Monday, May 31, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Acts 17-21

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Acts, chapters 17-21.

Chapter 17

  • Verse 2 - I guess "reasoning with people" doesn't constitute a violation of the Sabbath.
  • Verse 12 - Interesting that women are mentioned before men in this instance.  Williams suggests that this "probably indicates that women were especially prominent in (the Berean) church."1
  • Verses 16, 22-31 - It is often said (rightly!) that Paul wasn't afraid to use strong words when he was passionate about something.  In verse 16, we see how troubled Paul is by the idolatry in Athens.2  Yet, when he makes his speech on the Areopagus, he takes care not to be unnecessarily offensive.  "[T]he word translated 'religious'... can have either a good sense or a bad....  It is a comparative and can mean either that they were more devout than most in the practice of their religion or more superstitious.  Perhaps Paul deliberately chose the word with kindly ambiguity so as not to offend his hearers while, at the same time, expressing to his own satisfaction what he thought of their religion.  They would learn soon enough what his opinion really was."3 Folks who know me, or who have followed this blog, already know that I strongly believe that Christians should exercise greater discernment in this area, causing less offense and tailoring arguments to specific audiences in order to be more reliably understood.
Chapter 18
  • Verse 6 - An example of Paul using clearly combative language (so quickly after the speech at the Areopagus, too!).  This kind of thing (whereby Paul promises to preach to the Gentiles after being rebuffed by the Jews) has happened already just  a few chapters ago, and Paul seems to be referencing the local situation each time, as opposed to stating his intention on a wider scale, as we will see Paul preach to Jews again in the future.4
  • Verses 12-17 - Gallio may say something that helps out Paul here, but he certainly doesn't come off very well by the end of this passage.  Unfortunately, Luke is less than clear about exactly what has happened and why.  Who is the "the crowd" that attacks the synagogue leader, Sosthenes, and why?  Was it an anti-Semitic crowd acting out against a prominent Jew because they know Gallio is unlikely to do anything about it?  Was it a group of Jews attacking a synagogue leader with potentially pro-Christian (or perhaps insufficiently anti-Christian) leanings?5  I just can't tell.
  • Verse 18 - Luke doesn't spell this out, but this sounds like a Nazirite vow, described in greater detail in Numbers 6:1-21.
  • Verse 24-26 - I'm curious as to what Apollos' "accurate," if not fully "adequate," teachings about Jesus were....
Chapter 19
  • Verse 2 - Paul seems to assume not only that new Christian believers will "receive the Holy Spirit" upon conversion, but that they already know what this means.  I expect that doesn't connect well with most modern experience, but I'm not sure how big of a deal I should make of that.
  • Verse 12 - An interesting description of miracle-working, on a level Jesus's own miracles were not described at.  Perhaps this is the kind of thing Jesus was referring to when he suggested that his followers would do "even greater things" than he had done?
  • Verses 13-16 - I've commented before that Jesus stressed that actions matter.  However, this passage should make clear that actions are not all-sufficient.  If it were so, invoking the name of Jesus would be a kind of magical incantation to perform amazing feats (indeed, the proximity to verse 19 would seem to indicate that this was precisely the connection Luke wanted to avoid).  Such actions, if they are not accompanied by faith in Jesus himself, are clearly not only ineffective, but may even make matters worse, as this particular example demonstrates.
  • Verses 35-41 - I'm intrigued by stories like this one.  Luke provides us with a variety of  stories of "deliverance" from difficult situations.  Some are undeniably divine, complete with earthquakes, angels, walls falling away, etc.  Others, like this one, are far more mundane.  A secular authority, who presumably has no personal connection to the Christian faith himself, quells a riot simply by appealing to reason and the rule of law.
Chapter 20
  • Verses 7-12 - I expect that anyone who's sat through a long sermon sympathizes with Eutychus..  Indeed, even Luke seems to characterize Paul as being especially long-winded here ("Paul talked on and on").  Perhaps sitting on a window-ledge three floors from the ground isn't the wisest place from which to listen to a sermon....
  • Verses 18-38 - A rather lengthy farewell speech.  I wonder if Luke is signaling to his readers that this account is nearing its climax.  (That's not to say that Paul didn't say it, but presumably he'd said farewells before this.  Why single this one out?)
Chapter 21
  • Verse 4 - This is rather surprising.  Luke tells us that the disciples of Tyre urged Paul not to go to the Jerusalem, and that they said this "through the Spirit."  Yet, elsewhere (both before and after this section), Paul's desire to go to Jerusalem is said to be motivated by the Spirit.  This seems like a contradiction.
  • Verse 8 - "The Seven" is apparently an indicator that this Philip is the same person who was one of the deacons assigned at the same time as Stephen (the first martyr).  I find it interesting that, here, Philip is called "the Evangelist" (apparently the only time in the whole Bible this term is used as a title of a specific person).6  The Seven of Acts 6 were chosen specifically so that others (namely, the apostles) could do the work of evangelism.  The Seven were given the task of caring for the needs of the Hellenistic widows (that whole "we can't be waiting on tables" bit).
  • Verse 9 - Luke takes the effort to mention Philip's daughters, and the fact that they prophesied (and the fact that they were unmarried), but nothing else seems to be made of these facts.  Indeed, although a prophesy is going to be described in the next few verses, it's someone else who does it. 
  • Verses 20-26 - Another confusing section in regard to the importance of obeying the law (at least, in regard to whether Jewish Christians, including Paul, must continue to do so).  How do we reconcile these passages with Paul's strong teachings that the law is "worthless"?
  • Verses 37-40 - Another candidate for the "why did they put the chapter breaks here?" hall of infamy.  I guess I'll get to this stuff next week.

