Saturday, May 30, 2009

BotCon 2009: Friday Overview

Yesterday, BotCon was finally in full-motion. I arrived about 8:40-ish to get in the line (yes, another long one, but this wasn't so bad) to await the opening of the doors at 9:00 am. It turns out a great many of the people in line were still looking to go to the club store, which I had largely taken care of the night before. So when the doors opened, those of us who were already registered and didn't need to buy anything from the club, and were just there to attend the first forum, were allowed to walk right on past the club store line to head into the forum.

The first forum was about the official Transformers Collectors' Club (TCC), and specifically about the magazine and comics produced for the club and the convention. Although upcoming club exclusives were not yet annouced, Pete Sinclair did tell us that they will announce two club exclusives for 2009 later in the convention. I was privileged to be asked to run the slides for this event (which is why you can see both the computer and the large screen in this shot), and trust that I was able to help things run smoothly. Other items discussed included some behind-the-scenes insights into the club's fiction and just what happened with the naming of the recently completed club exclusive. I'll deal with that more properly later, but for now, it seems safe to nutshell it all into "it's Hasbro's fault!" (they actually said this without actually blaming Hasbro, in a rather professional and classy way, but that's still the way I understood it).

I also poked my head into a bit of the Animated forum, where it was finally officially confirmed that Season 3 is the end of the series. They showed a series of more than dozen short clips animated separately from any actual episodes, containing humorous little vignettes and character bios. I hope these manage to find their way onto an official DVD release, as they were really quite good (the one where Starscream is dreaming would be worth it on its own!).

The main attraction of the day was the opening of the Dealer Room. On Friday, the Dealer Room was only open for three hours, but when everything's open to walk-ins on Saturday and Sunday, a lot of the best deals are often already gone, so there's obviously large demand to get in even for this short time. I was joking with my wife later today that I've gotten good at waiting in lines. This one wasn't anything like as bad as it looks, though. Unlike the autograph line on the left, this one pretty much evaporated once the doors to the Dealer Room were opened.

Besides the dealers themselves, there were a number of exhibits in the dealer room worthy of special attention. Here, for example, the originally proposed Unicron toy is displayed alongside the one that was actually made nearly two decades later.

The truck (or a mock-up) used for Optimus Prime in the movies was also on hand, and was a popular photo opportunity.

But this may well be the most surprising find of all, at least for me. I've gone on record as not caring much for the aesthetic of the movie toys. But this one (or two, depending on how you look at it) I found among the upcoming movie toys is one I'll just have to get. A Transformer that turns into an ice cream truck! How cool is that?

I have other Dealer Room photos, but putting them all up here would become unwieldy really fast, so instead, you can see them among my other BotCon 2009 photos over at Photobucket.

Most of the special guests make their appearance on Saturday, and the party at Paramount studios should prove to be interesting, as well. However, the party itself doesn't conclude until midnight, so I won't be able to get anything written down here for tomorrow. Instead, I'll cover Saturday's events, as well as any Sunday wrap-up, on Monday.

Friday, May 29, 2009

BotCon 2009: The Customizing Class

Although my wife's and my BotCon experience this week actually started Wednesday night, there's really not too much to tell about that bit. We waited in line for about an hour so that we could pick up the box set of toys (which I'll say more about in a few days) and other registration materials. The first real experience of BotCon 2009 worth mentioning was the Thursday customizing class (another class was held on Wednesday, but I wasn't there). I'm embarrassed to say that I was actually the last person to arrive at yesterday's class, although I was there only a minute or two after 9:00 am at most. I found a seat and was given my materials in short order.

As you may have already heard from other online forums, the figure we were making this year was a "Shattered Glass" version of Thunderclash, one of the exclusive figures in this year's box set. But before we get into the changes that we made to make this figure distinct from the "real" exclusive, we need to get into the construction of the custom figure.

We are given our figure not only disassembled, but actually still on the original plastic sprues. Modelers may already be familiar with the process of cutting off plastic parts from sprues like these, and I have some minor experience in this area, myself (although it's probably been close to ten years since I've put together that kind of a model kit!). Even so, I was a bit surprised at just how many parts were involved in this deluxe-sized figure.

Thankfully, Shawn Tessmann, the instructor behind the event, created a fairly detailed set of instructions and a process from which to make order out of such chaos. While cutting the parts off of the sprues, we followed charts whereby we put parts into different groups. All left arm parts when in one tray. All right arm parts in another. All torso parts in another. You get the idea. We also had to separate all the metal screws, pegs, and springs into appropriate trays as well. With all of the parts separated and thus organized, we were ready to begin.

I knew getting into the endeavor that I would find it a bit challenging. Although I've done a few customs from time to time, the fact is that I have a dangerous combination of perfectionism and a lack of patience, which is undoubtedly why I haven't done more such projects. Still, I knew that this was an opportunity that might not ever come so readily to me again, and was glad to take advantage of it, frustration and all. Here you see my custom Thunderclash's nearly-completed arm (sorry for the fuzzy pic!).

