Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Back to School

While the seminary in which I work does not start its Fall Quarter until the end of September, many schools are starting already. For those of you starting classes, let me take a quick moment to say something about finances. I know money's tight. Especially for students. And I likewise understand not wanting to take out a lot of loan money to finance your education. However, I see way too many students that rack up tons of credit card debt just for normal expenses like eating and rent. (I know, I did this very thing. My wife used to work in Financial Aid, and I learned the error of my ways.) PLEASE take out enough money in Stafford and similar education loans to handle these basic expenses! Stafford loans are at a pretty low interest rate (currently 4.70%), compared to credit card rates, which are seldom lower than 10%, and are generally more like 15%. If you take out $5000 (for example) this year in a Stafford loan, you will have SAVED yourself about $500 over one year alone compared to the cost of credit card interest rates! And over time, that adds up even further. Obviously, you can't use Stafford loan money to pay for non-education expenses, like a new Transformer for your collection. But with some wisdom, you can still buy the Transformer using money from your job (assuming you have one), and use the loan money to pay your rent (a totally legitimate expense, especially if you're living in a particular area specifically to go to school there).

Anyway, unsolicited advice over. I'm sure I'll have something more pertinent to talk about later, like maybe some appropriate reflection on the hurricane damage that's happening in the Southeast. For now, I'm pretty tongue-tied on that one. Needless to say, prayers are a good thing....

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


I just got back from a memorial service. A long-time staff member recently passed away after a long struggle with cancer, leaving a husband and an eight-year-old daughter. The impact she has left upon the seminary was very evident not only in the moving testimonials and reflections shared by friends and co-workers, but by the sheer number of people that came to fill the auditorium in which the memorial was held.

While I was not especially close to my departed colleague, I did get to know her over several encounters over the past 8 years in which I've been connected to the seminary. She was hard person to get to know. Extremely caring once you've gotten to know her, she could come off as very hard-edged on a first meeting. This was because she was extremely passionate about seeking God's will for the world in which she found herself. But she found something to like about absolutely everyone. Even the most unlovable in our world. And the things she fought for, she fought for because she felt God calling her to make the world a better place for everyone. Not just for those already in the "club" of Christianity. People would know the nature of God through her because the would feel God's love through her. Not God's condemnation. She was, in many ways, a better person than I am, and she will be missed.

Occasions like this always cause me to reflect on other people I've known who have passed away. A close friend of mine died of an aneurysm during my second year of college, a year I often describe as "the year from Hell." I'm sure I'll share more about that time later. For now, it's simply worth mentioning that, while looking around the auditorium at today's memorial service, I remembered looking around the college chapel at all the friends and family that had come for my friend's memorial more than a decade ago. One learns how to deal with such losses, but one never forgets.

Another thing that I was given cause to remember today was a worship service I helped plan for a friend who's mother passed away several years ago. She noted that, in our society, we tend to offer comfort and sympathy to those who grieve in the days and weeks immediately following the loss, but that we often forget that the grieving process continues for a long time after that. Anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, and similar occasions often serve as cause to open up old pains during the grieving process, and all too often, the person grieving has to go through these times alone. The worship service we put together at the time was designed to give our community a chance to reflect and grieve for those who had passed away at any indeterminite time in the past. To come together and offer comfort to those who are still grieving, as we all continue to do for those we've lost, no matter how long ago the loss occurred. I wish more churches and Christian communities would plan such services.

By an odd coincidence, today's memorial service fell upon the day of a much happier occasion: my 2nd wedding anniversary. While watching the reflections at the memorial service, which often displayed the love my colleague had for her husband and her daughter, I was given yet another occasion to mark my anniversary today with thankfulness for the relationship I have with my wife, and gratitude for the time we continue to get to spend together.

Apparently a favorite saying of my colleague was "all life is gravy." What a wonderful reflection to have, not only for a memorial service, but for a wedding anniversary. I am blessed to have every day of my life, and I am especially grateful to have a wonderful partner to share it with. It is good to mark these "passings" in our lives, if only to remind us of how richly God has blessed us.

Monday, August 29, 2005

My story: Starting seminary

While I was still a student at Montreat College, I spent my last year involved in a fairly serious relationship. Although the relationship had some ups and downs, and we were concerned about how we'd handle the long distance relationship when I was no longer a student at the college, I turned down an acceptance to Princeton Seminary so that I might attend a seminary closer to the college (still a few hours away in South Carolina) and be able to see my girlfriend from time to time.

Within a few months, the relationship was over, and I was probably the most depressed I've ever been in my life. On top of that, other aspects of my stay there turned downhill pretty quickly. The seminary was in the middle of nowhere, and I had to drive about 45 minutes just to make it to the town where I was able to find a fairly low-paying job at K-B toys. My roommate, also a Montreat graduate, decided that he needed to go to a different seminary after only one semester, leaving me to pay the rent on our little house by myself. Truth be told, the seminary was far too conservative for my tastes even at the time (certainly more so than Montreat ever was!). Long story short, by Christmastime, only about 4 months after having moved to South Carolina, I moved back to my parents' home in Kentucky to reconsider my call.

While there, I attended classes at a seminary affiliated with the PC(USA). This helped me to maintain my education while I was still in a state of flux. I never intended to stay at that seminary. If Montreat and my first seminary could be considered too conservative for my tastes, the seminary in Kentucky was too liberal. In fact, I've often described it as a kind of "closed-minded liberalism," fully aware that this may seem to be a contradiction in terms. Basically, if one didn't agree with the professors there, it was difficult to find a place to explore one's own views without being treated badly. I particularly remember one lunchtime conversation with a professor (not one I actually was taking a class from) who staged a walk-out in protest of an issue she felt the PC(USA) was on the wrong side of. She used quite a lot of language that I feel was very inappropriate. It isn't that I think swearing is "un-Christian," per se, but I did feel that it was inappropriate language for a professor at a seminary.

Anyway, although I was granted a full tuition scholarship at this seminary simply for having taken Greek while I was in college, I immediately reapplied to Princeton. Unlike my first application, I found it much harder to get a response this time around. I did make several phone calls, and after several months got word that there was not enough housing for new students that year. I've always considered this fairly odd, since my acceptance to the school should not have anything to do with whether or not I find on-campus housing. During the summer, I came with my family on vacation to visit my grandparents in Southern California. They introduced me to some friends of theirs who had mentored the president of Princeton Seminary in his youth, and they encouraged me to write him a letter doing some name-dropping. I did so, and soon got a very nice letter from the president assuring me that he would check with the admissions department. However, I heard nothing new on the matter that summer. My grandparents also encouraged me to consider a seminary only a few hours from where they lived, but as it was not directly affiliated with the PC(USA), I did not take these recommendations very seriously.

As August came around, I began to accept that I may need to attend another semester at the seminary I was currently at in Kentucky. I eventually stumbled upon the results of a survey while surfing the Internet. From this survey, I discovered that more PC(USA) ministers had graduated from the seminary my grandparents had suggested than from any other non-PC(USA) seminary in the US. In fact, I later discovered that this seminary graduates more PC(USA) ministers than a lot of PC(USA) seminaries! I asked my grandmother to pick up some information on the school for me, expecting to enroll that January. She e-mailed me the next day to let me know that she had spoken to her minister, a PC(USA) graduate from the same institution, who called up the seminary while she was talking with him. The seminary was already sending me late application materials for the Fall Quarter!

Three weeks later, I drove from Kentucky to Southern California. I arrived three days before classes started without having arranged housing (I commuted from my grandparents at first), financial aid, or even having met with my advisor or having been properly accepted for enrollment! Although I missed the first meeting of my first class (in order to meet with my advisor), I was able to secure an apartment that week, and financial aid came later that quarter, retroactive to my enrollment. I was finally able to complete my MDiv three years ago, and I still work at this seminary as staff. About four years ago, I met the woman who is now my wife (we celebrate our 2nd anniversary tomorrow!), who is working on her MDiv in hopes of beginning her PhD next year. My time here has truly been life changing.

