Monday, March 31, 2008

Char's Raggedis (Or: And Now For Something Completely Different)

As I mentioned last week, my wife's on a trip to the Middle East. Given that fact, it may sound strange to some people to learn that I spent this past weekend visiting her parents. Suffice it to say, we get along rather well, and I really don't understand a lot of the stereotypical issues a lot of people claim to have with in-laws. Besides having a chance to visit, I was able to help my mother-in-law set up an online shop to sell dolls that she makes herself.

You can find her wares at Char's Raggedis, where she sells dolls patterned after the Raggedy Ann and Andy concept. For those who care, the names are trademarked (or, at least, there are companies that claim to own the trademarks), but the doll designs and original stories by Raggedy Ann and Andy creator Johnny Gruelle are in the Public Domain. This is why you may see so many dolls like this at craft shows and similar venues.

If you've ever been to a doll or craft show, or to a toy shop that specializes in handmade work rather than plastic action figures, you probably know that prices can range pretty wildly on this sort of thing. It's almost pointless to charge for the actual labor that goes into handmade work these days, because that would drive prices so high that no one would buy them (and, indeed, many do avoid handcrafted product for just this reason!). But quality work and material is still worth something, and prices can and do reflect the quality of the finished product.

I'd invite you go to Char's Raggedis and have a look. This kind of thing isn't for everyone, but an effort has been made to have prices that are competitive with other dolls of similar quality and workmanship. Even if it's not your thing, you may know someone who might appreciate these. Please feel free to pass the link to someone else you think might like them.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Legends/Pretender Starscream

If you go to any Target store right now, and go to the Transformers section, look at the smaller figures. More likely than not, you'll see a number of figures with an "Only at Target" sticker placed on them. If you're extremely lucky, you can go to Wal-Mart and see a similarly-store-specific sticker on a few deluxe sized figures there (most of the current set seem to have sold out, though). Store "exclusives" are an accepted part of the Transformers line these days, and have been for many years now.

But back in 1989, when K-Mart released the inner-robots from the Pretender Classics toys without their outer shells, calling these stripped-down toys "Legends," it was the first time ever that a Transformers toy was sold only at single retail chain in the US (and, of course, even that's only in regard to the stripped-down variants, since the Pretender versions were widely available). Since these toys weren't sold with the Pretender shells, they were considerably cheaper than the fully-loaded Pretender versions, and so this was the version of Starscream I picked up.

Like Starscream's original form (which I did not possess at the time), this toy changes from robot to a fighter jet, but if you look closely at the pictures of the original Starscream's robot mode, you can see that they changed around a few of the colors a bit, especially in the arms and legs (which are now blue instead of gray). Strangely enough, this color scheme was retained when Starscream became an Action Master the following year (arguably another reason so many fans dislike that toy, although prejudice against Action Masters is already widespread among fans, as I've mentioned before).

Although I have, up until now, reviewed only toys I actually purchased when they were originally available in stores, the fact that Legends Starscream is the same toy as the inner robot of the Pretender version creates a unique situation. I picked up the outer shell of Starscream when I attended my first BotCon in 1998 (Anaheim). I then picked up the helmet and large weapon at BotCon 2004 (mere blocks from where I work in Pasadena!). So I actually possess a now-complete Pretender Starscream. It seems kind of stupid to relegate the Pretender toy to a separate review in the future (after I've finished detailing the toys I had "way back when") when I'd only have a tiny bit more to say about the completed form. In fact, I've pretty much covered it with this paragraph and this additional picture, and can consider this review done!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Thinking About Liturgy

As many of my friends already know (especially if we're already linked via my Facebook account!), my wife has just started a 12-day pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This will be the longest time we've spent apart since getting married (almost 5 years ago now). So, perhaps it's natural that I'm thinking about stuff that would be important to her.

That last paragraph will need a bit of explanation for those who don't already know Michelle. Although I grew up in, and still consider myself a part of, the Presbyterian Church (USA), Michelle is pursuing ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Not only that, but she's working on a PhD in Worship and Culture, specifically looking to combine her professional training on the flute with her love of liturgy.

