Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reframing Hope Review

It's no secret that the past few years have been rough ones for many of us.  This is no less true for our churches.  Economic hardship coupled with a rapidly changing world has caused many churches to suffer, and some to even close their doors.  It is into this reality that Reframing Hope is written.

I've written about author Carol Howard Merritt before.  She is one of the co-hosts of God Complex Radio (which, coincidentally, just started a new batch of episodes yesterday) and is the person behind the Tribal Church blog (not to mention the author of the book of the same name).  I've been following Merritt via her blog and her Twitter feed for a few years now, and when she offered a free copy of the book to those of us who agreed to write a blog entry reviewing it, I was happy to take her up on the offer.

Although some people have argued that Merritt is a part of the "emerging church" movement, she prefers to think of herself as a "loyal radical."  "Loyal radicals" are "loyal" because they remain devoted to a particular denominational traditionin Merritt's case, the PC(USA)despite fully acknowledging the imperfections of that tradition, and "radical" because they see the need for, and work toward, change within their tradition.

It is this balance of tradition and change that forms the core of the "hope" that Merritt hopes to "reframe" for us in her book.  Although Merritt's political views may well be considered "liberal" (and she would be the first to admit this), it would be unfair in the extreme to stereotype her too quickly.  She comes from an evangelical background that, while she may no longer claim it as her label of choice today, nonetheless remains a part of her and has valuable contributions for how she views her ministry.  At one point near the end of the book, Merritt writes of two "poles" of US Christian belief: evangelicals and liberals.  As I generally try to claim the "evangelical" label as distinct from "fundamentalist" (and, indeed, as broad enough to include some "liberal" thought), I might quibble with that comment, but not only is Merritt hardly alone in seeing "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" as basically similar, she speaks out of personal experience, and doesn't make this kind of statement lightly.  Indeed, her point in bringing up this polarity is to point out that each side has gifts they can offer the other.

In attempting to describe a way forward for our congregations, Merritt is quick to acknowledge that no one way will work for all.  Each congregation represents a distinct grouping of different types of people, gathered together in a particular place at a particular time.  Taken together, these many "churches" are bound together by a shared Christian tradition (if admittedly over a sometimes broad swath of doctrinal belief within it), but each of these distinct contexts means that each individual congregation faces unique challenges.  Merritt remains fully aware of this while trying to navigate the potentially-tricky waters of providing a kind of map (or, perhaps more accurately, a broad outline) to renewed church vitality.

Merritt does not advocate change simply for its own sake, nor does she disrespect the traditions that many of our congregations have maintained and passed down to us over the years.  There is much of value in these traditions, and we lose them at our peril.  Nonetheless, it is equally an error to refuse to change no matter what happens in the world around us.  Merritt describes, often using stories of actual congregations or actual people, ways in which we might take advantages of new developments in technology and the globalizing world to help the church better respond to the call of God.  This does mean that some congregations who fear these developments may have to learn to push through that fear, but at the same time, discernment is called for:
The possibilities in this new age are fascinating, yet there are dangers that come with the increased use of Internet as a primary form of communication.  As we form relationships and community in our churches, we will have to be sure our care does not become impersonal.  We all know how frustrating it is to call a utility company and spend forty-five minutes on the phone, waiting to speak with a human being.  The company tries to reassure us with soothing Muzak and the hypnotic message, "Your call is very important to us.  Please continue to hold."  But the real message is clear: Your call is not all that important to them.  If it were really important, they would hire more people to answer the phones. (p. 59)
These new developments have real dangers, as well, and we need to be wise in appropriating them.  Technology, by itself, is certainly not the answer, and Merritt makes no suggestion that it is.  Indeed, to the extent that technology draws people away from relationships with each other, or from time spent alone with God, it is being misused and/or abused.  But, to the extent that technology can draw people into deeper relationships with others and with God (and she uses examples from Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphereamong othersto illustrate how this has been, and might be, done), it can be a valuable tool toward helping us become the kinds of communities of faith God would have us to be.

Merritt also draws attention to the fact that many "new" churches have appropriated "old" traditions and spiritual practices that even more "traditional" churches may have lost.  As God gives us leading (and there's a great bit about the difficulty of discerning whether something is God's voice or our own on page 119), through wise application of these kinds of "traditional" and "emerging" practices, we have reason to hope that the future remains bright for the Christian church.

I definitely recommend your picking the book up, but suggest doing so quickly, as this book is very much tied to its time.  For example, Merritt makes a reference to "the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico" (on p. 95) as though it is a current event that her readers will immediately understand, and indeed we do... for now.  BP only announced just a week or so that the well is officially "dead," but of course the clean-up efforts will continue for some time to come. But I imagine that in just a few years, people will read this reference and no longer immediately understand what incident Merritt is referring to. This is a minor concern, of course. The book is worth reading, regardless.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: 1 Timothy 1-5

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 1 Timothy, chapters 1-5.

