Tuesday, December 26, 2006

reaing 'the golden compass'

We're a small portion through "The Golden Compass," and I'm fascinated with just about every aspect of the book so far: not just the characterizations of Lyra, Asriel, the Master and others; but also with the imaginative setting he's created in Jordan College, a world where people's souls are visibly expressed outside their bodies; and the tremendously rich language, like alethiometer and anbarology.
Good book. Wish I could figure out what all the fuss is about.

the lost relic of calcata

I've heard of all sorts of holy relics before: the Shroud of Turin,  skeletal remains of one saint or another, splinters from the Holy Rood (enough  of them to make dozens of crosses), and so on.
Somehow it never occurred to me that anyone would claim to have the foreskin of Christ. Once you  accept that someone did, it only makes sense to think that the Vatican might have stolen it just to shut people up and get rid of the  embarassment.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

purpose-driven anger

I must be really slow on the uptake, but I finally realized tonight what I mislike so much about the Purpose-Driven books.
It's not the self-help aspect of it. Actually, that's the part that most makes it intimidating to criticize. As soon as you say something against a book like "The Prayer of Jabez," "40 Days of Purpose" or "The Purpose-Driven Life," a dozen people will spring up out of the woodwork to tell you how you don't understand, how you're being too hasty to judge the books, and how these volumes have revolutionized their spiritual lives. If the books really have had that tremendous an effect -- and I have to admit, I haven't seen any evidence to suggest they have, beyond mere anecdotes about personal internal spiritual states -- who am I to criticize or say that the books' proponents are misguided? More power to them.
It's also not the marketing aspect of it, although I have to admit that the stealth marketing of spiritual self-help books doesn't do anything to detract from the dislike and suspicion I heave their way. It seems like modern-day simony to beguile a pastor with hype about the latest big thing spiritually, into trying a sermon series that requires either the church or its parishoners to buy dozens of copies of a book.
And you'll note it's not just books like Rick Warren's bestseller doing this now. Last year, pastors could win $1,000 if they mentioned Disney's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" during a sermon before the movie's release date. Earlier this year, there was a tremendous hoopla over programs and books churches could offer to counter the bad history and gnostic philosophy underlying "The Da Vinci Code," which of course benefitted tremendously from all the publicity.
No, here's what really bothers me about these books: They're a cheat. All too often they're the sort of Christianity that sticks around by shitting Hallmark cards in front of a live studio audience. They promise spiritual growth, expanded territory, righteous living and new purpose to life in five easy steps. "Experience a spiritual breakthrough in just under six weeks, or your money back!" Why bother wrestling with life's difficult problems, working through troubling passages of Scripture, or serious doubts about God's nature, character and existence? You don't need to follow God for years to develop spiritual discipline! Now you can do it in no time at all.
Eah. In other news, I've made six loaves of bread in the past two days to give to the girls' teachers for Christmas. I haven't made bread since I won a prize in the Cub Scouts bakeoff nearly thirty years ago, so it was actually kind of fun to do it again. We shaped the bread like teddy bears, in memory of that ancient bakeoff, and now that I'm out of yeast and flour but still have some buttermilk, I'm wondering how the bread tastes.
I guess I'll have to buy some more yeast and some more flour, and make some more today or Friday. Probably Friday. I have a school board meeting and a counseling session today.

hanukkah complications

If you're a Christian and you're thinking of adding Hanukkah to the holidays you celebrate, you might want to plan for a problem we ran into unexpectedly Wednesday night.
This is our third year celebrating Hanukkah, and overall it's been going more smoothly than ever. We've remembered to light the candles each night, we've been saying the appropriate prayer before we light the shamash, and the kids have been devouring the latkes like hotcakes. Each night, we've told the story of Judah the Maccabee and the legendary miracle of the oil, tied it into the coming of Christ, and the girls have remembered it in greater detail each time.
Still, we don't have it all down just yet. As Evangeline pointed out tonight with all the anger of Sally Brown on Halloween, if you're going to celebrate a holiday, you have do the whole thing. Unlike her best friend, who happens to be Jewish, Evangeline didn't get any presents for Hanukkah this year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

media navel-gazing

ABC News recently had a news story about U.S. first lady Laura Bush being treated for skin cancer.