The part I found the most frustrating about this whole process was getting springs in place. This mold uses several ratcheting limbs, so that you can pose arms, elbows, legs and knees in more or less stable positions. However, I found that some springs didn't really want to fit in the spaces I was trying to put them in, and these parts were sent flying on more than one occasion. I suppose I should be grateful that I only actually lost a spring once in the whole process. But, in the end, it was my own fault. The picture you see here, for example, actually shows a spring that was not intended to be put where it is shown. I later discovered that I had a few of the springs confused, and the one that actually goes here is a bit shorter, fitting into place with considerably less force.

Shawn encouraged class members to inform Brian Savage, president of Fun Publications (the group that runs BotCon), of any comments, both good and bad. The only criticism I actually have is that I did find it difficult to tell precisely which part was intended to go in which place on a few such occasions. Several screws, for example, are very similar, but not identical, while the consequences of getting a spring wrong has already been demonstrated.

After several hours (I think it was close to five), I finally got the whole thing assembled. I was tempted to leave things right there, because I already know that I'm not very good at painting. Remember what I said about perfectionism combined with lack of patience? Well, the perfectionist streak dictated that I simply couldn't leave the figure as it was, so I went to work on putting color on my toy.

This is what Shawn's version of Shattered Glass Thunderclash looks like (well, more or less. It's not really fully transformed into robot mode). Such perfect lines! How he managed that, I still don't know. In the past, I've tried masking tape, masking fluid, just being really careful (yeah, right!), and anything else I could think of, but I never have been able to achieve such mechanical precision.

Some members of the class, especially those with greater skill, chose to go with their own ideas rather than following the "Shattered Glass" model at all. I opted for following the instructions... mostly. I purposely left a few paint applications off, and chose one or two colors that were at variance with the "original" version. Although I still wish that I was able to duplicate the straight lines Shawn managed, at least my version doesn't look as plain as it did before I painted it. Actually, it's not quite done yet. This is a mold that I've never had before, and I really don't know how to transform it without instructions. One of the faction symbols (generously supplied by the class, and featuring a clever twist on the "Elite Guard" design of this year's box set that reflects the "Shattered Glass" version's evil nature) is expected to break down the middle of Thunderclash's front end in vehicle mode. I decided to apply those stickers when I got home and could have access to instructions on how to transform the toy properly.

By about 3:30 or so, I decided that I needed to stop, as I was simply adding more frustrations with each paint application I decided to apply. When I got home, "Shattered Glass" Thunderclash was ready to join the official BotCon 2009 exclusive in my collection. For the record, I've never considered customizing class figures to be "official" exclusives, which is why they don't appear on the data sheet (which has just been updated to reflect what's currently known about the BotCon 2009 exclusives!). Still, it's a unique toy that I'm glad to have. I haven't really been home all that much to take pictures, what with the long lines at the convention and all (I was in a more than two hour-long line by the end of the day today!), but I'll try to put up some side-by-side shots of this toy alongside "regular" Thunderclash when I review him in a few days.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

New Trekkers and Post-Rapture Christians

I finally got around to watching the new Star Trek movie this past weekend. In an earlier lifetime, I would have been one of those lining up the theater on opening night (but not one of those waiting outside on the streets the night before. I'm a fan, but I've never been that fanatic!), but Star Trek has fallen a bit on my scale of pop-culture importance in the past several years, falling somewhere behind Doctor Who and (obviously) Transformers.

Although long-time fans will continue to debate whether or not rebooting the franchise was a good idea, and indeed whether the actions depicted in the movie actively erased the continuity they remember and love, or merely created a parallel (or perhaps divergent) continuity that co-exists with the original (but which future live-action installments will continue to follow to the exclusion to the original, no doubt), the movie seems to have achieved its intended goal of bringing in large audiences of movie-goers, only a fraction of which can be assumed to have the knowledge of Trek's history sufficient to care about such concerns.*

Perhaps this influx of new potential Trek fans was on Slacktivist's mind as he used Trek in his own blog recently. While trying to describe how utterly unnatural a depiction of the church central to the apocalyptic Left Behind series was, in that it more or less resembled a pre-Rapture church in a post-Rapture world, populated by people who somehow resembled pre-Rapture Christians despite all such Christians having... well... been Raptured, he says that a "real" post-Rapture church would more closely resemble the following scenario:

Imagine some guy sitting at home watching the local news and laughing along with the reporter at the costumed geeks attending a local Star Trek convention. This guy, The Skeptic, has never seen a single episode of the show -- he couldn't tell Kirk from Picard if you paid him to guess. He thinks the whole thing is ridiculous.

But then, as he watches this live news report, a Klingon warship decloaks over the convention center and starts blowing up cars in the parking lot. As the news reporter stands there, dumbfounded and speechless, The Skeptic hears what even he recognizes as the beam-me-up-Scotty sound effect and suddenly all of the costumed geeks and conventioneers twinkle and vanish. Just before the cameraman faints and the signal is lost, The Skeptic sees the briefest glimpse of the starship Enterprise swooping in to engage the Klingon vessel.

