Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Christmas Thought

As we get closer to the Christmas season, I will taking a bit of a vacation to see family and friends. As such, I will not be posting for the next couple of weeks, but wanted to leave this parody as a parting thought for now. Members of the Transformers message boards I often frequent will be able to attest just how much the sentiments of this post apply to me just as much as to anyone else. I'll be back in January!

(With apologies to Clement C. Moore)
‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the boards
Lots of people were stirring in gathering hoards
Their messages slung on the boards without care
with insults and bitterness strewn everywhere

The children were nestled all snug by their screens
To nitpick and pull apart old movie scenes
“Why was Daniel so whiny,” and “who became Scourge?”
Or “Would Arcee kiss Hot Rod if she had the urge?”

When all through the boards there arose such a clatter
I looked through the thread to see what was the matter
Through pages and pages I read like a flash
To learn how some fans had been treated like trash

When one person said to the other “Not TRUKK”
A flame war had started with curse words like “F**k”!
When, what to my wearying eyes should appear
But a quick Christmas message to bring us good cheer.

At first we ignored it, we read it so quick
But later we realized it must be St. Nick!
He posted to tell us the toys that we craved
Were just pieces of plastic with markings engraved

Like Huffer, like Skywarp, like Bluestreak and Buzzsaw
Like Soundwave and Frenzy, like Blaster and Steeljaw!
They were meant to give people a good bit of fun
But by this bad behavior, that all came undone!

But it wasn’t too late, to reverse this ill trend
and to learn to accept our opponents as friends
He taught us of tolerance, something we knew
that as hard as it was, was the right thing to do

Now this didn’t mean we could change overnight
Our opinions are strong, and our passions burn bright.
We couldn’t just lose them, for that would be wrong
And some of our statements would need to be strong

But simply by giving each other some space
We’d help make the boards a much happier place
And granting each other’s opinions respect
Our happy environment we would protect

The holiday spirit came over us all
A friendlier board, I just couldn’t recall
The flame wars were ended, a new age begun
And I guess that St. Nick saw that his work was done

For we never did see such a post come again
But we’ve gotten much happier than we were then.
So to Transformer fans, this message I write
Merry Christmas! Now everyone, please be polite!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Game Show Alert: Deal or No Deal

I'm always on the lookout for new game shows, which are increasingly few and far between these days. That makes this week a special opportunity, as NBC will presenting a new game show called "Deal or No Deal" every night this week at 8 PM.

This is a show that has had some success overseas, but this week is the first time American audiences have seen it. From what I can tell, the show is a bit of a hybrid between the old shows "Treasure Hunt" (where a contestant picks one box out of a set of many, and is awarded whatever prize is associated with that box) and "Let's Make a Deal" (where the host would offer to trade whatever prize the constestant has for an unknown prize). To get an idea of how the game is played, click on the game link on the site. It's quite addictive!

The host is Howie Mandel, who I'll always remember as "Bobbie Generic" (pronounced GEN-er-ick) in the old cartoon "Bobbie's World." This is his first game show, and it should be noted that stand-up comedians are not known for being able to host game shows well (there have been quite a few high profile failures of this type). But the promos give me the impression that Mandel will treat the game seriously, and I hope that he will be successful. If "Deal or No Deal" does well this week, it could mean well for the future of other game shows, as well. I encourage everyone to tune in.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Filler material: Church and State

I've been suffering from a bit of writer's block lately. Maybe it's just the needs of the Christmas season taking precedence.

I'm still reading quite a bit, though, and keeping up on current events. Here's a blog entry I came across today that deals with an issue I've been aware of, but haven't commented on here: the possibility that All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA might have its tax-exempt status removed because of a sermon given prior to the 2004 Presidential election that was deemed (by the right wing) to have crossed the lines into advocacy.

Part of the reason I haven't commented is because I'm not sure where I stand on this issue of this church. I actually do think they "go political" more often than is appropriate, and often in the wrong ways. But it's not my congregation, and so I'm probably not fully equipped to say. I only know what I read about. On the other hand, I'm convinced that they're being unfairly targeted by the right because their politics tend to be more liberal. That's just wrong.

I invite you to read the article. Whatever else is true, I certainly agree that if our faith means anything, it calls us to action in making this world a better place, and that includes the political arena. And the ways in which our faith call us to action are most likely not the ways usually advocated by the political right.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Transformers Club updates

The Club Forums have been online for about a week now (depending on what exact level of access one uses as a definition for "online") and discussion has, for the most part, remained civil and productive. Here are some highlights.

We learn that the club store is unlikely to carry foreign Transformers toys in the immediate future. This is at least partly because it turns out that only Hasbro has the legal right to import Transformers toys into the US. Other sites do, in fact, carry imported items, and Hasbro has been kind enough to turn a blind eye to this practice, but for the official club to carry such items would need to be done directly through Hasbro. They're looking into options, though, so this situation may change given time.

The Master Collector magazine will continue to be sent to club members every month. A group of folks (myself included) suggested the possibility of "opting out" of every other month of Master Collector (when the Transformers magazine is not included), arguing that this would save Fun Productions ("FP") shipping costs. Brian Savage has argued that even this option would create for FP the problem of creating separate shipping lists, and that it is easier just to send Master Collector every month to all club members. As mentioned before, just sending only the Transformers magazine is not an option, as Master Collector serves as a "wrapper" that enables to post office to send the magazine.

A few folks have mentioned the possibility of using G.I. Joe figure molds to create figures for some of the human characters in the Transformers saga, such as Spike Witwicky and G.B. Blackrock. Brian Savage seems to be considering this, and has asked for suggestions as to what Joe figures could be used for what Transformers humans. Other member suggestions for exclusives have involved possible tie-ins to the movie scheduled to be released in 2007. Although many members have expressed a desire to see exclusives originally planned for the old 3H club come out, FP has restated their position that they prefer to work on original projects. This also applies to a popular suggestion that FP could release toys originally planned, but never released by Hasbro, such as several unused G2 designs.

Although international postage is prohibitive for club members outside of the U.S., current international postage regulations make changes unlikely. FP charges what they are charged for overseas shipping. Also, for several reasons, it is unlikely that FP will sponsor a Transformers convention outside of the U.S. in the foreseeable future.

There should be an announcement regarding club exclusive toys in the near future. Probably not before Christmas, but possibly before the New Year. In any event, it is hoped that even club members who joined at the very beginning (whose memberships expire in early January) will have some chance to get these exclusives. But they'll have to be on the lookout, and order quick! :)

The possibility of collecting the comics from the club magazine into a single volume has been discussed by FP, but at best, it will probably be another couple of years before this can happen. Brian Savage did make an off-the-cuff statement in response to this that indicates that the current story arc is expected to last for 5 years, which is consistent with the current promise that the "freebie" exclusives that all members get each year will be parts of a combiner to be completed after the 5th year the club has been running.

Many club members have expressed a desire to have Hasbro representative Aaron Archer give the club behind-the-scenes updates, similar to those he used to provide for the 2005 boards a few years ago.

As always, options for where BotCon should be held are being heavily debated. There is also a lot of discussion on what opportunities the convention should feature. Despite a widespread desire to see the convention return to a summer schedule, it seems likely that BotCon will continue to be held in September for the foreseeable future. FP hopes to have an announcement on the location and dates for the 2006 convention soon, and they are already hard at work on the convention exclusive toys.

Finally, many folks at FP have expressed interest in having club members submit articles for publication in the Transformers club magazine. As more members submit articles, FP will better be able to use the best for the magazine. Not only will this make the magazine more member-based, but the end result promises to be of better quality, so I definitely encourage everyone to send in their ideas!

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Plea on Behalf of Academic Support Staff

This week, I've been scrambling to deal with Finals Week at my seminary. This happens every quarter, and I talked about this phenomenon some during the Spring Quarter. In that previous post, I described how students are often confused about what to do with their papers once they've finished them. This is an ongoing frustration, and I certainly would ask any of you out there reading this who are professors to provide instructions to your students as clearly as possible. We who are on the receiving end of these frantic students appreciate it.

