Monday, September 29, 2008

Treating Women as Sex Objects - Something You'd Think Both Conservative and Liberal Christians Would Be Against

It's no surprise that conservatives and liberals (to say nothing of those of us in between) have very different ideas about what proper gender roles look like. Some people have these differences of opinion based on religious beliefs, while others have more secular reasons for their opinions. But for those of us who call ourselves Christian, one would think that treating women with respect would be something we can agree on.

I find myself completely dumb-founded by the fact that one of my conservative Christian acquaintances seems to have no problem with this image (one that I'm actually a bit embarrassed to post, although I think it's "clean" enough and is necessary for proper discussion):
For those who somehow don't know, "MILF" is shorthand for a vulgar statement (that I won't spell out here!) suggesting an older woman deemed sexually attractive. My acquaintance has been challenged as to the appropriateness of this image, being told that it's not a positive term, but has simply responded that she thinks it's a compliment in the context of a candidate who's both "pro-life" and "beautiful."

I still disagree (Actually, the fact that my acquaintance is, herself, a woman only adds to my surprise).

Sarah Palin's name isn't even used here! The vice-presidential candidate has been reduced to a term (a vulgar term!) pointing out that some people think she's sexually desirable. Even if you like her as a political candidate (perhaps especially if you like her), that should not be an appropriate measure for Christians, who are called to treat people with respect.

How is it that people can't see that? This should be one of those things that conservatives and liberals can find common ground on!

Can anyone help me understand this?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: BotCon 2007 Thundercracker

Generally speaking, the rule for Transformer reviews here has always been, "review figures as packaged units." That is to say, if a figure was packaged on its own (as most are), it gets reviewed on its own, but if it was sold as part of a set (such as with the Micromaster Race Car Patrol or a Mini-Con set), I'll review all the figures in the set at once.

By that logic, I should be reviewing all five figures that were sold in the BotCon 2007 set (for some reason, Dreadwind is missing from those pictures, but Dreadwind is also part of that set).

BotCon Thundercracker Robot ModeAhh, well, it's my blog. I make the rules, and I can break them if I think I need to. And the reason I'm breaking that rule this time is because I want to specifically comment on BotCon Thundercracker as a legacy-bearer to the phenomenon I discussed last week: G1 Starscream as the most-often redecoed figure in Transformers history (no one's suggested I'm wrong about that assertion yet).

For those who don't know, BotCon Thundercracker is probably the most controversial convention exclusive figure in history. I touched upon this a bit when the BotCon 2007 figures were first announced, but the controversy remains even now, well over a year later. The reason for the controversy, put most simply, is that somewhere along the line, whenever a Starscream figure was made (in any line), the figure would soon get redecoed and given a name that homaged one of G1 Starscream's mold buddies, especially Thundercracker and Skywarp, but occasionally Ramjet. This assumption actually isn't universally true, but it's happened often enough to become the expectation.

BotCon Thundercracker Vehicle ModeAfter the "Classics" Starscream toy was released as part of the "Classics" line, both Skywarp and Ramjet were released at retail as redecoes (a remold in the case of Ramjet) . When Hasbro decided to allow Fun Publications to use Thundercracker (and Dirge and Thrust, although no toy using those names has been a reuse of a "Starscream" mold since the original), it all but guaranteed that no "Classics" Thundercracker toy would ever be made available at the retail level in the US.*  Thus, many fans unwilling to pay the (admittedly high) price of getting the figure through the convention screamed that their collection of "Classics Seekers" was "incomplete."

The reasoning by Hasbro at the time was that the retail market would likely not bear a fourth (let alone a fifth and sixth) use of the same mold in such a short time frame. Allowing the character to be used at BotCon therefore made sense. At least some fans would have a chance to own this figure. And, to be fair, many fans are content with that response. Others seem to argue that they would rather risk never having the figures made at all if the only immediate alternative was a rare convention exclusive. After all, you never know what the future holds. Wait long enough, and there will be another opportunity to use the mold. We could have seen "Classics" Thundercracker released at retail then. The release of Acid Storm just a month or so ago, using that same mold, seemed to confirm the potential viability of this argument.

I would argue rather strongly that some fans complain too much, acting as though they have some "right" to certain toys. Hasbro made the decision that seemed best at the time, and it helped contribute to a very successful 2007 convention. But, even so, there now exists another option. Takara in Japan has released their own version. Of course, it's still not at all cheap. In fact, it's more expensive than the per-toy cost of the BotCon version (although I grant that using BigBadToyStore.com as a reference for price is somewhat misleading, I think this claim will still hold true as other sites are found and compared). So, the complaining is probably bound to continue.

*Or, at least, this is what everyone assumed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Custom Tech Specs and Action Master Power Plans for Soundblaster and Ultra Magnus

It's been a long time since I've posted any custom Power Plans or Tech Specs. I'd gone through most of my Power Plan creations in these two postings last year, but upon going through my files, I found that I'd missed a couple. I'm certain that the Ultra Magnus figure itself hails from Custom Masters. It may be that Soundblaster comes from there, too, but I'm no longer sure. But, first, here are the Tech Specs I completed for both figures:
Action Master Soundblaster Tech Specs
Action Master Ultra Magnus Tech SpecsNow, here are the Power Plans. The Soundblaster plans are incomplete, not containing any of the text that the other Power Plans have, which probably explains why I didn't post this image earlier. I'm not sure why I never finished it....
Action Master Ultra Magnus Power PlansAction Master Soundblaster Power Plans

Finally, waaay back when I was starting this blog, I posted a picture of a custom package I made for the Ultra Magnus Action Master. I created both a front and a back for that. Here are those images.
Action Master Ultra Magnus Custom Package frontAction Master Ultra Magnus Custom Package back

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reflectionary: A Change of Plans

On Saturday, I announced that the weekly Reflectionary post would be moved to Tuesdays, effective today.

