Wednesday, September 27, 2006

When Teddy Bears Attack

Because some things are so bizarre that they simply must be blogged about, here's a recent news article:

Teddy Bear Slaughters 2,500 Trout

I'll be back after BotCon!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Much Ado About... Something

Like most of you, I did not actually catch the interview between former President Clinton and Fox newsman Chris Wallace yesterday, but I've been hearing a lot about it ever since. I think this commentary captures the particulars fairly well.

Despite my admittedly somewhat leftward leanings, I have to confess that I was never particularly fond of Clinton as a president. While many of his supporters argued that one should separate his personal shortcomings from his actions as president, I was never very comfortable doing so. On at least some level, I believe that how a person acts in his/her private life is an indicator of how he/she will act in public. Or, to put it a different way, Clinton the president was the same person as Clinton the womanizer. He was just filling a different role.

But the fact remains that Clinton did know how to fill his role as president well, if certainly not to the appeasement of conservatives. And even conservatives agree that Clinton is an excellent public speaker. That's what makes yesterday's outburst so unusual. William Jefferson Clinton practically never loses his cool in public. The fact that he did so means something. (The article offers some possible explanations, and I see no need to repeat them here.)

One other thing bothers me, though. The response of Chris Wallace. It's not included in the commentary above, but this straight news article has it:
Wallace said Sunday he was surprised by Clinton's "conspiratorial view" of "a very non-confrontational question, 'Did you do enough to connect the dots and go after al Qaeda?"'

"All I did was ask him a question, and I think it was a legitimate news question. I was surprised that he would conjure up that this was a hit job," Wallace said in a telephone interview.
Now, it may be that Wallace is being completely honest here. I really don't know. Like I said, I missed the actual interview. But this quote conjures up a lot of memories of school bullies who would do something to purposely taunt someone, and when that person finally loses it and lashes out, the bully would just turn and say, "I don't know what they're talking about. I didn't do anything." Perhaps it's an unfair comparison, likening Wallace to a bully who knew exactly what he was doing in taunting his victim. But that's what this quote sounds like to me.

In the final analysis, I expect it really doesn't matter too much. Wallace's supporters will support Wallace, and Clinton's supporters will support Clinton. This kind of thing isn't likely to change any minds. But I might be wrong. Like I said, it's really not like Bill Clinton to lose control like that. The fact that he did should mean something.

Friday, September 22, 2006

BotCon Cometh

In less than a week now, I will in KY to attend this year's BotCon. There will be no blog update for Friday, September 29th, as I will be at the convention. I do expect to post highlights on Monday after I return.

In the meantime, my brother (who will attend with me) and I are coordinating our schedules so that we can catch all the parts of the convention that are important to us, while leaving some time to visit with the rest of my family in Louisville that weekend.

Without question, my wife is taking the more "spiritual" route. She and my mom will the visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani, where noted author and Catholic thinker Thomas Merton spent so many years.

I am already reading on the message boards that some fans are already packing. I'm not quite there yet, but I do need to spend this weekend getting things in order. We have our plane tickets, but we need to make plans to get us to the airport, to have our cat taken care of, and financial arrangements to put in order so we have ready cash for when we're out of town without easy access to an ATM we won't have to pay stiff fees on using (needless to say, we expect to buy a few things at the convention). I need to make sure that the situation at my day-job is set up for my two-day absence next week. Also, I need to work ahead a bit to make sure that my weekly podcast does not get interrupted by the fact that I will be out of town next weekend. So much to do, so little time!

But, as short as that time is, BotCon is not here yet. I'll have my regular blog updates next week on Monday and Wednesday.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Game Show Theory

I was speaking with a friend the other day, who happens to be involved in an inter-religious dialogue group. She told me that the theme for this year's gathering would discuss pluralism, and that (among other things) one of the participants was looking to write a sketch based on the game show Let's Make a Deal. That got me thinking....

Now, I don't pretend to understand "game theory," and I expect I'm taking the concept behind Let's Make a Deal in a wholly different direction than is intended by the participant in the inter-religious dialogue, but thinking through the mechanics behind the show, I'm working on a concept that I'm going to call "game show theory."

Using Let's Make a Deal to illustrate the concept of pluralism, the subject ("contestant" just doesn't sound right, even considering the whimsical nature of this enterprise) begins with a certain belief system. We'll call this "Religion Number 1." Monty Hall now gives the subject the option of keeping the belief system he/she already has, or trading it in for another belief system, which we'll call "Religion Number 2." The subject does not know the intricacies of this belief system until he/she has decided to choose it, at which point the subject may decide whether or not the new system (assuming it was chosen) is right for him/her. The subject may choose to "walk away" and keep his/her present belief system at any time, or the subject may hope that Monty Hall will make an offer for a "Religion Number 3." This process may repeat for as many times as the subject wishes, so long as Monty Hall keeps making new offers. However, at some point the subject dies, at which point no new offers can be made.