Another common problem, that I failed to mention at the time, is that a surprising number of students don't put the name of the class, the professor, or sometimes even their own name on the assignment. This causes delays and frustration for pretty much everybody concerned.

I'm also continually amazed at how many students scramble in at the very latest possible moment trying to get papers turned in "before the deadline." I have less sympathy here. I have a life, too, and would like to return to it at 5:00 pm. I am also not equipped to handle last-minute requests for Incompletes, which (at our school) must be approved by the professor and turned in to the Registrar's office before the deadline for the assignment itself has passed.

One of my college professors used to always admonish us to plan ahead for printers to fail, computers to crash, traffic to be heavy, and for any number of maladies to occur, giving ourselves plenty of lead time in case such catastrophes fell upon us. (And, as we all know, things do happen!) It wasn't so much that my professors were sticklers for rules (as I confess that I myself often am), and in fact, they were generally more than willing to grant "grace" when told of unforseeable circumstances. Rather, they were trying to spare everyone involved undue stress, including not only the professors and the support staff (thanks!), but the students themselves, who can work on their assignments more fully prepared for whatever may come their way.

That advice has served me well throughout my academic career, and at the risk of sounding overly preachy, I would encourage others to plan ahead in this way. Even if it doesn't grant you (assuming "you" are a student) the stress relief, it certainly will provide me with less stress from having to deal with so many people knocking down my door at 5:00 pm!

(And please have your assignment assembled before you arrive at the office!)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Transformer Club Forums are now open!

Although I've been rather pessimistic about the club lately, they deserve recognition for finally getting the club forums open. If you're a club member, you can go to this link to check them out.

There's not a lot to talk about there, yet, and I do feel that the user interface needs some work. I also don't want to give the folks at Fun Publications too much credit for finally opening a service that's been promised since this past February. However, all the important FP leaders are there, and they're starting off with a fair level of interaction with member questions. Let's give them a chance to see what they can do.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

My Story: Drama at Montreat

While I was in college, I was heavily involved in The Greybeard Players, our college drama troupe. I got to partake in pretty close to the full range of dramatic experience, acting in several dramas, doing tech work, and even directing a small one act during my last year there.

My college drama instructor (and director/producer on various occasions) was Brian Fuller, a man who quickly developed a reputation at the college as a taskmaster. Not everyone involved in our drama troupe understood Brian's demanding nature, but those of us who "stuck with it" knew that Brian would push us so hard because he wanted the best for (and out of) us. Brian articulated a philosophy of doing our best work because everything we did was for God's glory. As he says on his web page, "If we’re to 'do all things unto Christ,' a 'B-' simply isn’t an acceptable level of effort."

Brian was also misunderstood for other reasons, as he details in the following quote (from the same page, quoted with permission):
When I chose The Lion in Winter as 1994’s spring theatre mainstage, I was wrestling with some very personal fears about the kind of children I would raise. My first daughter was less than a year old and I panicked that each of my failures to comfort her crying would result in some adult psychopathology.

I dreaded the possibility of becoming Lion’s Henry II, reaping the curses of godless parenting. He catches his eldest son in a homosexual tryst and discovers his other two children behind a castle tapestry, their daggers drawn to kill him for England’s crown. He’s imprisoned his wife so he can enjoy her lands and flouts an adulterous affair with a woman betrothed to his youngest boy. Not surprisingly, the play ends on a dismal note, with each member of the family determined to preserve self-interest to the death.

In my eyes, the play affirmed everything Scripture teaches about human nature. Opening night came and I was pleased to present the college community entertainment with instructional and redemptive value. In a tone reminiscent of Old Testament horror stories, I offered a cautionary tale to edify.

Not everyone saw it that way.

A vocal few made it clear that they expected "role models" rather than "negative examples" from Christian theatre. They challenged the worth of dramatizing profane lifestyles and urged me to present "family entertainment" in the future.

Despite some attempts to appease those critics, I’ve come to accept that I will take heat for the public, creative, articulation of my faith. The Genesis account (and Romans 1:19, 20) indicates that the holiest art is personal, it carries the mark of its maker. So as long as I make art for public consumption, audiences will see a little of me every time the curtain rises on my productions for screen and stage.

This is a charge quite different from that given most professors. Fermat’s Theorem is part of the curriculum despite the personal walk of a Mathematics lecturer. Few members of the community have an opinion about what goes on in a Business class. They haven’t the slightest connection with a school’s Biology offerings. Even Trustees can seldom advance an informed analysis of their college's Bible teaching.

When it comes to the Fine Arts and Media, however, "everyone’s a critic." Ubiquity and accessibility of plays, photographs, newspapers, speeches, concerts, and movies invite a response from every audience, no matter how savvy.

These observations about the many targets I wear are my way of justifying a little martyr complex. As I turn the eye of scrutiny inward, I see that bemoaning the necessary status and task of artists must make me tiresome company at times. Yet I persist toward a more gracious acceptance of my role as catalyst in the Christian zeitgeist.
I was one of the actors in The Lion in Winter, and saw a lot of this firsthand. Brian had started teaching at Montreat College at about the same time I entered as a freshman, and his first daughter was born that same year. As I've said before, Montreat is a fairly conservative community. This is not (contrary to how I often sound about conservatives) always a bad thing. One thing that I absolutely think that conservatives "get right" is their dedication to follow God no matter what the "world" says. However, they often tend to get upset about the wrong things, and that was certainly the case here. Much of the Montreat community got more upset about the revelation that Richard the Lionheart was gay (an assertion supported by historical records, and demonstrated in our production by means no more graphic than by having Richard touch another male character on the cheek) than by the fact that Henry II was having a very public adulterous affair (as indicated already in the quote above), and that he wanted to have his sons executed at one point of the play. In another incident, people were more concerned about the fact that there was swearing in a play then about the message warning against hypocrisy that the play contained.

I honestly think many "conservative" Christians would be very surprised to learn just how much Brian's ethics and values echo their own. I was once told by one of my college friends how much it pained him to know how many of his students (including many in drama) were involved in extramarital sexual relationships. (I've always said that the labels "conservative" and "liberal" depend entirely on what you're talking about. This is certainly one area I confess to being more "conservative" on than some people.) Still, Brian was often considered by many in the Montreat College community to be a maverick (I think unfairly), and I was very sad to learn from another friend a few years ago that he was denied tenure, being told (so I hear) that the college just didn't see a place for drama in their campus vision.

Thankfully, Brian has since been hired onto the faculty at Calvin College in Michigan. (Right next to Calvin Seminary, where another of my old professors started at about the same time!) And it seems that Montreat has had occasion to reconsider their stance, as Brian tells me that the new president there had approached him about coming back to Montreat just as "an offer simply too good to refuse" from Calvin came through.

Brian was one of my first choices to ask to provide a recommendation when I entered seminary, and he and I have kept in sporadic contact over the years. He has truly been one of the pivotal influences on my young adult life, and I would recommend that any student who wishes to be all that God has created them to be should take one of Brian's classes.

Friday, December 02, 2005

A Discussion of Mythological Proportions

While reading on the Allspark, I came across this thread that talked about a college class in Kansas that would have talked about Creationism (apparently to argue against it). This class was canceled after the would-be professor said some rather inflammatory remarks about creationists. (Here's a link to the actual article, but it's quoted in its entirety on the Allspark)

One person commenting on the thread suggested that creationists had gotten upset because the professors called Creationism a "myth." While I don't think this was the real problem (rather, I think it was the fact that he said that his course "would be a 'nice slap in [creationists'] big fat face.'"), I do think people respond to the word "myth" negatively.

So, for the record, here's a bit from the Webster Illustrated Contemporary Dictionary:
Myth - 1 A traditional story, presented as historical, often purporting to explain some natural phenomenon, as the creation of life, and expressive of the character of a people, their gods, culture, heroes, religious beliefs, etc. 2. Any real or imaginary story, theme, or character that excites the interest or imagination of a people....
If you read definition "1", you'll note that talking about "creation" is, by definition, to talk about "myths." It's also worth noting that "1" says nothing about whether the story is true or not. It only requires that the story is traditional. Even more to the point, definition "2" explicitly allows for "myths" to be true.