It doesn't matter at this point that he's never seen the show -- the iconic spaceship is instantly recognizable even to The Skeptic. Instantly, The Skeptic realizes that everything he thought he knew was wrong -- that he is living in a Star Trek world and that everyone who might have been able to explain to him what that means is now gone.

Two weeks later, the former Skeptic finds himself at a Star Trek convention -- a convention he helped to organize along with hundreds of others, all of whom, like him, never watched the show and know next to nothing about it. And there is no one there to explain it to them. It is a Star Trek convention without Trekkers -- a Star Trek convention comprised entirely of people who haven't seen Star Trek and don't understand it.

That is what the congregation of the new New Hope Village Church would be like.

When considering what the post-Rapture world might look like, I've found myself wondering how it would be possible for "new believers" like the heroes of Left Behind to become believers in the absence of Christians who could tell them what Christianity was all about. I posit one possible (if intentionally humorous) option in my Hitchhiker's Guide to Christianity series. It seems to be enough to the writers of Left Behind to posit that--between the existing texts, videos left behind by believers for post-Rapture humans to discover, and the power of God--such post-Rapture conversions wouldn't really be a problem. While I certainly don't want to limit the power of God, one only has to look at the multitude of ways in which Christians today live out their faith to make such a scenario seem implausible. Without the existence of people who have years of life-experience to share their faith, how would post-Rapture Christians truly follow the God they think they're following? How are they to know that they have interpreted the texts, and the videos, and God's powerful works correctly?

Perhaps it seems like I'm arguing that this post-Rapture scenario is actually not so different from the situation in our real world after all, but that's not my intention. As I've argued earlier, scholarship does give us real ways of saying that some interpretations really are better than others. But if you remove the scholars (howevermuch some Christians may actually think this is a good idea), who's going to explain those teachings to everyone else? If this is a world where we already see people arguing for some pretty screwy interpretations of Scripture, a world where wiser Christians are missing altogether can hardly be anything other than a complete mess where "correct" is simply determined by either "who has the loudest voice?" or (worse!) "who has the biggest gun?".

At least new fans brought into the Star Trek fold by the new movie have an "alternate reality" explanation for why their understanding of Trek may not match what came before....

*Oddly enough, those of us in the Transformers fandom have had time to get familiar with all these different possible continuity configurations for years now. Although the concept isn't wholly unexplored in Trek before now, the idea that the original continuity is no longer the "main" one is nonetheless a comparatively new concept for many Trek fans.

Monday, May 25, 2009

LA Times Article on New Library at Fuller

It's Memorial Day, and as with most such holiday weekends, I've been focusing more on enjoying my time off than I have on blogging. I did want to share this article on Fuller's new library, though.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Generation Two Go-Bot Bumblebee

Some Transformer character names just get used a lot. I've already featured a couple of different Bumblebees, including another one from Generation Two. "Go-Bot" Bumblebee came out in 1995, near the end of the Generation Two line, and is the second (and final) Bumblebee to feature in that line.

The term "Go-Bot," itself, has a bit of a history. Back in the 1980s, "GoBots" were arguably the most successful competitors to the Transformers. Made by Tonka, GoBots were also largely drawn from a pre-existing Japanese line of transforming robots (in this case, "Machine Robo"), but were more uniform in size--most being roughly action-figure sized and sold on cards. By the time of the Generation Two line, it was clear that Hasbro was the winner of this competition, as they purchased Tonka in 1991 (although it's perhaps worth noting that the original Transformers line was itself in the process of dying out at that same time, leading to an almost two-year drought of Transformers toys in America before Generation Two began). Hasbro apparently wanted to make clear to the world that they now had the rights to the GoBots name and the characters (although not the molds themselves, which were retained by the original company in Japan), because even a couple of years before this toy, they had actually released a toy with the name "Gobots" in their color-changing subline. Then, in 1995, Hasbro released a line of small vehicles with free-spinning connected-axle wheels (purportedly at 1:64 scale, to be compatible with "Hot Wheels"-style racetracks) and called the subline "Go-Bots." (Note the slight variations in spelling for each distinct use of the term.)

The Cybertronian guide suggests that Go-Bot Bumblebee is supposed to be a Pontiac Firebird, but the TF Wiki generically calls it a "concept car," noting the exposed rear engine. Honestly, I wouldn't know one way or the other. The fact that many of the earliest Transformers actually did turn into vehicles that one could identify by make and manufacturer is a large part of the appeal for a lot of folks (nowadays, Hasbro's more careful to get licenses from the automakers if they do such a thing, which is why current Bumblebees don't turn into the Volkswagen Beetle form most readily identified with the character). I'm just not enough of a car aficionado to be able to tell the difference, myself. If it looks car-like, that's enough for me!

