Saturday, October 31, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

This I Believe--Assignment for Students

Our language is generously sprinkled with its formulas and sayings, “Once upon a time,” “and they all lived happily ever after,” and “it came to pass.” It’s why we pay $10.00 to see a good movie, $15 or more for a good novel. It’s what a child wants her daddy to tell her at bedtime; it’s what the ancients shared around a fire and what Homer offered in the halls of the archaic Greeks. It’s story; more than a sequence of events, but a beginning, middle, and end that brings characters and settings and thus our imaginations to life.

I believe in story because it is so basic to my—and all—religious faith, because it is the core of art, and because it gives us something to look forward to.

What do I mean by story? Does it need definition? Story is not a happens, b happens, then c happens. If so, our daily routine of rising and showering and eating breakfast and commuting and working ad infinitum would be a story, but we know it’s not. Story takes activities of life and rearranges them so that there is drama, an outcome, and a theme, even if we disagree on the theme. It has meaning beyond the sequence of events. Stories can be short—like some jokes—and long, like War and Peace, but most of us prefer something in the middle.

Story is basic to most religious faith, and even those who don’t share the faith know some of the basic stories. Few people in Western culture don’t know the story of the Prodigal Son, and it may be the first short story in history and also one of the best: three characters, three sections, and lots of debates over its meaning. Is it about the wasteful son, or the son who stayed at home, or about the father? Who do we know the best in the story? With whom do we identify? But no matter the theological interpretation, the story works its magic on us because we all need forgiveness, we all want a parent who loves unconditionally, we all encounter those who don’t understand grace, and we all feel at times that someone doesn’t deserve another chance.

Of course, Jesus told many other parables that turn the theology of his day on its head, like the one about the workers in the vineyard—why shouldn’t they complain about the pay inequity? Not a one of us wouldn’t whine about that, and by sparking that reaction from us, the parable takes us to new territory. That is what story does—takes us somewhere else, and that is what religion does, too. Religion without story is hard to fathom. For me the stories are more than historically true, they are truth. Many people—ironically, even religious ones—say they don’t like fiction because it’s not real, but they are missing the distinction. Good fiction-- good, well-told stories--may not be factual, but they are true because they show true humans in true human situations with true human outcomes.

Story is not only a power behind religion, but also an impulse behind art – behind a painting, behind a movie, behind why a poem is written, behind my own artistic impulses. Even when the painting doesn’t seem to embody a narrative, we look for the story behind it. How did Leonardo come to paint the Mona Lisa? What did they do while he was painting her portrait? What did they talk about? How did he get her to have that sly, or shy, or mysterious smile? If we ask these questions while we are viewing a painting, we are showing our dependence on story. The earliest forms of poetry were epics, not lyrics; those came along later. The cave paintings in Lascaux were telling the story of the hunt; Picasso’s Guernica tells a story.

Since story is the power behind our faith and art, it is more than entertainment. It is comfort; it is a refuge. It gives us something to look forward to. Sitting by a warm fire, reading a novel, is a treat after a long day. Sitting in an air-conditioned movie theatre in the dark, being pulled into that two-dimensional world, is a kind of reward. The story and the destination compel us. It’s a place to escape and lose ourselves, and yet it’s a place we find ourselves.

In the end, those who tell the stories have the most power over us. I hate to equate the power to tell good stories with a power over others, but I can come to no other conclusion. Fortunately, good storytellers usually understand that the power of story will be lost if used for political propaganda or self-seeking ends, and that a good story retains its greatest power when it is allowed to be just that, a good story, well told.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What the Hoopie is going on?

I am tempted to use stronger language. I am appalled.
1. 20 teenagers watch and/or participate in the gang rape of a 15-year-old.
2. A comedian thinks urinating on a picture of Christ is funny, and apparently others do also.
3. A congressman thinks he can publicly call a woman a whore and is otherwise making it about himself and not his constituents.
4. Teenagers beat a fellow student to death while someone records it on a cell phone.
5. A parent uses his children for a hoax just to get on TV.
6. Politicians blatantly promising one thing and turning around the next week and doing the exact opposite.

