Sunday, November 29, 2009

Back in Gear

So. I'm vacuuming at work, just as we're closing. And I'm thinking, for whatever reason, about my customers that day. Many nations. Many cultures. Many ways of thinking, each of which is represented and explored by some of my product (I sell videogames now, parttime). But, I think with a rush of pride, this is what's cool about America. Room for every culture, and room for every gens on earth. And we (the "old" Americans, be they black, white, or brown), lap it up. People go out for pho and Thai noodles and Ethiopian food, and we celebrate the best elements (in food especially, but in philosophy as well) of every culture that has taken up residence in this great nation of ours.

And then I wonder. What are the "best" elements? Are they inherently good? Or are they situationally good? That seems sensible. Culture responds to environment and need. If you can't get just the stuff you need for the religious festival, you make do with what you have. Eventually, that becomes the tradition - culture is adaptive. So the "best" elements that America absorbs are those that function best, and for which there is most need. From there it's easy to extrapolate - the only inherently "good" thing about the American cultural ethos is its willingness to adapt (read: steal) culture from other peoples. There is no really "worthy" or "precious" American value (which is completely uniquely American) except the pursuit of the useful value.

Well, I thought, how does this apply to religion? Religion is the corporate or communal response to the experience of the divine (Johnstone, under Creative Commons). And our religion is shaped by the corporation or community in which we find ourselves worshipping. I worship quite differently from Christians in Zambia or in India or in China...but we are all responding to that divine experience. And all of us have worship quite distinct from that which obtained in the past - or which will in the future - but the response of religion, (even aside from your particular faith background) is common to all cultures.

All of that, however - the adaptability of culture, and the synchronicity of religious expression, seems to me quite distinct from faith (the daily actions we undertake on the basis of our beliefs) and from gospel (the universal message of divine reconciliation shared by the Incarnate Word).

Gospel knows no bounds of culture - it is as true in deepest darkest Antarctica as on the plana of Mars. God loves us and wants to be in true relationship with us. That can be true whether you worship with guitar or with organ or in silence or in scientific exploration.

Faith, our continuous response to the wondrous message, is likewise the same, however it is expressed. That we love our neighbours, and that we seek to be in that right relationship with each other and with God, and that we act that way is a constant, even if one culture's deep insult is another's highest revelation of love.

Faith and gospel transcend (and transform) culture. They surely are not isolated from it, and they are also not fundamentally altered by that relationship, just as the Immutable God can weep for His dead Son (more on this later).

Long story short is this:

I'm back, baby.

Pro tip: upcoming post, on how we interpret sacraments in light of the above.

Monday, November 23, 2009


It is that time of year again. Good, harvest food - gourds and root vegetables. Through the falling leaves, and into the first sounding of the trumpets of winter. It's a season when we consider our own gratitude - we give thanks for food, for our lives, for our families.

We give thanks for superheroes.

Thanksgiving of my sophomore year of college, I couldn't afford to fly home, so I just parked myself in my dorm room with supplies, and books. Everything I needed. I got bored out of my mind. I went to the video store. I rented something like six movies. By chance, they all happened to be superhero movies. And thus began one of my favorite holiday traditions. Every Thanksgiving, I rent or buy superhero movies, and pay particular attention to the philosophy, the literary implications, and (especially this year) the theology of superheroes.

Apologies to the uninitiated as it concerns superheroes - I'm about to get very specific in my examples. I invite you to look these cats up on Wikipedia, if you don't know who they are already. Suppose, for just a moment, that you live in the Marvel Universe (copyright the Disney Corporation, 2009). Where is the church? What sorts of sermons do you hear about those with special powers? How does the presence of truly exceptional people affect your understanding of, say, Romans? Is there a religious contingent speaking out against the Nephilim of Genesis? Do the sorts of hatred and fear that characterize the X-Men series spring not from political pressures, as the movies depict, but from the church? How does the church receive Iron Man? What about Spiderman? Colossus? The Beast?

There are, then, two sorts of questions that we can immediately apply, here. One is the question of power - a central issue in the comic book genre, and a concern of our churches everywhere. How do we integrate and accept the powerful into our churches - the wise, the strong, the brave, the influential, the rich? How do we preach the saving and humbling gospel of Jesus Christ to those who think that they have no reason to be humble, and feel that they have no need to be saved? How do we evangelize the Fantastic Four?