But that's a story for another time....

Friday, August 26, 2005

Tales from Tom: Middle Names

When I mentioned the Montreat Youth Conferences the other day, I mentioned a series of sermons, delivered at the conference in 1989 by Rev. Tom Are, Jr., that were particularly influential. One of the features of these sermons that made them so powerful was the preacher's use of stories to illustrate his points. There is a longstanding debate about how much one should use such illustrations in a sermon, and how much one should just "teach from the text." It is commonly argued that if the illustration is too good, the story will be remembered, but the actual point of the sermon might be missed!

I'm sympathetic to these concerns. However, at least in my case, it was the often humorous stories that got my attention. But, as I've listened to these sermons many, many times over the past 15+ years, I can safely say that the main points of the sermons have not been lost on me. In many ways, they have helped shaped my own theology. While I may not believe exactly the same way as Rev. Are in all respects, I make a point of it only because I believe that no two people agree with each other in all respects.

So, in the interest of "story-sharing," I will dedicate Fridays for the next month or so to sharing some of the stories from Rev. Are's sermons. When I share a story from a particular sermon, I will post the full text of that sermon, which Rev. Are has granted me permission to transcribe for this blog, on a linked page, which you may find to the right. The page is available right now, and I'll have the first sermon up by the end of the day. If a story "gets your attention," you can check out the full context by reading the sermon, which will also have other stories within it!

Without further ado, I now share what Rev. Are has to say about middle names, given during a sermon on baptism:

Parents do mean stuff to you with your middle name. I think they’re trying to get back at you for all that pain you just caused your mom, you know? My wife, she’s a nurse, I know how this stuff works. They go in there, you know? You pop out, {pop!}, there you are. The nurse kinda wipes you off so that you don’t look quite so much like a squirrel. And then they walk over, and they show you to Mom. Mom’s still sweatin’, she’s still breathin’, she’s still cryin’, she’s still screamin’, and they say “Darlin’, what would you like to name it?”

And she says “Name it ‘Helmut’!”

And she says “Darling, this one’s a girl!”

“I don’t care! ‘Helmut’!”

It’s the medical staff, they take care, they give you a real name like “Susie,” or “Linda,” or “Frank,” or something. If it was left up to parent’s we’d all have names like that! And then when you grow up, they try to get out of it. They tell you that it’s an old family name, right? They tell you, “you know your great-uncle Helmut on your father’s side.” That guy never lived! He wasn’t there! And you ask anybody “Oh, he was really a nice boy, Uncle Helmut, yeah.” He didn’t live! They try to cover their tracks!

I remember the first time, or the first time that I remember my full name in public. It was first grade. You know how first grade teachers are, they’re kinda goofy anyway. I walked into my first grade class. I was nervous! I walked into my first grade class, and my teacher, she leans over, with big glasses, you know? Well, she leans over, got the pencil stuck in the back of her head. And she said “And what is your name, Son?”

I said “My name is Tommy Are,” because I was Tommy back then, you know, “Tommy Are.”

She said, “Well, that’s just fine.” I was real relieved to hear that, it was the only name I had!

I found my friends Bobby Armstrong and Danny Martin sitting over there, so I went and I sat with them. And as soon as I got comfortable, she said “Now when I call out your name, I want you to come have a seat.” She’s getting ready to do that seating chart thing, you know?

And she said “Robert Herbert Armstrong.”

We didn’t have any “Robert Herbert Armstrong” in our class! We were saying, “Who’s the new kid?”

All of a sudden, Bobby Armstrong stood up. Danny Martin said “Herbert! What kind of a name is ‘Herbert,’ man?” I was dying laughing. I was loving it!

And then exploding from the front of the room: “Thomas…… Lorraine…. (at this point the auditorium bursts into laughter, which lasts for over 10 full seconds) Are.”

I’m saying “she didn’t do, what I just think she did.”

Danny Martin said “Lorraine! That’s a girl’s name, man!”

Frank Campbell says “My grandmama’s named Lorraine, man!”

For six weeks, they’re calling me “Lori” for short. Except Frank Campbell, he just called me “Grandmama!”

Thursday, August 25, 2005

What Would Bonhoeffer Do?

In Tuesday's post, or more properly, its follow-ups done on Wednesday, I mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, since Pat Robertson had used Bonhoeffer's decision to join a group intending to assassinate Adolf Hitler as some form of justification for comments (that Robertson was "apologizing" for making in the very same press release) that the U.S. should "take out" Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In the spirit of "checking my facts," rather than simply typing out some stuff I remembered from an old Ethics class several years ago, I decided I should look up some more information on Bonhoeffer, who's reasoning I've already suggested is too complex to be reduced to just a simple example of a person who justified assassination.

According to the Wikipedia article on Bonhoeffer, he started out as a pacifist. But confronted with the anti-semitic purges of Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer became more and more convinced that something needed to be done. The Internet Encyclopedia on Philosophy article is more helpful. In it, we learn that Bonhoeffer sees "two guides for determining the will of God in any concrete situation: 1) the need of one's neighbor, and 2) the model of Jesus of Nazareth. There are no other guides, since Bonhoeffer denies that we can have knowledge of good and evil (Ethics, p.231)." While I might disagree with Bonhoeffer on this matter, this shows already a strong reason why it might be considered necessary to do an action that, while not "good," may be necessary to prevent even greater evil.

At this point, it is probably best just to quote a couple of revelant aspects of the IEP article:
[E]thical decisions make up a much smaller part of the social world for Bonhoeffer than they do for (say) Kant or Mill. Principally he is interested only in those decisions that deal directly with the presence of vicious behavior, and often involve questions of life and death.

....[L]ike Aristotle, Bonhoeffer sees judgments of character and not action as fundamental to moral evaluation. Evil actions should be avoided, of course, but what needs to be avoided at all costs is the disposition to do evil as part of our character. "What is worse than doing evil," Bonhoeffer notes, "is being evil" (Ethics, p.67). To lie is wrong, but what is worse than the lie is the liar, for the liar contaminates everything he says, because everything he says is meant to further a cause that is false.

...[F]or him there is no such thing as escaping your responsibility to act. When faced with evil, there is no middle path. You either oppose the persecution of the innocent or you share in it. No one can preserve his or her private virtue by turning away from the world (Ethics, p.69).
Consistent with what I suggested in my update, this allows Bonhoeffer to approve of an action, such as assassination, that might still be a "wrong" action, because it is far worse to allow evil actions to continue if it is possible to oppose them.

I honestly don't know how Bonhoeffer would respond to Robertson's comments. Neither do I pretend to know how Bonhoeffer would respond to the current Iraq war. As I said, I do not fully agree with all of Bonhoeffer's reasoning, although there is much to commend it. But Robertson would not agree with much of Bonhoeffer's reasoning either. Take this quote from the IEP article, for example:
... general principles have a tendency to reduce all behavior to ethical behavior. To act only for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or to act only so that the maxim of an action can become a principle of legislation, become as relevant to haircuts as they do to manslaughter.... Ethics cannot be reduced to a search for general principles without reducing all of the problems of life to a bleak, pedantic, and monotonous uniformity. The "abundant fullness of life," is denied and with it "the very essence of the ethical itself" (Ethics , p.263).

Reliance on theory, in other words, is destructive to ethics, because it interferes with our ability to deal effectively with evil.
What would Robertson, who believes rather strongly in certain absolute general principles, have to say about that? Clearly, Robertson is attempting to use the name of a well-respected Christian figure (one of the few well-known "martyrs" of modern times) to support his position. I believe that this is unfair, and just a bit hypocritical. I could just as easily use Bonheoffer's arguments to go the other way, because of the added pain and suffering caused to a country by such actions against its leader. We don't know how Bonhoeffer would have responded to the situations in which we find ourselves. And it is wrong it suggest otherwise.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

My story: Montreat College

As I get closer to the present day, a word is in order about my blog's policy on anonymity. Most of you who read are my friends: people I know in "the outside world" who I've already given the link to this site, and you know who I am already. I'm actually not interested in maintaining site anonymity because I feel I'm sharing secrets about my life or my views that I'd be embarrassed if people knew about. However, I'm also not interested in having spammers and random searchers gain personal contact information or other details just by doing a web search. Blogs, being mostly text, are very easy to search with Google or a similar search engine.