Not counting the very first Bumblebee mold (which was created for the pre-Transformers "Micro Change" line), this is actually the first mold not actually created to be Bumblebee that was assigned to the character. In fact, Go-Bot Bumblebee is a repaint of a character named "High Beam," and even uses the exact same package art, recolored to be a bit more appropriate to the recolored toy (although the art for both of these toys gives the robot the wrong hand weapon!). After the original wave of six Go-Bots, all other Go-Bots released before the end of Generation Two were repaints, and given names of classic characters. Even Megatron, previously always transforming into some kind of powerful weapon (when he transformed at all), was assigned a sports car mode! Presumably, this was done in an effort to boost lower-than-desired sales numbers for the Generation Two line. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough, and the line was canceled with several toys unreleased to make way for the new "Beast Wars" line. Although this was regrettable, it seems to have been a wise move, as the "Beast Wars" line was quite successful, and Transformers have never been absent from American toy shelves since!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Preparing for BotCon

It's almost here! A week from tomorrow, I'll be sitting in the customizing class to begin my 2009 BotCon experience. This seems to be a good time to relist the appropriate links I've already written, as well as fill you in on some of my plans on covering the convention via this blog.
  • In response to some requests I'd gotten online, I put together a brief "Survival Guide" to the greater Pasadena/Los Angeles area (especially amenities close to the convention center). I later added this In-N-Out (Alhambra) review when so many people mentioned the need to enjoy In-N-Out while they're here.
  • I've stayed out of the business of covering rumors for the most part, but I did mention this much near the beginning of the pre-registration period.
That brings me to my plans for this blog. Between the convention itself, and the toys that are already known to be coming out, and the toys that are rumored to be coming out, I'm going to shift to a daily schedule (including some, but not all, weekend days) for roughly two weeks starting on Friday, May 29th. On that day, I'll share what I'm able to about the experience of the customizing class (and pictures, if I'm able to take ones worth sharing, of the custom toy I'll have put together). Then, I'll spend a little bit of time writing about the convention before moving to daily features on each of the toys released that weekend. For the most part, I'll leave it to the TF news sites like TFW2005 and the Allspark to take care of sharing what news is coming out of Hasbro or in regard to the movie. What I'll have here will deal more with my experience at the convention. I hope you'll find it interesting. I'm certainly looking forward to it!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Transformers Animated: The Endgame Has Begun

The first part of the two-part Transformers Animated finale (although the actual "finality" of the series hasn't yet been officially announced), "Endgame," aired this past weekend. I think that I'm in agreement with a significant portion of the Transformers fanbase when I say that this has been the most entertaining Transformers series for quite some time, and especially given my general lack of enthusiasm for the movie-related designs, I'm sad to see this series come to an end.

The show has done a remarkable job of giving us snippets of backstory for each of the main characters over the course of the past three seasons (although, in this case, "season" doesn't actually equate to a year's worth of programming, as the series premiered less than a year and a half ago--in fact, the final episode this coming Saturday will air within days of the actual eighteen-month anniversary of the first). It seems that every one of the main protagonists has had their life take an unexpected turn at some point: Ratchet unwittingly gained the access codes to Omega Supreme (which turned the tide of the war, but at a tragic cost), Prowl found himself unable to complete his ninja training due to a confluence of circumstances, and the other three (Bulkhead, Bumblebee, and Optimus Prime) all had aspirations to join the Elite Guard that ended in failure due mostly to reasons outside of their control.

I found myself especially intrigued by the following exchange, in a flashback near the end of "Endgame: Part One":
Prowl: Do you have any idea what it's like to embark on a path, only to find it so completely twisted and turned that you have no idea where you are?
Optimus Prime: Oddly enough, I do.
I've tried to be diplomatic when writing about my own "twists and turns," especially as I try to pursue my vocation in church ministry (I'll refrain from links for now, but long-time readers should have no trouble finding examples), but I'm sure it's no surprise that I've found these to be frustrating from time to time. Although I don't tend to watch Transformers cartoons looking for parallels to my real-life experiences, I found this exchange enlightening. It's not like (most of) the message was a new one. These flashbacks have been woven through the storyline of Transformers Animated since almost the very beginning. But this exchange more implicitly sent the message that, although we may all feel like we're the only one who can understand the particular derailments of our own lives (and indeed, this is true to some degree), we all have experiences that have not gone as we expected them to, and we can find commonality through this.

Fuller is on the eve of what looks to be a major restructuring effort. Indeed, the board of trustees will be approving plans for this restructuring in the next few days. There will likely be a few more "twists and turns"--not only for myself, but for many of the people I'm closest to--in the immediate future. I hope that we can be sources of comfort for each other through whatever is to come.