Second, and even more worrying to me, is the question of difference. I can see churches not having a problem with (and some churches being very excited about) having Tony Stark (Iron Man) in the pews. Likewise, out of costume, Peter Parker (Spiderman) poses no problems. But Bruce Banner (Hulk) in his more verdant state? Johnny Storm (Human Torch), in need of an asbestos pew? On the other end of the thermometer, is Iceman going to be able to take communion without a) freezing his grape juice or b) causing quite a stir? Can we, as church, truly be open and accepting of everyone - everyone - even if they are visibly different? Can we preach the good news to all, be church for all those baptized, administer our sacraments and truly engage discipline, even to the exceptional among us?

I'm not sure, yet. But Lord, do I hope so.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Creatio Ex Nihilo

What is the lover without the beloved?
What is the vision of a lone man?

He is an empty hole in the desert,
Crying out for summer rains.
He is a broken pottery jar,
A jar of molded clay that holds no drop.

What is the lover without the beloved?
What is the vision of a lone man?

He is a lake that swells against a dam,
A flooding lake that breaks its banks all down.
He is a barrel, bursting at the seams.
Each crack gushes water as from a wound in all directions.

What is the lover without the beloved?
What is the vision of a lone man?

He is a cistern filling with the captured flow,
A reservoir for all the thirsty people.
He is a river, gurgling on its banks,
Filled and filling in a liquid dance.
He is a cup, into which pitchers pour
That kisses its brim, then spills to thirsty ground.

What is the lover without the beloved?
What is the vision of a lone man?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Psalm of Water

You own me, O Lord.
For who else has the right?
Only You, who send the waters.
Only You, who bring the rain.

The Lord is mighty in works and steadfast in kindness.
The Lord sends the rains, to baptize the land.
Stones and soil are cleansed of sin,
Rocks and trees are reborn in your showers,
The earth remembers its baptism, and is glad.

The Lord is mighty in works, and steadfast in kindness.
His voice is heard in the Mississippi
In the Colorado you may hear His words
Sing, ye waters, sing the Lord of Hosts
The Columbia tells of naught but his praises,
His glory is told by the Hudson's banks.
Sing, ye waters, sing the Lord of hosts.

The Lord is mighty in works, and steadfast in kindness.
His rains sing down the cloying air,
Their droplets shine in human lights.
Your waters drip down my back
On my very skin the raindrops fall.
The nightstorm speaks of the glory of God,
His mighty Love sings in my soul.

You own me, O Lord.
The right is yours alone.
You, the Author of the rainstorm.
You, the Author of my life.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

My Summer Responsibilities

So, I started this last Sunday at Fourth Presbyterian Church of South Boston, and thought I should add the catalogue of my responsibilities and related minutiae of that gig.

So here:

I. Activity Leader, Summer Meals Program, 20 hrs./wk.
In this role, I will be planning, preparing for, and executing activities at the "Imagination Station." These activities will span a breadth of styles and methods of learning, will connect with the broader themes of the Summer Meals Program, and will be specifically aimed at teaching a variety of different kinds of imagination (kinesthetic, visual, auditory, verbal, theatrical, musical, and anything else that I can finagle). These responsibilities to commence with the beginning of Summer Meals in early July.

II. Director/Coordinator, Wednesday Evening Worship, 5 hrs./wk.
I will be organizing and running the Fourth Church evening, outdoor worship service on Wednesday evenings. This includes structuring worship, consulting with musicians and worship leaders, selecting liturgy, assuring smooth function of services, occasionally preaching, locating other preachers, and generally being the go-to person for this event. I will also be double-checking and coordinating the food and cooking portions of the event.

III. Adult Sunday School Class Leader, 5 hrs./wk.
I will run an adult Sunday school class for most of June and part of July. I will frame each class's issue, provide a structure for debate and discussion, be available to answer questions, and facilitate a frank and earnest exploration of each week's issue. I will also ask around and encourage people to attend each class.