That entry is written, but there's been a change of plans.

Starting this coming Saturday, I will be contributing weekly lectionary reflections (I don't yet know if the Reflectionary title will be retained) to the Presbyterian Bloggers site.

Since I was unaware of this change only a few days ago, an explanation is in order. Last Monday, a post went up asking for a volunteer to contribute "a weekly 'Chewing on the Word: Lectionary Ruminations' on Saturdays." Since the request seemed a bit similar to what I was already doing with The Reflectionary, I sent an e-mail offering my services, and suggesting that the site coordinator check out the work I'd already done to see if it matched what they were looking for.

Meanwhile, I was already considering changing when my weekly post would go up. Transforming Seminarian has a fairly limited readership, dependent upon Google hits as much as word-of-mouth to generate hits. I keep track of the page hits to this site, as well as where viewers found it from. I found that most people who found the Reflectionary posts were finding them via Google, but only after the Sunday worship gathering for which the posts were intended. A Tuesday posting would have given people more time to find the posts before the readings would be used in church. With almost a week having passed since I sent the e-mail to the Presbyterian Bloggers site, and not having heard anything, I decided to go ahead and announce the change.

Yesterday morning, I got an e-mail from the Presbyterian Bloggers site coordinator which said "Let's give it a whirl and see how it goes." Another e-mail, sent at the same time, granted me access to the site, where I found that I'd already been announced as the new contributor of "Weekly Discussion of the Lectionary." Since that site has a larger readership than mine does, the Saturday posting date is much more appropriate.

Since I have no desire to dilute the effectiveness of my contributions before I've even started posting them to the new venue, it seemed best to postpone the entry intended for today, and post it over there on Saturday. See you there!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Children's Sermon Reflections

Desmond Tutu's children's sermonNot all churches have them, but a good number of congregations I've worshiped with over the years participate in the tradition of the "Children's Sermon." In my experience, what usually happens is the pastor (or an another adult worship leader) asks kids to come to the front of the sanctuary, and he or she spends some time talking to the kids about some Christian ideal. As often as not, the Children's Sermon is a simplified form of the same message that the main sermon will be about later in the service. I'd be interested to know if any of you have churches that have such times in your worship gatherings specifically for kids, but handle them differently.

Yesterday's worship service had an intriguing example of this phenomenon. The pastor was preaching on Matthew 20:1-16 (like many churches, our church follows the Revised Common Lectionary. I shared a brief thought on the passage on Saturday, in preparation for this very service). This passage details Jesus' parable of workers hired at various points in the day, yet who are all paid the same wages. It's a well-known story, even (I expect) among many of the kids present.

The pastor conveyed the point of this story to the kids by dividing them into three groups. To the first group, he asked them to imagine that they were being hired to dust the sanctuary, and offered to "pay" them (this was pretend, remember!) $50 for the "day's" work. He handed out towels, and sent them to "dust" the pulpit. That group of kids scattered to begin their "work." Informing everyone that they were imagining that a couple of hours had passed, he then "hired" the second group, and they got to "dust" the communion table. Then, finally, after a few more pretend "hours," he "hired" the third group, who "dusted" the baptismal font.

He then got the group back together, and asked the first group how much, if they were to be paid $50, the third group, who had "worked" so much less, deserved. A few answers were shouted out (one even suggested a higher number!), and the pastor then asked them how they'd feel if the third group was also paid $50. At least one kid shouted "No fair!" and the point of the Children's Sermon was made.

I often feel like having gone to seminary--coupled with my sometimes rather exacting personality--has "spoiled" me for actual worship. I'm always thinking through how a pastor or leader might have done something better. I do not recommend this practice, and say this in the form of a confession as much as anything else. But I noticed, for example, that the kids were difficult to bring back together for the conclusion of the Children's Sermon, having been dispersed to do their "work." I wondered if it might have worked better if the pastor had gotten an adult volunteer to join each of the three groups in their "work," who would then assist in bringing them all back together again at the end.

I'll never know, of course. And it's probably not important. Even with the mild chaos present, the pastor was able to convey the point of his message--not just to the kids present (indeed, probably not to all of them, although I'm confident that quite a lot of them got it), but also to the adults watching all this happen. I've heard it said that Children's Sermons are as much for the adults as for the kids. And let's be honest, it's not like all adults are paying attention to the "adult" sermon, either!

A number of years ago, I had a part-time job as a Youth Director. As I've said before, I don't consider that job to be one of the successful highlights of my career. But one of my responsibilities there was to give the weekly Children's Sermon, something I did faithfully each week while I was there. I know very well how difficult it is to keep the attention of such a group of young people, even for such a short time. On my last Sunday at the church, as I left that position having felt like I'd failed the church and the youth I was intended to serve, one of the adults came forward to tell me that she considered herself to have come to know Jesus through something I said in one of my Children's Sermons. I have no idea what I said that she found so meaningful. I certainly consider this more the action of God than of my own abilities, which I was especially unsure of in that context. But it definitely taught me the value of even such apparently mundane or less than "professional-looking" aspects of a worship service. God can, and does, use them. I certainly pray that this was the case in yesterday's Children's Sermon.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Reflectionary: Scripture for Worship on September 21, 2008

The Reflectionary is a weekly blog entry consisting of questions and comments on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary used at many Christian churches.

