Archive for September, 2010
I just sat down with a cup of my favorite tea, and I found this profound quotation from Charles De Gaulle on the tea bag’s tab:
Since a politician never believes what he says, he is quite surprised to be taken at his word.
חַטָּאתִ֙י אוֹדִ֪יעֲךָ֡ וַעֲוֹ֨נִ֤י לֹֽא־כִסִּ֗יתִי אָמַ֗רְתִּי אוֹדֶ֤ה עֲלֵ֣י פְ֭שָׁעַי לַיהוָ֑ה וְאַתָּ֙ה נָ֨שָׂ֤אתָ עֲוֹ֖ן חַטָּאתִ֣י סֶֽלָה׃
My youngest siblings, Deborah and Michael, were baptized on Sunday evening at Riverside Community Church in Nutley, NJ:
I used to watch my good friend and roommate, Alex (a frequent foil in my writings), playing various RPGs on our PlayStation unit. He is particularly fond of the Final Fantasy series. For those who are unfamiliar with RPGs (role-playing games), often they focus around an adventure or a battle in which the human-controlled player performs various tasks–rescuing this wizard, defeating this dragon, escorting this noblewoman to that castle, etc. When I teased Digs about playing games, he would reply defensively, "Hey–I’m engaging a narrative."
I used to scoff at his contention, but now I’ve begun to realize how deep an insight that is. (Don’t tell him.) The most engaging forms of entertainment and art, in any medium, tell a story. Television, computer/video games, books, radio programs, sports contests, movies–each one tells a story. A work of art is engaging and entertaining to the extent that the hearer/reader/viewer is able to identify with and appreciate elements of the story. Technology has allowed entertainment to become even more responsive to the consumer in two ways. First, response is immediate and quantifiable (ratings, hits, downloads, DVR recordings, etc.), enabling producers to know what people want. Second, consumers can now actually be a part of the narratives they follow; they can vote on American Idol (ha ha), they can control Frodo or Albert Pujols on the screen, or they can create their own Fantasy Football teams.
A few years ago I read Exodus to the Virtual World by Ted Castronova after hearing him discuss the book here. It’s well worth a full read, but his thesis is essentially that Americans are spending more and more time in virtual worlds online, interacting with real people in a simulated environment. He assesses the merits and drawbacks of this prospect, but emphasizes that we cannot ignore this phenomenon, especially as it relates to popular expectations of political and social structures.
So, which entertainment narratives are mine? Which ones do I engage, how engaged am I, and can/should I get out? A few observations:
- I follow a few sports teams and several TV shows to varying degrees.
- Some teams I follow because I like to see them win. Identifying with the winning team from my home state or town makes me a part of that team’s story in a small way.
- Some teams I follow because I want them to lose. Usually they are rivals with my home teams. As a New-York-area fan living for the last seven years in Philadelphia, I have followed the Phillies and very emphatically wished them ill. (My wishes have obviously had little effect–apparently I have no control over this narrative.)
- Some TV shows I watch for an hour of diversion, and some I watch because I identify with a character or enjoy the broad story arc.
- A few TV shows I watch for a the philosophical point or social commentary. A few shows contain compelling aesthetic elements (and I don’t just mean attractive women).
As fall premieres begin, my wife and I have discussed which shows and sports to give another try and which to ditch. Try not to laugh too hard at my poor taste in shows/teams…
- We like Chuck because the characters are fun, and because Chuck is just a good guy. Each show contains tributes or take-offs of classic movies and shows. But I actually was quite pleased with the way last season tied up the loose ends, and I’m not very intrigued by the "hook" for this season (Chuck’s quest to find his mom). Chuck and Sarah are together, Ellie knows his spy identity, and everything seems good. Is this a good spot to jump off the train, to chuck Chuck?
- The Mets are awful. Period. They have no prospects. The Phils will win the division yet again. Once again, I will probably be forced to root for the Yankees in the World Series, a terrible fate for one practically raised at Shea Stadium. I’m out.
- The Jets, strangely, seem to be doing better in recent years. For a long time I’ve been able to enjoy the "lovable losers" narrative so familiar to those who root for Gang Green. Now our expectations are higher, and I’ll have more chances to blow 3 hours on a Sunday watching the Jets on national TV. Tread with caution…
- Community and 30 Rock are hilarious, and I can’t get enough. I justify these by reminding myself that they’re only half-hour shows, and that satire is a high form of humor.
