Friday, November 30, 2007

searching out proper ethic principles

"As you know I am an extreme pacifist but if God asked me to do something that ran across that, I would obey God (now, if only I can differentiate God's voice from the other ones in my head) because God is God and I am not."

I'm sure you also have strong feelings on children's welfare. If God told you to horribly abuse a group of preschoolers sexually and physically, would you do it?

Of course you wouldn't -- because you recognize that such an instruction wouldn't be from God. We all feel that we know the voice of God well enough to differentiate what comes from him, and what does not.

Yet without a doubt much of this knowledge and understanding of God's voice has its roots in what our culture or particular subculture says is correct or moral. Few (healthy) people in any Western culture could kill another person without feeling some guilt, even if the act was completely justified; yet there are Christians from other cultures who would find killing in some contexts to be not only morally permissble but morally laudable.

It's precisely those cultural differences that should to some extent us cautious about developing a "biblical mindset"; the ancient Israelites had a decidedly premodern mindset, while Western society is twixt modern and premodern mindsets. We have radically different ideas on slavery, women's rights, the nature of God, and so on from what the authors of the Bible believed. While it doubtless is correct to say that those differences don't necessarily speak well of us, I think it's fair to say that a number of them do, and many of the others merely indicate differences in our social glue, rather than fault or merit in one society or the other.

So God is bigger than us. No question. His ways are higher than ours. Also agreed. But to what extent are those ways reflected in the lives of the ancient Israelites and their culture as recorded in Scripture? The ancients equated obedience to God with wealth and worldly success, but by the time Job was added to the canon, their understanding of God had reached the point where they concluded that such an equation was too facile an understanding of God.

I'm sure I make some people uncomfortable with the questions I'm asking these days, and even with the conclusions I'm starting to find, but I don't think I've strayed into any heresy. Just into uncertain gray areas, but I'm used to living there.

racial purity in ezra

I'm looking at Ezra 9 right now, and I get the strong impression that racial purity is a significant part of this issue, as Ezra saw it. He notes, quoting the Israelite leaders, "They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them" (emphasis mine).

There is a bit later on about the "detestable practices" but honestly, the theme they keep referring to is interracial marriage.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

the fate of the women in ezra

While it may show that God did not abandon the divorced women to destitution, prostitution, or a synonym for slavery that ends in "-itution," there's no indication within the context of this particular book that Ezra or the others (except maybe those few clans who refused to go along with his program of ethnic cleansing) gave any consideration for the fate of the women.

I'm sure some of them did, naturally, and maybe even wept over the harsh necessity of the act, from a sense of proper charity, but the whole point of the passage is: We have intermarried with foreign women, this has angered God, and we need to drive them out.

And I note again the irony that God is strangely silent this entire book. No prophets appear and advise this course of action; the Word of the Lord never trumpets forth any guidance or advice. It's just Ezra, fasting and in mourning over the sin of his people.

I don't think God views women as more evil then men, but look at the relatively low importance they get in the Bible. They have names like Potiphar's wife, Noah's wife, and Pilate's wife; they're viewed as possessions to be given away or claimed, or in this case, sent away; and they're often held us as examples of evil, as with Jezebel, the voice of destruction in Proverbs, and for that matter many proverbs paint them poorly: "Better to live a desert by yourself than to share a roof with an ill-manner and contentious woman"; "Among a thousand men, I found one upright, but among a thousand women, I found none" and so on.

There are some great examples of strong women in the Bible -- Deborah, Ruth and Esther -- but with the exception of those last two, the details on their lives are sparse and their roles are secondary and limited to being someone's wife or mother

You know how some feminists, when there's a domestic dispute, always blame the husband? Or how some women view every man as a potential rapist, and automatically assume that we're scoping them out for sex? That's what life is like, on a daily basis, for women who live in a patriarchy. It's not just a matter of a little bit of chauvanism. It's an automatic assumption of guilt, and disproportionate punishment ... much like what Ezra did.

The account of Hagar in the book of Genesis may suggest something in the larger biblical context, that God did not abandon these women, but the book of Ezra gives the impression that the foreign women were a source of evil, and needed to be driven out before they led the men astray. Read on its own, for what it says, the book of Ezra suggests that God did not give a crap about these women, because they were foreign.

And the flip side is that the book gives the added impresson that God probably didn't give a crap about the Jewish women who had married foreign men in Babylon or elsewhere. No one is urged to put away her foreign husband or half-breed children. I say it again: Patriarchy sucks.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

understanding ezra

Here is the essential conflict in discussion of how to understand Ezra correctly: It's one how to interpret scripture wisely and responsibly. Some would posit that the Quran is the Muslim "Bible"; that may be, but I would argue that we err in viewing the Bible as a Christian Quran, dictated in all its wordsby God himself.

The view of Scripture I'm coming to is one where I understand the Bible as a collection of writings of people who were feeling their way in the dark toward God. Thus we see echoed in Scripture the same struggles that we deal with ourselves as a society and a church, viz. how much to assimilate and how much to retreat from "foreign" ways. That Ezra acted in the way he did, even though the book affirms his actions, does not mean that his position is solidly rooted in God as much as it is solidily rooted in his understanding of God within his socio-cultural context.

I think the man was a misogynist and a racist, whatever virtues may rightly be attributed to him, and so I object to his action. Questioning the rightness of his action, even as I understand the reasons for doing so, leads me to a deeper inquiry into my understanding of God and the ways my experiences and culture act as a filter; it also leads me into a deeper exploration of Scripture itself.