Chapter 1

  • Verse 1 - This letter, along with the two that follow it (2 Timothy and Titus) are often referred to collectively as "The Pastoral Epistles," because of the particular "pastoral" concerns addressed within them.  There are a number of differences between the Pastoral Epistles and other letters that appear to be written by Paul.  These differences are sufficient for many scholars to argue that Paul was not the actual author of these letters, but were written instead by a follower of Paul (or of Paul's teachings) claiming his authority by using his name.  This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as "pseudepigraphy," was not at all uncommon in the world into which these letters were written.  Many Christians reject this theory on the grounds that it is dishonest to write under an assumed name in this way, or by arguing that if Scripture cannot contain any errors, the claim of a letter to be written by Paul must therefore be accurate.  I see no need to be dogmatic one way or the other about this, but would wish to point out that if these were in fact written by someone other than Paul, the original readers would almost certainly have known this from the start.  Pseudepigrapha was simply not treated as "dishonesty" in the ancient world in the same way as we might treat such a letter today.  These letters were accepted by the early church, and thus eventually made their way into our biblical canon.  For the sake of expediency, I will refer to the author as "Paul," even though I know that if Paul really wasn't the author, that would of course have implications for the interpretation of this letter (although probably not as many, or as significant, implications as many Pauline-authorship defenders would have people believe!).
  • Verses 3-4 - As with other letters, we see pretty quickly that there was an issue that Paul wanted to address within the church, specifically said here to be in Ephesus.  Unlike other letters, this wasn't addressed to the whole community, however, but rather to a particular person in leadership over that community.
  • Verse 7 - I daresay this is a common problem, today, too.  Some might say that I'm guilty of it, myself.
  • Verse 15: "of whom I am the worst" - Hanson (who believes that the Pastoral Epistles are pseudepigrapha) notes that the use of the present tense (I am) rather than the past tense (I was) is "a truly Pauline touch."1
Chapter 2
  • Verse 7: "I am telling the truth, I am not lying" - A similar interjection was also used in Romans 9:1.
  • Verses 11-12 - It would be irresponsible of me not to comment on these verses, given how often I advocate for the right of women to all forms of ministry on this blog.  For many Christians, these verses are considered indisputable proof that God does not permit women to ordained office.  Even these Christians will admit that ordained office isn't explicitly mentioned here, but many consider this to be implied by Paul's words.  In any event, nothing I say is likely to change those whose minds are already made up on this issue, but very briefly, I should at least note my comments on the similarly-themed verses in 1 Corinthians,2 and that, noting the frequent references to false teachers, some scholars believe that Paul is here addressing a particular situation in Ephesus.3 It might be further noted that Ephesus is where the temple of Artemis was a prominent fixture (see also Acts 19).4  Paul's words here, then, would not have been intended as a for-all-time injunction against women in leadership, but were rather intended to give instruction to particular women falling prey to a particular heresy in a particular context.
Chapter 3
  • Verses 2, 12: "faithful to his wife" - This phrase, translated as "the husband of one wife" in more traditional translations, has been the source of a fair amount of debate.  The interpretive options include 1) if a spouse has died, the remaining person may not remarry, 2) spouses may not commit adultery, 3) polygamy is prohibited, 4) the would-be leader may not have divorced and remarried.  The last of these is Hanson's view for this particular context.5
Chapter 4
  • Verses 1-5 - Paul seems to be arguing against (an early form of?) Gnosticism here.  Gnosticism was a common form of heresy that gained prominence in the 2nd century, and which held that physical things were evil.
Chapter 5
  • Verse 2 - The Greek word rendered here as "purity" is `αγνεια. It also occurred in chapter 4, verse 12, where Hanson suggested that it was probably intended to convey "sexual purity" (as opposed to the other potential meaning, "ritual purity.").6  It seems extremely likely to me that the same sense is intended here in this context of how Timothy should treat young women, even though Hanson doesn't comment on the use of the word here at all. 
  • Verses 3-8 - An interesting window into how the church commits to help those in need, while acknowledging proper spheres of responsibility.
  • Verse 6 - This verse seems strange.  As Hanson notes: "this can hardly apply to a destitute widow, who would not have the means for self-indulgence."  He suggests that the verse "probably has a sexual overtone," but admits to a lack of certainty.7
  • Verse 23 - The reference to wine seems out of place.  Hanson refers to other scholars to suggest that the line of thought here is (in keeping with the context of the passage) "Do not put yourself in a position where you may be held responsible for another man's sins.... By this I do not mean the pseudo-ascetic purity of the false teachers.  On the contrary, use wine occasionally, since it is good for your health."8

1A. T. Hanson, The Pastoral Epistles (The New Century Bible Commentary), Eerdmans, 1982, p. 61.
2Although, as David M. Scholer notes in his article, "1 Timothy 2:9-15 & the Place of Women in the Church's Ministry" (p. 193, see below for full reference), the 1 Corinthians passage "is not cited as frequently or as forcefully" because of the obvious reference to women prophesying, and therefore speaking, in that same epistle.
3See David M. Scholer, "1 Timothy 2:9-15 & the Place of Women in the Church's Ministry", in Women, Authority & the Bible, edited by Avera Mickelsen, InterVarsity Press, 1986, p. 199.
4Although in his footnotes to p. 199, Scholer points out that "there is no clear or particular evidence that connects this heresy with any pagan worship in Ephesus and its sexual activities and connotations," and thus cautions against building a case solely on this evidence. It is enough to argue that Paul is writing against a heresy particular to the context in which the epistle is intended.
5Hanson, pp. 75, 77-78.
6Hanson, p. 92.
7Hanson, p. 97.
8Hanson, p. 104.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

REPOST: If Jesus Was Choosing "The Apprentice"...

Now that The Apprentice is back on the air with real people (as opposed to celebrities) for the first time in a couple of years, it seemed appropriate to repost this parody I wrote when the show was first becoming popular.

(As with all material on Transforming Seminarian that I created myself, this work is covered by a "Creative Commons" license. In this case, permission is expressly granted to make photocopies of this work and to stage a production of this script for their church or parachurch organization, provided that the author is given credit for the script in a bulletin or program accompanying the performance.)