For that reason, I have chosen to avoid using most people's personal names, except when I consider them to be public enough figures that being named in my blog would cause them no additional harm. I've chosen to withhold some city names, though admittedly not others, such as Montreat. I confess the distinction here is somewhat arbitrary. I also do not use the name of the seminary in which I work, even though, again, most of you who read this on a regular basis already know where I go, and anyone who really wanted to figure it out could do so fairly easily just by reasoning the information through. But at least they just can't do a web search for it, and find it via my site, which is really the point.

But onward to more bloggy matters....

I started college in Montreat, NC in the Fall of 1992. While I could give a play-by-play of events there, it seems better at the moment to go "big picture." I chose the school not only because of my love for the city, having been there several times over the previous years for the youth conferences, but also because it is associated with my home denomination, the PC(USA). This allowed me access to some scholarship money, in addition to some institutional aid that made attending a private, Christian school more affordable. And going to a Christian school was rather important for me, as I had already discerned a call to church ministry by this time.

Although Montreat College is nominally affiliated with the PC(USA), as is the Montreat Conference Center, I soon found that the college is considerably more conservative than the conference center, and I learned about several "Christian controversies" that I had not been fully aware of previously. Chief among these was the debate between creationism and evolution. Oddly enough, while I recall thinking to myself "how do Adam and Eve fit into the timeline of 'Neanderthal' and 'Homo Erectus?'" I never really considered the possibility that someone might think, in this day and age, that these concepts were irreconcilable. These debates were (so I supposed) cleared up in the 1930's! Clearly that was not the case. However, I had made a commitment, to myself and to God, that I should take these concerns seriously. If the Bible really was impossible to reconcile with the theory of evolution, then the Bible (and more correctly, faith in God) would have to take precedence.

Similarly, I was confronted in a new way with the opinion that women could not hold church office, because of the teachings of Paul in I Timothy 2:12 (among other passages). While I'd been aware of such feelings elsewhere, I had grown up in a church with a female associate pastor. The idea that women could not hold office, just because they were women, was something I had held as closed-minded. But again, I needed to take these texts seriously, and keeping an open mind meant that I myself would have be open to considering ideas that I might not like very much. It wouldn't do to accuse others of closed-mindedness only to find that I was guilty of it, myself.

I enrolled in a "Bible and Religion" major, and an English minor (which mostly consisted of drama courses, being heavily involved in drama for three of my four years at the college). This enabled me to devote a fair bit of time and study to these new matters that my companions were bringing to my attention. I'm sure I was quite a bit more conservative during most of my years at Montreat than I am today, given my desire to take matters seriously that might not have been personally appealing, if it held true that God really did want Christians to be so conservative. However, my studies eventually enabled me to come to a position that I feel takes the Bible seriously, while still believing that women are called to all the ministries of the church, and that the theories of evolution are not in necessary conflict with the intentions of Genesis (not to mention clearing up other controversies that came my way in those years, although I confess that quite a few matters remain a mystery to me).

Having graduated from Montreat with honors, I was ready to begin seminary. This journey got off to an uncertain start, largely due to some events that happened while still in college.

But that's a story for another time....

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Christian Policy of Assassination?

It probably comes as little surprise to most readers that I tend not to support the statements of Pat Robertson. But recent remarks on his "700 Club" broadcast really take the cake. He has all but called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Now, I don't know enough about Venezuelan politics to comment very far, but it sounds like Chavez is not the best of leaders. But the fact that one of the most prominent Christian leaders in the country would suggest killing a foreign leader is absolutely appalling.

Take a look at these quotes:
"We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability."

"We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator," he continued. "It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with."
From a purely secular logic, some of this might make sense. But aren't we as Christians to be held to a higher standard? It is the privilege of God to kill an ungodly ruler. It is not a privilege humans may enjoy (unless commanded by God to do so, and unless Robertson's had some communication from the Almighty that he's not telling us about, he's had no such instruction. Even this is in extremely rare cases!). To do so would be vigilantism. Or, to be more blunt, it would be murder.

Already the Bush administration is trying to distance themselves from Robertson's remarks. They've been accused by Chavez a number of times already of working to have him assassinated, which they naturally deny. (Even if they were, one expects they're not stupid enough to announce it beforehand. One could even argue that Robertson is spoiling the administrations plans! But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.) US relations with Venuzuela (indeed, with most foreign countries) are on shaky ground as it is. We certainly don't need such remarks making matters worse!

And perhaps even more importantly, such remarks from a prominent Christian leader do great damage to the reputation of Christianity. Venezuelan vice-president Jose Vicente Rangel perhaps made this point the best in his sarcastic remarks about Robertson's statement: "very Christian." If we are to be an evangelical witness to the world, we absolutely must be different than all the secular leaders of the world.

Or perhaps the Christian leaders actually are being different, and that's the scariest thing of all. How did it happen to become the case that the leaders known for their "Christian faith" seem to be the ones lobbying for assassinations, preemptive wars, and other generally oppressive behaviors, while the "secular" leaders are the ones calling for peace through negotiation and diplomacy?

UPDATE: August 24, 2005 - It appears that Robertson is trying to backpedal. I'll just quote the appropriate part of this article:

"I didn't say 'assassination,'" Robertson said Wednesday on his Christian Broadcast Network show "The 700 Club" about remarks reported by The Associated Press and other media outlets.

"I said our special forces should 'take him out."Take him out' could be a number of things including kidnapping.

"There are a number of ways of taking out a dictator from power besides killing him. I was misinterpreted by the AP, but that happens all the time."

But a video of Monday's telecast shows that Robertson's exact words were: "You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and I don't think any oil shipments will stop."

Sounds pretty much like "assassination" to me. And even if we grant the possibility that he's not talking strictly about killing, he's still going way over the line.

FURTHER UPDATE: A couple of hours later - Robertson has apologized. (And click here for the full version of the press release) If I had any belief that he actually had a clue what he'd done wrong, I'd be more impressed. Robertson rightly cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer's reasoning to join a group that would have assassinated Adolf Hitler. But Robertson neglects to mention that Bonhoeffer still considered assassination wrong, even if it was better than any alternatives. Why can't we have this level of complex reasoning today?

Monday, August 22, 2005

My story: The Kentucky Years

My family moved to Kentucky for the first time in 1978, about a year before I started Kindergarten. While they've considered it home since that time, we moved around so much during the next few years that we really didn't settle in there permanently until the fall of 1984. It is, even still, the single place I've considered home for the longest time (although my current locale of Southern California is becoming a close second!).

Having finally settled into a permanent location in '84, my family was finally able to find a church home (we did start going to church more regularly the previous year, but that was another 9-month deal), and my parents chose a particular church for two reasons. 1) It was Presbyterian, which has been my father's home denomination for most of his life. [Although it should be noted for accuracy that the current PC(USA) came into existence in 1983 with the merger of the two largest Presbyterian denominations extant at that time.] 2) Two long-time friends from our early time in Kentucky also called this particular church home.

Although we had finally found a permanent home, we were the only members of our extended family to live there. The closest relatives, geographically, were my great-grandpa and his daughter (my great-aunt) who lived in Chicago, which is a good 5+ hour drive north. So finding a church family took on increased importance. Although my siblings and I always felt somewhat like "outsiders" in our youth group among people who had grown up around each other their whole lives, we've made a number of friendships that continue to this day.

Especially important among these friendships was the bond created between our pastor (who arrived at our church only a year after we did) and our family. The pastor's son was about three years old when they arrived, and despite the age difference with my younger brother (who would have been about 10 already), they hit it off immediately. My pastor and my dad shared an interest in model trains, and so our families had occasion to spend a lot of time with each other. The relationship took on a lot more character of "friend," than of "pastor-parishioner." Although he and his family have since moved on to serve another church, we still keep in touch.

