Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Is There Christmas Without A Fall?

The Theommentary blog had some great Christmas links including one about a little astrological phenomenon known as the star of Bethlehem. Pretty fascinating.

I had heard before that there was a confluence of Venus with Jupiter (the King planet) in Leo (the lion of Judah) in 2 or 4 BC or something like that, and even preached about it one Christmas. This article has it happening in Aries (the ram of Judah?), so I'm not sure where the descrepency is. I'm no astrologer. But the magi were, and amazingly, that's how they found the Christ child. How's that for natural theology?

Even more interestingly however, as Christmas approaches, is this article by Philip Yancey, called "Ongoing Incarnation: Would Christmas have come even if we had not sinned?" I think it is a must-read, and by the way I'm totally with Duns Scotus on this one.

I think Christmas happens, Fall or no Fall. Otherwise we have something like felix culpa (fortunate fall) going on, and that makes little sense to me. From the foundation of the world we were always going to have fellowship with God through the God-man, Jesus Christ. As James Torrance put it:

"Christ took what was ours that he might give us what is his."

Gloria in exelsis deo.

Happy Incarnation Day folks.

The peace of Christ be with you.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Great Fiction

I meant to post this list around my birthday but here it is. I've decided on my favourite fiction reads of all time. If I've written about it before there is a link. All of these books in some way or another provided me a great adventure, a spark of insight, and/or a new lease on life. I've ranked them, of course. It is more fun that way. I hope to add one every year, and perhaps change the list slightly over time, but it will be very hard to dislodge any of the top spots

1. Perelandra - CS Lewis

Mind-blowing science fiction with aesthetic beauty, adventure, and a lot to say.

2. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkein

Epic, of course. Even after seeing the movies there is nothing that compares with the sense of fellowship and fear developed in the book. And the ending of The Two Towers is unmatched.

3. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare - GK Chesterton

I've said plenty about this book already.Part comedy, part adventure, part spy novel, part absurd, part metaphysical whodunit, part Pilgrim's Regress, and a dash of Dr. Strangelove.

4. To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee

This was the first bit of required reading in school that I remember absolutely digesting and loving. It starts out as an innocent story of a brother and a sister and their neighbourhood friend and stays the same story except for the "innocent" part. Along with them, the reader is re-introduced to the societal evils of slavery, racism, outcasts, mob mentality, neighbourhood gossip, and bad politics. Somehow these are seen most truly through a child's eyes. And yet the story has a hero too. I am not sure there are any more recognizable characters in American fiction than Atticus Finch, Jem, Dell, and Boo Radley. This is a must read and if it weren't for the dang Inklings would be number one on my list perhaps the rest of my life.

5. The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

Best adventure story ever. Bar none.

6. The Outsiders - Susan Hinton

This story follows the lives of some high school gang members in the 50s in such an empathetic and honest way. I don't know if I looked at people the same again after reading this book. Somehow it showed me that everyone's a person, no matter what. These are the guys I would have been afraid of growing up. But Ponyboy, Sodapop, Dally, Johnny, Cherry and the rest are stripped bare in front of the reader in such an authentic and yet understated fashion that by the end you are deeply saddened by events that you would otherwise brush over in the newspaper.

7. The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky

A highly regarded classic novel, and for good reason. I was enraptured by it.

8. The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

Another all-American great which just shows you the world you live in, and where it has come from.

9. Voyage of the Dawn Treader - CS Lewis

Two CS Lewis books in my top 10? Guess so. This is my favourite of the Chronicles of Narnia, by far. My Dad's favourite too. Can't wait to read it to my boys. My oldest is almost ready.

10. Lord of the Flies - William Golding

Golding's Lord of the Flies is just one of those classic stories that had to be told. There have been many imitators in one way or another but his is the masterpiece. The innocence and peril of Ralph, Piggy and Jack and the boys stranded on this island are writ large, and crumble through the fingers like sand on the beach. Simon is the quintessential Christ-figure, and the startling conclusion just sticks with you for good.

11. Out of the Silent Planet - CS Lewis

Part one of Lewis' science fiction which climaxes at Perelandra, but gets a heck of a kick start here. I love that these stories are basically about Lewis. And Ransom: What a great name!

12. Manalive - GK Chesterton

This is a drastically underrated story, perhaps because it is so quirky and weird. But I've read it a few times now and it never ceases to surprise and inspire me.

13. Life of Pi - Yann Martel

Martel's recent masterpiece debuts on my list after having only read it a couple months ago. Perhaps I'm still a bit caught up in it, but I don't think so. It was that good.

14. Ordinary People - Judith Guest

Even though I saw the movie before reading it, this book still made an impact on me. I read it during a bout of semi-depression and so resonated with the character that I felt like he helped me wade through some deep waters. Besides that, I think this is just a very well told character novel which provides a window into the mind and soul of a young person dealing with death, divorce, guilt, family dynamic, friendship, and the struggle for a sense of peace and identity. This is one of those examples of where the story says it better than any psychology text or book review ever could. You just have to read the story.

15. Misery - Stephen King

Just plain-old freaked me out of my skin. And it did so without poltergeists or bloody zombies or any cheap horror-flick tricks like that.

16. The Trial - Franz Kafka

Kafka's The Trial is at the forefront of the genre of literature of the absurd. In this novel Joseph K. runs up against the unrelenting craziness of everyone and everything around him and, though he tries to keep his head, simply can not stay sane. Though Kafka could probably have used a few moments release from his crippling doubt and despair, he has offered us all a reality check through his writing that we'd be silly to ignore, especially in a time when it is just so easy to escape into our sheltered and foolish optimisms. But I digress. This novel is a wild and even frustrating read, but it is so in a fantastic way. The parable of the gatekeeper and the encounter with the priest are two very memorable moments in this adventure in absurdity.

17. The Great Divorce - CS Lewis

More great stuff from Lewis. Of all the attempts this is the best and most artful peak into heaven that has been written.

18. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

An insight into war-torn Afghanistan through the eyes of one its more fortunate children. The dynamic between this boy and his friend is an enjoyable read on its own, but then when tragedy strikes and the reader follows one character into the ramifications of the rest of his life and the search for redemption the novel takes on a timeless quality and is nearly impossible to put down. Through this book I felt like I experienced another culture and found some common ground in the world, but also came to appreciate the many things which still tear apart at us.

19. The Power and the Glory - Graham Greene

It took me awhile to get into this book, and I'm not sure if that's a flaw with the book or just the circumstances of my reading it. But once it got going this story of a traveling priest on the lam in the villages of rural Mexico took on a life of its own. This is another story of an outcast, told from the inside, and the things he encounters and the attitude he maintains really cut to the quick. He is not idealized but is vilified throughout the novel (by no one more than himself)---and yet he is a heroic figure. There is a lot going on in this story and I look forward to someday giving it a second read. Graham Greene is a masterful story teller.

20. The Magician's Nephew - CS Lewis

My second favourite of the Narnia Chronicles. Should have known the movies were doomed when the started with Wardrobe rather than this one. As a youngster the creation scene and the flying horse and the apples and the rings just blew me away.

21. Revelation - Flannery O'Connor

This is actually a short story about a woman in a waiting room at the doctor's office which ends with her having an epiphany in a pig barn. Sounds unremarkable except for the changes wrought on the character, the stereotypes it exposes, the finger it points at the reader, and the messy kind of redemption it portrays.

22. Fever Pitch - Nick Hornby

Anyone who is a sports fan or who knows and doesn't understand a sports fan needs to read this book. Not only does it explain the inner life of the die-hard fan but it is a really fun read as well. Through it we get to experience the thrill of victory, the devastation of defeat, the obsession over players, the emotional investment of getting wrapped up in a team's history, and both the the fall-out and the inspiration that all of this has in a person's life. Beyond this, the story is also a great experience of modern London and a wonderful journey through the life of an average young English boy.

23. The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoevsky

The idiot is the novel's Christ figure. Enough said.

24. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley

Picturing Boris Karloff with bolts in his neck I was not prepared for the literary genius of this novel. I also thought it would be more frightening than it was. Instead it was a gripping tale of a Doctor's turmoil and a new creature's struggle to find his way in the world. There are a lot of ramifications that could be explored here and it would be awesome to read this one in a book club. Reading it is like peeling away layers of an onion, not only in depth of theme but in narrative as well. It is a story within a story within a story within a story. Really awesome book.

25. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkein

Just wonderful.

26. The Horse and His Boy - CS Lewis

For some reason I can still feel my eyes widening as I imagine my Mom reading this to me at my bedside many moons ago.

27. And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie

I'm a sucker for a whodunit and I'm not sure anyone has ever bested Christie at the genre. I love the idea of a bunch of people stuck in a house having to figure something out. This is a classic.

28. Nightfall - Isaac Asimov

A planet with six suns is preparing for its first nightfall in 2000 years. From what they can tell things did not go so well for society the last time. Will anyone survive the chaos of darkness in a place where it has never been known? (I should write the book jacket shouldn't I?)

29. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is a pretty troubling story of a young man, his temptation, and his guilt. Maybe not everyone's idea of beach reading, but really worthwhile. Dostoevsky is an absolute master at developing a character and a story through dialogue, and at getting us to recognize our own thoughts and attitudes in those character's minds.

30. The Son of Laughter - Fredrick Buechner

Buechner gives us the biblical story of Jacob in a not-quite-irreverent but certainly-not-glossy way. Through it we learn also of Isaac and his troubled past, covered by laughter. We read of the God known at first as "The Fear" and we get to see the patriarchs as people like us. Really a splendid piece of work.

31. The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger

When I was reading this I was a pastor at the time and a piece of mail came to the church asking us to help get this book banned in school. I was a bit torn. I don't think it is a book for kids, but thought the point of the book was kind of being lost. Some rough language in it, but it has the same sort of effect as The Outsiders. Maybe I'm a sucker for these empathy raisers, but I love a story that doesn't necessarily deny the stereotype entirely but does cut through it and lets me see people where I might not have before.

32. The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver

Colonialism in Africa, well told in a unique fashion through the eyes of four young American missionary girls.

33. A Good Man is Hard to Find - Flannery O'Connor

Another of Flannery's short stories which leaves you dead in your tracks. No reader emerges unscathed by her gracious sword.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Number 16

Trevor Linden's jersey #16 was retired last night by the Vancouver Canucks. He played there from 1988-1998, and 2001-2008. The years in between were a black hole of meaninglessness for Canucks' fans.

I barely watch hockey anymore, but will always have this team in my blood, thanks largely to this one man. He was an impressive person, a hard-working player, and he nearly singlehandedly brought the Stanley Cup to Vancouver in 1994.

His game 7 against the New York Rangers was one of the most tragic and yet heroic performances I have ever seen from a team athlete. He very nearly conquered the world. Tears were shed when it was not to be. I became a man that day.

The picture below, from after one of those hard-fought playoff games, pretty much says it all.

And you might not enjoy this video montage unless you are a Canucks fan, but regardless it pretty much sums up my childhood and adolescence.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Feats of Flight and the Tower of Babel

Waking up to rock babies at random periods in the night makes you realize just how little late-night television has to offer. So I took this BBC series out of the library to have something to watch in those wee hours of near-delirium. Last night I watched episode one, and it was pretty remarkable.

Did you realize that there were only 66 years between the first human flight and the first step on the moon? In 1903 Wilbur Wright propelled he and his brother Orville's oversized box kite in the air for almost a minute in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1969 Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong flew the Apollo 11 through space for four days and planted a flag on the moon.

Six years later I was born, part of a new generation who would take such things for granted.

Three things amazed me the most about the lunar mission. One I already mentioned, and that is that it was only one average American life span between Kitty Hawk and Magnificent Desolation (that's what they named the area around the moon landing).

The second was John F. Kennedy's speech in the early 60s which ambitiously set the lunar-mission's goal for completion within the decade. We get pretty used to hearing politicians spout lofty promises, but this was the heart of the cold war and he was dead serious and, well, those dang Americans got it done.

In that speech at Rice University, Kennedy said: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

The third thing that really amazed me about the whole lunar mission was that the space shuttle computers had 74 kilobytes of memory. My ipod nano has over 2 million.

Sometimes I despair of humanity and scoff at the myth of progress. Other times I marvel over all that we seem capable of doing. It raises theological questions for me too:

What made the moon launch any different than the tower of Babel?
What is the place of human development and discovery and dominion?

I think there is a positive place for such things. I think these exhibit the wonder of the created capacity of humankind. I think that the issue at Babel was more one of purpose and loyalty and pride than of accomplishment and teamwork. I think that the space program, as the medical world, the nuclear age, and on down the line all have the potential to glorify God or to dismay him.

The moon landing was surely tainted in ways. It was part and parcel of the cold war after all, as exemplified by the prominent place given to the planting of the American flag and the rhetoric of "winning" that the mission entailed. However, on that day in 1969 I have to think God was generally pretty pleased with what some of his creatures had done in his prevenient grace.

But then again, I am of the Irenaean persuasion that human development was always part of God's plan, and that the tree was forbidden not for its knowledge, but for the autonomy that eating it would entail. I am also fairly persuaded by Torrance that the natural sciences are an important aspect of Christian endeavour.

While many may have seen the lunar mission in merely humanistic terms, many also would have operated that mission in the motive of discovering God's creation. Some would have been cheering "we (the USA) beat the Russians!" Others would be crying "we (humanity) got to the moon!" The motives would have been mixed.

Curiously enough, what was introduced at Babel (culture and language barriers) as a way to keep human progress from getting ahead of itself -- to put limits on the (exponentially destructive) capabilities of autonomous humanity -- was part of what ended up motivating this mission to space. Whereas the tower of Babel was built because humanity was getting along so well, the lunar mission happened because they were not. The cold war is written all over this thing.

Nevertheless, it was quite a feat; a "giant leap" for humankind. It was a touch of the transcendent, and a moment for pause. For many, humanity in that moment seemed very small and yet disproportionately significant at the same time. Whether or not it should go on with such endeavours in my opinion depends largely on whether it can do so in precisely that spirit of humility.

More ideally, however, such endeavours would only be undertaken in service to the Creator God who made an immensely more giant leap for humankind by way of incarnation over 30 life-spans ago. After all, if humanity is really to progress, it is in the image and service of the God-man, the true human, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Incarnation: God's Self-Revelation in Jesus

Seeing as it is Christmas and all, and since we probably could stand (albeit barely) one more attempt to speak of what Christmas is actually about, I'll conclude my mini-series of reflections from Alister McGrath's bio of T.F. Torrance with these quotes from Torrance on the Incarnation as God's Self-Revelation in Jesus.

The first is actually Torrance discussing Jesus' divinity, first citing the professor who left a huge impact on him, H.R. Mackintosh, who said:

"When I look into the Face of Jesus, and see there the very face of God, I know that I have not seen that face elsewhere and cannot see that face elsehow. And secretly, in the hour of meditation, when we try to look into God's face, still it is the face of Christ that comes up before us. What Jesus was on earth God is forever" (31). Torrance later reflects: "There is no hidden God, no Deus Absconditus, no God behind the back of the Lord Jesus, but only the one Lord God who became incarnate in him. . . . What have we been doing in our preaching and teaching in the church, to damage in the faith of our people the relation between their faith in Jesus Christ and God?" (74) .

To further the thought, here is more. This time it is McGrath talking about TF Torrance talking about Athanasius talking about Jesus. That's a real cloud of witnesses isn't it?

"Appealing to the fundamental Athanasian principle that only God can reveal God, Torrance insists that 'nothing else will suffice for a revelation of God than God Himself'. There is a fundamental gulf between God and humanity, which can only be bridged from God's side by God. If the living God is to be known, then it must be through an act of God.

'We cannot know God except through His acts, except by His acts, except in His acts.'

Yet creatoin can be regarded as an act of God. Does this therefore legitimate a natural theology? Developing this point further, Torrance argues that revelation consists of an act 'in which God reveals Himself to us'.