What's the cause? The fact that TV and the Internet makes everyone a star, or well, makes everyone who wants to be a star think they are. And with that, you have to keep amping it up, more and more, to get an audience. More nudity, more crudity, more insanity.

Will we ever return to civilized society?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Family Reunion Photos

A Karma World vs. a Cross World

All the psalms are honest, brutally so. That touches me more than even their beautiful poetry. David’s naked honesty about his sin in Ps. 51 and his fear in Ps. 56 are just two examples. Now it’s Asaph’s turn.

Who was he? He wrote eleven psalms. He was the chief musician, and he worked in the temple. It was his profession to be in the sanctuary of God, to be involved in worship. That did not keep him immune from reality. When I read this psalm, I can tell it is not written by a king. It is written by someone who sees and experiences everyday injustices, who knows about the disparities of life.

Before we look at the psalm, I want to talk about a word we hear used a lot today, that indirectly applies to understanding many parts of Scriptures, and often leads Christians astray. That word is karma. I was listening to an NPR station in Atlanta Friday when I went down there for a meeting. I like NPR because of the depth of its news coverage, but it appeals to goofy people (I would include myself in that number). Anyway, as typically seems to be the case with NPR stations, they were having a pledge drive. The station manager quoted a donor as saying, “I’m getting married tomorrow, and I need some good karma, so I’ll give to NPR.”

This donor was probably trying to be funny, but his comment betrays an ignorance of karma. Karma is a Hindu term that is part of the whole religious package of Hinduism. I am not insulting people to say that if there were two religions that were absolute opposites of one another, they would be Hinduism and Christianity. Hinduism has millions of gods, Christianity one (although Hinduism lets Jesus be one of its gods). Hinduism includes idols in its worship, Christianity is not supposed to. Hinduism is about reincarnation, having one’s atma being reborn in other bodies over and over again; Christianity says, “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after this the judgment.” In eternity, Hinduism says, we lose our individuality; Christianity teaches that it is retained. These are just a few of the many differences.

Karma is part of Hinduism’s belief in reincarnation. As much as I hate to quote Wikipedia, “'Karma' is an Eastern religious concept in contradistinction to 'faith' espoused by Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), which view all human dramas as the will of God as opposed to present - and past - life actions. In Eastern beliefs, the karmic effects of all deeds are viewed as actively shaping past, present, and future experiences.” If one is in the street sweeper caste in India, and performs his role well as a Hindu and street sweeper, he will be reincarnated in a higher caste—or else in a lower one, if he’s not a good Hindu. So, there is cosmic justice, rewards, and retribution. The modern. popular use of Karma, a la My Name is Earl (one crazy show) takes karma away from the reincarnation realm and makes it apply to everyday life. So if I give some money to NPR, I’ll have a good marriage. The problem, of course, is that “good” actions can be defined by anyone at any time, as can bad actions. If I don’t give to NPR, will my marriage suffer? Karma becomes just another lazily and imprecisely used word for luck we earn.

Job is essentially about a misinterpretation of karma and a misapplication of it to the Old Testament world view. Job’s friends tell him he must have done something bad or he wouldn’t be in his situation, but that’s not God’s view of it. The reasons for suffering, the who, the how, and the where are different. It is true that there are consequences for behavior. However, bad things sometimes happen to good people for reasons beyond the obvious and superficial, three reasons being that we grow to be like Christ through suffering, we develop empathy through suffering, and this is an evil world that will persecute us the way it persecuted Christ, so some level of suffering is inevitable.

As the Wikipedia article implies, in Christianity, God makes the calls—not cosmic karma. That’s the who. The where might be eternity as opposed to right now. The how has to do with appearance. Those who appear on the surface to be prospering and avoiding judgment because of their sin and violence may very well not be.