A few things happened to me, personally, during this time that have taken on increasing significance in the passing years. As I got ready to enter high school, my youth group took the first of what would be several week-long trips to Montreat, North Carolina, to participate in the annual youth conference. Another was my involvement in the Louisville Presbyterian Youth Council.

Montreat is a small town of about 700 people, mostly known for being the home of evangelist Billy Graham. It is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and is an absolutely beautiful part of the country. The youth conference is the major event each year for the Montreat Conference Center, which is one of the major PC(USA) conference centers in the country. The youth conference attracts about 1000 high school youth (plus their adult sponsors) for each event. The conferences have grown from one, one-week event in the 70s, to three separate events during my first year there (1988), to what I understand are six separate events in Montreat, and a couple of "satellite" conferences in other parts of the country. Without question, it the largest event the Conference Center plans each year. Although the entire group meets in the morning for a keynote message, again at night for worship, and other times throughout the week for games, concerts, and other events, the most important part of the conference is the small group sessions. These sessions bring about 20 strangers together at the beginning of the week who (more often than not) will have formed close bonds by the end, sharing mailing addresses (in the age before e-mail) to keep in touch after they have returned to their homes throughout the country.

The youth conference was a major awakening for me. Much of my spiritual background was formed through the messages taught there. In particular, the sermons of my second year (1989) were absolutely amazing, and my church purchased copies of those sermons, which I've listened to many, many times over the years that have followed. In the near future, I will begin posting excerpts from these sermons, which I have obtained permission from the pastor to transcribe and post, to give you a feel for what happened during this time.

My involvement in the Louisville Presbyterian Youth Council gave me some experience working on camps and retreats, which led to my appointment to the planning team for the 1992 Montreat Youth Conference. I was able to meet with a group of youth, elders, and pastors (some of whom I'd known of from previous conferences) over a period of about a year and a half to do the planning and execution of some of the very conferences that had already been such an important part of my Christian story. It was a wonderful time that I still count as one of the highlights of my life.

By the time I graduated from high school, these and other experiences had already worked to define my call to church ministry. Aided in preparation from our pastor friend, who has since become a mentor, I enrolled for college classes at the place that had already been so important to me: Montreat.

But that's a story for another time....

Friday, August 19, 2005


If there's one thing that Transformers fans can agree on, it's that we like to argue a lot. Is Rumble red and Frenzy blue (as the toys had it), or is it the other way around (closer to the cartoon's interpretation)? Could (giant-planet eating Transformer) Unicron destroy the Death Star? Was the former "Official Transformers Collector's Convention" owner a crooked businessman, or was he just in over his head?

Now that the convention (and the official fan club) has passed on to a "more legitimate" business, fans have been disecting the offerings of the convention to see if they come up to snuff. There has been a lot of debate about whether or not exclusives are even a good idea. Some fans think it's little more than an excuse for some fans to say "Look! I'm better than you! I have the exclusive!" But most debate has centered on how these exclusives measure up to exclusives of the past. Today, the folks behind the convention just announced the full set of 7 boxed exclusives available for pre-order. While I haven't seen the comments now that the last two of these have been officially revealed. I've seen enough of the previous comments (and predictions on these two which have turned out to be correct) to guess the verdict: they don't measure up well at all.

Now, to be fair, I've had my own criticisms on this set. And I still stand by many of them. $265 is far too much for me to be spending on Transformers toys. Especially now that we know that 5 of the 7 are "basics" (generally accepted as the smallest size, although this isn't technically true), and 1 is a repaint of another one within this set, and that another is misnamed for the character it's intended to represent. But, also to be fair, the $265 price tag isn't really intended to be the price of these toys. It's intended to be the price of the convention and the toys. The toys are intended to make up (roughly) about $120 of that cost. The fact that the toys are offered for pre-order to people who can't or won't attend the convention is actually something of a bonus.

But the sheer amount of vitriol expended on these things is really ridiculous. Okay, so they're all repaints of toys that have been available before. That's nothing new, and in fact it's likely to always be that way. So they're repaints of less than impressive molds, some of which are actually still warming shelves in stores right now. I grant that. So being forced to pay for all 7 of the toys, rather than picking one or two we like, is a burden we've not had to deal with before. I agree. So the recolors, especially for Ironhide, seem less than inspired. Yes, perhaps they could have done more. Some fans have even gone so far as to complain that Ironhide was too obvious and "fanwanky" a choice. Well, duh! The mold has always looked like a good fit for this classic character, and if you can't do "fanwanky" at the offical fan convention, then where can you do it?

The fact is that, because of the former convention runner's bankruptcy and loss of the convention (and club) license, this new group had to be brought on board fairly late in the game, and it's understandable that they would use the business model (including selling all 7 of the exclusives as a set, rather than allowing fans to buy just the ones they want) that has worked for them for nearly a decade (for the GI Joe convention), since the only other model that's been tried before for this kind of a convention clearly didn't work. I'm certainly not happy with all of the choices, and I've felt free to say so. But I hope that I've kept my criticisms of the convention constructive. And they'll certainly have the opportunity to make changes next year.

But face it, Transfans. The exclusives for this year are set. They're not going to change. If you don't want to buy them, don't. If you're still going to the convention, but don't want the toys, it's only $9 per day to get in at the door, and you can still buy whatever loose toys the vendors wish to sell. If you're not going to the convention, but have paid for the non-attendee package, ask for your money back! Surely the $25 (so I hear) non-refundable part pales in comparison to the extra $240 you could be spending on toys you actually like. For those who haven't already paid yet, but you only like one or two, you can almost certainly get that one or two off of eBay for less than the cost of the whole package, even at eBay's generally inflated prices. Even better for those who did pay for the whole set, but like only one or two: you can sell the ones you don't like, and possibly end up making more money than you spent!

But could we have an end to the cursing, name-calling, and general hate that's going on out there? Constructive criticism is one thing, but what I've been seeing lately is something rather different altogether.

P.S. I actually think the box is quite nice-looking....

Thursday, August 18, 2005

My story: Walnut Creek

I've already talked about how I moved around a lot while I was in elementary school, and how that experience made it difficult to make lasting friendships. That does not mean, however, that I had no friends. A month or two before Christmas of my second grade year, I moved with my family to Walnut Creek, CA, where I made a friendship that was to have a profound impact upon my life.

She was the daughter of the pastor of a church that was down the street from where I lived at the time, and was in my class at school. I don't actually remember how we actually started spending time together (this was over 20 years ago!), but I expect I discovered her playing outside her father's church one day as I walked home from school. (It's probably worth noting here that this was the only place in my entire career of school-hopping that I had to walk to school. Everywhere else, I used the bus.)

Anyway, I would often walk down to the church to see if she was there, and we would play together. Occasionally, during these times, she'd talk about God. I particularly remember being taught the Ten Commandments, and being somewhat shocked to learn that saying "Oh, my God!" was not a good thing. We'd talk about God in other ways, too. As I noted earlier, partly because of our constant moving around, my family did not regularly attend church at this time. I had never learned anything like this. I wouldn't accuse my friend of having used the tactics of "evangelism" we often talk about needing to use as adults. I don't remember any language like "accept Christ as your personal savior" or the usual stuff. She just talked about things that were important to her, and because of our friendship, I listened.

Sadly, just after third grade had started the following year, my family had to move away again. A few years later, my family did get involved in church, and the conversations of that summer began to take on new meaning for me. I certainly don't claim to have become a Christian that summer, but because of that friendship, seeds were planted. As a result, I've always remembered that time fondly. About three years ago, when my girlfriend (now my wife) and I went with some friends to San Francisco, I took a day to catch the BART train to Walnut Creek and relocate my old neighborhood. The apartment I lived in is still there, as is the elementary school, and I walked the distance to and from it just like I used to when I was a child. The church building is still there, too, although it is no longer connected to the same congregation. I took several pictures to share with my friends.