'We must, therefore, hold these two points together in a single thought: namely, that we must know God through His acts, and yet we must know the Personal Being of God, for nothing else will convey Him. No! not even an act of creation, for creation is as such an act in which something distinct from God is brought into existence. That means therefore that we can only know God in an ACT in which HIS ACT AND PERSON are IDENTICAL, in which God's presence, personal presence, is present in His act, in which the act is the Person and the Person is the Act.' . . .

In other words, the Word of God to come across to men must come down to their level and become human, for it would be by becoming human that it could take upon itself all the ideas and language of men in which they converse and think. This is the great doctrine of the Incarnation -- of the Word becoming flesh, of the Word who was in the beginning with God and who was God and through whom all things were created becoming flesh and tabernacling among men -- in Jesus Christ our Lord" (148-149) .

Every year at this time I am amazed at just how drab and drivel and cliche Christmas can be and yet despite it all how refreshing and exciting the incarnation continues to be. I could certainly go without all the trappings of the season, but as far as I'm concerned every day could be Incarnation Day. So I pay special attention to those festivities which make even passing mention of it, because in even the most tired carol or passing comment, mention of the incarnation makes my heart skip a beat.

T.F. Torrance: The Locus of Church Unity

Churches talk a lot about unity. Christians clamour for it as they design their worship services and church programs, as they fish about for a target demographic and cater to the felt-needs of the perceived majority. They will lament the lack of visible unity (in doctrine, mission, fellowship, or reputation) between denominations and ecclesial traditions, and they will lament the lack of fellowship at times within their local churches as well. One of the ways churches respond to this is by the all-too successful strategy of conflict avoidance. We prefer sometimes the false peace of seeming unity to the communion of people speaking the truth in love (as enabled by faith in Christ).

Christians aren't the only ones addicted to the requirement of visible and tangible unity. Often those who have rejected or become disillusioned with the church have done so in part because they think if God were really in the church it would be one big happy unified worldwide church. The existence of denominations alone is taken as proof against God. Sometimes they have actually left because they were "hurt by the church". On these occasions the underlying implication was that it was no longer worth it to seek reconciliation. It is not only accepted but encouraged that we leave a church to its own "unity" and shop around for somewhere else to fit in, hassle free.

Point is, we frequently have churches building their unity around music style, platform persona, vision statements, conflict avoidance, demographic narrowing, building location, pastoral charisma, friendly foyer faces, and so on. And we have church rejected sometimes on the grounds of a lack of any one of these things, or because of a lack of hassle-free unity.

And all this leads one to ask: Where is Christian unity to be found? One thing that I find very compelling is the following perspective offered by T.F. Torrance (as told by Alister McGrath).

"One of the most important issues raised by Torrance [during the ecumenical dialogues of the mid 1950s] was the need to recover the eschatological orientation of the doctrine of the church." As he put it:

"'Broadly speaking . . . while Lutheran eschatology was mainly an eschatology of judgment . . . with their emphasis on the decay and collapse of the world, Reformed eschatology was mainly an eschatology of resurrection . . . with their emphasis upon the renewal of the world through the incarnation of Christ. . . .

'This means, however, that the whole life of faith and union with Christ is exercised in eschatological tension (suspensio) between the prius manifested in the calling of God [predestination], and the posterius of final revelation and redemption [eschatology], and in a wondrous anticipation or foretaste of the glorious consummation.' . . . Torrance believed that this eschatological element of the Reformation doctrine of the church required to be injected into contemporary ecumenical discussions. . . .

For Torrance, the unity of the church was to be understood as 'an eschatological reality that both interpenetrates history and transcends it, as a given unity even in the midst of disorder and as a promised unity beyond it.' . . .

'If the given unity of the church is essentially eschatological, then the vitality of all that she does is conditioned by the Parousia and cannot be made to repose upon any primitive structure of unity already complete in the naturally historical realm.' . . .

The church will be unable to carry out this divine mission and function in the world unless she recovers more and more the eschatological character of her true being. The great shame and disorder of the church is that she has collaborated with the disorder of the world" (Alister McGrath, TF Torrance, 97-99).

I think this is very helpful, and true. At the same time I'd hate to see us cop out from the effort for fellowship in the here and now because we leave it to the future for God to sort out. I don't think that is Torrance's suggestion. Rather, I think that he would say that placing the locus of our unity in the promise and plan and provision of God allows us not to base it on temporal strategies out of a lack of faith. With this kind of faith, we can then actually have a present unity that is found in an authentic and vital dynamic of persistent reconciliation and discussion.

We are centered around some essential creeds and values, to be sure, but our unity is as often in the dialogue as it is in the polished statements of faith or agreed upon worship practices. The locus of our unity is in Christ, and not in ourselves. It is mystical enough to be solid in dark times, and it is solid enough to be a goal worth striving toward.

I don't know if it helps you, but this perspective has really helped me to stick with my local churches through some sometimes disillusioning and disappointing times.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

T.F. Torrance: Theology as a Science

In preparation for an upcoming phone interview I've been trying to read up on some more Alister McGrath. To date I'm mostly familiar with McGrath's works on the Reformation, and have read a few of his articles. And in the process of furthering my familiarization with him, I encountered and began reading his recent "intellectual biography" of T.F. Torrance.

This is extremely interesting, highly brilliant stuff. It is what I like to call a little piece of "loving the Lord your God with all your mind."

Thomas F. Torrance is a Scottish theologian who lived from 1913 -2007. His main teaching stint was at Edinburgh from 1950-1979. Next to Karl Barth (and in many ways building on him), he just may be one of the most important Christian thinkers of the 20th century. So, how about a few excerpts?

I find his approach to theology as a science very appealing. For instance, McGrath tells of the time when Torrance was asked to teach divinity in a "dispassionate" manor at Princeton University:

"Torrance responded by declaring that he would be interested in teaching theology as a science. When he was asked to elaborate on this statement, Torrance explained his developing views on the matter: that in a rigorous science, 'we think not as we choose to think, but as we are compelled to think in accordance with the nature of the object, and thus in manners which are governed by the objective grounds on which the science rest's'. The rigorous nature of scientific questioning could be applied equally well to Christian theology. Torrance, who disliked talk of 'dispassionate' approaches to theology, added that he could not guarantee that no one would be converted through the lectures . . . . To his astonishment, they decided to appoint him, and told him so the next day" (57-58).

Torrance never ended up taking that post at Princeton, but did go on to write a lot about this scientific approach to theology. He found fodder for it in the thought of Athanasius:

"It was to theologia of this kind that Athanasius assimilated the scientific method that had been developed in Alexandria, namely, rigorous knowledge according to the inherent structure or nature (kata physin) of the realities investigated, together with the development of the appropriate questions and the apposite vocabulary demanded by the nature or the realities as they became disclosed to us. It is in this way that theology adapts its method to its proper subject-matter, and allows its proper subject-matter to determine the appropriate forms of thought and speech about God. So far as scientific theology is concerned, this means that we are forced to adapt our common language to the nature and reality of God who is disclosed in Jesus Christ, and even where necessary to coin new terms, to express what we thus apprehend" (160-1).

To illustrate what this means, consider his assessment of Trinitarian thought: "The doctrine of the Trinity is thus not to be seen as a retreat into mysticism, or the outcome of intellectual speculation going far beyond the cautious language and conceptualities of Scripture. It is to be seen as the proper outcome of scientific engagement with the reality of God, as God is disclosed in Christ. In one sense, the doctrine of the Trinity is to be seen as the culmination of a scientific theology -- not its contradiction" (162) .

In other words (if you are still reading along!), as all sciences, theology seeks to be governed by its object rather than its subject, and so good Christian theology is the study of God as God is truly and fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Although the subjective creeps in, as always, we seek not to let it govern, but submit our thought to the witnesses to Christ and the interpretive dialogue that surrounds them; submitting ultimately to the self-revealing God. To put it more plainly still: Christian theology (and I dare add worship) is not yours or my speculative ideas or expressed feelings about God, based loosely on notions gained through religion or experience. Christian theology is the study of God as if Jesus Christ reveals him, and thus it speaks of God as Jesus reveals Him. Jesus is the object, and the provider of objectivity.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible follows the lives of a Baptist missionary family in a small village of 1950s Congo. It is told from the various perspectives of the four daughters in the family, with short prologues to each section as later reflections from the mother. It is really quite remarkable.

