Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Speaking of Prosperity Theology . . .

When I came home today, there was a stack of letters by the mailboxes in our apartment building. The fake-hand-written underlining caught my attention. I wondered how to make "This very old church loans this to you" into a sentence. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

The letter was written in a familiar style (i.e., it sounded Pentecostal). But not many Pentecostal churches are called "St. Matthew's." I didn't notice the address (Tulsa, OK), which would have given it away right there, so I thought it was a local church named St. Matthew's. Boy was I mistaken.

The letter started to get really interesting at the bottom of the first page:

And hit an all-new high for weirdness at the top of page two:

The prayer rug (no, I did not kneel on it and look at Jesus' eyes):

Good Lord, I thought, some Word of Faith church really went off the deep end. Well, actually, no. The rest of the story can be found here. It's a relief to find out that there isn't an actual church sending these things out.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dinner Adventures

When the supermarket circular arrived in the mail, I flipped to the back page and noticed two great deals: the red peppers and the ginger.

This recipe looked good; lots of vegetables, lots of flavor.

I planned to substitute flour for the cornstarch. Then I remembered that we inherited some cornstarch when Mrs. Chaka's aunt-who's-not-really-her-aunt moved to Peru. I pushed twelve to thirteen boxes of tea out of the way and dug out the box from the back of the cabinet. An Italian woman dressed up like a Native American in a corn suit smiled back at me. Well, I guess it's not much of a smile.

More of a vacant stare, I guess. Anyway, I was all ready to add the cornstarch when I noticed the banner on the front.

"Oriental cooking," eh? Suddenly the typeface didn't look retro. It just looked old. And dude, the preferred nomenclature is Asian-American.

I tasted the cornstarch. It tasted awful. Then again, I don't know what cornstarch is supposed to taste like. But I'm guessing it shouldn't taste so dusty.

So I used the flour. I'm sure you're all relieved.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Art I Like

I've seen Stephen Eichhorn's work several times at my sister-in-law's events in Chicago. Check it out. I particularly like the collages. If I had to buy art from a real artist, these are what I'd buy.

The picture on the last post is a medieval manuscript that was pulled out of a bog in Ireland.

I'm going to rip off a couple links from other bloggers. This is an interesting essay about how the New Testament answers the Old Testament's rhetorical questions (it starts off well, and kind of drops off toward the middle).

John Piper takes issue with Barna research here. I have similar reservations.

An analysis that fits my sensibilities

Justin Taylor quotes a paragraph of analysis of Brian McLaren's ahistoricism. I don't know if I like the word, but ahistoricism is an attitude that has been irking me recently. Example: this book.

Maybe it's just a dispositional difference; I tend to maximize the continuity between the various iterations of Christian theology throughout the ages. I feel that I can usually see how they got there, even if I don't want to go there myself. Others tend to maximize the discontinuity. I'd like to think that my approach is more charitable and humble than the alternative, but maybe I'm just afraid to tell people they're wrong. Even if they're dead.

Friday, January 25, 2008

An AskChaka First

I was very gratified to see that Matt Casper, one of the coauthors of Jim and Casper Go to Church, commented on the post below. Click here to go to the site he's talking about. This may well be the first time that someone I don't know personally has commented on this blog. Yay for milestones!

(By the way, I should probably disclose that I work for the publisher of J&CGtC. Sorry you haven't gotten any royalties yet, Casper. I bought my copy on my employee discount, so I hope that didn't short-change you.)

I posed a question in that post: "If God wants to give us good things, what good things does he have in mind?" The definition of "good things" varies from person to person, of course. And it doesn't take much time in the Bible to give you the impression that God doesn't just hand out to us whatever we think is good. The proof of this lies in the life of Jesus.

Let me explain. It suddenly struck me one day about three years ago that we have an easy way to know what God's best for our lives looks like. Who was the person most blessed by God? Who did God honor more than anyone else? Let me put it this way: To whom did God give a name (a reputation, honor) above all other names? (This one's easy, just go for the Sunday School answer.)

I assert that Jesus had the most blessed life, the life full of the most good things--from God's perspective. Jesus most deserved a good life from God, and God wasn't stingy with answering his prayers:

While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God. Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. Heb 5:7-8

But how did God answer the prayers of Jesus? He was rescued from death, but he still experienced death (we'll talk about Harry Potter's debt to Hebrews some other time). He had a blessed life, but what kind of life was it? It contained poverty, rejection, insecurity, abandonment, and bitter death. If we look for freedom from pain and discomfort as a mark of the blessed life, we will miss the most blessed life of all. The goodness that God gave to Jesus included these things.

The upshot of all this is that I think God's idea of blessedness is radically different from ours. We know that Jesus said the poor were blessed, but we don't believe him; we think he's just trying to make them feel better, or showing that he's really cool and not materialistic at all. How would Joel Osteen pray if he believed that the poor have a more blessed life.

