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The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

| 11.12.03
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson

In yet another re-read of a somewhat sentimental holiday story I enjoyed as a child, I was surprised to find more poignancy and a surprising spirituality underneath the surface story of a small-church Christmas pageant starring the most disruptive family in the town. Below this Norman Rockwell facade lay themes of children versus bullies, conventional families versus single-parent families, and conventional wisdom versus subversive alternative wisdom. In a surprising ending, these opposites are transcended in a Christmas miracle that is sentimental yet moving, reflecting the true spirit of the Christmas season.

Originally written in 1972 as a short story for McCalls magazine entitled "The Christmas Pageant," this funny and entertaining story features the Herdmans --a dysfunctional family that could have been the prototype for "The Simpsons," only worse. Father Herdman abandoned the kids while they were very young for a life on the road. Mother Herdman neglected her children for double-shifts at a factory job. The children end up raising each other and generally running amok while the town looks on judgmentally with a kind of disaffected "tsk-tsk" attitude.

The story is told in the first person from the point of view of an un-named pre-adolescent girl whose mother has been thrust into the role of putting on the annual church Christmas pageant. Coming from a two-parent family with a stay-at-home mom, she is quick to point out the differences between her family and the Herdmans. Yet there is also a wise reflective quality to this young girl which allows her to see injustice in the way that some of the townspeople react to the Herdman's, especially when they decide they want to participate in the Christmas pageant.

Normally the pageant is a sleepy affair featuring the pastor's son as Joseph, prissy perfectionist Alice Wendleken as the Virgin Mary, and various children in bathrobes of all ages (I'll leave it to you to decide whether I'm referring to children or bathrobes here). This year, however, wild child Imogene Herdman is playing the role of Mary, and everyone in town shows up to enjoy the hilarity of what is sure to be the worst Christmas pageant ever.

The Christmas pageant is a story about transformation, however. What started out funny turns serious, and what seems a travesty becomes a treasure. The Christ Child was born in a barn, transforming it into a temple. God became human, redeeming all humanity. And it is in Imogene Herdman's transformation from a cigar smoking, free swearing, rebellious youth to the visible means by which invisible grace is revealed that this short book reaches it's climax. By the end of the pageant everyone learns that the last are first and the first are last in the topsy-turvy Kingdom of Heaven, and it is indeed the Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

PUBLISHER: Harper & Row Publishers, New York. 1972.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

| 4.12.03
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl

Once again I revisited a book I enjoyed as a child, and once again it was well worth the visit. This time my wife and I read Roald Dahl's scrumptious story to our three-year-old, in anticipation of visiting Marshall Fields "Annual Animated Holiday Display". That was a bit of a stretch, even for our very bright three-year-old. (Doesn't every parent think their child is the best and the brightest?) Yet she was able to glean enough of the basic plot for our visit to the display to be fun and meaningful. The story is simple yet whimsical, candy-coated yet splashed with darkness --possessed with an outlandish fairy-tale quality that is sure to appeal to and perhaps frighten young children. Yet these very qualities make the story fun and exciting.

Charlie Bucket is a boy from a poor family. The only candy Charlie ever gets to eat is a single chocolate bar on his birthday. Every day he must walk past famous Willy Wonka's chocolate factory on his way to and from school, tempted by the wonderful aromas that emanates through the factory gates. As winter progresses the family's economic conditions grow worse as Charlie's father loses his low-paying job screwing caps on toothpaste tubes. As the family begins to starve, Charlie wins Willy Wonka's contest and is among only four other children that get to tour Wonka's never before seen chocolate factory. The other children are all horribly spoiled and mis-behaved in one way or another, and like a children's version of "Survivor," they are eliminated one by one until only Charlie --a very good and well-behaved child-- is left. And then.... well...I won't spoil the ending, but suffice it to say good behavior is rewarded just as bad behavior is punished.

It seems unusual and delightful that such a fun book would also carry such a harsh subtext about spoiled children and the parents who spoil them. The story pulls no punches here, but it's all presented in a fun enough way as to not seem preachy at all --although if you see yourself in the parents or the children Dahl's indictment may sting a little. The whimsical Oompa-Loompas play the role of an ancient greek chorus, driving the thematic points home hard.

This edition was illustrated by Quentin Blake --I don't believe he was the illustrator of the original 1964 edition that I read as a child. While I don't remember much about the original illustrations, Blake's artwork seems to fit the text very well. Blake's art is also the basis of the Marshall Field's display.

PUBLISHER: Puffin; (January 2002); ISBN: 0141301155

A Gay Bishop is Faithful

| 28.10.03
'A Gay Bishop is Faithful', by John P. Streit, Jr.

The recent conflict in the Episcopal Church over the election of a gay bishop is in part a result of sharp differences in how the Bible is understood and applied to contemporary culture. What is often lost in the din of loud and rancorous debate, however, is the fact that both sides of this debate are acting out of deeply held, scriptural convictions.

Yes, I do say scriptural. And yes, I do say both sides. I think this is not always obvious for two reasons. One, the conservative side of the debate likes to accuse the liberal side of not being scriptural. Two, the liberal side of the debate often frames their arguments in terms of social justice, human rights, and other categories that transcend purely religious categories. So it may not always be clear that the motivations flow from, as Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold put it shortly after the vote, "an authentic way of reading Scripture."

In this sermon, preached in September 2003 after General Convention, Streit delivers a positive theology that explains and undergirds the changing times we live in. While God is unchanging, Streit maintains that the Bible as a whole tells the story of gradually changing understandings of how God's will is to be acted out in the world.

Citing examples from the New Testament and Christian history, Streit uses the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, Peter and Paul's debates over the role of Jewish purity laws for Gentile converts, and nineteenth century Christian abolitionists to paint a picture of Christian history that progressively lowers barriers and roadblocks to full inclusion within God's kingdom.

What made this sermon noteworthy for me was that, unlike so much theological work done regarding homosexuality which focuses on tearing down six or seven scattered texts throughout the Bible that seem to prohibit same-sex sexual activity in very specific contexts, Streit builds up a much more positive view of God's work through all of history and creation drawing on the same biblical foundation.

LINKS: http://www.stpaulboston.org/Sermon%202.htm

I Feel Sorry for Jesus

| 19.10.03
'I feel sorry for Jesus', by Naomi Shihab Nye

I ran across this poem in the October issue of The Christian Century, and was delighted to see that it was also available online. Two things viscerally grabbed me about this poem.

First, the dangers of "talking for Jesus," which seem so obvious. I see it more as an indictment of theological and ideological certainty, or an over-association of one's own agenda with what one perceives as Jesus' agenda. We've all either known people or been people who wanted to be "His Special Pet," or missed the heart of the gospel in favor of the "pomp" and "golden chandeliers."

Secondly, and more importantly, it was the last line "You won't hear me talk about this again" that seemed the most arresting, all the more powerful for it's paradoxical relationship with the rest of the poem. In the earlier verses, Nye illustrates those who appropriate Jesus wrongly, then falls into the error herself. Yet the path to truth for Nye is not about talking for Jesus, but following in Jesus' footsteps. By standing in the spot where Jesus was born and by making "every twist" of the Way be "written on [her] skin," Nye experiences a truth beyond ideology, and beyond words.

One major commonality of the "appropriators," from my perspective, is that they not only talk for Jesus, but talk endlessly. Conventional wisdom seems to be that if something is important it needs to be mentioned often. But by saying "You won't hear me talk about this again" Nye draws attention to the need for silence as part of spiritual practice --both to hear what others have to say and to hear what Jesus has to say. She also subverts conventional wisdom by suggesting that the truly important things aren't mentioned often and have to be keenly sought out or listened for in order to be heard and understood.

PUBLISHER: "I Feel Sorry for Jesus" first appeared in Antioch Review (Spring 1998.) I first read it in the October 8, 2003 issue of the Christian Century.
LINK: http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m1058/21_120/110361288/p1/article.jhtml

Watership Down

| 24.9.03
Watership Down, by Richard Adams

I seldom re-read a book. There are still fewer books that I enjoyed as a teenager, yet still enjoy as an adult. Watership Down is one of those few. Written in 1972 by Richard Adams, this tale about a group of rabbits searching for a new home in the English countryside can rightly be considered a modern classic. It has been made into a feature film, a short lived animated television series, and an anthology of short stories based around the same characters.

I normally dislike books about animals, but in Watership Down Adams transcends the genre by doing what all great authors do --he makes the reader care about the characters and their dilemma passionately. The fact that the characters in this case are rabbits makes his artistry all the more amazing. While the book weighs in at a hefty 426 pages, Adams does not waste words. Everything contributes towards creating a credible, multi-layered physical, emotional, linguistic, and mythical world through which the rabbits live and move and have their being.

Others have compared Watership Down to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and I think it's a very apt comparison. Both authors create fantastic worlds that seem vividly real to the reader. Both contain a strong sense of the struggle between good and evil. Both worlds contain a fair share of violence. Additionally, I consider the universe created by Richard Adams in this novel as "Middle Earth in microcosm." While Tolkien's fantasy landscape spanned thousands of leagues, Adams' setting is a real English countryside spanning only a few miles. A map near the beginning of the novel shows the rabbits' entire world comprising only a ten mile by six mile square.

