Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Living in Europe is Nothing Like a Vacation

In a classic case of: “the pot enjoying the kettle calling itself black,” MDR (a radio station here) aired a story that quoted an American complaining that Americans are too arrogant. It was a part of a larger story in which a bunch of Americans were quoted as saying that Europe was a much better place than America to live.

“Oh, I would definitely live in Europe if I could. I’ve been there several times and everything is so laid back. The pace of life is so slow!”

Now, this post is not going to be an attempt to argue against that story. There are plenty of reasons for loving both places. However, this “news report” did spark a few thoughts. For starters, how could any of these Americans, who had only ever been to Europe for vacation, begin to know what it is like to live in Europe? Of course it would seem very laid back if you were there for fun! Wherever life occurs, there will always be more stress and pressure than in vacations!

Many Americans have this perception about Europe. They think it is such an easy and privileged place to live. Why then, do so many Americans who attempt to move t Europe for cross-cultural ministry burn out and go back. Recent figures show that Western Europe in particular had the highest rate of attrition for imb of any of the regions it reaches. Probably it is due to these very same false expectations. Europe is a surprisingly different culture. People do not realize the amount of adjustment that is needed to live in this continent in spite of all the beauty, history and “luxury.” The fact is when you live in a place and work there, your life is nothing like the vacations that people imagine having there.

All that, and the story never brought up a comparison between how many people immigrate form Europe to the US vs. the other way around. That would be an interesting number to investigate.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Galatains 5:19-21 (Sex, Sorcery, Sedition, and Sauce)

As Paul continues in his teaching that love, not legalism is to govern the Christian’s behavior, he lists the deeds of the flesh to contrast them to the behavior of the person walking in the Spirit. The fifteen examples of sins he lists fall generally into four categories: sexual sins, religious sins, interpersonal or relational sins, and those related to alcohol.

Martin Luther does a good job here of pointing out that the Christian is not free from these temptations. The flesh and the spirit are at war in the believer’s life. The legalist immediately goes to the end of the list and points out that Paul says these deeds will keep you out of heaven. But the point here is not that we won’t struggle with these things, but that we should fight against the flesh in these matters.

Since the legalist mistakenly believes that behavior is what earns a person’s salvation, they exaggerate the nature of the sin: Sex itself is bad. Even make-believe magic is evil. Alcohol and not just drunkenness is wrong. They seek to avoid the sin by drawing the line further away from the sin and forbidding things that are not wrong; just as Adam in the garden taught Eve that touching the tree was wrong, and not just eating it.

The ironic thing about legalists is that they tend to have fewer problems with the more than half of the list of sins here that deal with interpersonal relationships. Fighting and divisions, envy and power struggles, disagreements over teaching; all these things are part and parcel of religious existence. Legalism and religion go hand in hand and therefore these things are always justified.

Instead of making our focus the examples of sin that Paul presents here, he wants us to emphasize the next list: the fruit of the Spirit…

Friday, June 26, 2009

Top Films: Prisoner of Azkaban

If the third book took the Harry Potter story from a mere children’s fantasy series and sent it into literary greatness; the third film signaled the producers’ complete embrace of changing everything and merely sticking to the bare structure of the plot; in other words a step in the wrong direction.

There are good things about this film to be sure. Alfonso Cuaron was praised by critics and Rowling alike for best capturing the feel of the stories. The art direction and visual style of the film is great. The sets and cinematography are better than the first two films. Little touches here and there such as the transition shots that push the time frame and seasons forward through the film are great. Best of all the kids feel somehow more authentic than in the first two films.

However, the story has been heavily altered and has lost a lot. Some of it just feels like a complete lack of understanding of the book; the opening scene, for instance, where Harry is doing his homework under the covers at night. In the book he works on essays; here he practices spells, which is more cinematic. Not five minutes into the film, though, we are reminded that any use of magic outside of Hogwarts will get him expelled!

Even worse, entire plot elements are lost. (The book has something like ten plot-lines all interwoven and perfectly balanced.) The Firebolt sequence (clumsily moved to the end), Ron and Hermione not speaking for much of the year, and the best year of Quiditch in the series is glossed over. Unforgivably, the entire storyline about Harry’s dad and friends being Missers Mooney, Padfoot, Wormtail and Prongs is gone! We can thank Cuaron for the series going down this path, as he advised the next director to excise over half of the next books plot rather than make it into two movies.

