Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Nature of Peace...

With recent events, both in the world and locally, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to want "peace". In an effort to not get too academic, I will neglect the philosophical and academic citations and footnotes.

Traditionally, many people think of peace as something perfect, heavenly, and without conflict. We imagine sitting in a warm, sunny glade with animals cavorting in the treeline. Of course, for some it might be a beach or a mountain top, but the idea is the same. When mothers say, "I want peace and quiet," the two are linked inextricably.

Peace=quiet and quiet=peace, but this is clearly not the case in most cases. One can easily imagine many cases where just because things are quiet, they are not peaceful. We can think of "the calm before the storm" or "Things are quiet...too quiet." as simple examples of different common cultural understandings that quiet does not equal peace.

At the same time, peace does not equal quiet. In my assertion, peace demands there to not be complete quiet. I can think of cases of international conflict where, despite the silence of gunfire, tensions remain and discourse, an audible conversation, is necessary to begin to step towards peace. However, even in this, it seems to be an incomplete view of peace to see it as a goal where we will no longer need to speak or express conflict.

This brings me to another important aspect of peace that is rarely discussed. Even if one was willing to imagine perfect peace w/o quiet, we would assume that it would contain calm, consensus. No voices would be raised and differences would be bridged or negated. To me, as a student of culture, attempts to create peace by the elimination of dissent tend towards two goals: totalitarian control and apathy.

Neither of these seem to be desirable as a peaceful society or way of life. What does this mean for those of us who seek to follow the Prince of Peace, or even those of us who don't but want peace?

Obviously, I have no answers, just more questions. Fortunately for me, a number of ways of seeing the world of morals and ethics have elevated the importance of questioning over the importance of answering. This does not mean that we stop looking for answers, just that we cease to claim ownership of THE answers. I see a strong connection between this idea and that of peace.

Peace is not a dialectic, a conflict that we endure or synthesize in order to have a new and better peace. It is a constant questioning and discourse. Therefore, I envision peace as a rowdy discussion. The key between a brawl and peace is how the members of the sphere/community react to the disagreement with others. This does not mean that we accept everything that is objectionable. I, in fact, do not know what it would mean. That would be having an answer.

I don't know what this blathering means, but we must keep thinking and asking ourselves about the ways that we define concepts like peace, ethics, and justice. Any thoughts?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

A couple weeks...

It HAS been a couple weeks since posting. However, as much as I love posting on the blog world, I have figured that keeping healthy, sane, and gainfully employed are all more important than ranting about my opinions.

Fortunately, soon my schedule with be more free soon, and I will be posting on some topics that have been in my head recently: Carter's book, the nature of peace, and more on my office walls (which now seem to alternate between breathing and chuckling).

I hope that the few of you who check with me regularly will keep coming back and feel free to post on these topics.

I would like to open up my blog to any potential topics that you might think are worthy of time and attention. Please post a comment on anything that you might want to hear me rant about. I would love you hear your opinion.

I had a tough experience yesterday that I wwould like to share. I gave back my students' papers, and I made the mistake of going against my rule to hand assignments back at the end of class.

My students were so plantive that I gave in. This resulted in one class of having a couple of my female students spending the hour weeping openly about their grades. I really felt for them.

One girl, who is one of the sweetest girls in my classes, had turned in a paper that was only half as long as the assignment called for, and I had no choice but to fail it. She sat through the class silently with tears streaming down her cheeks. I couldn't say anything to her because that would only single her out and make it even more obvious.

Sometimes teaching just sucks.

Monday, November 21, 2005

On writing, working, and travelling...

Hello, all! For those of you who asked, the walls seem to have quieted down a bit. I gave them an offering of my Squirtle figurine. They/It haven't taken it yet, but it is understood that the walls have possession of my Burger King toy.

Anyway, I haven't written because i have been preparing an article for submission for publication, reading and commenting on rough drafts, working on my dissertation, and travelling to Boston for a conference. Fun fun fun!

It has actually been fun, but I am tired. Despite the drain on resources, I have discovered that, for the most part, I really get into the academic life. One example might be that in the sessions that I went to at NCA, I was one of the only people to ask probing questions in response to the panel.

This is impressive because there is a deep difference in the academy between "probing," "prosecuting," "plugging," and "praising." (Wow, what alliteration! It looks like the points of a wacked out sermon.) Anyway, most of the comments made in the last few minutes of a session usually fall under the latter three categories.

There is nothing wrong with these in their places. Sometimes it is important to laud a significant effort, necessary to advertise the work that you do, or take a presenter to task for a major error. However, there is also a great need in the academy, especially in the Christian members of the academy to engage one another critically.

This does not mean that we should be more cruel, but over the course of the conference, i found that the kind of communication that was interesting me at the moment was the ways in which academics talk to one another. Theoretically, NCA should be a gathering of the speech, media, rhetoric, and various comm studies profs from across the nation. Also theoretically, these profs, more than any others, should be able to communicate in the most effective ways possible, since their daily tasks revolve around the need to problematize and solve the methods of communication that surround us. This was certainly not the case. Despite the failings, some very bright spots remained.

The best example of scholars actually getting down to the business of discourse was in the workshop hosted by "The Calvin Workshops in Communication" which took place on Wednesday in the basement of the Boston Public Library.

I think that the key to these sorts of positive interactions comes in a fundamental shift in the consideration of ethical and effective communication. The important information in communication is not the answer, but the question. This might seem crazy to those not involved in these issues, but I see this as very important and potentially revolutionary, if enacted.

An answer presents a finite and finished piece of information. It approaches the listener as a dead end of sorts. It does not encourage further interaction except by "praise," "prosecution," or "plugs." One must either accept the answer, ignore it and present one's own, or attack some or all of it.

On the other hand, further questioning presents openings of a nearly infinite variety. This might seem very daunting and counterproductive to the pursuit of Truth, and in some ways it is. It does not contribute to forms of knowledge built on accumulation. It does not add. In math terms, the approach to a dialogic discourse multiplies meaning.

Many Christians, especially, are afraid to multiply meaning, and rightfully so on some levels. However, if we believe in an infinite God and a fallen/finite world, then we must at some level accept that there will be a large quantity (if not infinite number) of finite opinions on the infinite of the universe. I can tell that some of you have your eyes glazing over, but stick with me for a second.

In some ways it is like the old story of the three blind men and the elephant, only multiplied by the number of people who have lived and all engaging with the elephant who is truly infinite and unknowable in a total way in this present world. There will be clusters of people who have similar ideas of God and the Universe, and those clusters will probably think that they are right based on their ability to understand what they can connect to.

However, wouldn't it be more effective if cluster A approached the problem by asking cluster B by asking, "Well, I am pretty sure that I am dealing with a wall because X, Y, and Z, but what do you have over there and why?" This seems much more communal and full of potential than saying, "This is obviously a wall because I know I am right."

This is not just relativism because cluster A is not giving up their beliefs. Rather in a greater effort to understand that which they have contact with, they seek out others who also seek to understand their contact without the goal of "winning".

Just a couple thoughts. I will probably write more this week on the conference and the things that it led me to think about.

Friday, November 04, 2005

My office is haunted...

This has been a tough week. So I am going to go off on something completely frivolous and meaningless to maintain sanity. For those of you who want things to think about, check out the NPR interview with Jimmy Carter. I am very excited to check out his book, and I will probably get a post organized once i read it. It could make very good airplane reading.

I don't know if it is because my office is in the basement of an ill-treated building that is going on 100 or if it is because the walls keep making noises, but I think that my office is unhappy with something.

I used to have a nice, clean office that had a huge plate window and a new door that opened onto a friendly hallway full of people to gab with. Now, I switched teaching assignments and have been sent to the dungeon. There is probably a direct connection there, but that is another issue.

It is always fun to describe to students how to get to my office. "Well, you go to H Hall and go in a main door. Then you walk as far as you can, find the stairway that goes down, and go down until you can't descend any more. If you pass the place where the school stores dead furniture and keeps old mops, then you are on the right track. If you get to the boiler room, then you need to turn around.

I know that there is a sort of mystique surrounding being a grad student in which scholars and artists are expected to dwell in a tumbling garret, but frankly, I like the sun. I like heating and AC that works, and I would really like my walls to stop bulging like in "House on Haunted Hill".

Some might pass over the fact that my walls breath in and out rhythmically. I'm sure that some people would even like for inanimate objects to have spirits. I know my landlord refers to our house as a living thing, but it gets creepy after a while.

Creepier than the breathing itself is the fact that when my walls sleep, they occaisionally suffer from sleap apnea. They will go silent for a minute or two and then suddenly will burst into coughing snores.

Rather than fight the myterious nature of my living office, I've decided to embrace it. There are some problems. First, I don't have a name for the walls in question. Should I address them as a singular unit? Would that offend them if they actually thought of themselves as separate identities? After all, we really should never refer to American Indians as a total group. There is a significant difference between Seminoles and Sioux. On the other hand, if I name each wall separately, then the walls might think it rather comical, much as if your friends didn't talk to you but spoke to your limbs as each distinct beings. [Bob, could you pass me the salt? Oh, sorry. It is closer to Al. Al, if you don't mind passing the salt to Bob...]