I've said before that I tend to be a little more conservative on some matters than some of my friends. I actually do tend to think that most of the stories in the Bible are more or less true. That's not to say I get bogged down in the details. If (for example) historical evidence shows that a couple of revolts mentioned in Acts 5:33-39 actually occurred in the opposite order from what Gamaliel is quoted as saying they did (as seems to be the case), then I'm not particularly bothered. The point of that Scripture isn't in what order a couple of revolts took place, but rather that while revolts of purely human origin will fail, God's will still triumph.

My own opinions of the historicity of the creation accounts are less well formed. I'm happy to believe that there was a "historical Adam" and a "historical Eve," but if there wasn't, my faith is not shaken. These characters depict the prototypical humanity, and the point of their story, that we as humanity have disobeyed God, and bring many of our worst sufferings upon ourselves, remains unchanged. (Please note that I do not, by corollary, believe that human sin is the cause of hurricane Katrina, any more than I believe that God sent Katrina to harm the people living in the Gulf. I am not here advocating a "sin results in divine punishment," cause/effect theology of suffering.)

But even as I allow for the possibility of a "historical" Adam and Eve, I still call the Genesis account a "creation myth." It is a story given to us to teach us about God, and our relationship to God. Whether or not these tales are factually true does not change the fact that they are "myths." If we as Christians are to keep fighting these battles over Scriptural interpretation, at least let's not get into arguments caused by misunderstanding how the word "myth" is defined.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Common Courtesy

One of the professors that I work for will teach a course entitled "Women, the Bible, and the Church" this coming January. As a long-standing advocate for the full equality of women in ministry, this is a course that he always looks forward to, and he has taught it nearly 30 times.

One of the books that he has used in this course for a number of years is entitled Beyond Anger, written by a Roman Catholic nun frustrated by the lack of equal access to ministerial roles for women, while (amazingly enough) still remaining loyal to the Church. It is a powerful piece, and it has been one of the first books my professor asks students to read, setting the tone for further discussion.

When my professor found out that this book was out of print, he was faced with the painful decision to not require this book this year. I suggested to him that we might be able to photocopy the book and distribute it through the bookstore. This is actually not illegal, so long as we do the simple courtesy of requesting permission from the person who holds the rights to the book. In this case, the rightsholder is the author of the book herself, with whom my professor has had a long acquaintance.

So, the day after I suggested this possibility to him, he called her on the phone, and was able to provide me with an e-mail granting "eternal" permission to photocopy this work for educational use.

With that problem out of the way, I still have to photocopy the work so that it can be distributed. To this end, I went to our seminary library. I was pleased to discover that we have not one, but two copies of this book on our shelves. I was somewhat less pleased to discover that both books have been heavily marked up with pen and highlighter! Although I will still be able to use this book for photocopying (I have little choice), the students who will use the resulting copy will now have to content with all this junk that someone else has put there.

Now, I readily confess that I do this to my own books from time to time. In fact, my wife has a copy of this very book at home, on which she's underlined and highlighted tons of relevant passages. That's fine. The book is ours, and we can do with it as we please.

But a library book is another matter entirely. Future students will not care what parts of the book I myself found relevant to my own studies. It is extremely frustrating to find that some former student (or perhaps a professor, although I think better of most of my professors than to think they'd do such a thing) has had the bad manners to write all through a book (in pen and highlighter, no less!) as though the book was their own. It's just rude!

So, a plea to all of you who use library books. Please treat these books with respect, remembering that others will want to use the books after you're done with them. It's just common courtesy.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


The headline reads: Bush Maps Out Iraq War Strategy.

Then, within the article itself, we are told that Bush "did not outline a new strategy for the nearly three-year-old war."

So, do we have a strategy or don't we? All I know for sure is that the president wants us to "stay the course."

This, of course, is the mantra that Bush has been using for ages now. Like unto it is the near-boilerplate that I think news headlines have been using every other day or so: "Bush refuses to set a timetable for Iraq withdrawal." (Here are three different news reports, each from a different date, and from unrelated sources, to make my point.)

But I wonder who's doing the scriptwriting for this bit Bush used today:

Some critics continue to assert that we have no plan in Iraq except to, quote, "Stay the course."

If by "Stay the course," they mean, "We will not allow the terrorists to break our will," they're right.

If by "Stay the course," they mean, "We will not permit Al Qaida to turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a safe haven for terrorism and a launching pad for attacks on America," they're right, as well.

If by "Stay the course," they mean that we're not learning from our experiences or adjusting our tactics to meet the challenges on the ground, then they're flat wrong.

The critics say he has no strategy other than "staying the course," and he says "they're right"? (Provided, of course, the term is defined as Bush wants it, a definition pretty much no one is using.) How does that win the argument? Let's grant Bush the definitions he wants. Simply having unbroken wills and a desire to prevent Al Qaida from turning Iraq into a "safe haven for terrorism" will not win this "war on terrorism." We need real strategies. Not more rhetoric.

To paraphrase John Kerry, we will not meet our goals in Iraq at the end of a gun barrel. We need something more. A real strategy. And Bush singularly failed to give us that today.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The War on Christmas

Slacktivist alerted me to the "Liberty Council's" "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," and how the (in)famous televangelist Jerry Falwell claims that the celebration of Christmas is under attack from secular institutions. I've already commented how, despite plenty of reason to feel otherwise, conservatives really do feel persecuted by the rest of society. Slacktivist does a perfectly adequate job of detailing how, at least in regard to Christmas, this claim is preposterous, and I see no need to duplicate his efforts.

By choosing a name like "Friend or Foe" for their campaign, I can't help but wonder if I am expected to recall the passage from the gospels, where Jesus tells the Pharisees, "Whoever is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:30). This occurs in the context of the Pharisees' accusation that Jesus is driving out demons by the power of the devil. Jesus then talks about blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

Of course, there are also the parallel passages in Mark 9:40 and Luke 9:50, where Jesus tells his disciples not to stop a man (who was apparently not counted among Jesus' followers) driving out demons using Jesus' name, saying to them "Do not stop him.... for whoever is not against you is for you." (Lukan version)

Although "Christ" is Jesus' title (from the Greek word for "anointed"), rather than his name, I expect the same principle applies whenever the name of Christmas is used. And as Slacktivist has already pointed out (What? You didn't follow the link to his site already?), the name "Christmas" is still used quite frequently in our society during this season.

Of course, the kind theology that says "whoever is not against you is for you" is seldom practiced among the extreme Christian right wing....

(As an aside, I wonder if they've gotten permission from the estate of Dr. Seuss to use the image of the "Grinch" in their campaign. My sources through Copyright Clearance Center tell me that the book is indeed still protected by copyright. Of course, this may be a matter of trademarks rather than copyrights, and trademarks are more easily lost....)

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Monday, November 28, 2005

The Ultimate Transformers Costume

My friend over at Ekballō suggested I check out this link at Boing Boing. It describes (and links to) a site selling Transformers costumes that actually transform while you wear them!

Be warned. They're not cheap....

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Responses from Brian Savage

Yesterday, I sent Brian Savage of Fun Publications (henceforth referred to as "FP") my "Open Letter." He responded to my e-mail at about noon, and I sent a response, including much of the Action Master suggestion I posted yesterday. He has since responded to that as well. Although he asked that I not quote him verbatim, for fear that his comments be taken out of context, he did give me permission to paraphrase his responses in public.

When I commented that Mr. Savage is perceived as being indifferent or contemptuous of "legitimate concerns," he responded that he has not seen very many concerns he considered legitimate. No doubt he sees many more "illegitimate" comments than I do, and I will grant that I may look at the comments I read on message boards through rose-colored glasses. So I attempted to give him the example of international postage rates, which many international club fans have considered unreasonable. Savage believes that those making such statements have no basis for making them and do not have enough information to know what they are taking about. He also insists that FP has indeed checked on different options. I offered Savage several options, including SAL and EMS, while asking if First Class mail (as opposed to Priority) for USPS shipping was a possibility. Savage specifically responded to my comment regarding First Class mail, but not the international options. As to why FP uses the USPS shipping options they use, which resulted in such oddities as paying over $6 for Priority Mail shipping of a comic book (which actually happened to me), he says that to include coding for the web site that handles all of the myriad of possible shipping options (and includes options for shipping such small items) would cost over $1000, and is simply not viable for the very few such items that are currently sold at the store. Members wishing to explore other shipping options can call a customer service representative (the number is provided at the club store), but automated options are simply not considered a possibility at this time, and while phoning in an order may not be an attractive alternative, at least it is offered.