Alternatively, pluralism might be likened to Deal or No Deal. There are many religions to choose from, and the subject chooses one. That religion is the subject's to keep, unless he/she decides to make a deal for another offer. The subject then learns about some of the religions that were not chosen. As these religions are eliminated, the "banker" proposes a deal for a new religion, using the information learned about the eliminated religions in an attempt to make the deal more appealing to the subject. The subject may then accept the deal, or continue to eliminate other religions in an attempt to get the best possible final result. However, the subject may come to regret his/her choice, as the options-not-chosen are revealed and eliminated.

Of course, there are a number of flaws to both of these analogies (not least of which being that these games don't enable a person to go back to a religion he/she once abandoned, which of course happens in real life all the time), and I don't really think that matters of religion are as simplistic as "just choose one." These matters are tied up in cultural backgrounds, life experiences, and (dare I say it?) the calling of God. But the fact that there are all these competing belief systems out there is a fact of life that believers of all stripes must deal with.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Disciplinary Measures

In the spirit of laying my own prejudices on the table, I should note that I've been a fan of using lectionaries for a long time, certainly long before I decided to start a podcast centering on one. When asked to give a sermon for a local congregation, I've tended to argue that I like the idea of having something outside of myself determine the text I am to use, to help ensure an extra layer of protection against bringing my own agendas to the sermon, preaching simply on what I want to preach. I do not argue that I can ever be totally free of such personal agenda, but I believe that the lectionary helps to guard against that.

For this reason, I've always been somewhat mistrusting of "topical" sermons, although perhaps not entirely fairly. A topical sermon does allow a preacher to be responsive to the needs of the church community. But to me, topical sermons have always tended to sound too much like "proof-texting," and long experience has shown that a preacher can find Biblical texts to say almost anything he/she (although usually he) wants to say.

This past weekend, I went to a church in a different tradition to meet up with an old friend (in case that friend reads this, I should point out right now that he knows that I have different opinions on some of these matters, and I have always been thankful for his forbearance. If he or anyone else chooses to respond in defense of the kind of thing I will argue against, they should feel free). This church was apparently in the middle of a sermon series on "the family." Although I did not hear any sermons other than the one, it seems that other sermons in this series detailed roles for each of the members of the family: the father, the mother, etc. This particular sermon was dedicated to encouraging parents to discipline their children. This message was accompanied by probably close to a dozen different Scripture passages not only instructing parents to discipline their children, but declaring the consequences of failing to do so.

In truth, I do not think that I actually disagree with anything that was said in this message. As the preacher said, "[We] need to be aware that these verses are in Scripture," and I am not trying to suggest that they don't mean what the preacher said they meant. My problem is more that I think the sermon overstated the case. It perceives this vast majority of people who refuse to discipline their children. Although the instances of such disciplines as spanking are undoubtedly fewer than they might have been in another era, I simply do not believe discipline, per se, is as virtually non-existent as the sermon would have had me think.

The preacher also tried to be responsible enough to say that spanking was a discipline of last resort, and that it should only be done out of love, and never out of anger. He also was responsible enough to note that foster parents (there was a call earlier in the service for Christians to become foster parents, a call with which I heartily agree) should never spank their children, not only because it was illegal, but because so many of those children come from abusive backgrounds, where a spanking could have tragic repercussions.

But I never did hear proper examples of what other kinds of discipline were to be exercised. If spanking is a last resort, what should be tried first? All too often, I hear people give lip-service to this kind of thing ("spanking is only a last resort," or "war is only a last resort after diplomacy has failed"), but when it comes down to reality, these "last resorts" are performed well before other options that might have been tried. In my opinion, more often than not, this simply comes down to a failure of the imagination. It's not that parents think spanking really isn't a last resort, it's that they don't know what else to try. If a sermon is going to encourage parents to discipline children, it is imperative that creative options be shown as examples. Simply telling parents "spanking is a last resort" is wholly insufficient.

But that brings us back to the question of whether or not this kind of sermon was really necessary in the first place. A whole sermon devoted to telling parents that they need to be willing to discipline their children, under the assumption that few parents these days do so?