Naturally, since the Presbyterian and Episcopal traditions are somewhat different, Michelle and I talk about matters related to tradition and liturgy quite a bit. So when I read this blog entry by Scot McKnight, I immediately thought about Michelle. Indeed, I've already sent her an e-mail (which even if she reads, she won't be able to do anything about until she gets back from the Middle East) telling her that the book referenced in that blog post is one she needs to add to her collection (if not, in fact, to her academic studies!).

The comments section of this particular entry is also interesting. Long-time readers will already be aware that I strongly believe that many of us are not aware of the extent to which the tradition we adopt affects how we interpret Scripture. It's not as simple a matter of choosing whether to give "tradition" or "Scripture" priority. Rather we must learn to be conscious of the way in which our interpretation of Scripture is influenced by our tradition. It often takes someone from a perspective different than our own to challenge our own misconceptions about what Scripture means. That's not to say that all perspectives are equally valid. Far from it, in fact. But it's certainly a reason to treat opposing viewpoints with respect before we determine that our own understanding is superior to theirs (which we may ultimately determine is still the case).

But in any event, I'm reminded of a phrase that has come up again and again in Michelle's studies: lex orandi, lex credendi. Literally, that might be translated as "the law of prayer is the law of belief." Among other things, this suggests that the way one worships influences what one comes to believe. Of course, this can work the other way around, too (lex credendi, lex orandi?). One choses to worship in a way compatible with what one already believes. It's not as simple choosing one of these two interpretations or the other. The point is that worship (or liturgy) and belief are interconnected. We ignore this interconnectedness at our peril.

EDIT: McKnight addresses some related concepts in this other entry from today.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Hating Lex Luthor

I'm proud to consider Todd Farley a friend. For those who don't know Todd, he's one of the co-founders (along with his wife Marilyn) of Mimeistry, an internationally renowned Christian performing group. Todd is also currently an Associate Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences at Calvin College (which, coincidentally, is also where my former Drama director Brian Fuller is at. I haven't yet verified if they've had occasion to meet properly, although it seems that they would have a lot in common). I got to know Todd around the time of my brief tenure as Arts Concerns Chair at Fuller, where Todd served as Artist-in-Residence for several years while he pursued his PhD.

Todd has recently posted a note on his Facebook account (sorry, I don't think that the direct link would work from outside of Facebook) that discusses common Christian attitudes regarding "sin" and "sinners" through the perspective of how many people view American comic-book icons Superman and Lex Luthor.
Superman represents what we believe in, the Good; Truth, Justice, and the American Way. The goodness of Superman is seen best in contrast to the vileness of Lex Luther (sic)—and so we develop a theology of Hate. God loves Superman and hates Lex: and we are happy with that. Well, perhaps some of us try to be more grace driven than that, and amend that sentiment with the statement: God loves the sinner but hates the sin—we love the sinner and hate the sin.
From here, Todd shows how many of us follow, in actuality if not in intent, this theology of "love the sinner, hate the sin":
We still want Lex to go to hell so we keep hells (sic) gates open—as if we hold their keys: keys we call “righteousness” (law and justice) and our own correct biblical interpretation (truth).
There really is a disturbing trend within much of Christianity (and I consider myself guilty of this, as well) to want to set boundaries on who is "out" and who is "in" when it comes to God's love and salvation. While there is indeed some biblical warrant for this--some passages really do seem to indicate that some people are "out"--even those passages make clear that the decision of who is "in" and who is "out" is God's business, and not ours. But even some people who (on the surface, at least) fully acknowledge this turn that kind of statement into something spiteful when they say things like "your problem isn't with me. It's with God." Anyone who says this isn't truly "loving the sinner" while "hating the sin." What they're really saying, although they probably don't realize it, is "I know perfectly the mind of God on this," which no matter how we cut it, is a rather arrogant thing to say. What's more, we often seem to actively be cheering when/if a "sinner" is condemned to Hell. That's not love!

Todd considers the fact that he (like all of us!) is as much a "sinner" as anyone he (we!) would choose to give that label to--even Lex Luthor:
Even if I were fallen, I thought Jesus went to hell to set the captives free of such demonization and hate; to free us of such fears and prejudice. When I look around at how many in the Church typically respond to those they believe in sin I have to admit— it is easier to embrace a theology of Hate and Fear than one of absolute Love, and if love we must, we much prefer conditional love. We still like to be God, or at least play Him… thus we try to be very wise, play Superman and save our world from Lex Luther (sic)!