1David J. Williams, Acts (New International Bible Commentary), Hendrickson, 1990, p. 299.
2Williams, p. 302: "...he was so greatly distressed by what he saw that he could not rest (the verb corresponds to the noun in 15:39--he suffered a paroxysm)."
3Williams, p. 304.
4See Williams, p. 315.
5I'm bouncing off of comments made in Williams, pp. 318-319.
6See Williams, p. 363.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rest in Peace, Gary Coleman

Although I'd read the news report that former child actor Gary Coleman was in "serious condition" on Thursday, I was surprised to learn on Friday that he had actually passed away.  I'm not sure what is most appropriate to say in commentary on the actor's clearly difficult, if short, life.  Perhaps I can respect his comedic career by sharing this "news story" that I wrote a number of years ago, as California was reaching the end of what has easily been one of the most bizarre periods of recent political history, when Coleman was one of over 100 candidates running for governor in the election that gave us Governor Arnold "The Terminator" Schwarzenegger.  I distributed it to a few friends on the morning that Schwarzenegger was announced as the winner.  It is, of course, entirely a work of fiction:

(Excerpt from The Los Angeles Herald, October 8, 2003)
Coleman wins election!

SACRAMENTO - In an election result that stunned political speculators, candidate Gary Coleman won the gubernatorial recall election in California yesterday, beating out a field of over 100 candidates including Democrat Cruz Bustamante and Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock. 

Although recent polls had suggested Schwarzenegger was set to win the governorship, political experts have suggested that Schwarzenegger’s own campaign may have been his downfall.  Exit polls indicate that many voters believed Schwarzenegger’s “Join Arnold” campaign slogan referred to Coleman’s Diff’rent Strokes character Arnold Jackson, who popularized the catch phrase “What’chu talkin’ ‘bout Willis?” in the late 70s and early 80s.  When asked about the confusion, Schwarzenegger, known for his role in the Terminator movies, responded, “We spent a long time debating what message we wanted to send to the voters of California.  We had tried ‘Hasta la vista, Davis,’ and had even made T-shirts with Davis’ picture saying “He won’t be back,” but it was decided that it would be best not to use my Terminator experience too heavily.   We decided to go for a more personal slogan, but felt that too many people would have trouble saying ‘Join Schwarzenegger.’” 

Outgoing Democratic Governor Gray Davis could not be reached for comment, and some analysts speculate that he may be considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court for a ballot recount, despite the fact that the recall election defeated him with a vote of 95% for the recall and 5% against.  Davis is said to blame the controversial “punch card” voting systems used in the heaviest population centers of the state, claiming that any voter who attempted to vote “No” on the recall ballot was unable to punch all the way through the ballot.  “It’s a clear example of the Republican conspiracy to get him out of office,” Davis aide Jerry Walters was quoted to say.  “The ‘yes’ card was made out of tissue paper, so that it tore through easily, while the ‘no’ card was made out of corrugated cardboard!”  California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley (D) declined to comment.

Ironically, Coleman celebrated his victory on the set of NBC’s Los Angeles-based Tonight Show, where Schwarzenegger had begun his campaign only a few months earlier. When asked by host Jay Leno about his plans for the state of California, Coleman could only reply “What’chu talkin’ ‘bout Jay?”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Special Transformers Feature: Universe Onslaught

Members of the Official Transformers Collectors' Club were surprised a couple of months ago to learn that the Combaticons, a well-known team of bad guys that featured in the original 1980's Transformers cartoon, were being featured in the current "Wings of Honor"-based storyline... as members of the Autobot Elite Guard!  A new prose story featuring them just came out a couple of days ago, prompting me to pull out the only of one of these characters currently represented by a toy (Decepticon symbol on the toy notwithstanding): Universe Onslaught.

In 2008, the second toyline to carry the Universe name featured a number of toys representing characters from the Generation One era of the Transformers franchise (in fact, many people often refer to such toys as "Classics 2.0"), and Onslaught was one of the more heavily-promoted examples of this in the early part of that line.  The original Onslaught is probably best known for being a part of the combiner robot, Bruticus.  In fact, the original Combaticon molds have probably been reused more times than any other Generation One combiner team, making the Bruticus form (in whatever name it was given for a particular line) extremely well-known.  Since it was quickly discovered that this new version of the character would not be combining with the rest of his team (none of whom were made available in a new form at this time, anyway) to create a new version of Bruticus, many fans were understandably disappointed.  Indeed, back in the 1980's, being able to combine was pretty much the "whole point" of these "special teams" toys (as they were often called in the UK), and few of the individual robots in those teams ever had a chance to shine on their own.  This version of Onslaught gives the character a chance to do just that.