Imagine life as a rabbit. The sun shines overhead as you feed on the sweet grass of the meadow. Yet there is a rigid social hierarchy in the burrow you share with your fellow rabbits. Population pressure, and a sense of impending doom encourage you to leave, but you're small, defenseless, and a thousand different species hunt you as prey. How would you cope with such a situation? What stories would you tell to make sense of the world you live in? What comforts would you seek, and what solutions would you find? Adams answers these questions poetically through this novel, and one can't help but draw parallels with the human condition.

I found two things especially compelling about the social world inhabited by the rabbits. First, it's remarkably similar to our own. Secondly, it's under-girded by a spirituality that explains life and gives it meaning. While the myths and the meanings are not exactly like the ones humans have found, they are nonetheless credible and satisfying. The rabbits tell each other sacred stories as they travel and struggle, providing variety to the novel and deepening our understanding of the rabbit's worldview. The infusion of spiritual meaning helps the reader identify with the rabbits on yet another level.

PUBLISHER: Maximillan Publishing Co., Inc; New York; 1972; ISBN: 0-02-700030-3


| 28.8.03
Sarah: Women of Genesis, by Orson Scott Card

Sarah is the first book in what promises to be a great series of novels about the women of Genesis. As of this writing I know that a second book, Rebekah, is already out in paperback, and there may be more stories in hardcover. In any event, Sarah stands on its own as a fine piece of story-telling about the wife of a great biblical patriarch --illustrating the oft-neglected significance of the women in the Bible. Sarah is a helpful corrective to this tendency, showing her partnership with Abraham in a plausible, imaginative and meaningful way while still respecting the outlines of scripture.

Based on texts from Genesis 11-23, the Book of Abraham in The Pearl of Great Price, plus Orson Scott Card's historical research and unique interpretation of early biblical history, this book is a page-turner. I've read Card's science fiction, fantasy, mainstream novels, and now religious fiction. In every genre he is a powerful storyteller, creating characters that are vibrant, believable, and interesting. Sarah is no exception in this regard. She's depicted by Card as a strong, passionate woman whose relationships with husband Abraham and (for the purposes of the novel) sister Q'ira (Lot's wife) form a gripping dynamic that drives the plot forward from Ur-of-the-North, through Egypt, and finally to the Promised Land.

One very useful part of the novel, for those who are worried about what is true and what is made up in historical fiction, is the author's afterword at the end of the book. Here Orson Scott Card cites a partial bibliography, and discusses the historical and artistic choices he made in the telling of his tale. Be warned though --many people I have discussed this book with were so spellbound by the storytelling that they felt let-down reading the afterword. The novel is such a seamless piece of narrative that they didn't enjoy the illusion getting shattered --to a certain extent-- in the afterword as the author fully disclosed his options, choices, and justifications for telling the story the way he did. As one who enjoys deconstructing texts, however, I found the afterword to be a rare treat.

I didn't always agree with the author's interpretive choices. I felt he was purposely harsh in his depiction of Hagar and Ishmael in order to protect Sarah's reputation near the end of the story. Card also sets the time period for Abraham and Sarah as contemporary with the height of Sumerian culture --a choice I feel is centuries too early. Finally, he depicts the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as divine punishment for homosexual acts, whereas I believe that biblical passage is a story about violence, gang rape, and important cultural codes of hospitality. Lot's home town plays a relatively minor role in the novel, however, and setting the action earlier in history than is the scholarly consensus allows Card to explore a fascinating interplay between the religion of the pharaohs, Ur-of-the-North, and Abraham's God.

Quibbles aside, Sarah is a gripping, readable novel that will have you up all night finishing it and tired the next day at work. I heartily recommend it, and am looking forward to future novels in the Women of Genesis series.

PUBLISHER: Shadow Mountain, 2000; ISBN: 1-57008-994-9 (Hardcover Edition)

Hang Six

| 21.8.03
'Hang Six', by Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook's goal in this short article is to suggest a way out of the cultural and political impasse posed by those conservatives who favor monuments to the Ten Commandments in public buildings by appealing to six moral and ethical precepts upon which there is cross-cultural agreement --contained within the commandments.

What really grabbed me about this article though, is Easterbrooks' assertion that Jesus radically revised the Ten Commandments, trimming them down to six. I know that Jesus summarized the Hebrew law in the saying, "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. . . you shall [also] love your neighbor as yourself." (Mark 12.29-31 NRSV)

Easterbrook asserts something novel, however, stating that Jesus gutted the Ten Commandments, reinforcing only the ones that pertain to universal, cross-cultural ethical and moral norms. His main evidence is the story of the young man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life from Matthew 19:16-19. (parallel list also found in Mark 10:17-23) Jesus' answers here list only six precepts --"the ones concerning morality, love, and good character."

Part of Easterbrook's argument is from silence. He says that you must hear what Jesus does not say as much as what he does say. However, I do believe the Gospel author is intentional in his choice of words, and I must confront the fact that the passage appears in the same form in both Mark (the earliest Gospel) and Matthew --implying that it is something early and important in the emerging Jesus tradition.

I wouldn't mind seeing some footnotes, or at least some indication that Easterbrook is relating a theological take on the passage that doesn't just originate with him, so that an interested reader can do some additional research into what was for me a very thought-provoking idea. His conspiracy theory take on why denominations don't like to emphasize what for Easterbrook are Jesus' "anti-religious sayings" doesn't inspire confidence either.

Still, I find the idea intriguing.

PUBLISHER: Beliefnet, 2003
(source: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/117/story_11719.html)

What Paul Really Said about Women

| 14.8.03
'What Paul Really Said About Women', by John T. Bristow

Here is an argument I haven't seen before. I guess you could say it amounts to a hard-core biblical literalist argument for equality of the sexes in Paul's epistles. The author of this book (which is excerpted in the Beliefnet article I read) goes back to the original Greek of Ephesians 5:21-33 and other texts in almost excruciating detail, arguing that if Paul had really meant what we mean by such English words as "submit," and "head of," he would have picked other, more accurate Greek words that more exactly render his meaning. Instead, Paul chooses words that are more accurately interpreted as suggesting equality and mutuality in relationships between husbands and wives.

According to this author, Paul is arguing for something radically different than Aristotle's philosophy, which was popular in Hellenistic times and would have mandated that women are inferior to men. In fact, Paul may be giving traditional Aristotelian-ism a subversive Gospel-twist --showing his genius in turning the dominant philosophy of his age into something he could use to spread his own message.

Beyond the issue of equality, however, I think this book is the perfect illustration of how what we bring to the text determines our reading of it. If you're expecting Paul to be sexist, it's not hard to find sexism in his letters. If you expect equality to be God's truth for humanity, you will find radical equality in the New Testament. While some may find this observation to be disturbing, I find it to be a compelling reason for why the Bible has endured as a source of meaning and values for people throughout the ages.

PUBLISHER: Harper San Francisco; Reprint edition (March 1991); ISBN: 0060610638
(source: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/130/story_13009.html)

Reflections on General Convention

| 10.8.03
Reflections on General Convention 2003, an original essay

Well, it's over. Another General Convention of the Episcopal Church is done. With the confirmation of the first openly gay bishop in a mainline Christian denomination, and the dis-approval of liturgies for same-sex unions, we as Episcopalians have taken a step in a new direction on one front while acknowledging ambiguity on another --and all the consequences, intended and unintended, won't be known for some time to come.

As one who has agreed in principle that gays and lesbians' committed, monogamous sexual relationships should be recognized by the church on an equal footing as comparable relationships between heterosexuals, I still feel a lot of ambivalence about the twin decisions made by the Convention. No small matter is the seeming contradiction between allowing an openly gay man be a bishop, yet rejecting a liturgy to bless unions between gay people! I'm also concerned about the unity of the Anglican Communion, and how troubling this must look to those fellow Christians outside of Anglicanism for whom the Bible clearly prohibits same-sex sexual acts.

Despite the historic decisions on the part of the Convention, the decision was far from unanimous. Attending services this morning at my own mostly conservative parish, a feeling of sadness was palpable in the air as people mourned a church which to them has fallen into serious doctrinal error. One thing General Convention failed to do was promote a theological rationale for its decision. As with the ordination of women in the 1970s, once again General Convention has seemingly let their actions precede their theology on this matter. This seeming lack of concern has saddened and angered conservatives within the Episcopal church, and must totally bewilder those outside the Anglican tradition.

As for my own views --key to understanding the theological divide is the way the Bible is understood. Ever since Martin Luther broke from the medieval Catholic church with the cry of "Sola Scriptura," or "Scripture Alone" most protestants have believed that God's truth could be obtained through reading the Bible for oneself and comprehending it's most obvious meaning. Luther believed that if everyone could read the Bible for themselves, they'd come to the same obvious conclusions he did. They didn't, and now we have thousands of Christian denominations. Yet most protestants believe that there is an obvious meaning to the Bible, and it's a matter of either understanding it correctly or incorrectly.

For Anglicans discerning God's truth is more complicated. We believe that God's truth comes to us through Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. These three things don't stand alone and against one another, as if you could poll them on any given issue, and get a 2-1 split decision. Like the Trinity, they are three-in-one and one-in-three. They cannot be divided, and they complement and inform one another.

I see this triad as a way of acknowledging that no one can just sit down and read the Bible and get truth directly from it. The truth that one gets from the Bible (Scripture) is influenced by how one has been taught about the Bible by their parents and their church (Tradition), as well as one's life experience, knowledge of science, history, and the worldview they bring to the text (all aspects of Reason.) Going further, the knowledge gained from Reason and Tradition can open up some possibilities for interpreting Scripture, while closing other paths as unacceptable. Likewise, Scriptural ethics can inform what we do with our Reason and how we shape our Tradition.