Jesus’ “Apprentice”
By Mark Baker-Wright

Setting: The Boardroom: looking for DaVinci's "Last Supper" appearance, so that all participants face the audience.

As actors come on stage, it is suggested to play the soundtrack only (no words) of "For the Love of Money" (the theme of The Apprentice)?

Disciples on stage left: Peter and other unnamed disciples. This is the "Fisher" corporation.

Disciples on stage right: Paul, with Barnabas and John Mark, and other disciples. This is the "Xairos" corporation.

Jesus in Center: (dressed like Trump. If he can do the voice, even better)

Two people dressed as angels stand behind Jesus. One on either side. Perhaps dressed in white business suits or some such. At least one of these should be female, to make up for the lack of named/speaking females in the rest of the sketch. (Although there should be women on both corporations as well.)

JESUS: OK, so how did the disciples do this week?

ANGEL 1: The Fisher corporation did extremely well. They made converts of some Roman Centurions, and baptized their entire households. Total converts this week: 653

ANGEL 2: The Xairos corporation also did very well. They sent missionaries out from Antioch and planted a new church in Corinth. Total converts this week: 547. The Fisher corporation is the winner.

JESUS: Congratulations, Peter. You and your team of disciples have won this week's challenge. For your reward, you will enjoy a fine dinner of fish from the Sea of Galilee, prepared by my finest chefs. Go and enjoy! (The Fisher Corporation thanks Jesus and leaves offstage)

JESUS: Now, for the rest of you. What went wrong?

PAUL: It was all Mark's fault, Lord. He abandoned us at the very beginning of our journey in Pamphylia.

MARK: That's not fair! I had worked with the group in both Antioch and Cyprus, and found that I was more effective working from home. I continued to send messages and kept in touch through Barnabas.

JESUS: Barnabas, is this true?

BARNABAS: Well, Mark certainly did keep in touch, and I've always considered him an asset, but I cannot speak for what he thought was most effective.

PAUL (angry): You can't speak for it because you don't know! None of us know why Mark left! All we know is that he abandoned the group just when we were getting started!

JESUS: I think I've heard enough. Paul, as Project Manager, you can choose two people to remain in the boardroom with you. Who do you choose?

PAUL: Barnabas and John Mark.

JESUS: All right, then. For the rest of you. Although you failed the competition, you have served me faithfully. Go join the others in their fish-bake. (The others are surprised, but leave happily offstage, leaving only Barnabas, Paul, and Mark with Jesus and his Angels.)

JESUS: Now, Barnabas. You tried to speak in Mark's defense earlier, despite the fact that you didn't know why he left the group to work on his own. Why?

BARNABAS: Well, Mark's family. We've known each other for years, and I know him to be a man of deep faith. He may not have done things the way Paul or I would have done them, but I can vouch for Mark's integrity.

PAUL: He's unreliable! I can't allow someone who won't follow through with the job to stick around just because he's got well-connected relatives!

JESUS: OK. We know why you've asked John Mark in the boardroom. Why is Barnabas here?

PAUL: Because...

BARNABAS (cutting Paul off): Paul's mad at me because I stood up for Mark. No other reason. He knows I've stood by him faithfully through travels and controversy. Never once have I given him reason to question my devotion to your work. But I could not stand aside and let him cut Mark loose like that. It was simply unfair.

PAUL: Unfair?! I'm accused of being unfair for making a decision to weed out a team member who can't be counted on? If Mark stays on, he'll drag the rest of us down. I can't allow that. And if you can't see that, then I have no use for you either.

JESUS: I see. Barnabas, I don't think you should be here. You have continued to see the good in one of my workers when others couldn't. You continue to encourage him and give him support. Mark, although you may have honestly felt that you were being more effective by working alone, you obviously left at least your Project Manager down by leaving when you did. You should have worked out details on how you were best to serve the team with others rather than acting unilaterally. Paul, as Project Manager, it was your job to find out if there were problems within the team, and find out how to solve them. Mark clearly felt that he wasn't a part of the group, and you should have dealt with that. And you've stubbornly turned against one of your best friends for speaking up for him...

PAUL (tries to interrupt, although Jesus keeps talking): But... but...

JESUS (continuing from before): ... and I keep hearing these reports of you stirring up riots and getting thrown into prison!

PAUL: But, Lord....

JESUS (pointing to Paul, the "Trump cobra"): Paul, you're hired!

PAUL (pause: caught off guard): Wha? Hired?

JESUS: Yes, hired! Barnabas and Mark, you're hired, too. Go and join the others in the banquet.

(Paul, Barnabas, and Mark are dumbstruck, but get up and leave offstage)

ANGEL 1: (after Paul and others have left) You know, you're never going to be successful that way.

JESUS: We'll see.

(Post-boardroom music from The Apprentice plays, Jesus and Angels leave stage. Lights out.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Updated 2011 BotCon Pasadena Survival Guide

I'm really pretty fortunate.  Most Transformers fans have to travel far and wide to get to BotCon, yet I've had the privilege of having it take place just a few blocks away from where I work three times now!  I can certainly understand why some folks feel like it's "always" here (despite the fact that, with one other exception--in another nearby city in California--these three times are the only times BotCon has been west of Texas!).  So, I try to do my bit to "give back."  The "Survival Guide" I did in 2009 was pretty well received, so it's worth doing that again, updating as necessary and providing new information as I can. 

As I said last time, I can't predict every need. But I do know the Pasadena area pretty well now (having lived in and around it for about 13 years now), and hope that this list will be helpful. Of course, the greater Los Angeles area has lots of stuff to see. For the most part, I'm only listing places that I've actually been to and would recommend. You can find other attractions just by using your Google-Fu, of course!