When asked about the high non-member prices, Savage explained that these were intended to persuade parents shopping for their children to buy the child a club membership. While I had expected the high non-member prices were intended to steer people toward buying a membership, I suggested to Savage that parents would respond to such marketing by going to other stores, rather than by buying the club membership. While Savage concedes that this may or may not be true, he still seems to believe that this strategy is his best option.

He brought up the issue of selling toys in bundles, something I did not even mention, but which has been an issue of concern among many fans. His basic assertion was basically that anything in a bundle was below retail for the same items. He added in the fact that we don't have to pay gas and tax to make this sound like a good deal. Gas and tax are non-issues to me (not that they're totally negligible, but the amount of gas I use and tax I pay just to get toys can't add up to much more than a dollar), and I hadn't really even intended to get into the bundle thing, but since he brought it up, I pointed out that the way that most bundled packages are put together requires that fans buy an older item with a newer one, and that this actually discourages sales. On top of that, most newer toys sold in bundles are not available separately from the club store. I pointed out that if the toys were available in bundles AND separately (say, $25 each or $45 for both), then buyers would clearly see the savings and be more likely to buy. Savage's response amounted to suggesting again that it would be easier if people phoned in their orders, and bringing up the $1000 coding cost for making the web store more versatile again. I'm not sure why that was relevant here, but there you go....

Savage once again pulled out the argument (seen often on the message boards) of listing all the things that club membership provides: 6 club newsletters in full color, 12 issues of Master Collector, up to 12 monthly 30-word ads in Master Collector for free, 6 shipping schedules with pre-order forms (found as an insert in Master Collector), the store discount compared to non-member prices, the discount on BotCon packages, the online forum (coming soon), the additional Club exclusives (also coming soon) and the "freebie" Transformers figure given to members annually.

My responses when he suggested that he thought all that was a lot for $40 (I feel safe in quoting my own side of the conversation):
I don't. The Master Collectors are (as I've already said) totally worthless to me. Transformers fans simply don't use classifieds in that way. We use online message boards. There simply aren't that many Transformers fans who don't have some form of online access. The average age of the Transformers fan is in their 20s. If we don't have computers of our own (which we usually do), we tend to be in college and can access library computers. By extension, the ads (which I have attempted to use on a couple of occasions) are worthless. I have not yet gotten any responses to an ad placed in Master Collector. The shipping schedules don't mean much, because we've already had that information from our other online sources. The discount on store items only brings the cost of the toys back down to about the same (or only slightly lower at best) as other online stores. Those of us who don't/can't go to BotCon (and by almost any definition this has to be a large number of the club membership) can't use the convention discount.

That leaves the 6 full color newsletters (which I do appreciate), the online forum, the club exclusives, and the annual freebie. 2 of these 4 don't yet exist. That said, I think the opportunity to buy club exclusives will, in and of itself, make an enormous difference.
Savage insisted that there are fans who do not have online access who like the ads. I can't outright accuse him of being wrong here, as I don't have contact with fans who aren't online, but I simply don't believe it. The consensus of the online fandom is pretty much universal that Master Collector is a waste of paper (I mean, seriously, I haven't found one fan who has mentioned finding this useful!). And given the average age of the Transformers fan (usually under 30), we're pretty much all able to get online, save for an unfortunate few, who probably can't afford the club in the first place! Savage also notes, however, that Master Collector is the "packaging" by which the postal service can send the TF club magazine, and insists that it would cost FP more to remove it. Whatever. I'll chalk that up to another suggestion he won't consider.

In a comment unrelated to anything I consciously brought up, Savage also talked about the concerns regarding the change in art categories at BotCon. Anything in 3D is considered to them to be in the "diorama" category. While this is simply not how Transformers fans look at these things (and I attempted to clarify by specifying the lack of a background), this basically boils down to a difference in how we define our terms.

Savage also suggested in his first letter that complaints aren't very specific, and that there's not much he can glean from them to improve matters. I've seen this argument before, and think that a lot of fans have been plenty specific, but somehow he doesn't see it. So I took that opportunity to toss out my idea for Action Master exclusives. His response was that one member of the council (a group of well-respected Transformers fans, most with prior convention experience, who serve as advisors to FP) suggested something similar to this already, and another rejected it (Savage's words were far more emphatic, but I agreed not to quote him verbatim....). He commented that what a customizer can do is very different than what FP could economically do (which indicates to me that he didn't really understand my proposal. Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned www.custommasters.com at all). Basically, the idea was summarily dismissed as "too expensive," which I think is patently ridiculous compared to the exclusives they actually do produce.

Throughout the whole letter, especially in regard to the lack of club exclusives this year, Savage kept repeating how much FP had to do in such a short time this year, implying that we fans couldn't possibly understand what they've been through (he never did respond to my suggestion that FP could have made an extra recolor of one of the BotCon toys while they were having those made). Perhaps, but having worked on publishing a literary magazine once upon a time, and having a fair bit of responsibility for event planning in the past and in my current job, I expect I understand more than he thinks I do. Another phrase repeated several times (both in the replies and often in message board responses, which I feel enables me to use quotes just this once) was "we can't do everything everyone wants," which I'm starting to take as code for "we won't even try to do things that people want if we didn't think of it first," but that may just be me getting bitter.

So there you have it. I've tried to be fair, but yet again, all the suggestions were rejected and I'm left with several indications that I wasn't even heard properly. Ah, well. I'm done with this for now. Time to think about more positive things, like the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. I won't be blogging for a few days in order to visit family and enjoy my time off from work. See you on Monday!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

In Defense of Action Masters

I admit it. I like Action Masters.

This statement puts me in the minority of long-time Transformers fans (newer ones won't even know what I'm talking about). Those with really long memories will know that I've already "come out" on this subject, and that I used to host a web page featuring this often maligned segment of Transformers history.

I can understand why some fans dislike Action Masters so much. They are, after all, "Transformers that don't transform." And while I concede that the gimmick of transformation was originally what "Transformers" were all about, I would suggest that the reason that the toy line has continued to exist (and even thrive) for so long is because the characters are so interesting. Even non-Transformers fans have some idea who Optimus Prime is. Most will remember Bumblebee as "the one that hung around with Spike" (the main human character) even if they can't remember the character's name, because his character was so heavily featured in the 1980's cartoon.

Action Masters are, at their core, representations of the Transformer characters in action figure form. Since the designers did not have to worry about engineering transformation schemes into these figures, they were able to create figures that actually more closely resembled the characters as they appeared in the cartoon and the comics. Also, being just a figure and small transformable weapon, most were much more affordable than many of the other Transformers toys available up to that time. (Of course, that didn't help the line sell well. In fact, much of my current Action Master collection was picked up from the clearance aisle at Kay-Bee toys [nowadays, they tend to go by "K-B"] for about 99 cents each.)

Although I don't expect that this idea is likely to be picked up by Fun Productions (and therefore don't intend to include it in the letter I'll be sending owner Brian Savage), I would go so far as to suggest that Action Masters would make excellent club exclusives. Mr. Savage has often commented that, compared to the G.I. Joe exclusives he does for their club, Transformers are much more expensive and limited. While one can create a "new" character by mixing and matching different parts of G.I. Joe figure molds (i.e., the head from one character, with the torso of another, on top of legs from yet another), you really can't do that with Transformers. All you can really do with Transformers is recolor the figure, and maybe attach a new head (which usually has to be molded from scratch, increasing the costs). The Action Masters, on the other hand, have more or less interchangable parts. This has been ably demonstrated by the Custom Masters web site, which features new characters made out of the parts of many different Action Master toys. And since we already know that Joe Toscano (the Custom Masters creator) has done work for some of the folks currently involved in the club (see the G2 Breakdown featured on the site), it seems like it wouldn't be too difficult to hire his creative talent to work on something new and special for a club exclusive.

