Thursday, November 29, 2007

Religion and Theology Links

My interest in whether corporations act in the role of empires was stimulated by a book called Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. The authors argued that Paul was subtly undermining the Roman Empire in Colossians, and that we should undermine the empires of our time (i.e., the Pentagon and Disney). It was provocative (translation, "annoying but good to ponder").

Anyway, Colossians Remixed relies heavily on N. T. Wright's work. Wright and John Barclay debated whether Paul was intentionally undermining the Roman Empire at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting this year. You can listen to the debate here and here. I'm listening to Barclay right now, and he's doing well.

I haven't finished my planned thread on Mary (I know, you can't wait for more). J. I. Packer (a protestant theologian) addresses what we can know about her here.

HT: Between Two Worlds

Oh no he didn't! Wright just dissed the Lutheran "two kingdoms" view, advanced by Rev. Hansen in his most recent post.

More Lamott

Coworker and blogger Jon tells me it's bad form to comment on your own post, so I'm going to pick up the "F-bomba" thread from below in a new post.

Regarding Traveling Mercies, I'm glad to hear that Special K enjoyed it. I enjoyed it too, for the most part. She speaks about things like prayer, baptism, forgiveness, even sanctification in an attractive and authentic voice. On the other hand, around the edges of the book, you get the impression that she doesn't think Jesus has anything to say about her "jumping into bed" (her words) with various boyfriends. Whenever she mentions a boyfriend, she talks about "the man I was in love with at the time," and the relationship is always either dead or dying. For someone who frankly acknowledges her struggle to do God's will in terms of eating, parenting, relating to people who annoy her, the absence of any struggle on this point is striking.

Regarding the f-bomb: I want to reply to Pirate Jimmy's excellent comments, but my lunch break is over, so I'll do that later.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The F-bomba

I just finished Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. She annoys me. But she reminds me that I'm supposed to love annoying people. So I guess that's a good thing.

The book was recommended at the publishing conference I went to at the beginning of the month. A presenter was talking about developing books for non-churchgoers, and one of her principles was to "Use the full range of the English language." The example was Lamott's conversion story, in which she feels pursued by Jesus for weeks, and finally surrenders by saying "F--- it. Come on in."

I have to admit, that's one of the best examples of the sinner's prayer I've ever heard.

On the other hand, I have a deep and abiding dislike for the F-bomb. It technically isn't a violation of the third commandment, but it is verbal violence. And very misogynist, dehumanizing verbal violence at that. If you read Spanish, I highly recommend the essay by Octavio Paz, Hijos de la Malinche, in which he discusses the Spanish equivalent, chingar.

If you don't read Spanish, perhaps Special K will summarize the argument.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Excuses and Overlapping Ghettos

So, I've let my posting discipline slide this last week. I blame my Thanksgiving trip to Tulsa--getting ready to leave, leaving, staying, coming back. So my apologies to anyone who checks in regularly. The holiday was hosted by my oldest sister and her husband (who blogs, check him out here).

Another good friend, the Rev. Joshua Jurgen Hansen, just started blogging, partially in order to prove that you can be a neo-conservative Lutheran pastor in the ELCA.

Which brings to mind the Jansenists (but doesn't everything?). As I was driving across Missouri (Home of the Filthiest Public Restrooms in the Lower Forty-eight!), it struck me how the Jansenists are a weird overlap of several elements from my wife and my religious heritage/interests:

French (Mrs. Chaka) Catholic (Chaka) Augustinian (Mrs. Chaka) Glossolaliasts (Chaka). A Jansenist also stands at the fountainhead of modern linguistics (Chaka). They also have Pascal and Racine, so if Mrs. Chaka develops a sudden interest in math or alexandrine verses, I'll know what caused it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Beauty on the Verge of Collapse

I've heard (possibly from my wife, the violinist) that a well-made violin is always on the verge of collapsing. The more tension on the body of the instrument, the more beautiful the sound. That's why the best violins have to be so well cared for--they are fragile by virtue of being best.

There's something beautiful about strength as well, but the image of beauty on the verge of collapse is a powerful one to me, especially in a church service. Our worship team's practice was hurried and stressful. One of the leaders had a fever; the piano player (also the pastor) was supposed to be in another meeting at the same time. His pregnant wife is recovering from surgery. One of the singers was assigned a solo introduction for a song that she was unfamiliar with. When she sang it, you could hear the vulnerability in her voice. You wondered if she could hit the high notes. She hit them, but it was like the Spirit picked up her voice and set it down on the note.