Travel and Hotels:
  • The Sheraton, Hilton, and Courtyard by Marriott are, of course, the official hotels, and the Sheraton's actually connected to the Convention Center. But even with the BotCon room rate, those are really nice hotels with price tags to match.  I'm told that the Sheraton has in-room refrigerators, which may help you with food planning (perhaps the other hotels do, too.  It's not uncommon for hotels to supply that kind of thing).  But perhaps want to stay at a cheaper hotel. For this, I suggest that you consult the Pasadena Convention Center Hotel Guide, and I would definitely recommend signing up for a Big Crumbs account before booking for either hotels or air travel.  They link to all sorts of services like Expedia, Orbitz, and Hotwire in their "Travel" section (If you don't see the link, look under the "Shop" tab and click "Online Retailers"--after signing up, of course!) and if you visit those sites through Big Crumbs, you can earn a percentage of your purchases back!  Look for deals, as you might even be able to get a lower overall price by booking the room at the same time as your flight and/or rental car.  (Complete aside: I'd love to know how these negotiations work.  The Westin isn't one of the official hotels, but is a lot closer to the convention center than the Courtyard!)
  • I won't weigh in on which airlines you should use, but I do have some comments on which airports you might use to get here.  There are several airports in the Pasadena area.  Los Angeles International, commonly called "LAX," is generally the cheapest, but it's a zoo, and if you don't mind spending a little bit more to connect elsewhere, I really do recommend it.  Burbank (BUR) is the closest to Pasadena, and is generally a very pleasant experience.  A bit further away is the Ontario airport (ONT, and yes, I'm talking about California and not Canada!), but that's also a nice airport, as is John Wayne airport (SNA, in Santa Ana), which might work especially well if you plan on working a trip to either Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm (see below) into your arrival or departure plans.
  • This list is written mostly with the assumption that people will either walk wherever they want to go, or will rent a car. There are buses and trains in the Pasadena/Los Angeles area, though. You can map out trips to and from wherever you'd want to go using this link. That said, if you use this option very much, I'd recommend either getting a weekly pass, or reconsider the car rental (which, again, can be done through the Big Crumbs Travel section!).
  • If you just need to get to/from an LA-area airport, the folks behind BotCon have provided a code to get you a discount on SuperShuttle service.  Just enter code "RB3FY" when you make your reservation.
  • If you're coming from LAX, there's a newer alternative option called "Shuttle2LAX" which offers a flat rate of $20 (plus $11 per additional person) regardless of destination.  A little less guesswork, perhaps, but I always suggest checking your options.
  • Directly across the street from the Convention Center is an open-air mall called the Paseo Colorado. This will be the most obvious place to look for food. You can search through all the Paseo merchants here. Most of the restaurants there have their own links, so you can get an idea of costs. Personally, I'd go to Rubio's for some comparatively cheap food. If you don't mind spending a little more, Islands is good for hamburgers, and P.F. Chang's is great for Chinese food.
  • If you're willing to walk a few blocks east (turn right if you're exiting the convention center on Green, facing the Paseo), Lake Avenue is also a major shopping district with lots of restaurants, both upscale and less expensive. Again, if just going inexpensive is your goal, I'd suggest Del Taco, which is a bit cheaper than Rubio's. For the healthier mind-set, Souplantation is quite good.
  • If Italian's your thing, try Buca Di Beppo, which is excellent food, close to the convention, but kind of pricey.
  • McCormick & Schmicks is the only local bar that I (being a teetotaler) have any real familiarity with. I recommend going during Happy Hour (around 5-6 pm), when you can get really cheap food if you buy a beverage (doesn't even have to be alcoholic, or at least didn't when I lived about a block away a few years ago). If you want some excellent seafood, you can go to the main restaurant portion, but be warned that the prices are fairly high.
  • If you've got a friend to dine with, love Mexican food, and don't mind the roughly 1/2-hour drive to go about 8 miles east during rush hour, I also highly recommend Los Güeros in Monrovia (now with two locations!  The original, on Huntington, and now one on Myrtle in Old Town Monrovia). If you're bringing a group, I really recommend you get a coupon from (which works with the above-mentioned Big Crumbs account.  You really should get one!) or through if you have one of their coupon books (and remember, you really need to order the fresh guacamole!).
  • Obviously, if you're willing to drive, much more can be found than I can list conveniently. However, the Pasadena Convention and Visitors Bureau has a very helpful website that can fill in the blanks (this link goes directly to the dining section).
  • Because a few folks have mentioned it, and because it really is pretty good food, I've done a special write-up for In-N-Out Burger in Alhambra (there is one in Pasadena, but you can't sit down there, and so I've never bothered with it myself. It's too far to walk, and if you have to drive, you want to be able to sit down to eat, right?).  There's also a very nice In-N-Out at the Glendale Galleria, where you can get some extra shopping in if you get tired of Transformers.
  • If you're thinking more on the order of groceries (who cooks for themselves at BotCon?), Gelson's is just across the street from the convention center, but is a bit overpriced. If you don't mind walking a few blocks east, I recommend Ralph's instead.
Mail and Shipping:
  • If you need to send a package, I'm sure that BotCon will provide certain shipping services, but you should be aware that the main Pasadena Post Office is just across the street from the Paseo (which, as I said, is itself just across the street from the Convention Center). You might find this to be a viable option for your shipping needs. There is also a FedEx Office (the establishment formerly known as Kinko's) on Los Robles a bit to the Northeast at the Westin (which may as well be one of the "other" official hotels, given its location and comparatively high price). Finally, there is a UPS Store a short distance to the Southwest, but it's rather far for walking (indeed, this one's an exception to my "don't post if I haven't used it" rule. I've used both of the others.).
Local Attractions:
  • The Pasadena Playhouse is a historic theater that has given more than a few big-name celebrities their start. It's just a few blocks east of the Convention Center. Easy walking distance. I can't yet tell what play will be playing there during the BotCon season, but this is usually top-notch entertainment with well-known celebrities. Tickets can be fairly expensive, but they do have a few options (especially for those who are students) that are less expensive if you're willing to take your chances on a seat.
  • Huntington Library and the Huntington Gardens are at the estate of Henry E. Huntington: railroad magnate (and nephew of "Big Four" member C. P. Huntington), business leader, and all-around-rich-guy. The Library has a wonderful collection of art, including both year-round and rotating displays. It also has a collection including original writings of Abraham Lincoln, a Gutenberg Bible, and other bits of Americana and European fare. If the Library doesn't appeal, just go for the Gardens, which are both expansive and exotic. You can easily spend an afternoon just walking along the beautiful paths alone. There is a nominal fee to enter, but especially if you're bringing kids, I definitely recommend spending some time there.
  • I've never actually been inside the Gamble House, but have driven by it often enough that I need to include it. If you have a car, I recommend doing at least that much, just so you can say you've driven by Doc Brown's place! (Of course, this house has been used in lots of other films, too.)
  • The Pacific Asia Museum is even closer to where I work than the Convention Center is, and is thus an easy walk for those who manage to avoid renting a car. Admission is quite reasonable.
  • And, while you're there, you may as well head next door (Even closer to the seminary! Right across the street!) and visit the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Admission is essentially the same price as the Pacific Asia Museum.
  • And, at the risk of sounding anti-climactic, there's a movie theater at the Paseo Colorado.
Outside of Pasadena Itself:
  • By the way, if you do want to go to Hollywood, do not do so at nighttime unless you've got a fairly large group with you. It's really pretty run-down outside of the immediate attractions.
  • That said, if you want to take a break from BotCon stuff, or otherwise stay an extra day, there are lots of show tapings that you might enjoy. Most of these will take several hours to complete, so plan accordingly. There are tons of sites that offer tickets. Here's just a sample. (Some shows may not be taping in June, of course.)
  • If you're into astronomy, you might want to check out the Griffith Observatory, recently reopened after an extensive renovation. (And, hey, Transformers fans will be interested in the fact that parts of the first live-action movie were filmed here.)
  • The Museum of Tolerance is not a place I'd recommend for young children, but is definitely worth going to for those mature enough to handle it. The main topic of the museum is the World War II Holocaust, educating people about those atrocities in hopes that nothing like that ever happens again. There are other historical periods featured, as well.
  • And, of course, there are always amusement parks. I'm sure you knew about Disneyland without my mentioning it, but Knott's Berry Farm is a cheaper amusement park in the same area (Buena Park, very near Anaheim, actually), and there's also the Universal Studios park in the LA area, and Magic Mountain if you don't mind about an hour's drive north and really enjoy roller coasters.
If there's some other dimension of your BotCon experience you think I should address on this list, but feel that I've missed, just leave a comment, and I'll update as necessary. Even so, you should read the comments left by others here, as they offer some ideas that are worth investigating, even if I don't have direct experience with them myself.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and 2 Thessalonians 1-3

