Sunday, January 30, 2005

battlestar galactica

About two weeks ago we borrowed the "Battlestar Galactica" DVD set from a friend of ours. I was more than suitably impressed by how well the drama of the miniseries played out, particularly from what I can recall of the original TV series.

The original series, which starred Lorne Greene as Commander Adama, Dirk Benedict as Starbuck and Richard Hatch as Apollo, came out in 1978 after George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had launched a sci-fi revolution in American culture with "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." As sci-fi series go, it wasn't all that memorable. The plot of choice usually involved either the Cylons attacking and threatening the escaping Colonials, or a Gilligan's Island type of story where the Colonials thought they had discovered Earth and ended their quest, only to find they were wrong.

Characters were generally weak and unbelievable — Baltar was a larger-than-life evil person who had betrayed the colonies to the Cylons because he wanted to rule the survivors and had struck a deal with the Cylons to that effect. Why he continued to work with the Cylons even after it was evident that they weren't going to honor their side was never really clear. Starbuck was the hormone-driven womanizer, Apollo was the family man, and Adama was the all-around in-charge guy, who acted as visionary, high priest, military leader and top political official.

And if the characters were a little unnuanced at times, some of the show's spiritualism was just downright kooky, like that bit where the crystal city starts abducting Colonial vipers and their pilots and Starbuck meets an angel who tells him that one day he'll be a god, and all that weird stuff. Like I said, an odd show.

What was better about the new series? It's hard to know where to begin.

For starters, the new Battlestar Galactica miniseries focused on the human angle of the attack on the twelve colonies. In the original series, as I recall we were treated to a tremendous space battle that began soon after the opening credits were over and we had established that Baltar had just negotiated a peace treaty between humanity and the Cylons. Because this was a three-hour miniseries, the writers took some time to introduce us to each of the major characters and what drives them, and we got to witness the slaughter of the human population of Caprica — not by spaceships flying overhead and shooting lasers at people, but from a surprise nuclear bombardment. That's a much more accessible way to depict the genocide of the entire human species, particularly since 9-11 here in the United States and the terror attack in Spain last year, when many of us are wondering when the next shoe will drop.

Secondly, the series reimagined the Cylons. During the years since the last Cylon war, the Cylons have been incommunicado with humanity, which has allowed them to alter their appearance to the point that they look completely human, down to the blood level. They’re not walking machines anymore; they're synthetic humans. More than that, while the original Cylons were a reptilian race bent on the slaughter of humanity for reasons that never were expressed, these Cylons were created by humanity and gifted with intelligence. In other words, it's humanity's own creation attempting to destroy it — a familiar theme in science fiction but still a potent one since our penchant for advancing technology still outstrips our ability to use it by light years. Additionally, the Cylons' ability to pass among humans undetected easily lends itself to fifth column paranoia.

The big thing, though, has to be the way the series creators have reimagined the characters. Adama remains the confident military leader, but while the original Adama had a sterling relationship with his son and was able to maintain a professional rapport with no signs of favoritism or resentment, the new Adama and this Apollo have been estranged for at least two years after the death of Adama's other son, Zach. Colonel Tigh, instead of being an exemplary executive officer, is past his time and a drunk. Baltar is not a traitor with ambitions of power; he's just an amoral and self-serving twit who believes himself above the common burden of matters like conscience and guilt.

The Galactica itself is rather well done too. It's not the biggest or the best battlestar in the fleet. In fact, it's a run-down, ready-to-be-retired hulk. It was scheduled to be decommissioned when the Cylons attacked, and because it's so far past its prime, the Cylons are unable to shut it down the way they did the rest of the Colonial fleet. (They had some sort of weapon that shuts down modern computers.) The result it a sci-fi setting that is at once futuristic, with space travel and aliens, and retro, with missiles, a communications system that uses phone cords, and so on.

They also go rid of some of the cornier aspects of the show, like all the blatantly mythological names like Capricorn and Gemini. The capital world is now called Caprica; Gemini is now Geminon, and so on. Fanciful names like "Apollo" and "Starbuck" are nicknames given to the hotshot pilots of Colonial vipers. Apollo's real name is Lee Adama.