I thought to myself, “Boy, if I exposed all of my sins would I be treated like Lex Luther (sic)?” Would you if you revealed your secret sins? We in the church are good about talking about “love covering a multitude of sins” and being “truthful”…yet shun and fear those who tell and live in the truth of their brokenness (as we are all broken). I don’t believe we are called to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” I believe we are simply called to “love”… for indeed, we are all “the sinner”
This, of course, is the hard part. What does it mean to "love"? I certainly wouldn't argue (and I don't think Todd does) that we are to simply ignore the evil that the "Lex Luthors" of the world commit. We still value, for example, the work that real life police do to keep people safe from the actions of criminals. But even though we think (rightly) that criminals are to be prevented from committing their crimes, and even put into prison when necessary, Christians still have an obligation to love:

Matthew 25:34 (TNIV)"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35-36For ... I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, ...39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

40"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

To Superman's credit, despite all the evil Lex Luthor commits against him, Superman is generally not depicted as actually hating Lex Luthor. Indeed, Superman is generally shown to wish that Luthor could be reformed (it's often suggested that Luthor could cure cancer if only his genius was applied to the purpose of good rather than evil). Would that the same could be said of all of us. May God reform us, as we pray for the reformation of those who do not yet know God!

(Incidentally, I apologize to Todd for calling attention to the typographical issues within his quotes. I can speak from experience that this is more of a Facebook issue than one with the writer. Facebook doesn't allow for the editing of notes, once posted. This is why I regularly encourage my own blog readers to come to the actual blog page, http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com, rather than read only the version of my posts which shows up on Facebook, since I've often been able to revise and correct my blog posts, but the Facebook version still has the original, complete with all of my as-yet-unnoticed mistakes!)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Pretender Bumblebee

In 1989, the Transformers toyline was entering its sixth year of existence. The cartoon was long gone by now, and the comic was starting to decline. Hasbro had become so reliant on gimmicks that all Transformers available fell into one of two categories: 1) Micromasters, as seen during the past two weeks, and 2) Pretenders. (Actually, there was a lone exception: Powermaster Optimus Prime, but that was released the previous year, anyway)

Pretenders were Transformers that could fit inside of a "shell" of some kind. Basically, you had a large, limited-articulation action figure, which could split open to reveal a small Transformer. For the most part, Pretenders are among the most reviled gimmicks of the entire line. However, I do have a couple in my collection that I'm glad enough to have that I've held onto them all this time. These are known as "Pretender Classics."

These Pretenders are Classics for the simple reason that these toys represented characters from the early years of the Transformers line. I spent some time discussing the character of Bumblebee in one of my first attempts to do Transformers reviews on this blog. Bumblebee was one of the single most popular characters in Transformers history at the time. It's worth emphasizing (as I did then) that Bumblebee is the only character to have been available in one toy form or another for the entire seven years of the original Transformers line. Pretender Bumblebee was Bumblebee's third toy, after the original Bumblebee and Goldbug, who was the same character with a different name.

As with all Pretenders, Bumblebee's "action figure" splits open to reveal the robot inside. But Bumblebee is unique, even among "Classic" Pretenders, in that the robot inside is actually larger than Bumblebee's original toy. Whereas most Pretender robot toys are considered inferior robots who don't even transform into anything identifiable as a vehicle mode (seriously, most just look like "the same robot folded in half"), Bumblebee has gotten a clear upgrade.

Like both of Bumblebee's previous forms, the inner robot turns into a Volkswagen Beetle. It's truly an iconic form. Sadly, no new version of Bumblebee released nowadays is ever likely to turn into a Beetle again, since licensing issues with car companies are considered a much more serious issue for toy companies to be aware of now, and Volkswagen has made it clear that they want nothing to do with a "warlike" toyline such as Transformers. I suppose it's pretty hard to argue with them with that giant gun on top of the Beetle!

Pretender Bumblebee has one rather odd distinction, though. In designing Bumblebee's head, they went with the shape of often confused fellow Minibot Cliffjumper, rather than the shape of Bumblebee's original toy (you can see an even better side-by-side comparison of heads on Bumblebee's Transformers wiki toy page. Just scroll down a bit).