More importantly though, I need to know if anyone has a Breathe-Right strip that is about 6 ft long? That would be great.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Similarities between Movies and Worship...

I've been reading brandon's discussion on worship, and it came to mind that one of the potential problems with contemporary worship, in my eyes, is that people want it to be like their movies.

Ultimately, what is desired is something that makes one laugh and cry but ultimately does not really outlast the event itself. Most individuals that I meet would like something uplifting, with the appearance of being challenging. It might be even more accurate to compare many contemporary church services, especially the sermons, to the local nightly news or 60 Minutes.

Even more interesting than the desires that both of these rituals seem to invoke is the growth on these events to become more and more like one another. I should say that the majority of this confluence comes from the churchs' integration of visuals and mood music to create an "atmosphere of worship". In addition to the house bands and laser lights, I have been surprised to see visual scenes crop up during the sermon. So the pastor will be talking about the piece of God, and the projectors will cut from the Bible verse to pastoral scenes of lambs and waterfalls.

Without even getting into the problems that I have with churches no longer asking the congregation to bring and open their own Bibles, what purpose does this projection serve but to act as an emotionally manipulative act? Are the members of the church unable to imagine for themselves what "peace" means?

Even if we allow this trend, I was amazed a couple of months ago to see a pastor mention an experience that they had had, and he actually cut to a flashback. Lo, we see a video in which the pastor engages in a recreation of said event intercut with interview footage of him talking about the event. Is it so hard for pastors and congregations to actually listen to the person who is right there on stage that we need to have a package?

i know that this makes me sound like an old fogey, but I remember sitting and listening to the pastor work as a story-teller. He would craft an entire picture for the listeners. I understand that not all pastors are "great" orators, but must we reduce them to anchors who merely man the desk and present an editorial at the end of the hour, like some Andy Rooney? Have seminaries dropped so low that graduates can get out with a bit of biblical study and a knowledge of how to edit their own video and play three chords on an acoustic guitar?

Must every pastor be a great theologian to be a good leader of a spiritual flock? Absolutely not! However, they should be able to connect with their congregation on a real and present basis. There should be more than an intro and outro framing a 15 minute "Features" story. I want a pastor who is a teacher! I want a Rabbi! Dammit, I want a leader! I know that I live in a college town and that that influences the sorts of congregations that are available, but I don't want a VJ or Mister Rogers (as cool as both these might be in their own way). It would just be nice to walk into a church and find a critical thinker at the front, not a cheerleader.

Monday, October 24, 2005

History and Identity...

I recently drove with my EW (Enduring Wife) to see "A History of Violence." Granted, we were supposed to pay $9.75/ticket, but my lovely EW had complained about the crappy sound/picture quality of our previous experience that we had free passes, yay!

Anyway, that is besides the point. I wanted to write a bit about the message of this film and how I see it interacting with some contemporary issues in the Fundagelical church.

The film is pretty basic. We have small-town, Indiana diner owner who is forced to take action during a robbery. Surprise, surprise...he is super handy with weapons and is soon visited by a Philly tough who thinks he is some hit-man/thug who disappeared years ago. The film centers primarily on the reaction of his family to this accusation and the decision that he must make.

The plot itself is not a super huge issue, but i think that the debate that it engages with is incredibly fascinating. What is identity? Are we a set of performed roles, as is indicated by many PoMo and Post-PoMo theorists? Or, is there an innate identity chosen by God/Nature/the Universe which we can choose to adopt or resist? Or, yet another option, we might be an accumulation of experiences that some how "add up" to us, as some Freudians/Psychoanalytic scholars might perceive?

I am amazed at how a relatively simple film can evoke such strong debates about issues that usually reside only in philosophical or theoretical conversations. Many people have written about the dumbing-down of Hollywood and the increase in stupidity and violence (Michael Medved is my personal nemesis), but it seems that many cannot look through the graphics and see the essential questions that reside inside of many of these narratives.

The most electrifying aspect of films like "A History of Violence" and the ways they address these concerns is that rarely do they come out and present THE definitive answer to these complex questions. One can look at films like "Blade Runner" and its question of humanity and technology or "Memento" and questions of memory and identity. Not only are these thrilling narratives that engage on a visceral, experiential level, but they also can allow for a public realm for those who engage in non-academic inquiries into the nature of their world.

Sometimes this debate and engagement is refused. For example, in our viewing of "A History of Violence," audience members down the row from us were very uncomfortable with the openendedness of the narrative and with a striking rape/abuse/lovemaking scene between Bello and Mortensen. They laughed at inappropriate times and complained loudly over the credits that this was, "The Worst Movie They Had Ever Seen."

I don't want to say that people are not entitled to their opinion, but this reaction shows that a problem with Hollywood is not that it promotes the wrong values or the films are too stupid or too difficult for people to understand. Even "stupid" and "offensive" films can challenge our perceptions. It is that they are unwilling or unable to engage in the dialogue with the film.

Now is this the fault of the film? Maybe/maybe not. It is difficult to approach the dramatic scene between Mortensen and Bello on the stairs and not feel something. The question is"What do we do with that feeling?" Also, "Is discomfort something we accept as 'entertaining?'"

We have been taught that being happy involves having no pain. My pastor once said how excited he was that he could look forward to going to Heaven where we would no longer get tired when he played basketball. I can understand the underlying feeling, but where does the joy caused by the testing of the mind and body that God has given us?

This is not the way that most audience members would look at thing, but the sentiment is important. Why are we so happy when we can "tune out"? My students constantly tell me that I am crazy because I try to force them to think. "Why do I need to think like that? Can't you just tell me what i should write my paper about?"

The same practice goes on in film. We have become accustomed to being told what to enjoy. We have soundtracks, genres, actors, and visual cues that all tell us what to think when. Those challenging Hollywood or "The Media" should be taking up arms against the way that stories are told and accepted, not the message of these institutions. This process has become so standardized most people think that it is "stupid" or "bad" when things do not fall into standard limits.

Unfortunately, the same effect can be seen in independent films. If you want to make a bit of money and garner some critical attention, grab a couple of desparate B-list character actors, make one of them angst-ridden, homosexual, a murderer, throw in quirky but intellectual dialogue, maybe a different editing speed or style, and a digital camera, and you are set. I have no problem with any of these things by themselves, but I do have a problem when they become the standard for a norm.

In the end, as much as I liked "A History of Violence" and the dialogue which it attempts to foster, I, prompted by my fellow-audience members, must not become caught up in an alternative culture that is as totalized as the mainstream one which we mock. We must be prepared to criticize the criticizers.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

And I-uh-I will always love YOUUUUU!

No, I haven't forgotten about my blog. I have however been very, very busy with my concrete research. The weekend before last was my big, important prelim exam to prove that I am indeed intelligent enough to write a dissertation without wasting everyone's time.

Since then, I have bee defragmenting a bit. I have been working on a short presentation that I will make to a workshop in Boston in November, and I have had two or three calls for papers that I need to kick stuff out for.

I have, however, seen a good number of decent films that I want to talk about for a variety of reasons including "History of Violence," "The Big Kahuna," "The Station Agent," "Miller's Crossing," and "Love Song to Bobby Long" Unfortunately, they will have to wait until I get my work done.

Until then, adieu.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


I'm so excited. My wife just found out that there is a probably chance of her finally getting hired as a full-time, salaried employee at her job. I am so impressed and proud of her. I remember how sad she was going from being offered the opportunity to take over a very lucrative wedding planning business in Grand Rapids to having to work a temp, data-entry job.

However, she is really good at details and directing people (She can direct me anytime that she wants.), and I was always confident that if she stuck with it that eventually she would be recognized for her efforts.

It has only taken 2.5 years of working full-time PT, hourly, no benefits after getting a good, useful Communications degree to find a job. Granted, I didn't help by moving to a place where employment is not the best.

Here's to wonderful SO's who can really stick it out with the slovenly wretches among us.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Hopes and Dreams...

Every so often, I realize that I do not always have an eye on my end-goal. Recently, my friend, Brandon, wrote a post on his blog about thinking about what our hopes and dreams are for our lives. I have been trying to give it some thought. My hopes and dreams fall into a couple different categories:

1) Community: One of my professors at my undergraduate institution wrote a great deal about using communication in a way that promotes shalom. Often "shalom" is translated from the Hebrew simply as "peace," but it connotes so much more. It indicates a peace that is centered on being and living in community with one another. It is not an individualistic peace, as one might imagine the lone philosopher on the mountain might be at peace. It is a peace, together.

I have a dream/hope that no matter where my wife and I end up, we will be able to foster a movement towards the peace of togetherness. We try to do this now by doing the simple things. We get our friends together as much as possible. We make a point to contact and spend time listening to each other and those who we come in contact with. We say, "Come over any time," and mean it.