IV. Worship Leadership and Assistance, 4 hrs./wk.
I will provide any necessary assistance to the smooth running of the Sunday worship service, as well as preaching on three occasions over the course of the summer. This includes participation in choir, and any other tasks which require assistance.

V. Web Consultant, 1 hr./wk
I will update the church website, and then write a document instructing future users in how to make the same updates. I will also be available to answer web and technical questions for the church in general.

Ask questions if you got 'em!


Friday, May 29, 2009

Return of the...Thing: Spring '09

...testing. Are...are we live?

Oh! There you are. 


Without further ado: the Rundown.

1. New Testament:

Have you ever been really excited about a class or seminar, and then gotten into it and discovered that you already had extensive background in nearly everything under discussion in the class? My background in Classics put me at a distinct advantage - we spent much of the class on the Greco-Roman context of the New Testament, which I already knew. This is not to say that I learned nothing. As I had hoped, I got a much more solid understanding of the Epistles: to whom they were written, when, and what their major thrusts were. Overall, it was a good grounding for me in the distinction of biblical texts.

2. Moral Formation in Children's Fantasy Literature

I believe that someone was asking why precisely I was buying books that had so much to do with wizards. This class was positively amazing - a real and sincere discussion of the cultural implications and use for church of this broad array of fantasy books, from CS Lewis to Philip Pullman. I got to read a bunch of fantasy I'd been meaning to get to, and to discuss the elements of good moral instruction for young people. I also got to work on a fantasy piece of my own - when the whole thing's done, all and sundry'll get a copy. This was a nice combination of light material and heavy conversation.

3. The Tempest

I got a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream, here - I was FINALLY in a Shakespeare play. I played one of the clowns, Trinculo, and got the line "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows." There will likely be a DVD that I will bring home later this summer. I had a great time dusting off my acting skills, and getting to work on some Shakespeare was a true delight. I'm already considering working on the play next year. 

4. SHORT TERM: Greek Exegesis of Philippians and Philemon

This was, far and away, the most awesome class of my term. A month of Greek, three hours a day, digging into the really hopeful book of Philippians, as well as the less hopeful, but deeply interesting book of Philemon. I reflexed my Greek muscles. I got to meet and work with some really neat folks, and read St. Thomas Aquinas' commentary on Philippians. Odds are good that I'll be preaching on Philippians in the near term. A very inspiring class.

5. Everything Else

I spent most of the spring working at the Bonner Foundation. That was a fine gig, but I'm quite excited to move on to both my summer and next academic year field ed. positions. I'm also hoping, next year, to work as a computer repair contractor, and possibly tutoring Latin. 

I've located a really solid group of friends, theologically solid and helpful, people with whom I can relax and work. I'm moving next year onto a floor with a bunch of other good guy friends. Socially, all is well. 

I'm at Fourth Presbyterian in South Boston this summer, and at Six Mile Run Reformed in Franklin Park, NJ next year, and I'll be taking Hebrew, among other things yet to be determined.

That's the news from Princeton. Do you have other questions? Need more detail on some part of the term-in-review? Comment here, or drop me a line at

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Top Three: Ways We're Doing Campus Ministry Wrong

I realize that I should talk about all the benefits of campus ministry, and maybe sometime I will. But I think before I can talk about the upside of my experiences, I need a bit of catharsis. I have chosen to leave the name of my university, and the particular organization against which I have a beef, to the dust of history - if you're curious, go ahead and ask me.

1. We are not asking how our particular campus ministry furthers the efforts of the Kingdom of God. On a micro-level, this means there are tons of retreats, meetings, prayer groups, etc., but no vision at the leadership level of how this fits into a broader mission. At the macro-level, our major campus ministry organizations are at each others' throats, actively defending campus "territories," almost like a para-church gang war. I've seen it go down, and it made me sad to watch a committed Christian put his back more into the organization he works for than the mission of the Kingdom.

2. We are not providing good staff support for local chapters, especially at small colleges. Again - saw this first-hand. It is almost impossible for staff to afford being full-time, especially in their younger days. Later, they have a hard time connecting with youth. And, across the board, national organizations are not providing staff who understand local campuses. The disconnect between my local campus and the regional office was palpable, and founded largely on the fact that the regional director could not bring himself to believe that our group was truly student-led. His style may have worked at other colleges, but the way he talked over the heads of our leaders to speak to volunteer staff, as if we could not really be decision-makers, still puts my teeth on edge now.