Starting September 27th, entries may be found via Presbyterian Bloggers. Each entry features the readings for the following Sunday, in hopes of enhancing the experience of participation during one's regular Sunday worship gathering.


Here are the passages for September 21, 2008, the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A). All links are to the TNIV via BibleGateway.com, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the links at BibleGateway.com).

Exodus 16:2-15
  • As I read of the Israelites' grumblings, even to the point of wishing they were back in Egypt (where they were cruelly treated as slaves), I am reminded of how basic a need hunger is. Can you think of any time when you or someone you knew was willing to give up an essential freedom, just in order to be sure that basic needs were being met?
  • Moses goes to some lengths to tell the Israelites that their complaints are not so much with him or with his brother Aaron, but with God. Why does God meet the needs of those who complain against God in this instance, rather than punish them for their lack of faith?
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
  • Often, the Psalms praise God for deeds God has done in the history of Israel. Parts of the Exodus story (including the passage above) are repeated here. How many specific deeds are related? Look at how those deeds are spread across many chapters and books in that story. How often do you see these events retold elsewhere in the Bible? Why does the Bible bother with this repetition?
Philippians 1:21-30
  • The apostle Paul ponders questions of his own life and death in this passage. Some have argued that, if it weren't for Paul's desire to be a blessing to other people, this passage suggests that it would be just as well for him to die. What would you have to say to such an argument? Why are we as Christians called to live, rather than to just wait for the end?
  • What is Paul's attitude toward suffering?
Matthew 20:1-16
  • Different commentaries and footnotes on the Bible occasionally give differing ideas of what a "denarius" was worth (one decades-old note I saw last week suggested "about twenty cents," which strikes me as low, even accounting for inflation!). Others avoid giving clear modern equivalents, suggesting instead that the denarius was the usual amount paid to a laborer for a day's work. Does this explain why the first group of workers were so willing to go to work for that stated amount (this first group being the only group we are explicitly told was given an exact value for their wages), despite their clear discontent at the end of the story?
  • What "wages" do we expect to be paid for service to Jesus? In what ways might we sometimes act like the first group? Who might you be upset to see paid those same "wages"?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Starscream (Reissue)

Starscream Robot ModeWhen it comes to redecos, Starscream was the original. Before it became controversial whenever a new toy used the same mold as some previously existing toy, the Transformers line was introduced in 1984 with three jets that differed only in their coloration: Starscream, Thundercracker, and Skywarp. Since Starscream is considered the leader of this trio (and is certainly the most well-known of them all), it is appropriate to consider Starscream the "original" of which the other two are redecos (even if, technically, they all came out at the same time, and thus are equally redecos of each other).

Starscream is one of the most well-known characters of the entire Transformers franchise, even having been given a new form (or two) within the original "Generation One" line itself. Perhaps this is because of his constant attempts (which nearly always failed) to overthrow Megatron as the leader of the Decepticons. Starscream was a self-aggrandizing braggart with greater ambition than ability--not that his ability was meager, by any means. He just simply doesn't have the courage to truly be a leader. One well-placed shot against him, or some poorly-planned-for turn of fortune, would send Starscream running for his life. But, for all his failures, he kept on trying. Starscream is a character you just couldn't ever keep down entirely. Even after having been destroyed by Galvatron (Megatron in his new form in 1986's Transformers: The Movie), Starscream came back as a ghost, apparently possessing a spark that could never be extinguished.

Starscream vehicle modeThis specimen of the toy is the 2001 Japanese reissue, but is practically identical to the 1984 original. Turning into an F-15 fighter jet, this mold has been given at least twelve official redecos or remolds. I haven't researched this claim fully, but I do believe that's a record among all the molds created in the Transformers long history (And, given such a large number, it's entirely possible I've missed a few. Note that I'm not counting the 2001 reissue, being intended to be identical to the 1984 version, among these, nor am I counting any reissues intended to be identical to another existing deco.). The mold must have the same never-to-be-extinguished life span as the character it represents!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Accept No Substitutes - The Transformers Wiki's New Site

A little over two years ago now, I found a Wiki dedicated to the Transformers which was laying fallow on the Internet. Someone else had created it some time earlier — I don't know who. But after I and some others rediscovered it, we brought it to the attention of the greater fan community in posts like the one linked above.

That Wiki grew and evolved as many Transformers fans discovered and contributed to it, and eventually developed its own identity as one of the most unique and informative sources of information for any fan-specific genre on the Internet.

As the Wiki evolved, so too did the demands of the owners of the server on which the Wiki was based, who (understandably) needed to find ways of making the ads on the Wiki profitable enough to keep such a site in existence. Unfortunately, the ads they used tended to get in the way of the actual data that people were coming to the Wiki to find, and requests that a more congenial compromise be found were met with failed promises and (in some cases) outright lies and scare-tactics.

And so, the fan-base behind the Wiki, including its moderators and its most dedicated and articulate contributors, have moved to a new server, which can be found at www.tfwiki.net. The "old" Wiki still exists, but seems to be quickly degenerating into chaos. Blame is already being tossed around on all sides. The owners of the server blame those of us who moved, those of us who moved blame the owners, in addition to a bunch of random trolls who seem to have found a new playground. Either way, the old site (which I will not link to directly, but you can find easy enough if you want to) is increasingly not the best place to go to for solid Transformers information (yes, there's some humor on "our" Wiki, which some folks find objectionable, but I challenge anyone to point out where that humor gets in the way of the solid information). For that, go to the TFwiki, where all the best contributors that made the old version great and built its stellar reputation have gone to make the new site even better. There will still be ads — no one was objecting to ads, per se — but ads won't get in the way of your enjoyment of the site anymore!