I mentioned having more than one Pretender Classic, but since these were available separately, I'll deal with the other next week. There's a more complicated story behind how I got that one, anyway....

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Plea for Sanity

I've been blogging for nearly three years now. As might be expected, the nature of this blog has changed over the course of time. As I've noted a couple of times since, I used to be much more open about writing about political realities in the world in which we live. I haven't stopped caring about these issues, but after a few months, it became clear to me that these issues can be so divisive that it can be difficult to write about them clearly without being misunderstood. I'm not terribly concerned about whether or not someone might disagree with me. I'm actually fairly proud of the fact that I have friends who hold very different opinions than my own. But it seems as though there are people out there determined to look at any political view sufficiently different from their own in the worst possible light. Indeed, although I've been generally pleased with the ability (facilitated by social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace) to reconnect with friends I haven't heard from in years, I've found myself downright embarrassed to read some of the more strident (and occasionally at least mildly delusional) views expressed by some of these former acquaintances on their own blogs. Was I ever like that? (I'm saddened to say that, yes, I probably was. Perhaps still am more than I wish to admit.)

I'm likewise glad that I don't get as much political spam e-mail as I used to (thanks to a good spam filter, no doubt!). I learned long ago that most of that stuff can't be trusted, but I'm just as happy not to have to bother with it in the first place. Sadly, the same can't be said for many of the people with whom I work. Perhaps it's natural, working in a seminary environment, that many of my friends and colleagues receive these letters so often. Despite well-meaning intentions (at least by some) to advocate for "the separation of church and state," religion and politics seem inseparably tied together. If you care deeply about your religion, politics probably matters to you on at least some level. Indeed, that's why I still do wade out of the safer waters of "Transformers discussion" from time to time to touch upon these matters. But these e-mails almost always amount to little more than scare tactics: "Listen to me, because everything you hold dear is being threatened!"

Most of you probably didn't click that link in the previous paragraph. Please do so now. It's an essay written by Lori Robertson of FactCheck.org on the subject of chain e-mails, and how unreliable they truly are. In particular, it addresses how such e-mails have been used in the recent and current presidential races. I don't care whether you consider yourself "liberal" or "conservative." The tactics described in this essay, which I've seen time and time again in these e-mails, are simply evil. And if these e-mails can't be stopped, at least those of us who care about truth should make sure that their power is blunted by simply committing a) to never stoop so low as to write such an e-mail. The ends do not justify the means! b) that, if such a letter falls into our hands, we at least follow the steps outlined in the above FactCheck article (seriously, I implore everyone to read it. Here's the link again, just to be sure you can find it) to determine truth from fiction, and c) to never forward an e-mail of this type without at least first having verified its veracity (and even then, I'd suggest to "sit on it" for a day or two, rather than do anything rashly. If the danger in the e-mail is real, it will probably be made known through a more reliable source soon enough).

I know my readership is far too small to make much of a difference, but I'm hoping that, perhaps due to the diverse nature of my friends' views, this small plea for sanity might at least have some effect. We simply can't allow things to continue like they have been, allowing scare tactics to dictate our responses. We should be voting for the President we think will do the best job, not the one we're least scared of....

Monday, March 17, 2008

Continuity Chains and Confusion

While preparing this coming Friday's entry in the "Counting the Collection" series, I had occasion to start thinking about certain trends that have arisen in the various Transformers lines over the years. One major trend these days is for the line to essentially "reset" itself every few years. This is in stark contrast to the original run of the Transformers line, which ran for seven years as simply "Transformers" before hitting a hiatus where no Transformers were produced at all. Now, most lines tend to either have a subtitle (Transformers: Armada, Transformers: Robots in Disguise, for example) or have a clear (if not explicitly named on the packaging) theme running just for that line (this year's movie-related products, last year's "Classics" line).

Sometimes, one line is intended to be in direct continuity with a preceding line ("Armada" led to "Energon," which in turn led to "Cybertron"). Other times, the new line is intended to be a "fresh start" ("Armada" was a clean break from all preceding lines. The movie line is a totally new continuity, as well). This a trend followed by other toy lines that have related fiction, notably "Power Rangers," which after maintaining a line of continuity for a few years, now gets a franchise "reset" every couple of years much as "Transformers" does.