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 1 Thessalonians, chapters 4-5 and 2 Thessalonians, chapters 1-3.

Chapter 4

  • Verses 3-8 - I wonder if there is a particular reason why Paul gives this extended teaching on sexual immorality to the Thessalonians.  Did he know (or suspect) that this was a particular problem for this community?
  • Verses 13-18 - It seems apparent that many Christians expected Christ's return (and the subsequent end of the world, whereby believers would be taken to heaven to spend eternity with God) to happen within a natural human lifetime after Christ's resurrection.  Indeed, if Paul's response is any indication, they seem anxious about the possibility that Christians who died before Christ's return might hae missed out.  We look upon a passage like this 2000 years later with an obviously different perspective.
Chapter 5
  • Verses 19-22 - If wonder if Paul would consider the interpretation of Scripture itself, according to the principles suggested in these verses, to be consistent with his intent for writing them?
2 Thessalonians
Chapter 1
  • Verse 11- I'm not sure what to make of the fact that, after several verses where Paul praises the Thessalonians for their perseverance (and in particular verse 5, where Paul says they will be "counted worthy" as a result of this persevereance), Paul here seems to feel the need to pray for them in order that they will be made worthy.  What does he fear they lack, and why did he seem so confident only to flip like this so quickly?
Chapter 2
  • Verse 2 - Who is this that's sending a letter in Paul's name, and why make such a deception?
  • Verses 3-12 - Paul seems here to talk of a particular rebellion, and a particular "lawless man" (it's easy to see the "Antichrist" in this, but for whatever reason Paul doesn't use that title).  Did he imagine that this would happen within his own lifetime (see now for 1 Thessalonians chapter 4)?  If so, did he have a particular, known, person in mind?
Chapter 3
  • Verses 6-13 - Of all the sins Paul writes about in his letter, "idleness" seems an odd one to single out.  Again, did Paul have a particular concern in regard to this congregation, that might explain his need to focus on it here?
  • Verse 17 -This is an interesting assertion.  Although there are other letters in which Paul points out that he's writing the letter himself, this is not so in all of his letters, as he suggests here.  It seems apparent that he does use what we might call a "secretary" from time to time.  Perhaps he exaggerates a bit here because of the fact that someone else has been using his name to spread false teachings (as noted in chapter 2)?