Goofy Scrabble Parody

In honor of my sister's birthday (yesterday), here is a parody I wrote on-the-fly in the middle of one of the Scrabble games she and I regularly play on Facebook.

To the tune of Limbo Rock (more popularly thought of in my family as the tune to "The Bibbibabka Ditty" from an episode of Perfect Strangers)
When... you... play a Scrabble word
Just don't make it too absurd
If you play a word that's long
You can sing a happy song
When you lay that bingo down
All your frowns turn upside down!
So you win the Scrabble game
And go in the hall of fame!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Out of Season

The "hunting trilogy" are among the better-known Warner Brothers cartoons. Featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd, the "hunting trilogy" consists of Rabbit Fire, Rabbit Seasoning, and Duck! Rabbit, Duck! The whole cartoon of Duck! Rabbit, Duck! may be viewed below (link via AOL Video):


While Rabbit Fire gave us the immortal "Wabbit season! Duck season!" bit. Duck! Rabbit, Duck! really had fun with the concept of various signs detailing every type of "game" imaginable to be hunted. Still, I was a bit surprised to find the following while walking the streets of Pasadena last week:
Job-hunting season opens Sunday? I've apparently been hunting out of season for the past year! Don't tell the authorities! ;)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Reflectionary: Scripture for Worship on September 14, 2008

The Reflectionary is a weekly blog entry consisting of questions and comments on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary used at many Christian churches.

A new entry is added each Saturday, and features the readings for the following day, in hopes of enhancing the experience of participation during one's regular Sunday worship gathering.


Here are the passages for September 14, 2008, the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A). All links are to the TNIV via BibleGateway.com, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the links at BibleGateway.com).

Exodus 14:19-31

Psalm 114:1-8 or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
  • Churches are given the option of choosing either passage for the "Psalm" this week. One of the down-sides to BibleGateway.com is that the site doesn't really know how to handle partial verses, such as that called for with verse 1b in the Exodus passage. The letter "b" indicates that only a part of the verse is to be read as part of the lectionary. In this case, the second part, starting with "I will sing to the LORD."
  • Note that the Exodus passage here takes place immediately after the end of the previous passage.
Romans 14:1-12
  • What does Paul mean when he refers to "weak faith"? What might it mean to truly "accept" a person with such faith?
  • Does this passage have anything to say about differences between Christian denominations today? What articles of faith should we hold to be essential, that we should continue to refuse to compromise on?
Matthew 18:21-35
  • It's worth noting that the number "seven" is a significant number in Biblical literature, often something far beyond what a literal reading of the number as a number might suggest. Is this the case here? When Peter suggests seven times to forgive someone, does he plan on counting the number of times, only to be told differently by Jesus?
  • Pay attention to the footnotes for this reading, particularly in regard to how much a "talent" and a "dinarius" was worth in 1st century currency.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Generation Two Bumblebee

Generation Two Bumblebee Robot ModeWhen I first discussed Generation Two several months ago, I mentioned that the first toys to come out in the line were simply old molds given new colors. Bumblebee is one example. Having been one of the most popular characters back in the Generation One era, it's no surprise that Bumblebee was chosen for a new release as the Transformers franchise was attempting to come back from near-death. Several other "Minibots," as toys in Bumblebee's size class were then called, were also re-released. All Generation Two Minibots were "vacuum metalized." That is to say, basically given colored chrome. Ironically, this means that G2 Bumblebee is more gold than Goldbug, the character's second G1 form.

One recurring problem with a lot of toys that have been vacuum metalized is that they tend to chip and flake pretty easily. Oddly enough, I haven't seen this problem occur with the G2 Minibots all that often. I'm not at all sure why they should be immune (and indeed, I don't think that they are), but the Beast Wars Transmetals, which also used this feature a lot, seem to have much more common problems in this regard.

Generation Two Bumblebee Vehicle ModeLike pretty much all Bumblebees up until a few years ago, Generation Two Bumblebee turns into a Volkswagen Beetle. This was, of course, back before Hasbro paid so much attention to the need to license vehicle forms from the companies that make the vehicles. And since Volkswagen has apparently decided they want nothing to do with such a "warlike" line as Transformers, it's a form of Bumblebee's that will likely always remain a part of the character's past. I don't suppose anyone's mentioned to Volkswagen that most forms of the character (but not quite all) don't carry a weapon at all....

Generation One Bumblebee and Generation Two BumblebeeHere's a quick shot of Generation Two Bumblebee alongside the original version. As you can see, the basic "yellow" color scheme has remained intact. The G2 version is just "shiny" now!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Truth in Advertising? The Wheel of Fortune Million Dollar Prize

Wheel of Fortune started its 26th syndicated season this week. The main change this year: the addition of a million-dollar top prize. You've probably seen the commercials by now: "One Spin. One Solve. One Million Dollars!"

I beg to differ with the claim made in that commercial. In order to actually win that million, a contestant has to successfully complete each of the following steps.
  1. Land on the special "Million Dollar Wedge" located on the wheel during one of the first three rounds (Yes, you have to land in the part that says "One Million." Those "Bankrupts" on either side are there for a reason.).
  2. Pick a consonant. If it's in the puzzle, you may pick up the wedge. No other contestant will have the chance at the million this episode.
  3. Solve that puzzle correctly without hitting a bankrupt.
  4. Don't hit a bankrupt for the rest of the game.
  5. Win the game with more money than either of your two opponents.
  6. At this point, one of the 24 cards on the Bonus Round wheel is replaced with a "$1,000,000" card. You must spin to the space containing that card (Cards are closed before spinning, and not opened until after the puzzle is attempted, so contestants will not know if they got the right card until after they've already solved, or failed to solve, the puzzle.).
  7. Solve the Bonus Round Puzzle correctly.
The "One Spin, One Solve" bit only applies to Steps #6 and #7. It totally ignores the hurdles that one has to go through before that, just to earn a 1-in-24 chance of winning the million! Actually, it's considerably worse than that. The contestant who wins the game having successfully completed steps #1-#5 only has 1-in-24 chance of spinning the right card! And those Bonus Round Puzzles are hard! I think it's fair to say that most contestants fail to solve the Bonus Round Puzzle correctly.