Finally, something needs to be said about Dumbledore in this film. Richard Harris died before the film was made and Michael Gambon took over the role. In some ways a lot was lost, as Harris skillfully (and visually) embodied the wise older guide role. However, Gambon introduced some of the lacking quirk found in the books. The only questions as the film series continues are, does it become too silly and does he inject too much into the character that is not on the page? (Another question perhaps best addressed in the next installment.)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The One Without Voldemort

"I see," said Lupin thoughtfully. "Well, well . . . I'm impressed. That suggests what you fear most of all is -- fear. Very wise, Harry." –Remus Lupin


J.K. Rowling claims that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the easiest book in the series to write. It certainly reads as if it were. At least for this reader, it is a sentimental favorite. To be sure, books four through seven are evidence of genius, but here are several reasons to love Azkaban:

First of all, for “the easiest write,” this book begins to show off Rowling’s ability to juggle complicated plots. She has about ten separate plotlines going in this book and never lets one drop. She ties them all together at the right moments and wraps the whole thing up perfectly at the end. She will continue to do this for the rest of the series, but here is where it really started.

“Azkaban” gives us the best Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher of the whole series. Lupin is the teacher that everyone wishes they had, and some are lucky enough to have had a teacher like him. He knows his subject completely, genuinely cares for the students he is teaching as people and not projects, and he can teach. Whereas every other DADA prof is either incompetent or evil or both, Lupin is one of the three best adult male figures in Harry’s life. Unfortunately, all three—well, see the climaxes of books five, six, and seven.

Rowling came up with the best monster of the series for this one as well. The Dementors are one of the best conceptual monsters ever. They prey on tragedy and emotional pain, so whenever they draw near you relive the worst moments of your life. Not only are they terrible on their own, but the fact that they are portrayed as a “necessary evil” used by the magical government in the books is a thought provoking move by Rowling as well.

Snape, after a couple mentions and no development in book two, is more involved in this book as the professor everybody loves to hate. He is developed in two directions. The reader discovers that he is not just a mean teacher, but that he really hates Harry particularly; and we see that he indeed has Dumbledore’s ear and trust. Not quite at “one of the best characters in literature” yet, but wait.

In sort of a minor point, this book also contains the best Quiditch season in the series. Oh, and to anyone with a love of maps, this book introduces one of the coolest magical artifacts of the series.

Harry and company start Divination this year. Anyone who has problems with the “magic” elements of the Harry Potter series needs to hear about this subject. Almost all the magic in Harry Potter is of a mechanical nature. Divination is the one area that most closely approaches “real magic” or that of a medium type. Yet we see that it is just as fake as in the real world. Predicting the future in Rowling’s magical world is just as much a scam as in ours. Occasionally a true prophecy is revealed, but no one controls that power.

Finally, we are beginning to see into Harry’s past. In Azkaban we begin to see into the school days of Harry’s parents. We find out more in book 5 (which relates closely to 3) but we get hints here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

DMB

Dave Matthews Band is one of those bands that you buy every album they produce “note-unheard.” Still, most of those sorts of bands require some time for each album to sink in, ripen, and be evaluated. This year they released what many are calling their best album ever—“Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King.” It will take some time yet to make that determination… so for now, in this writer’s opinion, that honor goes to “Before These Crowded Streets.”

Really an argument could be made for any of the band’s first three albums. There are gems such as “Ants Marching,” “Satellite,” and “Crash Into Me” just to name a few titles from the first two albums, but Streets has track after track that blow those away:

You may or may not object to the content of “Rapunzel” but musically, it is crazily impressive. The meter changes from 5/4 to 4/4 to 6/8. As far as those edgy lyrics, Dave sure can write creative and poetic sexual imagery.

“The Last Stop” may be the best track on the Album. As always a lyrical treasure, this time about the age old conflict in the Middle East. Musically, Bela Fleck guests and banjo is always a good thing in pop-culture.

“Don’t Drink the Water” is a song exploring the treatment of native culture by the “invading” cultures, mainly in North American history. Once again we have banjo, and Matthews displays some great vocal variety. (This song’s topic has provided some great songs from other artists as well, “Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden springs to mind.)

“Halloween” stands out as creepy song, not the atmospheric musical song that is scary, but a creepy lyrical message that is delivered in a way that has to shorten Matthews’ career every time he performs it. One of the amazing things about this band is the way they make variety a part of their consistency. Everything manages to sound fresh while at the same time sounding as if it is coming from the same band.

The last track on the album “Spoon” explores what David thinks Christ may have been thinking as he went to the cross. Whereas most bands traditionally or stereotypically focus thematically on sex, drugs and themselves; DMB’s songs tend to wonder about politics, philosophical ideas, and religion… oh, and sex but in a far more creative (and candid, for those who think about the lyrics) way.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Missional Side of the Story

Last week, nine European missionaries to Yemen were abducted and possibly killed. There are a lot of angles to this story.