3. We are not adequately expressing the fact that campus ministry is not church. While I was on leadership, we said it consistently, but even now, it hasn't quite sunk in. "I'll go to large group, and skip church on Sunday." This is disastrous for the spiritual formation of young people - I would much rather have folk go to church and be connected to God than have them go to large group, and connect some with God, but more with other people. Campus ministry is not sacramental, and the sacraments are too important to me to elide that way (yes, Barkeep, I'm affirming sacramentalism as being as important as preaching. I'll talk to you about it later).

So. Solutions?

1. Make campus ministry an attractive option for more young people (easier to find funding, etc.).
2. Provide real theological and prophetic training for staff, so that they can guide students with real zeal.
3. Get the word out - our campus organization is fine - church is better.

Those are preliminary thoughts...still in process...

Monday, March 30, 2009

Facts Under Attack

Twice now, in the past week or so, I have had a conversation that has put my method and style of learning under fire. It's a profoundly uncomfortable place to be, and my apologies if I have ever derided your learning-style - I see now whence you are coming.

Today in class it was a "flip-flop," - we must move from semantic to experiential learning in our work with youth especially in the church. Prioritize experiential learning, start with it, and move then into semantic. Don't necessarily separate them, but remove the primacy that facts have heretofore held over our education of the young.

I would that I could tell you why this discomfits me so profoundly. Because, honestly, from a pedagogical perspective, I do not disagree. We should be emphasizing experiential learning. We should be giving our tactile, auditory, and kinesthetic learners a fair shake at what the church has to teach.

Maybe it's an incipient fear that we verbal learners will be left in the cold when the revolution's over. And maybe it's a hesitance - will we entirely lose the semantic content of our message? Will facts and truths become of secondary importance to experience? Will that last even be a bad thing?

But, mostly, I think, it is that I have never, EVER felt that semantic knowledge - facts and ideas, to my way of thinking - are disconnected from ME. I believe, to the level that I believe that God loves me, that all things are connected. My knowledge, the trees outside, the stars on the other side of the universe; everything is linked to everything else, by God's eternal will, if by no other string. When I read that Chuck Yeager was the first man to break the sound barrier, I connect it to Yuri Gagarin, and his first orbit, and to my deep and abiding love of space. I may not have a great deal of sports trivia on hand, but I know people who care deeply about this range of knowledge, and I care about them.

At bottom, then, it is this: intellego ut amam - I understand in order that I might love. And I love in order that I might understand. I love this universe in which God has placed me, and the people who surround me with their love. Why should I not understand more, know more, in order that I might love more? And I learn best, I find, when my newfound knowledge connects to something else I care about.

Thank God all things are connected.

My fear, then, is that we will spend so much time connecting our knowledge to our youth that we will forget - they are not the heart of the web. They are not the center of the universe - God is. And only through proximity to Him can we ever hope to perceive the whole structure of universal thought. Let us, by every rope of love we have, bind our young people to God - then, and only then, can they learn what binds them to every other thing in existence.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Pastoral Authority

A friend of mine got hurt last night.

She's very okay, in case you were worried - took a bad fall and her muscles seized up. Which presented as neck pain and partial paralysis. You can see how this would be scary. But she's okay - this was a pretty standard sports injury, and everyone's doing fine.

No, what was fascinating was everyone else's reaction. Y'see, I'm here at seminary, where most everyone's training to be a pastor. And I swear to you, you have never seen a more pathetic thing than thirty seminarians, all of whom want desperately to help, and none of whom know what to do. We don't move, because we don't want to step on someone else's toes. What can be concretely done is being concretely done. So what do you do with this superfluity of help, gushing from our wounded hearts?

Well, we pray, of course. But who? How? Who decides that we will pray? Where? Whence the authority to make that kind of declaration?

I imagine it will be relatively easy, when I'm a pastor of my own congregation, to step up and say, "Friends, let's pray." But right now, I don't seem to have the authority to make that call.

TBTG, someone else did - the referee, actually. And as soon as he indicated that we were going to pray, EVERYONE joined in.