Applying this schema to same-sex unions goes like this --at least for me it does. I start by looking at the world around me --a world in which I see equal amounts of promiscuity, brokenness, struggle, faithfulness, love, monogamy, and commitment from both heterosexuals and homosexuals. My Christian upbringing tells me that faithfulness, love, monogamy, and commitment are positive values, but it also points me to seven or eight verses scattered throughout the Bible that seem to condemn homosexual acts. Yet when I read these passages closely and carefully in their contexts, noting the kind of people they describe, it doesn't match up very well with what I see around me today. Moreover, I see other issues in these same passages that don't seem to have anything to do with the homosexual people I know. So I take all these varying sources and attempt to synthesize out of them a course of action or an ethic that is as faithful as possible to the Scriptures, Tradition, and Reason.

It can get messy. Complicated. Confusing. Scary. Sometimes I really have my doubts that we're doing the right thing. Sometimes I think we're doing the right thing, but in the wrong way. But I truly believe that this process tries to make the best use of all the gifts God has given us to discern truth, and do right by ourselves, our God, and our neighbor.

PUBLISHER: Tomte, 2003

Paul on Sexuality

| 5.8.03
'The Apostle Paul On Sexuality', by Neil Elliot

This insightful article stands out from among many I've read that attempt to refute traditional church views of homosexuality. Unlike some whose agenda is merely to deconstruct traditional theology, this article provides a compelling, meaningful, and relevant alternative reading of Paul's letter to the Romans --especially Romans 1:24-27.

Elliot challenges us to consider that we are reading our own prejudices in the text when we make Romans be about homosexuality. First, he examines some of the popular ways theologians have treated this text in the past, noting that "importing" Jews as Paul's original audience doesn't make sense, nor does claiming Paul used stereotypes and exaggeration to make his points do Paul much credit. Instead, Elliot shows that within the context of the first Century Roman empire, Paul's insightful words are a biting critique of the excesses of Empire, and Romans 1:24-27 would have been immediately recognizable to a first century reader as describing the idolatry and excesses of Nero, Caligula, and others in the Imperial family.

Elliot ends with this quote, which not only sums up his position elegantly, but gives us hard questions to ask ourselves about the applicability of this text for us today:

The challenge we face, I believe, is to get beyond our own cultural and sexual prejudices and to hear what Paul has to say. As we ask about the ways our lives are corrupted by imperial culture — by any culture where power over people is the highest value — we begin to understand the true challenge of Paul’s letter: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:2).

PUBLISHER: The Witness Magazine, July/August 2003. Volume 86.

(source: http://thewitness.org/agw/elliott071203.html)

The Reinvented Church

| 3.8.03
'The Reinvented Church: Styles and Strategies,' by Donald E. Miller

A few things struck me about this article. I was very impressed that someone whose own personal spirituality is so far away from that of the "new paradigm" churches would write such a glowing report on them. I would have expected all harsh criticism, especially of the way that the Bible is interpreted in such churches. Instead you get the image of someone really struck by the way that God is experientially real in these churches.

In my own experience I've found that mainline denominations are borrowing what works from the "new paradigm pattern and applying it to their own congregations. The last time my wife and I went church shopping, we found numerous Lutheran and other churches who incorporate small cell groups, contemporary Christian music, etc, and mix them into their own worship experience. So in that sense some of what Miller is calling for has already happened.

Spiritual experience. Personally, I'm at the point where I don't just want to read about God in the Bible or elsewhere, I want to experience God. The "new paradigm churches" as presented in the article struck a chord with me because experience seems to be a major theme there.

Miller seems to imply that the weakness of "new paradigm churches" is the same as their strength. Because they identify with the popular culture to a certain extent, they are blind to some of the excesses rational materialism has brought us.

I think its an interesting phenomenon because consumerism and capitalism (at least the forces of the free market economics) are major American values, and now we can see how those values have impacted everything, even down to our choice in faith communities and how we look at our relationship with God. Moreover, these assumptions are so taken for granted that almost no church in the land is left untouched.

PUBLISHER: The Christian Century, December 22-29, 1999

(source: http://www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearchd.dll/showarticle?item_id=1519)

Restoring a Damaged Faith

'Restoring a Damaged Faith,' by Mary Tuomi Hammond

After reading this fascinating article about people who grew up in a churchgoing tradition only to leave it as adults because of the abuse they suffered within organized religion, I'm starting to realize that it's a much more serious issue for myself and others than I'd previously let myself imagine.

I come from the perspective of someone who has been in the church all my life. Unlike many, I've tried many different forms of Christianity, because I've always been looking for something from church that I've never quite found. Despite a regular history of church attendance, the church has, to varying degrees always disappointed me. To varying extents I've always felt like an outsider.

As I look back on it, what I've been looking for is twofold: 1) I'm looking for worship through which I can experience God (something where I perceive myself as being connected with God), and 2) I'm looking for a safe environment in which I can undertake spiritual exploration with others.

In my experience, I can find number 1. That's probably what keeps me in the church. However the church stinks at number 2. I think the problem is that the church only provides a "safe" environment on its own terms, and woe be unto those who don't meet those terms!

Here are some example "terms," from a church that I attended in the past. This church would only provide a safe environment for spiritual exploration with others if you fall into or agree with the superiority of these categories, and the extent that you step outside these categories is the extent that you are labeled, ostracized, held suspect, and encouraged to leave:

White, Straight, Biblically-inerrant, (male) Authority-driven, Capitalist

In the church I attend now, I've exchanged these terms for a somewhat different list of terms:

Gentile, Straight, Evangelical, Volunteer-driven, Sacramental

While before I would have congratulated myself on finding a place that had terms within which I could explore my faith while avoiding the wrath of my peers within the church, after reading the article on a damaged faith I'm realizing what a dismal vision of church this really is.

Is it healthy to have any sort of terms or conditions like these? I don't think so. On the one hand it's a straight-jacket for people like me who are within the church --I'm confined to only exploring my faith in community within this box. If I hear God calling me outside this box (a call I have heard already with regards to evangelicalism) I'd better not act on it in the church, or talk about it with anyone in the church, or I'm just asking to be spiritually abused.

On the other hand, these categories are even more of an insult to people who fall outside them --the church is saying, by the existence of these categories, that it has already pre-decided that anything that lays outside them --including people-- is not worthy of respect, or contains anything of value that could enrich the church.

I don't think that the church actually believes that it is abusing anyone, but through the use of standards of inclusion and exclusion abuse is taking place. The church needs to wake up and recognize what it's doing before any healing can begin to take place. I don't think Mary Tuomi Hammond goes far enough when she seems to imply that using a few different words (like "reconciled to God" instead of "saved," and "sharing one's faith" instead of "witnessing") is going to stop people from experiencing hurt in the organized church.

Maybe we need a church where the only criteria for taking the faith journey is the desire to take the faith journey, trusting God to take care of the rest, and not worrying about what ground we may cover or what boundaries we might cross along the way.

PUBLISHER: The Other Side, May-June 2000, Vol. 36, No. 3.

(source: http://www.theotherside.org/archive/may-jun00/hammond.html)

Stories to Live By

| 31.7.03
'Stories to Live By: Reading the Bible in the new millennium,' by Ched Myers

In this thought provoking piece, Ched Myers boils down what is most useful in the post-modern approach to biblical study and summarizes it in succint, concrete terms that are easy to understand --even if you aren't as interested in theology as I am.

Central to the article is the notion that the Christian community needs to be more open and honest about discussing different interpretations of the Bible. It's a struggle to make the text make sense in our lives, and a challenge to be more faithful about living out our interpretations.

According to Myers, biblical interpretation should be done primarily from the grassroots on up, not like the present model of looking to specialized experts and clergy to tell us what the Bible means. While this could be taken as a kind of anti-intellectualism and anti-clericalism, I don't think Myers intends this. He means to free us to make the Bible live as a radical document for social and personal transformation.

While I think that reading the research of biblical scholars with different interpretive lenses can certainly aid in our understanding of the Bible, I also have a big populist streak in me that says that this is OUR book and we should be free to be inspired in our interpretation of it and creative in how we apply it to our lives.

PUBLISHER: Stores to Live By. Ched Myers. Sojourners Magazine, March-April 2000 (Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 32).

(Source: http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0003&article=000313)

Good Grief

| 23.7.03
'Good Grief: An Undertaker's Reflections,' by Thomas Lynch

I have found that my notion of what existence after death must be like has been greatly affected by what seems most desirable or unattainable in the present. When I was in college and seeking estatic religious experiences (attending a charasmatic church) I envisioned heaven to be one eternal "praise and worship" session. Later, as I became interested in more contemplative approaches to spirituality, I became attracted to the notion that my individual ego would dissapate and peacefully dissolve into the Divine. I still like that image. Most recently --perhaps over-tired from chasing after a two-year-old-- the biblical image of sleeping in the grave until the end of the age (see 1 Corinthans 15:51) sounds very inviting.

Interestingly enough, all of these visions of the afterdeath (except perhaps for the last one) care little about the physical body. It's seen as merely a shell, unimportant to both the deceased and to those left behind. Often it seems unsightly, embarrassing, and even a little uncomfortabe to come face-to-face with a corpse. When is the last time you've been to an open-casket funeral? With cremation and other creative options becoming ever more popular, often the "memorial service" won't feature the deceased at all.