As a literary scheme this way of storytelling works really well. I can't recall ever reading a novel that told one unified story with multiple voices like this. Kingsolver pulls it off beautifully. Rarely is the same scene narrated twice, and yet because of one's familiarity with the characters and awareness of how they interact one feels that one knows each of the perspectives for each part of the story without hearing each one per se. The plot moves along for the reader with all the benefit of four viewpoints, so that the story is felt four different ways. It really sinks in.

Besides this unique storytelling, what I appreciated most about the novel was that I felt I was given a real insight into another culture, another time, another place, and even another gender. The author did plenty of research and therefore went out of her way to deliver Westerners with something approaching a real experience of the other side of colonialism. This ends up being incredibly unsettling and yet appealingly enlightening at the same time.

That the main perpetrator in this case is a fundamentalist patriarchal missionary hits particularly close to home for this life-long evangelical. I cringe at his actions and attitudes because he in some sense represents my ilk, because I've known people like him, and worse yet, I sort of get him. For those evangelicals in particular and Westerners in general who have yet to consider the sins of colonialism this book may serve as a wake up call.

In presenting this kind of story Kingsolver was quite fair, but in the last third of the novel I felt she weakened the novel and its effect somewhat by turning it into an extended epilogue that got a bit preachy. I think a shorter postlude would have been more impactful. Even though this final section provided a broader picture of the ensuing politics of Congo turned Zaire in the 70s and 80s (and even an African perspective on the famous Ali/Foreman boxing match held there), the denouement was just too long. For me this was the one thing keeping the novel from being a 9 or 10 out of 10. As it is I'm giving it an 8/10. I highly recommend The Poisonwood Bible.

Incidentally, my fiction reading has taken a real shift this year since reading Life of Pi. I used to read mainly the classics (from Dostoevsky to Steinbeck) and had little time for contemporary novels. But I am beginning to love these new authors who are able to craft a story that is not only enjoyable and thought-provoking in its own right but also provides a window into other cultures, other places, other perspectives. My last few reads have taken me from Pondicherry, India (Life of Pi) to Afghanistan (Kite Runner) to Auschwitz (Night) to the Congo/Zaire (Poisonwood) and have set me on a new trajectory in my fiction reading.

So where should I go from here? For real: I'm looking for suggestions.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Night Here Comes Again

That line from Ryan Adams goes through my mind these days fairly often at about 8:00pm. At that point I begin to feel tired and ready for bed, and I have absolutely no gurantee that I will be able to get an hour straight of sleep. I do have a pretty good guarantee I will not sleep through the night.

I think we have all stayed up obscenely late and paid the price the next day. Many of us have also woken up obscenely early and paid a similar price. Usually it is because we know that the late night chat or event is worth the tired next-day or that the morning hike or sunrise or meeting can often be made up by an early next-night bedtime or a nap.

But there is little comparison to months-on-end of repeatedly interrupted sleep. It really is quite something.

Seriously, how many times in life do we get to enjoy being repeatedly woken in the middle of the night so we can be awake for periods ranging from 2 minutes to 2 hours at a time? Now there is an experience!

Last night I was up from 2am to 4am. I read for a bit and held a baby and walked around for awhile, trying desperately not to drop said baby in a sleep-walking stupor.

This is life. This is not heroism. This is barely even survival. This is what (almost) every parent has done for their child. It is crazy, really. But it is the self-sacrifice naturally invested into humanity. You either rise (literally) to the challenge or you don't. I've only been at it for a few days and sometimes I honestly don't know how people do it.

One night at a time I guess. Take help in every form it is available. Try to enjoy it. Truth is, there is much to enjoy. A baby sleeping is pure delight. A baby laughing in his sleep is sheer joy! A content child in the arms is a pleasure. But Chicken Soup for the Soul already told you that.

What we need to also remember with a sense of humour in the darkest hours is that even a squirming writhing tiny body of chaos is a wonder to behold.

Just some fragmentary thoughts from a frazzled but basically intact father.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Twins! (with a couple photos now)

Hey blogging friends.

Just thought I'd let you know that my brave wife gave birth to twin boys on Thursday morning at 10:05 and 10:28 am. The first was 6lbs13oz and came by natural birth; the second was 6lbs8oz by C-section. Long story short: It was a chaotic half hour with a very happy ending.

So, the oldest twin is named Jesse Ransom Coutts.
The youngest is Mattias Gabriel Coutts.

Perhaps some time I'll tell you about them and/or about the experience but for now I'm going to bed. I might be a little preoccupied for awhile, but if you want something to do when and if you visit here you can tell me where you think the names come from.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What I Heard in Niagara Falls Part 2

It has been quite a while since I was in Niagara Falls already and the motivation to talk about it is fading. But here are some things which stuck with me from various sessions I attended at the Mid-Atlantic Popular / American Culture Association conference:

The Songs of Bob Dylan:
Talk about them all you want, you still can't do much better than just reading, better yet listening to, the lyrics. Of the incredible songs that were discussed I was blown away again by "Masters of War."

The Neo-Colonialism of the "Anti-Colonialist" Film Blood Diamond:
Within the critique of colonialism, the white man is still called on to save the day for the stereotyped black man. Point well taken.

Redeeming Grizzly Man:
This was the most fascinating of all the papers I heard. It was entitled "The Sacred Abject in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man," and it was Robin C. McCullough of York University's attempt to find a "meaning" for Timothy Treadwell's life against all the criticisms that have been weighed against it. I understand the impulse. You want the guy to win, even though he lost.

In this case the Ms McCullough sought past the typical "evangelical" reading of the grizzly man which said that he put his hopes for personal salvation ultimately in the wrong place---the bears---and it ended up in his own death. She inquired about the inherent value of a useless death as the highest of protests against a culture hell-bent on capitalist, materialist definitions of usefulness and saw Treadwell's as a sacrificial death of the highest order. But this was not as compelling in her eyes as the view of Kristeva, which find Treadwell's gift in his longing to be one with the bear, to be inside the bear, and therefore within nature and all. In this view the fact that male and female ended up as one within the bear is a victory.

I don't agree with these points of view, but I find interesting and intriguing ideas in them. I think the evangelical reading can even include the others to some degree. After all, isn't it in Christ that male and female are said to become united in perfect communion in the future? Isn't it a martyr's death against the powers of evil that we are called to? Whether Treadwell had any of this is not my point. I just thought it all quite fascinating what this presenter was able to pull out of that film.

Chesterton's Sense of Place:
One of the presenters in my own session was a geographer who finds Chesterton's sense of "place" to have been one of his great strengths. His point was that in our travels we too often miss out on the encounter with the "other" and settle for a displaced experience of our own home. In other words, we'll travel to Singapore and eat at McDonalds. I'll go to Niagara Falls and shop at Walmart or sit in a casino. Chesterton had a knack for emphasizing the romance of the place he was in. Thus he wrote no myths. Just stories set locally, and yet as fantastic as myths.

The Falls Themselves:
At first when I saw them they were as unimpressive and surreal as a postcard. But then you get down there and you remember that there is no substitute, no virtual reality, that can replace the real thing. Every chance I got I walked down and around to the horseshoe falls. They are spellbinding. Watching water cascade over the lip mesmerized me for the longest time. At night it was even a bit scary. I'd just sit there at the edge and watch it all go over. Engulfed in mist I'd be soaked head to foot and all I'd hear was the crashing sound coming up from below.

I didn't even notice that the person next to me was proposing to his girlfriend until she was screaming and they were making out. Turns out I'm on a whole lot of cameras just dopily staring at the falls. But I just went back to watching the falls. I couldn't take my eyes off them. Truly magnificent.

They say that there are more negative ions around the waterfall and that might explain the dizzying effect. I don't know. All I could think was that if there were waterfalls before there was a Fall of humankind I don't see how there could not have inevitably have been a death. Seriously, I've been pondering that. No precipices in Eden? How does that work?