But I was left with this question - is ordination really just another step in a process? Like your first day of school as a teacher, just another ritual to endure? Or is it truly something more? An acknowledgement, by a church, that you do have the authority to lead a flock, to minister, to call us to pray?

I'm not sure. But I'm jazzed to find out.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In Defense of the Denomination - Interlude

Someone asked me, not without justice, why exactly I'm promulgating this series. What perception do I have that the denomination is under attack?

I am not going to name names or point too firmly, but I'm getting rumbles of a few things that are bothering me. Firstly, and the reason I'm not naming names here is because you can find them on the internets pretty easily, my church is bleeding congregations. Local sessions and pastors are jumping ship, for largely one reason. Frankly, as it concerns that, God bless 'em. They are adhering to their consciences, and to their perception of God's call. I wish they had more interest in the unity of the body of Christ, but so be it - they have made their calls.

The second, and more disturbing rumor I'm hearing is that churches are withholding their per capita (for you non-presbys, it's like your Presbyterian dues. Goes to fund all sorts of neat things like having a national denomination and local oversight), not only from GA (a time-honored method of sticking it to those folks from Louisville), but also from their presbyteries.

I take very seriously the vows I swore when I was ordained as an elder in the church. I signed up for this. I agreed to uphold the Books of Order and Confessions, and if I felt that the church had lost its way from those documents, I would be the first in line to leave. Me. Myself. Leaving the church. What I wouldn't do is drag my congregation with me, or try and starve my governing body of cash (God bless all libertarians as well), while still trying to hold on to some illusion of authority in the church. The church granted you your authority when you were ordained, and the abuse of that authority distresses me deeply. If you can't speak with us, as one church, please don't speak at all. I beg you - go and find your calling in God's Kingdom. Don't ruin mine.

That's my cause for denominational concern - why I feel obliged to apologize for my commitment to my denomination. Soon, I hope to explain my second reason why having a denomination is a good idea.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

In Defense of the Denomination

I realize this is all uncited and has no historical proof. This is because I am lazy. If I ever try and publish this in slaughtered tree form, I will have footnotes and everything, I promise.

When folk first started the non-apostolic denominations (here I'm speaking most of the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Congregationalists, and their ilks) in America, they had one goal in mind. They tended to stick with their theological (and, therefore, to some degree, ethnic) confessional brethren, but the purpose of national denominations in the states was not a confessing church on the European model. Rather, they were hoping to do ministry.

A regular-sized congregation in this country has relatively limited reach outside their own sphere. Certainly, there are opportunities in their local areas, and sometimes they can afford to send mission trips to nearby/cheap nations, but they can't afford to build and maintain hospitals, schools, or any of the other staples of international missions as far away as Africa or Asia.

When this was recognized in the 18th (ish) century, local congregations of similar theological background banded together, not for governance, but to pool their resources, to send missions to the places that need them most desperately. These purely local movements grew into national ones, in which governance became folded into the more ministerial functions. But international missions were a prime goal of the American denominations.

I would that I had data to give you. I do not. But what I'm hearing these days is that, as denominations, our funding for international missions, and for mission work in our own country, is falling. We are turning inward, asking why we should give our hard-earned dollars to local governing bodies and the national conventions above them.

I am committed to the Church of Jesus Christ universal, and to my membership of it. I am also, to a lesser extent, committed to my national denomination - to the PC(USA), not because I think it's the most lucrative, or the most powerful, but because there are structures in place in my beloved presbytery meetings for trying to convince people, and for being convinced. Real dialogue is a possibility, and we can learn from one another even as we disagree.

So, my Presbyterian brethren, I beg you - stick with us. From the bottom up, we need to continue to be committed to the goals and ideals of a denomination concerned with mission, and with helping people, as Christ called us to do.

And from the top down, we need a revitalized call to missions, both at home and abroad. In these dire days, there is more need than ever for real engagement with our problems. Like President Obama's vision of government, let our churches be committed to solutions, not parts of the problems.

There is a second part to this story, coming soon to a feed reader near you...

