Sunday, April 30, 2006

Lessons from Christian Music, Vol. 1: Gaither Vocal Band, Part 1: "This Old House"

Because I think it might be therapeutic for Christians to realize what has been done in the name of Christianity through music, I have started this series of posts with the Gaither Vocal Band, whose music is paradigmatic of what is wrong with "Christian" music. Feel free to lament, criticize, or whatever you think is appropriate.

This old house once knew my children
This old house once knew my wife
This old house was home and shelter as we fought the storms of life
This old house once rang with laughter
This old house heard many shouts
Now she trembles in the darkness when the lightnin' walks about

Ain't gonna need this house no longer
Ain't gonna need this house no more
Ain't got time to fix the shingles
Ain't got time to fix the floor
Ain't got time to oil the hinges
Nor to mend the window pane
Ain't gonna need this house no longer
I'm getting ready to meet the saints

This old house is getting shaky
This old house is getting old
This old house lets in the rain and
This old house lets in the cold
On my knees I'm getting chilly
But I feel no fear or pain
'Cause I see an angel peeking through
A broken window pane

Ain't gonna need this house no longer
Ain't gonna need this house no more
Ain't got time to fix the shingles
Ain't got time to fix the floor
Ain't got time to oil the hinges
Nor to mend the window pane
Ain't gonna need this house no longer
I'm getting ready to meet the saints

Now my old hound dog lies asleeping
He don't know I'm gonna leave
Else he'd wake up by the fireplace
And he'd sit there, howl and grieve
But my hunting days are over
I aint gonna hunt the 'coon no more
Gabriel done brought in chariot
When the wind blew down the door

Ain't gonna need this house no longer
Ain't gonna need this house no more
Ain't got time to fix the shingles
Ain't got time to fix the floor
Ain't got time to oil the hinges
Nor to mend the window pane
Ain't gonna need this house no longer
I'm getting ready to meet the saints

Thursday, April 27, 2006

I'm not alone

I've come across an excellent blog from a postdoctoral student in Australia who enjoys the theology of Eberhard Jüngel just as much as I do. He has a series of posts on Jüngel, including his own lists of books about and by Jüngel. Click here for my own bibliography (updated recently) of Jüngel's published works in English.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Fantastic Article on Bush

This article by Alan Wolfe from the Chronicle of Higher Education is an excellent article that brings to light two recent, intelligent treatments of political theory and criticism in light of the current Bush administration. The first is Francis Fukuyama -- well known for his tagline "the end of history" -- who has published a book revealing his change of mind about neoconservative policies. The latter is Bruce Bartlett, a conservative who thinks that Bush is an "imposter" who has effectively ruined our country by undermining the conservative policies of the Reagan era -- primarily small government and a greater concern for issues within our own nation. Bartlett was interviewed on NPR about his book, Imposter, and the NPR link includes a sample of the book. Bartlett argues that Bush is more like Nixon than Reagan, and that Republicans, if they want to regain this country's support, need to return to a Reagan-like conservativism. I think he's right, but I don't hold much hope for the Republican party. In any case, the article by Wolfe is well worth reading, and if you have time, listen to the interview by Terry Gross with Bartlett.

Currently Listening To:

For those interested in indie music, here are my recommendations for the best new music in no particular order (those who read Pitchfork will notice a number of similarities, but what's wrong with that?):
  • Bring It Back, by Mates of State
  • Beat Romantic, by Talkdemonic
  • Everything All the Time, by Band of Horses
  • Bitter Tea, by The Fiery Furnaces
  • Destroyer's Rubies, by Destroyer
  • Skeleton, by Figurines
  • Return to the Sea, by Islands
  • Making Dens, by Mystery Jets
  • Idols of Exile, by Jason Collett
  • Oh You're So Silent Jens, by Jens Lekman
My personal favorites from this list are Bring It Back, Skeleton, Beat Romantic, Return to the Sea, and Oh You're So Silent Jens. But I might change my mind tomorrow. They are all great.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Da Vinci (read: Gnostic) Code

In light of the upcoming movie, it's time now to comment on The Da Vinci Code. The book is a massive bestseller, and the film will likely be one of the top three box office hits of the year. The book is really a lot of fun. As a summer pop fiction read, I highly recommend it. Amy just finished it for her first time, and I read it last year. Sure, chapter 58 is controversial. Yeah, Dan Brown's history is about as good as my advanced calculus. Consequently, both popular positions—the book as work of the devil or answer to the mysteries of the world—are bunk and need to be strenuously avoided.