This might sound simple, but it becomes really hard. This is not just because we have to keep the house relatively neat (Neat is subjective, especially since most of our friends are grad students who are amazed that we actually have a table to eat at.), but we also have to work to overcome the innate cultural and personal belief that people hold that, "They couldn't possibly actually mean for me to just drop by." It also means that we have to resist the temptation to make people coming over always mean something. There doesn't always need to be a reason for having friends over. It is so nice to just sit and talk sometimes or maybe even just watch TV or listen to music together.

Community seems to be a big goal in my faith-work too, as if you could divide it so easily. It seems interesting to me that Jesus really kept this group of people, the disciples, with him that much of the time. There seems to be something there. I was reading the Gospel of St. Mark the other day, and it struck me that there are a number of stories that begin with something like, "As Jesus and the disciples ate...." This means that much of what Jesus gave to them, and they to him, I must suppose, was their presence.

Even at their most frustrating, the disciples were with Jesus. One must imagine that they could not keep up a deep theological conversation at all times for three years. They must have discussed normal things of the day, but this is not a message we hear often from the pulpit on Jesus and culture. However, this is an aspect of culture, and Jesus undoubtably participated in it.

2) Teaching: This is much harder, but a large part of my hopes for the future rest on being able to teach and work with young people. For a time, I was tempted to enter seminary and become a pastor (youth or otherwise), but I could get past the institutional requirements that seminaries place on their students.

Maybe this is a topic for a future post, but I am amazed at how a large quantity of conservatives see public academic institutions as bastions for training unthinking, uncaring liberals, but they do not observe the same trends in their own churches, schools, and seminaries. A friend of mine, who I will not name, had a large number of very choice words about the ways that seminaries prepare the future clergy. He compared it to his experience in law school. It was not encouraged to ask questions about why things were seen as they were. It was emphasized that one must become the best at manipulating the given system rather than working to change it.

Granted, this is a generalization, but looking at seminary websites, I notice a large reliance on words such as "orthodox" and "tradition." To paraphrase a great man, "Three thousand years of history from Moses to Sandy Koufax, you better believe I'm living in the past."

My teaching really aims at giving honor to the past but not, as Walter does, making the mistake that the past is the best that we can do. So often, teachers just mark time. Sure, we are busy all the time, but it is very hard to break out and do something different. Students resist it. Administrations resist it, and institutions resist it. How then can teaching make a difference?

I don't know, yet, but I aim to find out. I'll let you know if I discover anything.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Teaching and other fun things...

I know that it has been a while, but I have been busy. That seems to be a common thread in the blogs of fellow grad students that I run across.

Let's look at Steve's hats currently:

Teaching Assistant: Pop Culture Dept., BGSU
Instructor: Composition II, Owens CC
Doctoral Student: American Culture Studies, BGSU
Representative-at-Large: Graduate Student Senate, BGSU

This does not include my duties and responsibilities as a friend, husband, pet-owner, gardener, or sane person.

This all keeps me on my toes, but it does have certain positives. I don't have much time to get bored. I greatly value my down time, even if it is just working out or sitting in the sauna at the Rec Center. I really have appreciated the little things that my wife does for me.

She has been nice enough to not bug me about my smoking on occaision. She also has been very calming by keeping things in perspective.

This is all to say that when I had a surprise visit from my supervisor to oversee my teaching this morning at Owens, I was bit less-than-thrilled.

Fortunately for me, I had done my prep for my lesson plan, and it was a very simple class to teach. I even had an awesome activity that involved group work and competing for candy. We are studying argumentation in the written form. So today's class on the different varieties of logical fallacies would have been perfect to be observed for.

I had chosen magazine ads that all had logical fallacies in them. After reviewing the general types, we were going to break into 4 or 5 teams that looked through the ads and tried to pick out the various logical faults and why.

Unfortunately for me, I only had 9, out of 19, students show up for class this morning. It is very hard to engage in a lively discussion with 9 kids, half of which have not done the reading.

Granted, this is sorta my job, to inspire and drive the class, but I was a bit tired this morning and missing three of my best and most engaging students. This meant that when I broke them up into three teams of three, it was likely that they would not have the sort of motivation that I had thought Tootsie Roll Pops would inspire.

It all worked out fairly well. I kept the class flowing. A couple kids came up with great examples of fallacies in their experience with arguments. I remembered to bring the class back and review the things we learned and went over the assignments, which impressed my boss.

So, whew! Now, I just need to completely finish fixing my syllabus, grade, and return their last assignment that they turned in. It is good that they are so likable. I don't know what I would do if they were a class full of jerks.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Contemporary Church and the Enlightenment...

I have thought about writing a longer, slower philosophical genealogy, but

that is probably boring and meaningless to my ultimate goal.

Rather, I think I will point out the problems that the Enlightenment has brought to the church in its myriad forms.

1. Literalism and Dictionaries- It seems to me that with the advent of scientific method, there also came an assumption that language could be tested and proven in some sort of quantifiable way.

Therefore, during this same period of time, intellectuals began to compile dictionaries in which the meanings of words and their uses were fixed and regimented.

Most of you can probably see where this would become a problem (or series of problems) in the modern world.

Since people assume that the meaning of language is fixed, they can also assume that their interpretation is Correct. Sure, prior to the reformation, the Church fixed meaning, but there at least was a large quantity of debate about that meaning. We know about this quantity of debate because the loser was usually torured, imprisoned, etc as a result.

This leads to the difficulties today in synthesizing science and religion. If the Bible says "days," then obviously it meant days in the contemporary 24 hour period, regardless of the fact that the twenty-four hour day, with time zones etc, would not be set for centuries. This also does not take into account the possibility of nuance for the original Hebrew source material.

Of course, modern Christians will understand that when I write, "In the days past...," I am not refering to a specific period of time denoted by the revolution of the clock hand, but to suppose that this would be a valid understanding of something in the Holy Bible is absurd to some.

2. Printing, Authorship, and copyright- While I am thrilled that we have movable type, etc, I think that one of the problems that comes with it is the assumption of profit-making and setting a text in some sort of bound and commodified way. We must be able to print a definitive Bible that contains the approved text.

As Christians, we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Therefore, God is the author of the text. Now, what does this mean? Most Christians would not argue that God literally put pen to paper, but it amazes me at how unaware most Christians are about the actual source of the books that we now consider to be part of the Bible. Gasp, you mean Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not actually sit down and write their Gospels? Nope, ladies and gentleman, if you go back and look at an older edition (and I mean much older) of your Bible, you will often read "The Gospel according to St. Matthew as recorded by..."

Does this mean that Matthew is not an accurate testament to the life of Jesus of Nazereth? Nope, not at all, but it might make us pause before we base any major decisions on our understanding of any single passage or word.

I do not mean to impugn the Bible in any way. I believe that it is the Word of God, but I believe that it is the Word of God that has been filtered through the imperfect human authors, translators, and fallible and imprecise language.

This means that it is up to every generation and church to decide what "sexual immorality" is and what to do about the members of their church who practice it.

Lost, or never was, the need to look at the directives in the Bible as directives that must be analyzed in light of other directives.

That is probably enough babbling for now. I would like to talk about the evolution of the Law and contemporary understanding of the role of the Law in the Bible, but we will just have to see. Tah Tah for now!

Friday, September 02, 2005

Sin City and Boundless...

Boundless' review of "Sin City"

Sure "Sin City" has a number of flaws, but if anything is puerile, it is the immaturity of the contemporary Christian press. If only they were able to look at any story beyond the surface level of violence, sex, and nudity.

After all, if we made a literal cinematice version of the Bible, it would be infinitely worse than "Sin City". "But," they say," you have to look at the whole. You must look at how God has a plan to get us out of this. Your movie/song/whatever doesn't have that." True, and it never will until we learn to tell meaningful and powerful stories from a Christian perspective that are not also pedantic.

I must note that in general these sorts of reviewers are willing to look at an entirety of the Bible without looking at the entirety of the narrative genres. They look at how the books of the Bible fit together but not how "Sin City" comes from a tradition. It is raising and answering questions of previous narratives.

No, I am not saying that film noir is like the Bible, but we should be able to look at the ways we read these narratives.

We MUST engage in the debate. We must be conversant with the rules and subjects of culture. Otherwise, we are dinosaurs who think that kids still idolize Jimmy Kimmel and that "Sin City" is geared towards 13-15 year old boys.

They see pictures in stories and assume "Childish." I've seen some pretty childish evangelical tracts, but there is no acceptance that these are immature.

I'm going to stop before I blow a gasket.

Love you all! Even authors of Boundless articles.

On a side note, one of my favorite Boundless writers has a great article in this week's edition, on making a house a home w/o buying out Pottery Barn (something that I want to do constantly)

I also have great memories of falling asleep while my parents chatted with friends. Mine played Rook more than Scrabble, but the purpose remained the same.

Exile and Suffering...

I have been thinking a lot recently of the struggle for survival in the Gulf Region, both of them. Between Katrina and the horrible stampede in Iraq, I have had a very hard time maintaining any sort of faith. I began to read the descriptions of men who found themselves in equally trying times, the OT prophets.

