, the so called "heretic" pharoah who tried to eliminate polytheistic worship and instate worship of one true god -- the Aten (the Sun Disk god). Scholars have said that Akhenaten was an innovator who invented monotheism -- I believe that Akhenaten derived the idea from sojurners in his land.

Tut came to the throne at age 10 -- far too young to effectively lead a country. Doubtlessly, he was closely supervised by his inner circle, including Grand Vizier Aye and Chief General Horemheb (both of whom would succeed Tut as pharaoh). It's likely that these advisors pressed Tut into restoring the old ways of worship and doing away with all his father's monotheistic innovation. By the time Tut died at age 19, Egypt had entirely returned to the old ways of worship.

Of particular interest to me was what would be there of Akehenaten's time -- not much. A few reliefs of queen Nefertiti. A colossal statue of Akhenaten himself. But what caught my eye was this balustrade showing Akehnaten and his family worshipping (Unfortunately I couldn't find a great big photo -- so I've also found another photo of Akhenaten and his family being blessed by the Aten)

The convention of the art is that the Aten is the round Sun disk at the top -- exending from the sun are rays that end in hands holding what appear to be Ankhs (the egyptian heiroglyph for life). Interestingly, there is what appears to be a tiny bird sitting on the sun. I've not seen an explanation of that yet -- it could be the cobra of the crown of egypt -- or it could be another symbol. But to me, the picture looks a lot like paintings I've seen of Pentecost -- the Holy Spirit surrounded by a circle of light (holiness) and beams extending down ending in tongues of fire touching the disciples. (Indeed, the next day at the Chicago Art Institute, I saw a painting of Pentecost that was eerily similar to the pictures of Aten worship here. I can't find that painting online, but here's another example of the imagery I'm talking about.

Here's a contemporary rendering of Pentecost that shows the lasting nature of the image:

I don't want to push this too far for fear of sounding like a lunatic - but is it possible that Akhenaten somehow came to know something of the God of Abraham? One might argue that the re-occurance of the imagery shows deep psychological themes of unity across religions (Joseph Campbell's route). However, one might also argue that there's actually something there -- Akhenaten's departure from tradition represented something fantastic that had happened -- perhaps in his encounters with Hebrew slaves? Just thinking aloud on this one.

Soli Deo Gloria

Other Egyptology Posts:
So Glad They Agree With Me
Ancient Egypt and the Exodus -- what really happened
Continuing Education -- a course on Ancient Egypt
The Oriental Institute in Chicago -- a real treasure trove