Why this exposition on karma, of all things? Because Asaph is struggling with understanding why apparently good people apparently do not fare as well in life as some clearly evil people. If God is just, why do evil people get away with oppressing and killing the innocent, when godly people suffer horrendous persecution? Why is there a Kim Jong Il, who not only starves his own people to build up his army and his personality cult, but performs the worst persecution of Christians on the planet, even compared to the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Eritrea?

This is not a pity party for Asaph. He is not talking about himself. He sees the suffering of others and is sensitive to it, not just to his own.

Let’s look at Psalm 73.
v. 1 and the last verse are bookends. Affirmation and praise at the beginning and end, but struggle in the middle. God is good to Israel, at a level we may not see on the surface. He clarifies in the next line—the true Israelites, not just the ethnic ones. He is referring to the Israelites in whom there is no guile, who are “pure in heart.” I don’t think this phrase is a coincidence. Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Asaph’s problem is one of sight, of perception, and he realizes that only those with a pure heart will be able to work through the struggle as he is and “see God,” especially, see God below the surface of things.

We are not pure in heart because we see God; we see God because we are pure in heart. What is pure in heart? Pure means that nothing that doesn’t belong is mixed in. How does our heart get impure? One major way is what we see, what we look upon. Sure, our first response is pornography, but let’s not look the wrong way. Back in the ‘80s there was a show called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” that was just about as bad as pornography. Soap operas that idealize falling in love with a soulmate whom you don’t happen to be married to at the time. QVC. For me, the news, which is guaranteed to make me despair for the republic.
Verse 2 shifts from God to himself. “But as for me”—this is not a good sign. “I almost fell into despair, rejection, and apostasy,” Asaph says. Why?

Verse 3: Because of envy. Where could we go if we were honest here? Envy of a bigger house, more children, a better career, more prestige, a better husband, a husband period, a better body and face, a family that conforms to my wishes, recognition for my efforts and talents. It’s not that we don’t know better; we do, we’re adults, but it’s so easy for envy to taint our purity of heart and pull us down.

As we read verses 4-12 we see that Asaph is talking about truly wicked people, and we are unlikely to envy the Bernie Madoffs and Robert Mugabes of this world. But we may still wonder about the inequities; even if Bernie Madoff spends the rest of his life in jail, he lived high for a long time and worse, destroyed many people’s lives.

So, in verse 13, Asaph says, “I’m living for God, but why? What’s it getting me?” This is his low point, the point of walking away. We don’t know what he himself went through that brought him to this place, but it is clearly not just intellectual, but experiential. Maybe what is attacking him is Satanic doubt, deep-seated envy.

Verse 15 and 16. Asaph implies that he kept it to himself. That is good—he didn’t want to discourage believers who come before and after. He can’t publicly denounce God, but he’s living in doubt to the point of despair. Let’s take him at his word, that his motives are right, not self-righteous here. On the other hand, not expressing his thoughts has a downside. He feels all alone, and is in great pain, thinking that he cannot share it with anyone.

Verse 17 is the great turnaround. I do not know what he means by “then I went into the sanctuary of God, and I understood their end.” Going into the sanctuary was his job, not something he rarely did. Does he mean a physical or spiritual sanctuary? Sanctuary means a hidden, special, holy place. I don’t think this means that going into a sanctuary will cure your doubt, but that for Asaph, it did.

My best guess is that, even if he went in just to do his job and wasn’t particularly in the mood, God intervened. It wasn’t natural. It wasn’t a human-derived insight. Karma is a human-derived insight, and this is the opposite of karma. He’s been living in a karma world, not a cross world.

In a cross world, God’s people suffer, but God has entered into our suffering. Suffering in this world and at the hands of this world is not a sign of judgment or displeasure, but the necessary outcome of a world in rebellion to God. Suffering will be redeemed, not punished. In a karma world, those who suffer are bad (what does that say about the Holocaust?) and deserving. In a cross world, we Americans are at least temporarily blessed, even though most of the Christians of this world are at best ostracized. In a karma world, imprecise-minded Americans only interpret the harsh Hindu doctrines in a typically positive light, so that all karma is good karma and reality is denied.