The vehicle mode bears little resemblance to Onslaught's original anti-aircraft truck form, aside from perhaps having a similar color scheme, but it really doesn't matter.  Transform this toy into robot mode and take a look at the face!  This is undeniably the same character.  Being an "ultra"-sized toy, Onslaught has some electronic sounds and lights incorporated into him, but they're really nothing special.  The flip-out weapon on Onslaught's right arm is kind of cool, as is the shield that can be placed on the left arm.  The TFWiki points out that this Onslaught stands about as tall as the original Bruticus did.  It's a great example of how a character may be updated in a way that remains true to the character essentials while also being almost entirely new.

Even so, it's still a bit disappointing that Hasbro seems to have abandoned the idea of these guys being a part of a team that combined into a larger robot.  Those were always cool. :(

Monday, May 24, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Acts 12-16

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Acts, chapters 12-16.

Chapter 12

  • Verse 7 - There's something about the fact that the angel struck Peter to wake him up that just strikes me as very... real.
  • Verse 15 - Although I've been taught that the Bible does not teach that angels are the ghosts of dead people, clearly, Peter's friends thought of angels in such a way that Peter's "angel" could be confused with him.
  • Verses 21-23 - I feel like there must be more to this story that isn't recorded here (but perhaps which was obvious to those in the first century who were the first readers of Acts).  Why is Herod being struck down (with the emphatic "immediately" no less)?  Because other people thought he spoke like a god?  Because Herod wasn't quick enough to rebuke them (thus giving praise to God)?  Surely other (ungodly) leaders had people say such things about them yet were not struck down in this way.
Chapter 13
  • Verse 1 - Luke drops a few more names that were obviously important enough that he should give us their names in the first place, but of whom we never hear again.  I do find it interesting to note the ethnic diversity already apparent among these "prophets and teachers" (implied by the locations mentioned and alternate names given) in this early Christian era, even before Paul starts explicitly evangelizing to the Gentiles.
  • Verses 6-8 - So, are Bar-Jesus and Elymas the same person?  It seems this is unnecessarily confusing. 
  • Verses 16-23 - Like Stephen before him, Paul bases his (upcoming) sermon on Jewish history.  This account differs from Stephen's, of course.  Much less attention is given to the Pentateuch (perhaps Luke cut it short this time, having already covered all of that in Stephen's speech?) and a bit more to King David before Paul moves on to talk (explicitly, this time!) about Jesus. 
  • Verse 48 - A clearly theologically-motivated statement.  A bit circular, isn't it?  For all we know, very few people actually believed Paul and Barnabas at this time, but Luke can still safely say they were "all who were appointed for eternal life."
Chapter 14
  • Verse 1-2 - Since the Greeks in verse 1 seem to be in the synagogue (where Paul and Barnabas are speaking), I assume that these are proselytes to the Jewish faith.  I'm not sure whether or not this is as opposed to not-previously-converted Gentiles in verse 2 (or if these "other Gentiles" are also proselytes, just ones who didn't believe Paul and Barnabas).
  • Verse 3 - I wonder what "signs and wonders" were performed....
  • Verses 6-7 - I'm all for preaching the gospel in boldness, despite opposition, but I think it's worth noting that even Paul and Barnabas fled to safer climates from time to time.
  • Verses 11-15 - I wonder if this response of Paul and Barnabas is intentionally to be opposed to Herod's lack thereof in Chapter 12.
  • Verse 23 - We've already seen people appointed to the office of deacon.  I think this is the first time we see people appointed to the office of elder.  (But did Christian elders previously exist?  See Acts 11.)
Chapter 15
  • Verses 1-35 - The role of the law (and, specifically, of circumcision) is debated among the believers.  The importance of the decision reached via this council for the later shape of Christianity should not be diminished.  I do think it's worth noting that in the letter that was composed and sent to the churches (verses 23-29), believers were still given "rules" to follow, although the significance of following these rules may well be somewhat different than the significance the law held for old covenant Jews.  Why should these particular rules have been singled out?
  • Verses 36-41 - Although Luke does tell us that this is "some time later," I find it intriguing that Acts presents us with this rift between Paul and Barnabas so quickly after the resolution to the debate about the law.  The idea that Mark (presumably later the author of the Second Gospel) was a deserter was of huge importance to Paul (despite Paul's own need to flee from danger in Chapter 14?).
Chapter 16
  • Verse 3 - Many commentators have noted Paul's seeming inconsistency here, having Timothy circumcised despite Paul's insistence later on (that is, in the epistles) that circumcision was not only unnecessary, but worthless.  I won't rehash those arguments here, but I do want to point the fact out.  I especially find it interesting that this takes place so quickly after Chapter 15's apparent resolution to the question of circumcision's (lack of) necessity.
  • Verse 10 - The use of the second-person plural ("we," in English) is dropped in so off-handedly, it can be easy to miss.  I won't point out every time Luke does this, but it's worth noting that he is a participant in many of the events he is writing about, and is being up-front about this fact.
  • Verse 13-15 - Given some of the cultural taboos against speaking to women, I think this section is important.  I also want to draw attention to Lydia, who is apparently a woman of some means.  And this isn't inherited wealth, but her own earnings via her being a merchant.  And not just a merchant, but a merchant who sells purple cloth.  Purple was a color that only the wealthy could afford to own.  Without even getting into the Christian believers' apparent positive attitude toward these women, it sometimes seems to me that the world of first-century Palestine was more egalitarian than today (I'm well-aware that this opinion won't hold up to close scrutiny, even among those of a more progressive persuasion regarding the role of women like myself.  The culture of that time and place was patriarchal, and I haven't forgotten that fact).
  • Verse 33 - I do wonder just what was meant by the fact that the entire "household" of the jailer was baptized.  Did they all make confessions of faith on the basis on this incident?  For some reason (and trying to lay my own prejudices aside insomuch as I can), this strikes me as unlikely.  Not impossible (I know that those who disagree with the concept of infant baptism would be quick to point this out), but it seems to me that it is a straining of the text to assume such.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Google Celebrates Pac-Man's 30th Anniversary