God works in mysterious ways. I was shocked a couple of years ago to find a new student at the seminary where I work, with the same name as my second grade friend, which I expect to be a not-uncommon name. However, I couldn't shake my curiosity, and so after an Arts event in which she had participated, I asked her if she had lived in Walnut Creek, and if father was a pastor. Over 20 years later, we had met again! I've asked her permission to share this story, which she kindly granted. It seems odd to think that we known each other now, in our adult lives, longer than we did as children, given that I've lived with the memories of second grade for so long.

It has long been a conviction of mine that, if we truly seek to "win people over" (to use the "evangelical" phrase) for Christ, we will have far more success just by being the kind of people that others would want to spend time with, and that others would want to be like. Having "right doctrine" and so on may have its place, but pales in importance to just spending time with people. There are certainly lots of people throughout my life who have been an influence, simply by being good friends.

But that's a story for another time....

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Taizé founder murdered

While working through a friend's blog, I learned of the fatal stabbing of the founder of the ecumenical Taizé movement. As shocking as this is, I'm especially dismayed to have not been able to find a mention of this in my usual news sources. I was, however, able to independently verify the information on the Taizé web site.

A sad tragedy. Brother Roger will be missed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

My story: Part I

As I've mentioned way back in May, the church I attend is in the process of going through a "tour" of the whole Bible in a year, calling this process "God's story: Our story." We've been particularly focusing on the aspect of story to convey how God is revealed to us, and how the writers of the Bible chose to use the form of story for so much of its revelation. Yesterday, I promised to start the process of intentionally sharing aspects of my story (acknowledging that I've done some of this process already, though less intentionally). I do not expect to add to this every day, and will no doubt interrupt this series as other events take precedence. But for now, it seems best to start at the beginning...

I was born in Oakland, CA, while my dad, just recently married to my mom, was working in San Fransisco for a major engineering company that his dad had worked for before him. This job was reasonably stable, if by stable one means that it paid well enough to get by, but it required him to move from place to place every year or so. By the time I started Kindergarten, we had moved from the Bay Area to Louisville, KY, which we expected to be a permanent move. Yet he was transferred to Ann Arbor, MI within about a year, and then back to Louisville before Kindergarten ended. Two years later, we were sent to the Bay Area again, only to return nine months later. I spent the latter half of third grade in Saginaw, MI, and all of fourth grade in Homestead, FL, before my dad finally decided that "enough was enough," and he quit that company. We resettled in Louisville, where we had already bought a house all those years previously. By the time I got out of elementary school, I had been enrolled in six different elementary schools. I remember the sheer amazment I felt at being able to stay in the same school for all three years of middle school!

While all this moving around meant that I got to see a lot of different places that I would likely never have seen otherwise, it also meant that I had real difficulty in making friends and attachments, since I would usually have to leave them behind less than a year later. By the time we became more "stable" in Louisville, I was already very much an outcast, and had trouble finding a way to fit in. Although I hated it at the time, I eventually learned better how to be comfortable doing things the way I wanted to do them, not being so concerned about what other people thought, while at the same time learning to open up and trust people to get to know me. This all took a lot of time, of course, involving stories that are best shared in other contexts.

Another effect of so much moving around is that my parents found it difficult to get connected to any particular church. My parents finally decided to make a committment to a church during the time we were in Florida, which was important, but not as important as finally settling in to a church home in Kentucky when we finally returned. The experiences I had there were truly pivotal.

But that's a story for another time....

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sharing our stories

As a seminary-trained Christian with hopes of following a church vocation, I have been instructed in many matters of theology, doctrine and "right behavior." But more and more, I find that what is far more important to people, both Christian and non-Christian, is the sharing of each other's stories. As we learn more about each other's experiences, and the ways in which we have interpreted them for our own lives, we find meaning.

A wonderful secular illustration of this phenomenon is found in the movie Big Fish. As a man nears the end of his life due to a long bout with cancer, his son desperately tries to find out the truth about the father that he feels he's never really known. The reason for this distance is that the father has a penchant for telling about his life using stories that can best be understood as "tall tales." For example, he encounters Chinese showgirl "twins" that have two independently operating upper bodies, but one lower body. He befriends a man-eating giant that lives outside of town in a cave. He single-handedly defeats an entire squad of soldiers in his attempts to escape from enemy lines in wartime.

The son, particularly hurt by a repeatedly-told tale in which the father misses the son's birth while attempting to catch a particularly elusive fish, dismisses these stories as lies, and is convinced that he has never known a single fact about his father throughout his whole life. The father, when pressed to tell his son the truth, is hurt that his son has not understood him. He maintains that he has told his son the truth, but that he told "the truth" with enough "flavor" to make the stories interesting. "Just the facts," without the "flavor," is not the way in which the father wishes to be remembered.

Through the course of the movie, as the son sifts through family documents and keepsakes, and talks with other people who knew the father, the son learns that there were, indeed, true events behind the stories that his father told. We learn, for example, that his father did indeed know a pair of Chinese twins (although not actually conjoined), and that one of his friends was indeed a taller than average man (presumably not a cannibal) [incidentally, the actor who played this "giant" sadly passed away about a week ago]. In the climactic scene in the movie, near the father's death, the son makes his peace with his father by telling his father the father's one unfinished story: the story of how the father dies. This story, like all the others, is presented with "flavor," rather than being a strict retelling of the facts.

It is said by some that the Bible is told in much this way. I do not mean here to get into the debate of how much of the Bible is "flavor" rather than fact (and certainly not which parts of the Bible use such "flavor"). However, the Bible is presented to us as (mostly) a collection of stories. And it does seem that at least some of the truth of the biblical tales has been presented to us in the form of tales that an outside observer might have retold with different "flavor." This does not diminish the truth of these stories, but does add an extra layer of interpretation that we must be aware of when we interpret the meaning of the biblical tales for our own lives.

This way of looking at the Bible also has the added implication that the people of today also have stories to tell that have meaning for how we understand how God works in the world today. I do not mean to suggest that Christians telling their stories to each other can supplant the importance of Scripture in our lives. But we neglect sharing each other's stories to our detriment.

To some extent, sharing one's stories is what a blog is about, anyway. But from time to time, I intend to share a few pieces of my story as it is appropriate. It is my hope that others may feel free to do so, as well.

Friday, August 12, 2005

What's our purpose?

I had an encounter this morning of the kind that I expect happens to most people at our seminary at some time or another (occasions like this have certainly happened to me before). While walking from my car to my office, I heard a voice calling out that seemed to be directed at me. I turned to see a homeless person some 20 feet away from me talking (apparently to me, although I was never entirely sure until the very end) about how we "can't be training pastors and preachers because [we] don't go out into the world...." The meaning of her words seemed obvious. She wanted something, and we had not given it to her. I did not rectify this situation. In fact, I told her that I didn't think she knew what she was talking about, and returned on my way to my office to the sounds of her reply "I do too know what I'm talking about, because...." The remainder her reply was lost as I walked into the distance.

These encounters always fill me with a bit of guilt, as I do know on some level that she's right. What kind of Christians are we if we do not care for the poor? On the other hand, I firmly believe that the people I work with do care for the poor and work in many varied ways to make a difference.

But I also take offense at the implicit notion that we, because of our status as a seminary, should give handouts to every homeless person who needs it who comes to our campus. The fact is, the city in which I live has a serious homelessness problem, and we have not done anything like enough to resolve the situation. But we simply cannot meet the needs of everyone who comes here looking for help. We do not have the resources.

In fact, I question the assumption that we, as "pastors and preachers" have a special call to help the poor. It is the call of all Christians to help the poor. If Christians, in general, were doing more to stamp out poverty in our local communities, "pastors and preachers" would be getting a lot fewer angry responses from people who've been denied help.

I realize that not everyone will be comfortable helping individual homeless people directly (although I wish more would try). There are plenty of other ways Christians could be fighting for justice. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Donate to a homeless shelter. Work to help poor people be able to keep their homes, so that fewer people have to become homeless in the first place. Write your congressperson to advocate for living wages and laws that help people who do, in most cases, work very hard to make ends meet (contrary to what some conservatives suggest). A particular organization that's good at advocating for the poor in many various ways is Bread for the World. Check out their web site and find the way to help that works best for you.