That said, I would like to comment on what I think people find so fascinating in it. A number of Christians who like to put a positive spin on pop culture (which is a more laudable position than fundies who view the world as satan's abode) see in The Da Vinci Code a kind of latent spirituality, an impulse to think about "spiritual matters," whatever that means. I grant that this is the case, but it is not by any means the positive thing these Christians think it is, unless Christianity means something very different from what tradition holds. It is a marvelous accident of history (or is it an accident?) that the "Gospel of Judas" has surfaced in the same year that The Da Vinci Code will hit the theaters. Both represent, in my opinion, the ever-increasing American fascination with the Gnosticism.

Gnosticism is the ancient Hellenistic belief that the world is evil (created by demigods) and the Divine Spirit has given a secret knowledge (gnosis) to an elite few, a knowledge which will free the elect from this prison of bodily matter and release them into a wholly other spiritual world. Many have already made the important point that there are striking similarities between this and modern American, premillennial evangelicalism. Gnosticism has, of course, held sway in the United States in various forms since its origin, but now more than ever, it seems to have found its audience. Our current society is caught up with the sense that the world is more evil than ever—structural evil now, rather than merely physical evil. The root of this new Gnostic sensibility is disillusionment: disillusionment with a government that appears to be evil—in its wars, policies, shadowy deals, shady connections—and disillusionment with a church that proves itself to be more sinful with each passing day—in child molestation cases mostly. Is it any wonder that movies in the past 50 years have consistently focused on government conspiracies and political plots? Is it any wonder that X-Files was the most popular television show of its time (and maybe of all time)? Is it any wonder that The Matrix was the cultural phenomenon that it was and still is? Disenchantment in our modern era has resulted in a level of skepticism unparalleled throughout history. People suspect the worst from our government, and many suspect the worst from the church as well. The world itself is suspect.

Such skepticism breeds a corresponding desire to find out the "secret knowledge" that holds together our increasingly chaotic society. This gnosis seeks to the answer the questions: what is really going on behind those closed doors? what is the real reason for how the world is today? To assuage these fears, pop culture produces works of speculation, labelled "metaphysical" at the Borders bookstore I worked at for a year—which is a gross misunderstanding of the world metaphysical, which has its proper place in philosophy. This section, which includes astrology and magic and speculative materials, was the most popular in the entire store (fiction alone excepted). My point is not to dissect the hidden meanings behind what people purchase (that becomes a Gnostic enterprise in itself) but simply to point out some intriguing trends. One of the more disturbing trends is actually, in retrospect, the most understandable. Often the same people reaching for speculative, "metaphysical" writings were the ones buying what I like to call "Christian self-help," represented by the likes of Rick Warren & co. Why? Probably because people want to exploit all their options. If astrology cannot solve the riddles and frustrations of life, then perhaps Bruce Wilkinson can (and the "prayer of Jabez" was enticing for just that reason).

The Da Vinci Code is not the evil book that fundamentalists make it out to be. It's a lot of fun, and I am very excited about the upcoming film adaptation. But the book's popularity is suspect, simply because the novel itself is not "good enough" to warrant such iconic status. I sense that the underlying rationale is that people are desperate for someone to poke holes in our established institutions, whether that is the government or the church or something else. People love the idea of government cover-ups being exposed, and the perennial reruns of Area 51 specials on the Discovery Channel is evidence of this. With the "Gospel of Judas," people are in a veritable frenzy. Not only does this feed people's suspicions of the church, but it gives people a reason to attack the Bible, too, and this is probably therapeutic for those who grew up with parents who forced them to read the Bible and go to church. For those burned by the government, shows like X-Files are a way to tease this inner, Gnostic bug that wants to unravel the secrets of the cosmos through whatever means—no matter how ridiculous.