As I understand, a reporter noticed that she had had surgery on her leg, asked her about it, and discovered that the surgery had been to remove a cancerous mole. Not a particular big story, and apparently not one that the first lady had really pushed, since it's a fairly personal issue and not everyone (ahem) like to draw everyone in the world into their personal battles with cancer. Imagine that.

Still, she's first lady and therefore highly public, she got the treatment, and someone wrote a story on it. No big deal.

What was odd was that ABC News then did a story on the questions surrounding whether that reporter had made a private matter too public, and even was taking a poll of its online readers about whether the reporter had turned a personal matter into a public story needlessly. Geez guys, if you have to ask ...

A friend of mine complained that the media was being idiotic and too concerned with itself. Ah, how soon we forget. This was nothing.

The ultimate in media narcissism came back during Clinton's infamous Zippergate scandal. First came the tidal wave of coverage over the details of the scandal. Then came the surge of stories on how many media outlets were reporting all the salacious details. Lastly came an Associated Press story on how many media outlets were reporting on the oversaturation of news stories about the scandal.

The media can overdo their job, but that one really took the cake. I wish I were making it up.

Friday, December 15, 2006

happy hanukkah

It was a great evening, a holy evening, tonight. The girls loved hearing the story of Judah the Maccabee, they loved watching the flickering lights of the menorah.
Hanukkah is off to a great start.
Except ... the latkes I made came out green. Happy O'Hanukkah.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

what little girls are made of

I've heard a lot of weird things claims about what "makes" people gay.

The list has included a lack of sports, certain TV shows and movies, distant fathers, distant mothers, overly close fathers, overly close mothers, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, no discipline, sexual curiosity and experimentation, overly strict religious upbringing, overly lax religious upbringing, genetics, environment, the erosion of traditional gender roles, exposure to Broadway music, participation in ballet, being a sensitive artistic sort, leg hair, and lack of friendships growing up.

Never have I heard someone pin it on diet. Until now.

Apparently, America's growing desire for health food is turning us into a soy bean Sodom.

You just can't make this stuff up.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

art at church

You know, I think my church is actually getting to the point that it's becoming some place neat to go on Sunday.

Don't get me wrong. It's been a good church for a while now. If it weren't, I don't think we'd have been going there for the past year-and-a-half or so that we've been attending. The worship always has been decent, if a trifle on the loud side; the preaching has almost always been pretty good to excellent; and the people have always been real, in our experience. It's a decent place to attend and be involved, and it reminds me in a lot of ways of the late, lamented Community Gospel Church, which was the last place we attended that we really enjoyed.

But The Point is becoming more than a good place to attend church. It's starting to become some place that's really interesting to go.

The big thing is the art. Actual art. Most churches I've attended the last 18 years or so paid lip service to art but didn't really embrace artistic expression unless it was "appropriate," which means that it's sanitized, prepackaged, not upsetting, not offensive, and is either by Thomas Kincade or is just otherwise uninteresting to look at or create. If it doesn't make people feel good about themselves and about Christ, it doesn't belong in church is the philosophy I think most churches operate on when it comes to art.

I've been pushing for more use of the arts at The Point, to the point that last year I convinced the leadership team it would be a good idea to create a worship station for a few weeks where people could come up and paint as much or as little as they wanted during the service. It was a neat idea, everyone agreed, but it didn't work well. About the only people to paint were the kids, and the pictures painted were (no joke) cute fluffy sheep, a cross or two, and something that might have been grass.

Back around Easter, they revisited the idea slightly by asking four different artists to paint whatever they wanted, on their own canvases, during the service. (Evangeline was one of the artists asked, which of course I enjoyed tremdously, as her father.)

The last few weeks, that sort of thing has been a fixture at both our downtown and suburban congregations. In addition to the band leading everyone in worship and the preacher doing his thing, there's been a painter working on a painting during the service, of paintings that were thematically related to the service but not explicity religious. This morning, when the sermon was about Hanukkah, a woman painted a cluster of candles. In the downtown service, for the theme of Hope, the artist painted a hand holding a winged sphere. ("Hope is that thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson, although his finished painting looked something like a golden snitch from Harry Potter.) When the theme was Faith, the painting was of a blindfolded woman being led by the hand. And the paintings have been display on subsequent weeks.

Last week our downtown service included interpretive dance as part of the worship service.