It appears that the abductor was released from Guantanamo Bay in 2007. Interesting as Obama is in the middle of plans to close down the center and release the prisoners or move them elsewhere. Apparently, Yemen is currently in negotiations to get 100 prisoners returned to them.

The angle most European news agencies take is that the hostages got what they deserved. No one should proselytize Muslims. The problem is these medical workers did not proselytize. They are relief workers running a Hospital, and have been doing so for decades. They are Christian idealists. They run humanitarian ministries simply out of love for the people. That is a sharp contrast to the Governmental humanitarian work that the German government does in Yemen, which has been described as humanitarian tourism, where tax money is spent to send people for short term trips to exotic locals.

The third angle, presented by media in Yemen itself, is that all nine workers are already dead. The government is simply saying they are not until some time has gone by so that the bad news can be announced after interest has waned. Three of the hostages are confirmed dead, two German nurses and a South Korean. The remaining hostages, a British Citizen and German couple: Johannes and Sabine and their three small children, are hopefully still alive.

Either way that risk is a part of what Missional life is all about: living in such a way as to show the love of God to those around you may not be proselytizing, but it actually has a greater impact. And in many parts of the world, that is a dangerous thing to do.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Galatians 5:16-18 (Lose Control!)

People live with an illusion of control. They kid themselves into thinking they can guide their destinies. The fact is we are all riding a wave of history, time, circumstances and providence. Most people flounder in the wave chasing every desire and acting on a mixture of instinct and pleasure seeking. Even those who appear to be successfully navigating the wave crash and drown in the end.

To walk in the Spirit is to set our focus on God and surrender our “control” to His guidance; to let the wave take us where He wills. This does not translate into a “perfect” life in the world’s eyes. It is not a life free of pain and suffering, hard times and tough circumstances. True Christianity has never been about perfect health and prosperity, for example. (Some people think that God is so desperate for followers and happy to get them that He rewards them with a magically perfect life.)

Christian teaching often misses this point. People are told, “You need to walk in the Spirit! This is what you should do…” Instead, it is all about surrender; losing control. Perhaps for some it would be easier to think of as following. But the surrender of control is really what is meant here. Elsewhere Paul uses the analogy of drunkenness to explain a life in the Spirit.

Once again the problem is legalism. The fear in teaching someone to walk in the Spirit is that they will start to misbehave since they are not in control. It is far easier to teach someone behavior that is rule based rather than Spirit based. Rules are controllable, God is not.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Top Films: Chamber of Secrets

For the most part, the second Potter film is much like the first. It stays true to the plot but cuts and condenses things (even more than the first.)

Some of the changes are just annoying: Hermione gets a lot of the lines spoken by other characters in the book. Presumably this is to give the actress more to do, since the character has a smaller role in this story. We also never get to see the history professor explain the legend of the Chamber. He is the only ghost professor and apparently doesn’t exist in the Harry Potter world as the movies present it. One of Rowling’s more interesting ideas: the Deathday Party is also cut.

However, the change that threatens to ruin the movie is what they did to the Basilisk. Snakes are scary. The Basilisk in this movie is (a) not a snake and (b) not particularly scary. For one thing it is too big. In the book, the monster is said to be at least 20 feet long. That is the size of a King Cobra, the world’s largest poisonous snake. The Basilisk in the movie is about sixty feet long, which wouldn’t be terrible, but whoever designed it got the length to width proportion all wrong. It has lost its serpentine creepiness and although large, it seems short for its size. Also, the head is nothing like a snake head, which is the creepiest part of the snake. This looks more like a dragon that has lost all of its legs.

All that is rather nit-picky. Especially since the heart and the message of the book pretty well survived.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Harry Potter and Fame and Obsession

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." –Albus Dumbledore


It must be said at the start that, much like the second of the Chronicles of Narnia (meaning Prince Caspian) this is a personal least favorite of the series. In comparison to the first book (which has novelty on its side) and what starts in the next book (which is the beginnings of a greater story arc) Chamber feels minor. When reading the series for the first time, one gets the feeling that we are settling into a typical (albeit better than average) children’s series of books.

There are two great things that emerge from this book: the character of Lockhart, and the idea that books and ideas can be powerful, even dangerous.

Part of the Rowling pattern set up to structure each book is the ever-changing Defense Against the Dark Arts teaching position. Every year sees a new teacher in this post, and they all tend to be interesting. Parallel to that is the antagonist in each book, and they are not always the same person. In the first book, Quirrell is the bumbling coward of a DADA professor and Snape is the main threat. At the end Quirrell is gone and Snape carries on for the rest of the series as an ambiguous figure. Here Lockhart is the DADA, and the antagonist is a mystery to all except Dumbledore who just wonders how it is being done.