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Preconceptions of Heaven...

I had a dream some time back of being in a large church building.  I knew it was a church building in the same way one often knows "where" one is in a dream, even if the actual details seen in the dream don't actually match the real places of one's experience.  In this case, the building had a lot of white walls with columns and cleanly chiseled features.  If you've spent any time in a stereotypical Southern Baptist church, or have seen the stage used by Dr. Charles Stanley on In Touch, or have seen pretty much anything broadcast on TBN, then you've got a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about.  Without my realizing it, this has become the stereotypical image of a "church" in my mind, despite the fact that very few of the churches I've ever attended (much less have been a member of!) actually looked like this.

After awakening, but upon reflection on these images, I came to realize that my mental "image" of heaven is fairly similar, perhaps with a few clouds tossed in for good measure.  I'm not entirely sure why this is, other than that I'm no doubt drawing upon widely conveyed cultural stereotypes without having ever realized it before.

I wonder what that has to say about what I think heaven is like, and/or perhaps what I think God is like?  I mean, I'm fully aware that heaven isn't actually like this, and I certainly don't think that God is actually an old man with a long, white beard, but these are nonetheless the kinds of images my mind automatically conjures up when I think about these concepts.  And, if these are my prejudices about heaven and God, what realities about both might I be missing, despite my conscious acknowledgment that these images are incorrect?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Transformers Then and Now: Overkill

After more than 25 years of the Transformers franchise, it's really no surprise that many Transformers released today are homages to Transformers of earlier years.  Even granting this fact, some homages are more surprising than others.  It sometimes seems like the official channels don't know that the original Transformers line kept putting out new characters after 1984 and 1985.  The original Overkill was released in 1987, appeared for all of two seconds in the original cartoon, and faded into obscurity for the next 20 years.

The original Overkill (seen here on the right, sadly without the missile batteries he originally came with) was paired with fellow dinosaur Decepticon Slugfest, who had just as much (?) screen time as Overkill.  Although Slugfest's original toy was reissued before Overkill (in 2009.  Actually, Overkill's original toy has still never been reissued), only Overkill has been homaged with a new toy (seen here on the left), a repaint of Classics Grimlock.

Although both Overkills are most notable for their Tyrannosaurus rex modes, their alternate modes couldn't be more different.  The original Overkill transforms into a cassette, whereas the new Overkill transforms into a robot.  The idea to use such an utterly dissimilar toy as Grimlock to be Overkill may seem a bit odd, but this is actually an idea that fans came up with before Hasbro.  At BotCon 2007, customizer Shawn Tessmann, who runs the annual customizing class, chose to use Classics Grimlock as the basis for a new version of Overkill.  The idea was very popular, and Hasbro did a similar (but official!) version of the same concept just a year later.  Unfortunately for most US fans, Hasbro's Overkill was not originally released in stores, but was a "Special Edition" exclusive to Hasbro's online webstore.  The branch of Hasbro in Asia and Australia apparently commissioned the toy (along with new versions of Optimus Prime, Megatron, and Drag Strip), and took advantage of the production.  After a few months, a few fans reported seeing some of these "Special Edition" figures at discount department stores like Marshall's, and for considerably cheaper than HTS's $15 asking price.  Unfortunately, these sightings were rather scarce, and so not a reliable source for most fans.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Colossians 3-4 and 1 Thessalonians 1-3

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 Colossians, chapters 3-4 and 1 Thessalonians, chapters 1-3.

Chapter 3

  • Verses 5-10 - Without diminishing the importance of verse 5, it bothers me that it seems like so many Christians pay more attention to the list of vices in that verse than they do to those found in verses 8 and following.
  • Verses 18-25 - This section is sometimes called a list of "household codes," and is very similar to the later part of Ephesians.  For whatever reason, I was especially struck by the similarity of verse 21 to this section I commented on just a few weeks ago. What that says about me is anyone's guess.
Chapter 4
  • Verse 1 - Whether slavery was something to be condoned or not, even in Paul's day, it certainly makes for a useful illustration of our relationship to God.
  • Verse 5 - As I read the word "outsiders" here, I can't help but wonder if Paul is giving instructions on how Christians are to treat other Christians (from far away), or non-Christians.  O'Brien suggests the latter,1 which I would see as the most natural reading in any event.
  • Verse 9 - Onesimus will be a focal point in a few weeks.  Just note his presence for now.
  • Verse 10 - This Mark is all but certain to be the same Mark with whom Paul had such trouble that he and Barnabas split up over a disagreement about Mark in Acts.  Clearly he feels better about him by now.
  • Verse 16 - There is no way to know for certain what the letter from Laodicea was.  One popular theory is that Ephesians (which was probably not originally--or least not exclusively--intended for the church in Ephesus) is this letter, but O'Brien considers this unlikely, believing that Ephesians was written later, and therefore unlikely to be referenced here.2  If he's right,then it is all but certain that the Laodicean letter was lost.
1 Thessalonians
Chapter 1
  • Verse 1 - We generally talk about these letters as being from Paul, but this one is clearly a group effort.  A couple of "Paul's" letters before now have also included Timothy in the by-line (or, on one occasion, Sosthenes), but this is the first time three names appear!
  • Verse 6 - What was the nature of the suffering Paul mentions here?  It's one of those times when it seems as though it must have been obvious to the original readers (who would have experienced it!), but we'll have to figure it out from what else Paul writes about.
Chapter 2
  • Verse 2 - Paul (and his co-writers?) mentions suffering here, but this seems to be suffering he experienced, as opposed to the sufferings of the Thessalonians alluded to earlier.  Whatever else is true, it seems that Paul is trying to assure his readers that he has something in common with them.
  • Verse 14 - We begin to get a hint of the suffering of the Thessalonians here.  Apparently they are being persecuted by (fellow Gentile) members of the nearby secular community, perhaps even former friends and family members.3
  • Verse 16 - This is the second time Paul alludes to God's wrath in this epistle (the first being rather quickly at the very end of the previous chapter).  This strikes me as unusual for his letters so far.  It is hardly unique for Paul to suggest that non-believers are still subject to God's wrath (far from it), but there seems something odd about the way he's doing it here.
Chapter 3
  • Verse 3-5 - Without question, Paul sees suffering as inevitable for the Christian.
  • Verse 5 - Does Paul fear that Thessalonians might fall to temptation after having previously "been saved," or does he presume that a "Christian" who later falls to temptation wasn't "really saved" in the first place?