I stayed with the parents of a friend. People I'd never met. His dad drove me wherever I needed to go. There is nothing quite like old-fashioned out-of-the-goodness-of-your-heart-expecting-nothing-in-return hospitality. It is a blessing to the soul.

. . . And that is what I saw and heard in Niagara Falls. Didn't step foot in the wax museum to serial killers, I am very proud to say.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What I Heard In Niagara Falls: Chesterton, Zizek, and "Christian Atheism"

On a recent trip to Niagara Falls I had the opportunity to hear Aaron Dunlap of Temple University give a paper entitled "Revolution, Paradox, and the Christian Tradition: A Chestertonian Debate between John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek."

This paper was very interesting because it shed light one of the most renowned philosophers of today (Slavoj Zizek) and explained the main connection he has with G.K. Chesterton (whom he quotes frequently). It also included a concise and arresting presentation of what I consider to be one of Chesterton's most provocative statements. You do not see it quoted often in evangelical writings, but Zizek loves it, and Dunlap explains why. What follows is an excerpt. You can read this paper in full at The Land of Unlikeness, where the conclusion is especially wonderful.

"To get right to the point, it seems that what Zizek really gets from Chesterton is the idea that, in the arsenal of human language and thought, paradox is the best weapon we have, the most effective way of getting at the truth of human existence. Chesterton's description [from Orthodoxy] of Christ’s cry from the cross is a good example of how he employs paradox:

'When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.'

Zizek quotes these words in a book of his entitled On Belief, and when he calls himself a “Christian atheist” as I heard him do once at a talk in Philadelphia he is agreeing with Chesterton that Xity, by revealing God to have been abandoned by God, places a certain value on the atheist, as when Chesterton notes that 'The next best thing to really being inside Christendom is to be really outside of it.'

For Zizek, and I think for Cheseterton as well, this brutally honest cry given by the dying Christ, is an example not only of a unique kind of God, but also sets the groundwork for a certain type of thinking, for a certain type of philosophizing. In reading Zizek a quote from Chesterton is often followed by one from Hegel, for it was Hegel, according to Zizek, who gave philosophical voice to paradox, who even constructed his entire system around it.

An all powerful God, for Hegel, is revealed most truly in the moment of greatest weakness and desolation, which is a necessary moment in the revelation of that God. For Hegel the all powerful God of the Jews, inasmuch as he communicates with his creation, does so most authentically not through a revelation of words, of sacred texts, but through a revelation of Word, that is, incarnation."

Like I said, the conclusion is excellent, and explains why, in the end, Zizek is really more atheist than Christian. But I have always thought this an intriguing and insightful point, as I said previously in my post on Bergman's Winter Light, and so it was awesome to hear this paper not only broach the issue but deal with it so eloquently.

I hope to share some more of what I saw and heard at Niagara Falls, but that was one of the most interesting things for sure.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Short Story Party Game

Whenever my family gets together we'll pull out a game like Dutch Blitz or Scattergories or some variation on the party game theme (Taboo, Catch Phrase, etc...). Every once in awhile we put the over-priced board game aside and just play something we've made up. I mentioned the "top three" game before. This week we played a short story party game (which I imagine has been done before).

Basically, each person writes a sentence and then passes on the paper for the next person to add a sentence until all the papers get around and you are left with several different short stories authored by each person collectively. In our case we were left with seven short stories of seven sentences. We added a variation to a couple of them in that you were not allowed to see the sentence before.

It was kind of fun, and I've got the papers all sitting here, so the best two are below. One was written without being able to see the previous sentences written, and the other was written with each person building on the sentences before. Hope my family enjoys seeing these again.

Story 1

Every Sunday started the same, the horses would take offence to something I said, tempers would flare and somebody would get hurt.

I had never seen horses get upset so easily until I started working at this ranch.

So I immediately set out to find out the source of the conflict.

The cook said, "Look around, maybe it's you."

As I am wont to do, my initial reaction, of course, was to throw around some glares, shot to anyone with bullet-like broiling heat.

On this particular Sunday, though, I decided not to hold my glare but I stopped and thought about what the cook had said.

I decided I was okay with being the problem and continued to offend the horses every chance I got.

Story 2

One day the monkey got tired of being a monkey.

It was a hearty soup, with 12 kinds of meat and a fried egg.

We always have so much fun when we get together as a family.

They all seemed to be angry, and they walked toward their destination reluctantly.

"Eat it, Stew!"

Brillian, fiercely, wonderfully, she spoke--a feral girl-child as born like a new-born babe with squalling hesitancy and insistent expectation of things to come.

In the end this incident ended the way most do, without incident.


Good times.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Chris Farley (1964-1997)

Two days ago I saw this book on the shelf at the library that I knew I just had to read. The biography of Chris Farley. It was almost impossible to put down. Finished it an hour ago. It made me laugh, it made me cry. Can you believe he has been dead for almost eleven years?

This biography (co-authored by his older brother) reminded me of so much that Chris Farley introduced into my life that is still a part of me. It was really sad to lose him. I'm even sadder about it now, knowing the story. Of all the famous people who die, here is probably the one I miss the most; the one I felt most attached to. Maybe that sounds odd. I think it is true.

Reading his story reminds you of all that was lovable about him: His "Chris Farley Show" interviews (as seen below); his "Da Bears" routine; his "Motivational Speaker" bit; his "Tommy Boy" comedic masterpiece; his spunk; and his genuine love for life and ability to lift those around him (which you sensed, not knowing him, and which it turns out was the real deal).

This story also opens your eyes to the normality of famous people and to the dangers of mixing insecurity, family baggage, a fast rise to stardom, and addiction. As a wake up call to the death-toll of addiction alone it is a worthy read. As an insight into our common human struggles it is a reminder to be there for each other. It is a deep and compelling story told in a very simple interview style with people who knew him and, of course, it is laced with a lot of humour. There are not many books I can recommend more highly than this one.

Most of all I just wanted to pay my respects and to bring the memory of this face to mind. I wish he were alive today. I wish I was taking my boys to a Farley movie in a few years. I am convinced he would have gone on to make some pretty incredible movies that would have made us laugh and which also would have moved us.

Besides all that, however, Chris Farley was just a genuine person, a spark of life, and a devout Catholic who went to mass several times a week. He was born the day after Valentines, 1964, and died three days before Christmas, 1997. He was 33. I pray he is resting in Peace.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Wherein Lies Our Hope

Today is a big day for the US, and therefore for us as well. Over at A Resch Like Me Dustin has said something very good about this. Like him I am fairly optimistic about a Barack Obama victory today.

[I think Obama is a smart guy with some good ideals and a real desire for meaningful dialogue. I also think having someone other than an oil man in charge is a good thing. Of course, I am deeply concerned and heavily saddened by his pro-abortion stance, but on the other hand maybe his extremism on that front will be the thing that finally brings this issue to the center of political dialogue again. I'd love it if it was issue #1 in four years. I'm tired of everyone being afraid to talk about it. (Hear that Stephen Harper?)]

Whether there is reason for some cautious optimism today or not, what I wanted to echo from Dustin is that there is reason for hope. Why? I don't think I can put it any better than this.

The One, the Three and the Many

I am now only 16 years behind the theological world thanks to my recent read of Colin Gunton's 1992 The One, the Three and the Many. Though by now its best and most original points have made their way through to other theological works, this remains a very important book.

The subtitle says it is about God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity but it might more helpfully be described as How Trinitarian Thought Speaks to the Constant Back and Forth Between Individualism and Collectivism That Has Been Perpetuated by Modernism and Postmodernism Alike.

But that would be a long subtitle, and still doesn't help much. So here are some of the lines that typified the book and stuck out to me the most.

First, and most simply: "Freedom requires otherness" (37). The idea that freedom is one individual being able to do whatever one individual wants completely ignores our social construction as individuals and drastically undersells the slaverys a person can be under even when one is alone. This short and simple statement points to an important truth, I think, which is that whatever freedom is, it is experienced only as part of a social dynamic. Which leads to a critique of modernism, including modern Christianity:

"The Christian tradition itself tended to take an individualist direction, locating human particularity in the possession of a soul or some qualification of inwardness. It maintained one dimension of human relationality, the vertical, but not the other, the horizontal. To be was to be in internal relation to God, but not, essentially, to the neighbor or the world. So it is with modern doctrines of the human. The thought that our freedom comes to us from God is not inconceivable for the modern mind; the thought that it also comes from each other, as a function of our relationality, almost is" (65).