One important word: people who try to avoid the problem often quote Jesus in saying "the poor you will always have with you." Very few of them quote the part that comes after it, "and you can help them any time you want." (Mark 14:7. Admittedly, the Matthew 26:11 parallel does not have this portion, but the line that follows in both, "but you will not always have me," makes the context clear) Christians are called to help the poor, not to just "shrug it off" as a problem that's insoluble.

Perhaps I should have done more to help the person who confronted me this morning, despite my feeling that I didn't have the means to do so at the time (I never carry cash with me, and in any event don't think that's the best way to help such people anyway). Perhaps it sounds as though I'm trying to "pass blame" and should be doing more myself. Perhaps anyone who says this is right. While I have been involved in most of the ways to help the poor that I've suggested, I do not doubt that I could do more, somehow. But I strongly feel that many non-Christians are often better than Christians when it comes to working for social justice, and I believe that this is to Christians' shame. God commands us to do better, and it is our responsibility as a whole people, not just as "pastors and preachers," to improve in this area.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Dangers of Instant Communication

In this age of instant communication, it doesn't take long to realize that there are times when the ability to say anything one wants at any time can be too easily abused. I'm actually not talking about the phenomenon of anonymity, and the apparent effect that has on people saying rude things they'd never say if people knew who they were. However, there's plenty of evidence that this is a problem, too. (See this Slacktivist entry for a recent example.) I'm actually talking about some recent exchanges that occurred between me and two people who know exactly who I am: my two siblings.

In two separate instances in the same morning, one by chat and one by e-mail, I had managed to get into arguments with each of them, over what can only be described as incredibly trifling matters. This resulted in my mood becoming dramatically darker by lunchtime.

I can offer few excuses for why all this happened. Certainly my family (of which I am most definitely a part) does not shy away from arguments. We tend to "have it out" quickly and make up just as quickly. I also have a heavy tendency to try to be "right" in most situations, even if I actually don't know as much about what I'm talking about as I'd like to have people think (no doubt that will become clear to readers of this blog who may disagree with my opinions). But once something's said, it isn't always easy to just "take it back" and have things go back to normal again.

All I can do is offer my apologies (as I have done to each of my siblings), and endeavor to be more open to reasoned disagreement in the future. This is not the first time I've felt the need to rededicate myself in this way. I'm sure it won't be the last. With God's help, I can at least hope that through all the stumbles, I will actually make progress.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Safe at last

A couple of weeks ago, I commented on the return of the space shuttle to active service. Today, the Discovery has safely returned to earth. But rather than the joyous shouts of a triumphant return, it seems that everyone is merely relieved that disaster has been averted.

While it is true that there were some "glitches" in what was hoped to be a perfect launch, I can't help but wonder how much of the stuff that everyone got so worried about was really new. I expect the foam insulation that fell off, narrowly missed hitting this shuttle (thereby almost causing the same disaster as met the Columbia two and a half years ago), was a real, serious problem, and I certainly agree with NASA's decision to ground future shuttle flights until the problem can be solved. But I can't help but wonder if the pieces of gap liner that astronaut Stephen Robinson pulled out from under the Discovery were really a threat. No shuttle had ever been examined as thoroughly as this one had been before. For all we know, nearly all previous successful shuttle flights had similar material sticking out from underneath the shuttle. We would never have known if it weren't for all of the new equipment installed for this launch.

Once discovered, NASA made the right call in erring on the side of caution. If we'd known about this potential issue from past launches, we might have known whether or not it was really an issue by now. If this situation is, in fact, a common one, the evidence of all the successful shuttle landings from the past would indicate that it was an unneccessary risk to bring an astronaut underneath the delicate underbelly of the shuttle, where a wrong move could have created an even worse problem than the one they were attempting to solve. But we didn't know, and likely can never know whether this phenomenon has occurred in the past. NASA had to make the decision to undertake repairs based on the information they had available to them.

Then there were the concerns raised about the apparently torn blanket near the cockpit. This blanket was, in fact, determined to be a non-issue. But the discovery of it lended even more anxiety to an already stress-filled mission. Again, I can't help but wonder if this situation has actually been a common one for 20 years now, and we've just never known about it.

At the end of the day, more information is always better. But it's worth remembering that space travel has always been a risky endeavour. Astronauts spend ages training for situations that they will probably never, ever, face. But they might. It was exactly that kind of training that allowed the repair mission to be completed. Robinson was able to successfully navigate under the shuttle aided by James Kelly, who operated the robotic arm that carried Robinson most of the way to the necessary location. Astronaut Soichi Noguchi served as "lookout" and a back-up go-between for Robinson and Kelly in case Robinson's communications system failed during the operation. These astronauts (and the others who were part of this mission) were well prepared for all the risks they faced, knowing that there was still a chance that disaster could repeat itself. But they went anyway. The very definition of bravery!

I hope that NASA takes an appropriate amount of time to truly solve these problems, and that they continue to make space flight as safe as it can possibly be. However, at the end of the day, there will still be unanswered questions and risks will remain. Whatever risks remain, I hope that NASA will continue to push the boundaries of human knowledge and press on in the exploration of the final frontier. The bravery of the astronauts who have chosen to be a part of that exploration (including those who have died participating in it) deserves that respect.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Birthday Meanderings

I turn 31 today. While, as an adult, birthdays tend not to take on the significance they did when I was a child, they still are an occasion worthy of reflection.

Perhaps the most significant event that occurred on the day of my birth (other than my arrival in the world!) was the announcement of President Nixon's resignation from the office of President of the United States. While he actually left office on the 9th, it was on the 8th that television sets of the nation were tuned in to hear him give a speech announcing his intention to resign from office, putting an end to speculation about impeachment proceedings after the Watergate scandal.

I have one of those "interestingly numbered" birthdays, having the same number for both the month and the day. I remember the radio did an especially amusing bit on the occasion of my 14th birthday, not because it had anything to do with me, but because "8-8-88" sounded so cool. (I'm sure "7-7-77" and "9-9-99" were much the same for folks who paid attention, although for some reason, I didn't notice anything said about those days. There was some fun had on February 2nd, 2002, as "02-02-02" came around, but I digress....)

I also get a kick out of looking up the celebrity birthdays for August 8th, even though I know a few of them by heart anyway. I've known for many years now that Dustin Hoffman shares my birthday, for example. But I was surprised to learn that Lindsay Sloane (most known these days for a recurring role in Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, but my wife and I just saw Bring it On last night, in which she also had a part) shares the day, as do Deborah Norville (one-time co-anchor of The Today Show), Don Most ("Richie" from Happy Days), Donald P. Bellisario (creator of Quantum Leap and JAG), Terry Nation (the man responsible for creating the Daleks of Doctor Who legend), and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (author of The Yearling).

I still don't know exactly what I'll do to celebrate this year. My office will no doubt have a card circulated for folks to sign, as they do for all similar events. We'll have a small gathering this afternoon (which we always do for Monday afternoons, regardless of special events) in which they'll try to embarrass me by singing "Happy Birthday" (though, mercifully, folks in the offices here actually sing on key, which I've long surmised to be considered illegal anywhere else in the world). My wife and I will probably go to a nicer place for dinner than usual, perhaps with an extra friend or two in tow (I've left such arrangements to her). I'm introverted enough not to care for really big parties, but having a few friends recognize the day is always welcome. While a 31st birthday doesn't have quite the same significance as, say, an 8th (the year I had my first-ever actual "birthday party" complete with invited guests, decorations, etc.), I have just enough of an ego to want to be noticed. ;)

Friday, August 05, 2005

Be Thou My Vision

Yesterday I had an appointment with my eye doctor, a long overdue affair made even more necessary by the destruction of my glasses a week ago (I still have an old pair, so I've still been legal for driving and so forth!). As part of the examination, I had my eyes dilated. For those of you who have not experienced this before, basically the doctor puts a couple of eyedrops in your eyes that cause the iris to "open up" so that the doctor can see more clearly into your eyes to examine them. This has the effect of letting more light into your eye than is normally the case, and so if you go outside without sunglasses, you'll find that it's a lot brighter out than your friends do. It also messes with your focusing ability, making it harder to see things clearly. For these reasons, the doctors ask you not to work with a computer or drive for about four hours after getting the eyedrops.