1Peter T. O'Brien, Colossians, Philemon (Word Biblical Commentary), Word, 1982, pp. 240-241.  O'Brien backs up this interpretation by noting a correspondence with the Greek word for "outsiders" to a word appearing in rabbinic literature, which would have had a specific connotation of "non-believers."
2O'Brien, pp. 257-258.
3Abraham J. Malherbe, Paul and the Thessalonians, Fortress, 1987, pp. 48-50.  Malherbe notes the preponderance of familial language in the letter: father, orphan, children, brethren.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Persecution Complex

Tomorrow is the kind of anniversary no one wants to remember, but which we simply cannot avoid.  A tragic event happened nine years ago that shook the world (to say nothing of our own nation) and changed it forever.  Although the causes of that event are far more complex than I could even begin to give proper attention to, it's almost undeniable that religious persecution was in play.

There are those among us in Christianity who often point out that Christians have a history of being persecuted, and it's not hard to find examples of such persecution being true: both in history and in the modern day.  To note that most of us who are Christians in America have had a position of privilege unknown in many other parts of the world does not eliminate the truth that some such persecution exists even here.

Some Christians respond to this persecution by aggressively fighting back.  Although they probably wouldn't understand it themselves, they have often even responded with religious persecution toward others.  Although the Bible does teach that God is a jealous God who does not abide worship of other deities, I remain convinced that a response of persecution is not the response God wants us to have.  Instead, we are called to hospitality.  Consider, for example, this quote from Leviticus 19:34:
The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
Note that there's no requirement that the "foreigners" be believers in God (i.e., proselytes) to be treated as equals.  Far from treating those foreigners as enemies, God calls God's people to remember that they were foreigners themselves.  And, indeed, the Israelites' time in Egypt was one of great persecution.  One would hope that, remembering what that persecution was like, God's people would respond by refusing to become persecutors themselves.  Sadly, this all too often proves not to be the case.

It might also be helpful to recognize that Christians do not hold a monopoly on having been persecuted.  Indeed, religious persecution has existed for as long as religion itself.  It is merely a sad reflection of our sinful nature.  While we should, by all means, defend our right to follow God, let's not add to the problem by persecuting others.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Game Show Board Games: The $25,000 Pyramid

On the comparatively rare occasions when I am with a group of friends playing board games at their house, it seems that Taboo is almost always requested.  I usually am pretty happy to join in, because I know the truth: Taboo is pretty much the same game as one of my favorite game shows, which in the 1980's I knew as The $25,000 Pyramid!

Yes, Taboo adds the wrinkle of not being able to say certain obvious words, rendering it a bit more difficult, but Pyramid was popularizing the idea of trying to get your teammate to say the correct word or phrase based on definitions you give them for a good decade-and-a-half by the time Taboo (and the later, similar game, Catch Phrase) had begun to be marketed to the public.

Pyramid captures the gameplay of the game show quite nicely (although it's rather difficult to have teammates trade off in the middle of a round, given the fact that all clues for that round are visible on the side of board available to the players giving them), if perhaps it doesn't capture the snazzy feel of the set with the rotating trilons anything near as well.  Instead of a digital timer, you are given an hourglass with bright pink sand in it (a fairly common element in board games with a timed element).  The hourglass is remarkably well-calibrated to the expected 30-second time limit required for the regular game.  Unfortunately, only one hourglass is provided, requiring someone to flip it over in the middle of the 60-second "Winner's Circle," which is more than a little unfortunate.  As anyone who's watched the show can attest, this round can be quite intense, and one really can't expect the players to be paying attention to the clock when they're trying to win the round!

The producers of the game were wise enough to realize that gameplay for the daytime $25,000 Pyramid and the nighttime $100,000 Pyramid is more or less identical, and thus advertise that you can play either version you want on the sides of the box and in the rules.  Unfortunately, they also decided to cram both numbers at the top of the paper pyramid board provided, which further detracts from the visual feel of the game, with the top prize proudly (and singularly!) on display at the top.

Still, these are minor quibbles.  The game plays like a Pyramid game should, and that's what really matters.  If you're able to pick up a version of this game, I highly recommend it, and would especially suggest pulling it out for your next party (perhaps using a stopwatch rather than that hourglass, though)!

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Monday, September 06, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Philippians 2-4 and Colossians 1-2

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 Philippians, chapters 2-4 and Colossians, chapters 1-2.