It is precisely this "shell game" that Thomas Lynch, funeral director and author of The Undertaking: Bodies in Motion and Still Life in Milford argues passionately against in 'Good Grief: An Undertaker's Reflections.' Lynch's thesis --cogently backed up by Christian tradition and scripture-- is that how we treat the dead is part of the social fabric of our dealings with the living. If St. Paul could write so eloquently of our spirts, and call our bodies a "temple of God," should we not treat the corpse with respect also?

Perhaps most provocative is Lynch's view that funerals are better when the corpse is present, because it helps the mourners come to terms with both the physical separation of death as well as the spiritual questions death raises. "The funeral --that ritual wheel that works the space between the living and the dead-- must deal with our humanity and our Christianity, our spiritual and natural realities, our flesh, our fears, and our faith and hopes, our bodies and our souls." (p. 22)

Of course, like many I'm highly interested in what medical science can do to extend the human lifespan --maybe I'll live to be 100! Even if near immortality is achieved, however, accidents will still happen and everyone will die sooner or later. Lynch's critique of contemporary atittudes towards death and dying raises important questions about how to die a "good death."

PUBLISHER: The Christian Century, pp 20-23. July 26, 2003 issue. ISSN: 0009-5281
LINKS: http://www.christiancentury.org

Grace @ Work

| 9.7.03
Grace @ Work, third edition. Ellie Byrd, editor.

Grace @ Work is a collection of faith stories told by the members of High Tech Ministries, an Atlanta-based group of computer professionals whose purpose is, according to publisher Gregg Hinthorn, "for you to come to know Jesus, His unconditional love, His total forgiveness and the abundant life He promises all who believe in Him." (p. 8) What follows in this short book are personal vignettes told from an evangelical Christian perspective --stories told to inspire faith. I read this book looking for both "the center" and "the margins." By "the center" I mean: What are the themes that emerge over and over again in these stories? By "the margins" I mean: How do these people see faith differently from each other?

"The center" of these stories can be characterized by an unshakeable confidence that God will intervene to help the faithful --even for something as small as a lost program guide. (p. 9) Another writer finds an old soft drink bottle with two coins inside and hears the Spirit whisper, "If I can put money in a bottle, you do not have to worry about your future financial security." (p. 23) Work plays a major role in the lives of these writers, and so it is no surprise to see a very practical, results-oriented approach to God emerge. A subtext that repeats itself time and time again is the idea that if one can "let go" and give God total control of one's life, many emotional and material blessings will result. The Bible is seen like a business manual that can provide specific answers to specific questions. ". . . this project was extremely stressful. . . It was then that I turned to the Bible for an answer, and found Philippians 4:6, 'Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. . .'" (p. 35)

I found "the margins" much more interesting than "the center." These writers seemed to focus more on personal transformation than miracles or financial success. An internet security systems expert, struggling to network after her company went bankrupt, writes that surrendering to God means "actively seek[ing] Him in every person you meet and in every situation you encounter." (p. 14) Another writer, this time a CEO of a software firm, sees his own suffering during an economic downturn as character building, helping him open up to his employees and frankly discuss "concerns, fears, and uncertainties with the business." (p. 18) Another, while drawing satisfaction from his job, tells of how he has learned that serving others as a career counselor volunteer is what "leaves me hungry for more." (p. 44)

On my own personal note, Grace @ Work represents the first time someone has mailed me a book to read. I read books and write this blog because I love to read, and think about what I've read. I'm usually pretty choosy about what I'll read. Typically if someone recommends a book I'll just nod and ignore them, because most of the time when people recommend books they are making a statement about what they like to read --not what I like to read. Still, free stuff has a big draw for me. :-) So I've decided that I'll read any book that someone is willing to give me.

PUBLISHER: Hinthorn Custom Media Solutions; 2002; No ISBN

Not a Drop to Drink

| 8.7.03
'Not A Drop To Drink,' by Grey Rollins

Grey Rollins' 16 page short story 'Not A Drop To Drink' examines group dynamics, mob rule, and the violence associated with religious fundamentalism within the context of a classic "hard SF" short story. The premise is simple: Colonists stuck on a world with little fresh water debate dwindling alternatives to ensure their survival. After discarding other options which have proven ineffective, scientist Lalo Helsink makes a daring proposal: genetically engineer the children to have salt glands so that they can drink the abundant seawater found on the planet. Without this modification the colony's needs will outstrip the fresh water supply in a matter of years, ensuring death.

While most are uneasy with such a draconian solution, it is seen as the only alternative to certain death. Not so for Agnes Beeson, leader of a Christian prayer group in the colony. She and her followers believe that God is punishing the colony for lack of faith, and if they pray hard enough rain will come. She believes that genetic tinkering on humans is an abomination --displaying lack of faith in God's design when God created humans.

With the colony still ambivalent, the plan goes forward and the first generation of "salties" --children with salt tracks that stem from their eyes to rid their bodies of excess salt-- is born. Beeson will not be stopped, however, and soon acts of vandalism against Helsink and the parents of the "salties" erupt in the colony. These violent acts finally culminate in a fire that consumes eight houses and kills two adults. The story ends as Helsink and the families leave the colony. Although they lack resources and are in the minority, their future seems hopeful because --through more genetic engineering in order to avoid inbreeding-- they can still reproduce in large enough numbers to establish a viable colony.

This story raised two questions for me. First, when religious fundamentalism gains power, is violence inevitable? If one is merely talking about Christian or Muslim conservatives who believe they take the Bible or Qur'an literally --I don't think that alone is enough to guarantee a violent sect. Historically there have been textual literalists who also included an ethic of non-violence in their belief systems --finding the justification for non-violence in the very texts they attempt to follow so scrupulously. I see the defining characteristic of fundamentalism as the tendency to demonize the other. When one's ethical system encourages one to see evil as an external force resident in some other group, instead of recognizing the evil that lurks within --or seeing God as Other-- it's easy to legitimize violence against groups that are different in any way.

Secondly, is it moral to genetically engineer human beings? Many in contemporary Western society draw a distinction between reproductive cloning (which they see as "playing God" with the process that leads to birth) and therapeutic cloning or gene therapies (which they see as helpful medicine.) For me 'Not a Drop to Drink' exposes some of the flaws in this kind of thinking by showing that actually changing the human genome is far more radical than using the technology to simply make a copy of another human being, flaws and all. I tend to see using genetic technology to help infertile couples --or perhaps help gay and lesbian couples pass on their genes-- as a relatively benign use of the technology. Adding and subtracting things to human genes seems more provocative, raising questions about the extent to which our genes make us human, and the boundaries of what can be considered human at all.

PUBLISHER: July/August 2003 issue of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact (Astounding). Pages 100-118. Dell Magazines. New York. ISSN: 1059-2113.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

| 7.7.03
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling

I read J.K. Rowling's fifth Harry Potter book wondering how she would be able to keep my interest again. After all, the basic outline of the story always seems to be the same. Harry is miserable at the Dursleys. Harry gets spirited away to Hogwarts. Harry struggles against Snape, Malfoy, and difficult class assignments. Somehow Gryffindor wins the Quidditch cup. (Have they ever lost the cup? Don't the other houses ever get depressed about this?) Somewhere Voldemort enters the picture, Harry fights him, and the school year ends triumphantly.

While Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix does follow this basic structure, Rowling has taken her development of the characters to new levels of sophistication. Harry is fifteen years old now, and as a boy in his mid-teens he struggles with issues of identity, love, and family in this novel. For the first time I can recall in a Harry Potter novel, we're left at the end with our hero seriously questioning himself. If Harry has seemed like a superhero (or at least like a somewhat arrogant, know-it-all teenager) in previous installments, this time Harry makes some real mistakes, and will have to grapple with the consequences of those actions (hopefully in future books.)

This new depth and sophistication is not just limited to Harry. In Order of the Phoenix we learn more about the imperfections of many of the major characters. We read Dumbledore candidly recounting the mistakes he's made with Harry. We finally learn why Snape hates Harry so much. We learn more about Harry's parents, and about Sirius Black.

While I was reading this novel, I also stumbled across an essay on-line called "Steal this Essay" I was very intrigued by the points this author makes in his blog, especially in light of Harry Potter. I did a quick search on the file-sharing networks, and found that all five of the Harry Potter novels are available for download. I searched mere days after the novel's release, and there it was, free for the taking.

While the Harry Potter novels have made J.K. Rowling richer than the queen of England herself, I couldn't help but wonder what the future of intellectual property is when anyone who wants a copy can have one. There are still some technical hurdles to be overcome before novelists really have something to fear. People still don't want to be chained to their computers to read a book, even if they don't have to pay for it. PDAs have not become ubiquitous enough to pose a threat either. But the day does seem to be coming when either electronic content and online behavior will need to be monitored by a police state at unprecedented levels, or a new revenue model for all the intellectual property industries will need to be devised --one that ensure the author compensation while minimizing the incentives to copy.

KEYWORDS: Fantasy, children, series, magic, intellectual property
PUBLISHER: Scholastic; (June 21, 2003); ISBN: 043935806X

The Phantom Menace

| 6.7.03
Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace, adapted by Henry Gilroy (based on screenplay by George Lucas), art by Rodolfo DaMaggio.