I'm not at all bothered that the million is hard to win. It should be. In fact, it should be so hard to win that this whole year could conceivably go by without a single million dollar winner (For comparison, it's been over five years since a contestant won the million dollars on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire). But it's more than a little disingenuous to advertise the big prize as though it isn't all that hard, skipping HUGE steps one has to pass through in order to even be eligible.

Even worse, the Million Dollar Wedge replaces the similarly-designed $10,000 prize, which someone was able to win just by accomplishing the first three steps of this marathon in previous years. Anyone who is eligible for the Million would have had that $10,000 cash under the old rules. I'm sure more than a few of the more than 23-out-of-24 contestants (and there's no way to count how many people earned that $10,000 who would still have lost their million-dollar chance by hitting a bankrupt later in the show, but kept the $10,000 under the old rules) who win the chance to pick up that Million Dollar Wedge would rather have had the 10 Grand sure thing.

(UPDATE: 10/14/08, 7:55 pm - Game show producers just can't help but blab, can they? As was well-known even before now, someone won the million tonight. While I extend my congratulations to the lucky contestant, I'm pleased to note that the only time I heard Charlie O'Donnell say the "One spin, one solve" bit, it was actually relevant, since the contestant HAD passed steps #1-#5 by that point.)

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Are You Rich?

Whatever else is true, when John McCain responded to Pastor Rick Warren's challenge to "define rich" at the Saddleback forum a few weeks ago by coming up with the number "five million," he wasn't intending to give an answer to be taken at face value. John McCain's apparent intention wasn't to say that only people who make so much should be classified as "rich," so much as he was trying to change the focus of the question lest his opponents get into what many people consider "class warfare," pitting the "rich" against the "poor" (however those terms are to be defined).

There is something important to recognizing that. Each group needs the other to achieve their own goals, whether it be a high enough paycheck to survive from week to week, or the accomplishment of some great task such as building a skyscraper. No one gets by on their own, and we fight against those in the "other" class to our own potential peril. Company owners that don't treat their workers well risk the workers deciding to strike, or just quit, resulting in less work being done and increased costs as replacements are found and trained. Lower-class people who successfully shift more of the tax burden to wealthy entrepreneurs run the risk of there being less money available for the company owner to pay for higher salaries or company benefits. It is a statement of the obvious to say that tax policy, one of the reasons a presidential candidate is asked a question such as "define rich," is a complicated matter, and the potential for unplanned consequences is not one to be taken lightly.

Still, I have to admit that I was more than a little insulted when McCain gave such a huge number as his answer. According to the LA Times, less than 1/10th of 1% of Americans make $5 million a year (McCain's perhaps-not-serious answer made it clear that his number was a reference to income, as opposed to simply accumulated wealth). I have trouble with a definition of "rich" that ends up saying that less than 1/10th of 1% of the people in what is almost universally defined as "the richest country on earth" are actually "rich" themselves. (UPDATE: 10/2/08 - McCain apparently recently said he's "not a rich man." I'm still looking for context for that, but that's pretty insulting, too, unless the context somehow manages to make that look completely the opposite of what it sounds like. And, frankly, just saying that most of the wealth is his wife's, and not his, won't help....)

My sister told me once that she read something for college that said that "rich" was pretty universally defined as "anyone with more money than you have," and I certainly agree that $5 million, as a definition of "rich," works under those terms. But it's not very useful, precisely because it defines "rich" so high that it's more money than almost anybody has!

Both of the presidential candidates not only make far more money than most of us, but indeed would fit into the "rich" category even by their own definitions (Obama suggested $250,000, which is in the 3-to-4% range of Americans. He and his wife together make about $4.2 million. McCain and his wife gross about $6-and-a-half million.) Of course, this is going to be true for any viable presidential candidate, and we've long since come to understand this as a reality of American politics.

I got into an online argument last week with a person who claimed not to be "rich," despite the fact that he and his wife make about $125,000 a year. The reason he seems to feel that he can claim this is because 1) that amount is gross, not after-tax, so he actually has about 1/3 less than that to live on, 2) he and his wife have sufficient expenses in the form of student loans, a mortgage, and the probable need to replace a car in the near future, that there really isn't all that much left over. At least, that's the way he says it (I've tried to be fair to him here, although he may, of course, see things differently).

I claimed that, since $125,000 a year (even before taxes) is more than what 80% of American households make, it's not especially honest to claim that he's not "rich." Naturally, he did not respond well to this accusation. We went around the bend for a while on definitions and arguments, but never really got anywhere. Suffice it to say, $125K is an order of magnitude higher than my household makes, and I'd love to be in a place where I had a mortgage to have to pay off, because at least those payments would be going into owning my own home, which I could theoretically sell (maybe even for a profit) at a later date, rather than my current situation of throwing money that I'll never see again into rent each month, just so I can live in a place where, should my manager decide to change policies, I could find myself forced to move out of, without any guarantee of being able to find another place for my wife and I to live as "cheaply." (Anyone can tell you that rent in Southern California is far from "cheap.")