As remakes go, this one is a keeper. I can't wait until I can borrow the first DVD set of the new series.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

a rediscovered masterpiece

I found an odd corner of my personal history on the Internet today — a sordid little chapter of my college experience called "Exx Man."

I shouldn't say I "found" it, since that makes it sound like I just happened to discover it purely by accident. The truth is that I went looking for it deliberately, because it suddenly occurred to me this morning that I had posted the entire thing to a Usenet newsgroup, a sort of predecessor to today's forums, in 1992 or so.

"Exx Man" was the high point of a collaborative story board on Lafayette's computer syste. Begun my senior year, Exx Man was the sole story my senior year, after three separate stories competed for readership and participation during the second half of my junior year. It was also the most successful story, judging by audience participation and number of installments, ending with more than 100 parts and probably close to a dozen contributors.

It began simply enough as a superhero story, with the first part written by a fellow student named Frank Puskas. That held true for roughly one installment, Frank's own, before readers discovered that Exx Man actually was an inmate in an asylum who merely believed that he was a superhero. In the second part, where we made this discovery, David McCandless began the story's steady ascent into comedy with the introduction of the supervillain Dragon Poker, named after a poker game played in the "Myth" series of fantasy novels.

And so it went. Before long, we discovered that Exx Man actually wasn't even a man — she was a woman who merely thought she was a man. When she made that discovery, her superhero days ended, and she became a hairdresser.

Around this time, Frank noticed that we had been messing about with his story, and he made a desparate attempt to bring it all back into line by introducing a character named Dr. Dingle. Dingle was a mad scientist, experimenting on Exx Man and who was about to give him superpowers. All this stuff about being a hairdresser was just a delusion.

Frank stopped just short of that, though, leaving me a window to step in and reveal that the Dingle scene was merely a flashback, and that it was Dingle in fact who had genetically changed Exx Man into a woman.

For the next several weeks, Frank and I got into a minor power struggle over Dr. Dingle and his role in Exx Man's life. Frank brought him back in and tried to reassert his vision for the story, prompting me to turn Dingle into a squirrel, run him over with a truck, and serve him as the entrée on the college meal plan. Frank revealed that Dingle hadn't actually been so much killed as much as just stunned, so I had him shot to pieces by a rowdy bunch of exterminators. I later was forced to annihilate Dingle when Frank had him cloned from a surviving tail fragment, but by that time, it had become so much killing Dingle off in new ways that I started bringing him back to life myself.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, we made fun of one another; offered extended commentary on college life; and shamelessly cribbed from M*A*S*H, Tom Stoppard, the "Terminator" movies, "Speed Racer" and other bits of pop culture; and just generally had a blast.

The story, I suspect, was more popular with the student body than I realized at the time. There were four of us who were regularly contributing to it, but a surprising number of people offered one- or two-time additions, and I got feedback from other people who never contributed to it about what a riot it was. (As well as the standard, expected criticism from friends who wanted me to know how useless it really was.)

More than 12 years later, I'm amazed how many elements of "Exx Man" have stayed with me. Dr. Dingle and Markle City (named after Markle Hall, the administration building at Lafayette College) each carried over into the "Chicken Soup for the Soulless" writing McCandless and I have done for our Brothers Grinn project, currently on hiatus. Other bits, like casting Spridle from Speed Racer as an evil genius on the level of Richard III, have stayed with me as a private sort of joke. Other characters — particularly the triad of Drake, Quince and Elwood — have shown up in one form or another in various bits of fiction I've written.

The other stories never fared as well. The day Paul Galvin launched the story board in 1990, another student and I posted story openers so close together that neither of us knew the other was doing it. The one I began was a Star Trek story, set aboard the U.S.S. James Kirk in the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It made it about seven parts before dying with no ending, but can still be found here and there on the Internet as "The Cardassian Confrontation," often linked with "Deep Space 9," although the story was written months before DS9 debuted.

The story Ron Dauphin began was a murder mystery set around a bumbling detective named Drake. Drake's story was pushed to a hasty wrap-up, after a dozen parts at most, and although it had funny moments — most notably when Drake killed the main character from a third, wholly unremarkable story someone had tried to start on the board — it never went anywhere either. To the best of my knowledge, the Drake stories don't exist anywhere anymore.