I found this graphic novel again when I was reorganizing some bookshelves in my bedroom last week. I purchased it on the eve of the movie's premiere back in the fall of 1999. Unable to wait to see the movie, this is one of the few times that I indulged in a huge spoiler. The original Star Wars trilogy was probably my most significant movie experience as a child. The very first movie I ever remember seeing was as a six or seven year old, accompanying my parents to the drive-in to see the original Star Wars movie in 1977. Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace is also the first graphic novel I'd ever purchased.

I was expecting to get a major nostalgia fix with the second set of films, which so far have not met my expectations. That isn't to say that they haven't been entertaining --and maybe such high expectations are impossible to fulfill. In retrospect I think I might have enjoyed the film even less had I not indulged in the graphic novel the night before. I'm sure most of us would rather forget about Jar-Jar Binks, but I could actually understand his horrible dialogue because of reading it and decoding it in printed format first.

If you did enjoy the movie, however, and are looking for a good keepsake for your bookshelf, I heartily recommend the graphic novel version. It tracks the movie script almost word-for-word. It follows the movie so closely that even many of the frames are drawn from points of view reminiscent of camera angles shot in the movie. Unlike other Star Wars graphic novels (Star Wars: Dark Force Rising comes to mind), great pains were taken in this one to make sure that the characters looked like the actors in the film.

More than anything, this book reminds me of an adult version of those "Star Wars Storybooks" published by Scholastic when I was a kid. You know, the ones where the story is retold in very abridged text, with a large still picture from the movie on every page. I couldn't afford to see Star Wars 20 times, but must have read my Star Wars Storybook more than 200 times. For all I know those Storybooks are collectors items now --I wish my younger brother hadn't gotten to mine and scribbled in goatees on Luke and Leia on practically every page.

PUBLISHER: Dark Horse Comics; (1999); ISBN: 1-56971-359-6


| 5.7.03
Marvels, by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross

I was in the public library a few weeks ago, looking at the collection of graphic novels touted in the lobby when I ran across Marvels. I had just been conversing with a friend about the difference between the Marvel universe versus DC universe, and how the Marvel universe --while just as populated with superheroes as the DC universe-- seemed to approach its characters from more of a human interest angle. Marvels represents the epitome of this approach.

Narrated entirely from the point of view of photo-journalist Phil Sheldon, Marvels traces the history of the Marvel universe's New York City from roughly 1900 to the present. The Great Depression, World War One and World War Two in this version are punctuated by the appearance of "the Marvels," Sheldon's term for the Marvel superheroes, supervillians, and X-men. Practically every Marvel hero from greats like the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man to lesser known Marvels like the Silver Surfer make an appearance. A major section is devoted to mutants and the X-men --with the issue of mutant rights and mob violence against those who are different a minor but poignant theme.

If you've ever wondered what it would be like --as an ordinary person-- to live in a world populated by mutants and super-beings, this book will speak to you. I felt that Kurt Busiek's story and Alex Ross' realistic drawings accurately captured the fear, ambivalence and apathy that an ordinary person would feel living in a city where super-forces beyond one's control regularly wreaked havoc and did damage to people and surroundings. Phil Sheldon experiences all of these emotions firsthand as he sees his career and his family's destiny intertwined with the Marvels. Watching Captain America fight for the US in World War Two sparks his pride; witnessing Silver Surfer and Galactus threaten to destroy Earth highlights his helplessness. Guiltily participating in a riot against mutants underscores his fear; later hiding a mutant child from rioters in his basement displays his ambivalence.

While I thought it was a wise choice to invent a new character through which to see the wide scope of human emotion played out against the field of super-humanity, it was also a stroke of genius to use J. Jonah Jameson's classic hatred for Spider-Man as a lens through which to see insecurity with super-power. In Marvels, as in the original Spider-Man comics, Jameson hates Spider-Man because if Spider-Man really is a hero, then no ordinary person can hope to compete with his heroics. Ordinary people and ordinary heroism are rendered meaningless if Spider-Man will always swing in to save the day. Therefore Jameson has convinced himself that Spider-Man is evil in order to leave some room for the goodness of ordinary people.

As I turned these pages and participated in all the conflicting feelings the characters had toward their super-heroes, I couldn't help but be reminded of theological issues. On many levels I feel that the Marvels are stand-ins for God, and the love-hate relationships that characters have with their heroes in comic books mirror the way people in the real world struggle with their image of God. What can we expect from God? What does God expect from us? If God would swoop in and save us from ourselves, what does that do to human responsibility? After finishing Marvels, my eyes were opened to the intricate dance that is the interplay between humanity and That Which Is Greater Than Us.

PUBLISHER: Marvel Books; (January 2003); ISBN: 0785100490

The Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1

| 15.6.03
Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, (vol 1), by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

I've always been a bigger Superman fan than a Spider-Man fan. My only exposure to Spidey as a kid was PBS' The Electric Company along with the occasional comic book and the short-lived 1978 television series. When the Spider-Man movie came out in 2002 it answered many of the questions that I had concerning Spidey's origins. However, it took Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man to really get me interested in Spider-Man on a whole new level.

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man is a collection of the first eleven comic books ever to feature Spider-Man. This series (from 1962-1964) reveals an astonishing level of psychological complexity, human interest, and a benchmark from which to measure how far the Spider-Man myth has evolved over the years. I think it was WB's Superman series Smallville that really started getting me interested in how the mythology of super-heroes evolve over time. In that series the life of teenage Clark Kent is examined, with all the typical angst of those years. What amazed me reading the early Spider-Man comics was that this "human interest" angle is there from the beginning!

Unlike Clark Kent, Peter Parker is a high school senior when the series begins --actually a nerdy science student who gets mercilessly bullied and teased by his classmates. You can really tell that these comics were written in the '60s --with all the contemporary focus on bullying in schools, and Columbine, this sort of interaction is not seen as funny anymore. Despite the bullying, however, I was reminded of Smallville with the way that Peter tries to balance a social life, high school, and his part-time job at the Daily Bugle.

Many details mirror Superman. Both heroes work at big city newspapers. Reminiscent of the Lois - Clark - Lana triangle, Peter Parker is torn between the dual love interests of Liz Allen and Betty Brandt. Peter Parker even sports Clark Kent-like glasses in first few issues, before they get destroyed by rival classmate Flash Thompson in a fight, never to be seen again.

One big surprise for me was that Mary Jane (MJ) doesn't appear in the early comic books. She must have been added later, although still early enough that some of my friends thought she had been there from the beginning. In the early series Liz Allen is the unattainable girlfriend of bully Flash Thompson, while Betty Brandt (J. Jonah Jameson's secretary at the Bugle) mysteriously leaves town in issue ten of the series --bemoaning the loss of Peter the whole time. It's as though both of these women are merged in the later character of MJ, with disdain and affection transformed into ambivalence.

This compilation is only volume one. I sincerely hope that Marvel continues to release later issues of these classic strips in graphic novel form. I, for one, am sold!

PUBLISHER: Marvel Comics, New York. ISBN: 0-7607-3793-2. Copyright 2003.

Talking with the enemy

| 6.6.03
'Talking with the enemy', by L. Gregory Jones

Sometimes I find that I have a swirl of ideas in my head that I can't articulate, and then I read a book or an article that crystallizes those very thoughts perfectly. Such is the case with L. Gregory Jones recent contribution to the May issue of the Christian Century, entitled "Talking with the enemy." In it he discusses the rancorous debate that has arisen in churches when clergy disagree with their congregations, and faithful parishioners on both sides of current issues like the war in Iraq feel alienated by debate and disagreement. While it's tempting to say that controversial issues shouldn't be discussed from the pulpit, most important issues are controversial, and avoiding them renders the church irrelevant to daily life. Yet Jones articulates a way to discuss them that doesn't alienate faithful people on the other side.

Jones draws upon scripture to articulate a vision of loving mutuality and listening to one's "enemies" when discussing controversial issues. Citing James 1:19, he writes, "Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness." While preserving anger as a valid human emotion and response, he notes that a quick angry response has negative consequences for any community, including the body of Christ. From the Hebrew bible, Jones discusses the book of Jonah, "which presses the question of whether we really want our enemies to repent."

The most striking part of the article, however, was this quoted passage from Wendell Berry's novel Jayber Crow. I loved the way it simultaneously proclaimed a great truth, yet also called into question the authenticity of the truth teller. Part of the problem with communicating with the enemy is that it's so easy to become smug and prideful in the perfection of ones own position, which tends to close off the ability to truly hear what the other person has to say.

"They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good."
There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it. . . .
It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you."
Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. "Where did you get that crap?"
I said, "Jesus Christ."
And Troy said, "Oh."
It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.

As I mentioned earlier, part of why this article was so striking is because it resonated with some earlier reading I was trying to digest unsuccessfully. After seeing the VeggieTales movie "Jonah" last year, I was driven to attempt Yvonne Sherwood's A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture. Although I was unable to finish the entire book, it did fire my imagination about Jonah and sensitize me to noticing Jonah wherever he pops up in my reading.

Jonah is such an interesting tale for precisely the same reason I find the passage from Jayber so tantalizing. Both show a flawed person striving to be good, and not succeeding. Only where Jayber knows and acknowledges his flaws, Jonah denies and is unaware of how they destroy his relationship with God and others. A powerful message we would do well to heed today when dealing with our enemies, both abroad and next door.