But, ultimately, this quesiton is about more than just figuring out what the most equitable tax policy should be. There's a real question here: are you rich? It's hard to imagine very many individuals who would say so of themselves, but most of the Christian blogs and websites I've read recently would definitely say "yes." I confess that I find most of their arguments a bit tiring. For example, I was a bit annoyed some time back to find an article that had a lot of people with real financial difficulty (some self-imposed, some not) asking what to do about their problems, and the answer the article gave relied solely on asking the Holy Spirit to change our hearts and to learn to be content. It's not that I disagree with the basic premise (if the Holy Spirit doesn't enable us to make the necessary sacrifices, we'll never be able to exercise the self-control necessary to deal with the financial problems) so much as I think it's a cop-out. It seems to assume that these people haven't already asked the Holy Spirit for help. I'm a firm believer that God uses people in all walks of life, including financial planning, to give wisdom to those of us who may lack it. Instead of giving a tacit scolding, suggesting that people with problems haven't let the Holy Spirit work in them enough, how about suggestions that might help actually deal with their real problems?

As to other Christians who comment on this matter, I seem to find a lot of sites (both "liberal" and "conservative") that don't stop at saying "give until it hurts," but indeed seem to send a message of "whatever it is you're giving, it's still not enough." Yes, even most Americans who are legally in poverty make more than people in many other parts of the world. To that, I counter: people in those other parts of the world don't have to worry about $1000+ per month housing costs (their other legitimate needs notwithstanding, it certainly seems to be the case that they can do more with less money than would be viable here in America). Wealth, I'm convinced, is not best defined in terms of sheer dollars alone, nor does it seem particularly helpful to define it solely in terms of comparison with other people.

In the end, however much I may know that I have more than people in other parts of the world, I don't feel very rich, living paycheck-to-paycheck with no margin for surprises. Perhaps I myself am guilty of believing that "anyone who has more money than you do" definition of what "rich" is. Perhaps I've simply gotten too blinded by my own problems to see the bigger picture. Perhaps you find yourself in the same position.

I'm certainly no financial planner. I got my training in Biblical literature, so I do often try to look at what the Bible says to various situations. And I do find a lot that agrees with the other Christian writers I've already commented about. I'm struck by the fact that the Bible tells stories of people who, although they have serious economic problems, are rewarded for their generosity. Whether it's a widow who gives food to Elijah or some disciples sharing a few loaves and fish with Jesus for the crowd, we are told that God encourages even those of us who think we have very little to give what we have.

So, perhaps we're caught a bit in the middle. I imagine that the widow who was convinced that she would die of hunger was rather upset at God when she was commanded to give food to Elijah, and even more so when her son later becomes ill after she had given what she had to God's prophet. Likewise I can certainly get upset at God for allowing my own current situation to continue, especially as it continues in the midst of an admittedly human attempt to be faithful to God's call upon my life. But God didn't punish the widow for her frustration, which she voices openly in I Kings 17:18, but she is instead given what she needs. I can only hope that this situation holds true for me, as well. I've certainly survived this far!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Reflectionary: Scripture for Worship on September 7, 2008

The Reflectionary is a weekly blog entry consisting of questions and comments on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary used at many Christian churches.

A new entry is added each Saturday, and features the readings for the following day, in hopes of enhancing the experience of participation during one's regular Sunday worship gathering.


Here are the passages for September 7, 2008, the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A). All links are to the TNIV via BibleGateway.com, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the links at BibleGateway.com).

Exodus 12:1-14
  • This passage starts with God telling Moses about how God's people are to order their calendar. Two questions: 1) Why don't Christians use the same calendar today? 2) The first significant action described in this passage relates to the tenth day of the first month. Why isn't the first day of this first month mentioned?
  • God gives fairly specific directions on how the Passover meal is to be prepared and eaten. What is the significance of the specific instructions? Why not use another type of animal, for example?
Psalm 149:1-9

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20
  • Jesus tells his followers that their actions on earth will have significance in heaven. How might this play out? What if two sets of Christians disagree? What would be the heavenly impact of such a disagreement?

Friday, September 05, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Battle Unicorn

Battle Unicorn Beast ModeWhen the Beast Machines toy line was wrapping up, one of the last toys produced for the line was Battle Unicorn (yet another entry from the "unimaginative name department," I know). Partly because Battle Unicorn was near the end of the line, it was not shipped as widely as some of the other toys, and many fans found themselves unable to find Battle Unicorn when it came out.

Although most fans continue to buy their Transformers at the local toy store, an increasing number do their shopping online. This has led to the creation of several online-only toy stores, many of which specialize in Transformers. It is a widely-held belief that people want what they can't have, and since Battle Unicorn was apparently rare, many fans clamored for a way to get it, many even promising to pay premium prices for the rare item. One particular online store, BigBadToyStore.com, announced that they had worked out a deal with Hasbro to get a supply of Battle Unicorns, and the toy practically became a "BigBadToyStore.com exclusive."

Battle Unicorn Robot ModeUnfortunately for BBTS, nowhere near as many fans were willing to pay those "premium prices" as BBTS had expected. The price BBTS was charging was admittedly roughly double the price of what Battle Unicorn had sold for at retail, so perhaps it's not too surprising that people had been put off by that (their promises notwithstanding). I'm guilty of some of this, myself. My own specimen came not from BBTS, but from an eBay auction that was ultimately cheaper than BBTS's price (even after accounting for shipping, though in my defense, I never promised to pay those premium prices for this toy). But for whatever reason, BBTS found themselves with a HUGE supply of Battle Unicorns that they couldn't get rid of. In fact, they still have a supply available to this day, despite lowering the price to clearance levels (although I feel sure that I've seen the price even lower than I see when I check these days). If the toy does appeal to you, you can buy it via this link.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

How to Tell a Fact From an Opinion

It's no secret that online dialogue on the Internet can often get pretty heated. Studies have been done suggesting that it's a side-effect of the anonymous nature of so much of that dialogue. One way in which people often try to support their arguments is by noting that some of what they say is an opinion. An opinion, it is argued, is the person's own feelings on a matter, and is therefore unassailable by one's opponents. Naturally, this line of reasoning can only work so far. An internet poster who posts only incendiary opinions is still to be avoided, even if that person acknowledges that it's all that person's opinion.