One potential obstacle to this would be the question of whether or not the original Action Masters molds even still exist. However, we do know that the Optimus Prime mold was used as recently as 2002 by Takara. This would imply that the others may well be out there yet.

I don't think that anyone at Hasbro or Takara thinks that there's much money to be made on the Action Masters in your average toy store. But they would be ideal as club exclusives, intended specifically for collectors. And they would be far less costly to produce than any of the transformable exclusives the club is likely to be planning. If the molds are out there, it seems to make sense to make use of them in the market most likely to appreciate them.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Open Letter to Fun Productions re: The Official Transformers Club

In recent times, I've failed to post pretty much anything related to Transformers. I have been remiss. Hopefully, this will go toward rectifying that error. For some background to this open letter (which I intend to actually send to Fun Productions after it has sat public for a little bit, so as to generate comments that will enable me to add/edit/delete comments and make the letter as effective as it can be), I encourage folks to read my other comments on the subject. However, I should emphasize that my comments here will be dedicated to the club, and not the convention, as those comments were.
To: Brian Savage, owner of Fun Publications
Re: Suggestions for The Official Transformers Collectors' Club

It has been almost a year since the announcement that Fun Publications would be the new licensee of the Transformers collectors' club. In that time, we have gotten a club that has largely met its deadlines, and delivered on most of its promises. This is in stark contrast to the previous owners of the club who, while having grand dreams, made a lot promises that they were not able to keep. As I'm sure you're aware, this has caused a fair bit of frustration in the Transformers fan community. I recognize that you have already gotten a fair amount of mail from fans who would like to see things done differently, and can speak from personal experience that, when I myself have sent such mail, you have been diligent to respond to each letter personally. This is greatly appreciated. Likewise, the efforts of Pete Sinclair to respond to threads on some of the more popular message boards is appreciated.

Nonetheless, there persists a sentiment in the Transformers fan community that, when legitimate concerns have been articulated, the response received has been one of indifference at best or outright contempt at worst. I'm confident that this has not been your intention. But the point remains that fans seem to feel that concerns are being dismissed without adequate attention or reflection. It is my hope that this perception may be overcome as positive changes are seen in the coming year.

I recognize that some of the things fans would like to see are simply not economically feasible. We are all very aware of the economic failings of the previous license holder, and no one wants to see a return to that situation. Nevertheless, I feel that there are a few aspects of the club that can be improved without detriment to Fun Publications. I should also make clear that I will keep my comments confined to the collectors' club, and not the convention, which I see as a separate entity.

With regard to potential improvements to the club, I would like to address the following issues:
  1. Shipping for items from the club store;
  2. Cost of merchandise at the club store;
  3. The Master Collector magazine; and
  4. Club exclusives.
1. Shipping for items from the club store: When I recently ordered the 2005 Botcon program from the club store, I paid over $6 for Priority Mail postage. This is an item that could have safely been shipped in a "Flat Rate" Priority Mail envelope for only $3.85. An option for First Class shipping would have been even cheaper. Since that time, I note that you have changed the option on your web site to encourage buyers to telephone a customer service representative to get a more reasonable shipping rate. But this is something that should be encoded into the web site itself, rather than causing potential buyers the inconvenience of having to telephone a representative after having already visited the web site. I am under the impression that other members have found shipping prices to be unreasonable, as well. I cannot speak personally with regard to international shipping, but have read several posts on the message boards that international rates are well above what it actually costs to ship the items being sent. It seems to me that, if Fun Publications actually is having to pay these higher shipping costs, then it is incumbent upon Fun Publications to explore other shipping options. If lower-cost shipping options risk lower quality shipping, Fun Publications can make these risks clear to the consumer. However, the consumer should be given the option of taking such risks.

2. Cost of merchandise at the club store: I do not expect Fun Publications to "take a loss" in selling merchandise on their site. It is to be expected that prices for toys purchased from the club store will be, at best, only slightly less than purchasing from another online source, even for club members. But the non-member prices are simply absurd. Rather than pay the membership fee or the exhorbitant non-member prices, non-members will simply spend their money at another online site, and that means lost revenue for Fun Publications. I'm curious as to whether any items have ever been sold from the club store at non-member prices, the prices are so high! To at least some extent, purchasing merchandise at a reasonable price should be one of the benefits of club membership, but when members are almost as well off to buy from another store, and non-members are definitely better off to do so, there is little incentive to become a club member or to shop at the club store.

3. The Master Collector magazine: This is highlighted as one of the benefits of club membership. But the magazine is basically just a collection of classified ads, and I don't know of any fans that find it valuable. In fact, I have read many comments on message boards that consider it a waste of paper. If Transformers fans wish to sell something, we tend to find we are better off using the message boards, or even eBay (despite the costs involved in using that particular service). Although Master Collector is the featured publication of Fun Publications, I would suggest that fans would be served just as well if they were only sent the bi-monthly Transformers Club magazine. This would result in saved shipping costs to club members (only having to send every other month) and presumably lowered printing costs (as you wouldn't have to print so many Master Collector magazines), thereby freeing up funds for other club benefits without damaging Fun Publications financially.

4. Club exclusives: I have saved this for last because I feel that it is the most easily dealt with, and in fact might be taken care of anyway now that Fun Publications has dealt with the struggles of the first year of running the club. However, I have been extremely disappointed not to be given the opportunity to purchase any club exclusives this year (besides the "freebie" exclusive I got for joining, which I am very happy with). While I am aware that creating an exclusive is a costly endeavor, it seems to me that Fun Publications could have made one more recolor out of one of the molds already being used for the Botcon exclusives and set that recolor aside as a club exclusive. This would have satisfied my own desire to see at least one exclusive this year, while costing Fun Publications far less than if the exclusive had been made out of a mold not already being used. Ideally, I would hope to see two or three exclusives per year (again, not counting the annual "freebie"), but I would be satisfied with one annually.

I trust that you will find these comments to be reasonable as well as to represent the kind of changes that may be implemented without damaging Fun Publications' bottom line. I truly do wish the club to be a success. However, if changes are not implemented, it is difficult to state that I am getting $40 worth of value out of the club in a year's time, and I would therefore be reticent to renew my membership in the future. I'm quite confident that I am not alone in my opinion.

Thank you for your time.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Fantasy Presidents: Superman comics

Moving away from the explicitly political, the DC Comics universe made a rather interesting decision in a story thread intended to parallel the 2000 Presidential election. They made Lex Luthor president.

Yes, you read that right. For several years, Superman's arch-enemy was President of the United States.

And he didn't have to "fix" the election results or get a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court, either. He was actually voted into office during a legitimate election by the people of the DC Comics universe.

Now, in case the only "Lex Luthor" you know is the mad scientist of the pre-1985 era, some explanations are in order.

Back in 1985, DC celebrated their 50th anniversary by publishing a crossover story entitled Crisis on Infinite Earths. While a more detailed explanation of what happened can be found by clicking the link, suffice it to say that, when it was all over, DC was able to "reinvent" a number of their characters. Pretty much all the Superman-related characters were redefined in this manner. Lex Luthor, for example, changed from a "mad scientist" into a "Machiavellian business tycoon." His motive for opposing Superman was two-fold: 1) Luthor aimed to be the most powerful person on the planet, and Superman was an obvious threat to that goal. 2) At their first meeting, Superman humiliated Luthor by jailing him for reckless endangerment. For this indignity, Luthor swore revenge.

Over the years since his reintroduction, Luthor has been a master of manipulation, able to pull corporate strings and call in dark favors, always in control of events while never leaving enough evidence for anyone to link crimes to him. Superman has always, of course, been aware of the threat Luthor poses, but has never been able to bring Luthor to account for his crimes. As far as the rest of the world knows, Lex Luthor is a philanthropist and a humanitarian. (The TV series Smallville is actually closer to the current comics on this point, but it's about the only thing that Smallville gets right, so we'll say no more about that insipid program.)