In the meantime, I look forward to seeing how Transformers Animated plays out, and will miss this particular variation on the Transformers franchise when it's gone.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Mini-Spies

I've mentioned before that all of the first year or two's worth of toys in the Transformers line were not, in fact, "new" toys, but used molds that had been created for entirely different lines in Japan, notably "Diaclone" and "Microchange." The "Transformers" brand was only new in terms of marketing, and in creating the storyline that went along with it. This repurposing of Japanese brands for Hasbro's American audience extended even to the very first pack-in promotions done for the Transformers line: a set of especially small Transformers called "Mini-Spies" that came packaged with the regular Mini Vehicle (often called "Minicar") assortment that included such favorites as Bumblebee.

Speaking of marketing, here's the commercial that advertised the Mini-Spy promotion:

The commercial demonstrates the use of the heat-sensitive "rubsigns," which were used on Transformers for the first time with these toys. Although later Transformers would all have these rubsigns, when the Mini-Spies were released, they were the only Transformers to use them (EDIT: See comment below), allowing for the mystery of not knowing which faction the toy was a part of until you rubbed the sticker (or exposed it to a heat source). The use of the rubsigns on Transformers was novel enough that Hasbro actually got a patent on the concept. However, like all other Transformers toys at this time, the Mini-Spies were not created to be Transformers (they came from a line called "Mecha Warriors"), and thus were not actually intended for use with the rubsigns. The TFWiki implies that rubsigns were created in order for Hasbro to assure consumers that a toy was a true Transformers product, but I'm not convinced. Although Hasbro always said (with later toys that used rubsigns) that the rubsigns were there to prove that a toy was a real Transformer, I just don't see why Hasbro would have bothered introducing the rubsigns with this promotion if authentication was always their intent.

Besides the rubsigns, these toys also featured the first pull-back motors to be used on Transformers, allowing for added play value.

Although I only have two Mini-Spies, there were actually four different molds (The FX-1 type and Buggy type seen here, and also a Jeep type and a Porsche type), each available in three different colors (white was the other color), and each could be either an Autobot or a Decepticon. In case you haven't done the math, that means that there are 24 distinct variations out there. Although these were packed visibly on the cards with the Mini Vehicles, so you could know which color and type you were getting (it was a bit more difficult to discern the faction in-store, although that didn't stop us from trying!), there were quite a few more Mini-Spy varieties out there than there were Mini Vehicles, so anyone who tried to get a complete set would have had to have bought multiples of the regular toys (as was also the case for the similar, but later, decoy promotion). I don't know anyone who even attempted this back in 1985 (I'm sure such people exist), but a few folks have completed their sets since due to the miracle of the Internet.

In this modern era of improved toy technology, "completing the set" is probably the only reason someone would want more than a couple of Mini-Spies. As toys on their own, these things are pretty puny. I can see why Hasbro never sold them separately, although as a "bonus," I think they did their job admirably. And in terms of historical value, they're definitely worth noticing (if you care about the history of toys, in any event).

Incidentally, after I finished writing my first draft of the entry, Reprolabels announced "upgrade stickers" specifically for the Mini-Spies! I haven't yet decided whether I'll invest in these, myself, but they're worth taking a look at (incidentally, the picture over there shows a red Mini-Spy. This is clearly a pre-Transformer, and not a Hasbro Mini-Spy. For what it's worth, the original Mecha Warriors didn't come in Yellow or White!).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet?

I like listening to Old Time Radio podcasts. One that I especially enjoy these days is the old 1940's Superman radio program. As a mere historical curiosity, it's worth noting if only because it was the radio program--and not the comics--that introduced the characters of Jimmy Olsen and Perry White, but it's actually fairly entertaining, too! And, at a mere 15 minutes (or less) per episode, it's not too difficult to fit in between other tasks.

There are, of course, the elements of the program's era which can be a bit eyebrow-raising in the modern era. Besides less than politically correct depictions of Asians and American Indians, for example, this Superman doesn't seem to mind putting bad guys in mortal peril in order to get them to surrender (although, even as far back as then, I haven't noticed that he's actively killed anyone. More than a few bad guys have died as a result of their own machinations, though!). And, honestly, this version of Superman seems unusually slow to me. I'm used to reading about and seeing a Superman who can move so fast that he can travel practically anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye, should he so choose. Although the programs do use a variation of the traditional "faster than a speeding bullet" line (it changes every now and again. The episode I'm listening to now says that Superman can "race a speeding bullet to its target," which is certainly close enough), I'm constantly getting the impression that Superman himself is unsure that he can make it from Point A to Point B quickly enough to save the day.

Obviously, at least some of this is simply a side effect of the need to build tension in an action-packed radio adventure. And, generally, they succeed at their goal. It's also really pretty remarkable how voice actor Bud Collyer (who also hosted some early game shows, so I've just gotta respect him!) was able to switch his voice down an octave or so from what he used as Clark Kent to the voice he used for Superman. It's as close as one could hope for in a non-visual medium to actually seeing Kent rip open his shirt to don the red and blue tights.