Gunton goes on to explain that in this mindset "freedom is almost invariably freedom from the other . . . . The other becomes the person or thing from which one must escape or over which one must rule if one is to be human" (71). And "when individual self-contemplation becomes the basis of the self, rather than the relation to the divine and human others on which our reality actually depends, [tragically and ironically] the self begins to disappear" (117-118).

This book isn't just a push for postmodernity, however. Mere pluralism and tolerance are no strategy for the freedom to be found in real communion. "Whereas modernism tried to come to grips with the ‘other’ by excluding it, postmodernism simply seeks to render it irrelevant. The underlying fear of it continues unabated" (69). So Gunton asks: "Is there no mean between the [individualistic] kind of ethic of self-fulfillment – the quest for relations by the essentially unrelated – which is so dominant in the liberal democracies, and the subordination of the many to the needs of the collective that still marks many political systems in the world?" (151-2).

As one might expect, Gunton finds resources for an answer in the doctrine of the Trinity; resources which no other concept seems able to supply: The one and many are brought together in the three-in-one. Indeed, if the perfect union of three persons is what makes up the Godhead, it can be understood that from this might be derived the concepts that give fabric to a human community beyond our wildest dreams.

More could be said, but that gives a pretty good taste of what the book had to say. It was a provocative book and succeeded in driving Trinitarian theology even more to the forefront in the years to come, for good reason. It made some very insightful critiques of our modern individualism on one hand and our postmodern pluralism on the other, while showing how the biblical revelation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the self-giving love shown in Christ just might offer the best foot forward.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Excerpts from October

This weekend I'll be presenting an extremely distilled version of my thesis at the annual Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association Conference in Niagara Falls. Seems like as good a time as any to post some great lines that have been ringing around in my ears all month. Some of these I've mentioned before. Some go together kind of well. Some are relevant to discussions we've had on the blogs. Some are from great songs I've been listening to. A few are just, well, cute. Some I'm not sure what they mean. You can decide which is which. Enjoy, and have a good weekend!


Jon (to his boys in the backseat of the van, who are fighting about pretty much everything): "Guys, do you you think you can talk without arguing?"

Brady: "We can talk without arguing right Elijah?"

Elijah (harshly): "No we can't."


Writer (in Tarkovsky's Stalker) : "Listen Einstein, I don't want to argue anymore."

Philosopher: "Truth is born of argument, damn it!"


Mallory McGarry (in West Wing Season One): "Don't play dumb with me Sam."

Sam Seborne : "But I'm actually dumb. Most of the time I'm just playing smart."


My son Elijah, out of nowhere: "Dad, you like books so much you should be a bookaneer."


Sheriff Ed Bell (monologue in No Country for Old Men): "The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, 'O.K., I’ll be part of this world.'”


M. Ward (in "Poison Cup", from the album Post-War):
If love
If love
Is a poison cup
Then drink it up
'Cause a sip
A sip
Or a spoonful won't do
Won't do nothing for you
Except mess you up


Augustine (from Predestination of the Saints): "No one believes anything unless one first thought it believable. . . . Everything that is believed is believed after being preceded by thought. . . . Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking."


G.K. Chesterton: "Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another."


G.K. Chesterton: “Without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Birth Day

As a Chestertonian exercise of sorts, I've made it a habit to try to think about a person on their birthday and imagine for one moment that they never existed. Then in the frightful moment of that imagining I am able to see how incredibly thankful I am for that life so taken for granted; what a celebration a birthday actually is. I had a moment like that unexpectedly this summer.

It wasn't anyone's birthday. I was a routine moment in life. I found myself in a huge crowd of people with whom I do not normally spend a lot of time---at a demolition derby and farm exhibition---when a couple of us split off to go get overpriced food for everyone in the group. After my successful trip to the concession stand I was waiting to meet up with my expeditionary partner and my eyes were scanning the mass of strangers for that one familiar face. For a moment I was awash in my isolation from everything and everyone around me. Seconds later she appeared around the corner of a salted pretzel stand, and I was struck by a thought from out of the blue:

Is there anyone in the world who has done more for me in my entire life than that person right there? It was followed by another thought: I am still just a little boy in a big strange world who feels a whole lot more comfortable when he sees his mom.

My mother turns I-don't-want-to-say-how old today, and there is a card in the mail and a gift waiting next time she visits. Probably a phone call if we can connect today too. These are the little things we do for every birth day, often without thinking much about it. This blog-post is not meant to be some cheesy excuse for not fulfilling those annual obligations. I just wanted to say something about parents; about mothers; about birth days; about my mother.

Having become a parent of two boys in the last five years (and about to add two more to the number) I have been inundated with realizations of all that my parents did for me EVERY DAY that went largely unnoticed unless it was one day not done or was done with less than the usual excellence.

Watching my wife raise my boys I am amazed at what it takes to be a mother. Even the nine months of pregnancy are just a ridiculous example of self-giving. Watching myself attempt to raise children I am amazed at how hard it is. Having started out with great ideals I sometimes slip into funks where I can't go one day without raising my voice at my kids; where I am going nuts for a moment of my own; where I find myself wishing I had half a foggy clue what I was doing.

Then I think of my mother and I have absolutely no recollection of her ever raising her voice at me. She was and still is always willing to drop everything she is doing in order to help me out. Anything I actually do well as a parent I probably learned from her and my dad.

If on my best days I ever exhibit a calm restful presence, I got it from my mom. If on my best days I find myself doing things for others without asking them to thank me for it or even expecting in my wildest dreams anything in return, I got it from my mom. If I do what is best for my kids, even at cost to myself, I got it from my mom. Heck, when I wake up tomorrow morning to embrace a new day of life in this world, I got it from my mom!

Of course, there is hope for me yet, not really because of genetic inheritance, but because my mom also told me where she got it. And lately when I think of what it is to be a testament to Christ Jesus, I think less and less of the great preachers and more and more of the people who live day in and day out giving of themselves for others often at great sacrifice to themselves and with little praise to show for it. In that way, for all the attention that I pay to the great writers and thinkers of the faith, I'm not sure I have been witness to a better living example of Christ than my mother.

Sorry if this sounds sentimental. When I stood in that crowd it hit me not like a hallmark card---just bald fact. I'm not going to use this blog to do this all the time, but today I publicly toast my mother. Happy is the day of her birth.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Burn After Reading

I don't often get out to see new movies while they are still in theatre so I try to do full-scale reviews when I do. It was a treat to get out to see Burn After Reading with my wife the other night. It was one last date before our twins arrive and things get hectic again. This is not exactly a date movie, but we didn't have a lot of options, and my wife is a good sport!

Like Fargo, this Coen brothers comedy had its share of violence and f-bombs (readers be warned). Also like Fargo, however, the main humour of the film is that it makes the bad guys look really stupid. In this case it is the CIA's bumbling and one man's infidelity that gets the brunt of the satirical edge. This isn't "ha ha" funny so much as it is the joke that you are left with at the end of the day---and it is a joke very well told.

Besides that, the humour of the film is delivered in such a way that it wouldn't be funny if I told you. My brother was right when he told me that the great thing about the Coen brothers' films is that they do stuff in a way that could only be done in film. It is true use of the medium. If you read the script or looked at the stills or even listended to the audio-reel you probably wouldn't laugh at the parts I laughed at. But there were these moments that were indescribably funny and I'll only look stupid trying to explain them. Odd situations lead to oddly-said lines from quirky characters and next thing you know you are laughing uproariously at an otherwise non-descript moment like getting the name of a bike wrong.

The weird thing about it is that these odd characters seem more true to life than most "normal" characters in film. They do the awkward things that real people do, and it ends up being fairly funny or fairly disturbing, mostly because it is just way too true.

