Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nothing I Want To Say

Nothing I want to say.

Nothing, I want to say.

Nothing I want, to say.

No thing! I want to say.

Not hingiw anttos, ay?

Nothing! I! Want! To! Say!

Nothing, I. Want to say.

Nothing I want to say?

Monday, January 26, 2009

West Wing Season 3: Jed Bartlett Nails Ephesians 5

My wife and are one episode away from completing West Wing Season 3. For those who care about the show and have some familiarity with it I will explain my 9/10 rating for this season below.

Firstly, however, let me show you one of the best scenes of the season, where President Jed Bartlett complains about the preaching at his church and has a debate with his wife about the proper interpretation of Ephesians 5. In my opinion he pretty much nails it. The only place I'd beg to differ is that I'd say it is about marriage---but he's right; it is about so much more. I think he actually manages in this short clip to expose the absolute beauty and relevance of this remarkably misused and abused passage of Scripture. Watch this fantastic scene:

Unfortunately, the clip here stops short before Leo (the Chief of Staff) walks in and Bartlett says: "Leo, how may I be subject to you today?" and Leo responds: "I'm alright, Mr. President, I have Margaret (his secretary)."

As for the rating of this season, West Wing nuts might be interested to hear why I'm giving it a rating of 9. After all, this season certainly hit some real television highs, and in relation to most TV shows every season of West Wing is a 10. But I want to reserve my 10 ratings for the absolute masterpieces, the near-flawless screen-events.

And the fact is that there are three reason why Season 3 fell short of masterpiece status.

1) There were a few episodes near the beginning which were very very flat. Boring, in fact. One of them was directed by a person who never directed an episode again, and it is a reminder that even with great writing and wonderful actors a director can really ruin something. It gives a person cause for pause before dreaming "oh yeah, I could direct a show like that." Yeah right.

2) Too many guest spots and new characters coming in and out. Now, this is a minor criticism since most, if not all, of them were great characters with winning performances. The problem is perhaps only evident when you watch the season on DVD (rather than over the course of a year), but these characters were too in and out with not enough continuity. At times you don't know who you are going to see again. But this criticism is not major, since on the other hand some of these characters are absolutely amazing (especially Oliver Babich, Ainsley Hayes, Bruno Gianelli, and CJ's bodyguard).

3) The 9/11 episode was fairly potent at the time, but in retrospect is hard to watch. But we give some grace here: It must have been hard to be the West Wing after 9/11. In fact, maybe this explains some of the early-season flops. For the most part I think the show managed to wade through these sketchy waters with grace and dignity, not glamorizing or taking advantage of the event to make a buck, but not ignoring it either.

All in all, however, an incredible season of television. If you've never seen the West Wing, you owe yourself the favour of turning off the garbage on today and renting the DVDs.

In regard to the Ephesians 5 rant above, of course it must be mentioned that the show has its fair share of less-than bang-on representations of Christianity or Scripture. But even then, most of those have a real critical value to them that Christians ought to pay attention to. In amongst those, as well, there are some other real gems. Another of them is this interview between the President and a persecuted Christian seeking asylum from China:

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I like this guy. I do. I feel like he gets it. When I'd watch him debate McCain I felt like I was in his corner, that he was speaking my language, and that his smirk at the old guy's approach was my smirk too.

I think some good things are going to happen. I am interested to see where his dialogical approach gets the US in its relations with foreign nations.

But its awfully disappointing when one day he is closing a prison camp and promising no more torture and the next he is lifting a ban on foreign relief agencies that condone abortion. On the one hand, protecting the rights of the possibly innocent, or at least being humane to the guilty. On the other hand, sidelining the rights of the really innocent, and being inhumane to the unborn. All for a woman's health? Since when is an abortion safer than a birth? But that's another discussion, I suppose. I hope he does some other things to limit abortion, like he seems to have suggested he might.

Mostly I do like this guy. I was moved, like most people, to see Jesse Jackson weeping at Obama's election. I mean, the guy was in the hotel room when MLK was shot, only 40 years ago! Where this country has come, and where it could go, it is hopeful and exciting in many respects.