It was beautiful, like the people of God.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I was a stranger and you took me in

I've become interested in the virtues of the ancient world; particularly those commanded in Scripture, but also the ones celebrated by the pagans. One of the virtues that really stands out among the Greeks is hospitality, which I recently read about in the book From Achilles to Christ. Of course, when you actually think of hospitality as a moral act, and not just "being nice," it stands out in the Bible too. E.g., Abraham, Lot, various women, some of Jesus' parables, the requirements for elders.

Anyway, let me exhort you:

Exercise hospitality.

Also, let me exhort you:

Accept hospitality. (I partially failed to do this tonight. It comes from being a Minnesotan. In my culture, you're supposed to decline hospitality several times before finally giving in. It is a grave thing in Minnesota to make someone go to any trouble for you. I'm getting better about this, though.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Free Rice, Free Words

I have discovered a website that serves as the perfect complement to my vanity. You can send free rice to hungry people by correctly answering multiple choice vocabulary questions. I was able to make it to vocabulary level 49 after playing for about ten minutes and donating 540 grains. No dictionaries were consulted. Can you beat that? Click the banner above to find out.

Now they need to make a national televised gameshow.

HT: Former fellow Hebrew student D. C. Cramer.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Touch and the Sacred

Some religious words are safe to talk about in our society, while others are poisonous. "Sacred" is one of the safe ones, I think. "Holy" is probably poisonous. The two terms are nearly synonymous, however; so when I say that the television show Pushing Daisies is bringing back the sacredness of touch, understand that I really mean holiness (but sacredness just sounds hipper).

The show, if you haven't seen it, has a simple concept. The main character, Ned, has the power to awaken the dead with a touch. If he touches the reanimated person (or animal) again, however, he/she/it dies forever. If he reanimates someone for more than a minute, someone else nearby dies. Well, maybe the concept isn't simple, but the rules are.

The main story arc, though, is simple. Ned reanimated his childhood crush Charlotte in order to solve her murder, and kept her alive. Ned and Charlotte are in love, but cannot touch, or she will die again.

If you know your fairy tales, and if you know your Chesterton, you recognize this theme: all the world hangs on an arbitrary rule. You must not violate that which is sacred. The arbitrariness of the sacred, it's solemn disregard of reasons, makes it offensive to the modern mentality. I doubt very much whether the postmodern mentality is much better at absorbing it. But it suffuses the premodern mind, in fairy tale, in folklore, in religion.

At the close of tonight's episode, Charlotte doubts whether the two of them can go on loving each other without touch. She references "needs" that they both are leaving unfulfilled. I wish I had access to Ned's exact response. It was along the lines of "We all wake up each morning with a long list of things we 'need.' We don't ever get all of them. Maybe some things are more important than those 'needs.' Maybe all I need is you."

Take note: primetime network television show admits that sexual fulfillment may not be the highest good.

Of course, since it still is a primetime network television show, they compensate by letting the camera linger on every female cast member's prominent cleavage.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Easier Map Quiz

Ok, that last one was a little hard, so here's a softball. Where is the location pictured above?

And for a bonus, what structure was built four years later to "top" (as in "out-do") the structure in the picture?

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Cooking Bible

I love our 1964 version of Joy of Cooking (in the picture above, our version is the fifth from the top). I don't think a single recipe in it calls for "a can of X." It's almost like the supermarket was thought of as a passing fad. The detailed articles on entertaining, techniques, herbs, and seasonal cooking have a certain literary elegance (I like to think of it as elegance, not pretensiousness). The index is introduced with these words:

"Knowledge," said Dr. Johnson, "is of two kinds. We know a subject as our own, or we know where we can find information on it."

This cookbook introduces you to vital controversies which you have never considered:

In some households, arguments rage every Thanksgiving as to whether a cock or a hen turkey is to grace the board. The butcher might settle most of these disputes, since he invariably charges more for the latter.

Lest you think this an 800-page Stepford Wife handbook, I should let you know that it also has a delightful section on how to cook game such as opossum, bear, woodchuck, and squirrel (with skinning illustrations!).