So Asaph’s perspective changes dramatically. The oppressors will be judged. They are not beyond grace, but if they continue on their paths, they will suffer in the next life. In verses 21-28, we see that Asaph knows it’s not about him; he is the product of God’s goodness, not karma; if karma were real, he’d be in big trouble, too. The question is not why bad things happen to good people, but why good things happen to bad people, which is all of us.

Asaph’s reflection should point us to the persecuted church every day, but this week it is particularly relevant, because November is the month of emphasis on the persecuted church.

Passion of the Christ, Revisited

Another rant on radio Bible teachers. This week I heard one say, "Jesus suffered more on the cross than all the people of all time every have or will." What?

It's not a contest, people. Physically, Jesus did suffer terribly, more than we can know, but we can't say it was more than other people who have been tortured, whipped, and crucified. I do not read in the Bible great long descriptions about the physical punishment Christ went through. Yes, it is expressed, but it is not described in great detail, not in the New Testament. Peter and John and James saw it and didn't go on and on about it. The ancients did not revel in that kind of thing (Greeks did not show murders and violence on stage); they knew it existed and would have had no reason to over-describe the torture of crucifixion, which their immediate audience knew.

Internally, psychically, spiritually, that is another story. Instead of gory details, we read, "he who knew no sin became sin for us." Some people on this planet, I'm sorry to say, have been tortured as much as Christ was, physically; but no one as much spiritually.

Christ's suffering's value is not in the amount, but in the who and the why. Let's get our doctrine from reading the Word, people, not from Mel Gibson.

Project Runway

I love this show. But I'm beginning to doubt the judges. Why is Christopher still on this show? He's always in the bottom two. He cries every week. He says he doesn't have the degree and credentials every week (that's obvious). His clothes are bizarre and tacky every week.

Kick his sorry, teary-eyed butt off, judges.

I also watched a cool old movie last night. Dragonwyck. Sort of a Jane Eyre spin-off. Vincent Price was great! I didn't know he could really act. I always classed him with Liberace (which is really wrong).

Any one coming upon this blog would think I have multiple personality disorder. These posts are all over the place. But that's just me. Most people think I'm quite vanilla.
I was reading a story in the local newspaper this morning about Halloween costume stores. Some customers were complaining that the ones for pre-teen and younger girls were based on the sexy versions for adult women. To dress up for Halloween means to put your sexy on, apparently. It even mentioned that some mothers would buy the costumes and the fathers would bring them back. That is half-way good news; one wonders about a mother who would buy such a costume, but at least the fathers had some good sense.

Most revealing (bad pun) was the last paragraph. “Halloween is the one time of the year when you won’t be judged,” a costume store owner is quoted. I think that says a lot. Is that what we want, not to be judged? In an age when the president is going to sign hate crime legislature for LGBT people (an acronym for sadly confused people), what are we being judged for? It seems every day is Halloween, if freedom from judgment is the standard.

Social disapproval and judgment are not the same thing. But the quote may explain the strange fascination with Halloween, which I do not share, humbug that I am. We get to let our fantasies show, apparently. If I want to be a pirate, I can be a pirate. If I want to be a vampire, I can be a vampire. If I want to be a …. Well, I won’t go there, although my mind could. How silly—you’re not really, it’s just pretend. So what Halloween really does is not let us be our fantasy, or free us from judgment—it lets us be children, who really should be the only ones celebrating the day.

This post references “Too sexy for trick or treat” in the October 24 issue of Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What's Going On Tonight

It's pretty bad when the only two stations you watch both have Dennis Miller on them at the same hour. But he picked Dodsworth to show on TCM, and I like that one. Walter Huston was an interesting actor.