But a reality check is in order too. I loved on Jon Stewart where he recited an Obama quote from the inauguration in a George-Bush voice. Some things will stay the same. I also laughed when I heard a political commentator say that it will be "refreshing to have someone govern by principles rather than expediency."

Are you kidding? The whole problem people had with Bush was that his values! Let's not pretend he had no values or principles himself. The real debate is which values. Which principles the nation ought to go forward on. For my part I think I like a lot of Obama's principles (I can't pretend I know a lot about him). But I don't like them all. Or at least I don't like what happens to some of them when push comes to shove with other principles.

So there is hope, yes, but also some concern. Concern over this abortion thing, for sure. But I have to say, also concern over the people of my own faith who are likely to caricature and even demonize the guy rather than argue with/support him principle-by-principle on a case-by-case basis. (I hope they prove me wrong).

I hope he does some good. I am intrigued and I must admit I hold out some hope. But even if this guy did every single thing right he would not be the Messiah. He will not save the world. In fact, I'm afraid that even some of his best intentions will go unrealized. Not trying to be a downer, but I feel like a more realistic outlook is needed in order for the people to really follow through on the goals that the trend-setters set before them. Environmental clean-up, foreign peace, and so on . . . these won't happen overnight, they won't come without their losses, and they won't be accomplished without some new problems arising.

So let's spare this guy the Messiah complex and see what he can do in real-time. And if you are American, write him a letter on this abortion thing, but don't oppose him to the wall. He's going to do some good things---Christ-like things even---and should be encouraged in that regard.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Instruct My Staff?

I am now interim pastoring in Edmonton for the next several months. Mainly I preach and lead the staff. I have preached before, but have never worked with a church staff, let alone led one. In my previous pastorate I spent many hours alone in the church building.

Today I discovered that not only do I have three co-workers whose company I can enjoy around the office, but that I have an Administrative Assistant who, from no coercion of my own, actually intends to help me with stuff!

I have already told my colleagues that everything I learned about leading a staff I learned from the West Wing (which isn't totally true, but almost). This could be perceived as a good or a very bad thing. So tomorrow is my first staff meeting and I am thinking of playing the following clips from the show. They are pretty funny, and one is pretty bang-on for how I feel coming to grips with "having a staff". (By the way, I don't really think of the staff as "mine", but you get the drift).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Planes, Ferries, and Pedagogy

I have been fascinated by the plane-landing on the Hudson river. I am always captivated by stories of survival and every-day heroism. The video of the plane's landing is incredible. I am often put off by the hype of the cable news stations, but in this case have been eating it up. Still, I find the ease with which people throw out the word "miracle" to be very odd. On another note, my mother-in-law had the following amusing conversation with my oldest son yesterday:

Grandma: Did you hear about the plane that lost its engines and was landed in the river? The people got out of the plane and stood on the wings and were rescued by ferries (etc) . . . .

Elijah: Grandma, is that story real?

Grandma: Yes! The pilot was amazing and the people were okay and they got out and were saved by ferries (etc) . . . !

Elijah: Wow, Grandma, so then fairies are real?!?


I appreciated the comments in regard to my last post. Thanks!

I have been reflecting on my teaching experience and am not sure what to say. Here are some different thoughts I had about pedagogy and my own teaching approach.

- It is difficult to know when you are teaching what ought to be taught to this people at this time and when you are just focusing on the stuff that interests you at this time. I think I may have erred somewhat on a few emphases that this class was not quite ready for; did not have the background study for. On the other hand, can it have been wrong to emphasize the incarnation so much in a class called "Humanity, Sin, and Salvation"? Can it have been wrong in this class to push the students to consider not only the individual/personal aspects of salvation but also the corporate/communal?

- By the way, in regard to that last point, it is telling that this class of evangelicals (like me) said frequently that they had never heard this before. Yikes.

- A good teacher really needs a sense of the class and of the school ethos in order to teach in a way that most accurately and helpfully serves the students. I think I went in somewhat prepared to teach a seminary class. I constantly pushed them to deeper thought and told them not to sell themselves short . . . but I wonder now whether perhaps if I were a regular teacher there or could do it again if I'd scale back a bit and spend a bit more time on some of the more traditional discussions that I by now take for granted (such as sanctification, justification, and so on).