I think the real problem I had with the message was something well beyond the details of the message itself. A picture was painted of Christians needing to "dig in our heels" and stand up for Christian ideals over and opposed to "the world" (including, explicitly, government. This is despite the fact that we currently have the most "Christian-friendly" government in years!) that is out to destroy civilization as we know it. Yes, Christians need to be different than non-Christians. We are "salt and light," so to speak, so that the world might see a better way. But I think this view (implicit, if not explicit) that non-Christians are the "enemy" is counter-productive. This "us vs. them" mindset will only hinder us in our ability to teach non-Christians about the love of Christ.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Introducing Eris

Long-time readers will know that I've been following the discussion created by the discovery of a "new planet," which later not only turned out to be not a planet at all, but took Pluto down with it.

I've continued to regularly check in with the website created by one of the "planet's" discoverers, astronomer Mike Brown of Caltech. He has continued to post updates as the International Astronomical Union (IAU) continued to debate what to do about this new discovery, and how to settle the problem of "just how are we going to define the word 'planet,' anyway?" Yesterday, I noticed that the page title had undergone a subtle change. No longer was the "dwarf planet" (as it's now understood) referred to as "2003UB313," but a name was revealed: Eris.

Oddly enough, I could find no information on how this new name came about (this has since changed), so I went to the Wikipedia article on "2003UB313," which I already knew existed, and found that the page had not only been updated with references to "Eris," but also provided a link to the IAU statement (file requires Adobe Reader), dated September 13, 2006, approving the names "Eris" for the dwarf planet and "Dysnomia" for its small moon.

Apparently, these names were chosen specifically as a reference to all the fuss that has been created since the object's discovery. It's nice to know that the astronomers have a sense of humor!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Woo, hoo! Soundwave!

There have been rumors for a little while now, but finally we have the support of actual pictures. Despite the fact that Hasbro told fans not that long ago that there were "no plans" for any further Generation One reissues (which wasn't surprising given how badly many of them warmed the shelves at Toys R Us last year), we'll be getting at least one more highly sought after "reissue" in the near future: Soundwave. Check out the pics at tformers.com.

These pictures confirm a few details about the reissue.
  1. The toy will indeed be using the "Soundblaster" version of the mold, which features room to hold not just one, but two cassettes.
  2. The two cassettes to be included will be Laserbeak and Ravage, arguably the most popular of the cassette figures.
  3. The reissue will be in the original "Soundwave" colors (despite using the "Soundblaster" mold variant).
I haven't found a firm release date for this toy, although it is suspected to be available in time for Christmas at Toys R Us (the toy may or may not be exclusive to TRU, as the other reissues have been) for about $30 (which is a far fairer price for this toy than it was for most of the other reissues we've seen previously!).

Monday, September 11, 2006

Purpose-Driven Ponderings

Scot McKnight's blog directed us to this news article about the impact Rev. Rick Warren's bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life, is having on many congregations that seek to implement its principles. McKnight has invited people to discuss questions related to using Warren's model in this way (What are its strengths and weaknesses? How appropriate or biblical is the model in the first place? What alternatives might one suggest?) over on his blog, but I have some comments about the news article itself.

First, a disclaimer. I have not read The Purpose Driven Life, perhaps largely because it reached such "cult status" so quickly. Such fads make me uncomfortable in the extreme. However, I will attempt not to comment on Rev. Warren's principles themselves, nor the book itself, out of such ignorance. I'm merely attempting to comment on what I glean from the news article.

The article notes that this movement is "dividing the country's more than 50 million evangelicals." I'm starting to become even more aware that there is a confusion about what the definition of "evangelical" is. I attempted to deal with some of this in the series of posts I started some time ago (I may at some point return to this, but I've had trouble figuring out what to say that wouldn't be absurdly obvious about the remaining points). But I had a conversation just this past weekend that demonstrated the popularity of the viewpoint that "evangelical" worship is seen by many as worship that takes place in a kind of sterile environment (often meeting in warehouses or other buildings devoid of traditionally Christian symbolism, even to the point of having no visible cross available in the worship space), singing a lot of praise songs or "Christian pop wannabees" to the exclusion of hymns, and that often espouses very conservative or literalist interpretations of Scripture. Despite the fact that I remain convinced that such churches are, at best, only a subset of "evangelicalism," this perception remains. And, although the news article does not indicate whether or not this kind of church represents the majority of the "more than 50 million evanglicals" it cites, it does seem clear that the specific congregations the article talks about tend to fit this rubric.

The focus of the article is a trend in which churches that seek to implement Rev. Warren's teachings are finding opposition from members within their congregations. Some members have left these churches. Others have been actively pushed out by their ruling bodies. Some churches are actively being split over these divisions. Although I am concerned about this phenomena, I do not claim to know enough at this time to comment on whether these divisions are, in and of themselves, the real problem.