Wait, that's a cheap shot. How would I pray if I believed that?

Well, I have to run to an appointment (my sister-in-law has an art show in the city), and I haven't finished my thought, so I'll b

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

How did you celebrate NPD?

So today is apparently National Pie Day. It's a sure sign of a made-up holiday when they have to put "National" in front of it. When exactly did the Pie Holiday Bill come before Congress? Or was it created by Executive Order? Who knows, but it's National, so you'd better observe it.

If you follow this link, you can get a coupon for a free slice of Bakers Square pie. I had a piece of Caramel Pecan Silk Supreme--a $4 piece of artfully layered sugar variations--for free. Getting it was a bit of a hasselhoff, though. You don't have to order anything else--the coupon is good for a free slice, no strings attached--but we (the young turks in Editorial) decided to have lunch there. I had some reservations. The Bakers Square motto is "Great Food. Unbelievable Pie." But it should be "Food. . . . Well, you know you're just here for the pie." But it was an event--National Pie Day!--and if Bakers Square was going to go to the trouble of inventing a holiday and bribing me with pie, I figured they deserved to make a few bucks off of me.

The restaurant was busy, as you can imagine, but the place seemed woefully understaffed. Forty-five minutes after ordering, we asked Andrew the waiter for the whereabouts of our food. According to Andrew, they only had one cook at Bakers Square today. You see, they didn't expect it to be so busy. On National Pie Day.

Unfortunately, it wasn't as though they had extra wait staff to send back there and help. Andrew had two busy colleagues on the floor, while Ashley the teenage hostess and ? the middle-aged manager had their hands full seating new customers and checking out old ones, as well as ringing up transactions for people who just came in off the street for their free slice.

Bakers Square, I'm going to tell it to you straight. You do alright with breakfast, but everything else on your menu is a petition for a gut ache. I find your disregard for apostrophes arrogant and off-putting. Nevertheless, I like your pie, and my parents always took me to eat at your place when they visited me in college, so you have a special place in my heart. But--if you're going to go around inventing holidays willy-nilly, you've got to deliver. You don't see Hallmark freaking out on Mother's Day.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Prayers for Fish Do Smell Fishy

In my last post, I argued that there is no reason to believe that God is uninterested in small things. To argue, even in jest, that he's too busy with major crises to notice the mundane events of life is to demean him and the human beings who are made in his image.

However, I don't want to give the impression that critics like Donald Miller and the author of that Slate article completely miss the mark when they critique certain attitudes about God. Despite my earlier resolution to form an opinion of Joel Osteen based on his own words rather than others', my impression of him continues to be shaped by second-hand accounts (such as the one given in Jim and Casper Go to Church, which I just finished). I agree with the critics that something doesn't smell right about the way Osteen and many other Christians talk about the power of God and answered prayer.

If you'll forgive the generalization, one gets the impression from the current Christian best-sellers that God's power is manifested primarily in a person becoming successful. The prayers that are spoken about are prayers for an advance in reputation, wealth, access to power, or comfort. These prayers resonate with certain themes of Scripture (see Ps 1:2-3; 90:16-17). Most of the book of Proverbs supports the notion that God lifts up into prosperity those who obey him. This is a fundamental theme of Wisdom literature, which intends to point the learner toward the path of life and away the path of death. But even within the body of Wisdom literature (including Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and some psalms), this notion is nuanced somewhat.

More importantly, the persistent self-focused tone of these prayers makes them sound suspiciously like those condemned by James (whose letter is the book most like Wisdom literature in the New Testament):

What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.

So what does prayer that James would approve of look like? If God wants to give us good things, what good things does he have in mind?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A God of Small Things

So I'm finally reading Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller's collection of "Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality." The subtitle was enough to keep me away from it for years, but that's just me being prickly about buzz words. Heck, he probably didn't even come up with the subtitle; the acquisitions editor probably did. I actually don't have any major beefs with it so far (though I will have to re-read Derek Radney's critique of it and Beau Pihlaja's defense, both published in The Graduate Scrawl last year).

One of the minor, throw-away lines in the book poked an old sore spot, though. In the chapter titled "gods: Our Tiny Invisible Friends," he talks about a Trendy Writer who claimed that "the Islamic version of the Holy Spirit" shows him how to love his wife, manage his money, and leads him to the best fishing spots.

(As a side comment, I can't find any reference on the Internet to this "Islamic Holy Spirit," called Khwaja Khandir, outside of Miller's book. Since everything worth knowing is on the Internet, I therefore conclude that he or the Trendy Writer have made it all up.)

Miller finds the idea that Khwaja Khandir would care about Trendy Writer catching fish absurd. He even thinks it's morally wrong for Trendy Writer to think this, what with all the other problems in the world that Khwaja Khandir has to focus on: wars, economic crises, famines.