- I repeatedly stressed that I was trying to let the life of Christ (including as "pre-existent Word") drive the class agenda. But the truth was that I was kind of going back and forth between a systematic approach and this Christological/Trinitarian one. Certainly these things need not cancel each other out, but that's exactly my point. I'd like to see it done in a more seamless manner. At one point I took the class through a "Hitchhiker's guide to the life of Christ" and tried to connect the different aspects with different discussions we'd be having that week. I wonder what it would look like to make this Hitchhikers guide into the entire structure of the course and to deal with separate technical issues as they came up within that larger discussion

For instance, speaking of "sanctification" under the part about Christ as "ascended Lord" or something like that. Trouble is, you could talk about sanctification under a number of headings. I'm trying to think outside the pedagogical box and wonder whether there is a way to integrate these different approaches to theology, and which approach should lead.

- It is hard to know when to move a discussion on for the sake of getting through the material and when to skip some material in order to dwell on a certain tangent. I think I did okay, and I did get through my material more or less, but I think if I knew the student body better I'd have been readier ahead of time to know exactly those points that needed more discussion. My guess is that many of them would have been points that I myself am not currently as interested in. My guess is that even as a teacher it is one thing to be a servant-teacher and another to be a "genius-professor". In Christian terms I think the former is the preferred goal.

- Teaching is fun. I had very little stress. Either I don't respect the job or the students enough or I've found my calling. Probably a little of both.

- Theology is awesome. Our discussions at various points were moving, interesting, potentially-life-changing. I was convicted, challenged and encouraged at times by "my own" material! It was one thing to study it and gather it and prepare it (collecting the thoughts of others in order to pass them on), but it took on a whole 'nother life when spoken out loud in a room of people. As much as it can be beneficial to research and read on one's own, there is still nothing that matches the group-learning endeavour. We certainly grow and learn and know God in community in a way that is not fully appreciable any other way.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


My first published article is now available online. It is in the November 2008 issue of Ministry Magazine: An International Journal for Pastors. You can read it here. Of course it's not the cover article---it is on pages 14, 17 & 19. I wondered if there would be some feedback but I haven't seen any in the letters to the editor of subsequent issues yet. After all, my article kind of subverts the premise of the cover article, if not the whole magazine! But there is a both/and to the whole thing of course . . .

First written in 2007 for a fantastic class called "Shepherding the Flock," it was the most polemic paper I ever wrote, although it sort of softens itself by not being as inflammatory as it could have been. After all, I was tempted to call it "Willow Creek's Leadership Crevice" or "The Purpose-Drivelled Church" or something like that! But that would not be fair. I'll save such satire for the blog. Really this paper was a cathartic and formative coming-around for me, and I'm just honoured and pleased to have it in print. Much thanks to Ministry, and for the idea of having student writers in the first place.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Arrested by Calvin's Institutes: Comments on the Preface

I wasn't going to mention this earlier, since I didn't want it to sound like a New Year's resolution (and I'm not confident I'll complete it), but I am endeavoring to read John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion this year. Princeton Theological Seminary has it broken up into daily readings in a blog-format (complete with audio tracks) and so far I've managed to keep up.

I'm not sure what I think of Calvin. No doubt he is an extremely important theologian. I think I am largely a Calvinist, even where I might rather not be. I guess we'll see. I've never read him on his own terms.

We are well into section one now, but what follows are a couple excerpts which stood out to me from the preface. So far I've found it extremely important to keep the context in mind. Calvin, with other "Reformers" (as they were later called--Calvin was a Catholic, really), stood against the abuses and vices of a Church rutted in power and politics and privilege and sought, not schism, but reformation. That it ended in division was a work of history and not the author's intent. Calvin spent most of his life in exile. He wrote in the hopes of a reformed Church and a redeemed theology.