Rational Thought

Taking my daily dose of bile on Huffington Post the other day (I find it healthful to occasionally read the opinions of those who disagree with me. Keeps the blood flowing), I found this quotation on a comment, now lost to the seas of a changeable internet:

"Organized religion is where rational thought goes to die."

I've been trying to frame my rebuttal for a few days now, worrying this little line like a sore tooth. For there is something in there - I know people who have joined churches that tell them what to think, and are much happier for it. People who do not want or need to be engaged, but do need guidance in how to lead their lives.

I think what bothers me, then, perhaps, is the generalization. For, in my context (seminary), perhaps the exact opposite is true. We MUST learn to think rationally about our faith, and connect our faith with our reason, to survive the stormy waters in which we find ourselves.

There are plenty of other places where this dialectic applies. Someone was railing (again on HuffPost) about the fact that taxpayer money is spent on MarketPlace. I love MarketPlace, and I would see the guy's point if Marketplace consistently told people what to do with their money (a la Mad Money on CNBC, thanks Jon Stewart), but they don't. More than anything else, I think MarketPlace (and NPR in general) want people to THINK about everything.

I'll confess - sometimes I think too much. I feel like I've gotten better at balancing thinking, feeling, and being, of later years, and I am the better for that. I can't reply to my erstwhile internet opponent directly, so instead, I'll say it to all of you, dear readers. Willful ignorance is no prerequisite to faith - some of us try our best to understand, in order that we might believe.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Top Ten: Black (Not African American) Mix

10. Tribute - Tenacious D. I actually like this song too well for it to be in this position on the list...except for the part where the title nor the "artist" has nothing to do with black. However - lead singer? Jack Black. Go me. A classic of my high school days, an intriguing little ballad, with the delightful point that this is not the greatest and best song in the world - this is just a tribute. Saw these cats live with Weezer and Jimmy Eat World in high school. They had stomp rocket pyrotechnics. Hot to death.

9. War Pigs - Black Sabbath. Although Cake's cover is pretty song, I know it best from Guitar Hero II. It blows my mind how effective their pauses are, and how the song manages to hold energy despite it being nine years long. Even so - another untouchable classic.

8. Little Black Back Pack - Stroke 9. Dude. Remember high school? Just a catchy little tune, light and playful on the chorus - perhaps a precursor to emo? This song is 100% pure high school for me.

7. Black Hole Sun - Soundgarden. And this one is middle school. An alternative classic - though I hear it might be "Black-eyed Son"? I'm not quite sure. Chris Cornell's voice rocks my mind.

6. That Old Black Magic - Spike Jones. An old family classic. Spike Jones' take is the most...soulful...I've ever heard. =P You can find other covers out there, but I think Jones has the definitive version.

5. Supermassive Black Holes - Muse. Not my favorite Muse song, but fits other criteria. Muse's harmony/backup work perpetually impresses, and this song is no exception. This album, and its key single, Knights of Cydonia, are college songs for me.

4. Welcome to the Black Parade - My Chemical Romance. For some reason, this song always tags in my head as "anthemic." Something about it hooks to nationalistic/patriotic music for me (appropriate, considering the parade imagery, etc. I heard this one on my radio station in do they come up with this stuff?

3. Paint it Black - Rolling Stones. A tune introduced to me by Guitar Hero III, with its irresistable Stonesian hook. Don't you ever just want to paint things black?

2. Heart Full of Black - Burning Brides. Another GH special, this one from GH1. This was the first song in GH that was uniquely mine amongst my group of friends. I still get pumped thinking about it.

1. Many Shades of Black - The Raconteurs. Preferable to racketeers, the Raconteurs bring a delightful retro feel (which seems to be on the resurgence everywhere I look) to the "I've broken up with you" song. Too addictive to be allowed - and I hope it's stuck in your head now.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Christ n' Culture II: Patristic SMACKDOWN

So there are these two early theologians: Augustine (of whom you may have heard) and Tertullian (of whom you may have heard if you are a CHURCH NERD). They were chillin', doing their early church father thing, living lives as Roman citizens, etc.

Now, Augustine, from time to time, was seen down at the show - which, in Rome of the time, meant the gladatorial games. These were brutal blood sports - think Gladiator meets Saw III. Yes, the honor of the slave, of combat, blah blah blah, but seriously folks - if you think we're voyeuristic? At least we don't generally cheer on the spectacle of real people being eaten by real bears. But Augustine went to these things sometimes, and hung out with his boys, at least partially as a ministry to those same heathens.