This kind of reductio ad absurdum gets deployed every now and then to shame people who see God's hand everywhere. People who thank God for getting a good parking spot (cited by Rob Bell); people who credit God with upgrading them to first class (from Slate's take on Joel Osteen, see page two). I usually laugh along with those who make fun of such people, but then I have to stop and think about what I find absurd about it. Is God so focused on wars and famines that Joel Osteen waiting to be seated on a plane escapes his attention? I have to say no: nothing escapes his notice.
But surely God doesn't care about little things, when he has big things to worry about. Again, I have to say no: God isn't impressed with the size of things. If he were, he wouldn't have paid any attention to Noah, one righteous man in a world of unrighteous people. He wouldn't have paid any attention to Israel, an uncultured, powerless group of slaves. He is a God of big things, to be sure, but that doesn't stop him from being a God of small things as well.

The danger in thinking that God is too busy to care about small things is that it's indistinguishable from thinking that he's too busy to object to our small sins. God can't care about my angry thoughts; they're nothing compared to genocide. God can't care what I do to this person, he's a jerk, less than nothing. I was going to make links for all of these scriptural allusions, but just read Matthew 6. If God didn't care what I did with my small amount of money, he wouldn't have told me what to do with it. If God didn't care about what I eat today, he wouldn't have told me to pray for it. If God was too busy to provide me with every minor blessing, then I don't owe him any thanks for them.

So what's wrong with seeing God telling somebody where the fish are? It's not like he never did it before. This story's even better. Imagine the eyerolls if a television preacher told this story about his own life.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Questions you don't ask the Queen

Ok, in order to blog about this, I have to admit that I read a story about Princess Diana. Further confession: I got up in the middle of the night to watch her funeral. I'm not sure why--I've never been that interested in her or any member of the royal family under the age of 80. Anyway, this article is about Diana's butler testifying against the notion that the royal family engineered her death. Best quote:

Burrell [the butler] has said that after Diana's death the queen had warned him to be careful and told him, "There are powers at work in this country of which we have no knowledge."

He testified that he was unsure whether she referred to the media, the "establishment," or the secret services.

"One doesn't ask the queen what she means by something," Burrell said.

I don't know what the big mystery is. If this were a movie, and the butler was a prominent enough character to be testifying in a trial, it would be obvious who committed the murder.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Death of the CD

To restate a sentiment expressed in a previous post (and to utilize a banished idiom), CDs are the new tapes. Their day is past. Mark Steyn tells a story that illustrates the point:

This past week’s issue of The Economist has a heart-rending vignette from one of the most ruthlessly capitalist industries on the planet: “In 2006 EMI, the world’s fourth-biggest recorded-music company, invited some teenagers into its headquarters in London to talk to its top managers about their listening habits. At the end of the session the EMI bosses thanked them for their comments and told them to help themselves to a big pile of CDs sitting on a table. But none of the teens took any of the CDs, even though they were free.”

"That was the moment we realized the game was completely up,” an EMI exec told the magazine. In the United States, album sales in 2007 were down 19 percent from 2006. Don’t blame me. I still buy plenty of CDs. But that’s because I like Doris Day, and every time I try to insert one of these newfangled MP3s into my fax machine it doesn’t seem to play. But if you’re not Mister Squaresville, and you dig whatever caterwauling beat combo those London hep cats are digging on their iPods, chances are you find the local record store about as groovy as the Elks Lodge.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Random organic thoughts

Timewaster of the day: I played this game last night until the little swarming dots danced on my closed eyelids. But tonight I have to go back to work on my paper. A few more passes through, maybe put in a chart or two to reduce the eyes-glazing-over effect of my prose . . . hey! Pay attention! Ok, here:

One of the office ladies at my junior high school had a Mandelbrot set screen saver, endlessly zooming in on the ridges and valleys of infinitude. It was a heck of a lot cooler than Flying Through Space. But, on the other hand, Flying Through Space was pretty exciting when you discovered it for the first time. I don't have a screen saver anymore--I assume that screens no longer need saving, right? They've become theologically liberal and have no use for a theory of atonement? If they do, I'm in trouble.

Whew. Apparently there's little to no danger of an image burning into an LCD screen.

Not a lot going on inside my head today, obviously. I should mention that the post title is an allusion to a new list of banished words. My favorite is "Perfect Storm."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bom bom!

The Chakas do not have cable. Cable is like a nice, nearby foreign country that we get away to a couple times a year. A precise, affluent, organized foreign country, like Switzerland maybe. If you've visited a foreign country, you know the experience of finding some delicacy that is outrageously abundant over there, but hard to find here. You know that whenever you return, you'll gorge yourself on it. A delicacy like Law and Order.