(Some self-described "postmodern" thinkers would identity at this point the growing anti-rationalism movement that corresponds with this American Gnosticism. The individualistic pursuit of a secret gnosis is purchased at the expense of reason and critical investigation. Thus, people will believe in aliens building the pyramids and the living bloodline of Jesus regardless of how historically and scientifically bogus such claims actually are. And all because our society's ennui and skepticism encourage such speculations.)

Finally, on a more philosophical note, I would like to point out that there is an interesting anti-Kantian epistemology at work here. Whereas Kant asserted that the phenomenal (the empirical world) is all that humans have access to and the noumenal (the "spiritual" world) is inaccessible and therefore not of rational concern to humanity, present-day Gnosticism asserts just the opposite: the metaphysical, noumenal is our concern and the physical, phenomenal is suspect and deceitful. This is what I like to call Matrix Epistemology: the "real world" is what is beyond our sensory data, outside of and behind the "false world" in which we blindly live. Speculation materials, novels like The Da Vinci Code, and many so-called "Christian" books soothe people's consciences by promising something more, the secret truth, the answer to the Riddle of Life.

To the extent that Christians portray the gospel to others in these terms, we undermine the message of Christ and unknowingly deceive people about what Christianity is actually about. Not a flight from this world, but rather a God who freely and graciously entered it for our sakes. Nothing could be further from Gnosticism than a God who enters flesh to give us life.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Al Gore for President in 2008??

In light of his new movie on global warming and his redeemed political capital, Richard Cohen thinks it's a good idea -- even a necessary idea. The Democratic party definitely needs a solid candidate, a great candidate if they can find one. Could Al Gore be that candidate? Any thoughts?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Friday, April 14, 2006

A Reflection on the Cross through Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia

Theological Reflections on Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson

The 1999 film, Magnolia, is a story about humanity, but not from a human perspective. The film is well known for its ensemble cast, something Anderson has perfected in his films, most notably in Boogie Nights. Throughout the narrative, we see the intricate web connecting these otherwise isolated characters who live within disparate worlds. Gradually, the story unfolds piece by piece, so that from the audience’s perspective we can see their inter-relations with each other. Thus, on a literary level, the film is marked by a consistent use of irony, in the classical sense of a difference between the audience’s knowledge and the characters’ knowledge. In other words, irony occurs because the audience is in a god-like position of seeing how the different worlds of the characters are intertwined, while the characters themselves are oblivious to this larger framework. Irony, as we will see, plays a very important role throughout this film.

The lives portrayed in Magnolia are human lives—they are broken, disappointed, frustrated, washed-out, even hopeless. The story brings these people into situations in life that reveal their worst characteristics. A father who realizes his son’s genius decides to exploit the opportunity to gain game-show riches. The son he pressures cannot maintain his composure and still bear the weight of his father, teammates, and countless audience members who expect great things from him. A former game-show star, Donnie, who is now broke and incapable of holding a job feels compelled to steal from his current place of employment. The host of the game show is dying and tries to reach out to the daughter he abused to assuage the guilt that has plagued his life and threatens to kill him before his disease does. His daughter’s life is in tatters and so she passes the time by taking drugs as an escape from the world. This woman is met by a good cop who does not know how to understand his feelings for her, and becomes self-deprecating when he cannot fulfill his job at the level of perfection that he expects of himself. A woman who married a much older man—the producer of the game show—for riches is now distraught at the man’s death, and lashes out at everyone else due to her self-loathing. The abandoned son of this dying man has made his own fortune manipulating women and telling others how to do the same, and the discovery of his long-lost father’s death forces him to grapple with the past in painful ways.

These stories of despair and difficulty reveal a human irony, i.e., the irony of how closely our lives are interconnected without any person realizing it. Magnolia shows us that these frustrated lives are the norm. What is typical and ordinary is precisely this web of connected narratives moving toward a conclusion that no single person (or even the audience) is able to determine. Magnolia flips the concept of normality on its head by showing us the intricate complexities of human life, both in the reality of despair but also the reality of redemption and truth. Characters such as the cop and the nurse give glimpses in their own imperfect lives of what this redemption might look like, or at least begin to look like.