It is hard for me to review a film without interacting with the content a bit--even for a comedy. That's just me. I appreciated the ridiculously satirical depictions of infidelity and vanity, as well as of the careless powers-that-be. The plot didn't take itself too seriously, but still had an edge to it. One also catches a subtle jab at the of injustice of life in undertones of the story where, of all that happens, the worst of it goes to the two most quality guys in the film. One might describe this as a "nice-guys-finish-last comedy," if there could be such a thing.

Far and away the best part of this film was Brad Pitt. In the last couple years he has become one of two or three actors who I always want to see, almost no matter what the film. That one he did with Angelina ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith" was it?) was horrible, but otherwise I can't get enough of his acting. In this movie he was hilarious. In fact, while I can respect the desire not to overdo it or play up the character too much, if he had been the focal point from start to finish I might have given this movie a 9 or 10. What a great role this was. I laughed at almost every single thing this guy did. Oh man. I even laugh at the photo.

Something keeps me from giving this movie more than a seven out of ten though. I think it took me awhile to get into the story, and even though I am not incredibly bothered by swearing, sometimes the cruder elements were less than funny to me. I can't recommend this to all my readers, but if you appreciate the Coen brothers at all I think you will like this one.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Another Conversation (About Growing Up Evangelical)

Another conversation has opened up online that I have been invited to be a part of by my friend Colin. It is something of a discussion group for those wishing to work through some of the struggles of being a contemporary evangelical. You are free to look on and comment. It begins with each of the contributing members introducing themselves, thinking particularly of their own back-story in regard to the perceived foibles of evangelicalism. I have posted my own introductory entry below.

It is odd telling such stories because they inevitably involve other people, especially when we are talking about generational generalizations. I also hesitate to tell such personal stories, but then again I don't see how we can discuss such matters without being personally honest. All that to say: I want the stories of my church upbringing to read more like a tribute to my parent's faithful dialogue with me through some messy evangelical decades than like an indictment of everyone who ever had an influence on me.

I say this with fear and trembling: I'm not entirely sure I would be a Christian today if not for spending thousands and thousands of dollars to get a theological education, thus discovering Christianity to more relevant, life-giving, complex, beautiful, intellectual, and communal than I had ever realized.

I'm not trying to make a statement with that, I'm just saying that's my story. I'm not trying to say the evangelical churches I grew up in never had any of that, I'm just saying I never caught much wind of it (and still don't very often). I'm not saying I have my own theological education to thank for my faith (as if it is mine in some way), I'm just saying that key professors and authors have been the part of the church which God has graciously used to keep me. (I think this does speak to a problem in evangelicalism, but we'll get to that later I'm sure.)

Reading Robert Webber's Younger Evangelicals a couple years ago I realized that being born in '75 put me between generations---and this explained to me why I've always felt tugged in two directions at once. It has never been incredibly difficult for me to join in on the postmodern critique of modernity; the Gen-X critique of Boomers; the emergent critique of the seeker-service; and so on. Whatever you want to call it, I feel it in my bones.

But it isn't so easy: I am just as suspicious of my critique as I am of the one I critique. I am postmodern enough to believe that it isn't so black and white as all that---as if modernity is all bad and postmodernity all good; as if my generation will be able to right the wrongs of evangelicalism past without in turn bringing new and even worse wrongs to evangelicalism future; as if we are the enlightened ones whose first step ought to be to shrug off the lies and errors of our fathers. Uh-uh. I'm with Elijah: My ancestors may have had some problems, but the harder I try to fix them the more I discover that I am no better than my ancestors. We've seen generation after generation err by over-reacting to the one before. Too many babies have been thrown out with the bathwater. The errors of today's evangelicalism are the over-reactions to the evangelicalism which preceded.

But lest this become a rant instead of an introduction, let me give a couple anecdotes from my life that illustrate why I look at it this way.

When I was a boy of 12 I was for the first time listening to rock music on my headphones---and it was so good. I was loving it. I had never really heard anything like it and new vistas of experience were opening on my horizon.

But all the time I listened I was full of this debilitating and deathly fear that I'd be found out for being so rebellious; I'd be in huge trouble for brushing the dark side---and this new world of music that had just opened up in front of me would be taken away by my parents forever.

Then one day it happened: I was listening to this music and my mom was trying to talk to me. I couldn't hear her, so naturally she spoke louder to get my attention. When I noticed, well, I thought my time had come: I was busted!

I don't recall exactly what happened next but I think I burst into tears. Turned out she was just telling me we had to go somewhere. That's all. She couldn't understand what I was so fearful of. What she and I both didn't realize, I think, was what a hold guilt and fear had on my young Christian heart. I felt guilty for pretty much everything and I was afraid of even more.

Now here's the crazy thing: The music was Micheal W. Smith! And my parents had not only overseen the purchase of the cassette but had given me the walkman! Why was I afraid? For the life of me I can't figure it out except to say that the fear (and guilt) that I felt crippling me growing up was part and parcel of the evangelical air I breathed.

I'm not going to try to say that guilt and fear don't have their place, but they are not the beating heart of the faith. Something went seriously wrong in my corner of the 2oth century evangelical world and many like me have not survived it. I am thankful that by the grace of God somehow the faith still has a hold of me, but at times it has been barely. Eventually the icy grip of guilt and fear squeezes the life out of it and you either run for cover or you find that there is something deeper to the faith.

I hope this doesn't sound like therapy, but one more anecdote: In grade 7 the San Francisco earthquake happened right before my eyes while I watched TV. Given my upbringing I was fairly certain the rapture was about to happen any moment. Unexpectedly, I became very afraid of being raptured. I did not want to go to heaven. I did not want to go to hell, either, don't get me wrong, but all I could think of when I thought of heaven was this eternal extension of my current experience. At the time I did not appreciate things like love and grace and peace and reconciliation and hope. Those things had certainly been taught in church but I didn't hear them.

I had sure heard about the "slippery slope" though. And it certainly kept me out of trouble. Something good might still be said about it. I had heard conviction of sin. And in some way it certainly led me to Jesus. Something good might still be said about that too. I had heard all about the end-times. It certainly made me aware of the urgency of life, and something good might still be said about it as well, but beneath them I had nothing but a gaping hole where Jesus (and Christian community) ought to have been thriving but instead were barely breathing for air. Here I was petrified of heaven because all I could picture was me sitting alone in a crowded church feeling completely out of the loop . . . for ever. I was beside myself. I really was. Few things are as frightening in my memory as that time of my life.

What got me through was my dad praying with me. Notice that? I had the evangelicalism of my ancestors partly to blame for the trouble I was in, but I also had my living breathing ancestor to thank for leading me in Christian communion to engage the Jesus somewhere behind it all.

20 years later I am still working through all of this (and it has been interesting now to laugh about those stories with my parents, and also together to ask quizzically: "What was going on there?") My church upbringing is something I have become very thankful for. But it is also something I want to build on. Hopefully little conversation groups like this one can be some good therapy---ahem, I mean edification!

I doubt that ours is a period of transition which will smooth out the church experience for our children. I shudder to think of the messes I am leaving for my kids to clean up. But I take solace in the grace of God and I make it my goal not simply to pass on a heritage of my own achieved perfection, but ultimately to pass on the ministry of reconciliation that (whether it has always been realised or preached or not) has been the beating heart of the evangelical church all along.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Three Years Blogging

On October 22, 2005, this blog was born. I had heard of blogging on a West Wing episode, was intrigued, did some playing around online, and came out with this.

At the time I felt like a bit of a bandwagon jumper and wondered how long the fad would last. Almost 200 posts later I find myself communicating with quite a few people this way, and though I feel like taking a hiatus now and again, I generally enjoy posting here once a week or so and taking whatever dialogue comes my way. I also check out about a dozen other blogs throughout the week and comment regularly on at least half of them. Though I have allowed it to distract me from "real life" at times, for the most part it has been really good.

As is common, this side of sunday began with an explanation for its existence, which went as follows:

This is my first blog so I'm still finding my way around. My intention here is to explore my passion for writing and to see where that takes me.

I plan to write mostly social commentary peices from a decidedly Christian perspective. However, I'm not so concerned about pushing religion as I am in authentically exploring the depths of this faith in a reasoned and empassioned manner.

