Tuesday, February 17, 2004

'the sandman'

Read it, loved it, and I quit too. FIrst thing I remember consciously agreeing with the Morningstar on.

I've had a few friends and colleagues with similar disdain for comic books, but I keep winning them over. I regularly buy my wife the "Strangers in Paradise" trades because she can't get enough of them,and a friend of mine from WCN Newspapers is now well and truly hooked on Sandman. I just lent him "Fables and Recollections" and "The Kindly Ones" to get him on the home stretch. Working at WCN, Brian doesn't have the money to buy them, but he loves a good horror story and figures he probably will buy them later on.

And of course, he was hooked enough that I was able to get him to read "V for Vendetta" and since has started looking up other comics on his own. So I claim him as another convert to appreciating comic books as a latter 20th-century art form.

"A Doll's House," since it's set at a "cereal convention," does suggest some fairly graphic stuff, although most of it is left to the reader's imagination (thereby making it worse). Still, it's important because of what happens with Rose Walker toward the end of the collection; it introduces the majorly significant Lyta Hall and her son, Daniel; it relates the story of Dream's relationship with Nada; it introduces Hob and sets up Shakespeare's indentureship under Dream; and also contains the first appearance of the Corinthian, Fiddler's Green and Matthew. Each of those ends up playing a vital role in later stories.

The dead return in "Seasons of Mist," which includes the story of Edwin Paine and how he continues his education. (At least I think that's his name -- my copy is on loan to another friend.) That volume had some disquieting parts, but nothing that gave me nightmares. Mostly I got a kick out of the idea of Morningstar quitting as the Adversary, and I loved the irony of Duma and Remiel being told by the Voice to take office at hell -- especially when Remiel complained it was unjust and how he would rebel, and then realized there was nowhere else for him to go but into hell if he chose to reject the Presence.

The collections generally stand well independently. They're self-contained and give you enough information to figure out what's going on -- something made necessary by the medium, since "Sandman" originally was published over something like a seven-year period in monthly 30-page installments. I can understand a reluctance to read it -- one of the stories in "The Kindly One" actually gave me nightmares -- but the English degree-holding part of me still has to underscore the significance of the volume for the overall series.

Because it is a single cohesive work, and not merely episodic like many superhero titles, it has a certain cadence that reaches a tremendous climax in "The Kindly Ones" before tapering off into the denoument of "The Wake." Without question, it's the finest comic to come out a mainstream publisher in ages. (It's also deservedly recognized as resurrecting horror comics and breathing new life into the comics medium as a whole.)

From what I heard, Gaiman kept expecting to get canceled each issue because of the content.

I've also discovered a certain odd thrill in discovering the depths of literarure and comicdom that Gaiman plumbed for Sandman. Cain and Abel once were the hosts of two of D.C.'s other, long-canceled horror comics, called "House of Mysteries" and "House of Secrets" respectively. I even owned a copy of an issue of the former, at one point. No idea what's happened to it since then. Prez appeared in a miserably conceived comic about 30 years ago.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

we are the branches

Which branch of Christianity do you belong to?
  • Roman Catholic
  • Orthodox
  • Coptic
  • Mainline Protestant
  • Evangelical
  • Pentecostal
  • Fundamentalist
  • Liberation theology
  • Other
  • I'm not a Christian
In terms of views of the Bible or even most major doctrines, I don't think there are substnative differences between the labels evangelical and fundamentalist. I think the difference comes in connotation.

The Associated Press notes that the term "fundamentalist" generally is considered derogatory and should not be applied to an organization or individual unless the organization or individual so referenced uses the term in that way already. My own interpretation of that term is that fundamentalist churches usually are withdrawn from society at large, which it holds in some disdain. Fundamentlist groups also are more likely to be less educated. That's the connotation I take away from the image, anyway.

Evangelicals, however, are more likely to be involved in things like politics as a means of saving the world from itself. There might be a condemnation of society but usually less so of individuals within it. In my experience, evangelical groups often are more educated, generally speaking.

Pentecostals can be of either school, but they are marked by practices such as speaking in tongues and prophecy, and it's also -- generally speaking again -- among Pentecostals that you're more like to find some of the excess that dogged the American Church in the 1980s and 1990s.

All that said of the stereotypes, it's true that you'll find goodhearted people and knuckleheads in every sect of Christianity.