Okay, I'm a bit embarrassed.  I didn't remember that Pac-Man is turning 30 this year!  I used to be a "Pac-Maniac" when I was a kid, but I guess I'm getting old.  It took Google to inform me of this fact by dedicating their daily "doodle" to the anniversary today (According to Wikipedia, the game was actually introduced in Japan on May 22nd, 1980, but since I guess that, as of less than an hour ago, it's already the 22nd in Japan, I guess today counts...).  What's more, you can actually play the game in this doodle!  Ridiculously cool!

(Thanks to Google for posting a permanent link!)

Gotta Have Priorities!

I really want to write something deeply profound and insightful.  There's certainly enough going on in the world that I can comment about.  Problem is, I haven't had enough time in front of the computer when I haven't been doing something else to collect it all into something worthwhile.  Rather than force the issue just because I usually post on Friday, I'm going to use the limited time I have tonight to fix this Shockwave toy.  This project is way overdue.  It hasn't been in one piece since I wrote that article a couple of years ago!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Diana Butler Bass on Civility

I have a confession to make.  I really haven't been listening to God Complex Radio for several months now.  Not since they started their revamped format for 2010, in fact.  Basically, I decided that although I deeply respect both hosts (Bruce Reyes-Chow and Carol Howard Merritt), and still read their blogs and tweets regularly, they simply weren't talking about the issues I wanted to hear discussed, nor using the diversity of perspectives I wanted to hear such issues discussed with.  I still wished (and continue to wish) both of them well, but I decided that I needed to focus my own time and attention elsewhere.

They got my attention again this week when guest Diana Butler Bass mentioned (on a post over at the Sojourners blog) that they had discussed the topic of Civility on the most recent episode of God Complex Radio.  Civility is an issue that I feel quite passionately about.  Few things get me more upset than when I enter into a discussion where I feel that someone is being unfair to another person's position or are treating them rudely.  I've written about issues that touch upon matters of civility on a few occasions (here's just a sample).  My curiosity piqued, I listened to the podcast.

The episode began with a brief discussion between Bruce and a pastor named Toby Brown.  I'm not familiar with Rev. Brown, but Bruce described him as a person with whom he "very rarely" agrees on "matter(s) of religious significance."  A quick web search found Rev. Brown's current church, and I am led to believe through their website that he and they are probably a bit to the right of where I am theologically (to say nothing of where Bruce is, which is undeniably to the left).  The conversation was warm and congenial.  This is exactly the kind of thing I felt had been missing back when I was listening (which, since they called this most recent episode the first of "season 2," was during what I have to assume is now considered "season 0," since I know that the reboot was earlier this year, after I'd decided to remove God Complex Radio from my weekly playlist).  I'd gotten the impression that they were interviewing people who might espouse positions to the left of where they were (thus proving that guests need not "agree" on all matters), but I wanted to hear this kind of interaction with the right, as well, and was very pleased to see that such was indeed happening (in at least this particular episode after I had "moved on" from the podcast). 

The bulk of the episode was dedicated to the interview with Diana Butler Bass.  Some things she and Bruce discussed didn't really surprise me.  For example, they discussed the fact that many of the "heroes" of our Christian tradition (Martin Luther, for example) were by no means "civil" in their writings (Margaret Fell also came to mind).  The fact that uncivil dialogue has been growing to dangerous proportions (especially on the internet, where the possibility of anonymity has added to the problem) and arguably making for a poor witness to the Christian faith was also examined.  What was more of an eye-opener for me, personally, was the point that, for many of us, requests for "civility" often serve as a mask for the protection of the status quo, especially when the person calling for "civility" is a white male (like me) or in a position of power (perhaps not like me, except insofar as my "white-maleness" contributes to such).  I'll need to take that seriously.  Similarly, they talked about the fact that many of us come out of a background where we want people to "just be nice" no matter what.  I know some people who were made to feel that they shouldn't speak out against an injustice at all because it might "threaten" the "peaceful" state of non-argument.  Remember that saying about evil thriving when good people do nothing?