Tertullian, on the other hand, avoided these entertainments like the plague. Christians, he argued, should avoid anything which might detract from their love for/of and devotion to Christ. The entertainments were pure evil (to some degree) and should be shunned. Christians should be separate.

These have be come, due to the offices of one Paul Tillich, to be called the "Christ in Culture" (Augustine, kinda) and "Christ against Culture" (Tertullian) models. Christians should be in the world, but not of the world...well what the devil does that mean?

My thing, after Tillich's argument, is Christ Transforming Culture. We are here, but we want to be different from the ills of the societies that surround us, and we want those societies to be as much better as we can. If that's through reading and espousing good literature, or even writing good films and books, more power to us. But the first step, as always, is to examine the culture in which we live, particularly (in my case) through film and the sci-fi/fantasy genres.

So, I hope that answers your question, Dawn.

Any other ones troubling you out there, O Internets? Shoot 'em. I got time.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Christ n' Culture

So, Dawn quite fairly asks me the question that has defined much of the last few months for me. Why do I study films at Princeton Theological Seminary? Why am I reading Fantasy Literature for class? Whence the obsession with popular culture?

First: You are what you eat. Nobody seems particularly inclined to dispute the truth of this statement. The foods you input into your body will affect your body's overall health.

It seems logical to state, then, that you are also what you see. Films go into your mind - they're a visually powerful medium. How often have you seen a shot or an image in a movie that, later, you couldn't quite get out of your head?

Same holds true for books. You are what you read. This I can say even more definitely. In this one respect, I regret playing Dungeons and Dragons in my youth - I can never quite elude the paradigm of Lawful and Chaotic, Good and Evil in my own head. The books that I read as a child, and the books I read now, shape the way I see and interact with the rest of the world.

Therefore, it seems to me that I can be a better and more critical reader and moviegoer. I can consciously choose to accept or reject the worldviews of everything that I read, from a covertly Marxist opinion piece on the BBC today, to Fight Club, a favorite film of mine, to the Twilight series, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and about which I may have more to say later.

The best way I know of, though, to become just such a careful thinker, is to practice. I think a generation of pastors trained to think carefully about popular culture and how best to interact with it can only be of eventual benefit to the Church.

Second...well, I think second will wait a day.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


So how's this for a sad state of affairs?

I have a writing assignment for my Children's and Fantasy Lit. class. Gotta write 20 minutes a day. Doesn't necessarily have to be for my writing project, although that's encouraged, but I must write for 20 minutes, at the very least, every day.

I am so uninspired, not only by my fantasy project, but by EVERY OTHER PROJECT ON MY LIST that I have been forced to resort to my BLOG to fill out the time.


I was writing today (which doesn't count - work-related) on some good advice for bloggers - how to create and maintain a good blog. As a part of the project, I looked back over this blog and read some old posts, both good and ill. The only really embarrassing one was one where I got frustrated with the post towards the end and commented on how bad it was. Sort of tongue-in-cheek, I told these aspiring bloggers to not permit their audience to see the man behind the curtain.

And now I'm doing it again, in a neverending spirally cycle of self-referential doom.

Five minutes for this post. For the record.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

DOUBLE FEATURE: A Trip to Bountiful / The Unbelievable Truth

We have here a curious duality - one movie whose title is completely obvious, and another which, after two viewings, I still can't really fully describe. Let's dive in, shall we?

Vital Statistics:
A Trip to Bountiful, 1985
Rating: K

A Trip to Bountiful is based on a stage play by Horton Foote, which I was fortunate enough to see at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR. I don't remember much of the stage production, except a crystal image of the abandoned house, picked out in oranges and browns. The play I recall as being very autumnal, which the film is strikingly not. This movie is a summer movie, a summer movie set in southwest Texas of the early 1940s. It's the story of a highly dysfunctional family (which I recall being better played onstage), and one woman's journey to return to her roots. It's a film loaded with hope, a "creation" film. It has one of my favorite hymns in it, and one of my mother's as well - "Softly and Tenderly," a classic old rooter.