The year after I graduated, there was a meager attempt to start a new story based on the second-season Star Trek: TNG episode called "The Royale." It was later co-opted into a time-traveling secret agent story with overtures of Robin Hood and Star Wars, but it died pretty quickly itself.

Exx Man outdid them all. It made it to more than 100 posts, had no competitors for attention while it ran, and actually absorbed previous stories from the story board, like Detective Drake, who finally came into his own when he was partnered with two special agents from the FBI who came to Markle City to investigate the bizarre chaos that had followed Exx Man around since his (or her) arrival.

The Exx Man story is awful, it's meretricious, and it deserves no place on the Internet. Still, it was a lot of fun to write, it remains the best example I've ever seen of what a collaborative story can be, and even if it is all those things I said — I still like it.

You'd be crazy to read it.

pigs' ears and silk purses

It may sound odd Christians, but early last year after we lost our son, I found renewed comfort in the book of Ecclesiastes.

The book of Ecclesiastes, known as Qohelet in Hebrew, is part of the Bible's wisdom literature, by an author known only as "the preacher." In contrary to much religious writing, Ecclesiastes paints a fairly morose view of life, one where there is no advantage in being young, being wise, being strong or being wealthy. No matter how wonderful things are, hanging over all of it is the certainty of death to come, an ending that renders everything meaningless.

It's always been one of my favorite books in the Bible, but the preacher's brutal honesty helped me get through the darkest time of my life to date.

What did I take away from it? That popular platitudes notwithstanding, everything does not happen for a reason. Sometimes life is just so horrible, all you can do is crawl under the covers and ask why you didn't die the day you were born, and when you're done crying, get up and go through the motions of living, since that's all you have left to do.

And after a while, you start to see that even though to live is still to suffer, God has placed eternity in our hearts so that we can glimpse heaven and God's mercy in the world around us. We have friends who lie down with us to keep us warm (it's still cold, but someone is helping us make it through); we can still eat and drink, and enjoy what modest pleasures those bring us; and at the end of the day, we can escape our misery in a few blessed hours of sleep.

In the annoyingly oft-quoted Romans 8:28, Paul writes that God is working in all things for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purposes.

The way I came to understand that verse is that it's true that God can sew a silk purse out of a pig's ear. It may not change the fact that it's a pig's ear, but that doesn't change the fact that God made a silk purse out of it.

And lastly, of course, the preacher wrapped up his ruminations by saying, "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man." A friend of mine once commented that he doesn't understand why the preacher says to fear God instead of saying to love him.

After what I went through, I think I understand: It's because it's not always possible to love God in the way that we usually understand it. Sometimes, all you can do is to live in fear and trembling of that dreadful joy, and follow the commands he has laid down.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, January 17, 2005

lord of the fleas

The fleas returned to our back yard this summer, the nematodes apparently having run their lives and died out. We had a miserable time with them in the house again before I remembered a friend's advice and salted the rugs one night. That killed the eggs, a bath washed them out of Sandy's fur, and then a flea collar ended up being what it took to keep them off her afterward. Can you believe that Frontline failed to kill the fleas on her, even when I waited a week after giving the dog a bath to apply the stuff?

It took until the onset of cold weather to kill the fleas in the yard, which meant we had to keep Sandy out of the yard and let her out only for walks on the street.

Anyway, with the recent warm weather around Christmas, the fleas managed to re-enter the yard and we even found one inside the house today. Now that the ground is frozen solid again, I expect we'll have a break from them until springtime, when I'm adding more nematodes and planting a few bazillion marigolds to keep the groundhogs, insects and stray cats at bay. With any luck, Sandy's flea collar will take care of the stragglers in the house, although I'm tempted to salt the carpet again.

I'm probably also going to check and see what I can do legally about cats wandering through my yard, since they bring fleas to the yard, dig in my flower beds and leave their disease-laden presents where my children can find them.

(I'm tempted to plant a bunch of catnip down the street to draw all the cats down there, but that would be low.)

return of the fleas

The fleas returned this summer, the nematodes apparently having run their lives and died out. We had a miserable time with them in the house again before I remembered this thread and salted the rugs one night. That killed the eggs, a bath washed them out of Sandy's fur, and then a flea collar ended up being what it took to keep them off her afterward. Can you believe that Frontline failed to kill the fleas on her, even when I waited a week after giving the dog a bath to apply the stuff?