Lockhart is a great character, but it is a good thing that he is gone in the end like all DADA professors. You could only take so much of him. He is a great caricature of our fame obsessed culture, and a good contrast to Harry. Harry is famous for something he did not do, but doesn’t care about fame and bravely seeks to do what is right. Lockhart is also famous for things he didn’t do, but really pursues fame as a vocation.

The other fascinating lesson from Chamber is the danger of ideas and obsessions. Some think there is a commentary about social networking technology, but it is really more about blindly following ideas however they are disseminated. As Mr. Weasley tells his daughter: “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain!” That would include large groups of people and organizations in later books! Not much more can be said without spoiling the book.

It might be interesting for some to think about the chiastic structure of the series as well. Basically there is an ABCDCBA flow to the seven books. One relates closely to seven, and here in Chamber there is a lot that becomes important in book 6.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

“Cutting-it” Cross Culturally or Surviving from Shock to Service

Having observed people trying to make the transition that is required to plant churches in other cultures for over twenty years now, I have decided it is less about what someone brings to the field (experience, ability, personality or gifting) and more about a choice. The people who “survive” into effectiveness do not have anything more than those who don’t, other than sheer tenacity.

It must be said, of course, that not all people who are “called” into cross-cultural living are intended to spend the rest of their career life in that setting. Sometimes they are called away after a season, or medical issues get in the way. That being said, the effort required and time needed to make the transition means that most people at the outset intend to spend at least a matter of years in the endeavor.

So, why do so many crash and burn in the first three years?

First, there are the language and cultural differences. Theoretically, everyone can learn a new language, but it takes a lot of effort and commitment. You regularly have times when you feel like you have reached the limits of your ability, and for years you feel like you will never know enough. In some ways it simply takes a choice to live with a permanent handicap; that and keep trying to grow. Even when you “learn” to speak you have to always brave the cultural waters and get used to making embarrassing mistakes. Some people literally become recluses rather than face the stress of culture shock.

The choice to adapt is not quite enough, though. Some people learn to live in the new culture but never learn to engage it with the Gospel. These people do not tend to fail in the sense of giving up and going home, but they still fail even if they live in the culture for years. If they do not accomplish the task that brought them here in the first place, mere survival cannot be seen as success.

These are the issues that are occupying a lot of people and thought here in Germanic Europe. How can we best help people achieve cultural adjustment and cultural transformation at the same time? An exciting model seems to be emerging!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Galatians 5:13-15 (Christian Cannibalism)

Paul reiterates his theme: we have been saved for freedom. The Gospel is not about a law or rules, but living in freedom as we were created to live. It is about Love not Legalism. The suspicion the legalist always has here is: isn’t all this “freedom” talk just an excuse to sin? Paul anticipates this argument, and is quick to destroy it. The Christian is a new, spiritual being and as such, sin goes against the Christian’s spiritual nature. Freedom should not become an opportunity for the flesh.

In Love, we are to live freely and (super)naturally as we have been created to live. Love not legalism is the guide.

Before Paul proceeds to the next part of his teaching, where he exhorts the Galatians not to live by the flesh, he has one more thing to say to the religious legalist: “Do not engage in cannibalism!”

That is the nature of legalism. When we live by rules and try to avoid sin in our own strength, we eat each other up. Think about it. We do not demand perfection from the great heroes of Biblical history. They were flawed, but God was working on and through them. The same is true for us. We are to hold each other accountable and help each other grow, but the legalist tears people apart. They do not build up.

Some people act like they are after some “Holy Spirit Award.” They are constantly trying to convict and change people and do the job of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives. Have you ever met someone who always seems to begin every conversation with: “I have something to tell you ‘in love.’?” Or “God told me to tell you something.” These are people we quickly learn to avoid. Great friendships have been destroyed because one friend decided to correct the others personality or character flaws—“in love.”

To be sure, there are sins and serious dangers that we have to help each other see. The problem is when we start to think we are responsible for every little doctrinal difference, personality flaw, or thing that bothers us about our fellow Christians. Paul warns us that that will destroy the church. Satan has used it more than any other tool in his war against the Gospel.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Beware the God of Sabotage

There is a god of sabotage,
Pessim is his name.
He has the power to take all good things,
And ruin them in every way.
He is followed by all glass-half-empty people.
They are a sour bunch.
To them life is so dismal and glum,
They seldom come out before lunch.
If I were one of his unhappy religion,
My views would put a gun to my head,
But then, I suppose, I wouldn’t dare try it,
Sure enough I’d become a veggie instead.
I don’t see how some Christians agree with him,
‘Cause as far as I can tell,
They’d tend towards hyper-Calvinistic views,
Turn goats and wind up in Hell.
So I guess my warning to those reading these lines,
Is beware of Pessim and his ways.
If you don’t look for the positive in life,
You’ll be destined to bitter, sad days.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Top Films: More Sorcerer's Stone

NonModern has already had one take on this movie in which the faithfulness to the book was applauded. In 2001 when this film and the first of the Lord of the Rings movie were about to be released, there was a lot of nervousness in fandom. Hollywood’s general practice in treating books is to butcher the story. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone stayed pretty faithful to the plot and story of the book—for a Hollywood film.