I’m trying to be more intentional about these narratives, the time I spend in front of the boob tube, and whether there is anything true, honorable, just, pure and excellent that I should be doing instead. It looks like there are some narratives that I can shed.
Oops, gotta go–CSI: Boise is back from commercial.
Here are some more fun pictures of Daniel. He is nearly 8 weeks old. Enjoy!
As I said last time, I’m starting to take a close look at the narratives of my life. Stories define us and shape us, and we in turn engage stories and shape some of them to an extent.
One of the more prominent narratives in my life is a conflict between dispensational evangelicalism and Reformed Calvinism. My personal journey from the former to the latter is as much a cultural shift as it is a theological one. I was raised by a Southern Baptist mother and a Messianic father (who currently claims no sort of faith in Jesus). Growing up I was taught to regard the Old Testament as Scripture–even if I wasn’t sure what exactly that meant. I was taught that the modern state of Israel was God’s reconstituted people in fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and that the Palestinians were mostly Islamic terrorists bent on destroying the “apple of God’s eye.”
When I went to PBU, it was still a Bible college aspiring to be a university in more than name. I was taught to read the Bible carefully and passionately as God’s Word. But I was also taught mostly the same perspective I had always been taught–although now it had a name: dispensational premillennialism. The strange thing about my PBU experience is that it pushed me toward a Reformed understanding of soteriology, ecclesiology and eschatology.
My story is a conversion to the Reformed perspective. My situation in the Reformed camp differs from my friends who grew up in the camp. First, I tend to have a soft spot for folks on the fringes of the Reformed camp–folks whose teaching and writing won me over, such as Tom Wright, G.E. Ladd, and some in the Federal Vision. Second, my Messianic upbringing means that dispensationalists’ talk of a millennial future for ethnic Israel in the last days makes my blood start to boil. This is a sore spot for me; I have had to struggle to empathize to any degree with the modern state of Israel, even when they may be in the right and the Palestinian leadership in the wrong.
Third, because I “chose” Calvinism (ironic), I feel more freedom to question different parts of the tradition. When I talk to some of my friends who grew up Reformed this makes me seem liberal or less committed. I’m either free or unanchored, depending on your perspective–and this is both a blessing and a bane.
Right now I feel quite engaged in this narrative as I minister in various ways in several different evangelical churches, Reformed and non-Reformed. Rather than a fence to keep out bad theology, I hope that my adopted tradition will always be a solid place to stand and dialogue with neighboring traditions.
Reformed Calvinism seems to be a central narrative in my life, at least at this point. God has used the teachings and writings of Reformed people and the doctrines of Reformed theology to show me His grace and His mercy, which continually shape who I am.
This article from the CHE documents some of the problems with Google Books:
There are bound to be occasional howlers in a corpus as extensive as Google’s book search, but these errors are endemic. A search on "Internet" in books published before 1950 produces 527 results; "Medicare" for the same period gets almost 1,600. Or you can simply enter the names of famous writers or public figures and restrict your search to works published before the year of their birth. "Charles Dickens" turns up 182 results for publications before 1812, the vast majority of them referring to the writer. The same type of search turns up 81 hits for Rudyard Kipling, 115 for Greta Garbo, 325 for Woody Allen, and 29 for Barack Obama. (Or maybe that was another Barack Obama.)
Certainly Google has undertaken an ambitious project. I have found Google Books to be a very helpful source of information in my scholarly research. Many of the books that I need are from smaller publishers and tend to be expensive, and I may only need one or two articles or bits of information. Rather than making a long trek to the (not-so-)local seminary libraries that may have a book that may not turn out to be helpful, I can see most or all of the book online.
And, as I have discovered with free music downloads, a free e-copy of the book makes me more likely to purchase a hard copy. I hope that more and more publishers will make their copyrighted works accessible for free with the goal of increasing readership and eventually sales. Books have been around for a long time, and they’re not going away.
What do you think about Google Books, and e-reading in general? Is it helpful to scholarly research, or does it breed error and laziness?
For a long time something has bugged me about the traditional interpretations of Paul’s Areopagus address (Acts 17:22-31). I would like to float an idea that I have not read anywhere else. Please let me know what you think of my idea, or if you’ve read this elsewhere.
Paul begins his discourse with his appeal to the "unknown god" that the Athenians worship in their pantheon: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." (Acts 17: 22b-23)
There’s quite a bit of debate about what Paul is doing here. The most basic question is whether Paul is complimenting the Athenians on their religious devotion, or mocking the Athenians for their polytheism. From there, there is some question of emphasis: is Paul is smoothly adapting his message to appeal to his audience, or is he offering a veiled polemic?