It took until the onset of cold weather to kill the fleas in the yard, which meant we had to keep Sandy out of the yard and let her out only for walks on the street.

Anyway, with the recent warm weather around Christmas, the fleas managed to re-enter the yard and we even found one inside the house today. Now that the ground is frozen solid again, I expect we'll have a break from them until springtime, when I'm adding more nematodes and planting a few bazillion marigolds to keep the groundhogs, insects and stray cats at bay. With any luck, Sandy's flea collar will take care of the stragglers in the house, although I'm tempted to salt the carpet again.

I'm probably also going to check and see what I can do legally about cats wandering through my yard, since they bring fleas to the yard, dig in my flower beds and leave their disease-laden presents where my children can find them.

(I'm tempted to plant a bunch of catnip down the street to draw all the cats down there, but that would be low.)

'the matrix' at last

It took more than five years, but I finally saw "The Matrix" on Friday night. My best friend had bought himself the entire collector's set, and so he gave me all five of his Matrix DVDs -- the three movies, and two related projects.

All things considered, I thought it was a decent movie. The violence was a turnoff for me, meaning mainly the scene where Neo and Trinity enter the federal building and waste an entire platoon of military troops -- would even a secure building have that many combat-ready troops armed and prepped for battle? -- and the special effects now seem cliched, which is ironic since "The Matrix" is the one that introduced a lot of the moves and camera tricks "Shrek" was making fun of.

I'm not surprised many people saw it as a vehicle for Truth. A lot of Christians saw the movie as a spiritual allegory, where Satan has made a wasteland of the world and we only believe the pleasant lies of the Matrix because they're more comforting than the stark realities of the hellish world we actually live in. I could see that just from the conversation Morpheus and Neo have about how Neo always has known there is something fundamentally wrong with the world, let alone the more Christian-specific elements like Neo's resurrection (brought about by the love of Trinity, naturally), Cypher's act of betrayal, and so on, but I didn't see the movie in those terms primarily. The filmmakers definitely and deliberately tapped into those archetypes, but I saw it more in terms of a social commentary; i.e., the world around us keeps itself going at our expense, and trying to right the ills of our world puts us at odds with the rest of the order.

Maybe I've just become too liberal and earthly in my thinking, and no longer see spiritual truth unless it's delivered as a here-and-now package. :-)

The excessive violence was a disappointment, Neo's resurrection was inexplicable (but it was a resurrection, duh) and I think some of the FX were confusing (like where they stopped the bullets to show how fast Neo was moving, just before he deprogrammed Agent Smith), but overall it was a good flick. It was an action flick with some intelligence, which is better than the Van Damme and Schwarzeneggar action flicks my friends watched back in college, and it had some good thematic elements as well.

It was worth watching, even if it took me five years to see it. I'll probably watch "Matrix Reloaded" on Monday, or next Friday, after the girls have gone to sleep, followed by "Matrix Revolutions" soon after. I've been warned that I'll be disappointed, but then, I'm not expecting Matrix II. From what I've read and heard, the creators of the movie had a specific philosophy they were hoping to capture and express in their movies, following the three-part arc of the Hero Emergent, the Hero Victorious, and the Hero Vanquished.

Since it's not as interesting to read or write about the hero victorious, I imagine that the second movie is where they start to tell you more about their futuristic world, about Zion, how the Matrix came into existence, and so on -- and in the process start relaying their philosophy more than in the first movie, where they were just setting the stage.
So I'm not expecting the same sort of movie as the first one, but then again, I've also been told not to.

I have no idea when I'll get around to watching "Animatrix" and "The Matrix Revisited."

god's unconditional love

I love to get a new trade paperback comic. I'll sit for hours at night, reading the story over and over again. Each time I read it, I see new details that eluded me on the first reading — clues that foreshadowed the twist ending, intimations about relationships between characters, and clever little tidbits in the background art. I love the way the creator weaves the strands of his story together, and when the story is told well, I can enjoy the structure and telling of the story as much as I enjoy the story itself.

That's what I'm doing now with the notion of God's love. What God's love is about and what it means to be loved by him are questions I have puzzled over for years. Part of the problem is that we often have a fatally flawed understanding of grace. We see divine grace as something that kicks in after we've made our best efforts and tried our hardest. That's not it at all -- that would mean we have to earn grace, and grace that can be earned isn't really grace.