Others have views different from mine. But it leads them on a parallel odyssey of the spirit, as they see the contrasting voices in Scripture and meditate on the same issues and conflicts, and move toward a deeper understanding of God. On the way, we run into each other, disagree (sometimes sharply) and hopefully learn from one another. I see this as a good thing, though stubborn know-it-all that I am, I probably don't come across that way.

ezra again

Still pondering the ethnic cleansing in the book of Ezra. The traditional justification for this act, among evangelicals, is that it what needed to maintain the identity of the Jewish people, and to protect the Jewish faith from pagan influences. I follow this reasoning completely, understand it, have heard it before, and used it myself as well.

A few problems with it:

  • It's inhumane. It involved mass divorce, ripping husbands and wives apart, and tearing children away from their fathers because the kids weren't "pure enough." Whether the wives and children made the journey from Babylon or were local non-Jewish women, the result was the same: dishonor, shame, and a life of misery. The "extreme circumstances call for extreme measures" line is used to justify all manner of atrocities, and I'm unconvinced that more humane measures weren't possible.
  • Jesus flat-out says that to divorce a spouse who has not been unfaithful is to commit adultery. Paul adds an allowance for divorce when one partner has converted and the other can't stand it, but in that case it's a mutually agreed-upon release from an unpleasant situation, not a racially driven purge.
  • It's inconsistent with obvious cases like Ruth and Rahab, where pagan women were accorded places of honor in Israel and Judah's histories.
  • It's also inconsistent with the scriptural principle of honoring your vow for the vow's sake, even if you realize it was a vow you were unwise to have made in the first place.
And of course, lastly, it raises the question of just how does God work, anyway? I've heard people argue that salvation became available to Gentiles only because the Jewish people of Christ's day rejected him, i.e., that salvation originally was racially based; that from the time of Moses to Jesus God worked one way, but he now works another way, as in the time of Abraham, and so on. Does God change, or is he the same?

Lastly lastly, I really hate the idea that women are the source of evil and destruction in Israel and Judah. Patriarchy sucks.

What I'm hitting on here is one of the thematic struggles of the Tanakh, whose authors sometimes had sharply differing views of how to treat Gentiles. I believe it's the Priestly writer who warns sharply about the dangers of associating with Gentiles, tells the people that they can enslave foreigners in their midst, and so on; while the Deuteronomist tells the reader to show kindness to the foreigner in their midst, for the Israelites themselves were once aliens and strangers in a foreign land, and reminds them to leave grain on the ground for the needy and the alien. Ezra says "Get rid of these foreign women"; the book of Ruth says "Let them in, so they can experience the wonders of our God and our people."

On the one hand you have the order to keep separate from the pagan nations surrounding them -- something particularly hammered home in the books written post-Exile -- yet with the other hand, you have writers like 2 Isaiah saying that all the nations will come to Israel and worship the Lord on his holy mountain.

I've heard the "keep them pure, keep them separate" argument before, but it doesn't match up with vast other parts of the Tanakh, where Israel is meant to be a blessing to the nations, where the Queen of Sheba comes to Solomon and leaves amazed at the great wisdom the Lord has given to him, where the nation is uniquely positioned to spread news of the One God throughout the ancient world.

Did the command to evangelize the world come with Christ, or was it in place thousands of years earlier?

Monday, November 26, 2007

bedtime bible stories

Let me caution parents against reading Bibles with their children if they think it's going to be all peaches and ice cream. There's sweets in there, but there's a few rocks to be found too.

Like many children's Bibles, the one we’re reading with Rachel right now streamlines the accounts of Scripture so you don’t encounter situations like reading the story of Jesus four times in a row, or reading about the history of the kingdom from David to the Exile, and then starting it all over again. And like other children's Bibles, it also makes sure kids get the officially proper understanding of the story, not quite to the point of Mary saying, "Oh, Joseph, I feel so happy that our baby will take all our sins on himself and save us from the fires of hell by dying in our place!" but it’s still got a few unnecessary whetstones to sharpen its point. (Strange we think that so necessary when the Scriptures themselves don't have that degree of polemic.)

But at least it’s (mostly) tolerable. It’s no Prayer of Jabez or Rhema Bible College children's Bible, and though it adds a few details to make the story more interesting, they at least appear to be historically accurate and provide the bonus information preachers usually provide in their sermons. I have one children's Bible that used to be my mother's, with a very definite colonialist bent. It actually says that Nimrod pleased God because he went out and conquered the superstitious peoples of the world. Um, yeah.

For Evangeline, we read the actual Bible. So far we've read Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Esther, Daniel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts, more or less in their entirety. (We skipped the genealogies in 2 Chronicles, the law part of Exodus, and some of the more graphic stuff in Judges.)

As a result, bedtime Bible reading with Evangeline has been an education and a half by itself. We've read stuff I think many people don't read with their children, or at all. We've wrestled together with the story of Jephthah and his decision to offer his daughter as a human sacrifice to God, and concluded together that while God may indeed have appointed Jephthah to lead the Israelites in war against the Moabites, only an idiot would think that he was qualified to be a spiritual leader as well. And that led us in turn to a discussion of leadership and authority, and how God sometimes will give people authority in one area but not in another, and how we should stop and evaluate whether their leadership in a second area really is valid. (I was thinking of our president in some nebulous way, and of preachers who tell their parishioners how to vote, more specifically.)

We just started Nehemiah last Tuesday night, after finishing the book of Ezra on Monday, and I found myself wondering at the sharp differences in the writing style between Ezra/Nehemiah and the other historyish books in the Tanakh. The books from Genesis through 2 Chronicles have a very clear sense of God as a participant in history. The authors ascribe words and motivations to God for what happens, and there's a sense of wonder and awe about God that permeates, and develops through, the books. In Ezra and Nehemiah, the books read more like the sort of thing you would find in a Christian bookstore or hear during testimonials night. "The hand of God was upon us," the writer says as an explanation for why things worked out well. God is more removed in these books than elsewhere in the entire Tanakh, with the exception of the Esther, where he's not even mentioned. (Though at least that book is so well structured that you get a sense of God's involvement as the plot progresses.)