2602.20 in reply to 2602.16
That's certainly the popular depiction of liberation theology in evangelical circles, but that's a pretty extreme view. Working that way, I might well classify evangelicalism as a belief system that holds that Jesus was a hard-working member of the upper-middle class who believed that people should rise or fall on their own merits, hated welfare cheats, and thought the economy would do better if only the wealthy got to keep more of their money.

Yeah, you'll find that Marxists have used liberation theology to hijack the church in some parts of Latin America, just as you'll find that some Republicans have hijacked evangelicalism to muster the votes they need to win. Neither case should be considered a fair representation of the beliefs.

As I understand it, liberation theology teaches that the poor have a special place in God's economy. When Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," he means that: The gospel has a special relevance for the poor, and that they stand to enter it ahead of the wealthy. That's why he says things like "The Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor" and "It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." That's why Jesus grew up in a working-class home, worked a simple trade, and spent his adult life primarily with the outcasts of society -- because the people society has rejected, have a special value to God.

Salvation remains by grace, through faith, but the epistle of James loses none of its meaning: Remember that he says that faith that produces no works in keeping with righteousness is a sterile, dead faith. And James -- like the prophets in the Tanakh -- has some incredibly stern words for those who make themselves wealthy at the expense of others. "Woe to you who are rich," he writes. "The wages you have denied the workers cry out against you. You have hoarded wealth in the last days." Many evangelicals I've known have been ignorant of those words, or view them as less inspired than Paul's words, "You have been saved by grace, through faith, not by works, lest any man should boast."

It's not just about money, although that's one indicator of inequity that's easy to latch onto. Jesus in his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats runs through a whole laundry list of things we're to do, and at the end of it, he consigns to everlasting fire and torment a group of people who ask with puzzlement, "Lord, when did we ever see you in need and not minister to you?" These aren't non-Christians being sent away; they're people who believed they were following.

In "The Grapes of Wrath," Steinbeck observed that the church often tells the poor just to sit back and fold your hands, because you'll be eating ice cream off gold plates in heaven. Phooey to that, I say. John the Baptist says, "If you have two cloaks, give one to the man who has none." Jesus told people to set aside their prejudices and care for the wounded, even if the wounded man was an individual who would just as soon throw stones at you as give you the time of day.

To me, that's what liberation theology is about. It's about recognizing that Christ is in the need, and responding to him. It's about meeting the needs of others, and it's open making real and physical connections with other people. It's about correcting social inequities and problems by helping the people caught in them.

That's liberating, and that's good theology.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

assemblies of god

I belonged to the Assemblies of God for about seven years after I became a Christian.

My biggest problem with the AoG is one that I think someone else already has mentioned, and one that I think is endemic in evangelical circles, not just in Pentecostal ones: self-righteousness. It's fairly customary in evangelicaldom to hear about how sinful the world is, and to castigate the world for failing to be godly, all the while telling other believers how much Jesus loves them.

I think that's a pretty backward approach, personally. The message we have is supposed to be life to a dying world, but we usually reserve our words of hope for other Christians, when the prophets usually had their harshest words for those who claimed to be following God. Back when Lawrence came out of the closet in Lynn Johnston's "For Better or for Worse," our pastor wrote a scathing letter to the editor of The Ashton Express-Times blating it for pushing sexual immorality. At the same time, there was a general feeling of sympathy for Jim Bakker, that he had been judged too harshly. (Swaggart didn't come up much, but I did know a few people who still regarded his teaching quite highly.)

Growing out of that is an increasing withdrawal from the world into safe little enclaves of Christianity. The AoG churches I was involved with operated Christian schools to keep the kids safe from the evils of public schools -- parents were generally discouraged from sending their kids to a public school or secular college, if not overtly than certainly by the attitudes regularly expressed toward such institutions -- and frequently they also provide all sorts of other approved alternatives to secular society. AoG runs its own version of the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts -- Royal Rangers and Missionettes -- and so on.

And of course, you have all the other weird stuff popular in the Christian subculture: our own music and radio stations, our own TV shows and movies, our own T-shirts and books, and our own language, filled with words we all bandy about without really understanding. And of course there was the tendency to overlay spiritual values onto political ones. I can't recall a single negative thing being said about Bush Senior, or a single positive thing about Clinton. Pretty ridiculous.

The AoG is widely known for the emphasis it places on ecstatic experiences, particularly speaking in tongues. I really don't want to get into a major discussion on glossolalia, but I do think some of the negative reputation is well deserved. I remember one guest preacher actually *pushing* me backward so I would be "slain in the Spirit." If he were to do that today, I probably would have made more of an issue of it; as it was, I just got back up and told somebody else later what the idjit had done.