(I'm not referring just to saving grace, although I can think of plenty of evangelicals or born-again types who have walked through my life with all the grace of a hippo and talked about who "really was saved" and "really isn't." I've fallen into that snare myself, to my shame.)

The grace I'm talking about is God's sanctifying grace, the divine blessing that we believe completes our efforts to do the right thing. You could call it "the law of consequences." I'm sure you know how this goes. "If I do X, then by God's grace, Y will happen." The only problem is, that's not grace. It's law, and law never heals, it only kills.

Ask a divorcee. Chances are, they'll be able to tell you about the times they fell into this trap. "If I had only been a better wife, he wouldn't have left me for his secretary" or "If I had been a more attentive husband, she wouldn't have felt neglected and wanted to start over with someone else." If I hadn't spent so many hours at work, if I hadn't been home so much, if I hadn't forgotten to fix the roof. Parents'll do the same thing. "If I had been a better parent, my child wouldn't be gay." "If I hadn't been so strict, he would love me more." If, if, if.

You'll also see the flip side. "Oh, it's all by the grace of God it worked out this way. We just followed the scriptural principles on how to raise our children, on how to keep our marriage vibrant, and on how to balance work and home life. Without the Lord, it would have been a disaster." (Notice the statement of pride? Although they're claiming to give God credit, they're also stressing how much they did to earn God's favor.)

The truth is, you can do your best job and still fail, or do a rotten job and have everything work out just fine. Influence still exists, but Christ died to free us from the law of consequence. The law of consequence, if we were under it, would result in utter failure for all of us, since none of us is capable of following the law and to break the least part is to be guilty of breaking it all. But by living under the law of consequence, we subject ourselves to an immense, unbearable burden that steals our joy, keeps us from experiencing Christ's love, and leaves us miserable and alone.

Experiencing the joy of Christ's love often means letting go of our self-imposed performance expectations and allowing ourselves to act out of love rather than obligation. When James tells us that faith without works is dead, he means not that we do things because God still expects us to perform good deeds, but that our faith will express itself in tangible ways as we love those around us. Being involved in a soup kitchen because "Christians care about the poor" is the first kind of act; it's law. Being involved in a soup kitchen because I want to help the people there springs from a different source, and is an act of love. Same action, different heart.

Another part of the question has to do with what God's love is and how he expresses it. It's only been in the last few years, as I've mourned the loss of my foster son, that I've really started to gain a mature understanding of God's love. I can't speak for anyone else, but for the longest time, I don't think I loved God as much as I was just in love with him. An example from my own marriage: When my wife and I first started dating, and when we first married, we had periods marked by a giddy, heady feeling of euphoria. She was sensitive, charming, well-mannered, considerate; she enjoyed my jokes, shared my interests, and held the same deep convictions as me. All I could think about was how much I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. That's being in love.

Since we married six years ago, although my prior assessment of her remains good, there have been times I've wanted to scream. She's nagged me, criticized the way I fold the laundry, delivered withering critiques of projects I was proud of, and blown up at me for not being able to read her mind. Once, when I had got up early and done a number of things just for her, she left me in tears within an hour by complaining about how I had done each of those things without once stopping to thank me for doing them in the first place. The sun and the moon still set on her, and the stars above still circle her, and I'm still amazed that she wants to spend the rest of her life with me, but our relationship has matured. There have been times for each of us when it would have been easier to walk out, but we stayed. That's not being "in love" -- that is love, and it's much more satisfying.

God's love is the same way, but infinitely moreso. It's so wild and difficult to explain, I think it's easy to understand why people might complain that he's either indifferent to our suffering, or just downright cruel.

Why do I say that? Let's take it from an example Paul provides us in Scripture. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul says that God demonstrates his mercy and compassion in sending rain to both the just and the unjust. Men as evil as Hitler knew what it was like to be in love; men as full of hate as Osama bin Laden know the joy of holding their own newborn babies; and even a serial killer like Ted Bundy knew a thousand little delights every day, even after he denied those same delights to his victims. It's easy to see that God's mercy and compassion abound to even the most wicked.