I came across this verse as I read my Bible today:

"For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope...and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile." Jeremiah 29: 11, 14b

I have been looking through the prophets because I can't but help to look to the solace of the Exiled in Israel and those of New Orleans. This is not to say that God is punishing anyone or anything stupid like that, but it is a reminder of the presence and purpose of God.

Little solace, I know, to those who have lost everything and/or someone, but the alternative is anger and frustration purely for their own sake. I am not a very devout person in many ways, but I cry and pray for those suffering everywhere. How we see and respond to the suffering of others everywhere is the true measure of our ethics.

I think it is horrible tragic that with all of the coverage of the admittedly horrible events in LA, AL, and MS, that we have forgotten the nearly 1000 Iraqi citizens who were killed just by the rumor of a bomber. What has gone even less observed were the dozens and possibly 100s of Iraqis who were poisoned by traditional gifts of sweets and drink given by the road while on pilgrimage.

You can bet that is ONE child was poisoned by Halloween candy, it would be cause for a 60 Minutes investigation.

I just want to cry, go to bed, and not get up for a very long time.

Something positive for a change...

Let me just say upfront that I really do not care for crusades.

This holds equally for THE Crusades as well as those held for more contemporary evangelical means.

That said, I really have begun to appreciate the life and work of Billy Graham. Often in the media, we hear the words, "Evangelical leaders, such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Billy Graham say..."

I understand the perceived need to circle the wagons and to not drive rifts between members of the church, but these four men, as close as they might be theologically, each hold radically different perspectives and methods in directing the future of the Christian church in America and around the world.

The reason that I single out Billy Graham is much the same reason that I used to make fun of him and his movement when I was in sixth grade and forced to watch the horrible films that were put out in the 70s and 80s.

Let me just say in my defense that when you are in bible camp, and you are forced inside because of inclement weather (or one time because everyone got food poisoning), the last thing you really need is to be told that you need to give your life to God.

I mean, the vast majority of the kids who took the effort to work through the memorization of scripture in three or four workbooks already had accepted Christianity, and if after all of that they were not saved, then I doubt that the story of a 50s Korean war vet and his biker friends getting saved would really help the situation.

Now that I have laid out why I bemoaned the Graham Crusade's cinematic enterprised, I must point out that in addition to this, there were quotas in Sunday School and Youth Group every time that a Crusade came through town. We were expected to invite at least one friend with us, whether we had a friend or not. I usually had "conveniently" scheduled an alternative activity on the night when we were to go.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that this is not really the fault of Graham. This was how my churches thought that evangelism was supposed to be done. Billy Graham has a very simple agenda. He wants people to hear about his God and His plan for salvation.

Whether you agree with Graham or not, this mission is simple and admirable. One man would stand in a stadium and tell the gathered people about his experience. In addition to the simplicity of method and message, I must also admire Billy Graham's eagerness to welcome a broad variety of people.

He has met with almost every president in the last fifty years, and some might say that this is purely political. That might be true, but I can tell you that Graham made no bones about meeting with Bill Clinton in the midst of the "Scandal".

In reading Johnny Cash's autobiography, I am amazed at the times when these two very different men, in some ways, would meet and lean on each other for encouragement and support.

I don't see any contemporary mainstream Christian leaders meeting with Brian Welch, lead singer of Korn. (MTV coverage here). Granted I am a little confused by the many directions that Welch has taken since his conversion, but he enthusiatically wants to reach out and touch people. One would think that this would bring connections, but from Welch's website, it looks like he is forming his own group. I don't know whether or not this is because of a conscious choice or a snub, but it seems a shame to not be enthusiastic to connect with Welch, not because he is a celebrity who can help reach youth today but because he is a Christian eager to serve.

We, as a Christian community, need to really stop the craziness, legalism, and divisive politics. So many people, especially in the online/talk radio communities, WASTE so much time debating whether this person or that person is REALLY a Christian.

I would like to know where in the Bible it tells the Church to sit around and pass judgement on each other. Surely, we are supposed to hold each other accountable, but that is clearly a two-way street.

Shit, now I am just getting angry. (Yes, I know that writing "shit" means that I am no longer a Christian in many peoples' eyes.)

Saturday, August 27, 2005

A short exercise in fun

Well, it is fun to me. One of my past acquaintences has this survey on his blog, and I thought it looked very fun.

1. Number of books you have owned: I'm going to assume that this means the number of books I currently own and keep in my house or office. Otherwise, I would have hundred of wonderful children's books to also count. I probably have around 300 books right now.

2. Last book I bought: Introduction to Theory of Popular Culture. It is for a pedagogy class on how to teach popular culture classes.

3. Last book I completed: Of Hospitality by Jacques Derrida. I know what you are thinking, but it is a good book and short.

4. A few books that mean a lot to me: This list is not ordered in any way, nor is it the books that mean the most to me.

1. Ethics of Freedom by Jacques Ellul This a great culmination of a great deal of Ellul's work. he brings together his ideas about the technological society, how it functions, ethical thinking, and a very orthodox but revolutionary Christianity. The result is a powerful argument about why Christianity offers something particularly meaningful. It also points out how much damage that fundamentalist Christian Righters are doing.

2. God, Death, and Time by Emmanuel Levinas. Makes a striking argument about why views of knowledge lead to unethical behavior. He sets up a description of personal and relational ethics that gives Christians a very strong connection between faith and secular humanist philosophy.

3. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. A very awesome story that takes the detective story a long way from Agatha Christie. It is interesting to read this book at the same time as Levinas' book above.

4. Of Hospitality by Jacques Derrida. This is not your standard PoMo linguistic theory. In fact, it is not really linguistic at all. Rather, Derrida sets out to ask why and how we should treat a stranger in our home. He draws on a wide variety of narratives and metaphors from Oedipus to cell phones.

5. Watchmen by Alan Moore. This is not your daddy's comic book. Moore crafts a fascinating story by weaving together a number of threads that touch on the important questions of the 20th and 21st centuries. Power, sex, politics, fear, and justice all are questioned in a meaningful and vital way.

6. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Not only is this an Oprah book, like that should mean something, but it delves into questions of race, faith, and culture in a brilliant story of South Africa in the middle of the 20th century. In addition to talking about fascinating topics in a new way, Paton writes in a beautiful prose in which he tries to use the rhythms of the many native South African languages while telling his story in English. I honestly cry every time that I read this book.

7. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Many people would put Lord of the Rings on a list like this, but I think that this story touches on something equally as epic but in a different perspective. There is something truly magical when one reads about Bilbo's journey because it is not a huge quest to save the world. It is just one little person who gives into their desire for adventure and finds themselves much deeper than they had supposed. I also love the end so much when Tolkien has Bilbo knocked out fairly early where he must hear about the battle in hindsight.

8. There is a teen knitting book that I can't remember the title of that is really cool. I began knitting to relieve stress, but it is fun too. Oh! It is called Teen Knitting Club. Thanks, Amazon! Knitting books have a wide variety of crapitude of instructions for beginners. This book has excellent pictures, directions, and some really fun beginning projects for people of any age.

5. What are you reading right now?: Well, i was reading the Book of Daniel an hour ago. I will have to do a post on why Daniel, a very devout man of God, allowed himself to be named for Big N's god. What is the difference between this an bowing down to the idol? There seems to be a lesson there. I just started Cash by Johnny Cash. It is really very good. Many autobiographies are obviously, wholly ghost-written, but this has a great deal of effort by Cash and the "with" author to make the book read in a very effective and oral manner.

This post has taken me much longer than I had meant. But please feel free to send me your ideas and readings.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Sex and Christianity...

As I take a bit of a break from my walk through philosophical development, I would like to comment on the complete inability for Christian publications and cultural analysts to understand how narratives work.

Let us take for example the recent review by Plugged-In of "40 Year-Old Virgin." In this review, Marcus Yoars makes a number of huge blunders in understanding not only how this movie works (and doesn't work) but also of how the presence of movies like this should present a hopeful view for Christians.

First of all, Yoars does not understand the MPAA rating system. He writes, "Andy Stitzer is a virgin. And he's 40. Hence the movie's title. Hmmm, I wonder what could possibly happen next in this should-have-been-rated-NC-17 smutfest." I am not sure if Yoars intends this to be a joke, but due to his lack of a sense of play throughout the rest of his review, I doubt it.

NC-17 is a rating reserved for films that display repeated graphic violence and/or sexually explicit material that would be detrimental to viewers under the age of 17. Now, while I agree that this is not a kiddie movie, there is very little depicted that would be encountered by the average 13-17 year-old that is willing and able to convince their guardian to take them to this movie.

Secondly, he makes the supreme blunder of mis-identifying the purpose of the film. He writes, "I understand the subtext here. I do. In a backhanded way, writers Judd Apatow and Steve Carell give props to celibacy by surrounding Andy with ludicrous, sex-crazed friends, neighbors and co-workers. In contrast to these characters' absurd foolishness, Andy's convictions (if you can call them that) stand out. The writers even keep him virginal until he's tied the knot. And they convey the frustrations of every virgin who's tried to remain unashamed about their celibacy while being bombarded with social messages that mock them."