Of course, long-time fans may wish to point out that even the seven years of the original line (often called "Generation One" or "G1") had different continuities in various forms of "G1" media, such as the comic and the cartoon, each being distinct "universes" from each other. However, there is still a sense in which each line has an identifiably unified history running through it, distinct from other lines, which is either explicitly maintained or explicitly rejected when a new line comes along (although there are definitely ambiguous exceptions to this. For example, the Japanese version of "Robots in Disguise" was originally its own distinct entity, but now they retroactively consider it "G1." No, I don't understand how they make this work, either. The American "Robots in Disguise" line still stands alone).

It's certainly easier on new authors and designers to not have to be aware of so many years worth of previous continuity. Still, the toy-makers know that long time fans like to have our references to the way things used to be. This is why each new line seems to find a way to use names like "Optimus Prime," "Starscream," "Megatron," and "Prowl." Generally speaking, the folks at Hasbro no longer intend for, say, the Optimus Prime from the movie line to be the same Optimus Prime that kids in the 80's watched on TV. Rather, they homage the original character by reusing the name, probably using some design elements in common with the original toy (windows on his chest, in Prime's case), and maybe going so far as to cast the same voice actor to play the part in the new medium (Peter Cullen, in Prime's case). This can obviously cause considerable confusion. Although most people "in the know" don't think of "Movie" Prime as the same being as "G1 Prime," the more casual fan who remembers Optimus Prime from his or her childhood will understandably hear the voice of Prime in the movie, see those homaged elements, and believe that the Prime in the movie is simply G1 Prime in a new form. This can then lead to questions like "Why does movie Prime act differently than he did back in the old cartoon?" Such a question doesn't even make sense if you go into the movie understanding that the two Primes are different characters entirely, but if you don't know this already, the question not only makes sense, but can become difficult to answer due to the explanations required to make a person understand why the two Primes are distinct entities.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." I don't think he was saying that maintaining continuity, per se, is a bad thing, but rather that slavishly making sure that all the pieces of new fiction "fit" with all the pieces of older work can be a detriment to the writing as a whole. I think that the folks who create the Transformers toyline (and who therefore hold the rights to the fiction that spins out of it) finally came to understand this after a long stretch with the original toyline, and attempting to "maintain" continuity when they came up with "Generation Two" after the hiatus. Transformers sales did not pick up as they had hoped, and so they went in a new direction with "Beast Wars" (Actually, Beast Wars also tried to maintain continuity at first, but this was dropped when the cartoon first came out, with links to previous continuity being added in later). They'd certainly decided that "full reboot" was the best option by the time "Robots in Disguise" and later "Armada" came out. This does make keeping track of all the histories and characters rather confusing, but I think the quality of the stories that have come out a result (at least, the ones in more recent years, such as the movie and the new animated series) has been far better for it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Airwave

Last week, I wrote about a set of Micromasters: tiny toys that Hasbro designed to compete with the then-popular "Micro Machines" cars found in toy stores of the time. Since each Micromaster was only about two inches tall, Hasbro either had to sell several in a package (as with the Race Car Patrol), or find other things to include with them in order to give enough substance to the set to be worth the usual prices they wanted to charge for the toys. This led to the creation of several bases and playsets being sold with Micromasters. These playsets could themselves transform in some way or another, adding play value to the set.

Airwave itself was a repaint of Nightflight, a member of the Air Strike Patrol, a set of four Micromaster Decepticon planes. Although repaints have existed in the Transformers line since the very beginning, they'd taken on a diminished role in the couple of years prior to the release of the Micromasters. But with only a few rare exceptions, Micromasters that were sold as part of a base or a playset often were repaints of figures sold as one of the lower-priced four-packs. This type of thing enables Hasbro to make the most out of the costs involved in creating a mold, and is why the practice of using repaints remains so common today.

Since Airwave turns into an airplane, it perhaps makes sense that he would be paired with a small airport as part of his playset. This airport consists of little more than a runway with a hangar and a small control tower, but it conveys the idea fairly well. This specimen features another example of my childhood fascination with adding glow-in-the-dark paint to my toys, although here the effect is thankfully limited to just the control tower, where it at least makes a bit of sense. That ramp on the side is included so that you could connect this playset to one of several of the other Micromaster playsets available at the time. The idea was that you could create a "city" by doing so.