In reality, the differences are many if slight. However, some things have been greatly changed and in ways that really mean the viewer misses aspects that the reader witnessed—aspects that were very important.

For example, one of the biggest changes in the film is the whole dragon sequence. In the book, Harry and co. help Hagrid care for his illegal pet while trying to convince him to get rid of it. They plan, together with Ron’s brother, to have the dragon smuggled away from the castle one night. Harry and Hermione (but not Ron because he is sick from a dragon bite) take it to a high tower after hours and see it off. Neville finds them to warn them that Malfoy is trying to get them caught. In the end, all five students are punished for being out of bed after hours.

The important aspect of this original sequence is that for a long time after this, Harry and co. are extremely unpopular because they have cost their house a lot of points and the lead in the house cup race. They broke the rules and face severe consequences. When you know this, Neville’s actions at the end make a lot more sense. Also, you see how serious Harry is at the climax of the book when he is forced to break the rules again.

The battle of Good vs. Evil is serious. It is not about obeying a set of rules that will keep people happy and make you popular or acceptable to a society. The series will go on to have a lot to say about appeasement and following the status quo, but here we see that Harry and his friends know what the stakes are. It is not about staying safe and not getting into trouble with the authorities at school. It is a case of life or death. While the movie makes the tests the kids face in the end more cinematic, it misses much life-lessons taught throughout the book.

One thing that the movie did do a good job of highlighting, that can be skimmed over in the book, is the self sacrifice of Ron in the chess game. This is just one of many cases (and not the first even) where we see that Rowling identifies self-sacrifice as the supreme sign of love. The good guys will face death for love; the bad guys avoid death at all costs. More on that as the series progresses.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

“To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure. You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all –the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.” --Albus Dumdledore


In some ways, Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone if you are an American who would presumably find Philosophy boring and repellant) is a forward to the greater story-arch that flows from Azkaban all the way into Hallows. It introduces the characters and the concepts. It gives us outsiders a primer on the imaginary world that Rowling created, just on the rim of reality. It sets up the pattern of events that will be the structure of most of the books to follow. And it gives us a glimpse at the stakes we are dealing with.

The Harry Potter series is a story about growing up, learning right from wrong, learning that sometimes the people who should be good are bad, and sometimes the people we judge to be bad aren’t so much. It is a story about the fact that sometimes evil tries to kill people but other times it is just people being selfish or narrow-minded or ignorant. It is about friendship and relationships; life and (more importantly) death; about love and sacrifice.

Here in the first book, the stakes are not huge. There is danger, but nothing that feels life-threatening. After all it is a story about a bunch of eleven year olds. Rowling eases the reader into the world she has created and lays the ground rules as it were. Compared to “the real world” Hogwarts is an exciting, wonderful, and safe place. There are rules and authority figures, but like every school ever—these are not always respected and quite often make little sense.

On the other hand, there is real good and evil in the magical world. Most of the time this reality is evident behind the scenes in a sort of mystery that the students loyal to Dumbledore and on the side of good must try to figure out if they want to help. They are shielded from evil by the teachers, but want to do their part to fight evil and do what is right. In this book, they become aware of a plot to try to bring the greatest force for evil back to full power.

The main antagonist in this book is a professor in the school named Snape. He hates Harry with a passion, and everyone who hates like that has to be bad, right? He is mean and spiteful and in every circumstance obviously guilty. The problem is none of the other teachers will believe that he is bad. This character is not as developed as some of the other bad guys in future books will be, but his character is one to watch as the series progresses.

Most of all, Sorcerer’s Stone is a joy to experience. Rowling’s narration places us alongside little eleven-year old Potter as he goes from a joyless, servile existence to a magical world of wonder. It is familiar enough territory taken from countless fairy-tales, but fleshed out in a detailed, modern, and exciting way that is a breeze to read. Oh, and if the last time you read this first book in the series was before you read the last book you need to give it another read. The first and seventh books have a special connection on many levels. The amount and complexity of things already present in this book that are revealed to be important later on is impressive.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

An Answer for Natasha Bedingfield

Natasha Bedingfield has a song that airs frequently enough here in Germany to be an annoyance for those who occasionally listen to Top 40 radio.