As for theology...there's a definite connection between the idea of Bountiful (this woman's hometown) and Eden - a sense of loss and a desire to return to her roots. There's a strong distinction drawn between loving your neighbour and not. Some characters are cruel and spiteful - all the fellow-travelers are kind and helpful. This is, of course, promptly deconstructed when you begin to see the good intentions behind the cruelty and spite of the "evil." I was struck especially by the rather wistful portrayals of the nameless girl on the bus, and the sherriff. Might-have-beens connect with the desire to return to Eden. And once you get helps. It puts you back on a half-remembered path. The journey and the destination mingle to create a new person, once you've walked the road.

That may have sounded a bit maudlin. The movie's kinda like that.

The Unbelievable Truth, 1989
Rating KJ-13

Have you, ever had a conversation where you and the other person weren't actually listening to one another? Not just "waiting for your turn to speak," I mean that you're both essentially monologuing on unrelated topics.

Imagine that, only it's a movie. The whole movie. There's a scene like that in the movie, but, in fact, the whole movie is kind of that way. We've talked a bit in class about film as a conversation, but in this conversation, whatever I might have tried to say to Hal Hartley, The Unbelievable Truth was going to go the direction he wanted it to go.

There's a continuous refrain with the main character: "Are you a priest?" "No, I'm a mechanic." And it sounds absurd. But there seems to be something in common there. I couldn't tell you what, but something.

This, thus far, has been my favorite of the movies, and is a contender for champion overall. We'll see.

*A note on the rating system. These are intended largely for my mother - sort of an old joke. They are as follows.

K - Mom, you will object to nothing in this movie.
KJ - Oh, I'd forgotten that scene. Whoops. Sorry.
KJ-13 - Okay, there are a few bits we're gonna fast-forward through...
F - Sorry, Mom. I broke the DVD.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Babette's Feast

So, the Barkeep would want me to mention that Babette's Gaestebud was directed by Gabriel Axel, and won the 1987 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The original short story was written by Karen Blixen (Wikipedia also notes Isak Dinesen, with Blixen in parentheses - I'm going with the name in the credits), who also wrote the (oddly) familiar Out of Africa. I don't think I've seen it, but I've sure heard of it.
It occurs to me as I begin this post that I don't know exactly what I'm reviewing for. I'm tempted to just start with numbers, because they're much easier to spout, but that's not real criticism, so in spite of my temptation to award the thing "Four and a Half Jesuses," I'm going to try to confine the discussion to each film's theological message for me personally.
So the big word of the day is "balance." There's a temptation in Christianity towards "antinomianism," that is, a complete reliance on spirit in the body/spirit divide. We've been having trouble with various sects of this persuasion since slightly after the death of Christ, while at the same time we try to react against the materialist obsessions of the (insert decadent civilization here). Body matters, we want to say, but body is not all. Christ had a body - he also had a meaningful divine spirit.
From my end, Babette's Feast is a classic walking of the line. There is no condemnation of the piety of the community (while at the same time not quite endorsing it), and there's no overt endorsement of the delightful banquet - just a view of the pleasant results. The film seems to imply that there's room for both perspectives in a truly balanced view of the world.
I realize that's pretty surface, but I'm running on empty - I'll see if I have more for you tomorrow.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


So, my class this J-term is "Theology in Film." I am the screener for the class, (I'm getting paid anytime there's a movie on, I think), and I get to watch a ton of movies, none of which I've ever seen before. Can't beat that with a stick.

So, this is my film review blog for the whole month of January. Expect multiplicities of posts! Scads of content! Ponies! Links! Ideas! Criticism out the Wazzoo From Which Criticism Should Not Come!

As a special bonus, the inhabitants of the House of Calamitous Intent have requested a movie outside of my class syllabus - I expect to oblige them on the second weekend of term. The Barkeep has been solicited for a further one - does anyone else have any theological film review requests? If you want me to talk about the place or treatment of God in a cinematic expression (including TV episodes), your wish is my command. I'm jazzed, you see.

So - that's the plan, starting tomorrow night, probably during my second viewing of Babbette's Feast.

(I might have lied about the ponies)