At the turning point of the film, we see this interconnectedness brought out explicitly. Each character, separated by space and sphere of activity, suddenly begins to sing “Wise Up,” by Aimee Mann (whose music inspired the film). They each sing, “You got / What you want / Now you can hardly stand it though,” which poignantly portrays the state of each character. The chorus line sums up the narrative up until that point in the film:

It's not going to stop
It's not going to stop
It's not going to stop
'Til you wise up

As they sing, the audience becomes aware that this is a foreshadowing of their future “conversions.” The characters have not all come to grips with their lives, or if they have, they don’t know what to do about it. The very last line of the song seems to be one of defeat, but here again the seed is sown for the biggest irony of all: “No, it’s not going to stop / So just … give up.”

Magnolia is not advocating a resignation in life, an unwillingness to do anything but wallow in one’s misery and self-loathing. This may be what the characters in their limited, self-contained worlds mean when they sing “so just give up,” but the actual meaning of that mysterious line is not determined until later in the film and comes as a surprise to everyone, audience and characters both. (I suspect that the use of the song in the film by Anderson goes far beyond the original intentions of Aimee Mann, but such is the beauty of great art.) The film leaves the audience at the end of the song with the nagging suspicion that everyone is going to commit mass suicide in a kind of corporate protest against the despair of life. But far from it. What happens instead is bizarre but profound.

In a moment of silence, when the audience is waiting for new developments in the now quite complex story, frogs begin to rain from the skies. Moments before the first frog falls, a sign in the background cites Exodus 8:2, in which God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh, “If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs.” (There are actually dozens of references to the numbers 8 and 2 scattered throughout the film.) As the frogs fall and cause mayhem on the streets, everyone’s world is turned upside-down. Up until this point, the film appeared to be anthropocentric, in that the characters were the center of the story. Even if the characters were involved in realities outside of their control, the film gave no indication that there was anything outside of the immanent sphere of human activity. Magnolia brings the audience to the brink of nihilistic despair before completely disrupting everyone’s lives, including those watching the film in relative tranquility.

What is the meaning of the plague of frogs? Is it anything more than an anachronistic allusion to a famous fable from the Hebrew Scriptures? I suggest reading the rain of frogs theologically as a moment of divine irony, an in-breaking of the divine into the human that renders all human efforts to rectify or destroy life ineffective in comparison to the power of a transcendent, eschatological reality. Let me explain this in more detail.

A lesser director would have made the frogs purely symbolic. You know, one of those surreal moments in a “postmodern” film when something out of the ordinary happens, usually to just one character who is “special.” The “out of the ordinary” event is used by the director for its symbolic power of expressing something unique about the character or to convey the sense of hidden mysteries behind the events in the story. All of that is cliché and only works with immense artistic talent. But Anderson is fashioning a narrative that is far more grand, cosmic in scope, rich with wonders that can only be hinted at in the film itself. The rain of frogs does not merely have symbolic power; the frogs actually change the physical reality of the characters. In other words, a lesser film would show the frogs as a kind of vision or dream that metaphorically speaks of something else. Here in Magnolia, the frogs are no mere vision; they affect the lives of the people in the world. At first this seems comical, and then, when one realizes that what is on screen is actually occurring in the world of the story, it becomes frightening.

The fear evoked by the frogs is not the contrived fear of horror films or the tyrannical fear of a dictator or evil parent. Rather, it is a truly religious fear: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” By that I mean the frogs are not a “natural disaster,” like a tsunami or earthquake. This is a benevolent “disaster,” or to use more biblical language, a divine judgment. Whether Anderson realizes it or not, his portrayal of divine judgment is far more biblical than most Christians preachers. God does not judge these frail, broken lives by destroying them—the “lake of fire” motif, for example—but by saving them. God rescues people, instead of leaving them in their misery or threatening them until they shape up. God does not wait for the characters to “wise up,” because as the film shows, people usually never do. We need something outside ourselves to bring us to ourselves. This is the essence of divine irony: that in the midst of human self-destruction, God acts to save; God chooses not to abandon creation but to enter into it—both in Jesus Christ and, as Magnolia portrays, through painful grace.