“Who doesn't look for someone to hold
who knows how to love you without being told?
Somebody tell me why I'm on my own
if there's a soulmate for everyone?”


Poor Natasha’s confusion likely stems from one or two (or both) sources: romantic comedies and the Evangelical Christian subculture.

Last year, an Edinburgh university released a study claiming that romantic comedy movies can ruin a person’s love life by creating false expectations. No kidding. When people expect things like partners who will do exactly what they want without being told, there is a problem. Most real people need communication to relate to each other, and human communication is so screwed up that even people who have been married for decades need to work at keeping good communication in their marriage.

Natasha started her career in the UK Christian music scene. So she likely has the relationship killer combination of not just Romantic Comedy expectations, but also the “God made someone perfectly designed for you” idea that is almost as dangerous. You see, those false expectations are made worse when you get the idea that there is a person out there who is half of your whole, made with you in mind.

Perhaps there is a truth to that story from God’s perspective, but it is a dangerous thing to teach people! Imagine someone who thinks that there is a “soul-mate” out there just for them. What if you met them after you were already married? What if you think you married that person, and your spouse turns out to not be perfect?

A better approach to Christian relationships is to think in terms of becoming the best mate you can be, and then not thinking that there is one person for you—until the moment you say “I do.” From that moment on, regardless of your and their imperfections—you have, maybe not a “soul-mate,” but a life-mate. The sort of ‘til-death-do-us-part-so-I-am-going-to-work-at-making-this-relationship-the-best-of-my-life relationship, not built on unrealistic expectations but sacrificial love.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why Harry Potter?

Last year, NonModern used a series of posts to look at the seven “Chronicles of Narnia” books by C. S. Lewis, leading up to the release of the second movie in a franchise based on those books. This year a similar effort will be made with the series of Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling. For some reason, this seems to deserve a whole post to answer the question:

Why?

There are a lot of reasons the Harry Potter books belong on a list of “books everyone should read.”

Popularity alone is not a reason to read a book, but there is a sense in saying that Christians who wish to engage their culture should be conversant in what the culture is doing and thinking. There was value in reading “The Da Vinci Code” for that reason alone, even though the book itself was nothing more than a page turner with a lot of holes in its thought. People were reading it, and it raised issues about religion and spirituality. The Potter books are also a part of the cultural language, and are an excellent jumping off point into issues very dear to the Christian mind.

While some critics disagree, it seems as though the Potter books have earned a place in English literature to stay. They are well written, carefully thought out and bear up to multiple readings. As with other great works of literature, they have several angles of interpretation, have a lot to say about reality and human existence, and they transcend several genres and themes.

Finally (but not exhaustively), they are a joy to read. Even people who normally do not like “fantasy” books enjoy them because they are not bogged down in the fantasy elements. The world of the Harry Potter books is contemporary and accessible. The plots are tight and well thought out, and yet the characters are developed and grow throughout the series. Some of the characters in the Harry Potter books probably belong on a list of best characters in English literature, ever.

If you have not read these books either from an aversion to the genre or due to the almost fatwa-like pronouncements from “Christian leadership,” give them a shot this summer. If you have read them, it may be time to do so again. Rereading the first on after having read the seventh is a revelation!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Galatians 5:1-12 (Freedom and Slavery)

Christianity in the eyes of the world is a list of rules and regulations, a series of “Thou shall nots.” If nothing else, this is a clear sign that much of Christendom has missed the mark, turned its back on Biblical teaching and become simply another religion.

Biblical Christianity, however, is anything but a religion. Paul continues to stress here in chapter 5, that what Jesus did on the cross was give humanity a chance at freedom. Every single human being, from the time they are born, is a slave; slave to sin, slave to religion, or slave to faulty human reasoning. That being said, every human being is a slave with a choice. Ironically, that choice looks like a choice between self-assertion and remain in slavery or surrender and go free.

The problem is that many “Christians” have missed the Biblical teaching altogether. They think that Christianity is about praying a prayer and adopting a lifestyle defined by rules and doing everything just right enough to earn a ticket into heaven. This is a lie. The true path to a relationship with God is to simply trust Him and live in freedom.