Publisher: The Christian Century, May 31, 2003 issue. page 50. Chicago. ISSN: 0009-5281

Superman for all Seasons

| 28.5.03
Superman for all Seasons, by Jeph Loeb (writer) and Tim Sale (artist)

I've been a fan of Superman since I was a kid, but lately I've been more attracted to stories that explore the emotions, spirituality and psychology of the characters, versus the more traditional action-packed superhero type story. Superman for all Seasons delivers on this promise surprisingly well, granting the reader an inside look into the tale of a superhero who comes of age, told from the point of view of Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luther, and Lana Lang. The graphic novel is divided into four parts, named after each season of a year, and metaphorically representing the seasons of our lives.

Part 1, Spring is narrated by Pa Kent and outlines his struggle in coming to terms with his special adopted son. In this version Clark slowly comes into his powers and is actually relatively normal until his senior year of high school. Thus it's a slow discovery that the whole family learns to cope with. Like in the Smallville TV series, Clark learns of new abilities rescuing someone from a tornado.

After the twister, Clark feels he should have done more to save the town from destruction. He talks to his pastor, Pastor Linquist, posing the question --"Pastor, what if one man --just one man-- could've stopped all this destruction? And he didn't..." (p. 41) His pastor somewhat dismissively replies that we each respond according to our gifts, but that in the end when God sets a course no one can stop it. This provides a rare glimpse into the spirituality of the Kents, and paints a kind of generic protestant religious background. Slightly earlier in the narrative, we find out that Martha is the devout one in the family, while Jonathan "didn't put too much stake in being a churchgoing sort." (p. 29)

Spiritual or not, Clark really grapples with the question of how best to use his gifts. In this story, Clark confides in Lana and tells her of his super-powers. The revelation is bittersweet however, since Clark's conviction that he must use his gifts for good means that he will leave her, and leave Smallville.

Part 2, Summer is narrated by Lois Lane. Clark is in Metropolis, just starting his career at The Daily Planet. The rivalry is fierce between Lex Luther and Superman - each competing against each other and for the adulation of Metropolis' citizens. While it also seems like they are competing for Lois' love, Lois' relationship with Lex and with Superman seems to be based more on "shock and awe" than on genuine affection. As on the Smallville television show, this Lex (at least in his own mind) wants to do good and be a hero --but is constantly being shown up and upstaged by Superman.

In this section of the story, we discover that Clark's Fortress of Solitude is Smallville. He flys home to spend time with his parents and regroup. Ironically, Clark is famous in Smallville for being Clark, not Superman. As Pastor Linquist relates to Clark in a kind moment, "We're probably the only town in Kansas that gets The Daily Planet every morning at the general store... Nobody from Smallville has done what you've done." (p. 92)

Part 3, Fall is narrated by Lex Luthor. Jealous of Metropolis' love of Superman, he unleashes a plague on the city in true comic book fashion. Superman is manipulated to believe it's his fault. Like on Smallville, this rendition of Clark seems to have a lot of guilt. While the city is saved with Luther's antidote, Clark returns home to his parents, defeated, while Lex takes credit for rescuing Metropolis.

Part 4, Winter is told by Lana Lang. In this chapter we discover that Lana's dream had been to marry Clark --finding out his secret and his plans to leave crushed her dreams. Having previously left home to wander the world alone, she returns to Smallville and helps Clark come to terms with his limitations and his gifts. The graphic novel truly transcends the genre here as the real struggle is won when Clark takes action to save his parents and Lana from a flood that hits Smallville. Adding a spiritual dimension, the family attends a vigil where Pastor Linquist reflects on the seasons of a life, their meaning, and how our choices define our lives.

PUBLISHER: DC Comics, New York, 1999. ISBN: 1-56389-529-3.

3rd Corinthians

| 15.5.03
'3rd Corinthians', by Michael F. Flynn

I enjoy both science fiction and theology, yet rarely do I get to see science fiction that deals with religious themes. Moreover, I don't think I've ever read an SF short story in which modern religious scholarship served as the backdrop against which a time travel tale was spun.

3rd Corinthians does just that. Set in an Irish pub, this seven page story dishes up the main philosophical arguments for and against biblical literalism within the framework of a disheartened Catholic priest arguing with an atheistic bartender. Yet as the tale unfolds and we learn that the recently unearthed Pauline letter, 3rd Corinthians, seems unassailable, genuine, and theologically disturbing, it's the atheist that starts presenting arguments for faith and the priest that seems skeptical.

I'll not mention the final surprise --I fear I may have given away too much already. If you frequent Starbucks you'll get a kick out of this plot twist. Even without the "O. Henry" ending, however, I was impressed with how many of the concepts of theological inquiry were packed into an entertaining yarn. Through the conceit of the debate between the priest and the skeptic the reader is introduced to literalist hermeneutic, metaphorical interpretations, apostolic succession, church councils, deutero-canonical texts, literary criticism, historical biblical criticism, and manuscript analysis. If one was teaching a course on Christian theology or biblical interpretation, this would be a fun piece to include among the assigned readings.

PUBLISHER: Analog: Science Fiction and Fact (Astounding); Vol. CXXIII, No. 6, June 2003; ISSN: 1059-2113

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time

| 8.5.03
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally, by Marcus J. Borg

In Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg applies his "historical-metaphorical" method of interpreting the Christian tradition to the Bible as a whole. Starting with a thorough discussion of the various "lenses" through which readers see when they read, Borg moves through the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, applying his method to a number of sample texts. With separate chapters devoted to the creation stories, wisdom literature, the prophets, gospels, Pauline letters, and finally Revelation, Borg covers a lot of ground in relatively few pages, demonstrating his method as a comprehensive and compelling alternative to "literal-factual" interpretations.

Part of what I find appealing about Borg's books is that while he is so provocative in many ways, he also seems to be consciously and respectfully attempting to maintain continuity with the Christian tradition and its respect for the Bible. Granted, his interpretations are often at odds with traditional interpretations, but in re-interpreting the Bible he upholds the Bible's crucial importance to the Christian tradition. This does Christianity a great favor by opening up the text to those who would otherwise be unable to accept it on any level. In an ironic sort of way, Borg is quite traditional in his goal, which is to help Christians use the Bible to connect with God. This is summed up most eloquently on page 18: "Being Christian, I will argue, is not about believing in the Bible or about believing in Christianity. Rather, it is about a deepening relationship with the God to whom the Bible points, lived within the Christian tradition as a sacrament of the sacred."

In the preface, Borg alerts the reader that his is a post-modern approach to the scriptures. By using "lenses" as a metaphor for the assumptions Borg brings to the Bible, he underscores the point that we all see things differently, and bring different culturally conditioned lenses to bear on how we see the Bible. Borg discusses pre-modern and modern approaches to reading the Bible, and notes that we are on the boundary of the post-modern age. On page xi Borg writes: "The test of our subjectivities. . . is whether they make sense to others." This quote can serve as the theme of the book, in a nutshell. Even while using modern historical scholarship, Borg tries to present his vision in as non-foundational a way possible.

At the beginning of chapter one Borg writes "As we enter the 21st century, we need a new set of lenses through which to read the Bible. The older set, ground and polished by modernity, no longer works for millions of people. . .the older way of seeing the Bible, which I will soon describe, has made the Bible incredible and irrelevant for vast numbers of people." The "older way" is actually two older ways, referring to both fundamentalism's view of the Bible (which is "incredible" to Borg) and liberalism's view (probably epitomized by Bultmann, although Borg doesn't say this) which renders the biblical text increasingly irrelevant. Both fundamentalism and liberalism are products of the modern age. Both in their different ways try to flatten the text down and make it "scientific." One thing I find exciting about Borg's way of reading is that it allows for surpluses of meaning --I could disagree with every one of Borg's specific interpretations of a text, yet still use his techniques effectively to draw my own meaning out of the text. I see Borg's approach as a kind of post-liberal post-modern reading, striving to keep the text relevant without resorting to fundamentalism, yet being aware of the historical issues surrounding a text and its creation and transmission.

One thing that struck a negative chord with me the first time I read Chapter 2 was Borg's insistence that one must choose between considering the Bible to be either inspired or a human product. It seemed to me easily possible that God inspired the writers but the writers, being fallible, could fail to accurately translate that inspiration into words. Upon second reading, however, I think Borg is so strident in this point in order to distance himself from what I'll call a "classic liberal" reading of the text --one that wants to sift through the text, discarding most or much of it, in order to find that little kernel of inspiration that is hidden within. Using historical research to "cut down" or find the "kernel of truth" is far too reductionist for my tastes.

By seeing the Bible as an entirely human endeavor, written by people in response to God, there is no inspired kernel to be found. What then are we to do with the text? Pitch it? If we want to do anything with it at all we need to be aware of the issues facing the people that wrote in their context, and then try to see it as meaningful in our own situation --the heart of the historical-metaphorical method. I still like to use the word "inspired," as in "The Bible was written by people based on their inspiration from God." However, what I mean by inspiration is the same thing that Borg means by "in response to" as in "The Bible was written by people in response to their experience of God."

In chapter 3 the historical-metaphorical approach is outlined in more detail. By "historical" Borg means trends in biblical scholarship that have arisen over the last 200 years, including critical methods, literary criticism and linguistics. By "metaphorical" Borg means a non-literalist approach to finding meaningful truths in the text. By combining the two, Borg constructs a theological lens that remains critical, but not overly so. On page 51 of this chapter, Borg writes: "The initial movement into critical thinking is often experienced as liberating, but if one remains in this state decade after decade, it becomes a very arid and barren place in which to live. . ." Thus by combining imaginative metaphorical reading with rigorous scholarship, one can hopefully move past the "barren place."