I watched an episode on broadcast last night. It was mediocre. The pace wasn't snappy enough, the motive wasn't believable, the cop/suspect/lawyer/judge tensions weren't engaging. (I did enjoy S. Epatha Merkerson giving her cops the stare-down when they done bad, but how can you not?) The worst part of it was the Law-and-Order:-Criminal-Intent-like ending: Let's isolate the suspect from his lawyer, get him to think his partner in crime has turned on him, yell at him for awhile, let the dramatic music build, and he'll crack and confess. Meh.

You know who I miss? Jerry Orbach. I miss him "standing over a body and cracking wise." (I know I read that description of his character somewhere years ago, but I can't remember where.) He could do a decent French accent, too.

Thanks for the music recommendations below, by the way. I'm sure I'll pick up those artists the next time I go shopping for music. Unfortunately, I never go shopping for music, so the next time I'm at a friend's house and they walk out of the room and I'm left alone and my eyes swerve unstoppably toward the bookshelf, I'll stop myself and say, "Maybe you should look at the music collection instead." Then I'll look at their CDs (if they still have such things), and if I see one of these artists, and it's socially appropriate for me to ask my host to put the CD on or lend it to me, I shall do so.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

I Go Walking after Midnight

I'm tired. I decided to go to work at the same time as Mrs. Chaka this morning, which meant getting up at 5:00 am and getting dropped off at the office at 5:45. Which meant I was locked out of the building. I hopped back into the car and had Mrs. Chaka drop me off at the grocery store about a block away, on her way to her office. They've got a Starbucks in there, I thought. They oughta be open.

Alas, no. Rows of shopping carts blocked the entrances. The sign was not illuminated. I didn't want Mrs. Chaka to be late, so I sent her on her way and walked the block back to the office. The sky was dark, but there was a glow to the darkness, making it more purple than black. I remembered the morning I walked from my hostel in the Welsh mountains down into the next town, since the bus wouldn't be coming that day. I walked past Mt. Snowdon, it's head covered in a cloud. I walked past sheep and open hillsides of slate. In a long valley, a fighter jet suddenly appeared and flew over me--closer to the ground than I'd ever seen a plane fly. I don't remember any sound.

Here I sit, still at my work computer, twelve hours later. Mrs. Chaka will be here to pick me up soon. If I hadn't gone out to lunch at noon, I wouldn't have seen the sun today.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Favorite Christmas Presents

I'd say the present I've used most so far is the set of Dominos we got from my brother-in-law. Mrs. Chaka and I play a couple of rounds at most meals. So far, we've each won two games and concluded that the chair on the north side of the table is far luckier than the one on the south side. (Chicago-area readers, make your own joke.)

Another gift that's provided hours of enjoyment is a pair of mix CDs that my sister-in-law gave me. I am highly out of touch when it comes to music. Mrs. Chaka has said that she always thought a man should have an interesting CD collection, and when we met during our freshman year of college, mine was woefully mediocre. Luckily I had my raw sexual magnetism to fall back on.

My CD collection is still fairly mediocre (as you can tell by the fact that it's a CD collection and not a playlist on an iPod). What artist do I have the most of? Bob Dylan. Some might think that's good taste, but to be honest, there's a good measure of regional pride and reverse prestige going on there. I don't have the patience to go out looking for new music; the radio bores me, and I won't spend money on CDs or mp3s. That's where my sister-in-law rescues me. She gave me Come on Feel the Illinoise a while ago, so I got in on the Sufjan Stevens bandwagon slightly ahead of the curve. From her mix CDs, I have a few more artists to investigate:

Beirut (who, Mrs. Chaka points out, sound a lot like Sufjan)

Feist (who sounds sorta like a female Jack Johnson)

On the reverse prestige note, I would like to confess that I love the nerdy/uncool instruments: accordian, harmonica, ukelele, oboe.

So, any number of things you can comment on for this post: You can talk about your own music tastes, which Christmas present you are using the most, my raw sexual magnetism, etc.

Monday, January 07, 2008

My Triumphant Return!

So the paper is mostly finished, and I shall try to return to earlier blogging form. I'm also planning what I should read next. I think a full-out evaluation of Joel Osteen is overdue (hence his picture above). My connections in one social sphere think he's great; those in another sphere think he's a heretic. My uninformed opinion leans toward "dangerous teaching" rather than flat-out heretic, but it's high time to have an informed opinion. Preferably one that is nuanced in ways that show my intellectual superiority to the warring factions on either side of me.

Sorry, I guess reading about political triangulating brings it out in me. Is it just me, or are politicians generally dropping the pretense that they're not just saying what they think people want to hear?

The newscasters keep saying that America wants change. Let's see, how many times can I use the word "change" in the next debate?

One of the funnier things I've read about the election can be found here. It pulls off putting words in a candidate's mouth much better than I just did.