In all honesty, Ezra and Nehemiah aren't books about God’s dealings with Israel as much as they're books about having a proper nationalist spirit, and why other peoples shouldn't mess with the Jews. The one begins with the reconstruction of the Temple and ends with the exiles purging themselves of all the unclean Gentile women and half-breed children they've polluted themselves with; and the other is about the city of Jerusalem itself and the efforts to repair the damage inflicted a century previous, by Nebuchadnezzar. It's been a while since I read Nehemiah, but if memory serves, it also ends with some sort of purging. The chapter we read Friday night has Nehemiah flipping out over 1 percent interest being charged against fellow Jews on loans.

Anyway, Evangeline is asking all the questions you'd expect her to, the questions that simultaneously make you want to cheer her on because it shows she's thinking, and tell her to stop being so difficult because they show you that you haven't been thinking enough.

For instance: Ezra is beside himself with grief that the exiles have married non-Jewish women and actually had children with them, and he convinces the people that in order to be right with God, they have to divorce all these foreign wives and send away both them and their children. That's horrible, and I found myself cheered immensely when I read that there were two clans that refused to comply.

Evangeline, naturally enough, wanted to know why they did this. So I gave the traditional explanation that the Jewish people were meant to be a unique people, possessed not only of the knowledge of the One God but of a special relationship with him that required keeping themselves separate from the pagan peoples around them. Why? Well, because if they married people with other religious beliefs, they might be led to worship other gods, their children might, or the worship of the Lord could be mixed up with the worship of other gods.

"Solomon did that," Evangeline said.

"True, but look at how it worked out for him," I said, thinking of Solomon’s idolatry.

"Yeah, but he did it to keep peace."

And from there she made the leap to interfaith marriage today, wondering what was wrong with it if both people believed in God.

What she didn't ask, and to be honest, I was grateful for it, was why if Ezra did the wrong thing, the book doesn't make it sound like he did. I mean, let’s be honest: 21st-century Christian sensibilities aside, the point of the book is that Ezra did do the right thing by demanding that everyone get rid of their non-Jewish family members. There's no voice from heaven saying "Straight up!," and Christians like to use that as silence as evidence of God’s disapproval (and by extension, of his support for our strong pro-marriage stands), but the implication of the book is that this was the appropriate response.

Tuesday night she asked why it was such a big deal to repair the Temple, since we can worship God anywhere. Again, I gave her the traditional explanations about God's Name inhabiting the Temple, and Jesus' death changing everything, but at the same time, I was aware of the deficiencies of the explanation. The Israelites worshiped God at any number of shrines before Solomon built the Temple, and he was fine with that then; and he’s fine with it now, and I was starkly aware of how many inconsistent doctrines of God and dispensationalist thinking I've picked up over the years.

To be honest, I deserve this. I keep telling my children that wisdom lies in the questions you ask, and not in the answers you give, and I encourage them to ask tough questions in church. So it's only fair that they hold my feet to the fire too.

homeschooling my second child

Rachel's been doing well with the homeschooling. I've finally started to win an uphill battle where her handwriting is concerned. Because she's the younger of two children, Rachel started writing before she attended preschool, although perhaps it would be more accurate to say she was "drawing letters" than to say she actually was writing.
The result, though, is that while she did eventually learn to make the letters look right, she’s been making them in a way other than the correct way; i.e., she would make a T by starting at the bottom of the letter instead of at the top. Not a huge deal, I suppose, but it’s supposed to have dividends in other areas later on.

Well, after much work, I’ve finally got her doing her letters the correct way at least half the time. She still keeps slipping back into sola uppercasa as one of the three pillars of her faith when she’s writing on her own, but I'm confident that this too will come in time.

Her reading has been great, too. After resisting me on other occasions when I've prompted her to challenge herself, on Tuesday she picked up a Level 2 Step into Reading book and did a passable job with it. She still got stuck on a few words, including some she already knows, but now that she’s read it all the way through, she'll keep going. Her biggest problem isn't sight words, it's remembering what sounds dipthongs make, and how to handle that dang silent E. (It's elementary for silent E, but she's still in pre-elementary.)

Aside from reading and writing, the main thing we've been working on is literacy. We’re working our way through our beloved copy of The Brothers Grimm, as well as reading D'Aulaire's "Book of Greek Myths" and a children’s story Bible. We also just read a couple books about Pocahontas, one of which noted about the famous scene with John Smith, "Most historians think Smith made this up. We really don’t know. Oh, and we don't know if she actually thought of herself as a Christian and loved John Rolfe, or if she just thought converting and then marrying him would help her people." That book cracked me up with its honesty. Once Thanksgiving's over, I guess I'll have to see about finding some other books about Roanoke and Virginia Dare, or about the Puritans' arrival at Plymouth Rock.
In addition to all this at home, Rachel also takes gymnastics lessons, wants to attend the art academy where Evangeline goes, and knows more folk and Broadway tunes than many people far older than her. So I think we're getting the humanities covered.
Math is a little difficult for her, when it comes to adding numbers together that add up to more than 10. This, too, I think will come after I've explained it another time or two and worked her through a few exercises. She's doing well.

'into the woods'

One of the big things at our house the past few weeks has been the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into the Woods."

I bought Natasha the soundtrack to the 2000-ish Broadway revival with Vanessa Williams, and for her birthday we bought Evangeline a DVD of the original production, with Bernadette Peters, and the girls have been going around singing one tune or another from the show for more than a month. Rachel's humming "You are Not Alone," one of the songs from the show, right now.

The first act of the musical weaves together the fairy tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and original Sondheim bridging material that can be called "The Baker and His Wife," into one more or less cohesive story.

The stories go pretty much the way you expect to, with some pretty good music along the way, and some rather hilarious comments on the tales themselves, such as when one of the princes comments, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel. What kind of a name is that?"