One wonders if he really does understand the subtext when he follows this astute summary of the purpose of the film by saying, " But none of that—can I make this any clearer?—warrants or redeems The 40-Year-Old Virgin's outrageously abusive conversations, actions and situations. "Why does everything have to be about sex?" Andy yells in frustration at one point. My feelings exactly."

Indeed it is exactly the fact that Mr. Yoars is so offended by the context that shows that the film has accomplished its goal.

How else should one show the absurdity of the sexual drive of our culture, unless we show it? Sure one can imagine a movie-of-the-week approach where Jane or John is assaulted by their "bad" friends to engage in all sorts of activities that their parents warn them of. They could struggle and fall, only to be forced to face the reality of their situation and the costs that loose sexuality present, but in some ways this approach gives too power power to the sexual tones of our culture.

Anyone who has spent any time in a sports bar near or on a college campus will hear 18-22 year old men and women speaking about sex constantly. We see advertisements that constantly tell us that we are ugly and not sexual enough.

Apatow and Carell take a step back and show us (the American culture), through hyperbole, how stupid this sort of approach is.

Are there problems with the film? Sure. It does use f*** a lot, but then so do my students and friends. Should Trish push her daughter to wait until marriage? Sure, but is this realistic at all given her own life and the nature of today's culture? Does the average viewer "get" the complexity? Or do they just laugh at Carrel with an erection?

The important thing to keep in mind about comedy, and satire in particular, is that is must walk a very thin line between hyperbole and reality. It has to place a distorted lens up to things that the audience encounters daily.

Rather than tear the film down, or laud it outright as many critics have, Christian critics must take the time to outline for parents and kids how films and stories work. What is the film saying? How does it say it? What is admirable, and what needs work? My question above about whether the average viewer "gets" it comes into play here. We, as Christian scholars and writers, must go out of our way to make Christians better-than-average readers of cultural texts, rather than just ordering them what to see and what to avoid.

Plugged-In and Focus on the Family have a fantastic opportunity to reach out to their readers and teach them how to do more than tune out every time that they see a breast or hear f***. They could create media savvy Christians who can navigate and choose for themselves what they and their family encounter as well as what they take from it.

However, this does not seem to be what mainstream Christian organization want. They want followers. They want subscribers who will adopt the "right" path. There is no/little desire to have individuals who can find the Truth on their own, in consultation with other believers.

This has led to the acceptance of the graphic depictions of "real" events, such as in Gibson's "Passion," while they refuse to accept another graphic representation of something that is even more present in contemporary society, sex.

Monday, August 22, 2005


Before I discuss anything further in my main thread, I think that I need to set up what kinds of things I am opposing. To do this, we must look at the foundations of the current philosophical and theological position.

For today, I would like to talk a bit about the Enlightenment.

Ahhh...yes...the Enlightenment. That magical time when the European branch of mankind progressed out of the Dark Ages. Philosophers, artists, mathematicians, theologians and scientists all looked at the previous millenium or two and asked, "Why have we always done it this way?"

While I cannot claim any solid expertise in the realm of philosophical history in any significant depth, I have gathered some understanding of some of the major trends. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on three major ideas: resurrection of reason, rise of empirical evidence, and adoption of individual identities.

First, I must note that these are very clearly interelated. There is no way to separate the process of devloping a concept of the individual from empiricism or reason. Nor would we want to. Still, it is important to talk about these as different processes in light of how they have evolved in contemporary society. Second, we should all be fully aware that these are not processes that can be said to reach a "conclusion". We should think about these as new lenses which became more readily available to the general populace, although in fact this was limited by gender and class identity.

Let's start by talking about bit about the resurrection of reason. I say "resurrection" because it is fairly clear that the ancient Greek tradition had a significant reliance on the reason and spent a good deal of time defining and refining it. However, with the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, among many other events, reason as it is classically defined became a small concern to almost everyone in the Western world.

With the advancement in the arts and sciences, reason began to be seen as a very real way to improve the lot of humanity. By following a logical process, one could exert some measure of control on the environment and be considered more fair. Furthermore, reason represented a significant separation between humanity and the wilds of the earth. It separated man from beast. (Indeed, it was seen to separate man from woman as well.)

Moving into the realm of faith in the Enlightenment, this separation presented a valuable tool for a church in crisis following the beginning of the Reformation. On one hand, reason allowed Luther to see the reasons and ways that he opposed the policies of the Church and, on the other, it presented a valuable weapon for advocating a position of humanity in a special role above the natural world.

Empirical evidence and methods give a method for framing and repeating operations of the mind. Again, these are ideas that existed in the ancient Greek traditions. The Enlightenment served to reintroduce and broaden the scope of inquiry with the resulting advancements of technology and communication.

Side Note: Empirical evidence seems tied in many ways to the advancement of printing and navigation. With these tools, information could be reproduced relatively quickly and disseminated quickly as well. The production and export of ideas, especially facts, provide a mode of consistency that furthers the sense of order and control that directly opposed the chaos of previous eras.

Finally, we must note that philosophers of the late Enlightenment (17th-18th century) began to spread some of the individualism of the reformation theology into the political spheres. This advances the concept of individual rights, which, in turn, begins a significant understanding of people (at least economically stable people) as individual moral agents that think and act alone.

The genealogies of these sorts of ideas are most important when we look at the movement of the contemporary church. Many of the current assumptions of Conservative Christianity go back to the philosophical changes of this period rather than having a basis in the presented authority of the Bible.

Next week, I will talk a bit about how these ideas changed with the rise of industrialization and modernism.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Aside (Marriage and Divorce):

As I work my way through this process of writing my huge view of the problem of evil, postmodernity, and faith, you will find that I will often take a post or two to have a bit of a creak and vent about something that I have read.

I am a devoted reader of Focus on the Family's "Boundless" e-zine. I was raised on Dobson on the radio, and I read the many magazines throughout my child and young adulthood. Much of this was because my extended family often gave subscriptions as gifts, but I think that more than this, I have always been intrigued with how Christians, including myself, view themselves and the world.

This week, I think there is an article that shows one of the biggest problems in contemporary Christianity and more specifically in Christian intellectualism. In this article, "Scott M. Stanley, Ph.D." seeks to enlighten the "twenty somethings" about the "Myths of Divorce".

Now, I have no problem with Christian publications bringing their own scholars and experts to the public sphere in order to give a more well-rounded view of significant issues. I think this is great, but I also think that they must hold themselves to a higher standard of scholarship than those whom they oppose.

Stanley's argument itself is good. He seeks to point out that too often, in contemporary society, married couples go through a tough spot and do not see any hope for it to return to the magic that they had at the beginning. He writes that many people in a downturned marriage think that since they are unhappy, then their kids might be better off with divorced parents, and so they pull apart.

I couldn't agree with Stanley more. I think that, in general, this is tied to the "youth"-centered idea of beauty and success. (This is not a realistic picture of youth, meaning actual kids with real thoughts, feelings, and problems, but that is a topic for another time.) If we saw happiness as something other than toned bodies, perfect smiles, and a plethora of exciting sexual intercourse, then we might start looking for positives in other places. Also, all conflict is not always bad. Furthermore, to make any real relationship work, both people need to be willing to lose their pride and be vulnerable.

Having said that, Stanley's thesis, "That brings me to some advice for those of you who are married, have children and have a lot of conflict in your marriage: Learn to handle it better," leaves something to be desired in the gritty world which the rest of us live in.

Yes, if you have a marriage where both people are actively engaged in making it work, then this is great advice. Theoretically, this is what Christian marriages should be shining beacons for, but realistically, this is not so.

I can't pull statistics to prove this statement. I don't have colleagues doing research on this topic. So, I will have to defer to Dr. Stanley on making positive factual statements.

So before I talk about the flaws in the argument more specifically, I want to say which points I agree with.

1. Yes, divorce can have bad effects on children. (psychological, sociological, spiritual, etc)
2. Yes, there is such a thing as a "good enough" marriage. (see article for definition. It is a bit different than it sounds.)
3. Yes, if both people are committed to change and are willing to be vulnerable, then it can be extremely rewarding to stick it out.

Here are the problems:
1. Domestic Abuse: It is clear that domestic abuse is a huge issue in society today.

Statisticians say it is up, down, changed, more against men than thought before, more unreported all around than ever before, and numerous other things of that ilk. The numbers themselves do not matter. The point is that it exists, and that it exists in greater numbers than we imagine. This means in the Church body as well.

Stanley's response to this huge issue is,

"If you are in a dangerous relationship, do all that is needed to be safe. Get help and advice and support. You may need to call a domestic violence hotline. If you are in a high-conflict but non-dangerous marriage, the single best thing you can do for your children is to change the pattern with your spouse by doing all you can to treat one another differently."