Hundreds of episodes were made over the course of more than a decade. Not all them exist anymore, but there are more than enough to keep you going for quite a while, especially at the rate of two or three a week (which is about how often the episodes were broadcast in the 1940's, as well). You can find a good supply of episodes for free download (they're believed to be in the Public Domain now) over at the Internet Archive.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Is an MDiv Worth It?

After administering last week's Transformers 25th Anniversary Event, I was too worn out to write something for today in advance, but while listening to this morning's The God Complex podcast (click widget below to listen!), another blogger shared a link that discusses a matter close to my heart. This person graduated with an MDiv from Princeton, but when he transferred his Candidacy to the Presbytery of San Francisco, his Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM) told him that he needed to take the equivalence of a whole year's worth of extra classes to be ordained!

Thankfully, I haven't been given quite the additional requirements that this person has been given, but I have mentioned my frustration that the MDiv I have is not considered enough for viable employment. It's a Masters-level degree, for crying out loud! Now, I fully agree with both the PC(USA) and my fellow frustrated blogger that it's appropriate for a denomination such as the PC(USA) to ensure that we have met certain denominational distinctives that may not be reflected in the MDiv alone. Frankly, on that count, the PC(USA) has more right to worry about me than they do about him, because Princeton is at least a PC(USA) seminary, whereas I at least come from "outside," but I've addressed that issue already. But when CPMs start second-guessing the qualifications of a person who graduated from a PC(USA) seminary, let alone such a rigorous one as Princeton, I really do have to wonder what's on their minds.

Today's episode of The God Complex dealt with the question of whether or not our churches, many of which in the PC(USA) are too small to financially support a pastor (which often has a fair bit of debt), especially one that is seminary-trained (given that most of the aforementioned debt is likely to be from getting that seminary education), can afford to continue to have an educated clegry. According to one of the co-hosts, some 40% of PC(USA) churches are "too small to call a pastor." Although I would hope that CPMs would not put unnecessary restrictions on pastors who might theoretically be willing to serve one of those smaller churches, there are actually a number of people out there already, fully eligible for ordination, that (for any number of reasons) haven't been willing to pastor one of these smaller churches.

Many comments in the chat room while the podcast was being broadcast live suggested that we should be more willing to hire part-time pastors, or that pastors have another job that pays their living expenses while serving the congregation. I think that "tent making" is something that people should indeed be willing to consider, but I'm always resistant to suggestions that this is a solution to the problem of finding pastors to serve churches. At the risk of repeating myself, being a pastor is often considered a vocation that one must work quite a few more hours at than one is actually paid for. This is true of full-time pastors! If a pastor is only part-time, it seems to me that the problem is exacerbated. The pastor who works another job must give attention to that job, too, and burnout is especially a danger is he/she is expected to drop everything at any time to deal with church issues. For part-time or unpaid pastors to be a viable solution, parishioners simply must pay better attention to the need for respecting boundaries (and pastors must be better about setting them, in many cases), and I think that's a pretty tall order.

So, is the MDiv even worth the effort? A few folks in the Tribal Church thread that led to the podcast discussion seemed to argue that the emphasis on an "educated clergy" has resulted in the shift in the PC(USA) towards being too "liberal," and suggested eliminating the requirement. I'm by no means convinced that having an education means that one becomes less "conservative," but would definitely argue that to lose the education would be a huge mistake. We should have theological standards. Even the "conservatives" would, I hope, agree with this. How would those standards be maintained without an education? What restrictions should we set to ensure that the education given is sufficient? There are other questions I could ask in this vein, but they'd take me increasingly off-topic, so I may just have to come back to these issues at another time.

I would certainly argue that a person should not undergo the time, effort, and expense of earning a theological degree unless they have a call from God to pursue a ministry that requires it. But, if we do agree that an education is something that should be required of our pastors, then we need to figure out a way to pay for it. If a student doesn't have a realistic expectation of being able to pay off his/her debts from getting a theological degree by having found a meaningful job after achieving that goal, and of being able to earn a living (however meager), then he/she just isn't going to bother getting the theological degree in the first place.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Transformers: Let's Talk About Ravage

Today is the 25th Anniversary of the release of the first issue of Marvel Comics' The Transformers. Although the concept of robots that change from one form to another had been around for a few years by this time, The Transformers introduced something entirely new: the idea that the robots themselves were sentient beings, as opposed to being controlled by some humanoid force. In recognition of this anniversary, bloggers across the Transformers fandom will be writing entries about Transformers today. Click here to find a list of participating blogs (which will no doubt grow as the day moves on).

But I'm not looking to talk about Issue One today. Although it is the first time that any Transformers-branded product was made available to the general public, and deserves a thorough review, Jim Sorenson did an admirable job of that just a few months ago. Instead, I'm going to celebrate the 25th Anniversary by taking a look at the first Transformer character ever to be seen speaking in a Transformers comic book. Was it Optimus Prime, leader of the heroic Autobots? How about the evil Megatron? NO! The honor of speaking the very first lines ever printed in the Transformers mythos went to Ravage.