Bruce suggested an alternative way of thinking of this issue.  Graciousness.  There may well be times when firm, indeed even forceful, language and actions need to be taken to do what God calls us to do.  But we should never lose sight of God's graciousness not only to us, but also to those who we might consider our enemies.  So, what then would graciousness look like?  I would submit that we can be firm without name-calling.  If we argue against an opponent's point of view, would our opponent at least be able to affirm that we have accurately represented their position, however much we disagree with it?  Can we be open to giving our opponents time to make a rebuttal?

One more thing that I appreciated about this discussion was the honesty of the dialogue.  The people making the case for civility/graciousness made it clear that they themselves sometimes fell short of their own ideals (Diana Butler Bass makes a confession during the podcast that is especially relevant, but you've got to hear it for yourself).  We're human.  We will fall short of our own ideals (to say nothing of God's!) from time to time.  But we can learn from those experiences, and perhaps that recognition of our own failures can point us toward the need for God's grace even more.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Acts 7-11

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Acts, chapters 7-11.

Chapter 7

  • Verses 1-53 - Stephen clearly knows his Old Testament history, but it's worth asking why Stephen has focused on the parts he has.  The Pentateuch (and especially Abraham) gets all sorts of attention, then Stephen skips ahead to quickly name-drop David and Solomon, and then to a brief mention of Christ (and not even by name).
Chapter 8
  • Verses 4-40 - Philip isn't a character I hear a lot about, but he certainly gets some serious "face time" in this chapter.
  • Verse 24 - So, did Simon repent (and become a true follower of Christ) or did he remain "not right before God"?  His cry here may be nothing more than a self-serving desire to escape punishment,1 but it could represent the beginning of a faithful ministry.  Luke doesn't clarify this for us.
Chapter 9
  • Verse 10 - Was Ananias a common name back then?  Clearly, this disciple isn't the now-dead person from Chapter 5.
  • Verse 19 - I don't want to make more of this point than the text warrants, but I think it's important to note that, even though he's gotten a vision straight from Jesus himself, Saul nonetheless doesn't immediately go out on his own to do what Jesus is calling him to do.  He spends time with other disciples.  These relationships are essential.  (He does proceed to start preaching pretty quickly thereafter, of course)
  • Verse 27 - In fact, it was the testimony of one of these fellow disciples, Barnabas, that helped those in Jerusalem trust that Saul really was on "their side" now.
Chapter 10
  • Verses 13-15 - A lot has been made out of these verses, which are given in the context of Peter being told that Gentiles are entitled to salvation just as much as Jews.  Beyond that, I am struck by the apparent fact that Peter is told to do something explicitly against the law that God had given to the Jews.  We apply such a reality to ourselves today only with the greatest caution, but it does seem to me that God can overrule God's own law.
Chapter 11
  • Verses 1-18 - I can totally see why Peter should have to recount his recent visions/actions to those who did not witness them first hand.  I wonder why Luke has so much of the recounting repeated explicitly.  The readers have already gotten all this information!  Granting that the writers of these books do nothing without serious forethought, why wasn't it enough to say "Peter explained himself?" 

1See David J. Williams, Acts (New International Bible Commentary), Hendrickson, 1990, p. 158.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Special Transformers Feature: Fastlane and Cloudraker

I've commented before that by the middle of the original Generation One toyline's run, it seemed like every Transformers toy had to have some kind of gimmick beyond just the ability to transform.  Fastlane and Cloudraker represent a gimmick that I'm actually a bit surprised has never been revisited in the years since: these two characters are "clones."  Looking at the box art immediately to the left, this may not be immediately apparent.  But if one considers how unusual it is to have box art represent the vehicle mode of a toy, one can probably guess at what's going on....

In this picture, Cloudraker is on the left, and Fastlane is on the right.  Both toys have (more or less) identical robot modes.  I feel the need to add that parenthetical because it's so ridiculously easy to tell which toy is which with even a cursory glance, especially with Fastlane's spoiler visible behind his head.  For some reason, the toy designers decided to give each character distinctive weapons, too, which would seem to defeat the purpose of having "identical twin"-type robots, but it is what it is.  If, for whatever reason, those obvious visual cues aren't enough to help you tell the clones apart, the toys each have an extra rubsign in the center of their chest, which doesn't reveal their faction symbol as traditional rubsigns do.  Instead, Fastlane's extra rubsign reveals a picture of a race car while Cloudraker's rubsign reveals a jet.

Let's look at the vehicle modes separately.  As already noted, Fastlane turns into a race car.  Although the first couple of years of the toyline tended to feature vehicles that one might find in the real world, Fastlane is well in-keeping with his later-Generation One fellows by being a totally made-up design.  Given the design intentions of taking a single robot design and coming up with two unique vehicle modes (and thus, distinct transformations), this is only to be expected.  It probably bears noting that the instructions don't actually specify that Fastlane's weapons are to be added on to the vehicle mode as I have them depicted here.  However, given that the toy has the correctly-sized holes available on Fastlane's form (and, perhaps just as importantly, that Cloudraker does not have holes in this location!), I'm fairly confident in saying that this is an intentional undocumented feature.