My brother is in the hospital, having found out he has a valve defect after all these years, but thankfully no blockage. When I saw him a month ago he was having trouble with bronchitis, finally went to a doc in the box (love that expression), who sent him to a real hospital; had a catheterization, should get out tomorrow. This is a concern. I wish I could go see him, but he is 650 miles away; there's a reason that families shouldn't be so far from each other.

This administration baffles me when it isn't hacking me off.

Anyway, back to the subject of fear. Fear is an excellent motivator. Whether its use is always ethical or respectful or truthful is another matter, but it will work. We do most of what we do out of some sort of fear of some sort of negative consequences.

Guilt, on the other hand, is and is not a good motivator, although it's closely tied to fear. The guilt-inducer has convinced us to be fearful of a consequence, but it's imaginary disapproval of someone who may or may not matter. Why do I feel guilty that I ate some fig bars tonight after dinner? On the other hand, why did I feel guilty enough before God to convert to Christianity? The fig bars do not forgive me; the guilt from sin has an answer.

Fear and guilt should get our attention but not drive us. WE are not given a spirit of fear. We often quote that but not the rest, leaving a vacuum. We are given a spirit of power, and love, and a sound mind.

Monday, October 19, 2009

No Fear

Wouldn't that be nice? The Bible contains the words "Fear Not" 63 times. But I don't think there's a place where people are condemned for their fear. They are held responsible for what they do because of their fear, but not reprimanded for their fear. Which is wonderful, when you think about it. God understands our frames, our weaknesses, and nothing reveals our human weakness like fear.

I taught Psalm 56 yesterday, or well, I tried to. I want my teaching to be at least one-third discussion, not me pontificating and bloviating. It's connected to David's feigning madness, a la Hamlet, in the Philistines' court, and the king getting disgusted with him. Not David's finest hours, to say the least. And here's the boy who stood up to Goliath, among other things--so why is he wimping out?

For the same reason we do. The strangest thing about fear is its inconsistency. David is clearly aware of his shortcomings here, so he gets the focus right. He says "I will" seven times. You can't talk yourself out of the fear, you can only decide what you're going to do about it. You make a decision. Fear is not always rational, as well as not being consistent. Of course, some fears make sense because real danger is involved. But some come from other sources and usually it's the lies we tell ourselves.

When I was going to graduate school in Atlanta, I had to drive home late at night over 100 miles. I started having panic attacks and was not feeling totally conscious. So I developed a great fear and an inability to drive on the interstate after dark (at 60 mph plus, surrounded by speeding transfer trucks). Even the distance between Chattanooga and Ringgold, not ten miles, was petrifying. This went on for over two years. This summer I began to be able to drive at night on the interstate, just a little bit. Of course, part of the problem comes from dried out contacts at that hour and the inability to see very well. But last night I drove home in the dark from Chattanooga, with no problems. It was sheer will. I don't enjoy it, but I can do it.

I admit to being a fearful and anxious person, but I am also strong willed. The main task involved in overcoming fear is to tell ourselves the truth. We are better at lying to ourselves.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mastercard revisited

Cynthia Heald's Becoming a Woman of Prayer, $7
Beth Moore Workbook, $15
Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, $20
The Word of God, priceless

Psalm 19. And since these books are based on the priceless but free Word, why do they cost so much?

Oh, My

I am beginning to wonder if I'll ever blog again; it's been well over a week. I have plenty to say but it's all in bits and pieces.

Right now I am watching Mutiny on the Bounty (great film, by the way, and I'm talking about the 30s version), am glad my son is home for a few days, am overwhelmed with somewhat pointless tasks from my job, am looking forward to revising my second and third novels when the publisher is ready to get that done, am still thinking about doctoral work since UTC has decided to grant (close to) in-state tuition to us Georgians, and am wishing that Winter had not come so fast. It will be in the 30s tonight, all of a sudden, it seems.

I am eating a lot of Feta cheese and not much meat, for some reason. I am mad at Project Runway for booting Shirin and not Christopher. I had to post midterm grades but think the only purpose of them is to get students to drop the classes they are failing. We have 5400 plus students this semester but I have a feeling our retention will not be great. I have too many social engagements.