By the way, the answer to the Google Maps quiz is the biggest religious destination in the world (click here for the solution). The cloud in the center consists of pilgrims running around that big box. What's the box? This.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Immanuel: an oratorio

The wife and I went to a performance of Messiah tonight. I'd never heard the whole thing before (I guess technically I still haven't, since they cut about a dozen of the 40-some sections). It was cool to hear the progression from one biblical text to another. It gave me an idea, though; an idea that, like any good idea I have, has been thought of 7,000 times before.

Here's the idea: an oratorio about the biblical concept of "God with us." It would trace the troubled history of this promise from the intimacy of the Garden, to the terrifying encounter at Sinai, through the Tabernacle and the Temple; the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7; the departure of God's presence in Ezekiel and the horrible consequences in Lamentations; the promise of his return in Isaiah 40 and Haggai; the promise of God's Spirit in Joel; the Incarnation in the Gospels; the establishment of the Church as God's Temple in Acts and the Epistles; and finally, the coming of the Son of Man and the New Heaven and New Earth.

I imagine it would be best to start the story in media res, perhaps with Isaiah 7, and flash back to earlier moments. A major objective would be to demonstrate through music and text that God and people don't just casually inhabit the same space. Everyone else in the world seems to know this, but the Christian and post-Christian West needs to relearn that it is a dangerous thing to have a god in your midst. A big highlight (or lowlight, I guess) at the end of the second movement would be the despair at the end of Lamentations:

You, LORD, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.

Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?

Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return;
renew our days as of old

unless you have utterly rejected us

and are angry with us beyond measure. -- Lamentations 5:19-22, TNIV

Then, softly and sweetly, Isaiah 40 would begin the healing.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Google Maps Quiz

I love Google Maps and the declassified satellite photos that make them possible (it possible?). Well, I guess I mean aerial photos. Can you identify the world landmark pictured above? (Click the pic to see a larger image.)

Hint: It this were a movie, that little cloud in the center would be rotating slowly.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Does Might Make Right?

That's a question that Ehrman poses in response to God's answer from the whirlwind (see previous post). According to Kohlberg, we all start out believing that might makes right--you're in the wrong if you're caught. As we mature, we recognize that there are higher laws than might. We begin separating the two, realizing that might often acts in selfish ways, ways that are certainly wrong by standards such as "the collective good" or the Golden Rule.

Yet if we believe that there is such a thing as "right" at all, at the end of all things, what is right without might? We see right suffer undeservedly and the wicked prosper. What, then, makes the right right? What is right drained of any power other than to make you feel superior to your neighbor?

The Christian conviction is that in God, might and right are as they should be: perfectly united, with neither logically prior to the other. We exercise might unrightly because we are not as we should be. But our confidence is in the one who judges justly, who is qualified to evaluate all our acts and intentions and render cosmic order.

The sufferer looks to God for vindication--she looks to God to make things right, not just to tell her that she is right. The sufferer looks to God for her example, for she sees God himself enter our suffering, experience death unjustly, and experience vindication in the resurrection. That is why the resurrection is the hope of the righteous; if in this life only we have hope, then we are the most pitiful people on earth. Here, right is trampled by might. But it is not so with God. And it is not so at the end of all things.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

I think I might be a steampunk

This is awesome.

On a completely different note, Stanley Fish reviews two books about the existence of God here. Both of these books' central arguments are really good ones: that is, the problem of suffering is a really good reason not to believe in God, and the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is a really good reason to believe in God. Ultimately, I think the problem of suffering and the solution to suffering require us to move beyond dispassionate reason and think with our imaginations and our empathies. My imagination is persuaded by God's speech from the whirlwind at the end of Job. Others' imaginations recoil from the lordship in that speech.

Things that Should Not Be Separated

Some people delight in pointing out that the Bible is "grittier" or "more raw" than people commonly perceive it to be. They point to the irony of teaching "Noah and the Ark" to children, for example, given the fact that nearly the entire human population dies a horrible death in this story. I recently heard someone argue that such Bible stories aren't children's stories, that they "aren't fairy tales."

Let's smash some false dichotomies, shall we?

False Dichotomy 1: Fairy tales are mutually exclusive with violence.