Although I had not expected it beforehand (indeed, was not sure that getting my eyes dilated would be a part of this particular visit), I was fortunate that my wife happened to be in town (we live in a town about a half-hour away from where I work, which is across the street from the eye doctor) and she was able to come by as my doctor's visit was coming to an end. This enabled me to get an opinion on new eyeglass frames from someone who didn't have medicationally-altered vision, but more importantly, meant that I had someone available to drive me around for a couple of hours while my eyes readjusted.

As soon as we stepped out of the doctor's office, I regretted not having any sunglasses available, and so closed my eyes for most of the trip back to my wife's car (she was happy to have the excuse to have me hold her hand while she guided me!), and kept them closed throughout most of the trip to Starbucks, where we spent the better part of an hour. A little later, I was able to stop by my office again, where I happened to have a pair of non-prescription sunglasses I almost never use (since I don't wear contacts, and they don't exactly fit OVER my regular glasses) which were extremely welcome as I finished out my temporary visual readjustment.

As a reasonably independent person, it's always a bit jarring to have to depend on someone else to get around, even if that person is someone you care about. But if my wife hadn't been available yesterday, at the very least I would have had to navigate my way across the street from the doctor's office to my workplace fighting painful brightness, at which point I could have locked myself in my darkened office to wait out the remaining few hours. As it was, I was able to enjoy myself a lot more by taking advantage of help that was offered. I'm extremely grateful.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Transformers Creation Debate

People who have not followed the various forms of Transformers fiction over the past 20+ years will no doubt be surprised to learn that there's been a long-standing debate within the fandom over how the Transformers were created, often with religious implications. This has arisen because the various forms of fiction (cartoon, comic book, toy packaging, and others) were often created independently of each other, and so often came up with conflicting accounts of parallel events.

For example, the 1980's comic book version of The Transformers followed up on threads from Transformers: The Movie by making the movie's giant planet-eating Transformer, Unicron, into a "dark god," necessitating the creation of a counterpart to fight him. This counterpart was called "Primus," and the comic says that Primus created the Transformers (and their planet, Cybertron) to fight Unicron.

The 1980's cartoon ignored Primus completely, but said instead that the Transformers were created by a race of aliens called the "Quintessons," semi-robotic creatures with five faces that rotated around their single head to depict various emotional states. According to the cartoon, the Transformers were created as robotic tools that eventually developed sentience and rebelled against their creators. Unicron had nothing to do with this origin, but it is established in the cartoon that he was similarly created by a kind of "mad scientist" named "Primacron" for reasons of his own, but that Unicron also got out of control.

Fans of the Quintesson origin decry the establishment of "religion" in the Transformers fiction, often arguing that their version is more "believable" than the "god origin" and often suggest that the Primus/Unicron story goes too far toward the hyperbole of making the Transformers "the absolute most important beings in the entire universe." Primus fans, on the other hand, not only don't have a problem with religious elements in the story, but exhalt the depth that such a religion brings to the characterization of the Transformers, often noting that not all Transformers are "followers of Primus," and in fact multiple religions and interpretations have nonetheless surfaced.

As is often the case with long-standing fictional universes with apparent contradictions, there have been attempts to meld the two origin stories together in recent years. Primus, in one version, created the Transformers, but the Quintessons occupied the planet Cybertron and used the not-yet-sapient Transformers for their own purposes, aiding in their creation. But these are almost all (with one possible exception) merely fan attempts to weave a coherent continuity, and are not generally considered "official."

But what really intrigues me is the question of why science fiction fans (of which Transformers fans have a right to consider themselves a part) seem to find it so much more believable to suggest that Transformers (or humans, depending on the genre) might have been "created" by some alien visitors from outer space than by any kind divine being. While this tendency is by no means universal (as has already been demonstrated), it seems to me that the idea that humans were "planted" by an alien race (see Stargate SG-1, an excellent program, for an example of this) requires at least as much suspension of disbelief as the idea that God created us. Especially when one considers the question of where the aliens originally came from! This, of course, does not enter into the "creation vs. evolution" debate, which is also touched upon in great detail in science fiction, but which is beyond my purposes here. Here I'm merely talking about creation (be it evolutionary or otherwise) as "engineered" by some other entity, be that entity alien or god.

I've probably already made my own bias for the "Primus origin" clear. I've really never cared much for the Quintessons as characters. I found them far too ineffectual to be viable "Transformer progenitors." Probably my own belief in the existence of a God (big "G") makes the fictional version of a Transformers god (small "g") more plausible.

The debate continues....

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Worship or Entertainment?

During my reading of other people's blogs yesterday, I came upon this post wondering about how to incorporate children into the worship service. Among the comments to that post were several messages advocating structuring worship so as to make sure that children do not become bored. In response, one comment in particular sought to clarify that this was not the same as confusing worship with "entertainment."

This reminded me of a paper I wrote several years ago on the topic, so I decided that I should dust it off and share it here (with some editing):


When asked to describe my call to the ministry, I usually spend a great deal of time talking about my experience at Youth Conferences in Montreat, North Carolina. We sang, we played goofy games, we got to meet other Christians our own age. It was a blast! Some of the most fun I've had in my life was had at those conferences. More importantly, I met God in a way that I had not before, and it changed my life.

One of my college professors in North Carolina would always warn against the dangers of playing music at worship services designed to "entertain" rather than to "worship," as though there is a thin, but definite, line that separates the two realms of "entertainment" and "worship." I disagree. In a class I took in seminary entitled Multimedia Arts in Worship, we talked about worship in terms of "encounter and response." I encountered God at the Montreat Youth Conferences, and responded to a call to become a minister. Yet, I had tons of fun at these Conferences! Clearly, entertainment and worship are not mutually exclusive.

For many people, the concept entertainment and worship being at all compatible may be a new one. The debate concerning worship and entertainment is not one that will be settled quickly. However, I argue that not only are worship and entertainment not mutually exclusive, but that if entertainment is defined as having to do with being "pleasured" or "amused"(as the Webster Illustrated Contemporary Dictionary defines it), and we proclaim that God is the source of true joy, then worship which completely fails to give pleasure, while still being true worship, fails to acknowledge something fundamental about God. While it often seems that more conservative worshipers adopt a position that says "fun is sinful," it is doubtful that even they truly believe it.

Of course, it is certainly true that something that entertains one person will not entertain another. My grandparents complain about the music in the early morning "contemporary" service at their church, saying it's "too loud," or "too redundant." (As Grandma says, "They just say the same thing over and over!") There is nothing wrong with such differences of opinion. In fact, C.S. Lewis suggests something to this point that may help clarify the role of music in worship. He suggests that music that is disliked, but tolerated for the sake of belief that God may somehow be glorified, will be for the person who tolerates it a means of grace. However, he suggests with equal certainty that the person who holds on to his/her distaste and hostility to some form of church music is unable to worship properly. This, of course, does not answer to the question of whether music that one likes is appropriate for worship, but does shed some light on the importance of people's attitudes when it comes to worship. If one holds on to attitudes of resentment, one does not encounter, nor respond to, God. This is certainly evidence that one need not be entertained in order to worship. However, it is an argument for exercising tolerance toward musical forms often condemned as "entertainment" (admittedly most often by those who are not entertained by such forms themselves).

But more to the point, during my time in college, I became involved in the college's drama troupe, and I later worked with drama for one of my internships. Drama is also a tool that can be used for worship, but one that is viewed with suspicion by those who see it as "entertainment" which (says the suspicious) therefore can't be proper for worship. The church that hired me as a drama intern while I was working on my Master of Divinity was deeply divided on this issue. I got the job more out of the fact that I was known to the members of the church ruling body (called "the consistory"), who wished to aid me in my seminary education, than out of any desire to have drama as a part of their worship.