That's a great sentiment, but it's hardly the best example Paul could use, in some senses. It's one thing if God shows great kindness to undserving people, but he also allows really nice people to suffer hideously, such as the victims of men like Hitler, bin Laden and Bundy. Elie Wiesel suffered horribly at Auschwitz and saw the desecration of everything he had believed about God and the struggle between good and evil. In California in 2002, there was a 5-year-old girl who was abducted, kicking and screaming, from her front yard where she had been playing, and was raped and brutally murdered. In New Jersey, we had the horrifying case of Faheem and Raheem Williams, who were under state care yet still were locked inside a basement by their caretaker to starve. (Their DYFS caseworker had closed the case when she was unable to find the boys, rather than keep the case open and have to deal with the thorny problem of losing two abused children.) Bruce Jackson, 18, weighed about 60 pounds when police found him rummaging for food through garbage cans. His foster parents, a churchgoing couple, were in the process of formally adopting him and other foster children. As far as their case records indicated, they were in a great home -- never mind the starvation, severe medical neglect, and what else.

Kick it this way, kick it that. God showers the wicked with great compassion while he sometimes seems to piss on the righteous and the innocent. Is he cruel, or merely capricious? Paul asserts he's good.

Paul's basis for that claim is the Cross, the lynchpin of human existence. This is where Christ became all the sin of the world, and took on himself all the suffering and torment that goes hand in hand with being human. Everything before the Cross pointed to its coming; everything after it points back to it. If we rejoice and draw near to God, it is because Christ made it possible. If we suffer, whether for sin, for righteouness or just because, we find solidarity with Christ, who also suffered for each of those three reasons. If we have any righteousness before God, it is because he looks at us and sees his son instead, all because of the Cross.

So if the Cross is the fullest expression of God's love, and if it suffuses all human history with meaning, what does that mean? It means that the whole of human history, from the day God breathed life into Adam down to the advent of the New Jerusalem (and far, far beyond that) is also an expression of God's love. It's not like any other form of love we've ever known as humans. It's wild, and uncontainable, and it moves with the irresistible force of a river coursing down the rapids toward a waterfall, where it will dash us against the rocks if we let it carry us. We'll be buffeted and bruised, cold and unable to grip anything but water, and it'll toss us about and leave us gasping, but it'll never kill us -- at least, not in an important way. Instead, it makes us alive in indescribable ways.

I shared this with someone once, and her question was, but how do I experience it? First, we let ourselves live free of the demands of law. There's a joy in knowing that it doesn't all depend on your effort, and that your only obligation is to love. Secondly -- and this is the hardest thing -- we need to learn to love. Loving as Christ does means living in relationship with other people, no matter who they are, seeing people as people and not as projects or as beneficiaries of our attention. Forget this hectic pace we whip ourselves into in the U.S., and take the time to enjoy the people around you, and as you become aware of their needs, find ways that you can fill those needs. Cultivate relationships, and more than that -- cultivate relationships with other people as you work to help the world around you. It'slike the men's ministries that involve hanging out and watching football together. Some ministry. There may be male bonding, but the way to experience God's love is to embody it and carry his love to the people around you, particularly the needy. Be involved in something like Habitat for Humanity, or foster care, and make connections with the people around you.

Do that, and you'll discover God in new and amazing ways.

Friday, January 14, 2005

freedom of religion, or from it?

Michael Newdow is obsessed.

Newdow, who made headlines when he sued to have the phrase "under God" dropped from the Pledge of Allegiance, is now suing to prevent any mention of God, including a prayer, from the presidential inauguration. His argument is that such references to religion constitute an unlawful endorsement of religion and relegates atheists to second-class status.

My initial reaction is that this latest lawsuit is nuts. Our society is pluralistic and our government is nonsectarian. Does that mean that our elected officials have to be areligious as well now? I'm sure that George Bush's choice of ministers to speak at his inauguration differs from those Bill Clinton chose (or would choose, if he were being installed today).

Surely if Newdow were elected president and chose not to have members of the clergy pray during the inauguration, or dropped the phrase "so help me God" from his oath, that would be his prerogative. I'm not really sure I see the inhumanity or oppressiveness of Bush being able to invoke Deity during his inauguration. He's religious, and it's his a slap in the face to deny him his right to religious self-expression just because he's our president.