So, if you are being beaten, verbally, or sexually assaulted, Stanley's advice is to, one, call a hotline and, two, change from both sides.

Ummm...I don't want to be a wet blanket, but the men, women, and children that I have met who have been victims of a variety of forms of abuse would love to pick up the phone and change their situation like they were ordering Domino's. However, that does not happen. Generally, women (and I say women because most of the studies on domestic abuse focus on women) who are killed as a result of domestic violence have repeatedly run away but returned to "work it out" or because "he's changed."

2. The Church's Views on Divorce and Masculinity:
I have read the Bible, and I understand why the church frowns on divorce at the very least. However, I also know that the contemporary Conservative Christian church is not really doing its best job of creating a new generation of men who can and will participate in marriage in the ways in which Stanley advises.

Yes, I know that the men is meant to be the head of the household, but I also know that that house is meant to be run as a joint partnership in the image of Christ with the Church. There is to be love, respect, honor, and obedience from both sides.

Now, how does this mesh with the support for leaders who refuse to admit wrongdoing or error? If we were to look to W as a role-model, which many pastors have advised from my personal experience, then let's not look at the way he treats his wife. Let's look at the way he treats his nation.

In addition to the Church's view on leadership and masculinity, we must look at the ways in which the Church, specifically youth groups, treat the differences between genders. How can we expect men to really relate to women on a realistic level, when for the decade-plus between most of us reach puberty and when we get married, we are told that to spend time alone with a girl is tantamount to ripping one's clothes off and fornicating in the grass.

You might say, "Steve, buddy, that is a complete exaggeration of the truth. We have to teach kids to respect themselves and their bodies, otherwise they would be off in the woods having sex at every church camp." Youth pastors, you all need to lean in here. THEY ARE!!! It happens. Not all the time, not in every church, or every youth group activity. I could provide examples, but that would just be gratuitous.

Ok, but I will provide only one. I went to a bible camp from the time I was in 6th grade through college. One year, we had a very athletic high-school girl come to camp. She was in training for the Junior Olympics, but despite the advice of her coach who told her to stay at home and train constantly, she loved God and Bible camp so much that she came anyway.

Now it was not allowed for kids to be out of their cabins before a certain time, but the girl had to get up at 5am in order to get her run in, since she would be unable to train during the rest of the day. It was feared that she would run by the boys cabins and raise thier interest. (I'm not kidding. I was a counsellor at the time, and this is what was argued.) She was finally allowed to get up because she convinced a female counselor to get up with her and make sure that nothing crazy happened.

She was unable to wear the actual outfit that she trained in because it was a skintight singlet and soccer shorts. So she had to wear a bulky t-shirt and long shorts.

Finally, she was used to training with her younger brother, who was about 12 or 13 and also in training, but there was a huge uproar when it was discovered that training involved helping each other stretch out. It was stated in my hearing that it was "unseemly" for a brother to hold his sister's leg and push it to stretch the hamstring.

The problem is that when the leaders and parents tell kids constantly that these are the prescribed gender and sexual roles, that kids might actually believe them!

For example, boys are told that girls are to be cared for and treated nicely, but they also raise up sinful thoughts by their exposure of legs, breasts, arms, ankles, or whatever. We were told that girls who raised these thoughts by dressing in a certain way were not good godly girls. Girls, on the other hand, were told that their bodies were dangerous weapons that could cause these hormone bombs, called boys, to go off at any moment. They were also informed that sex was the sole motivation and desire of every male, or so I am told by reliable sources since we were instructed separately in these secret truths.

Now, if we are constantly taught that sex is the central fear and desire, then might we start to assume that these feelings of tenderness or "like" always meant sex? Furthermore, if the girls who were raising these impure thoughts were doing so because they were not godly, then it is not a long jump in logic for the boy to think that it is not entirely his fault if his desires lead to rape or sexual harrassment. After all, if she didn't want boys talking about her breasts, then she shouldn't have them.

No, of course, not every youth group will spawn a rapist. I know that, but my point is that these sort of perspectives of the contemporary chruch contribute as much to marital problems as the wider culture's push for "happiness".

I mean, how can we expect men and women to know how to converse about important and trivial things, if they are never given a chance to learn? It is vitally important for young people to learn how to interact with one another meaningfully in a way that does not immediately mean, "I want to love you madly." Otherwise, the church is buying into the popular cultural concept that it is all about sex. Sex, Sex, SEX!

What does this mean for Stanley and his article? Well, I guess that I all of this long diatribe was just to say that I think that it is a supreme oversight for people like Stanley who claim to be scholars and intellectuals to not bring up a valid counterargument.

Stanley glosses over domestic abuse. He never mentions the alternative reasons that divorce might be MORE likely in young Christian couples than in the general population. He fails to acknowledge the limitations that the Church might be hardwiring into the boys and girls in its youth groups. Finally, there is no mention that the forbidden nature of sex outside of marriage might, JUST MIGHT, nudge Christian young people to get married for the wrong reasons.

Hey, yeah, let's take the culture to task for its views on sex and happiness! But let's also turn a critical eye to ourselves and look at the ways that we might be contributing to the same problems through what we are doing. We, as Christian academics, scholars, and thinkers, must not only act as watchdogs for the culture at large but more importantly for the hypocracy in ourselves. I think that Jesus had some opinon along those lines...

Talk to you later.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Problem of Evil...

The problem of evil has a couple different manifestations in my mind. (Yes, in my mind, I use words like manifestation regularly. I am such an elitist nerd. I am truly sorry.)

First, there is the religious view that I learned as I grew up. This "problem of evil" centers on the question of, "Why would a good God allow bad things to happen to good/innocent people?" This cuts to the nature of the relationship of the divine to the created world.

Secondly, an alternate, but related, question comes from the secular front: "What does it mean to be evil?"

These two questions rest at the center of my intellectual pursuits. It is my goal to work of outlining the connections between these two inquiries.

Sure, this sounds great and deep, but why should anyone care about my little game with language? I recently read an article by a French philosopher, Badiou, who wanted to diagnose one of the problems of contemporary philosophy as its dependence on playing with language.

This article wanted to reestablish the realistic and practical approaches to the questions of the universe by refocusing on reason and rationality. What amazes me and makes the combination of these two different perspectives on evil so important is that both take an issue of life, "evil," and point to the problem of relatibility that is embedded within these questions.

Both questions point out an unknowability of the answers to these questions. Knowing indicates some measure of certainty. In the first question, even though there is God to act as an independent measure of the truth of the answer(s), our ability to know God's answer means that we function, to some degree, on faith and assumption.

In the second question, asking what it means to be or do evil indicates that the meaning is not set. There is a cultural aspect that manipulates the understanding of the question.

Since both of these ideas point to some measure of the impossibility of gaining a definite epistemology of "evil," then one aspect of the meaning of being human centers on dealing with, not resolving, these sorts of locations of fluid knowledge. Dealing with good and evil as fluid terms is one of the perspectives that the contemporary church has taken up arms against in their conflict with postmodernism.

In the future, I want to look into some ways in which a postmodern understanding of morality and ethics might provide more room for a Christian perspective in contemporary culture than the traditional, rational, enlightenment approach to thought that the American conservative church espouses.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Bad Christians...

In a time where the Internet is cursed as a source of the vacuousness of society, I would like to take this chance to point out a couple websites that I find very useful for very different reasons.

In the first, brandon writes daily (I know it is very impressive) about his struggles and thoughts in life. Brandon gives me an interesting and envigorating jolt of togetherness in growth as academics and Christians.

Reading his writing not only makes me jealous of his ability to communicate deeply personal and deeply fundamental issues that he comes across, but it also makes me mad that I am unable to contribute to my own forum of thoughts as readily.

Recently, Brandon has been working on a series titled "Why do I write what I write (a christ haunted life)". The title really explains a great deal, but I would like to take some time to explain why I write what I write.

1. Why write:

First, I have explained in the past that I see alternative venues, no matter how poorly attended or presented, represent viable places for new ideas and connections to be developed.

Secondly, I have talked about the need for Christian academics to speak out. This need to speak out must not be limited to academic matters or just Christian matters. Rather, by expressing ourselves, we place ourselves in a vulnerable position where we are open to community, even in its weakest forms.

Finally, I have struggled a great deal in the past two years with the place and role that God has placed me in. I found that I had been very fortunate to find the places and friends that I had had in my undergrad and masters program. Moving to my current program, I have found much more fighting and discord, and I still recognize that my position is less tenuous than many. All of this is to say that writing about my feelings and thoughts, even if only my friends and a couple colleagues check them, really helps me maintain an even keel.

2. What do I write:

This is a more difficult problem. Unlike Brandon, I lack a central theme in many ways. I have left the door of ideas open too wide. To rectify this, I am going to begin to discuss a cluster of ideas that revolve around questions of faith, identity, story, and culture.

A few posts ago, I mentioned my opinion and enjoyment of the film "In America". In many ways, that article represents a number of my goals for writing this blog. I want to examine the problem of evil in the world and how we have, should, and will deal with this problem.