Some specific comments in the article, however, do strike me as dangerous:
  1. "One goal [adopted by a particular church in Dallas, Texas] was to make sure more than 19% of the church's members were adults in their 20s and 30s."
I find this very troubling. Congregations should not be engineered to meet some "ideal" for meeting missional goals, however valuable the goals themselves may be. You work with the people you have. Recruitment is good, to be sure, but quotas are not. People should never be seen as pawns on a chess board.
  1. "During a session titled "Dealing with Opposition," [one of the seminar leaders] recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don't stop objecting. Then when those congregants join a new church, [the seminar leader] instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role."
Wow! This is creepy beyond belief. Leaving aside whether or not it is appropriate to suggest that a problematic church member should leave your congregation, it is totally uncool to sabotage that member's chances of involvement in another church! (Note: I would understand if we were talking about suspected criminal behavior, such as abuse. Too often, abusive pastors or church leaders are merely kicked out of a congregation, but since no criminal offense has been proven, no warning is on record for potential future churches to be aware of, thus perpetuating the abusive cycle. However, there is absolutely no indication that this is the kind of "trouble" that this seminar leader is referring to.)
  1. "There are moments when you've got to play hardball[...] You cannot transition a church...and placate every whiny Christian along the way."
This may, in fact, be true, but this kind of defensiveness, and this attitude toward one's potential church members, strikes me as very unbecoming of a pastor. A pastor should seek to meet the spiritual needs of all Christians in the pastor's "flock," not "write off" some members as "whiny."

I'm not sure how much in these statements reflects Warren's own intentions for promoting change within churches. They may simply be the ways in which over-zealous followers have adopted Warren's teachings. Still, this one quote regarding Warren himself is mildly troubling:
His sermons rarely linger on self-denial and fighting sin, instead focusing on healing modern American angst, such as troubled marriages and stress.
Maybe there's no real problem here, but I personally do expect biblically-based sermons to call people to change from lives of sin. It's not that dealing with "modern" problems is bad. In fact, pastors should seek to help people in such areas of real need. But self-denial and sin are essential teachings of the Bible, and should not be left out.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same

It's strange to look back and reflect on how one has changed over time. After discussing "Top Ten" lists with a friend yesterday, I remembered a message I had given at my college chapel over 10 years ago. I quickly found that I still have the draft of my message on file, and so pulled it out to look at it. It's an interesting demonstration of how my thoughts and writing style have changed over time (as well, perhaps, as some ways in which they haven't).

My message ten years ago opened with a sketch that I had picked up at a Youth Conference a few years previously. The intention of that sketch was to show that a church wasn't doing its job correctly if it forgot that a church needs to be a "family" that cares for its members. Although I agreed (in my message 10 years ago) with that assessment, I criticized the message of the sketch for forgetting about God in its desire to push this message about "family":
But where is God? The third church may say how great it is to have a church family, but they don't even mention God. This could prove very dangerous. The news lately has been talking a lot about the cult in Japan and even bringing up the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh two years ago. A major selling point that cults use to draw people in to them is a sense of "family."
Of course, readers today have largely forgotten all about the Koresh cult in Waco, TX all those years ago, so here's a quick Wikipedia link. I don't even recall myself what cult in Japan I was talking about!

After getting close to accusing the church in the sketch of being in danger of becoming a cult (despite my own protests to the contrary), I also tried to talk about the dangers of following God's will for your life, since God seems to have a habit of telling people to do things that are rather dangerous for their own well-being:
A friend of mine points out the example of Moses: Here's a guy who is called by God to lead his people out of Egypt. In exchange, he gets to tell Pharaoh exactly what God thinks of him, to his face, getting [Pharaoh] really mad at him. When Pharaoh, in his rage, sends the Israelites out of the country, Moses gets a group of followers who prove to be a bunch of stubborn, whining children, complaining every time something goes wrong. Then Pharaoh changes his mind, and chases after them again, making the Israelites even more panicky. After about 40 years of dealing with the impudent brats, Moses doesn't even get to go into the promised land.
In an effort to demonstrate how Moses was different from Koresh (despite probable appearances to outsiders that they were both crazy people, at which point I pulled out the aforementioned "Top Ten" list: "The Top Ten Signs that Your Chapel Speaker is Nuts"), I got to the main point of my message, which was to suggest that any attempt to follow God must be done in accordance with the Bible. The Bible is the "standard" (to use the language I used then), by which we can assess whether or not we are following God rightly. Of course, it apparently didn't occur to me at the time that this argument wouldn't work very well for practical purposes, since the Bible hadn't been written yet for Moses to follow the standard I was suggesting! What was I thinking?