This is more than a little ironic, since Ravage was a jaguar, and not a humanoid robot like most other Transformers. In the 1980's cartoon, which is remembered far more readily by most people who grew up in the 1980's, most "animal" characters were treated as non-sapient, and thus Ravage never spoke in that medium (Just one more reason to prefer the comics!).

But whatever the medium, Ravage is clearly one of those characters that captured the imaginations of Transformers fans. His popularity was so great that he was one of only a small handful of Generation One characters to make an active appearance in the Beast Wars cartoon, in which he not only spoke, but had actually been reformatted into a humanoid form (which, oddly, retained the panther's head).

Ravage has been given a number of toys over the years, too. More than I can comfortably post images of here, so I'll have to make do with this partial group shot, and encourage you to check out this link from the TF Wiki. Note that this link only shows toys based on the Generation One character, and not homages. It's still quite the list!

Anyway, that's my contribution to today's 25th Anniversary. There are quite a few others, too, so be sure to check them out! If you haven't already clicked on the link at the top, you can click on the image to the right. Regular Transformers toy features resume next Friday.

Does what you see here interest you? Subscribe to this feed for regular updates!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Should Denominational Pastors Always Come From Denominational Seminaries?

I've mentioned the Tribal Church blog before. Author Carol Howard Merritt is a fellow Presbyterian, serving a church in the Washington, DC area (and also, as of this past Monday, co-host of the new podcast, The God Complex). Although we differ in our opinions in a few respects, I find that most of what she writes is written with a great deal of care for how God's people are taken care of, especially by the institutional church. Even when I disagree with her assertions, I almost always find her writings thought-provoking. To judge from the number of comments some of her posts receive, I gather that I'm not the only one who thinks so.

A number of her posts over the past few months have generated discussion about whether or not the PC(USA) handles the process of ordination of its would-be pastors in the most appropriate way. Since I'm involved in this process, myself, and my wife is pursuing ordination within the Episcopal church (having recently been named a postulant), I obviously look at such discussions with a great deal of interest. Some (not, to the best of my recollection, CHM herself) have suggested that whatever is done in regard to such requirements as (for example) ordination exams, the PC(USA) should restrict ordination to only those who have attended PC(USA) seminaries. Naturally, as a graduate of an institution that is not explicitly PC(USA) affiliated (but which does graduate a large number of students who seek and achieve PC(USA) ordination), I tend to disagree with such a proposed solution (For the sake of expediency, I'll just talk about the PC(USA) here, but most of this seems to hold true when my wife and I converse about and to members of the Episcopal Church, as well. My expectation is that the same might be said of many denominations.).

That particular blog entry linked in the previous paragraph was written more than half a year ago, but some of that discussion has stayed with me for a while. I don't want to dismiss out-of-hand the idea that a denomination should require that its pastors attend one of their denominational institutions. Other denominations do, in fact, have such requirements. I certainly don't want to oppose such a solution only out of self-interest, if in fact it would be helpful for the denomination as it seeks to do God's will in regard to its pastoral leadership. But I still feel that barring non-PC(USA)-seminary graduates from PC(USA) ordination would be the wrong thing to do.

While reading Fuller Voices recently, I was reading the inaugural speech of Edward John Carnell, Fuller's second President, given in 1955. Although the world he was speaking to was radically different in many ways, I still can't help but think that his argument in regard to requiring that pastors graduate from denominational institutions would still apply today:
Those who resort to ecclesiastical legislation to solve the problem of ministerial training do not always appreciate the new difficulties they create. Once it is supposed that fitness for ministry can be decided by so mechanical a manner as the school where the candidate has taken his training, it is all the more likely that the Christian church will ultimately be controlled by clerics who, in fact, are more concerned with their ecclesiastical security than they are with preservation and propagation of the eternal gospel. Fitness for ordination should be decided by an organic approach to the candidate: call to the ministry, religious experience, purity of life, orthodoxy of theology, assent to denominational distinctives, attitude toward fellow ministers, and the total set of gifts and talents brought to the office. Unless both the theological seminary and the Christian church learn to hold the unity of their distinctives within the plurality of wider Christian efforts everywhere, church leadership will pass into the hands of professional holy men. The voice of the prophet will be heard no more; the reformer will be driven from the city; and the madness of daring individuality will be scorned.
When I was reading this, I found it especially ironic to reflect that a lot of the people who I was disagreeing with at Tribal Church were, themselves, arguing for theological diversity. This seems to be opposed, apparently, to what they think Fuller teaches. I find myself having to defend Fuller in many such instances where I am in conversation with my fellow PC(USA) members who happen to know Fuller only by reputation. I generally try to point out that, although Fuller (as an institution, or as represented by any one of its constituents) may have particular stances with which they may personally disagree, the school is not monolithic, and is in fact far more diverse than it is often given credit for. It is, very intentionally, multi-denominational (in fact, we prefer that label to "non-denominational"). Moreover, our core beliefs are very much in conformity with the core beliefs of the PC(USA) (and, so far as I can tell, the Episcopal Church, as well). So long as I can retain whatever denominational distinctives the PC(USA) requires (as demonstrated by ordination exams, and whatever other tasks I am required to complete before ordination), having graduated from such a diverse institution adds something that will help make me a unique and (I hope) valuable voice in denominational discussions. It doesn't detract from my PC(USA)-ness.