Here's Cloudraker in jet form.  Not only is this another clearly-fictional design, but I don't really see how this jet could ever actually fly in the real world, given how narrow those wings are!  Of course, the wings kind of have to be that skinny, so that they can hide behind the legs of Cloudraker's robot mode (although I could certainly have done a better job of hiding the wings in that picture above).  Like Fastlane, Cloudraker has weapon-sized holes on the jet's underside that don't exist there on Fastlane (although in this case, Fastlane's transformation prevents the possibility of putting holes there), allowing for an undocumented "attack plane" mode.

Although I did say that the concept of "clones" hasn't been revisited in the years since these toys were released, Fastlane and Cloudraker aren't the only clones in the Transformers franchise's history.  A couple of Decepticon clones named Pounce and Wingspan were released at the same time.  Maybe I'll get around to giving Pounce and Wingspan their own feature someday....

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Has Been the Price of Our Individualism?

A friend of mine on Facebook recently shared a link to an article by Mark Lilla entitled "The Tea Party Jacobins." I imagine that any of my right-leaning friends (and to those of you who nonetheless continue to read my writings, I say "thank you") may see this title and dismiss this as the work of a left-leaning pundit.  For all I know, they may be correct, but it seems to me that the heart of what Lilla's talking about has plenty to accuse both the left and the right about.

Lilla starts by referencing a 1998 article he wrote entitled "A Tale of Two Reactions."  I tried to find the actual article myself, but it's not available for free on the New York Review of Books website, and I wasn't able to locate a full-text version through the educational database I have access to via Fuller, so I'll have to settle for the run-down Lilla provides in the more recent article:
A little over a decade ago I published an article... titled “A Tale of Two Reactions” (May 14, 1998). It struck me then that American society was changing in ways conservative and liberal commentators just hadn’t noticed. Conservatives were too busy harping on the cultural revolution of the Sixties, liberals on the Reagan revolution’s “culture of greed,” and all they could agree on was that America was beyond repair.

The American public, meanwhile, was having no trouble accepting both revolutions and reconciling them in everyday life. This made sense, given that they were inspired by the same political principle: radical individualism. During the Clinton years the country edged left on issues of private autonomy (sex, divorce, casual drug use) while continuing to move right on economic autonomy (individual initiative, free markets, deregulation). As I wrote then, Americans saw “no contradiction in holding down day jobs in the unfettered global marketplace…and spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties.” Democrats were day-trading, Republicans were divorcing. We were all individualists now.
"The Tea Party Jacobins" seeks to follow that observation up by reflecting on what that sense of "radical individualism" has brought about in the current American landscape, with the current "Tea Party" merely being a presenting example.  Although Lilla's is a thoroughly secular article, it got me thinking about things that I have been hearing in Christian circles for quite a while now, specifically decrying the spread of "radical individualism" (yes, both unrelated groups seem to enjoy the same term, although I won't try to make the case that each uses it in precisely the same way).  I therefore made the effort to read through the whole article, which is quite lengthy.  Indeed, I thought about some folks who have typed "TL;DR" (for the uninitiated, that means "Too long; didn't read") on my own writings, and I can see that this already threatens to be a longer entry.  Trust me, it's brevity itself compared to Lilla's article!

One of the realities Lilla cites has long been a concern that affects me personally:
...for decades we have been withdrawing into “communities of like-mindedness” where the gap between individual and collective closes... People with higher degrees who care about food and wine, support gay rights, and want few children but good Internet connections have been gravitating to urban centers on the two coasts, while churchgoing families that drive everywhere, socialize with relatives, and send their kids to state universities have been heading to the growing exurbs of the southern and mountain states. By voting with their feet, highly mobile Americans are finding representation in local communities where they share their neighbors’ general political outlook and where they can be sure that their voices will be echoed back to them.
No wonder I often feel that I don't "fit in." I'm very much in both of these worlds! I have a "higher degree" and currently live in an "urban center on the coast," but am also a "churchgoer" with significant background in a mountainous region of the South. While clearly not everything in both lists applies to me, significant portions of both lists do.  In any event, Lilla certainly paints a picture that illustrates why Americans seem not only to have become so bitterly divided on so many issues, but to have created such a vast gulf between those divisions, to the point where communication (to say nothing of civil communication) has become nearly impossible.

But, perhaps more importantly (and more perilously), Lilla points out that the overarching response of many Americans seems to be "just leave me alone," as if to suggest that we can handle all of our own problems if only other entities (especially government, but also religion to a large extent) will just "get out of our hair."  This even seems to be true in cases like health care, despite Lilla's assertion that no one can cure one's self.  Indeed, our individualistic tendencies create contradictions in several places:
Americans are and have always been credulous skeptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead; they second-guess their cardiologists, then seek out quacks in the jungle. Like people in every society, they do this in moments of crisis when things seem hopeless. They also, unlike people in other societies, do it on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect.
And for those of us who are a particular "kind" of Christian, how often have we heard teachings that suggest that the most important thing is our "personal relationship with God," with barely a mention of "other people" at all?  Yet so much of the Bible tells us that if we are following God, we're doing things for and with other people!  This cannot be emphasized enough.  Yet the individualistic culture we live in seems to be no less true of those of us who follow Christ than it is for secular Americans.