Not like anyone pays attention to the dang things anyway.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

homeschooling woes

Evangeline has been an obdurate little grumpy-butt the past couple weeks. She's been raising her voice at me quite a bit lately, has refused to do things or just done her own thing on occasion, and has taken to lying down on the floor and refusing to move.

Something's been eating at her, and while I'm trying to correct her behavior, I also have been trying to figure out what it is.

Well, tonight it finally came out. She hates being homeschooled. Not too terribly surprising, really; she was in preschool for two years, and really benefitted from the environment with the other children. At home, as she complained this afternoon, it's just me, her and Rachel in class, and she misses her friends. And to top it all off, I'm not the most social of creatures, and sometimes like to withdraw into myself for a while. (I've been trying to set up playdates, but it's not as easy as I wish it were.)

So Evangeline told me today that she wants to go to kindergarten with her friends. Our problem is that we couldn't afford the private kindergarten at her preschool, and the snarfling bureaucrats in our public school district don't consider her old enough to be in kindergarten. (She can read, and knows her basics of history, math and geography, but they won't test her for kindergarten because she misses the cutoff date by A LOUSY TWO WEEKS! Can you say "arbitrary and capricious?")

My wife and I have talked it over, and we're going to keep homeschooling her for now. She's already gained placement at the local charter school for the next school year, so we'll take advantage of that for 2005-06.

I have explained to Evangeline several times why we're homeschooling her for kindergarten, and did so again last Friday. When I explained that the school district wouldn't let us start her in kindergarten this year, she complained, "Well, they made a BAD CHOICE, and I hope they change their minds." So do I, kiddo. So do I.

We've been making a tremendous effort to increase her socializing opportunities. She's enrolled at a weekly Spanish course for children in Metuchen; we recently started her with an hourlong weekly gymnastics class nearby; her formal instruction in drawing starts tonight; and I called the Girl Scouts today to see about enrolling her in Daisies. Plus I called a few other parents to see about play dates.

It just bites. Here in Iowa in particular, we've substituted activity for involvement, mistaken chatter for communication, and settled for acquaintances when we could have made friends. People are too freaking busy to just stop, be and enjoy themselves and let their kids discover the world around them in a natural, meaningful way. It's like the people who hope to discover intimacy by having sex, and find themselves getting sex but all alone.

And of course, in our bid to keep Evangeline from being all alone, we're falling into the same pit that I see already has swallowed many of her peers.

spare me literary elitism

Someone recently had the misfortune to badmouth Harry Potter in my presence, since he believes the "gateway" literature argument is specious, and teens should be reading Kafka, not Rowling. Foolish mortal.

Some of my favorite books to read as a teen were various Dr. Who and Star Trek novels, and I usually spent a small fortune on comic books. I'm more discriminating about what I read, but my only qualification is that it be well written, not that it have the seal of approval of my old English profs.

And I've read (and enjoyed) tons of world literature. Do you really think I would have tackled (let alone enjoyed) "The Brothers Karamazov" when I was 22 if I hadn't already learned that reading could be a fun thing by tackling "Dr. Who and the Loch Ness Monster" 10 years earlier? Or that I would have read and enjoyed "Paradise Lost" before I graduated from high school if Spider-man and the Fantastic Four hadn't entertained me and stimulated my imagination years before?

I've read tons of lit, from France, Russia, America, England, Wales, Ireland, Iceland and on and on. I've read mythologies from Europe, the Mediterranean, the Americas, Africa and Polynesia, and I've steeped myself in stories told from the dawn of civilization in Sumer to stuff written in the last five years. I've chased stories like King Arthur all the way down their histories, visiting and revisiting the tales as related by men like Steinbeck, T.H. White, Tennyson, Mallory, Cretien de Troyes, Geoffrey of Monmouth and earlier, back to pre-Christian Britain. I may never have done that if people had insisted I only read "the right" books.

Harry Potter probably could prove to be nowhere as enduring as some of these other stories I've mentioned, but he's still worth reading, even at the age of 34. (And worth re-reading too, I'll add.)

My grandmother was a literary purist, and probably felt that "gateway literature" was a hoax. I'm glad my mother didn't agree with her. I've had a blast reading, and if it weren't for some of the cheesey fun stuff, I never would have had the steam to tackle an unabridged "Don Quixote."