The worship team, which has been a little too heavy on guitars -- three of them, to be specific, with two of them electrics -- for my taste, is branching out. The team at each congregation includes someone who provides vocals and vocals alone, and downtown the worship band now includes a flutist. As a result, the worship is being transformed.

I guess you can tell why I'm getting excited about this church. It's taking a step beyond what's traditional, what's expected -- or perhaps it's taken a step beyond what's expected, back to what's traditional, since the Church traditionally was the significant patron of the arts for the longest time.

And I'm seeing a church leadership that's willing to take risks. At the downtown service tonight, two other people and I delivered a sucker-punch drama that had everyone's full attention and provided a deeply attentive audience when the pastor got up to preach.

We're working through Advent right now, with the sermon this week on joy. Our drama began when Jonathan got up to read Luke's account of the angelic visitation to the shepherds. He had just read the point that the angels began singing their hosannas and Gloria-in-Excelsis-Deos when someone in the congregation snorted loudly and derisively, the sort of snort I've used once or twice when I heard a preacher claim that the book of Job mentions dinosaurs.

No one who wasn't in on the drama knew this was coming. For the next minute or so, everyone in the congregation had the look of the proverbial deer caught in the headlights as Glorianne talked about how uninvolved she was in worship, and that while it's a great story that angels came to shepherds at night, it doesn't really match her experience at all. Everyone was stunned, first at the impropriety of interrupting like that and then (from some of the expressions I saw) at her willingness to articulate something they all could relate to but would never think of sharing.

Following the script, but a little uncertainly because Glorianne hadn't given him the cues he had been expecting, Jonathan tried to explain something about the joy not being in angels' presence but in following God, and then I lit into him for throwing around the idea of joy when he has no idea what he's talking about, nor does just about anyone with our casual, drive-by Christmastime religion. And for a closer, we tied it all in to the poverty that's very real and very present in our city, and probably got the attention of the homeless people who come to our services each week.

(The associate pastor, knowing it was a drama, leaned over to the fellow next to him and said, "Boy, this is awkward." The other fellow nodded mutely, and said, strained, "You're telling me.")

It was a set-up, admittedly, a piece of experimental theater where the audience doesn't know where they end and the actors begin, but it had the effect we intended. The lead pastor started talking, and I think he did an excellent job addressing the issues we raised. Afterward, everyone was talking about the drama and what was said afterward.

Through our sucker-punch drama, we succeeded at doing something important. We spoke to people about real pain, real disappointment, real frustration, and then about real joy.

I love this church.

Friday, December 08, 2006

odd idea

It's cold, and the days grow darker, but we are well.
But still, I can't help but wonder: What if one of these years it actually didn't start getting brighter with the solistice, all because some pesky shamanistic priest somewhere forgot which day it was, or was at the hospital, and by the time he realized what had happened, things had gone too far for a simple ritual to fix.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

worst. hanukkah story. ever.

Yesterday I found what must be the worst Hanukkah story ever written -- worse even than "Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins."

Rachel and I were at the library yesterday, picking up the latest book for Niki's book club, returning some old books, and looking for a few new prizes. While Rachel busied herself first with picking out two new Christmas books that we could borrow, I headed over to the holiday section to see if I could locate any good Hanukkah storybooks. (You know that we celebrate Hanukkah, right?)

I wasn't expecting much in the way of bad stories. Hanukkah's picked up steam in America because of its proximity to Christmas, but most Hanukkah stories I've read have been either retellings of the story of Judah the Maccabee or they've been stories about how one person or another celebrated Hanukkah as a child, the personal sort of story that children enjoy hearing and that parents don't mind reading. Since the holiday hasn't been commercialized for that long, I didn't expect anything too hideous, say on the order of "Dora saves Christmas."

We found a couple of those -- one with a potato miracle that parallels the legendary miracle of the oil, and another about a child who comes to appreciate the beauty of her grandmother's homemade menorah -- but I was stunned when I found a Hanukkah story so bad that I think you'd have to be on LSD to enjoy it. (Appropriately, it was written in 1979.)

It's called "The Return of the Golem," a catchy enough title if you're familiar with the legend of the golem. If you're not, the golem was created in the Middle Ages to protect the Jews of Prague against a wave of persecution stemming from the blood libel that they were using the blood of Christian children to make their matzoh.