The alternative, of course, is when one argues that something is not simply an opinion, but is being viewed objectively on the basis of facts. Facts, it is assumed, form a basis for discussion that all readers can agree to.

If only it were so easy.

All too often, one can argue that something is a fact when it isn't really. I got into a bit of an argument with someone on a Transformers board last week when he argued that some toys were "objectively" better than others. As I attempted to point out to him, the word "better" is, itself, a word indicating an opinion (as is the word "good," which was also used a lot in this discussion). We went around the bend on this for a while, not really getting anywhere. It is true that an opinion can be formed on the basis of objective data (for example, a toy that has greater articulation can be said to be a better toy than one that has more limited articulation), but that doesn't make it less of an opinion. He never did fully understand my point, and we ultimately simply had to drop the argument for the sake of board collegiality.

When studying for certain types of standardized exams, one is taught how to recognize statements of "opinion" from statements of "fact." One way is through the use of "opinion markers" such as I described above (with "better" and "good"). Statements of emotion are usually cited, as well: "Mary is happy" is considered an opinion (but see below). Another important tool is the verifiability of a statement. Is it theoretically possible to prove whether a statement is right or wrong? (In scientific terms, you actually can't ever prove a hypothesis "true." Only if it's false. But that goes a bit beyond the scope of this discussion.)

It's understandable that one would wish to bolster one's argument by whatever tools are at hand, and so the appeal to facts and objectivity is a natural one. This is as true in politics as it is in toy discussions. But when those facts aren't as objective as one makes them out to be, it can be a little disconcerting. Last night, First Lady Laura Bush claimed to point out some "facts" about her husband's presidency:

America is in the middle of a heated campaign. Recently, you've heard a lot of politicians offer a lot of opinions. But you haven't heard very many facts. So I thought I'd share a few with you tonight. In honor of our nominee, let's call it a little "straight talk."

Here is the full text of her remarks (my source has the remarks as prepared ahead of time, so what she actually said may differ in a few minor details, although having heard the speech last night, I'm not thinking the differences will be too great. I have to confess to not finding as many facts as I felt like she was promising. She seems to indicate that her "straight talk" would be free from opinion, but there are clearly opinions in here. Here's what I found, going paragraph-by-paragraph through the rest of her statement until the point in which the President begins his own remarks from the White House (and I'll try to be generous):
  • On an issue that's close my heart, President Bush initiated the most important education reforms in a generation, holding schools accountable and boosting funds for reading instruction. Today, student achievement is rising across the board, and test scores for minority students are at the highest they've ever been.

    "Most important" is definitely debatable, and not something that should be considered a "fact." For the first sentence after "facts" were promised, that's not a good start. And the extent to which accountability is held and achievement has risen is hard to pin down, even "objectively," but the ideas that 1) Fund were boosted, 2) test scores for minorities are "the highest they've ever been" are at least verifiable statements, even if that last one does strike me as potential hyperbole. I'm sure that FactCheck.org will weigh in on whether or not it's actually true soon enough.

  • We all know how important it is for America to have judges who respect the Constitution. Our whole nation can be proud of the two newest members of the Supreme Court -- Justice Sam Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.

    The question of whether or not particular judges "respect the Constitution" (let alone the question of importance, however much we agree that it is) is definitely a debatable point. Pride is certainly not an "objective" matter. Indeed, the only fact I can pull from this paragraph is the fact Alito and Roberts are, indeed, the two newest members of the Supreme Court.

  • Many in this arena, and many across our nation, are people of faith -- people who have answered the call to love your neighbor. The President has empowered faith-based and community charities to partner with government to help those in need. Engaging these groups is successful policy. One way we know is this: Across the country, 35 governors from both parties have started faith-based and community initiatives of their own.

    It is indeed a fact that many people (both attending the Republican convention and across the nation) are "people of faith," but that's hardly noteworthy in this context. Whether or not they've "answered the call to love your neighbor" is far more difficult to prove. I'll grant as "fact" that the President has "empowered faith-based and community charities," but to call such a polity "successful" is a matter of opinion, even if the statement about the number of governors starting similar programs is indeed verifiable (I'm choosing to take such statements as "fact" for the sake of argument, although as I pointed out earlier, FactCheck.org and others will demonstrate whether or not such facts really are).

  • And here's another inspiring statistic. When my husband took office, fewer than 50,000 Africans suffering from AIDS were receiving the medicine they needed to survive. Thanks to the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, that number is now nearly 2 million. (Applause.) You might call that "change you can really believe in."

    This statement I'm willing grant as fact, at least if we don't look at that last sentence. That's unapologetic opinion, being a turn of phrase intended to poke some fun at Obama's campaign. It's not an unfair poke, it's just not "fact."

  • George is using America's influence to lift up lives around the world. Millions of children are protected from malaria by mosquito nets the American people provide. In Afghanistan and Iraq, 50 million people are now living in freedom. And let's not forget President Bush has kept the American people safe.