I disagree with Borg's wholehearted assertion that critical thinking is inevitable. In one sense, I think everyone develops a "crap-detector" as they get older, which allows them to sort through competing claims, retaining that which is useful to them, discarding that which is not. Relatively few people apply this to their religion, however. Why? I think that most people are satisfied with their religion. Marcus Borg's The God We Never Knew blew my mind when I discovered it on the bookshelf of my local Barnes and Noble back in 1998. But I was supremely dissatisfied with the way I envisioned my religion at that time, and was looking for an alternative. Most people have what works for them, so why expect them to change? Why should they change? One answer might be that if critical thinking offered more, people would be interested in it. But I'd say critical thinking generally appears to offer much less. That "arid and barren place to live," if you will.

Chapters 4 through the end of the book apply the "lenses" that have been so painstakingly defined to the scriptural canon. Borg reads Genesis 1 and 2 as "true myth" outlining the Hebrew view that ". . .something has gone wrong. Life began in paradise but is now lived outside the garden, in an exile of hard labor, suffering, pain, violence, and fragmentation. Though the world is beautiful, something is not right; we do live in a world of suffering and pain." (p.78) Here Borg retains the meaning (or a meaning) of the creation stories, while rejecting the need to take them literally. While I agree with Borg's interpretation, I do raise an objection to it. While Borg provides us with a way of making sense of the creation stories that doesn't conflict with the theory of evolution, does he really take evolution into account in his theology of origins? I think he sidesteps the issue, as does most theology. I have yet to see a theology of origins that dares to take the next step --i.e., draw conclusions about the nature of God based on the reality of evolution as the driving force of creation. I'd argue that such a God would look quite different than traditional views of God, and be potentially quite alarming, regardless of one's theological orientation. Such a God would seem overly capricious, random, chaotic, and distant. In his other works Borg outlines the panentheistic view of God, which sees God as very immanent in the universe, but not necessarily transcendent. Borg still sees this kind of God as representing somehow more than just merely the sum of the universe's parts (which would be pure pantheism, in my view).

One of the stories I have the most trouble with in the Pentateuch is the near-sacrifice of Isaac. A walk on the wild side, to say the least. I would have liked to see Borg treat it. I guess per Borg's theme of promise and fulfillment in Chapter 5, the sacrifice of Isaac could be seen as yet another way of raising the dramatic bar --that God still had the ability to fulfill the promise even if Isaac were killed. But --especially to someone who has children of their own-- this seems like an overly dramatic license to take. Plus if we are going to say that God doesn't act like this (a panentheistic God may not even have the ability to act like this) it seems strained to draw any sort of conclusion about God from this story.

In Chapter 6, Borg maintains that in the West Christianity is no longer synonymous with the dominant culture. Therefore for Borg the prophets once again become an indictment of the dominant culture. The prophets can be relevant to today, and this is echoed in some of the mainline churches' critiques of consumerism and globalization, although I don't think its articulated loudly enough, or clearly enough. Personally, I tend to think that if I start thinking I'm "there" or have "arrived" then I'm in big trouble because I'm not open to learning more. Maybe this was the problem with Christianity when it becomes culturally dominant. It gets too complacent, and started caring about itself more than the betterment of the world. These prophets raise all kinds of questions for me, and present visions for how things should be, but I don't see them as providing much of a roadmap for how to get from here to there.

In Chapter 7 Borg makes the same distinction between conventional wisdom and subversive wisdom (and the tension between the two) that he made in The God We Never Knew. I've found this distinction to be very useful in dealing with the tension between different voices in scripture. The subversive stuff (Job, Ecclesiastes, The Sermon on the Mount) really speaks to me, maybe because I live such a conventional life. Yet as I've grown older I recognize a place for the conventional wisdom (Proverbs) as well.

As Borg moves through the New Testament, the dual lenses of historical and metaphorical are applied in a manner consistent with his Old Testament approach. Generally speaking, events in the narrative that don't meet the muster of modern biblical scholarship get reinterpreted metaphorically. For Borg this takes some interesting and unexpected turns. For instance, since faith healing phenomena are reported in all religions and across cultures, Borg considers Jesus' reported abilities here to be historical. Likewise, Jesus' resurrection appearances, and Paul's vision on the Damascus road are affirmed as events that would have been real to those who experienced them, although not necessarily objective events. On the other hand, however, events that clearly violate the laws of physics such as turning water into wine at Cana, and Jesus walking on water are seen as metaphors for larger spiritual truths.

Borg concludes his book by enunciating three major biblical themes about God in the epilogue. 1) God is real, and can be experienced. 2) Life is made "whole" and "right" by living in conscious relationship to God. 3) God is described as a God of Justice (procedural) and compassion. While I readily agree with these three statements, and feel that they can be drawn out of the narrative using Borg's interpretive technique, I don't feel that they are the only possible interpretations using the historical metaphorical approach. Depending upon which sections of the narrative are interpreted metaphorically, and what historical criteria is used, these three assumptions about God could be deconstructed. I think postmodern theology's true challenge is presented by these large questions of meaning and the nature of God. Is there any meaning of purpose beyond oneself? If so, on what basis could one possibly promote such a purpose. With God only "an experiential reality" I don't see how God can possibly be used to legitimate any social agenda. Are we left only with the Darwinian struggle for survival? Does might end up making right after all?

PUBLISHER: Harper San Francisco; 2001; ISBN: 0060609184


Professional information about Marcus Borg
A Portrait of Jesus --from Galilean Jew to the Face of God. Good introduction to Borg's theology.

Road to Perdition

| 22.4.03
Road to Perdition, written by Max Allan Collins; art by Richard Piers Ravner

I've never really been a fan of the "true crime" genre, but I have enjoyed cartoons and comic books of various types for as long as I can remember. Therefore, Road to Perdition was both a surprising and enjoyable combination --a graphic novel that painstakingly recounts the tale of "The Angel of Death" Michael O'Sullivan as he is betrayed by and seeks vengeance against Midwestern gangster John Looney and his crazy son, Connor.

The novel is set in the Tri-cities area where Moline Illinois, Rock Island, and Davenport Iowa come together. 1930s era Rock Island was the focal point for Looney's illegal gambling, bootlegging, and prostitution operations. The story is told from the point of view of Michael O'Sullivan's young son of the same name, who loses his innocence as he learns what his father really does for a living, and loses his mother and brother to Connor Looney's bloodthirsty ways.

Beyond the exciting true crime storyline of Michael O'Sullivan's vengeance against the Looney family, the most interesting thing for me was the sense of guilt each protagonist had to deal with. Michael Jr. grappled with survivor's guilt from knowing that if he hadn't followed his father that fateful day and witnessed a routine shooting, Connor Looney might not have tried to kill him (to eliminate him as a witness) and his family would not have been murdered. Michael Sr. blames himself for the deaths --after all if he wasn't a killer, he tells himself, his family would still be alive. Yet Ironically, Michael Sr. justifies his involvement in "the business" as the only way he could support his struggling family during the Great Depression.

PUBLISHER: Pocket Books, New York, 2002. ISBN: 0743442245

Welcome to the Episcopal Church

| 13.4.03
Welcome to the Episcopal Church: An Introduction to Its History, Faith, and Worship, by Christopher L. Webber

Welcome to the Episcopal Church is just what it claims to be --a short, readable book suitable for anyone interested in an introduction to the contours of Episcopalian worship and practices. While I've heard many Episcopalians say that the Book of Common Prayer is the suitable place to begin, Welcome to the Episcopal Church puts the prayerbook and the denomination into its historical and cultural context. Dealing with the church's history, worship, treatment of the Bible, teachings, spirituality, organization, and mission, Welcome to the Episcopal Church carefully, painstakingly, yet also relatively briefly, fleshes out a denomination that is steeped in tradition, governed by Scripture, and tempered by reason.

Writing about the history of the denomination, Webber uses the context of the American revolution, Celtic Christianity, and the Reformation to portray the church's diversity. From the revolution and in contrast with the Church of England comes a disestablished Anglicanism in the New World. Influences of Celtic Christianity are used to show that Anglicanism has always been different from Roman Catholicism --even when the catholic church was largely undivided in the Middle Ages.

In discussing the role of worship in the Episcopal church, Webber highlights what might be the most distinctive thing about the Episcopal version of Christianity. More so than beliefs or theology (although these are also important) the source of unity in Anglicanism is "unity through worshiping together." The prayerbook is seen as a symbol of unity in liturgy, and unity in prayer.

In the chapter on the Bible, Webber stresses how biblical the Book of Common Prayer actually is in order to underscore the larger point --that the Bible under-girds everything in the prayerbook and the liturgy. Much of the Book of Common Prayer is quoted directly from the Bible. However, the Bible is not necessarily interpreted literally. Instead the church's teaching about the Bible is more "right-brained", with a more evocative teaching meant to preserve a sense of God's ineffability, and great mystery.

Perhaps the most nuts-and-bolts chapter in Welcome to the Episcopal Church is "Church Organization." Webber teaches us about the role of bishops, General Convention, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet throughout he also stresses the democratic structure of the church, and the critical role of the laity at all levels of governance. In yet another paradox, the Episcopal Church's governance can perhaps be best described as congregational on the parish level, yet still thoroughly overseen by bishops (who are themselves elected by the laity) and organized into dioceses.