Most of you will remember the fears around the coming of the year 2000, when the "Y2K bug" threatened to cause chaos in any part of the world that depended on computers. The writers of the Superman comics chose to parallel that situation with a New Year's storyline in which Brainiac (also heavily redefined since the Crisis) took advantage of the computer crisis, resulting in the arrival of a future version of himself (called "Brainiac 13") in the present, and also causing Metropolis to mutate into a literal "City of Tomorrow." Lex Luthor was able to make a deal with Brainiac 13 to leave Earth, but allow Metropolis' futuristic technology to remain, with Luthor able to control it at will.

Shortly after that, Luthor decided to run for President, promising to share his access to futuristic technology with the nation. Between his generous campaign and some particularly bad decisions by the previous administration during a time of emergency (Gotham City had been all but destroyed in an earthquake the year previously), Luthor won the election easily.

Among the highlights of Luthor's presidency was his part in resisting an alien invasion that would have destroyed the earth (in part due to his connection to Brainiac 13, who was instrumental in the invasion). He also discovered Superman's secret identity of Clark Kent, although he surprisingly did little with the information before having it taken away from him by a telepathic criminal. Luthor also used his power as President to frame Bruce Wayne (who opposed Luthor's plans in Gotham City outside of his superheroic guise of Batman) for murder.

Unfortunately, as President Luthor's failure to capitalize on Superman's secret identity demonstrates, DC Comics really didn't seem to know what to do with the idea of the foremost villain in their line-up as President of the United States, and so Luthor was eventually exposed and deposed in a recent storyarc of the Superman/Batman comic by openly attacking Superman (he was likely somewhat insane at the time, due to a drug he was taking to boost his strength). Luthor was replaced by his Vice-President, Pete Ross, who had been a friend of Clark Kent's from Smallville.

Pete Ross' own presidency was short-lived, as he resigned after uncovering a shadowy organization that sought to manipulate whoever held the Oval Office. Although not seen since, it is probable that they are still at work in the DC Comics universe. What this means about DC's opinion of our real-life president is anyone's guess.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

American Tie

Having spent some time talking about a couple of fictional presidents (and I've got plans to do one more fairly soon), I decided I should pull out a piece I wrote back when the actual presidential election of 2000 went so terribly wrong. I should emphasize that this was written before the actual election results had been decided, and so, although the parody is meant to be read from the standpoint of after the results were a fait accompli, the last few lines of the third verse could in fact have worked just as well with Al Gore, had the situation turned out differently.

American Tie
(A parody written to the tune of Don McLean's American Pie)
by B-W of Transforming Seminarian

Not so long ago,
We can all remember how the voting ended in a tie.
And we knew if they had their chance,
That we would see the lawyers dance,
And they would be so happy, for a while.
For while the lawsuits started mounting,
Florida kept on recounting.
Always redefining
Intentions still divining.
I can't remember if they tried
To listen to the other side.
Because the diff'rence seemed so wide
The year, the voting tied.

And they were singing,
My, my, this election won't die
We've been doing all this suing
But we're still in a tie
With all the chaos making us want to cry
Saying, "Who will be our president guy?"
"Who will be our president guy?"

Did you watch the news that night,
How election figures were so tight?
If Dan Rather told you so.
Did you see how Oregon
Couldn't ever tell us who had won?
Because they did their counting, so slow-oh-oh-oh.
Well, I know they told us Dubya won,
and I heard that Gore gave concession.
They both trusted the news
But they couldn't read the clues
That the pollsters were too quick to say
That Bush had won the vote that day
And so they all had hell to pay
The year, the voting tied.

And they were singing,
My, my, this election won't die
We've been doing all this suing
But we're still in a tie
With all the chaos making us want to cry
Saying, "Who will be our president guy?"
"Who will be our president guy?"

I met a man who voted twice
And so they put his vote on ice
Unfairly, some would later say.
I went down to the counting floor
Where ballots counted twice before
Were examined, and recounted, day by day.
And in the streets, the people screamed.
The protesters looked really steamed.
But neither guy recanted.
The voters, disenchanted.
And the guy who won was hurt the most
After all that, he couldn't boast
Because his reputation's toast.
The year, the voting tied.

And they were singing,
My, my, this election won't die
We've been doing all this suing
But we're still in a tie
With all the chaos making us want to cry
Saying, "Who will be our president guy?"
"Who will be our president guy?"

My, my, this election won't die
We've been doing all this suing
But we're still in a tie
With all the chaos making us want to cry
Saying, "Who will be our president guy?"

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Learning to Understand Each Other

Recently, I made a comment on another blog indicating my feeling that the government unfairly attacked liberal churches, when they turn a blind eye to the same things happening in conservative congregations. Another blogger (not the site's owner) quickly responded that he saw exactly the opposite happening: that liberals could get away with all sorts of political action, but that conservatives are always attacked for being too conservative.

Clearly, we have seen the same information, and yet have come to exactly opposite conclusions. I was reminded of this entry by Steven Waldman at Beliefnet.com written shortly after the rancorous 2004 presidential election. It details a number of ways in which conservatives and liberals fail to understand each other. I encourage everyone to read the whole article, but here's a snippet:
Most Support Separation of Church and State to Protect Religion

There is indeed an outspoken group of secular liberals who oppose any manifestation of religion in the public sphere because they are suspicious of religion in general, and their views are Constitutionally protected. But most liberals (and many conservatives) fret about the separation of church and state because they want to protect the free expression of religious views. Conservatives might scoff at this as an over-reaction, and perhaps it is, but for most liberals it's a view born out of a love of religious freedom.

They Feel Under Assault

With conservatives controlling the House, Senate, White House, and Supreme Court -- and Christians accounting for 83% of the population -- it's hard for liberals to understand how conservative Christians can feel persecuted or under attack. But religious conservatives look at this way: they have clear beliefs about what is right or wrong. They think homosexuality is wrong, for instance. They turn on the TV and see it treated as morally okeedoke, and there's nothing they can do about it. They may have the numbers but they nonetheless feel powerless against a popular culture that doesn't seem to share their values, and in the face of aggressive judges who impose their will over the objections of state legislatures.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

My story: Reconciliation

Between yesterday's entry and my brief mention of it a few months back, I've alluded to a relationship that I had while I was finishing college, but which ended shortly after starting seminary, leaving me rather depressed. The story actually didn't end there, though. Oddly enough, I was reminded of the epilogue to this relationship by listening to NPR's report on the new Chronicles of Narnia movie.

Don't worry. It will make sense as I explain.

The relationship ended while I was attending seminary in South Carolina, but it really didn't end all at once. We'd been having trouble for a while, and my girlfriend decided that we were causing each other more pain by being together than we would be by ending it. That was bad enough. A trip to the college to see a play directed by a mutual friend only made it worse. As the first time my ex and I had seen each other since the break-up, it served to make clear that we really weren't going to get back together again. Then, about a couple of weeks later, I got an e-mail from her, informing me that she was seeing someone else. In fact, they had talked about seeing each other already by the time I had seen them both at the play, but had decided not to start dating until after the holidays in order not to cause me more pain. Realizing that this couldn't be helped, they decided to come out into the open about it.

That got me packing. Within the month, I had moved back to Louisville, as I've already detailed earlier. Fast forward to two years later. I had finished my first year at the seminary I eventually graduated from, and was staying with a friend for a few months (the apartment I lived in during my first year was a nightmare, and I got out as soon as I could. But that's a story for another time). He had allowed me to set up my computer in a spare room so that I could check e-mail and keep up on my assignments. I was shocked to find an e-mail from my ex-girlfriend, who I hadn't heard from in those two years. Apparently, she had spoken with a former roommate of mine from college, who I had kept in touch with and was familiar with the situation, and he told her that I would probably be able to handle hearing from her again.