I heard a number of messages delivered in tongues while I was at the AoG. Virtually all of them were the sort of "prophetic utterance" you can find from a street-corner wingnut on any given day, a roiling mishmash of thoughts and personal convictions, delivered in a confusing ramble of King James and contemporary English, and invariably irrelevant to anything the church was going through at the time, except in the most generic way.

The emphasis on tongues and ecstatic experience took the place of solid understanding of Scripture. I was amazed at what people who have been Christians for years didn't know. Sylvia, one grandmotherly woman who attended the church the same time as me, once explained that she recently had hurt her back when she had been "slain in the Spirit," and had been told by the pastor (!) not to tell anyone about it, since that could be a stumbling block. After all, if God is behind it, no one should be hurt, right?

So anyway, Sylvia wanted to know if it said in the Bible that you shouldn't be hurt when you fall over under the Spirit's anointing. As you're probably aware, the Bible never says that you're supposed to fall over in the first place, whether the Spirit is moving or if it's just Benny Hinn waving his coat around.

That's probably the greatest flaw with Pentecostalism, actually, whether in the AoG or in the Nazarenes or some other denomination. Allowing experience to be its own validation, rather than measuring it against the revelation of Scripture, severs us from any objective standard for Truth, and allows us to be taken in by hucksters like Hinn, to be wowed by millionaires like Pat Robertson, to fall for the razzle-dazzle of prosperity gospels and to think we actually can make this a better nation through legislation and power-brokering.

That probably contributed to the distrust of intellectualism I encountered in the church, although I think this was mostly a product of the area. (The two AoG churches I was most involved with were located in predominantly blue collar areas.) This actually ended up being the last straw behind my decision to leave the church and start attending an evangelical free church with Niki, whom I was engaged to at the time.

Shirley Webber, the pastor's wife, had been teaching a series on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Much of it was marked by an enthusiastic endorsement of all sorts of behavior that clearly the Holy Spirit had to be behind. (One was a guy who supposedly ran around his church on the *backs of pews*. The proof that this was Spirit-driven? If it weren't, he would have fallen off.)

I have a lot of questions about the baptism of the Holy Spirit and how the gifts appear to manifest in Pentecostal and charismatic churches these days. Shirley finally told me that God had told her I needed to stop questioning and just have faith.

I finished out my commitment in children's church, and left.

Actual mileage is going to vary from one AoG church to another. Still, to be fair, I should point out that there was much that is good about the Assemblies of God. For starters, they have a cool name -- much better than "Presbyterian" or "Lutheran," to pick two other churches I've belonged to in my time. :-)

Secondly, the worship truly was phenomenal at Ashton Assembly of God. Mike Poppa, who pastored the church for its first 14 years, was a man who was well grounded in Scripture and who was determined to present the gospel in a way that would be accessible to today's culture. The worship I participated in there was some of the best I have ever known. Because the church was more spontaneous than many other churches, I'd say there also was a greater openness to being led by the Spirit than in churches dead set on following the strict order of things.

Thirdly, the devotion of many in the Assemblies of God is considerable. Although I think it's fair to say the church is withdrawn from society, I think the AoG churches I attended had a pretty good turnout for Sunday and Wednesday evening services. It wasn't just a one-hour-a-week thing. People took seriously the scriptural admonition to pray, and I knew several people who took the charge to evangelize seriously as well, and went out on the streets every week. I don't personally go for that style myself, but I do recognize its legitimacy among those who are so called and so gifted.

Fourthly, the things I'm talking about were overall trends, not indicators of every person in the church. I knew other church members who objected to the emphasis on tongues and had tough questions about the legitimacy of the way tongues was practiced as a gift; Pastor Mike Poppa was a phenomenal preacher who knew the Scriptures better than many preachers I've heard elsewhere; and while there were some nincompoops who believed in the standard bogeymen and toed the line, there were others who had no problem with believers who were trying to figure it out, no matter which way they ended up going.

I showed up at my old church about 18 months ago, out of the blue, after being gone for five years. I showed up with a full beard and a ponytail, having had neither when I left. I also had a black child with me in a lily-white church. I got not one cold shoulder, and everyone who figured out who I was was thrilled to see me again. Not a word of criticism about my appearance or anything else.

Lastly, many of the problems I encountered there are problems found throughout evangelicaldom. Good luck findng a church that is free of such ills. When you do, you will ruin it by gracing it with your presence, as I surely have done to some I have attended.