The first act ends like you would expect a fairy tale to end. Jack is wealthy, the Baker and his Wife are expecting their child, Rapunzel and Cinderella each have married their princes, and so on. Everything has ended "happily ever after," just as you’d expect it to.

And then the curtain rises on Act 2. Everyone is still happily-ever-aftering when the giant's wife comes down another beanstalk, looking for the boy who repaid her hospitality and generosity by stealing from her husband and then killing him. On top of that, Rapunzel has gone mad from years of living in a tower all by herself and then suddenly being thrust into palace life after giving birth to twins, all by herself, in the middle of the desert.

Oh, and the princes, having had everything they ever wanted and having believed themselves to have fallen in love with women they couldn't have ― Cinderella kept running away at midnight every night of the festival, and Rapunzel lived in a tower with no door ― have grown bored with their lives now that they once again have everything they ever wanted, and are in love with two new women, one of whom is in enchanted sleep within a forest of briars, and the other who lies in an enchanted sleep within a casket made entirely of glass.

It’s an incredible story, although it does get a little intense when everyone's arguing over how to stop the giantess and whether they shouldn’t just hand Jack over to her. (They tried having her kill the Narrator, but that didn’t work out.) When we watched it last week, Rachel -- who took a haunted house in good stride ― was so wigged out that she started shaking during that scene.

Like any good story, the show functions well at several levels. The first act is memorable because of the way it retells the fairy tales with all the charm and excitement found in the originals, albeit with a little more characterization. But by the time the second act is drawing to a close, the protagonists have been forced to grow up and assess their fairytale lives to find out what went wrong.

There's the message about letting someone else tell our stories for us, and letting them decide what should happen to us. Cinderella of course has lived the life her dead mother told her to, even going regularly to her grave for further guidance; and the Baker is horrified when the others kill the Narrator (God), because "Now we'll never know how our story ends."

In the end, the four who remain -- Cinderella, Jack, Red Riding Hood and the Baker -- are forced to determine how their story will go. Rather than running from its unpleasantness, they realize that the bulk of the misery everyone's experiencing comes from focusing only on what they wanted, and not considering how a blind pursuit of their own goals would affect everyone else.

So in the end, Sondheim uses the vehicle of fairy tales to critique the message of fairy tales and to pass on a lesson to adults about the life lessons we teach our children through the decisions we make.

One thing I find amusing is that while the decision to kill the Narrator is essentially an effort to throw off the yoke of subservience to God and experience freedom and self-determination, the characters don't really do that. The story remains scripted, orchestrated, and choreographed down to the final drop of the curtain.

No one got killed at all. At best, all they did was shake off the familiar representation of him that was at the moment engaged in pointless moralizing about their situation. His hand and his guidance remained on them no matter what they did.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

engaging my gifted child

I had about the 10 billionth meeting last Monday with Evangeline’s teacher regarding her schoolwork and socialization in the classroom, with the major change this time that I involved the school principal.

Evangeline has become extremely disengaged from school. Her work is mostly stuff she mastered in kindergarten or first grade, which is frustrating. Her teacher last year had her learning negative numbers in math and had put her in the most advanced reading group the school offers for her age group, which was still far below her reading level.

Her teacher’s main focus when we've talked has been on Evangeline's perceived inability to socialize with her peers. We've met or conferred at least a half-dozen times where that was the main focus of the meeting, but some time about two weeks ago, I finally snapped and got angry in a constructive way on Evangeline's behalf.

Instead of trying to redirect the focus to a discussion of her academic skills, I pushed back hard on the social skills and said point-blank "She’s not an extrovert. There's nothing wrong with that. She has friends, she makes new ones, and she has no problem interacting with them. But she doesn’t like crowds, and when she started third grade, not a single one of her friends was in her class. What did you expect her to do? Open up to a bunch of kids whom she barely knows or who have picked on her?"

The main thing Evangeline needs socially is a chance to interact with her peers, not just kids her own age, but kids who really are her peers, both academically and interestwise. But when you’ve got a kid who started teaching herself to read when she was 4, who took it upon herself in first grade to learn cursive writing, who reads at a ninth grade level when she's only in third grade herself, who had her own freaking art show in first grade, and you give her assignments like "Write your name and address three times" or two pages of "Underline the subject and circle the predicate," you’re going to get a kid who’s as lonely as Mr. Morton, no matter what the predicate says she’s supposed to do.

So the long and short of it is that, after Natasha and I met with the principal and the teacher last Monday morning for about 45 minutes, Evangeline is getting some math work from a higher grade level, will be reading some books that are considered middle school level, and will be partnered with some of the other bright kids in the third grade.

It'll be an improvement, though heaven knows if it'll be enough. The school is great for kids who are in the center of the bell curve and who fall to the left of it, but I’m seeing with my own eyes that it’s not as well equipped for kids who land on the right of the curve and who need a little more effort to engage them.

With a little guidance, Evangeline does a good job of keeping herself engaged. Six weeks ago I let her read my trusted copy of "Coraline," and she was hooked from start to finish. For about two weeks, everything was "Coraline this" and "Coraline that" and "AAaah! Look out, it’s the Other Mother!"

Rachel, who hasn’t even read the book yet, got in on the action too, and was drawing pictures of women she said were the Other Mother, and loved to watch a "trailer" for the book that someone posted on YouTube. (Incidentally, did you know they’re making a movie of the book now? It’s stop-motion animation, and features Dakota Fanning as the voice of Coraline.)

Evangeline immensely enjoys books like "Coraline" that play with expectation and perception, and that give you unexpected twists in direction or on reality. I've told the girls a few of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories as best as I can remember them, and she was hooked. After her bath the other night, she even started wearing her towel over head so that it covered her entire face except for her mouth, like in "The Minister's Black Veil."