As I mentioned earlier, these Micromaster playsets themselves could be transformed. In the case of Airwave's airport, it could change into a small missile bunker, from which Airwave could (theoretically) launch attacks against the enemy. Since both the airport and the bunker are stationary objects, I'm curious as to how the Decepticons would have moved the base from place to place so that it could be deployed effectively, but since Airwave never showed up in any of the fiction (if he even showed up in Japanese fiction, I remain unaware of it), I have no canonical answer to that question.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sitting in the Chair

Yesterday, we had another of those special events at Fuller whereby we honored one of our professors. This one was for a slightly different purpose than the other two. The first link references an occasion where a professor was promoted to full-time, tenured status. The second link references an occasion where a professor was stepping down from full-time status after a long career (he still teaches from time to time, so we don't tend to say he's "retired"). Yesterday's occasion was of a different kind of career milestone: Marianne Meye Thompson was installed into the George Eldon Ladd Chair of New Testament (the chair vacated by the professor referenced in the second link, actually).

Named chairs are an interesting phenomena in higher education. Generally speaking, they exist because some donor has specifically allocated money to fund a position to teach courses in a certain subject. The idea is that the professor's salary (and occasionally an additional operating budget) is paid for out of the interest that accrues on that fund as it is invested. This is, naturally, a separate source of funding from the infamous "general fund" that handles most of the institution's expenses, and so being named to such a chair is not only a high honor for the professor, but something that an institution tries to make happen wherever possible, as it frees up funds for other matters.

Obviously, to call such a position a "chair" is more figurative these days than literal, but I got to take part in an interesting turnabout on the term yesterday. Dr. Thompson's father, himself a prominent (although now retired) New Testament scholar, was a close associate of Ladd (for whom the chair is named), and handled many of Ladd's personal effects after Ladd's death. Apparently, one of these possessions was an actual, physical chair with Fuller's logo on it (presumably the kind often presented to faculty and staff who've worked at the seminary for more than 25 years. Ladd worked at Fuller for about 30.). Dr. Thompson's parents chose to surprise her at the luncheon in her honor by giving Ladd's chair (the physical one!) to her, and I got to be the one to bring it out while the Dean explained its history. So Dr. Thompson not only now sits in Ladd's (figurative) academic chair at the seminary, but she gets to sit in his real one, as well.

It's moments like these that I really love this job!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Going to Church?

In his blog today, Fuller President Richard Mouw commented on the role of the church, reflecting on some comments made by and about Willow Creek in Illinois, one of the largest churches in North America. Willow Creek has recently done an assessment of their "effectiveness in ministry" (Mouw's words), and has come away declaring a focus on what is and what is not within their purview as the local church, and what should instead be up to the individual believer to achieve in terms of spiritual growth.

Like Mouw, I have concerns about how much they "seem willing to concede regarding the limited role of the local church in nurturing spiritual growth." He cites some background for his reasoning that I have little difficulty agreeing with, but find my own thoughts take on a far more instinctual reaction. Since I'm nowhere near as versed on Kuyperian thought as Mouw, this is probably only natural. But in declaring that some aspects of spiritual growth should be not found within the church, I wonder if perhaps Willow Creek is falling victim to a common misunderstanding of what a church is.

Perhaps they would disagree with me, and I certainly don't wish to malign Willow Creek, which has been home to some very good friends, and which I believe has done (and continues to do) a great deal of good work for the Kingdom of Christ. But as I read Mouw's article (and such fragments of other people's comments about Willow Creek's recent assessment), I get the feeling that Willow Creek is thinking of the church (and, thus, the responsibilities Willow Creek holds) in terms of their worship services, their programs, and such services as provided by Willow Creek's staff. And there is a real and valid sense in which it is appropriate for Willow Creek to say (in essence) "this is what we can do, and this is what we can't do." Willow Creek cannot, and should not, try to be all things to all people.