Now, Paul seems to be speaking here at the request of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, before an educated audience. I’m no student of Greek philosophy, but my understanding is that neither Stoicism nor Epicureanism is polytheistic. For that matter, it doesn’t seem that any of the classical Greek philosophers held to polytheism. Socrates, for example, was sentenced to death for (among other things) opposing polytheism.
So, why would Paul see the need to refute polytheism before this audience? Perhaps Paul is not refuting but mocking the polytheism of the masses in order to appeal to the "enlightened" thinkers. It’s as if Paul is saying, "Wow, guys, what a religious city–you have so many gods! *wink, wink* But seriously, we all agree that this is a bunch of crap."
This idea is further supported by the reception that Paul appears to receive from the crowd. First of all, it seems that the original reason that the Stoics and Epicureans are intrigued by Paul’s teaching is that he is preaching against polytheism (vv 17-19). Second, his speech is defined by the notion that the true God is both transcendant and immanent–ideas that the two groups fought over. It doesn’t seem to bother them that Paul preaches a single deity. They seem to be with him until he starts preaching the resurrection (v 32).
I have studied Greco-Roman culture primarily in order to understand the context of the New Testament. Can any of you NT or philosophy folks out there tell me if my read of this situation is correct? If this does seem to be an accurate description of Paul’s situation and approach, how does that influence our approach to apologetics/evangelism? Does it?
Today is the sixteenth anniversary of my baptism. I was baptized on September 9, 1994, at Light of Israel Congregation in Yonkers, NY.
“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:4)
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.
.אַשְׁרֵי נְשׂוּי-פֶּשַׁע כְּסוּי חֲטָאָה
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about narratives, identity and time. Narratives are everywhere; each of us has a story–many stories in fact–and these stories shape who we are. Stories shape identity, and the one who tells the stories shapes identity.
Here’s an example. Through four decades, the USA and the USSR were engaged in a Cold War. We call it “Cold” because the two countries never became direct belligerents; each attacked the other’s satellites/allies and tried to subvert the economic and political purposes of the other. The smaller countries of the world lined up on either side in exchange for support from a superpower: we supported the right-wing juntas and they supported the left-wing revolutionaries. In the US, our identity had always been tied to “freedom”–but now we were the world’s only hope against the iron curtain of communism. We justified pointless wars in Vietnam and Central America by convincing ourselves that we were standing against the oppressors. Villains in action and spy movies inevitably had Eastern European accents, and the threat of nuclear war was in the back of each person’s mind. Our hockey triumphs at the 1960 and 1980 Olympic Games felt ideological rather than merely athletic.
Now that the Cold War has been over for 20 years, however, the narrative of American identity in a global world has changed. Americans have begun to see America as an oppressive interventionist power. Islam and the vague notion of “terrorism” is our enemy now–and Muslims and terrorists could be anywhere! The narrative changes, and our identity changes with it.
The Cold War is a grand narrative of international identity. But it shaped the personal identity of most Americans and Soviet citizens for two or three generations. Narratives might be cultural, like the counter-culture of the ’60s, the Gen-X generation, American Gothic, or teenage Goths. They might be regional: Southern, Northeastern, Philadelphian. Other narratives come from art and media (and it’s difficult to know the degree to which art reflects or conversely shapes culture): Lost, hip-hop, CNN. There are sports and entertainment: 2009 New York Jets, movies, Tiger Woods.
Some narratives are personal, relational and vocational: father, daughter, painter, homeowner, homemaker, orphan, engineer. All of us have narratives, and we try to add and drop them, change them, reject them, enhance them–with varying motivations and degrees of success.
I’ve decided to take an account, make a reckoning, come to terms with all the different narratives of which I am a part–or of which I fancy myself a part. For example: I am an evangelical Christian–but even more specifically, I am a broadly Reformed Christian converted from dispensational premillennialism as an adult. I am an aspiring academic, working in a non-academic field. I am a husband, and now I am a new father. These are part of my story: who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be examining the my narratives, and evaluate my place in them. I’ll be asking myself these questions:
- Who am I in this story?
- How did I get into this story?
- Can I change this story? Should it be changed?
- To what degree am I engaged with this narrative? How central is it to my being?
- Should I be more or less engaged?
I’d be honored if you share your comments and stories along the way.