Chapter 2

  • Verses 1-11 - I sometimes wonder if some Christians feel that they have to make a choice between serving God and doing things that help other people.  As I understand this passage, Paul is trying to say that Christians serve God by doing things that help other people!
  • Verse 12: "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling" - I've never been entirely sure what Paul intends for Christians to understand from this passage.  What are we "working out"?  Why is it to be "with fear and trembling"?  In any event, I think it's safe to say that Paul  understands that this won't be (and shouldn't be!) easy.1
  • Verses 19-30 - This passage reads like the end of a letter, which is odd given that there are still two chapters to go.  What's going on here?
Chapter 3
  • Verse 8 - Many pastors have noted that the word translated here as "garbage" is a Greek swear word.2  I can't speak to how ancient Greeks responded to this word, and whether or not they indeed would responded as Christians of today often do to such terms, but it bears noting that such language is part of the inspired word of God.  Paul makes his point, and he makes it strongly.
  • Verse 15 - On one hand, I find myself annoyed that Paul uses the language of "maturity" in this way, as he tells his audience (in essence) that anyone who disagrees with him is less than "mature."  I am continually annoyed with Christians who talk about those with disagree with them in this manner, and thus bristle at the fact that an inspired writer of Scripture does so, as it gives them that much more license to continue doing so.  On the other hand, Paul does note that, for those who think differently, that God will "make it clear to (them)," and I'm more than content to agree on that point.  Where Christians do have disagreements, to the extent that they are indeed important (as this matter certainly was), God will correct us when necessary.
Chapter 4
  • Verses 2-3 - Obviously, there's little here that would support the idea of women in church office for those who don't already have such a view of Scripture (as I do), but I nonetheless feel that it's important to point out such instances where God speaks of women who have worked with him in such favorable terms.
  • Verse 8 - Good advice for anyone, I should think.
Chapter 1
  • Verse 21: "enemies in your minds" - This phrase confused me.  O'Brien (who translates the passage differently: "hostile in mind") suggests that the phrase is meant to convey that the Colossians had "open enmity toward (God) with reference to to their thinking."3
  • Verse 23: "if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel." - For those of us believe that Christians are saved purely by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, and not at all from our own actions, this passage is obviously difficult to reconcile.  O'Brien suggests that "if it is true that the saints will persevere to the end, then it is equally true that the saints must persevere to the end."4  If the perseverance doesn't follow, then the person must not be numbered among the elect to begin with.5
  • Verse 24 - How is it that Christ's afflictions are "lacking," and how can Paul's (or any other human's) sufferings do anything to compensate for them?
Chapter 2
  • Verse 8 - It seems that some believers use this passage to assert that philosophy is, by its own nature, "hollow and deceptive."  I am confident that this was not Paul's intention.  Rather, Paul wants to argue against any philosophy that is not in accordance with Christ as "hollow and deceptive," but any philosophy that is in accordance with Christ would obviously be fine.

1Frank Thielman, Philippians (The NIV Application Commentary), Zondervan, 1995, p. 136, notes that "it is often said that Paul never uses the phrase 'fear and trembling' of the relationship between God and people but always of human relationships."  Whether or not one accepts this interpretation (and Thielman doesn't), the point that the Christian life can be a difficult one stands.
2Ralph P. Martin, Philippians (The New Century Bible Commentary), Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1976, p. 131: "refuse (Gr. skybala) is a vulgar term, meaning either human excrement or waste foods consigned to the garbage heap." (bold and italics as in original)
3Peter T. O'Brien, Colossians, Philemon (Word Biblical Commentary), Word, 1982, p. 66.
4O'Brien, p. 69.
5Of course, for those who don't hold to such a theology of Election, this passage is much less problematic. Either way, it is certainly an arguement that Paul didn't hold to a Universalist theory of salvation.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Special Transformers Feature: Micromaster Overload

The 1989 Micromaster Transports aren't especially well-remembered today.  Like other, larger, Micromaster sets such as Airwave, the Transports came with a small figure that turned from a robot into an alternate mode, as well as a transforming accessory.   The Transports were sold at a lower price-point than Airwave and those like him.  Airwave came in a small box, while the Transports came on cards.

I don't know if anyone else ever thought this way (I wrote this while the TFWiki was down.  It seems that I'm not), but I always saw Overload as a kind of "Micromaster Optimus Prime."  This is admittedly for no reason greater than the cab and trailer alternate mode and very loosely Prime-like colors (Overload is blue where Prime would be red, and vice-versa)....

 ...well, the fact that Overload has a similar "truck windows on chest" torso (kind of an Optimus Prime trademark) also helps.  But even if the colors were reversed to Prime-proper, the proportions and lack of face plate would be a dead giveaway.  At least, it would have been in 1989, before Primes were released having mouths!  (Of course, those linked Primes were just recolors of molds that were created to represent non-Prime characters, so maybe that doesn't really mean anything...)

Overload's trailer transforms into a kind of fighter jet.  "Kind of" a jet, that is, if you ignore the laws of aerodynamics, and "kind of" a fighter if one imagines that the ends of the wings are supposed to be weapon-tips.  This is one of those instances where you can tell that the package art took some liberties and added details that the toy does not possess (of course, the art may reflect design elements that the toy was intended to possess at one point in time, but I don't know this for certain).

One element of the design of Overload's trailer that I don't think gets enough attention is that the back of the trailer opens up to allow for other Micromaster vehicles to ride inside.  This part doesn't need to move for transformation.  It pretty much only serves the play factor of the toy's trailer mode.  I always appreciate it when toys have these extra elements, especially in the original Generation One era.


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