“Wait!” You might say. “Christianity can’t be about doing whatever you want.” That is right in one sense, but legalism is not the answer to Biblical Christian behavior. Here again in Galatians 5 we see Paul’s model of Faith, Hope, and Love. Faith is trusting in God for salvation and to help us turn away from our selfish life of sin. Hope is trusting that God’s future and plan will see us through all the hard times and persecution we face in life. And Love is the governing force in the life of freedom. In all our relationships and interactions with people a Godly love, and not a list of rules, shows us the way to Christian behavior.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

1996 in Film

1996 was a year of many good rewatchable films, but only 3 or 4 that could be considered for even a top 100 list and none that reach a level of “near perfection.” Some of the personal standouts from 1996 include introductions to movie makers that would go on to become favorites: Baz Luhrman, Peter Jackson, and the Coen Brothers had all made movies before, but it wasn’t until their 1996 movies that I went back and found them. It was also the year that the world discovered Gwyneth Paltrow (for those that didn’t notice her in Se7en) and Will Smith began his blockbuster leading man role.

The stand-out movie from 1996, though, might have to be Scream. At first glance it is just another slasher film from the worn out B-movie horror scene, but it was really a Don Quixote style deconstruction of the genre. It was cleverly written, funny and self-aware, and yet scary. Unfortunately, it sparked a revival of slasher films in general that would dominate the nineties.

Top 10 Personal Movies of 1996:
1. Romeo + Juliet
2. Fargo
3. Emma
4. Hamlet
5. Frighteners
6. Star Trek: First Contact
7. Scream
8. Independence Day
9. Mission Impossible
10. The Ghost and the Darkness

Bottom 5 Personal Movies of 1996: (Not the worst, but most disappointing.)
Mars Attacks
Up Close and Personal
Courage Under Fire
Diabolique
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Top Movies I Still Most Want to See:
1. Bottle Rocket
2. Lone Star
3. Secrets and Lies
4. Shine

Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama Observations: or the Private Political Frustration of an American in Europe

My entire life (admittedly much of it spent outside the United States) I have never had a President come to my town. Now that I live in a relatively small German city, I have. Ironic on many levels. When I shared that observation with a German woman last night she remarked, “Well, at least you never had George Bush come to your town. Who would want that?”

It is hard to decide what is worse. In the past, whenever your nationality was discovered, a part of that entailed donning an appropriately sheepish look and semi-apologizing that your country had imposed the evil that was “W” on the world. That is the way he was perceived in Europe at least. OK, maybe he wasn’t “Hitler-evil,” but it was understood… he was evil. Now, when people discover you are American, the first reaction you get is a huge smile and a pat on the back. Suddenly our country has supplied the world with a savior. It is nice to be liked, but one wonders how long the honeymoon phase will last in the world before people realize that not much concrete has changed. The economy has not healed, the perceived climate disaster is still there, and the world is not yet one big happy family.

Regardless, Germans LOVE Obama. Here in Dresden, they are extremely disappointed that they don’t get to see him and touch him while he is here. People drove in from all around to participate in the “Welcome, Mr. President” party, even though he was (A) not even in town yet, (B) not going to make an appearance, and (C) going to remain hunkered within a cordoned off section of downtown closed off to everyone else. People here think of him as one of the “truly great ones.” They all hope he gets to govern long enough to bring about all the changes he needs to. The implied (and sometimes spoken) idea there is that often the “great ones” aren’t allowed to live long; they really do fear the worst.

The frustration is the extremism of opinion. As the most influential nation on earth, we don’t have the luxury of being just another country. It was the same under Bill Clinton. Everyone in the world feels like they should have a say in how America runs its affairs. They really do think they should have had a say in the last American election and, for once, they at least got their way. When it comes to their country and politics, however, America should butt out. Agreed, and it would be nice if that understanding went both ways.

Finally, Bush and Obama are just two men trying to do what they think is right. Neither of them is evil. At most they may be misguided or mistaken. Enough of this “Bush is the devil” and “Obama is the savior,” please!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

One Nineteen

Power greater
Than a strong, strong man,
Greater than a mighty tree,
A hurricane filled,
With tornadoes,
A vast and flowing sea.
Stronger than
The tectonic force,
Lifting the very mountains up.
Beyond the power contained in the universe,
God is exceedingly powerful much.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Knowledge vs. Expertise

There is a real deficit of thought today. Where are the real thinkers? Before the argument is made against this statement, it should be clarified a bit. There are indeed probably more people in the world today that consider themselves thinkers than ever before. The problem is that there aren’t many people who actually discipline themselves to real thinking.

What passes for thinking in today’s world falls mainly into two camps: the vacuous navel-gazers and the puffed up experts.

In the first group are the ones that use the organ between the ears to spout endless information and noise into the world. While it is the product of a brain, it can hardly be considered thought. The difference between these people today and 20 years ago it that today they think they have an audience. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. An endless stream of people largely speaking things they consider to be important or deep into the universe and imagining that someone is benefiting from or inspired by their “thoughts.” This may be the camp that this Blog belongs to.