Anyway, this puts it into context, but the points are still relevant. Consider the following:


"Even in their appeal to "custom" they accomplish nothing. To constrain us to yield to custom would be to treat us most unjustly. Indeed, if men's judgments were right, custom should have been sought of good men. But it often happens far otherwise: what is seen being done by the many soon obtains the force of custom; while the affairs of men have scarcely ever been so well regulated that the better things pleased the majority. . . .

Hence, one must either completely despair of human affairs or grapple with these great evils-or rather, forcibly quell them. And this remedy is rejected for no other reason save that we have long been accustomed to such evils. But, granting public error a place in the society of men, still in the Kingdom of God his eternal truth must alone be listened to and observed, a truth that cannot be dictated to by length of time, by long-standing custom, or by the conspiracy of men" (Pref. 5).


"By their double-horned argument they do not press us so hard that we are forced to admit either that the church has been lifeless for some time or that we are now in conflict with it.

Surely the church of Christ has lived and will live so long as Christ reigns at the right hand of his Father. It is sustained by his hand; defended by his protection; and is kept safe through his power. For he will surely accomplish what he once promised: that he will be present with his own even to the end of the world [Matt. 28:20].

Against this church we now have no quarrel. For, of one accord with all believing folk, we worship and adore one God, and Christ the Lord [I Cor. 8:6], as he has always been adored by all godly men. But they stray very far from the truth when they do not recognize the church unless they see it with their very eyes, and try to keep it within limits to which it cannot at all be confined.

Our controversy turns on these hinges: first, they contend that the form of the church is always apparent and observable. Secondly, they set this form in the see of the Roman Church and its hierarchy.

We, on the contrary, affirm that the church can exist without any visible appearance, and that its appearance is not contained within that outward magnificence which they foolishly admire. Rather, it has quite another mark: namely, the pure preaching of God's Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments. They rage if the church cannot always be pointed to with the finger. But among the Jewish people how often was it so deformed that no semblance of it remained? What form do we think it displayed when Elijah complained that he alone was left [I Kings 19:10, or 14]? How long after Christ's coming was it hidden without form?" (Pref. 6).

As an evangelical and therefore a child of the reformation I have to say I find these passages arresting. Especially the bold portions.

Firstly, considering our inclinations toward meeting felt needs and growing the church by various strategic means, ought we be taken aback by Calvin's reminder that "the affairs of men have scarcely ever been so well regulated that the better things pleased the majority."

Secondly, if the marks of the church are "pure preaching of God's Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments," well, ought I to wonder if Calvin would today attend any of the churches that I have called home?

If he did find himself in these churches what would he do? Considering that much of our preaching has become motivational speech and illustration and that the sacraments have so often been reduced to mere symbols alongside clapping and raising hands in praise: Would Calvin today be calling for reform now in our evangelical churches, albeit maybe from another angle?

What are the marks of a church today? Is the Church today any more "visible" than it was then? Is a reformation needed in our preaching and our worship? Is that what needs to "emerge"? What would Calvin say of the children of the reformation?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Kite Runner and Books on Film

The Kite Runner is a classic example of the difficulty of making a book into a movie. For all intents and purposes the adaptation was done very very well. The movie is technically about as true to the book as a person could expect. The story is virtually the same. All the main elements are there. And it is an amazing story.

But where I would give the novel a 9/10 I feel like I'm being generous in giving the movie a 7/10. And it is hard for me to tell if I'd have liked it more if I didn't already love the story or if I'd have liked it less.

When I give a movie a rating of 6 or higher I'm saying I liked it. I think the director and some of the actors did some really great things here. For one thing, we get to see the childhood dialogue in Farsi with subtitles rather than English. In this way the movie is actually an improvement on the book. And some of the actors did a really good job, too.

So what is the problem?

Somehow I was just not as captivated as I expected to be. Maybe this is just the problem of a reader expecting a repeat experience. But I'm not sure that is entirely it. I realize a film is going to be different than a book. You give leeway for that.

In fact, I think this is exactly where the movie failed. It wasn't different enough. It just told the story. Plot and some key lines were the main focus. Descriptions of setting were used to give us the setting, but where in the book the description of the setting also gives the reader the mood, in the movie they just treat it as background.