Anyone seen the new "Beowulf" flick? Neil Gaiman co-wrote the script, and Robert "What Lies Beneath" Zemeckis directed it, so I'm intrigued, even though I hear it's one of the nouveau movies where everyone acted in front of a blue screen, with all the visuals overlaid later on via CGI, including Hrothgar’s beard.
Stephen Whitty, the film critic for the Star-Ledger, gave it a mixed review. I think he enjoyed the story itself, possibly because it was "Beowulf" and if you have a degree in English of any sort (or are a guardian of culture, which a film critic certainly is as opposed to a movie reviewer), you are required to like "Beowulf" even if you thought it was tedious when you read it in high school and college.
For those not familiar with the story, "Beowulf" is the oldest known piece of literature in Old English, also called Anglo-Saxon, and it reflects a lot of those sensibilities even though it ostensibly is a Christian, rather than pagan, tale. In the story, the hall Heorot is under nightly siege by a monster called Grendel, who comes in and kills people at his leisure. The mighty Beowulf comes and fights Grendel to the death, thus making himself the target of vengeance by Grendel's mother. He defeats her and lives to a ripe old age, when he dies after slaying a dragon.

Personally, I still have mixed feelings about "Beowulf" as something to read. It's a great piece of literature and all, because it's the oldest extant poem composed in English, and it's a great literary window into our Anglo-Saxon heritage, and it shows the culture at a state of transition from pagan to early Christian, where the people still loved their old stories and were retelling them with a bad gloss of their new faith, yada yada yada, but at least the translations I've read have been pretty dull, and full of endless boasting about how tough Beowulf is, how great a king Hrothgar has been, how mightily Bob the Builder swung his hammer Mjolinir-Craftsmann in the construction of Heorot, and so on. I remember reading it in college and getting to the part where Beowulf was fighting the dragon, and thinking, "Waitasecond. What happened to Grendel's mother?" My eyes had glazed over for a third of the poem, and I had missed it completely.
I borrowed a copy of a "Beowulf" graphic novel from the library about a month ago and read it to Evangeline. Because it was a visual medium, it cut all the description and much of the plot exposition, and told the story in a fairly straightforward manner. I was actually able to show her how Beowulf taps into the same archetype as Heracles, Superman and the other larger-than-life, kick-your-ass figures she's enjoyed reading about. She seemed to enjoy it at the time, though she's never asked me to read it to her again.
She did make some joke about weregild the next day, though. Personally, I think that's a concept we need to recover in English-speaking society. If you harm me or my kin, or damage our reputation, I should be able to demand your life in restitution, either as a blood-payment or as a lifetime of servanthood. I'm not particular.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

that thanksgiving thing

Thanksgiving is always an active time here in our family. Last year we invited some friends over and had the seven of us around the table; this year in addition to my parents, I invited a friend if mine who is going through a divorce to come over with her two daughters but she decided to decline. I re-extended the invitation again Wednesday, but she decided to stay at home. The big activity at school this week ― it was Wednesday morning, not quite five-thirty when I wrote this ― was the school's Harvest Festival, which probably should just be called Thanksgiving, but isn't.

It's traditional for the children to make some sort of communal meal they invite their parents to come share with them for lunch. In first and second grades, it was stone soup. And yes, they really did put stones in it. This year they made some kind of vegetable noodle soup, but because of my reputation as someone who bakes bread, Evangeline's teacher asked if I could help them make some bread too. She seemed surprised that I don’t have a bread machine, but agreed the students would probably find it more fun to mix and knead it all by hand.

So Tuesday morning I got up bright and early, boiled and mashed some potatoes, adapted some recipes on the fly from my cookbook so we could try them with sourdough, and took all the ingredients to the school so the kids in Evangeline's class could have fun making potato rolls and sourdough muffins. Wednesday morning I got up bright and early to bake them, and I have to say that they turned out all right.

The kids had a good time making them, too. I think the biggest excitement wasn't skipping their regular work plans, and it wasn't even the idea of making bread. It was getting their hands mucky in the dough, and getting to punch it as part of the kneading process. At least one kid had a nice rhythm going, as though he were using a punching bag. (I had to tell him that wasn't the idea.) When I picked Evangeline up yesterday, at least three kids ran over to tell me, "Mr. Learn! The bread’s getting bigger!"

I doubt any of them will remember the history and science I cunningly tried to sneak in there, but you never know. I’m sure they’ll all remember the taste. My bread is good enough that Evangeline's teachers last year all lamented at year’s end that they wouldn’t be getting it any more for holidays or when it was Evangeline's turn to bring in snack.


From a recent conversation with my friend Melissa:
"If you can't trust a neo-Kantian, who can you trust?"
"[She] doesn't wear enough makeup to be narcissistic."
"I'm freaking quote woman."

Monday, November 19, 2007

the anthropomorphized dog

If you've ever had a dog -- I've had four in my life, God bless 'em all -- I'm sure you'll recognize the inherent truth in this story of what happens when a dog finds a sweet potato.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

'into the woods'

A note to my fellow parents: Despite its fairy tale themes, "Into the Woods" might be a little intense for your young child.

For those not familiar with it, "Into the Woods" is a musical by Stephen Sondheim that strings together an assortment of Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Included are Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and an original fairy tale by Sondheim, that serves as bridging material. We will call "The Baker and His Wife." The stories all blend into a coherent and entertainingly light-hearted first act that ends with everyone living happily ever after.

The second act shows what happens after "Happily Ever After." This is when the Princes Charming grow bored with the wives they pursued so hard in the first act and are now pining after Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. This is when the Baker and his Wife have their child and must now deal with the realities of having a baby. More importantly, this is when the giant's wife comes looking for the boy who repaid her hospitality with theft and murder.

We've been listening to the revival soundtrack for the better part of a month, and the girls and I even have had a discusson about who deserves the blame for the giantess' rampage through the kingdom. (There's a whole song dedicated to this question.)