I have to go to the funeral home tomorrow for Dr. Fred Afman. Such a sweet man; he taught Bible for so many years and was so used by the Lord in young people's lives over those years.

I am reading, for no good reason really, a silly book called I am Not Sidney Poitier. It's a kind of Forest-Gump-Candide thing. I hope never to write such froth, and I regret buying it. The money could have been better spent. But I am also reading some good books, such as Robert Stein's on hermeneutics.

So this is why I am not blogging.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Letterman Lost

I know I still have a sin nature because I was not saddened by the news of David Letterman's "indiscretions." My response, I'm afraid to say was, "the hypocrite deserves whatever comes of this."

But as the Bible lesson I am supposed to teach this week is Psalm 51, God didn't let me get away with that for long.

So I had to bring myself to pray for Letterman. We have no choice in this matter, if we say we believe the Word and follow Christ. Even a snarky 60-some-year-old adolescent like he is not beyond grace. I pray he repents, truly, has a spiritual conversion, and repairs his marriage.

But I am more bothered by his audience. I suppose if you want to be in his TV audience, you have to be of a certain mindset--or mind-less set. If he had said he committed murder, would they have laughed? I think so.

Evangelical Narcissism

If no one has coined this term, I now have.

The problem with an emphasis on a "personal relationship with Jesus" is that 1. it's going to level the playing field until (2) it's eventually all about us. When the "relationship with Jesus" started, it was neither all about us or a level playing field. The relationship couldn't start if those two things were true--it could only start because the playing field between us and God was totally unlevel and because we realized it wasn't about us--at all.

I am sick of radio preachers and preachettes, "Bible teachers," and other sources of religious rhetoric telling us, indirectly, to spend so much time thinking about ourselves and our problems and our sins and our relationship and our ..... you name it.

A relationship with Jesus, which is a very lose way to talk about the life of the Christian believer, is a relationship that is closely and clearly defined in the New Testament, and these are teachings we should start heeding before we become as New Age as Eckhart Tolle or the rest of that crowd in our emphasis on the self.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Facebook, revisited

I have decided that I have complained enough about facebook and the inane, narcissistic, and goofy posts or status updates my "friends" post there. I have been a lurker, only posting a few times but looking at everyone else's and shaking my head. No more. I am going to fight fire with water.

Instead of "I'm having a bad day," "I'm hungry" "I'm in pain," I'm going to write upbeat, praising, positive quotes. I'll save snarkiness for this blog!

Seriously, is facebook so named because it's a mirror in which we are looking at ourselves or a because it's a short-term replacement for communication? The former, it seems. I'm sick of it. I could just stop going to it, but that's a cop out. Let's try something assertive and proactive. It could only help (and annoy the nonbelievers).

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Movies, movies, movies

Last night I went to see The Proposal. Cute enough, predictable enough. $3.00 worth of escapism.

Whoopi Goldberg is an idiot. Why does she get a pulpit? "Rape rape? vs. rape?"

I saw a very interesting movie from the '30s the other night that mirrored the Leo Frank trial. It was very good, and I don't know why it hasn't been considered more famous.

Those snuggies commercials are just about the most bizarre thing I have ever seen. They look like a bunch of monks.

Cool youtube clip:

Friday, October 02, 2009

Hollywood Hypocrisy

If a working class man living in a trailer park gets a 13-year-old girl drunk and rapes her, he goes to jail, society considers him a sex offender, and he is ostracized for the rest of his life, assuming his crime is known. When a movie director does it, we are told it should be overlooked.

When a boss has sex with his female employees consistently over the course of several years, he is prosecuted for sexual harassment or fired. When a talk show host does, we are supposed to laugh at his lame, snarky jokes.

Text of my presentation at Southern States Communication Conference on Open Educational Resources

On April 8 I spoke at SSCA on the subject of Open Educational Resources.  Here is the text of my remarks. The University System of Geo...