[As a note, I say “God” here in connection with the film because Anderson leaves us with no other option, unless we wish to domesticate the divine figure by calling it Fate or the Unknown (cf. Paul on Mars Hill). The film is clearly working from within a Judeo-Christian framework, and it does not apologize for this. Thus, I will not apologize for speaking of God, even though the film never names the source of the rain or identifies any particular religious story as its own. Theologically, I find that to be provocative: regardless of the backgrounds and beliefs of these characters, the God who is Love chooses to act graciously towards the creation by sending the blessing of rain.]

At this point, I need to clarify the complex nature of the frogs in the film. I began by speaking of the frogs as a plague, to indicate the connection with the Exodus narrative in the Hebrew Scriptures. But I want to view them as the film does (in the DVD chapter) by calling it rain, which indicates the nature of it as a blessing from the heavens. This is reinforced by the rap the cop hears from the boy who knows more than others give him credit for. Part of the rap goes as follows:
Check that ego, come off it, I’m the Prophet,
You’re living to get older with a chip on your shoulder.
He’s running from the devil, but the debt is always gaining,
When the sunshine don’t work, the good Lord bring the rain in.
Many will point out that the frogs are clearly not blessings in a number of ways. They destroy private property, cause accidents on the streets, hurt unprotected people, and possibly kill some, although we never see that portrayed in the film itself so it could be mere speculation. The damage is real, and Anderson takes great pains to show its extent. But it is not destruction for the sake of destruction. It is not a graceless judgment.

Here is where the film becomes especially profound, and where we can see the depth of the story. The rain of frogs is an artistic portrayal of divine judgment in a truly Christian sense. Whereas the plague of frogs in Exodus was divine judgment in a Hebraic sense of retribution and punishment—“eye for an eye,” or as in the case of the Egyptians, the angel of death—a Christian understanding of judgment must read all divine events through the lens of Christ, who came to suffer in our place on the cross. Consequently, God does not need to punish humanity for their sins, because that punishment has already taken place at Golgotha. What happens in divine events in light of Christ is that God moves to rescue us, to take us out of the pit, out of the depths of our earthly Sheol, and place us in rightly ordered relations with others and God. Divine judgment is still a reality in the eschatological sense of the Last Judgment, but that judgment can no longer be viewed as a period of retribution for people’s sins. Such a view as is propagated by Christians is wholly un-Christian. The Last Judgment is an act of grace, because Christ is the one who judges us and He still bears the marks of the cross.

Magnolia portrays this reality in a beautiful way. When the ambulance gets into an accident and falls to one side due to the frogs, it comes to a halt at the front door of the hospital. When the game show host who sexually abused his daughter (who now hates him) is about to shoot himself in the head, a frog crashes through a skylight and knocks the gun from his hand. When Donnie tries to steal from his former workplace in desperation, a frog hits him in the face, knocking him to the asphalt below. For those characters who are not directly affected by the frogs, the rain outside serves as a visible reminder—almost sacramental in nature—of the invisible, radical transformations occurring in their hearts. Many reviewers found it far too contrived that these frogs would just happen to fall from the sky and stop people from making mistakes. But these reviewers have no awareness of divine irony. These frogs do not “just happen” to fall where they do; they fall with intention, with a divine purpose. Divine irony means that even the audience of the film is incapable of seeing the story in its fullness. We are no longer in our god-like position. Instead, we are like the characters, dependent on God’s grace.

The rain is not simply a divine disruption of people’s lives; it unites people together. Once again, judgment in the film is an act of grace. Magnolia becomes a film not only of transcendent interruption but also of immanent connection—thus, a story of redemption as well as purgation, of bringing together and tearing apart, of divine judgment and human community. Most significantly, after Donnie painfully falls to the ground, the cop drives by and helps him. Usually, for one who is stealing, a cop only makes things worse. But herein lies the genius of Anderson. The cop in the story, though fully human, also gives a glimpse of God’s love by showing what it means to forgive. In a monologue at the end of the movie, he says that sometimes people need to be put in jail, but other times they need to be forgiven. The cop, like God, knows what people need—of course, not completely, but enough to know how to care for another frail human person. The important thing to note is that wholeness follows brokenness, and redemption follows purgation, though not always, and never out of our own initiative and planning. Wholeness and redemption are always acts of grace. The film attests to a truly biblical truth: We are dependent upon God, a God who is good and loving and expresses this holy love through sometimes fearful means. In Magnolia, divine judgment unites us with others by first breaking us from ourselves.