You might state that this is no less broad than before, and you might be right. Still, we all have to start somewhere.

Tommorrow or maybe later tonight I will start by defining the problem, at least one of them.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Comedies...romantic and otherwise...

The plus to all of this effort and struggle is that my parents gave my wife and I free passes to a movie. While this might seem fantastically exciting to a pair of people living below the poverty line, the restrictions on said tickets made it much more difficult to redeem than we had thought.

We were not allowed to use these for any film that had been released in the last two weeks, since these are considered "special engagements." In years gone by, this would not be a major problem, but in the last couple of years, it has become very rare for any but the most successful and/or family oriented films to last more than two weeks in major theaters.

Finally, we noticed that a special preview of "Must Love Dogs" for some reason was not considered a "special engagement." I defy you to tell me the logic of this process.

Now, I did my master's thesis on teen comedies of the 1980s, so I was excited to see the progress of Mr. John Cusack. Furthermore, he starred opposite the beautiful and talented Diane Lane, my example of how older women are often much more alluring than the teen of the week (Take that Lindsey and Hilary!).

I am glad to report that while the film is pedantic and totally predictible, it goes to show how even the simplest script and direction can become something entertaining when combined with enough talent.

I have in the past discussed the difference between "entertaining" and "great" cinema, but I will recap for those of you who do not know me personally. "Entertaining" means that neither my wife or I had any desire to request our time or money back following a film. "Great" cinema makes the audience sit back and look at the world in a slightly different way. This should not be reserved for the epic, Academy Award winning films that tackle a huge issue or event, although sometimes these do a credible job.

For the purpose of illustration, i will include a couple lists of films that fall under either, both, or none of these categories.
Great Films: These films made me rethink the world around me but are not necessarily the kind of thing that I want to watch regularly.
Chuck and Buck
The Apostle
The Sweet Hereafter
The Conversation
Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye

Entertaining Films: These are fun but do not really stand up to a lot of repeated viewing. They are also usually great examples of genre filmmaking.
In Good Company
Sense and Sensibility
Most things with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood
Some Kind of Wonderful
Spies Like Us

Great, Entertaining Films: Generally, I put films in this category that take a genre and stretch its boundaries a bit, or maybe more than a bit.
Next Stop Wonderland
Sliding Doors
Hero (Ying Xiong), not the 1991 film with Dustin Hoffman.
The Seven Samurai
The Princess Bride

Neither Great nor Entertaining: There are really too many of these to even give examples of, but these are often genre films that do nothing but fulfill the most basic requirements of said genre. Don't hate me if your favorite film is here.
Bad Boys II
Alien vs. Predator
Wedding Crashers
Kramer vs. Kramer
Thirteen Ghosts

Sure, I realize that these groupings are subjective. They are also based on genres to some degree, which could cause some problems for theorists. I also realize that not every film is made to be great or entertaining. Many films are made to make money. Maybe in the future, I will write a bit about why this is intrinsically a destructive force in American narratives across all media.

For now, i should get back to work.

Hardwood floors and other tests of patience...

Rather than beginning with my usual apologies for not posting for a while, I'm going to explain the reason that it has been a month since my last post.

I mentioned a few weeks ago about the fun of dealing with parents and ideology. Well, let me just advise those of you who think that you get along with your folks well that you should never volunteer to help with large renovation projects unless you are sure that you will be good working with said parents.

This past spring, I offered to help my parents in the renovation of their kitchen and dining nook. Part of this process was the tearing up of their old linoleum floor and installing a beautiful hardwood floor. This, by itself, is not the central problem. I spent a few years in college earning a living by my adaquate carpentry skills.

The problem evolves when you are dealing with homeowners who have no clue about the problems of tearing up a central living area for a matter of weeks. I wrote out a detail list of the things that would need to be done before my wife, my friend, and I would go down and actually put the floor in.

Needless to say, none of this was accomplished. None of the required tools and materials were purchased. The area was not prepared, and all of a sudden, my parents had decided that they wanted to try to retain a large quantity of moldings that I had said, "would be incredibly difficult to salvage."

So this last weekend, I went down to my parents' house to try to finish off the final stage of trimming the floor and installing the baseboards. Of course, none of the issues were really resolved. So for 14 man-hours later, we had about 7 pieces installed.

On the plus side, two of the transitions between the reconstructed area and other rooms is complete, but the negative side is that the baseboards are not finished. We found that a number of the walls do not contain the normal spacing of studs to affix the baseboards to, and my parents want to retain the complete height of the molding, rather than sink the wood below the floor level.

What does this have to do with being a public intellectual? I have no real clue, but I know that the fact that, between the four of us, we have eight-and-a-half degrees in a wide range of disciplines. None of them helped us develop an approach to a project that would result in a simple accomplishment of the task.

So the next time that you look down on any one in any of the various trades, stop! Think about the large quantity of work that it would take for you to do that for yourself. Offer them a cup of coffee or order a pizza or sandwiches for lunch. Then thank them profusely for their efforts.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Academic's Point of View...

Those of you who have read my blog know that I am sorely remiss in my efforts to post frequently. I regret this, but such is the nature of blogging.

Finally, I hope to complete my series on Academic Freedom and why I find myself horribly lost in an almost untenable position.

Those of you who need a refresher, please read this (

You will find my general overview on the problem on academic freedom and my summary of David Horowitz's perspective.

Today, I would like to write a bit about the radical/academic perspective. I know that not all academics are radicals. I use this generalization merely to simplify my argument and avoid bogging down in particulars.

These views are my experiences with a few individuals and those whose writing I have read in various magazines and online. Take this presentation with a large grain of salt.

People opposing Horowitz seem to hold one or more of these positions:

1. The purpose of education is always to challenge the status quo/canon.
-to some degree, I agree. I think that education must incorporate the establishment of critical thinking abilities.

2. The instructor/professor/academic has the right and obligation to abide by some form of liberal iconoclasm.
-Indeed, it would seem that there are relatively few outlets for the voiceless to be given voices than the academy.

3. Iconoclasm, therefore, represents critical thought, and anyone who supports any aspect of the status quo/canon hold the potential betrayal of "progress" and is not educated.
-This is where I begin to have problems. It seems that this perspective leaves the academic community open to fall victim to a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water. More on this later.

4. Any method necessary can and should be employed against those who resist the progress of the "right" or "tolerant" perspectives.
-Clearly, not everyone who opposed Horowitz believes this, but it has been argued to me that any concession that any academic has behaved inappropriately in the classroom or through their research represents a personal failure.

Therefore, the image of the academics' desire for institutions of learn quickly become as problematic as Horowitz's desire for lecture halls filled with quiet students absorbing "objective knowledge".

It seems that the desired state would allow anyone who is hired by an educational institution to have free reign to express themselves in any way they thought suitable for the education of the students as they see fit.

Is it wrong for professors to expect the right to show how historically almost every field of intellectual knowledge has been shaped by oppressive regimes of power?

Obviously not, but by the same token, we cannot say that every result of an oppressive regime is worthless. Or more importantly, we cannot say that those who have benefited from such regimes hold complete complicity with the instutitions and individuals who shaped and maintained oppression.

This is not quite as clear as i wanted to make it. So please, don't come after me. I hope to clarify it in my next post where I present my opinion on what to do and why.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Yay! Finally! and a short thought on parents...

I just got word, all, that my prof has finally figured out how to access my blog and graded it. I know that my posting has probably eliminated any readers that I might have had, but I got an "A"!

So I will begin posting more regularly after my month-long forced hiatus.

For today's post, I want to share part of a conversation that some of my friends and I just started having about the challenges of enacting and speaking a new perspective of Christianity.

My friend, Brad, wrote:
>And yeah, those few days w/ my parents, while largely enjoyable, also
>reminded us of the sorts of issues that will need to be confronted if
>we're going to establish a healthy relationship w/ them. Most of you
>know that my relationship w/ my parents has never been great, and has
>often been strained. The problem is that my values won't let me just
>ignore them - nor, I suppose, wld that allow me to be an emotionally
>whole person.

And I responded:

I am very glad that you have shared this with us.

Jenna and I just spent basically two weeks with my parents: first, we were helping them install a new
hardwood floor in their kitchen, and second, we hitched a ride with them to my cousin's wedding over
Memorial Day weekend. It was such a struggle all the time.My dad wants to have these phil and theo.
debates with us kids so that he feels that he is doing his duty as a spiritual leader of the family, but his
definitions and understandings of things stretches things so thin.

You all know that I have never been the most subtle person to argue with, and my dad and I got into a
heated debate about the role of Paul's epistles in the canon. I have personally been growing more and more
dubious about why Paul's writings are any more "divinely inspired" than any other Christian thinker, read
Lewis, Chesterton, Ellul, etc, and this obviously worried my father a great deal.

