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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

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