In this book, it's almost Hanukkah when children see a spaceship land just outside the village. A group of aliens gets out and soon are up to mischief. In no time at all, they head to the synagogue, where they throw books and push over chairs. They find the ark, remove the Torah and put out the eternal flame.

The children run to Rabbi Joseph to tell him what has happened. The rabbi exclaims, "This looks like a job for the golem!" At this point, I half-expected the rabbi to run into a phone booth and pull off his yarmulke to reveal the letters Aleph, Beth, Gimel and Daleth on his forehead, but instead he creates a golem by reciting the Hebrew alphabet. (That's now how it's done.) The golem chases away the aliens, and then goes haywire.

This was about the time I was too busy cracking up to read any more. I took the book up to the children's librarian, who is Jewish, and showed it to her. She read it in bewilderment and then declared, "We're throwing it out."

Still, I find comfort in this. If "The Return of the Golem" can be published, so can anything I write.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

letting the terrorists win

I did feel that one or two of the answer selections lacked proper nuance, but I'm sure you'll agree that this test still gauges the true levels of my patriotism quite accurately:
Your 'Do You Want the Terrorists to Win' Score: 94%

You are a terrorist-loving, Bush-bashing, "blame America first"-crowd traitor. You are in league with evil-doers who hate our freedoms. By all counts you are a liberal, and as such cleary desire the terrorists to succeed and impose their harsh theocratic restrictions on us all. You are fit to be hung for treason! Luckily George Bush is tapping your internet connection and is now aware of your thought-crime. Have a nice day.... in Guantanamo!

Do You Want the Terrorists to Win?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

post-rapture mail service

A friend of mine recently referred me to the Post-Rapture Post, a service that offers to deliver a message to your unsaved relatives when the Rapture comes and you are no longer available to point them toward Christ. It offers a wide range of messages, from personalized notes to simple premade cards that say "I told you so." It offers various Cafe Press sort of merchandise, and even a guide on how to navigate the difficulties of life now that the Great Tribulation has begun (an authentic Bible).

The site is absolutely stunning in the respectful way it goes about its business so quietly tongue-in-cheek. There are appropriate Scripture verses on every page, and down-to-earth explanations of basic Christian doctrine pertaining to salvation.

From the Post-Rapture Post's promotional material:

Just write your letter and it will be hand-delivered immediately following the exodus of the pure from the Earth. But you must be thinking to yourself, "How can the letters be delivered after the Rapture?" The answer is simple. The creators of this site are Atheists. That's right, we don't believe in God. How else would we be able to deliver your correspondence after the Rapture?"

I don't believe in the Rapture myself, so I suppose if I were to use the Rapture Post, my message might say something like, "Well, it looks my eschatology was wrong, but at least my theology was better than yours. Neener neener."

Be sure to check out their testimonials page.

the artist and colors

Last night at Evangeline's drop-in art class, one of the teachers and I were chatting, and I said that in a lot of ways, Evangeline is a teen already. She already has a lot of the agnst. So it shouldn't be a surprise that when the teacher asked her to name her favorite color, Evangeline said, simply, "Black."
"Why black?"
"That's just the way it is."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

christ the liberal

Behold, a story fom ABC News about whether efforts by some evangelicals to push their social action groups into dealing causes like global warming and poverty, which have greater meaning but less readily identifiable bogeymen than traditional evangelical causes like "Gays are corrupting our children" and "Abortion-rights advocates support murder!"

Not surprisingly, but still disappointly, those making these efforts are being pushed out of the organizations they're trying to take in new directions.

On the one hand, I admire the integrity of the fellow who resigned from the Christian Coalition when it became obvious that his broader goals didn't dovetail with their more narrowly defined agenda. And I agreed with the statement that anger and fear are more powerful motivators than compassion, which is why it's easier to raise the flag over gay marriage and abortion than over environmentalism and homelessness.

But I think the writer of the story, or the editor (or both) missed the point in this story, when it keeps talking about a divide among conservative Christians or conservative evangelicals. Hel-lo! The conservatives aren't split at all. The divide is between the Right and the Left in Christianity; the story is growing number of evangelicals and post-evangelicals who are identifying themselves with something other than the GOP; and it's the growing awareness of our responsibility to the whole message of Christ, not just to areas of morality that he never addressed himself.