The Experts are a more dangerous breed. They are the ones who pick an infinitesimally small portion of the knowledge in the universe and become completely versant in it. They indeed can be called experts in their area of…well, expertise. The problem is, after achieving the level of expertise in one area, they think they have developed their thought process enough to weigh in on any and all subjects. Sort of like the successful Hollywood actor waxing eloquent about the global climate or a vote getting politician believing that their canvassing ability also qualifies them to solve the world economic problems.

True thinkers, like the ones in history that are an inspiration to many, had a discipline of thought that followed very precise rules. They did not allow their feelings or desires to rule the way they thought, but rather made sure their mental processes conformed to reality and logic.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Revolt of the Masses

Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote an incredible and somewhat prophetic essay in the late 1920’s entitled “The Revolt of the Masses.” Being an historian and a philosopher, he chronicles the progression and development of European culture through the years (particularly the Nineteenth Century) and predicted that the course Europe was on in the 1920s would lead to chaos and barbarism. It was a matter of months after his work was published that fascism was on the rise in Europe.

The gist of his thought was this: western culture has tended toward the creation of the “Mass Man,” large groups of people who in spite of no great qualification or intellectual ability feel the right and need to determine the direction of a society’s progress. In the past, he argued, democracy meant people choosing qualified and gifted people to run government. Instead, in the Twentieth Century the masses felt that they should make the decisions themselves.

The scary thing about reading Ortega y Gasset today (and this is a reflection on the culture and not just the leaders in power) is that we are in much the same situation, especially in America. The latest election was not about who was best qualified to handle the situation the world is encountering (admittedly neither was), but who would do what the people wanted. Who was going to bring about the indefinable and multifaceted change that the masses of the world were demanding? Have a gander at “The Revolt of the Masses” and see if it isn’t a fair warning.


For those who are less inclined to read translations of 1920’s philosophy, here is a bit more detail to whet your appetite:

“The old democracy was tempered by a generous dose of liberalism and of enthusiasm for law. By serving these principles the individual bound himself to maintain a severe discipline over himself. Under the shelter of liberal principles and the rule of law, minorities could live and act. Democracy and law—life in common under the law—were synonymous. Today we are witnessing the triumphs of a hyperdemocracy in which the mass acts directly, outside the law, imposing its aspirations and its desires by means of material pressure.”
(Note: classic European liberalism means the opposite of what, in the States, is meant by the term.)

“In our time it is the mass-man who dominates, it is he who decides. It will not do to say that this is what happened in the period of democracy, of universal suffrage. Under universal suffrage, the masses do not decide, their role consists in supporting the decision of one minority or other.”

“The “ideas” of the average man are not genuine ideas, nor is their possession culture. Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it. It is no use speaking of ideas when there is no acceptance of a higher authority to regulate them.”

“This is the gravest danger that to-day threatens civilization: State intervention.”


Finally: It seems that English translations of the book are missing some very helpful appendixes, so if you have the opportunity to read a Spanish copy of the book, by all means do so.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Galatians 4:21-31 (A Tale of Two Cities)

Here Paul furthers his Gospel vs. Religion argument making an appeal to an allegory from Scripture. (Allegory being OK when contained in the text itself.) People who trust in religion and legalism are the children of the slave woman, and are thus slaves themselves. The people who simply trust in the promise of God, however, are children of the promise and are heirs, family, and free citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Legalism or Religion is basically the same in all its various forms; from Buddhism to Islam, Catholicism to much of American Bible Bible-Belt Evangelicalism. It presents a set of rules and regulations that, if followed faithfully, will bring about holiness and acceptability before the powers that be. Unfortunately it doesn’t work. Anyone who relies on legalism to “save” or “fulfill” them is a prisoner to the system. If they ever leave the safety of the legalistic “Ghetto,” they will be doomed to lose their “holy” status because they will fall victim to the culture around them. They never were truly holy; they just set up a system of living that avoided temptation and ungodliness.

Instead, Paul says the person who simply trusts on God’s grace for their worthiness is truly made a child of God, a new creature. Instead of following a law or a series of rules, they grow in their relationship with God, and as they become more like Him they learn to be satisfied in Him. They no longer feel the need to seek fulfillment in society or the culture around them. They learn to see the world the way God does. They see the emptiness of worldly thinking and see people in need of the same love that they have found.

This understanding is the answer that a lot of well-intentioned legalists out there are looking for. Instead of sending naïve high school graduates out to college to be devoured by the wolves of Western culture, they could send out wise Christians who could change the culture. Instead of seeking to make legalism appealing to a hedonistic culture, they could offer true answers to the questions people are asking.
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