Perhaps the fuzziest chapter concerns the church's mission. In a world that seems increasingly smaller, and in an age of religious pluralism, the mission of the Episcopal church is portrayed, at best, more complex, and at worst quite confused. Webber seems to see this as the biggest challenge the church has going forward into the 21st century. While having a rich history and tradition to draw upon, the church will have to creatively reinvent itself in order to remain relevant to the ever-changing culture with which it must converse.

In conclusion, Webber depicts a denomination that is spiritually and theologically balanced --almost to a fault. Speaking from practical experience I can affirm this vision as an ideal, but not always the Episcopal church that I've encountered in real life. The parishes I've attended have either seemed more left-wing or more right-wing. Maybe on average they are more balanced. Welcome to the Episcopal Church portrays the denomination as it should be, but not necessarily as it always is. Still, it's an excellent outline that puts the emphasis where it should be --on worship and practices rather than on an overly detailed or propositionally based theology. As such, I'll heartily recommend this book and offer it to anyone I know who is interested in a short, well-written outline of who Episcopalians are.

PUBLISHER: Morehouse Publishing, 1999. Harrisburg, PA. ISBN: 0819218200

Parable of the Talents

| 27.3.03
Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler

In this sequel to her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower Octavia E. Butler exceeds my expectations by writing a book that is more interesting than Sower in terms of plot and style. At least to some extent Butler abandons the journal format of Sower, adding in material that is not written solely from the perspective of Lauren Olimina. However, I was disappointed in the way she resolved the broader religious questions that dominated the first novel.

Parable of the Talents is written from multiple points of view. Structurally the glue that holds this story together is an extended essay, or history, written by Asha Vere --Lauren Olimina's daughter. She writes about her own life as one abducted from her parents and raised to oppose the Earthseed religion of her mother. Interspersed in this big story are first person perspective "historical documents" --journal entries by Lauren Olimina and Asha's father, Bankole --as well as a few selections from her uncle. All these different perspectives provide a more interesting and varied reading experience than the first novel, which was entirely journal entries of Lauren Olimina, founder of Earthseed. Perhaps this structure is symbolic of the fragmentation and much later re-integration of Earthseed that takes place in the novel.

I was much less impressed with the treatment of the Earthseed religion in this novel than in Sower. I felt that in Talents the author sacrificed the probing spiritual questions and realistic formation of a spiritual community in favor of moving the plot along. Unlike any other religious founder I can think of with the possible exception of Mohammad, Lauren Olimina lives to see the fruition of her religious tradition's ultimate goals. Since "The Destiny of Earthseed, / Is to take root / Among the stars." (p. 65) this seems a bit hard to swallow --especially since Olimina's whole world has been plunged in a post global-warming apocalyptic-style horror for the past 50 years! While Olimina, like Moses in the Bible, doesn't actually get to enter her Promised Land, the breakneck speed at which she progresses defies belief even within the confines of the story and the genre. When Olimina goes from a religion of one, to a community of maybe 50, then loses all that and is forced to start over again door-to-door, finally getting a rich national following capable of funding research and technology to build starships --I'm left unable to suspend my disbelief.

On the whole I must admit that I enjoyed this sequel more than I disliked it. In the final analysis, however, I see it as a novel that satisfies if one liked Parable of the Sower and merely "wants to find out more" about what happened to Olimina and her ragged band of followers. But if one wants an in-depth speculative novel about an interesting belief system and its implications, Parable of the Talents fails to deliver.

PUBLISHER: Seven Stories Press, New York. 1998. ISBN: 1888363819

Parable of the Sower

| 20.3.03
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

When I first learned that Parable of the Sower was yet another near-future dystopia, I groaned inwardly. While such books certainly have their place as cautionary tales, I usually find them so depressing that they don't make for entertaining reading. Science fiction is usually a more optimistic vision of how science and technology can shape us and take us places we've never been before. The whole dystopia sub-genre seems dark and depressing in contrast. 1984 and its warning against totalitarianism; Alas, Babylon and The Postman with their twin depictions of the aftermath of nuclear holocaust --these are all well-written books with an important political message, but they also seem a little surreal and far away in the future. Parable of the Sower manages to transcend the genre by offering a theme of hope through personal transformation. Author Octavia E. Butler is also relatively conservative in her extrapolated future, which makes her message seem all the more immediate, believable and relevant.

Butler takes current disturbing trends of global warming, gated communities, homelessness, and privatization and extrapolates a disturbingly familiar near future. The year is 2025, and it hasn't rained in years. Water (and everything else) is in very short supply. The middle-class live in gated communities topped with barbed wire and laser wire to keep out the street poor and gangs --desperate starving people willing to kill for food or shoes. And things are getting worse. Every year more gated communities are breached, looted, and pillaged by the desperate. The inhabitants are killed, rapped or tortured --rendered desperate themselves. Police, Fire departments, and other basic services are only available to those willing to pay their fees, resulting in only small enclaves of law and order surrounded by a sea of anarchy. Public education is non-existent, and unemployment is astronomically high. The United States government still exists --still collects taxes-- but seems exceedingly distant, in the hands of corporate interests, and unable to exert much force on the local level.

Against this backdrop we're introduced to the main character, Lauren Olamina, who lives in one of these walled communities outside San Diego and senses its coming destruction. Daughter of a Baptist pastor who is holding the small, ragged community of eleven households together through sheer force of will, Olamina is secretly forging (or discovering) her own religion called Earthseed, which gives her comfort and a sense of purpose as everything slowly crumbles around her. Here are some verses from the bible she assembles through the course of the novel, called Earthseed: The Books of the Living:

All that you touch,
You Change..

All that you Change
Changes you..

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

Is Change.

Why is the universe?
To shape God.

Why is God?
To shape the universe
(p. 72)

The bulk of the novel outlines Lauren Olimina as she discovers and refines the Earthseed religion, using it to understand the cataclysmic changes taking place in her life. Her walled community is ultimately invaded and she is forced to flee with a few possessions and a few companions, seeking out a new home where she plans to establish a community based on the new principle that "God is Change." The only way to survive is to embrace Change and try to consciously shape it --and allow it to ultimately shape you.

I found the concept of a new religion that embraces change to be enticing. While most institutional religions seem quite conservative and slow to change, Octavia E. Butler paints a convincing picture of Lauren Olimina as a dynamic religious tradition founder. The community she assembles is small enough and cohesive enough that its lack of inter-nicene squabbling does not detract too much from its realism. Perhaps only after the religious founder dies (not the subject of this book --maybe treated in Butler's later novel, Parable of the Talents?) do differing interpretations, and the calcification of the tradition start to arise. How that would be treated by a religion that defines God as change would be quite interesting.

As a person of faith and an avid reader of science fiction I enjoyed this novel because it not only extrapolated the future of science and social trends, but also religious belief. Defining God as change is an optimistic imagining of a people's reaction to cataclysmic change. I can't help but wonder if its overly optimistic, however. Surely a more typical human response is to either fear change, reject change, or to try to hold on to something as constant within the midst of change? Relgious founders are hardly typical, however, and maybe Butler's machinations are how most new faiths are formed --out of response to a specific historical situation or calamity.

As an unrelated sidenote, I didn't actually read this book --I checked the unabridged Audiobook CD out from the library, ripped it to MP3, and listened to it on my portable MP3 player. It was the first time I'd tried this, and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to listen while taking my daily exercise. Nowadays I seem to have so little uninterrupted time for reading that it is nice to be able to leverage some other time each day. Since the novel takes the form of entries in Lauren's journal, it is easy to ingest in small doses.

PUBLISHER: Four Walls Eight Windows, New York. 1993. ISBN: 0941423999

Lavender In Love

| 30.1.03
'Lavender In Love', by Brian Plante

I'm a regular reader of Analog, but lately it seems that the stories that draw my interest are those that deal with the ever-blurring distinction between human and machine --between flesh-and-blood reality and virtual reality. Where 'Finding Myself' explored the issues of human beings entering the virtual world, 'Lavender In Love' is told from the point of view of the computer --an intelligent vending machine named Lavender who roams the corridors of a futuristic low-income housing project, risking robbery and vandalism to solicit customers, selling toiletries and candy bars to people in areas ordinary vending machines could not be placed.

Lavender is no ordinary vending machine, however --even by the futuristic standards set by the story. While all the other vending machines are controlled by 'ordinary' artificial intelligence, Lavender's AI is actually a simulation taken from the human brain of his owner, Dillon Westfield. Every week he receives a new download of Dillon's experiences for the last seven days. Lavender experiences himself as a human being in the body of the machine, a partner in business with Dillon. He also experiences himself as an extension of Dillon. What is good for Lavender is also good for Dillon.

Physical boundaries and clear cut definitions between man and machine blur when Lavender completes his transition into the human world by falling in love with Treena, a woman he regularly encounters on his rounds. Limited by his machine body, Lavender nonetheless consummates the relationship by playing matchmaker between Treena and Dillon, letting them fall in love and awaiting the next download to share in the experience.

While a short, seemingly simple story with a happy ending, 'Lavender in Love' imagines a world that is not so different from our own --a world where advertising has become more intrusive and people interact with machines in situations where people once served. Yet at the same time humans want human relationships, and (paradoxically) often seek them through technological means. With the web of human connections being constantly expanded through online interactivity, we are already letting computers serve as our agents through which we negotiate virtual reality. Does it really come as a surprise that our intelligent servants could act in their own interests, on our behalf?

PUBLISHER: Analog Science Fiction and Fact (Astounding); Dell Publishers; ISSN: 10592113 (February 2003)

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