For her birthday, we got Evangeline a DVD of the original production of "Into the Woods" starring Bernadette Peters, and spent the evening tonight watching it.

The move night was great fun, the girls loved it, and now are curious to see other plays and musicals we have on video. Still, it got a little intense. Around the time the giantess had destroyed the baker's house, wrecked the castle, stepped on Rapunzel, crushed the baker's wife beneath a falling tree, and thrown the narrator to his death, and everyone was arguing over whose fault it was and whether they should hand Jack over to the giantess for justice, I glanced over at Rachel. She was looking a little undone. Her blue eyes were wide and she was trembling.

Luckily her mother was sitting right next to her. I told Rachel that her mother looked scared, and maybe she could calm her down and remind her that everything would work out all right in the end. She grabbed on and held her mother tight and told her all those things, and we watched the rest of the movie without further incident.

Maybe she's not ready for "Arsenic and Old Lace."

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, November 16, 2007

tick tock, tick tock

This is not as much a story as it is a conceit for a story, and hopefully, the first shot in an interblog war as the eponymous Zero and I start rewriting one another's posts as an exercise in finding pointless ways to annoy each other through writing. (Assuming he's up for it. I haven't asked.)

It was nearly an hour after Hartdegen's discovery before he began to grasp what had happened: Somehow, he had found a way to call other times on his office phone.

The first sign that there was something unusual going on came late in the afternoon on November 5 when he had to ask Vax about the Wells contract. At that time, he hadn't got around to resetting the clock on the phone, so that it said 5 o'clock when it should have said 4. He called Vox on the other side of the building, and got his end-of-the-day, out-of-office voice mail message -- only Vox hadn't left yet.

After Hartdegen left his message, he ran into Vox in the hallway and got the information. The next day, Vox teased him for calling half an hour after their talk to ask the same exact questions.

It was a subtle sign, and Hartdegen missed it, but more signs came over the next two weeks of work that something odd was afoot. He arrived early for work and called co-workers, not expecting them to be in, only to find them already hard at work as though the time on his phone clock really were correct. Once he called Mrs. Watchett and spoke with her for ten minutes, only to find that she had no memory of the call when they met less than an hour later.

Little signs accrued here and there: gaps in people's memories, times and events that didn't synchronize by an hour exactly.

It was on Novemeber 8, when he fixed the in the living room and the one in the guest room that an idea began to percolate uneasily in Hartdegen's mind. The computers, the cell phone and the VCR all had taken care of themselves on Nov. 4, and he had reset the time on his alarm clock late November 3.

So at quarter to three on November 16, Hartdegen decided to try an experiment. After fumbling with the programming controls for his office phone, he changed the date to November 5, 2008, and called a friend's cell phone.

"Hey, it's Alex," he said. "I just wanted to check in with you. Can you believe the election last night?"

Hartdegen nearly dropped the phone in a mix of shock and excitement. He was talking to the future.

With time at his fingertips, he was now officially ready for Eastern Standard Time.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

minor rant

When and how did extroversion become the yardstick for measuring the social maturity of people, including introverted ones?
I remember as a preteen (and even as a teen) being castigated by my mother for not being more outgoing and willing to initiate conversations with people I didn't know at all or barely knew. I was called stuck-up because I didn't do small talk and chitchat with people I had just met and felt uncomfortable approaching strangers, and generally was under steady pressure to go out and do things I didn't enjoy, with people I had little to nothing in common with, all in the name of socialization.
I'm 37 now, and I still have trouble with those things. I've learned that I'll eventually work my way into a group, find a connection with a few people, and even have a good time,but it takes longer for me than for people who are comfortable with large groups. Sometimes much longer.
Now Evangeline is in third grade, her teacher has approached me about a half-dozen times about Evangeline's slow progress in making friends in class, and at an upcoming meeting with the principal where we're supposed to be talking about keeping school interesting for her instead of boring her to tears with stuff she mastered in kindergarten, the principal has said she wants to discuss how to develop Evangeline's social skills and "educate the whole child."
She gloms onto other kids her own age all the time, and they have a great time playing together. She'll stick like glue to a friend, laughing, playing, and running around. Stick her in a class without any friends, and yes, you'll see her withdraw fairly quickly once she sees that everyone else has put up the No Vacancy signs and pulled in the Welcome mats from their little social groups. Give her time and opportunity to work with her classmates and to discover the areas of commonality, and you'll see her make friends. What, is this supposed to happen in the first week of school, when the only kids in her class whom she knew last year either treated her poorly or barely interacted with her at all?
Rassafrassa rassafrassa Dick Distardly.

wild child

Here's an essay by a college professor who wants more wild children -- students who are willing to break rules, try new things, and set aside social conventions in pursuit of their dreams.

I'm half-inclined to agree. Kids needs guidance and structure of rules, but kids who are willing to set aside rules and not be run by them are the risk-takers who will move and shake the world in days to come.

Evangeline has been butting her head up against a rule at school that is essentially unjust, and I've been trying to help her work her way through an appropriate response to it.

At lunchtime, students at the start of the year were allowed to sit with their friends from other classes if they wanted. About two weeks in, that privilege was unilaterally revoked because of the noise, and everyone was required to sit with their classmates.

Two things annoy the bejesus out of me about this. First is that the restriction has been imposed on everyone without regard for individual behavior. You don't hit an ant hill with a grenade, and you don't punish everyone because of some children's behavior. Second is that it's a punishment that fails to address the underlying problem; kids who are being rowdy and rambunctious will continue to be so even if they have to sit with other kids. And, sure enough, here we are in November and whenever I've been to the school and had lunch with Evangeline, the noise level has been ridiculous, and the kids still are being reprimanded for the volume.