Although I certainly understand some of the suspicion that Fuller graduates may be more conservative on certain issues than PC(USA)-seminary graduates, on the whole, I would nonetheless ask that non-PC(USA)-seminary graduates not be barred from the possibility of PC(USA) ordination. I'm not saying this out of some feeling that "I'm right (about some theological disagreement or another) and they need to listen to me," however important it may be that such voices need not to be cut off from the conversation. I say this because I know that students do not always reflect all the attributes of the institution (especially those attributes that are unpopular). Give us a chance! You may be surprised at how much we agree with each other! And, for those areas where we still disagree... well, can we at least learn from each other?

Monday, May 04, 2009

Upcoming Blog Event: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Transformers

Transforming Seminarian has joined forces with Bloggers Unite to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Transformers with a multi-blog event this Friday, May 8th. Several other blogs have already signed up in the early stages of planning, and I expect more will do so this week (you can see some of them, and can sign up yourself, at this link, although a number of bloggers have made informal commitments via the Allspark and elsewhere).

I've tried not to set unnecessarily restrictive requirements for participation in this event. Just write something about Transformers on May 8th. If you already have a Transformers-centric blog, you're especially encouraged to come up with something special for the 25th Anniversary (where were you when you first learned about the Transformers, for example), but if you don't regularly feature Transformers on your blog, you might just want to do a toy or a comic review, or talk about the time that someone in a Grimlock costume came to your local zoo, or whatever strikes your fancy. Then, once you've written your piece, head over to the Bloggers Unite site and share your link there, so that others can see what you've written.

Why May 8th? It's a fair question, and I'm sure arguments can be made for other dates. My reasoning is that, as the date of the release of the first issue of Marvel's Transformers comic, May 8th was the first time that Transformers merchandise was made available to the public, and thus is an appropriate choice for an anniversary date. See you back here on Friday!

Friday, May 01, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Target Exclusive Universe Long Haul and Hightower (and Constructicon Devastator)

Last week, I discussed the history of the Target exclusive Universe homages to the classic Constructicons. This week, let's talk more about these versions themselves. Since these toys started out from molds created for rather different characters (working for the opposite faction!) in an entirely different line, it's perhaps understandable that although the homage is clear, it isn't exact. Only three of the four toys: Scavenger, Bonecrusher, and Long Haul--were actually given names that once belonged to Generation One Constructicons.

Given the crane vehicle mode of the toy on the right, one would have expected it to be called "Hook" if the same theme were followed, but the character is instead called "Hightower" (Ironically, the exact same name as the Robots in Diguise character who was an Autobot. The better to confuse you with!). This is clearly yet another case where Hasbro has lost the trademark. Usually, with a name that's also a commonly used word like "hook," they can just slap "Decepticon" (or "Constructicon"?) in front of the name and make it okay, but Hasbro has never done so for any of the Hook-like homages done in the past decade. One assumes that some other company has a toy using Hook's name, as the existence of such a conflicting toy would prevent such an easy patch. However, I have to admit that I'm not aware of any off the top of my head (are there any "Captain Hook" toys out there at the moment? Perhaps we have Disney to blame!).

I don't know what Hasbro was thinking when they decided how to position Long Haul's faction symbol (as seen here on the left). This is not a mistransformation! The symbol really is upside-down! Sometimes, this kind of thing happens so that the symbol looks correct in the other mode, but the symbol is practically concealed in Long Haul's dump truck vehicle mode by the bed, which hangs over it (as seen above), and wouldn't look demonstrably better even if you could see it more clearly.

In keeping with the "Constructicon" homage, the team members combine to form a giant robot, who is in this case called "Constructicon Devastator." This image shows the most commonly used assembly, with Long Haul and Hightower as the legs and Scavenger as the arms. Bonecrusher becomes the torso and head.

As I mentioned with Piranacon, combiner robots are occasionally designed with interchangeable limbs. Constructicon Devastator has interchangeable units, too, but with only four components, it's done a little differently. Bonecrusher always forms the torso and the head, but any of the other three team members can form both arms while the other two each become a leg. Here, for example, we see what Constructicon Devastator looks like if Long Haul becomes the arms.

I've tried to be careful to call the individual team members Constructicon homages rather than "Constructicons." The reason for this is that these toys are never actually called "Constructicons" anywhere on their packaging or instructions. The word is only used as a trademark-protecting prefix to the name of the combined "Constructicon Devastator." Even so, the intention is clear enough.

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