While being back in touch my ex again did cause a bit of emotional confusion for me at the time, I apparently kept my head enough not to do anything stupid, and we maintained e-mail correspondence for another couple of years after that. About a year after she reinitiated contact, my ex went to Ireland for an internship to finish out her college degree. She used a different e-mail address while there, but we kept in touch, and it was clear that the family she was staying with had been very kind to her, and that the whole experience was extremely positive.

The following summer, I was due to be in Montreat again with my Louisville church's youth group for that year's youth conference. As I've indicated before, the youth conferences are a huge part of my story, and I've tried to arrange to be in Louisville whenever our church took a group down so that I could join them. This meant that, for the first time since getting back in touch, my ex and I would be in about the same geographic area (as she had just completed her Irish internship), and we decided that we should get together. This was not a decision taken lightly, as neither one of us wanted to cause the other more emotional angst, but it was decided that we were both finally okay with how things had turned out.

At about this time, I was doing some research on C.S. Lewis, and found some information on the web relating to Douglas Gresham, his step-son. The web page contained an e-mail address for Gresham, which I was shocked to recognize as the exact address my ex-girlfriend had been using for much of the previous year! She had been interning with C.S. Lewis' step-son, and had never even mentioned it to me! So, during that week I was in Montreat, we verified that she had indeed been working for and staying with Douglas Gresham and his family during her internship, and that she had never mentioned the Lewis connection because it had (and I honestly believe this) not seemed like that big a deal to her.

Anyway, my ex-girlfriend and I met a couple of times over the course of that week, and we had a chance to talk about how things had gone, what we were up to, and basically had a nice visit. We left on good terms, and I was finally able to "move on" in a way that I had not done previously.

During today's NPR report, Gresham was interviewed regarding the input he had given into the making of the new movie, and I was reminded of that last meeting. I've never met him, myself, but it's kind of cool to know that I'm only two degrees of separation away from the step-son of C.S. Lewis!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Fantasy Presidents: The President by Parker Hudson

Having already given some discussion of a particular presidential "what if" scenario in Commander in Chief, I thought I might move to the opposite end of the spectrum for just a moment. The President, a novel written by Parker Hudson, asks the question, "... what would happen if a man who entered the presidency as a non-believer were suddenly to embrace the Christian faith?" (quoted from the dust jacket)

A disclaimer is in order: I originally read this novel--which comes recommended by such conservative luminaries as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph E. Reed, Jr., and American Center for Law and Justice (a law firm founded by Pat Robertson) Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow--during my "more conservative" phase in 1996, while attending an extremely conservative seminary in the middle of nowhere within South Carolina. Also, I had just ended a fairly serious relationship at the time (or, more accurately, had ended for me...), and had a lot of extra time on my hands. All this is to say that not only are my political leanings somewhat different now than they were then, but that I also do not tend to look upon this time with great affection. With those caveats, I will attempt to be fair....

The President tells the story of President William Harrison. Set in an indeterminate near-future, President Harrison is a well-intentioned non-believer whose sister Mary (a believer since adolescence) continues to pray will come to Jesus. President Harrison's conversion comes about a third of the way into the almost 500-page book, after a fairly long "softening up" period including a sermon at Camp David (arranged by Mary) and the random murder of the President's parents by "joy-riding" teenagers.

The centerpiece of the book is the President's State of the Union address, in which he publicly confesses his new-found faith to the nation (pages 312-328. I won't give pages for every quote from this speech). After detailing the ills of the nation (in ways that won't come as a surprise to anyone whose heard modern conservative commentary), President Harrison details "a collision of two diametrically opposed worldviews which have been at war for a long time.... The first worldview is the Judeo-Christian one on which this nation was founded." Although the President includes "Judeo-" here, he very quickly notes that "...God has provided by his grace the only means for joining (God) in (heaven) through our individual belief in his Son, Jesus Christ...." The second worldview is described as a belief that God either doesn't exist, or has created everything, but left us to our own devices. This worldview is tied to the general idea of relativism: "We're to be fervently all-inclusive, and everything anyone might want to do is basically fine because it all starts from human reason."

What follows is a detailed history of how our nation was founded on Christian principles, and how the nation has strayed from those principles. The President calls the nation to decide, as Joshua had called the Israelites, "whether they as a nation will serve God or not." Although the President stresses that he is "not talking about creating a theocracy," and says that he will "welcome other faiths in the public debate," he makes it clear that he intends the majority of the people of the nation to embrace Christianity, if only by the sheer volume of Christian-specific policies he advocates. He even closes his speech by reading from the book of Joshua, repeating the call to "choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.... But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD." (ellipses are as appear in The President)

As ironically often seems to be the case in Christian fiction, the book seems excessively focused on sex. The President has had an affair some time previous to the opening of the book, which threatens to come back to haunt him in the form of blackmail. A reporter central to the story is involved in a superficial sexual relationship with her network anchorperson. The public schools have just instituted a "virtual reality" tool that allows students to engage in sexual experiences without actually having sex, except that it seems to have the side effect of increasing the frequency of actual teenage sexual experience to "virtually one hundred percent" (page 388). The Navy is wrestling with a new affirmative action policy (implemented by the pre-Christian President Harrison) to allow gays and women to serve alongside men on long-term missions, leading to a near-affair between the President's brother, weapons officer of the USS Fortson, and a female officer.

There is a fair amount of exposition in the novel (besides the already demonstrated exposition of the State of the Union address), where Christian characters tell what God's word says (most of the time without citing actual passages or noting that even many Christian theologians differ on some of the matters cited as a theological fact). And although Hudson is careful not to directly refer to any political party by name, the following section, spoken by John Dempsey, the senior senator from the President's own party, makes Hudson's own prejudices fairly clear:
"I don't know exactly how to say this, Mr. President, but somewhere, somehow in the last fifty years we've done too much, intervened too much, interfered too often. Now we create more problems than we fix. Oh, some of our programs are okay--usually the ones where we give an incentive for someone in the private sector to do something right. But on balance, I'm afraid that we're the problem. We tax too much and we regulate too much." (page 140)
To drive the point home even more, Dempsey is the son of a preacher and, after years in government, says that "my father was right. He told me that we'd never succeed in Washington because we were focused on making people better through programs." (page 141) Hmmm, which party tends to advocate cutting programs, and encourages private sector solutions?

Among the other sub-plots that weave their way through this book is the climactic one, a plot by former Soviets disenfranchised by the collapse of the Soviet Union, aided by Islamic terrorists and an American traitor, to attack New York. This threat is neutralized by a combination of American military preparedness and divine intervention ("a mighty wind came out of heaven and moved across the face of the earth," delaying a missile attack long enough for the attacker to be destroyed by an American missile. Pages 494-496).

The book ends with an Afterword in which the author apologizes for having to depict concepts and scenes that might be offensive to more sensitive Christian readers, and includes a list of suggested books to help the reader consider "the proper balance between faith and government, and the key role of Christianity in our American history."

It needs to be emphasized that the author of this book, written in 1995, could not have been aware of what would happen on September 11, 2001, nor could he have known that the nation would see a President (in George W. Bush, who had just been elected Governor of Texas only the year previously) similarly bold about proclaiming his faith in Christ (and even "Dubya" wouldn't quite dare give a State of Union speech like Harrison's!).

It's also worth noting that Hudson is not entirely wrong in his call for Christians to be more serious about their faith. However, Christianity is far more politically diverse than a reading of this book would have one believe. Although Hudson is correct in asserting that "separation of church and state" was never intended to mean that political leaders should not allow their faith to dictate their politics, he does not adequately address the fact that such separation was intended to protect the church against the imposition of interpretations of the faith that might differ from the version of the party in power. I would also argue against what appears to be his argument for evangelism, which seems to be along the lines of "wear the subject down until he can't resist any more!"

All in all, I can't really say I recommend the book, although it is always worthwhile to be exposed to viewpoints different from one's own.

*All page references are from The President by Parker Hudson, copyright 1995. Published by Multnomah Books. ISBN# 0-88070-846-8.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Pat Robertson Strikes Again!

In trying to maintain a near-5-day-a-week blogging schedule, it can be difficult to come up with topics that are worth writing about on some days. On other days, the news provides something so outrageous that the blog entry practically writes itself. This is one of those days.