He and I would begin to get in this cyclical arguments that went no where. When I would cut off the
argument and say something like, "This is getting us no where. We are speaking about different things, and I
don't think you are really getting what I am trying to say," then he would get mad that I was backing out of
the argument because I was beaten. This would make me mad, and then my mother would start thinking
that we hated our parents. She would cry and ask, "Why are you SO cynical?" This made the many long car
rides VERY uncomfortable. Especially since my dad's idea of an apology is a statement of the obvious,
"There's a cow. Hm...aluminum fabrication. That would be an interesting job."

Any tips would be welcome.

This holds true for anyone out there reading this. Advice is needed.

On one hand, I could just keep my mouth shut and smile and nod and then go do my own thing, but that just seems dishonest in so many ways.

In the coming days, I am going to finish my diatribe on David Horowitz and also talk about some of the movies that I have seen recently. Now that I am out of class, I can talk about a broader range of issues.

Friday, April 22, 2005

David Horowitz' Point of View...

In an effort to not be labeled as a complete Stalinist, I would like to present a discussion of what I think are some of the valid critiques that Horowitz and his promoters sponsor.

1. Academics are predominantly liberal: Yes, they are. Most of the professors that I have had, excepting some of those at my Christian undergraduate college, have been solidly Democrats.

2. Some of these liberal academics make it their personal mission to foist their opinions and views on others: Almost everyone who has attended college has had at least one professor who has spent at least part of the beginning of nearly every class ranting on how those **** Christians and their Bush are dragging everything into a collective cess pool where they will hope to rule with ruthless and totalitarian fists.

In addition to opening class rants, I have personally endured attacks on myself as an individual where I was told any or all of these things:
  • No sane person would ever believe in a Christian God.
  • Christianity leads directly to fascism.
  • There is no room for being both Christian and progressive.
  • There is no such thing as Christian feminism.
  • When, in philosophy, we discuss the existence of God, we actually are talking about how historically God has been used as a support for evil things, thus we have grown beyond such childish fairytales. Therefore, the purpose of talking about ontotheology is to disprove God's existence.
  • All Christians believe X,Y, and Z.
  • You have no business talking about religion informing philosophy or ethics because religion always leads to a will to knowledge.
  • "You kinds of students who think you can be a thinking Christian make me want to quit teaching. You are parasites on those of us who want to give you 'real' knowledge."

Needless to say that all of these not only are personally offensive, but they also show the complete lack of willingness on the part of many academics to discuss issues of faith, values, or ethics unless it is completely on their terms. You are, after all, either with us or against us.

3. Many times this sort of abuse goes unchecked and threatens a students quality of life and ability to function within the college or university system: also true. I am a big burly intelligent white male who most people would assume brimmed with advantage and self-confidence, but I have been reduced to tears many days after a particularly difficult day of classes.

Sure alcohol and nicotine can help at times, but I hardly think students should be reduced to self-medication to get through college.

Furthermore, with the appeals process at most university being nothing but a vestigial nod to students' rights, if a situation occurs where a student's grade is in question, there are few, if any, roads of accountability. At my current institution, even if a student proves that discrimination occurred and that it affected their grade, no one can force the professor to change their grade.

Something needs to be done. Some of my colleagues disagree with me, but I think that Horowitz and his supporters are not on a completely arbitrary witch-hunt. If there were not professors abusing their position as teachers in order to become evangelists, then students would not rally to his cause as readily.

Too often, I hear professors in the lounge gleefully talking about how they can't wait to fail a student who dared write a paper on why they think abortion is wrong or why their faith is important to them. Rather than carefully challenge all students to learn to critically engage with what they think and where that came from, they want their students to reject all of their past and learn to spout a new rhetoric without thought.

In the next few days, I promise, I will be posting on the types of audacious claims that make it impossible for me to ever join with Horowitz. Surprise, surprise, many of them are the same.

Until then, "May all of your sorrows be patched and your joys be quilted."

Friday, April 08, 2005

David Horowitz Hates Me...

Or at least hates my campus. Now, I know that it has been a while since I posted, but I have been super busy with the end of the semester approaching. Still, when I posted on March 30th on the upcoming presentation by David Horowitz, I could never have imagined the debacle that would result.

I must give some background in order to explain my discussion which will follow. When Mr. Horowitz came to speak, I assumed that significant opposition would result, especially from the highly political members of my department, but I have to admit that I was surprised by the vehemence of their expression of disagreement.

It all began with a vocal rally outside of the doors to the hall where he was going to speak. Members of campus liberal groups gathered and shouted at those who entered to hear the lecture. The abuse continued inside of the lecture as opposition forces booed, hissed, and generally heckled throughout Mr. Horowitz's "lecture."

Following the repeated breakdown of order and a disorganized question and answer period, Mr. Horowitz stated that BGSU was the worst place at which he had ever spoken, and I eagerly awaited his comments on his blog.

Well here they are: (

In his article, "Bowling Green Barbarians," Horowitz cites BGSU as the prime example of everything that is wrong with American higher education: "there seem to be no adults around to mind the playground."

In my next post, I will directly respond not only to Mr. Horowitz's accusations but also to the behavior of my opposition minded colleagues.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Academic Freedom and Me...

Well, folks! It has been over a week since I have been able to make the time to communicate with you.

This evening, my university is having David Horowitz speak, famed mentor to Students for Academic Freedom, So there has been a big push from both sides of the political spectrum to attend and voice opposition/support.

I feel that I must weigh in here for two major reasons. First, this blog is at least ostensibly about issues of intellectualism in the academy, and this might be the biggest issue at the moment on that particular table. Secondly, I co-author and sponsored a bill (click for the news reporting the bill's passage) in my school's Graduate Student Senate that expressed opposition to Ohio Senate Bill 24 ( see for the exact text).

The problem as I see it is multivariate. First, many professors are in fact or in appearance taking as part of their mission as teachers the goals to inform/force students' views on political issues in such a way as to make this information tangential to the course topic and to cause students to fear reciprocity for writing on, researching, or otherwise expressing views that the professor find naive or ill-informed.

I have been in a number of classes over my twenty-year history in the education system that I have felt that the teacher presented their own personal view as the correct one without much room for discussion. At the same time, I have had numerous professors who spent a great deal of time fostering a useful and lively discussion of ideas. In some ways this might result from divergent types of professors, and in some cases there are fundamental problems with instructors.

In other cases, though, the problem lies with students who have not been taught in elementary or secondary schools how to investigate, reason, and present controversial opinions. There is next to no instruction on critical thinking, a process not assisted by "No Child Left Behind"/test-based assessments of progress. Therefore, oftentimes students reach the college level and are surprised when they are confronted by an oppositional viewpoint that a professor has had years to craft and form. The students are unarmed for intellectual combat, and the question becomes, "How do we best teach individuals how to fight mental fights?"

There seem to be two basic camps presenting solutions. Members of both the left and right inhabit both of these solutions, and each brings their own set of presuppositions and biases.

1. We challenge the students openly by questioning and interrogating their presentations of unformed viewpoints. This approach can take the form of lectures, class discussion, responses to speeches/presentations, or the grading of papers.

The problem with this is that students often feel attacked and assaulted throughout their class day. This places them on their defensive posture. Rather than drawing the student out and forcing them to fortify their ideologies with thought and research, they more often either retreat and accept the point of view in order to get a good grade or turn to outside sources for reinforcements.

2. We present the student with facts that support a variety of different perspectives and encourage them to draw from these texts in an effort to construct a personal viewpoint that is more open to considering differences. This is attempted in survey courses.

The problems with this sort of approach basically rests on time and money. In order to adaquately present the vast quantities of perspectives that exist and could come to bear on any one issue would take an equally vast class-length.

It also assumes that students have the ability and desire to truly test and research on their own. This process of self motivation and discernment would require a preknowledge of critical thought. In my experience, students prefer to be told what they need to memorize for a test and then just given a test on that material.

Furthermore, it assumes an ability of instructors to equally and deftly present viewpoints with which they might personally disagree and which does not become merely a multitude of canons from which the student must choose. This is an extremely difficult proposition and is not very easily accomplished.

What I advocate is a combination of the two. I think that the benefits of a truly Socratic style of teaching are huge, but I also know that many times professors have no real desire to hear the opinions of the students but prefer to undercut them or show them how wrong they are.

Therefore, graduate students and professors must be taught how to guide students to find the errors in their own and each other's arguments. This requires confrontation with facts and texts that force a process of questioning. It also requires an openness on behalf of the instructor to being interrogated with equal ferocity, something that causes many professors to shut down into a mentality I call "Agree OR Else" aka "Well I Have a Doctorate and Am Teaching the Class".

Fundamentally, I agree with authors such as Ellul and Levinas who advocate that society as a whole needs to shift a focus from seeking answers to seeking the right questions. I think that judgements must be made, grades must be given, but how we gauge that process might look much more different than A's= 92-100%.

Short of a complete change in society (something I am aware is utopian), all members of this discourse must become more accountable to each other and to themselves. There must be more sources of communication and feedback. There must be something like a campus ombudsman created for students to have an advocate who is not directly affiliated with any particular department or program.