Personally it's a pain in the tuchis, because Evangeline's friends are all in other classes from her this year, she doesn't get to see them the entire day except for recess, and she's miserable as a result. When they drew lots to see who would be friends at the start of the year, the quiet girl (shockingly) was the one who got the short straw -- again.

So what's Evangeline to do? Accept an unjust rule, or work to change it? And when the teachers continue to disregard her request because they're thinking about control instead of what a child needs, what does she do then? My fifth grade lunch was hell because I was stuck next to a bully by virtue of assigned seats and was not allowed to change seats for an entire semester, no matter how I asked.

Honestly, if Evangeline broke this rule and started sitting with her friends, and remained polite and respectful to the teaching assistants the entire time, and refused to move to an assigned table, I'd be thrilled. Some rules are just stupid and they need to be broken so everyone can see how wrong they were in the first place. That's a better lesson than blind obedience to authority.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

the revolution of god

Clay Shaiborne of the Simple Way in Philadelphia wrote something that raises the question of what terminology is appropriate for communicating the message of Jesus in a postmodern, post-colonial, post-Christian, post-whatever society like the one we find ourselves in.

He makes the argument that "Kingdom of God" no longer packs the linguistic punch it did in the first century, where it would have stood in stark contrast to kingdoms of Herod, Caesar, and other kingdoms the gospel readers would have been familiar with.

In the article, he ran through a list of names like "Revolution of God" that in some way recapture some of the message that was once inherent in a phrase like "Kingdom of God." My personal favorite is Revolution, though I remember liking "dream," in the sense of King's "I have a dream."

gods of ash and stone

A fairly fundamentalist friend recently surprised me by admitting that he believes or is willing to believe the animist notion of dryads, naiads and other such elemental spirits that are familiar to us from Greco-Roman myth.

I admit it's an idea I've toyed with, because of stuff I've read or heard, and just because the geekboy within me finds the idea interesting and strangely compelling. I also like it because it's more nuanced than the fundamentalist view of spirits that "They're all demons."

Lewis actually discussed the notion in "That Hideous Strength," if you've read it. Merlin suggests that he can go out into the woods and glens of England and awaken the slumbering spirits he once dealt with back in the days of Arthur; and Dimble separately muses that such wild spirits could be spirits that haven't yet had to choose sides in the war between heaven and hell, or at least hadn't had to make such a decision during Merlin's time.

And of course if you're familiar with the stories missonaries tell from animist countries, there's invariably tales told of families or villages that were doing obeisance to a spirit. It wasn't an evil or malicious spirit necessarily; quite often it directed them toward good water, advised them on planting crops and so on -- and incidentally the one story I'm thinking of, from Cambodia, deals with a spirit that the family got into a relationship with after disturbing its sacred tree. Anyway, the spirits usually have a good relationship with the family until the missionaries come with the gospel and then, often though not always, the spirits go nuts and start threatening reprisals if people convert. Other times, they just fade out quietly as the family embraces the gospel.

In a larger sense, this is a reflection of what goes on when the gospel explodes in a culture where it was unfamiliar. The change the gospel brings is quite amazing: People who "get" it, who see the story as fulfilling a messianic expectation in their own culture, will see a vaues shift in terms of morals, justice and spirituality; while those who see it as a threat will start to define themselves in opposition to it. In a sense, those who have been seeking the Truth (or at least who see it) move dramatically toward it and those who prefer the secrecy of darkness move that way. The same perhaps could be said of dryads, naiads and others, for the sake of argument.

But of course, in a larger sociological perspective, we see the exact same phenomenon in conjunction with other socio-messianic movements. The music of The Beatles exploded on America like a small nuke, spiritually and socially. For large chunks of society, the 1960s was a time of redefinition, with utopian aspirations, social responsibility and breaking free of the shackles society had clapped on them. Others saw the cultural revolution spearheaded by The Beatles as a menace to society, and pushed back hard, to the point that rock music was seen as seditious, Lennon himself was regarded as a threat to national security and there was a serious move by the Nixon (?) administration to have him deported; and so on. We still see that divide perpetuated today, in the presidential campaigns, for instance, where McCain scored points with other conservatives by contrasting his service in Vietnam (establishment) with Clinton's identification with the Woodstock/hippie movement (counterculture).

So perhaps we should see "The Giving Tree" as personal revelation from the co-dependent spirits of the woods.

In the Torah, God warns the Israelites not to fall into the ways of the Canaanite people, saying repeatedly that their sins are why he is going to drive them out before the Israelites. There is another time, though, where he says "the land will vomit them out"; suggesting that this isn't just an action on his part but a reaction by the land itself, that the sin of the Canaanite peoples has so violated the natural order that the land itself was in revolt against them. In other words, sin has not just personal and interpersonal consequences, but environmental (in the broader sense than the merely ecological one) consequences as well.

Monday, November 12, 2007

bible studies

The pastor of the congregation my family attends now is a very humble guy. He's admitted that there's stuff I've studied that he's never even thought about, and he's willing to admit that he could be wrong about even stuff that he does know well, so he's always willing to listen to ideas that will challenge his preconceptions. That's rare for anyone, but especially for a leader in the area of his authority. I think his basic decency and friendship more than anything have been what's kept me tethered to The Point at the church at large, at all.

I've done the adversarial Bible studies. I'm afraid I can't help it, really; a college professor once pointed out to me that my role in class was to be his personal ha-Satan, by questioning everything he taught us. (He meant it in a good way.) They generally go over poorly too, even on basic stuff, like suggesting that St. John the Evangelist, St. John the Elder and St. John of Patmos might not have been the same person, but all belonged to the same "school of John." Church and Bible study leaders dislike it when I suggest that we have tithing wrong, that the doctrine of sanctification is a misunderstanding of grace, and so on.