I find myself torn on this issue.  Being a product of this culture, myself, I like my individualism.  And, being strongly oriented toward introversion, my natural inclination is to do things on my own, anyway.  Indeed, spending time with groups of people, while enjoyable, tends to require that I get "down time" afterward just to "recharge."  Even if I agree that I should work toward being less individualistic than I am, this will clearly be a difficult goal to achieve.  And even that statement, that I should work on this, is an individualistic one!  But it seems that if we are, as a collective people, to achieve such a goal, then we must, as individuals, make the commitment to do so.  I cannot make the commitment for anyone else but me, nor would it be appropriate to coerce another person toward a mindset that puts the common good before the good of the individual.

And it's not like individualism is entirely bad.  It's just that we seem to have taken it in directions that are unhealthy in a number of areas.  May God provide us (and I do mean that "us" in a collective sense) with a sense of balance.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Acts 2-6

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Acts, chapters 2-6.

Chapter 2

  • Verses 9-11 - I think it's interesting to see the list of countries and lands referred to in these verses to demonstrate the diversity of languages being heard at Pentecost.
  • Verse 14 - After all that trouble to install a new "twelfth" apostle at the end of the previous chapter, we see a reference to "the Eleven" here.  See how quickly Matthias has been forgotten?
  • Verse 23 - There's a footnote in the TNIV that suggests an alternate interpretation for "wicked men," which would read "those not having the law" (the footnote further spells out that this would mean "Gentiles").  This does not seem to reflect a textual variant within the Greek, but rather a difference of opinion about how the Greek should be interpreted.  What reasons might be offered to prefer one interpretation over the other?
Chapter 3
  • Verse 2 (and again at verse 10) - why is the gate called "Beautiful," and why does Luke make the effort to point out this name us?  Why not just tell us that the man was at a temple gate?1
  • Verse 12 - Peter sounds like Jesus here, asking why people should be surprised by an event that really is indeed utterly astonishing.
Chapter 4
  • Verses 6,7 - Based upon context, I think it's safe to say that the John of verse 6 and the John of verse 7 are two different people, but I would have preferred a more specific description spelling this out.  Of course, John was (and is!) a pretty common name....
  • Verse 13 - Williams suggests that the amazement at Peter and John's lack of schooling is less the kind of prejudice we might have against, say, a "country bumpkin" (apologies to my more rurally-located friends!) and more an amazement at the fact that "laypeople" would be able to speak about matters of God in such a way.2
  • Verses 32-37 - Yet another for the growing list of passages that I wonder "why did this section get put in this chapter?"  It clearly connects better to the beginning of Chapter 5.
Chapter 5
  • Verses 1-11 - Many commentators have pointed out that Ananias and Sapphira were struck down not for holding back part of the money earned from selling their property, but for having lied to the disciples about it.  The text certainly supports this interpretation, but I wish we were given a bit more explicit look into their motives for this deception, or that we could see examples of people who were generous without necessarily giving away all of their possessions (see chapter 4, verse 32, or should we take that as hyperbole?).  This passage is one of few explicit examples of harsh punishment meted out by God in the New Testament (and with no apparent chance for repentance!), but is nonetheless a memorable one.
  • Verse 12 - Solomon's Colonnade has been mentioned a couple of times now as a meeting place for the Apostles.  What was so special about it?
  • Verse 13: "no one else dared join them" and verse 14: "more and more... were added to their number" - These bits sound contradictory.  Williams suggests that these statements may be reconciled if, although outsiders didn't join the Christians at the Colonnade (part of the temple), they may have joined "at other, more convenient, times."3
  • Verse 23 - When the angel released the apostles, he must have done so without the guards noticing, and having locked the prison door behind him (or perhaps he had the apostles just walk through the wall?). 
Chapter 6
  • Verse 2 - The core disciples are called the "Twelve" (and not the "Eleven") again.  Although I doubt it's the intention, the disciples sound a bit elitist when they complain about neglecting "the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables."  Even so, the recognition that different followers are called to different ministries is important.
  • Verses 8-15 - One wonders how long Stephen was active before his persecution and execution (in chapter 7.  This is another of those bits that seems to go better with what comes next, but I'd rather not wait until next week to get to that).  I suppose that it could have been years (it's certainly long enough that Luke is able to refer to the "great wonders and miraculous signs" Stephen performed), but Stephen really only enters into the narrative so that Luke can describe (again, getting ahead of myself) the manner of Stephen's death.

1In David J. Williams, Acts (New International Bible Commentary), Hendrickson, 1990, p. 66, it is pointed out that no "Beautiful Gate" is attested in either the Mishnah nor Josephus, leaving us to wonder what gate Luke is referring to.
2Williams, p. 83.
3Williams, pp. 102-103.