But I'm reminded of the words of a song I used to listen to while I was in college:
From "U Can't Go 2 Church" by AVB (Acappella Vocal Band):

You can't go to church as some people say
The common terminology we use everyday
You can go to a building, that is something you can do
But you can't go to church 'cause the church is you
'Cause the church is you
Spiritual growth has an individual component, to be sure, but it happens in the context of the people of God. That is what the church is, first and foremost: the people. To the extent that some of the people of Willow Creek are having difficulty in this area, it is the responsibility of other people in that community to help try to discover what can be done. We "bear one another's burdens," to use the biblical cliché (Galatians 6:2). Some of this will be (and is) done through the official agencies of the local church, but some will, and must be done by friends simply looking after one another. If people are failing to work toward their own spiritual growth, the church does bear responsibility here, because the church is the people of God.

I don't want to get into the business of suggesting what a large church such as Willow Creek should be doing, in terms of programs and specific answers to the question of how to promote spiritual growth among its members. But I simply cannot shake the idea that they may be giving up this battle too quickly. I pray that God will show them ways that they can help the people within their community with their spiritual growth while they continue to focus on those areas of ministry in which they can be most effective.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: The Micromaster Race Car Patrol

Going through my oldest Transformers toys, I have chosen to review them in individual sale units. That is to say, if toys were packaged together, so you had to buy both at once, as was the case with Grand Slam and Raindance, then I'd review them together. But other toys that may have similar characteristics, but were sold separately, I'll review separately (you'll see the first of a pair of such examples in two weeks). When Hasbro first introduced the concept of the Micromasters, they were available in sets of four, so the Race Car Patrol gets reviewed all at once.

The members of the Race Car Patrol are (from left to right in the image to the right) Tailspin, Roadhandler, Free Wheeler and Swindler (not to be confused with Swindle). Hasbro designed these tiny toys to be in direct competition with the line of "Micro Machines" toys that was incredibly popular at the time (ironically, Galoob, the company that produced Micro Machines, is now a part of Hasbro. It's tempting to point to this as evidence that Hasbro won the battle, but actually, Transformers reached their hiatus in production before Micro Machines did).

Although Micromasters, in some form or another, would continue to be produced throughout the remainder of the original run of the Transformers toy line, this team was one of few to get any serious characterization in the Marvel comic (the cartoon had already ceased to exist in America by this point). The Race Car Patrol actually got two issues more or less devoted to them alone (incidentally, the final two issues written by long-time writer Bob Budiansky). The depiction of the team in these issues highlights some of the issues of scale that have always plagued the fictional depictions of Transformers: although the robots were shown as being only slightly taller than humans (even able to enter human buildings with little-to-no difficulty), they were still perfectly capable of holding humans within their vehicle modes, just like any car. That such an impossible phenomenon would even need an explanation is never considered or touched upon.

A couple of weeks ago, I'd commented that Hasbro began to rely increasingly on gimmicks (besides the concept of transformation itself) to sell the Transformers. This is where I see that situation start to become a real problem. Within months of the introduction of the Micromasters, every Transformers toy being released fit into one of either of two gimmicks: Micromasters such as these, or Pretenders. We'll talk about Pretenders in a couple of weeks. I have another Micromaster to talk about first....

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Intense Days

My day yesterday took me to Los Angeles (for reasons I may explain in another entry later). My wife and I had previously made plans to travel to Manhattan Beach yesterday evening so that we can (finally!) work with our wedding photographer to have albums made for our parents. Since I was already essentially half-way there, I just went to Manhattan Beach in anticipation of meeting up with Michelle that evening. Unfortunately, after finally having made it to the right area, I got a phone call from her informing me that the photographer was sick, and had to reschedule.

Manhattan Beach is a pretty long drive from Monrovia, and by this time, rush-hour traffic was a reality, so it took me almost two hours to make it home from there. I was pretty tired by the end of it all.

Then, when checking my e-mail, I got a letter in regard to another extra-curricular (so to speak) activity I've been involved in (which I also can't talk about much at the moment), asking if I could meet them for an early lunch. I still have to check with my employer on that one, and having taken half of yesterday off for that endeavor, the timing really could have been better. Still, I think I'll be able to manage. It just makes for an intense back-to-back couple of days.

EDIT: I didn't know when I wrote this that I'd get a call later that same day from a cousin from Northern California. Their family was in Anaheim for a convention, and my grandparents were joining them from a little further south for dinner, and they wanted to know if Michelle and I could join them, as well. We took advantage of the opportunity, but that meant another long-ish road trip right after work, and another late arrival home. I'm tired!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Classic Movie Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's

Despite having only really seen her in My Fair Lady (and a little-known movie once thought to be in the public domain called Charade), I've been intrigued by Audrey Hepburn. I have therefore been curious for a long time about the movie commonly considered to be one of her best: Breakfast at Tiffany's. Having found it on sale at Target, I decided to pick it up and finally give it a try. Unfortunately, I come away from it all wondering what all the fuss is about.