Make no mistake about it, drama is entertainment. There's no getting around it. Does that make drama unsuitable for worship? On the contrary, I believe that drama which fails to entertain will also fail meet its goals as worship. Steve Pederson, director of drama for Willow Creek Community Church, suggests that "when Christians talk about 'using drama to evangelize' or 'drama with a message,' they're actually abusing the art form. Good drama doesn't preach."(1) Drama should "tell a story." In short, it should entertain. That is the primary purpose of drama. But the fact that drama "doesn't preach" does not, in my opinion (nor, presumably, Pederson's!), prevent drama from being used in worship. Drama should be used for what drama is good for. If the main purpose of drama: to entertain, to tell stories, etc., is lost, so is its power to be a tool for worship. Screenwriter Craig Detweiller maintains that the reason that so much Christian movie-making fails is because the Christians behind it try to "evangelize" rather than to simply tell a story.(2) When the storytelling gets lost in the intent to preach, both fail to achieve their purpose.

How, then, is drama to be used? My college drama director maintained that any production, even secular plays, can be used to display Christian truths. Part of this is because of the redemptive power of God to take anything and use it for God's purpose. However, my director also maintained that Colossians 3:17 instructed us to do our best at whatever we do as Christians. Therefore, a Christian drama should not be a lower quality drama than a non-Christian one, because Christians are committed to excellence for the glory of God. It is also worth noting that, while even secular drama may have the potential to tell stories with redemptive value, not all stories are good stories. This has unfortunately included many "Christian" stories. A poorly scripted story will fail to have an impact on its audience. Steve Pederson notes the trend in many areas of drama-making, including Christian drama, to dwell more on spectacle and special effects than on the "real stuff of drama": story and character.(3) He suggests that, in so doing, "we may be providing a kind of 'Christian entertainment,' but we have to do more than that. We need to get back to a simple story, to real, believable characters, because there is where the real power of drama lies."(4) If the character isn't believable, the audience won't relate to that character. It is through characters that people can relate to that they will encounter the God who cares about their lives.

This means, however, that the role of evil in the world must be allowed to be portrayed. So much of Christian drama (and I have to confess, much of what I presented in my own church as a drama intern falls under this category) steers away from certain kinds of sin deemed "unsuitable" for worship. This will probably be an ongoing issue. The problem is that when this is done, some amount of believability is also lost, and the ability of characters to encounter their own lives and situations; those places in which they need to encounter God, is diminished.

Of course, the question remains: "Can we get so caught up in entertainment that the worship is lost?" Certainly. While I don't believe that a "definite line" exists between worship and entertainment, there clearly is "grey area" between the two. Becoming too focused on anything that detracts from the worship experience is a danger that needs to be guarded against. I do not pretend to have all the answers to this dilemma, and expect that each congregation will have to decide for themselves how to work it out. But I would definitely argue that any congregation that rejects possible modes of worship simply because they are seen as "entertainment" will not only alienate potential worshippers, but will continue to miss out on important truths about God themselves.
1) Steve Pederson, Drama Ministry, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999, p. 25.
(2) Quoted from a discussion following a seminary airing of the movie version of Left Behind, February 3, 2001.
(3) Pederson, p. 31.
(4) Pederson, pp. 31-32.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Emergent Preaching?

I have the privilege of being a part of the Worship Committee at my church. (Presbyterians seem to just love committees....) Part of our task is to reassess whether or not our "worship services" truly achieve the purpose of worshipping God, and to work toward such changes as may be necessary to bring our "services" more toward actual worship.

One way in which we are preparing is to read through Dan Kimball's book, Emerging Worship. In it, he details ways in which what he calls "emerging generations" are challenging traditional churches to re-evaluate their worship strategies. In fact, he prefers the term "worship gathering" to "worship service," a term which implies that people go to the service once a week to get "filled up" (like at a service station), yet go their own ways afterward, not worshipping again until their return the following week. At least this far, I'm inclined to agree with him.

Kimball makes very clear that the ideas expressed in the book are not to be implemented without thought, as if they are boilerplates to be impressed on all churches. Each church is different, and each group of worshippers will have different means by which they are fully drawn into the activity of worship. Again, I very much agree with Kimball here.

When Kimball starts talking about the sermon, something about me gets defensive.

I've long been a believer that a sermon; of some shape, form, or fashion; is an absolute necessity at a worship service. I'm perfectly happy to have a cantata or drama fill the needs of my loosely-defined "sermon," but some form of "sermon" must be present. Kimball himself is not arguing for the abolition of the sermon, and is especially careful to maintain a focus on the Scriptures as absolutely essential, but argues that some "emerging churches" may want to do away with the sermon in favor of some worship activity that brings the whole congregation into the process.

Kimball and I may not even desire different things. I certainly agree that the model of sermon that dictates a lone speaker on a stage will not be appropriate for all (or perhaps even many) churches. And insofar as Kimball describes the traditional sermon as a preacher saying "I-am-the-wise-one-with-the-answers-from-the-Bible-because-I-went-to-
-the-power-so-you-need-to-listen", I wholeheartedly agree that this is not a good thing. And Kimball may well be thinking of exactly the kinds of remedies (and he definitely wants a multitude of them. He's as far from suggesting "one size fits all" as it is possible to be) that I'm thinking about (i.e. cantatas and drama, among other things) when he suggests the need to move away from the old model.

But there's still something in me that wants to scream out in protest "you can't do that! You have to have a sermon!"

Although I may well be "liberal" in some matters, I'll readily admit to being "conservative" when it comes to some ideas about religion and worship. I certainly think there will always be some place for "traditional" worship, even as more churches do well to become more responsive to the changing needs of people in a changing culture. Yet, there's some dogmatic part of me that wants to say "some form of sermon (already described fairly loosely, as seen above) must be a part of any authentic worship gathering." If the sermon is lost, I believe the resulting congregation will lose some vital part of what it is to learn about the Christian faith, even if reading the Scriptures themselves (as is also insisted upon by Kimball) is retained.

It's certainly true that I have an interest at stake in this. I am seminary trained to be a pastor. If the sermon is removed from the worship service, a good deal of what I trained for becomes useless. And I definitely value the seminary education as giving me something important to bring to fellow worshippers. But perhaps this has rendered me unable to think through this matter objectively.... I want to be fair to the very important issues that Kimball raises. I agree that the church is generations behind where it needs to be to reach people in our culture. I'm sure that I myself am often "out of touch" with these people, and need to hear some of what Kimball has to say.

But it is a struggle. I need discernment. How do I take the good from what Kimball offers without losing something vital from the "traditional" values?

Monday, August 01, 2005

New Planet Discovered

On Friday night, I was temporarily taken back to the excitement I held in my childhood for all things space-related when the local news announcer declared the discovery of a new planet discovered within our solar system. For more information, check out this news site:

This is the largest object found within our solar system since the discovery of Neptune in 1846. Thanks to NASA making most of their images public domain, I can include the following artist's rendition:

Although there have been debates in recent years as to whether or not Pluto should actually be considered a planet, due to it's small size, it seems that there is less chance that this new discovery should yield as much debate, as it is larger than Pluto at its smallest estimate, and more likely half again as large as Pluto (it will apparently take another 6 months to determine its actual size with any reliability). It is about three times the distance from the sun of Pluto, and has an orbit that is even more skewed off the plane that most of the other planets (excepting Pluto) travel around the sun.

The discoverers of this "Tenth Planet" have submitted a name to the International Astronomical Union, but it has not yet been officially released to the public. Rumors are surfacing that astronomers are calling the planet "Xena," but it is not confirmed that this is the name submitted to the IAU, nor that the name has been officially approved at all. For now, "2003 UB313" will have to do.

(The mischevious Dr. Who fan in me humbly suggests "Mondas.") :)


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