As anyone who has read Grimm's Fairy Tales knows, the closer a fairy tale is to its original form, the more violent it is likely to be. G. K. Chesterton is the best writer about fairy tales that I have encountered. The best use of your time at this point is to stop reading me entirely and read this instead. (By the way, modern fairy tales that stay true to the nongratuitous violence that is integral to the genre include That Hideous Strength and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.)

Now, the reason that False Dichotomy 1 has arisen is because of an earlier mistake, mentioned in the opening paragraph of Chesterton's essay linked to above:

False Dichotomy 2: Children's stories are (or rather, should be) mutually exclusive with violence.

This is the more controversial point, so I should have more of an argument on this one. My argument, which will not satisfy everyone, is that the violence in fairy tales (and in the Bible) is not inappropriate for children, because it is not gratuitous. It is not present in the story for its own sake, because the authors were violent or delighted in violence. It is not an affectation, designed to titillate the senses (like obscenities such as the Saw movies) or to acquire credibility as "gritty" and "raw". The drownings and beatings and murders of fairy tales are necessary and unobtrusive elements of the story that serve the main theme: "If one does the thing forbidden, one imperils all the things provided."

From all I've heard, children growing up surrounded by real acts of violence are permanently damaged. But real violence is not story violence; I imagine, though I can cite no data, that story violence is processed differently by the child's mind. (In narrated form, at least--movie violence is a different story, since children don't separate movies from reality very well before a certain age.)

All this is to say: don't freak out. Keep teaching Noah and the Ark to kids. They like the animals, you can teach them about God's promise symbolized by the rainbow, and the deaths of thousands (which aren't even narrated in Genesis!) won't imprint them for violence.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A full day with a funny ending

Well, I had a busy day at a publishing conference. I'm exhausted, so I won't write about it tonight, but it stimulated some interesting thoughts. Just before heading to bed, I found this delightful image in my facebook inbox. Thank you, Jon.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Power and the Kingdom of God

My in-laws home in Wisconsin is a house of reading. My father-in-law is retired and reads voraciously (his specialty is 19th century British novels--in the last two years I believe he's read all of Austen, most of Dickens, as well as most of Anthony Trollope and Wilkie Collins). When I'm here, I usually take time to read their issue of Christianity Today. The November issue has a number of articles that resonated on the same frequency in my mind: the theme of Power and the Kingdom of God. (None of which seem to be online yet. Rrrrgh.)

The cover story is about doing "business as mission": setting up for-profit companies that provide jobs and Christian witness in places where both are lacking. My gut reaction was unease; Business people are trained to make money, not do missions. That reaction was chastised in a related article, which complained about how theologically trained people develop a reflex rejection of people who make money. The same point came up in an article about the "Evangelical Elite" and in Philip Yancey's final editorial.

Guilty as charged, I guess.

I want to be careful on this blog (and more importantly, in my spirit) that I don't look down on business people. The business world never appealed to me; my temperament (INTJ, if your curious) as much as anything else has pushed me into academic and theological interests. Of course, my temptation is to tell myself that some kind of inherent moral superiority sets me apart from crass, mundane things like making money.

The biblical critique of money needs to be heard. But it should be seen as broader than a critique of business people. It's a critique of the exercise of power in the Kingdom of God, and I'm probably as hungry for power as any godless capitalist (just less skillful at getting it).

I'm trying to figure out how to end this post by making myself look good, but I guess that's falling into the old trap again, so I'll end here.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Destination: Cheeseland

Mrs. Chaka and I will be in Wisconsin tonight and tomorrow to celebrate her birthday. No time to post, since we're trying to get there before 8:00 pm, and we get to sit in Chicago traffic for several hours. Thank goodness for Focus on the Family Radio Theater.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Funny Farm Bill

I should be careful what I say, since a good chunk of my relatives make their living from farming and are probably (make that "certainly") more informed about the Farm Bill than I am. Nevertheless, I'm going to sin boldly here and say that this sounds ridiculous. Apparently the biggest crisis in the American farming economy is that the government subsidizes fatty products more than healthy products. That's why we don't eat well, not the fact that McDonald's tastes better than salad. (And I say that as someone who has a salad every day for lunch. That's right. Every day.)

Special K may be in favor of this plan, since it might increase the cost of meat and thus reduce meat consumption. Unfortunately for the Majority World, the total bill increases subsidies overall and will probably do nothing to reduce competition from artificially cheap U.S. goods. So overall impact on hungry people: probably negative.