Spirituality encompasses all of life, from doing dishes to talking philosophy, and so there will be very few topics I won't want to tackle. Unless of course they simply don't interest me at all.

Among the things which do interest me are reading, sports, culture, truth based spirituality, the church, music, movies, well-done television, and even politics to some degree. Although it is rare that my thoughts on the latter are anything less than frustrated.

I look forward to the possibilities this site might hold both for my own exploration of writing and for the potential dialogue that could ensue, whether that be among friends, family, colleagues, strangers or even enemies (should I have any out there or make any along the way)! See you soon.

I am pleasantly surprised to look back and find that this still pretty much describes what I'm doing here.

My first comment came from tonytanti, my brother, who continues to be one of my most vocal readers, along with matthew wilkinson. I often run into friends and acquaintances who tell me that they read but don't comment, and so I try to keep writing for a pretty general audience. However, it must be admitted that the conversations that ensue are often driven by the reactions of one of those two, which is more than fine with me since they are both people I like talking to. I really do welcome more comments though, even in disagreement. I think dialogue has become my number one reason to be in the blogosphere.

Anyway, I think in the next week or so I'm going to try to update my tags. I've always been sloppy with these and I figure it might be good to get them more accurate before this blog gets too big to handle. In the meantime, here is my first post, from October 29, 2005:

Blood is Hard to Ignore

On Sunday morning we went to church and sat near the back. The sermon was about Ruth, the singing was mostly hymns, and the pastoral prayer was given by the elder who also goes to our weekly Bible study. The pew bench was particularly hard this week, and there were more than a few empty spots in front of us. We weren't even all that far back either. It occurred to me that attendance was significantly lower this day. Probably some people away, or maybe it was Christian sleep-in day and nobody told me.

I noticed only part way through the service that the "elements" were out at the front of the church. The stale bread and the tart grape juice were all ready to be passed around at the end of the hour. Usually I'm pretty into this part of the service, but today it seemed so stiflingly normal.

Indeed, once we got to it, it went along like most of the rest. The eight elders gathered at the front, only one of them conspicuously wearing no suit jacket, and they took turns praying for "the bread and the cup." I started to wonder why we felt these little cubes of Safeway bread needed our petitions and these tiny glasses needed our prayers. I was also thinking about how we in evangelical circles like to call it "the cup" most likely because it sounds better than "the sacred grape juice" or the "wonderful Welch's." It all gave me a bit of a chuckle ... which of course I had to suppress.

As with most of our services around the Lord's Table, this one was pretty quick and painless and full of Christianese. Being so used to it, I never doubted our sincerity during this time though, in fact I quite appreciated that we were pausing to remember our debt to the Lord -- a debt that grows that much greater with each feeble attempt of ours to give him worship.

Once the bread started its rounds, I enjoyed watching all the people in front of me shuffle down the pew to make up for all the blank spaces, pass the plate, and then return to their places. They were sitting so far from one another! Of couse when it came my turn, I did the same.When the cups came by, I noticed they'd been jostled a bit, and while I tried to avoid taking a spilled one, I realized my failure to steer clear of the sticky little mess as I passed the tray over to my wife.

I saw a dot of grape juice on my finger, and to be honest, it kind of startled me.

When it caught my eye it looked like a prick of blood. Blood is hard to ignore. And with the elements passed now I looked and saw an even larger smear of it on my wife's hand, right in the middle of the palm. Right where the nails might have been. She tried to flick off the grape juice but it only streaked down one of her fingers and threatened one or two drips onto the floor. To avoid this, she closed her hand and clenched it repeatedly until all of it was rubbed into her palm. Moments later we "partook" together.

I have to say that despite my best efforts to notice everything but the sacred truth behind our tradition that morning, it had now become inescapably clear. Tucked away into our pathetic little ceremony was the amazing fact that the bread was as freely passed to us as was Christ's body, and this grape juice made a mess which paled in comparison to that of His blood.And these were just lame little attempts to encapsulate God's passion, as I am but a lame little attempt to encapsulate His Son. An attempt wrought with failure but met by the forgiveness His sacrifice won.

Well, there you go. Thanks for meeting me here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rock the (non)Vote

So it turns out that only 59% of eligible voters actually bothered to show up at the polls. What gives?

Pundits say people are "tired" of going to the polls. Is that it? Tired? How can we use the word "tired" regarding something we do every two to four years for a couple minutes is at a time? That can't be it.

Is it "voter apathy"? No doubt there is a good deal of apathy involved here, but when we say that I think we are also implying that these non-voters actually don't care about the election; that they are an offense to those who have fought for our freedom; that they are a disgrace to democracy.

I don't know about that. What's worse: the person who doesn't follow politics, feels uninformed, and doesn't vote, or the equally-in-the-dark person who does?

I would be in favour of mandatory voting. Charge someone a small fee on their income tax if they don't vote or something. Call it a tax break for those that do vote, I don't care. I think that would be alright. But I also suggest we look for other explanations and reactions to the poor voter turnout.

Sure, voting is our basic right, privilege, and responsibility, but so is the absentee ballot. And doesn't the absentee ballot say something fairly loudly (although not clearly)? I had to chuckle when one news reporter was asking a university student why they didn't vote and they said they didn't feel they had access to the information they needed. The reporter was beside herself with shock. "What? With the internet, radio, newspapers, and television?"

But I think it makes some sense. We have information overload; we don't trust institutions or politicians to inform us accurately; and we aren't even sure there is truth to be had beyond each person's opinion. And sure, the information is all probably out there somewhere, but you have to find it.

Television is built on sound-bytes, caricatures, and repetition. You don't get your information there. Even the debates are centered around offering tidbits for popular consumption. We probably shouldn't fault TV reporters too much for this. That is just the way TV is. Radio is better, and newspapers are better, but they require a fair amount of time and commitment to get our minds around the opposing views. Perhaps we should take the effort, but let's not pretend it is easy. And sure, it is all there on the Internet, but where do you look? Who do you trust for the information? You can't just read one article about the economy, or health care, or whatever---you have to read four or five for each. My (non-voting) friend who I was talking to last night explained that he feels like between him and the politician, it is he who has to do most of the work. That may sound ridiculous to the news pundit or the politician, but I think it is a decent point, actually.

I have a brother in politics, and I learn more from a five minute frank conversation with him than I've learned from hours and hours of listening to the media. He cuts to the chase and tells me what the issue is in plain language and explains why his MP approaches it the way he does. He gives me hard information about how the details shake down. I don't feel like that is easy to get unless you know someone behind the scenes.

I voted. I also ran a polling station and was fairly moved at various points of the day watching my neighborhood all stream through the doors in a low-key but meaningful celebration of their common freedom. But as a voter I must admit that I don't have half a clue what the person I voted for will do for our country. What is she going to do about health care? The economy? War? Taxes? Social services? etc. Part of me can understand leaving it up to the rest of the populace to decide. As long as the polling beforehand is telling me that my riding is a fore-gone conclusion, why bother?

Of course, if the voter turnout gets too low we've got a problem. If too many of us forgo our right we are leaving it up to the "intelligentsia" or the "activists" to do our work for us, and we are one step away from a dictatorship of the elite. But isn't that how it is already? Most of us get our information from the same sound-byte-saturated sources. Ours is a semi-dictatorship of popular media.

And so it seems to me that the 41% who did not vote have said something. Imagine if a political party spent all its effort winning those 41%? What would that party look like? It is conceivable that a brand new party could win a near-majority next time around simply by winning the non-voters!

Or imagine if a news source made a solid effort to really understand the problem here and to reach the populace with accessible and relatively reliable information? We are free to vote, but are we empowered to vote?

Certainly we should take responsibility. Certainly we should vote. But I'm thinking that there are bigger issues that could be addressed here.

I also wonder if the low voter turnout just tells us that people aren't too worried (or if they are, they don't think politics addresses their anxieties either way). They look at the parties in place and the polling data pre-election and it shows them that however it pans out the system will pretty much go as is. Perhaps that is naive and silly and a poor excuse, but I think it explains things pretty well. I mean, I voted, but I am under no illusions that my vote made one iota of a difference and I was never all that worried that our country was going to go off the rails.