I hate to think how they would react if I disavowed the whole pre-creation rebellion of Lucifer, or suggested that the Hebrew understanding of God evolved over time from Sinai to Christ, going from a tribal deity whose favor can be earned by behavior and whose approval can be measured by your relative prosperity, to a transcendent one who rules all the nations and whose ways beggar our understanding.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

on prayer

"Finally, having exhausted all his human resources, Dantes turned to God. He remembered the prayers his mother had taught him and found meanings in them of which he had formerly been unaware. For the happy man, prayer is only a jumble of words, until the day when sorrow comes to explain to him the sublime language by means of which he speaks to God."
-- The Count of Monte Cristo, ch. 9

pick your favorite elmo toy

Just in time for Christmas 2007, it's a whole new gaggle of Elmo toys designed for hours of educational fun! Check them out! There's:
  • Head Impaled on a Spike Elmo
  • Plague of Boils Elmo (now at Zondervan Family Bookstores!)
  • Bite Me Elmo (with foaming mouth for exciting rabies action)
  • Incontinent Elmo
  • Waterboarding Elmo
Cast your vote for the best Elmo toy of the shopping season.

wonder woman

It may not be cool to admit this, but I actually like Wonder Woman -- at least when she's written well. (Matt Wagner's "Trinity" comes to mind.) I cracked up when I watched this, since it really does raise the question, what are they thinking when they come up with superheroes like this?

The Invisible Jet sequences are the best.

Friday, November 09, 2007

what, me, bitter?

When we lost our son five years ago, most of our church didn't do squat for us. I got reminded that God is faithful, I was urged to have faith, and other people told me to get my priorities straight and put my wife and daughters first, but very few people were there for us in any way that really mattered.

The regulars in this forum at the time were there for me, but the only good memories I have from our church at the time are:

  • Maura, who asked me how I was doing, then saw the answer before I could say a thing, and embraced me, giving me permission to bawl.
  • Anne, who got my e-mail saying that Chris had left, and wrote back, "God's a pisser. I'm here for you."
  • A very small handful of close friends who listened to me scream, rant and rail against God, and said nothing deep or meaningful.
No one checked on us, called to see how we were doing, or even sent us a damn card. No one. They wouldn't even watch Evangeline -- Evangeline! -- so Natasha could get to an OB/GYN appointment.

tired of church

I am tired to death of church.

I am bitter and angry about the narrowness and moralism that have come to pervade evangelicalism in the United States. I am frustrated by the insipidty of the teaching, which has watered down the most radical message ever presented, into a gospel of self-fulfillment, four spiritual laws and a gateway to happiness and success. Most of all, I'm tired of the pretense.

Two weeks ago, the fellow delivering the announcements made the standard pitch to attend one of the weekly "community groups" that our church offers. As he put it, these are the heart of the church, where you really dive into the Bible. The people you get to know there become like family, and they're always there for you when you need them.

It made me furious. It took a superhuman effort not to shout "Bullshit" at the top of my voice, but I have a sense of propriety, and did not.

Dive into the Bible? Here's what almost every Bible study I've ever attended has been like: You have a bunch of people sitting in a room studying a translation of an ancient text they don't understand. The leader has a clear message he's guiding everyone toward, or he's not guiding anyone at all.

Either way, the people at the study simply repeat the things they've said or heard about the passage before, and unless you're new to this Bible study thing, nothing is new. Bible studies usually are limited to the gospels or Pauline epistles, and aside from their entertainment or Golden Book value, no one ever reads the Old Testament stories. (Some studies are topical in nature, and they're even duller.)

As for the relationships, all that really gets any deeper is the pretense. We'll aww and gee-whiz over other people's prayer requests, and we'll even pray for them at the study, but we never actually get involved in a meaningful or personal way. We're happy to listen and to pray, but if you actually need someone's help the response you're most likely to hear is "Oh geez, I'm sorry I can't help you with that. Good luck."

Church itself is even worse, or maybe it's better, depending on how you look at it, because the pretense doesn't run so deep. You know that when someone is chatting with you politely after church that they really don't care about your personal problems, which is why no one bothers to share them after church.

In the end, I wonder if vast chunks of the American church don't belong with all the flatterers in Dante's hell. We actually train greeters and other members of our churches, especially pastors, to welcome people, befriend them, make them feel at home, and treat them like they're someone special, and then leave them cold once they've settled in.

As for the other aspects of the church, I find nothing invigorating, refreshing, or renewing about them at all. The music is so loud it physically hurts, and not just in the ear that doesn't already have permanent hearing loss. I cannot worship to music that makes me want to run away, especially when the songs change every two or three months, after I've just barely learned the lyrics to the latest tunes.

The sermon is well spoken, amusing, and at times even absorbing, but ultimately it is like a can of Coca-Cola. It is filled with empty calories that accomplish little beyond giving a burst of energy and rotting the teeth in my head. There is nothing new, nothing interesting being shared, and do we really need a three-month series on the book of Galatians? I agree that legalism is a problem in the church, especially among those of us who can see everyone else's legalism perfectly clearly, but surely in a state where we're weary of corruption, high taxes, Bruce Springsteen; seeing heightened tension running along ethnic lines; and feeling existential despair over the state of the union -- surely there are other things that will have a bigger impact on us that have not already been preached from one end of the liturgical calendar to the other.

I learn more and have more to think about after reading with my 8-year-old the Bible's account of Jephthah and his decision to sacrifice his only child to the Lord, than I have in years of church attendance. What is wrong with the church?

Surely our children are ready to go beyond Golden Book theology and actually discover the horrors and wonders that really await them in the Bible. Surely they can even go beyond the same old Bible stories and parables of Jesus, and even do things to experience God themselves. What is wrong with the church?

I do not even find that I have anything to give to the church that it wants or knows what to do with. I am tired of talking about God, I am tired of hearing about God, and I am tired of being alone.

I hate church with a passion, and I cannot find it to make myself go.

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.