Yesterday, Pat Robertson told the people of Dover, Pennsylvania, who had voted to replace eight school board members who advocated teaching "intelligent design" in classrooms, that they should not be surprised if some natural disaster strikes their town.

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city," Robertson said on his daily television show broadcast from Virginia, "The 700 Club."

"And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there," he said.

Without even getting into the debate on whether or not "intelligent design" is an acceptable scientific field of study for secular classrooms, or even whether teaching it represents the only way God can be faithfully followed, this is one of the most irresponsible statements from a Christian leader since... well, since the last time Pat Robertson opened his mouth.

I've already commented on how such statements do damage to the reputation of Christianity, so instead, I'll follow the lead of my friend and fellow blogger over at Ekballō, as he wrote during that last incident:

Dear Pat Robertson,
I am writing to you as a fellow American. I am pleading with you as a fellow Christian. Please, for the sake of our country and in the spirit of the Christ you and I both claim to serve, "SHUT UP!"

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Fantasy Presidents: Commander in Chief

Like many television viewers, I've enjoyed watching the new drama Commander in Chief on Tuesday nights. It's no surprise that the show has generated a certain amount of controversy over its depiction of the first-ever female president. Neither is it surprising that few of those who have publicly criticized the show have actually complained about the fact that the president is female, per se. Rather, the show has been criticized as being a veiled campaign to promote Hillary Clinton for President in 2006. Right-wing sites note that creator Rob Lurie is a liberal, and that lead writer Steve Cohen worked in Hillary's press office. Such sites also accuse the show of anti-Republican bias.

But that's not entirely fair. Although I will certainly concede that Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (played by Donald Sutherland), one of the most manipulative and spiteful politicians I've seen in recent times, is a Republican, that hardly seems like an indictment on the whole party. And it's not as though President Mackenzie Allen (played by Geena Davis) is a Democrat. Rather, she is a Republican turned Independent turned running-mate-to-a-Republican! And in an early episode, President Allen just as readily shot down suggestions from Democratic representatives as she did Templeton's. If anything, this show seems far more "pro-Independant" than "anti-"any particular party.

A disclaimer is in order here, unlike The West Wing (which also features a Democratic President, and for which the recent debate episode was also criticized as being "anti-Republican" on some conservative blogs), I do not feel that Commander in Chief even attempts a "realistic" look at American politics. Rather, it comes off as asking "what would happen if our President acted upon beliefs about what was right for the nation, rather than upon what was politically expedient?" While entertaining, I myself feel that some of President Allen's solutions work out just a little too nicely to be entirely believable. The show, having already exhausted the novelty of having a woman in the Oval Office, is far more about idealism than about gender.

But upon reading the conservative pundits, it's hard to not feel that the complaints aren't really about Hillary at all, but rather that a woman President might be getting greater acceptance. Truth is, Hillary Clinton and Mackenzie Allen have little in common with each other besides their gender. If true, this is a sad commentary on the conservative mindset. I would hope that viewers could set aside such prejudices, and evaluate a potential presidential (or any other) candidate based on the talents he/she brings to the office, rather than on what reproductive organs they were born with.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Secret to Peace on Earth?

A fairly common question found in Billy Graham's "My Answer" feature is "Why can't people just get along?" (or some variant) Here are excerpts from today's version.
I think a lot of the world's problems would be solved if all the people who belong to the various religions would quit fighting and get together and decide to let each other live in peace. Don't you think this might work? — Mrs. A.H.

A: Dear Mrs. A.H.,
The Bible certainly urges Christ's followers to be peacemakers, and to try to bring a greater measure of peace to our broken world. The Bible says, "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace" (Romans 14:19).

Unfortunately, however, throughout history evil men have used religion as an excuse for hatred and war, not love and peace—and tragically, the same is true today. If everyone honestly wanted peace, then what you suggest might be possible—but sadly, not everyone wants peace. Instead, some are driven only by power and greed, and they will hide behind anything (including religion) to deceive people and make themselves look righteous. The Bible's analysis is right: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9).
Graham finishes out his column with the usual encouragement to have everyone turn to God, who alone is able to change the human heart.

I agree with Graham that the people of the world need God, and that God alone can change the human heart. I would even go so far as to agree with him that "not everyone wants peace." However, as I read the question, asking the people of the world's religions to "quit fighting and get together and decide to let each other live in peace," I have a very different response. The problem with the many people (following many different faiths) is not so much that we don't really want peace, but rather that we have very deep differences between us, and we simply don't know how to resolve them. Many people actively define peace as "when all people believe as we do." That won't happen on this side of heaven.

Our problem is far greater than simply deciding not to be violent against each other. It's a matter of learning how to continue to live, to coexist, while having such differences with each other. We're not talking about the very real problems of power and greed, here. We're talking, in some cases, about religions that tell their adherents that all who do not follow them are to be wiped out. We're talking about religions who preach that certain types of people do not deserve to live with dignity. In such extreme cases, it's not as simple as just having the adherents decide to be nicer to each other. Such a decision would fly right in the face of what they've been taught to believe. And lest I be misunderstood, I'm not just talking about Islamic terrorists here. Many Christians find themselves believing exactly these kinds of things.

There's a real need for evangelism here, but also for preaching basic tolerance. We must be willing to accept that not everyone will come to believe as we do, and that it is to be left up to God to decide what becomes of them. Tolerance does not mean that we call behaviors or beliefs that are contrary our own "okay." We continue to hold our differences and beliefs that such behaviors and beliefs are wrong. It simply means that we allow them to coexist, rather than cause harm to those who practice them. We Christians damage the reputation of our faith by our intolerant actions toward others. To paraphrase the old song, if there is ever to be peace on earth, then let it begin with us.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Liberal: Defining Our Terms

In a recent post, I made a quick comment that I was finding it ironic that I generally describe myself as a "liberal" on this blog despite the fact that I'm aware that I'm much more conservative on a handful of issues than many of my friends. I find that this is especially true in the blogosphere, where I find it difficult to find sites that cater to my peculiar mix of conservative and liberal ideals. I've often said that the terms "liberal" and "conservative" depend entirely on what particular issue one happens to be talking about at the time.

Voltaire was once quoted as saying "Sir, if you would converse with me, please define your terms" (or something similar. He wasn't speaking in English, for one thing....). So it seems worthwhile to spend a little bit of time defining terms.

This past weekend, viewers were able to watch a live episode of The West Wing in which the Republican Arnold Vinick and the Democratic Matt Santos (played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits, respectively) "junked the rules" in order to "have a real debate" that really dealt with the issues. I should add a disclaimer that, although the hour was enjoyable, both candidates struck me as stereotypical representatives of their party, rather than as distinct individuals within the parties. However, one particular section of the debate was especially useful for framing this issue of what a liberal is, and why I'm not generally uncomfortable using the term. Here's a section quoted from the debate:
Santos: Republicans have tried to turn “liberal” into a bad word. Well, liberals ended slavery in this country!

Vinick: A Republican president ended slavery!

Santos: Yes, a liberal Republican, Senator. What happened to them? They got run out of your party! What did liberals do that was so offensive to the liberal party? I'll tell you what they did. Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. What did conservatives do? They opposed every single one of those things. Every one. So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, “Liberal,” as if it was something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won’t work, Senator. Because I will pick up that label and wear it as a badge of honor.
This speech nicely demonstrates all that is good about liberalism. Almost by definition, a liberal is someone who advocates for change, and a conservative is one who advocates for the status quo. And change is important. The list of changes in Santos' speech above were all changes that needed to happen. Good changes. But clearly not all change is good. And conservatives do serve a valuable role in society to the extent that they keep negative changes at bay.

This, of course, leaves us at the place where we debate what changes are good and what changes are bad. While some of the answers to such questions will be obvious to all but the most extreme, there will be considerably more grey area on other issues. As a society, we have not been approaching these issues with the appropriate amount of tolerance and humility. Debate, real debate, is a good thing, but only if we allow ourselves to understand why our opponents feel so passionately about issues on which we differ without demonizing them.


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