However, even back then, some of my concerns to show that churches can reach differing opinions while using the same Bible were present:
Unfortunately, the Standard has to be filtered through our fallen, human understanding. Some of the disputes that have arisen regarding true interpretation of Scripture have become a great dividing point between many denominations. For example, the position that Christian women should take. Some churches accord women virtually no privileges at all, citing Paul's first letter to Timothy, 2:12; "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent." Not only are women not to be ordained for ANY office, but they are not to speak or pray, and are to blindly do whatever their husbands tell them. There are other groups that contend that women should be allowed to do everything that men can do, citing Phoebe as a deacon in Romans 16:1, where Paul tells the Romans to "help her in whatever she may require of you." Is Paul contradicting himself? Isn't all Scripture God-breathed? Clearly, these two opinions that churches have must be at fault, rather than Scripture.
Besides being too quick to condemn both sides of that argument for being at fault, I find it impossible to imagine that I would say the following today, since it places too much emphasis on the differences between men and women, lending credence to the "complementarian" argument:
I think that what Paul is trying to say is that men and women ARE different, and are suited for different tasks. These tasks are not any more or less important, and many of the tasks that women have are quite prominent.
And I must have totally forgotten that I actually had heard the theory mentioned in this section before I blogged about it as if it were some new revelation to me a few months ago:
I've heard one theory based upon the fact that the letter Paul writes to Timothy was written at a time when Timothy lived in Ephesus. Ephesus had a reputation as being the city of the goddess Diana. As a result, the warning against women speaking in the church may have been a precaution to those in that city, to further illustrate the difference between Christians and followers of Diana. That's one theory.
Despite my insistence that we read the Bible through fallen, human, lenses, I ended this message with the advice to cultivate a habit of reading the Bible regularly. As good as that is, I somehow completely missed the opportunity to encourage people to attend regular worship services. This is a major evolution in how I personally think about Christianity today. We need each other! God helps us to interpret God's Word through the Church! The fact that I apparently either missed or ignored this obvious (at least, it seems to me now) point is amazing. Rather than criticizing that sketch I opened with, I should have been agreeing with its message, and used that as the major thrust of the message. It is through the "family" of God that we learn about how God is revealed to us through Scripture. But then, I guess it always has been my point that we humans are fallible. That certainly means me, too....

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Green with Envy

It was recently reported that the Hartmans (the same brothers who were selling the G2 Protectobots and Stunticons on eBay recently) are going to be selling off their entire collection of Transformers (long understood to be one of the most complete in existence) at Botcon at the end of the month.

They just released these pictures of parts of their collection.

It's a Transformers fan's fantasy come true. Wall-to-wall Transformers on display. Like going to Toys R Us, but instead of being cluttered up with all those other toy lines, it's just Transformers everywhere.

Sadly, I doubt I'll have the funds to purchase so much as one of the toys from this particular collection. Still, one can drool over the pictures....

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Second Chance on Some G2 Auctions

Since yesterday was a holiday, consider this my Monday entry. :)

For those who were interested in the Hartman Transformer auctions earlier in the year, here's a "second chance" to get a couple of those toys. Although these two auctions are, in fact, being held by the Hartmans, the toys are, apparently, from someone else's collection (in other words, no, the original buyer did not flake out, nor is he turning around and reselling).

Drag Strip (see entry for first auction)
Streetwise (see entry for first auction)

As before, expect these auction bids to go quite high. The bids are already at $200 for Drag Strip and $102.50 for Streetwise, as of the time of this posting. I will not be following the end of these auctions here on the blog.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Star Trek: The Special Edition

Surprisingly, it seems that the 40th Anniversary of Star Trek has not gone unnoticed by the folks at Paramount. Starting on September 16th, the Original Series (that is, the one with Kirk and Spock from the 60's) will be returning to broadcast syndication. For the first time in 16 years, those who do not have cable or episodes on DVD will be able to enjoy these episodes.

But there's a twist. It turns out that these episodes have been given the "Special Edition" treatment (to use the term used for George Lucas' re-working of the original Star Wars trilogy before the prequels were completed). All 76 Original Series episodes have been re-worked with new special effects and CGI work, and will be broadcast out-of-sequence one episode a week. We'll see if the new effects are enough to bring viewers back to the franchise, which has been laying low since the demise of the often-ridiculed Star Trek: Enterprise and the lower-than-desirable box office figures for Star Trek: Nemesis, the 10th and latest theatrical feature.


In totally unconnected TV news, it appears that the best thing about The Apprentice has, herself, been fired. I'm actually pretty upset about this turn of events....

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