    I found this paragraph hard to find actual "facts" in. That millions of children are using the mosquito nets (thus are being protected from malaria) is safe enough. But the extent to which this is the President's doing, and the extent to which it is a "use of America's influence" is debatable, as is the number of people "now living in freedom" (how do you define freedom? Do you count all the people in both nations, even those still living in regions that remain unsafe due to insurgent activity, and if not, how is "safety" defined? Since Mrs. Bush "50 million" estimate seems about 10 million short, I'm guessing that she's got some criteria, but just what is it?). And I have a definite argument with the statement that Bush has "kept the American people safe" given the number of terrorists created since the invasion of Iraq. I do not accept the apparent lack of a successful attack on America soil (that is a fact I don't deny) as sufficient evidence that we've been "kept safe," because to do so requires the acceptance of the argument that the attacks that have been planned (also something I consider "factual") would have been successful had pre-9/11 safety measures (or whatever post-9/11 measures a non-Bush president might have taken, something it's impossible to know for certain) been in place.

  • We'll always be grateful to the men and women who volunteer to wear the uniform of the United States. To the military families who know the anxiety of waiting for a loved one to return: America honors your service, and we give you our thanks.

    Given that this paragraph opens with a sentence containing a clear "opinion marker" ("grateful"), I'm wondering if Mrs. Bush isn't actually trying to give facts any more, but I'll see this to the end. It is certainly difficult to argue that military families don't know about the anxiety of waiting for a loved one to return, but one seldom uses statements of emotion as "fact," even if it is a fact that those emotions are indeed held, because such statements are, by nature, unverifiable.

  • In two months, the American people will choose a new President. No one knows the job -- what the job requires better than the man who holds this office. Ladies and gentlemen -- my husband, and the President of the United States, George W. Bush.

    The election is in two months: a clear fact. But one could certainly argue whether or not another person (a previous president, perhaps?) knows the job of the presidency better. I can't call such a statement a "fact," even if one would be hard-pressed to argue against her.

Straight talk? Well, my bias is probably clear by now, but you can decide for yourself. I've moved into far more contentious territory than I'm comfortable with on this one, so although I will continue to accept comments here, I'd like to remind everyone that I do moderate such comments, and will reject any comments that seem to cross the line.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Why Pastors Are Still Necessary

One of the blogs I've added to my regular reading in recent times is Tribal Church. Carol Howard Merritt has had some interesting insights into the goings-on in the PC(USA), and I've been especially interested in some of her comments on the ordination process, including the exams that one must pass in order to achieve ordination in our denomination. As I've previously shared, I've had my own struggles in this regard, although I've been taking the first few steps toward possibly having another go at these exams in the hopefully not-too-distant future.

On this Labor Day, perhaps it's appropriate to consider the question of whether pastoral ministry, as an occupation, is even an important one for the church to have (and pay for!). There have been more than a few well-meaning Christians who--noting that congregations often use the paid staff as the "ministry-giving" arm of the congregation, thereby alleviating the need of non-paid members of the congregation to do any such work themselves--argue that churches might well be better off if they did away with paid pastors, and instead made it clear by a "flat hierarchy" that the work of God is the work of all members of the congregation. (Another common way of referring to this problem in our churches is "the 20-80 problem." 20% of the people in a church do 80% of the work. I won't argue here that those numbers are scientific, but I doubt they're too far off.)

In yesterday's post on this subject, Carol notes that seminarians often find themselves with not-insubstantial debt by the end of their education, and even if they find a job, struggle to earn enough to pay these debts off, especially when taxes are considered (which are more complicated for ordained clergy than for most people because the IRS makes clergy report their income as though they are self-employed). In the comments this thread, a few people have brought up the Presbyterian-affirmed concept of "the priesthood of all believers." Here is my response, originally posted in the comments section to that thread, but revised here.
There are some interesting comments here re: whether or not we should have ordained leadership. For what it’s worth, I know some seminary professors (at least one who’s been worshiping in a PC(USA) congregation for a few years now, at least) who would argue that more and more churches will move to a “flatter” hierarchy in the coming years. Less “official” (read: “ordained”) leadership, and more work shared by all.
This isn’t entirely a bad thing. As has already been said, too many laypersons have allowed the minister to be the “person who does all the work” in our churches. This hasn’t always been intentional, but it’s certainly a widespread problem. If something needs doing, ask the pastor....
But I do think that to argue for doing without ordained leaders on the basis of “the priesthood of all believers” stems at least in part from a misunderstanding of that particular doctrine, and more specifically on the role of the priest in the first place. A priest is not the same thing as a minister or a pastor (i.e., just a different name for the same position, as used by another denomination). The role of priest specifically has to do with having access to God, most often through the use of sacrifice (including, in the church era, the Lord’s Supper). The priest provides the laity with access to God through these rites.
Presbyterians affirm that ALL Christians have equal access to God. We don’t need a specific go-between (the priest) to provide this access for us. Thus, we believe in “the priesthood of all believers.” However, this in no way diminishes the need for solid teaching and administrative leadership. These roles are provided by pastors and ministers (and elders, certainly), and if the church does away with these roles, they must (obviously) find some other way of meeting those needs.
My concern is that, if churches decide to stop hiring (and therefore stop treating as a paid vocation) pastors and ministers, fewer people will go through the time and expense of a seminary education. This, in turn, would mean that fewer people are trained for the teaching and administrative leadership that congregations will continue to need.
I mean, sure, no one SHOULD be going into this vocation for the money, but if one cannot expect to earn a decent livelihood (not to mention pay for the expense of the education in the first place) in a paid church leadership position, WHY would one go through all that time and cost?

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