The movie needed to sit still a little more and let us soak in the setting. We needed a close up or two on some key character's faces (and especially with the child actors we needed to see those faces betray some feeling a bit more). We needed the lighting to look less sitcom-ish from start to finish. It was all just too-well lit. There are some dark moments in this story, but it felt like an after-school special at times.

The strength of The Kite Runner is this incredible window the reader gets into Afghani culture and history, into these particular characters, and into this unfolding drama of friendship, family, betrayal, and redemption. The movie opens that window, but despite the use of Farsi language and the seemingly-authentic setting, the view through that window just is not as vivid or deep as I'd hoped.

When you adapt a book into the film it is not just enough, in my view, to be true to the story. To use another example, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe was very true to the original story (with the exception of that horrendous river scene) and yet totally failed to capture the wonder of the story (at least once they left the beaver's hut).

Sure, characters were given about as much background or set-up as in the book, but somehow in the book CS Lewis had brought us to the place where we felt we knew them already once we met them. Centaurs, fawns, dogs, deer, mice, etc. were all on our side fighting against evil. But in the movie, though they enter the story the same way as in the book, we don't care about them. We don't know them. They almost seem like background illustrations.

The film-makers in both of these cases have not gone out of their way to translate mood and character and feeling from the printed page to the screen. You have to communicate these things differently on screen or else you might as well just leave it on the page.

I do recommend The Kite Runner. In fact, I'd like to hear from some who have seen the movie but not read the book. Did it work? Probably to a large degree it did. I mean, I'm still giving it a pretty good rating here. It is a remarkable story, and in many ways it is well told. But you would be better off reading the book. You will feel and be affected by the story far far more.

But in my opinion that is not just because it is a book, but because the novel did a better job of being a book than the movie did of being a film.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Teaching Humanity, Sin, and Salvation

I take my first crack at teaching a full college theology course this week. The course as it was assigned to me is called "Humanity, Sin, and Salvation"---which is fine with me.

As a teacher I look forward to those parts of the class where I get to try to make it personal. Little things like discussion starters, coffee break, songs and videos I hope to play (i.e. Sufjan Steven's Abraham and Johnny Cash's Hurt), and excerpts of books I hope to read (i.e. Romeo Dallaire and Elie Weisel).

On a slightly deeper level I look forward to such potentially interesting moments as when I will read the following quote on Monday morning:

“In banishing all mediators between the Bible and ourselves, we have let the Scriptures be ensnared in a web of subjectivism. Having rejected the aid of the community of interpreters throughout the history of Christendom, we have not succeeded in returning to the primitive gospel; we have simply managed to plunge ourselves back to the biases of our own individual situations" (Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, 92).

Though I am no scholar of Church history, I do hope for the lectures to find their talking points from direct quotations of Christian thinkers throughout the centuries. I look forward to being caught up in that cloud of witnesses along with my class of 15 and having the story of Christ enfold us and make us think.

At the deepest and most motivational level, I look forward to that worship activity of loving God with our minds.

In that regard, though I find the entirety of the assigned subject matter interesting, I think I am most excited about teaching day two (on humanity from a Christological/Trinitarian perspective) and the afternoon of day four (on salvation as a group thing, even a cosmic thing---involving not simply the isolated salvation of individuals but the grand reconciliation of creation, and humanity, with God and itself, in Christ. Along those lines I look forward to reading such quotes as:

“For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God, but it was not yet shown; for the Word was as yet invisible, after whose image man was created. Wherefore also he did easily lose the similtude [speaking of the Fall]. When, however, the Word of God became flesh, he confirmed both these; for he both showed forth the image truly, since he became himself what was his image; and he re-established the similtude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.16.2).

“The contemporary acknowledgment of the relationality of personal identity suggests that the divine image is a shared, communal reality. It implies that the image of God is fully present only in relationships, that is, in ‘community.’. . . Only in commmunity can we truly show what God is like, for God is the community of love, the eternal relational dynamic enjoyed by the three persons of the Trinity. . . . God’s own character can only be mirrored by humans who love after the manner of the perfect love present within the heart of the triune God" (Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism, 200-1).

Anyway, here's hoping the class goes well, and that all of you out there are starting off aught-nine with a bang.