But before getting into my main criticisms, I do want to draw attention to one scene that I absolutely love: a scene in which Hepburn's character, Holly Golightly, and Paul Varjak (played by George Peppard, better known to people of my generation as the lead from The A Team) are shopping at Tiffany's, the well-known New York jewelry store. Despite that fact that neither of them have hardly any money (They tell the salesperson that "$10... [is] the outside figure"), the salesperson treats them with respect throughout the sequence, and they ultimately ask to have a Cracker Jack ring engraved. I've gotten so used to seeing scenes where poor people are treated rudely by snobbish salespeople at well-to-do establishments. I hope that Tiffany's got some good customer response out of this movie!

I also want to give the movie credit for dealing with some issues that must have been fairly scandalous at the time, portraying the male lead as a kind of male prostitute (his writing is "sponsored" by a wealthy married woman) and Hepburn's character as a golddigger and a prostitute (truth be told, the movie's never explicit on this point. However, she's clearly looking for a wealthy husband, and seems totally dependent on such men for her welfare). They are able to do this compassionately to the characters, and although I hardly condone such actions, did not feel that these "lifestyles" were being glamorized, as Hepburn's difficulties in finding happiness are front and center of what makes this movie what it is.

But there are a couple of problems that really made the movie an embarrassment for me to watch. The first is the most obvious: Mickey Rooney's role in "yellowface" as Golightly's upstairs neighbor. It was a horribly racist depiction that would (hopefully!) never even be attempted in such a movie today. It is to the producer's credit that he repeatedly apologizes for this characterization in the 45th anniversary DVD commentary. Even if it should never have happened at all, one cannot change the past, and at least he seems to have learned how terrible this was in the years since.

The other problem probably didn't seem important to anyone at the time, and may not even be on a lot of people's radar today: at a couple of points in late in the movie, Varjak tells Golightly (in one form or another) that he "owns" her. Most pointed is a line near the very end: "I love you! You belong to me!" That's not romantic. That's creepy! Loving someone does not give you a claim to that person. The only way two people belong to each other is if both consent to belong to each other, and it's clearly the case that Golightly has made no such commitment at that time. In fact, as much as I think Golightly's making a huge mistake by trying to flee the country at this point in the movie, when she says "people don't belong to each other" in response to Varjak's assertion, I want to shout "Right on!" The fact that she seems to turn around and return to Varjak at the end (only minutes later) only seems to support his horrible assertion of ownership, undercutting the one thing I thought she had right at that point, and I simply cannot support such a terribly false depiction of what love is supposed to be. (Truth be told, I have a similar problem with the end of My Fair Lady, when Eliza Doolittle returns to Henry Higgins. At least George Bernard Shaw got it right in Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based. No self-respecting woman would return to such a man! The fact that there are a lot of women who do return to such men is a tragedy, and not something to be glamorized in a romantic movie!)

A quick side-note in response to the use of an unnamed cat in this film. The cat seems to be, on some level, a corollary to Golightly's own life. A "free" creature belonging to no one. As a cat-owner myself (who's cat was formerly a stray), I take in interest in such things. I'm amazed at how that cat is treated on screen. It's carried in a taxicab simply wrapped up in a towel. It's retrieved from having been out in a rainstorm and held between the two regulars as they kiss. Now, my wife is fond of pointing out that our cat is a "lover cat." It is rather amiable and docile most of the time, and has never bitten or maliciously attacked us. But I know that if I tried to carry our cat in a car without first putting it in car carrier, or if I held her (while wet and freezing!) in my arms like they do this cat in the movie, our cat would definitely make a fuss and try to escape, and I'd probably have a few scratches to show for it. It's clear that the cat they're using isn't some animatronic creature, but is in fact a real cat. That cat must be really well trained (or perhaps drugged!).

But as interesting as that is from a technical perspective, it's not enough to save the movie for me. It's going straight to my Peerflix "for sale" pile.

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