I'll be honest, I don't think I've ever read Kafka. From what I hear he's an acquired taste. Even if he is as good as some people say, that doesn't make him any better or more worthy of reading than something new and popular. Many writers churn out crap, but even they, if they fire the imagination and teach children that reading is worth the time it takes, are worth the paper they're printed on.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

A loving God and hell

One of the most frequent criticisms I hear leveled against orthodox Christianity concerns the doctrine of hell. The question is, "How can a loving God send people to hell?" The answer to that, I suppose, depends on what we mean by "a loving God" and what we mean by "send people to hell."

There was a fairly forgettable movie in 1998 called "What Dreams May Come," starring Robin Williams as a doctor who finds himself in heaven after a car accident. One scene in particular, set shortly after Williams' character arrives in heaven, illustrates what I think most people mean when they talk about God's love. Cuba Gooding is showing Williams around an idyllic heaven, lit from above by celestial brilliance. Floating through the sky overhead are choirs of angels singing their blissful hosannas.

"Where's God?" Williams asks. Gooding responds: "He's up there, somewhere, shouting 'I love you.'"

That's it. God is somewhere out there, loving us so effectively that we need to ask where he is. As love goes, that's pretty bland, pretty empty and pretty useless. It reminds of what Coleridge described as a religion of no particular creed or sect, but merely filling oneself with charitable feelings to all men: an indiscriminate and blaise warm fuzzy, a sort of doddering senility that leaves the person so loved with no desire to stick around. Loving someone like that means having no appreciation for what makes them tick or what matters to them. It means not knowing them, not connecting with them, and failing utterly to relate to them in any real or meaningful way. A God who does that and claims to love people doesn't understand the emotion at all. At best, that's merely liking someone, and it's not even enough to make me want to go out for pizza with him.

Scripture reveals a God who is intimately and dynamically involved in every aspect of his creation. He not only knows what makes us tick, he cares immensely about the things that matter to us, whether it's how to pay the bills, whether we pass the big exam, or how we're going to make it through another joyless day, or a long and lonely night. When we bleed, he cries real tears. When we love, he rejoices.

So if God loves us that passionately, how does hell fit into everything?

An illustration from human life: I have a daughter, E. Let's say that in another 30 years, E decides to end her relationship with me. All her life she's had to endure stupid jokes about her name only being one letter long, and she blames me. That hurts me terribly, so because I love her, I try to mend the relationship. I call E on her birthday, hoping for reconciliation, and she tells me to go to hell. On Christmas, my cards are returned unopened, and I can't even track her down. She's moved, and left no forwarding address or telephone number that I can use. I have no way to get hold of her. Do I still love her? Absolutely, with all my heart. She's my daughter. How could I not love her? All I want is for her to come back to me, but she won't even acknowledge that we're related.

More time goes by. Eventually, I'm 83 years old and on my deathbed. Still she doesn't come back, and my last words are, "Tell E I love her." For the rest of her life, E will stew in her own bitterness and resentment because of the tattered mess she made of our relationship. Tell me, who is responsible for this divide? Is it I, who did everything I could to find my daughter and restore the relationship; or is it my daughter, who rejected every olive branch I extended and determined never to see me again?

It's the same way with sin. Our sin is a rejection of God. He never stops loving us or waiting for us to come back, but our sin -- the lies we tell, both small and great; the blind eye we turn to others in need, both near and far; the self-absorption that mars our souls; the thoughtless anger; the pride; the thoughtless greed and hate; or any number of other behaviors -- our sin is our way of running away from him. For our entire lives, we push God away by refusing to live the way he calls us to -- and even the best of us know what rotten stinkers we are deep inside -- and then when we die, we discover how great the divide is that we have made, and we complain that God is unjust and unloving.

Judgment Day isn't a day when God will pass sentence on people and toss us by the forkload into eternal fire. It's a day when everything will be revealed, and we will see for ourselves where we stand in relationship to him. The gospel of John says that "he who does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (3:18, if you're keeping track). I'm not going to be with God in the great hereafter because I belong to an elect club, nor because I attained some deep spiritual awareness. It's because I'm in a relationship with him. Those of us who have refused to live in community with him and one another, who insisted on being alone, are going to find out in the end just how alone we are, only this time we won't be able to blame someone else.