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Friday, May 07, 2010

Seen at the 2010 Knox Church Retreat

This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending a retreat at Forest Home Ojai Valley with members of my church. The theme was "Sabbath," and among other things, one of the things we discussed was how proper attention to taking Sabbath rest can (ironically?) help you to prepare for your work. That would be a good thing, since this past week has been a busy one at Fuller, culminating with our annual Payton Lectures these past two days. As such, I'm finding myself looking at Friday morning without a post already written, so here are a few pictures from the weekend.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Offbeat Transformers Collectibles: "Red" M&M's Dispenser

Last year, as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was coming out in movie theaters, the folks who make M&M's did a promotion alongside Target.  Buy five bags of M&M's from Target, send in the receipt, and get this M&M's dispenser with the red M&M character dressed up as movie Optimus Prime on top for free (you didn't even have to pay for shipping!).  I seem to recall a yellow version, with the yellow M&M character dressed up as movie Bumblebee, which one could buy at Toys R Us at about the same time for the ridiculous price of $15, but since you could actually buy five bags of M&M's for less than that (I paid about $2.50 each bag.  Sales are great!), I figure this was the better deal no matter how you cut it!

Monday, May 03, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: John 18-21 and Acts 1

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through John, chapters 18-21 and Acts, chapter 1.

Chapter 18

  • Verses 4-8 – Why do the soldiers draw back when Jesus confirms his identity for the first time? Why do they not simply arrest him? Also, although Judas is clearly present for this arrest, I find it interesting that John does not have Judas explicitly identify Jesus (neither by a kiss, as elsewhere, nor by any other means).
  • Verse 15 – We haven't really talked about “the disciple who Jesus loved” yet (although the phrase has been used since Chapter 13), and “the other disciple” here may or may not be the same one, but I suspect that he is, or else why would John use such circumlocution to refer to the disciple allowed into the high priest's courtyard? I wonder how it was that this disciple was known to the high priest in the first place?
  • Verses 19-24 – Why does John insert this interlude between Peter's first and second denial of Jesus? Indeed, if John's going to break them up at all, why not include something between the second and third denial as well?
  • Verse 38: “What is truth?” - Quite a lot has been written about Pilate's question. I don't pretend to fully understand precisely why he asks it, myself. But it's clearly significant.
Chapter 19
  • Verse 12 – We are told here that Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but apparently could not because of the Jewish leaders. This reason rings a little hollow. Surely Pilate had authority over the Jewish leaders. If he wanted to set Jesus free, he had the authority to do so. I assume that Pilate gives in because he is afraid of the Jewish leaders. But why should he be so afraid of them?
  • Verses 21-22 – Afraid of the Jewish leaders or not, Pilate still manages to send a message that seems deliberately designed to insult them.
  • Verse 35 - “The man” is not specifically identified here, but is referred to in such a way that it seems obvious the John's original audience must have known exactly who the man was.
  • Verse 39 - Nicodemus makes his final appearance.
Chapter 20
  • Verses 1-2 – The resurrection seem ironically anti-climactic. We don't see any angels yet. We don't see the stone rolled away. It's all already happened by the time any of our protagonists are on the scene.
  • Verse 22 – Just how is the Holy Spirit transmitted?
  • Verse 24 – Thomas is referred to as Didymus/The Twin again.
Chapter 21
  • Verse 2 - John's really intent on calling Thomas by his nickname quite a bit, isn't he?
  • Verse 11 - John goes to some trouble to point out the number of fish caught. Why?
  • Verses 15-19 - Although I've heard a number of preachers and teachers make a lot out of the fact that Jesus and Peter alternate between different Greek words for “love” in this exchange (a point lost in translation to English), I agree with Michaels that the distinctions are not really important to what is going on here. Rather the “fondness for synonyms” (“Lamb” and “sheep” are used interchangeably here, as well, as are alternating “feed/tend” words.) is intended to convey that “the narrator's interest is in the repetition of the same thought, not in the subtle differences in the meaning of particular words. It is all but certain that the threefold question-and-answer sequence here is intended to coincide with Peter's threefold denial earlier.1
  • Verse 24 – a very similar formula to verse 35 in chapter 19. Is John referring to the same witness (and is that witness indeed John himself)? Why use the formula twice, rather than just now, at the end of the Gospel?
Chapter 1
  • Verse 11 – I'm not sure I understand the question asked to the disciples. If Jesus will indeed come back in the same way that he was taken up into heaven, is that not a reason why they should be looking up into the sky?
  • Verse 12 – For those who are checking, this list does indeed match list of the Twelve written in Luke (by the same author as Acts), minus Judas, although not in quite the same order.
  • Verses 23-26 – I wonder what Matthias did, after he was added to the Twelve. We never hear of him again within the Bible itself? For that matter, I wonder what kind of ministry Joseph Barsabbas had? One doesn't assume that, simply because the lot failed to fall on him, that he therefore left the larger group of Jesus' followers. Yet, like Matthias, he is only mentioned here.

1J. Ramsey Michaels, John (New International Bible Commentary), Hendrickson, 1989, p. 360.

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