All this talk of judgment brings me to the central theological point, which the critics will never understand: Magnolia is an eschatological film, a story that is really the Grand Story—in direct opposition to postmodernity, as the “end of Grand Stories,” according to Lyotard. As an eschatological work of art, Magnolia enters the genre of the “fantastic,” in which the characters (and the audience) are forced to grapple with the supra-natural, the transfinite, that which is incommensurate to the ordinary scope of life’s assumed limitations and possibilities. The “fantastic” thrusts us out of our ordinary existence into an extra-ordinary existence, a life of new possibilities far beyond the once-fixed actualities of our messed up lives. When we are interrupted in our downward spiral, we are transposed to a new place and given a new identity. In the midst of chaos and confusion, there is healing. This happens to almost all of the characters in unexpected ways, and it portrays the essence of “conversion,” in a truly Christian sense: not the moral reformation of our lives, but the destruction (purgation) of our old identity for the purpose of opening us up to our new identity (redemption). Both aspects, purgation and redemption, are held together in the concept of judgment. And both were accomplished on the cross.

When we die to ourselves—as Scripture tells us—we actually live. Here, too, Magnolia echoes the biblical witness. In one of the most perplexing scenes of the film, after the cop has helped Donnie recover from his fall and come clean about his life, the gun which he lost hours before suddenly falls from the sky. The film captures the biblical parable perfectly. The cop saw his identity in light of his job as a public officer. After the rain, however, his job was not nearly as important as the more human (and more holy) task of loving others. He put aside his job to help another human being. And because he died to himself, his gun was returned. Here we come to the full meaning of Aimee Mann’s song. We are called not to give up entirely and abandon any sense of life. We are instead called to “give up” ourselves in order to gain ourselves anew. We are called to “give up” our dreams (the song, “Dreams,” plays twice in the film), our jobs, our personal aspirations, our abilities, our prizes, our treasures, our very lives. And in doing so, we are promised much more.

We return now to the opening line of this reflection: Magnolia is a story about humanity, but not from a human perspective. As should be clear by now, Magnolia presents humanity as seen through God’s eyes, humanity as acknowledged by God. As those who are acknowledged by God, we are capable of living and living anew. Without such acknowledgement (and corresponding judgment), we are doomed to live pointless, meaningless lives; our existence would have no telos. Magnolia assures us that this is not the case. We live rather in the eschatological intersection of the human and the holy, the immanent and the transcendent, the mundane and the divine. In this intersection, we can affirm the divine intention for humanity to live in communion as the people of God. Such a communion find its ground for existence in the holy, divine judgment of the cross of Christ against the old—that which is condemned to pass away—for the sake of the emerging new—that which will never pass away.
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:4)

The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him. (2 Tim. 2:11)

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Very good news ... better than Geico!

Amy just received an e-mail this evening announcing her acceptance into the Teach for America program. This is a huge relief, as well as the start of a major challenge for the both of us, but especially Amy. This summer will now consist of some intense training over several weeks, during which time she will have to live in downtown Philadelphia. During roughly the same period of time, I will be taking summer Hebrew at the seminary, which is also a very intense program. Financially, it will be tough, since neither of us will be working. Teach for America may give us some support to get us through the summer.

On a slightly funnier note, Amy has been temporarily placed as a middle school math teacher in Philly. Besides the fact that Amy hasn't taken a day of math since high school, it's quite ironic that when she was in middle school herself, she dreamed of one day being a high school math teacher. It seems life has a sense of humor.

(More good news: Princeton Seminary accepted my proposal to be a pastoral intern at the Well, which means that I am set to start in the fall. Scott Collins-Jones, co-pastor with his wife of Woodland Presbyterian Church, will be my supervisor.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Snapshots of Princeton Seminary

Some family and friends have wanted to see pictures of where I go to school, so I'm finally answering this request now. The following are a selection of photos I took of the seminary campus, mostly from last fall. I did not take the time to take photos of all parts of the campus, but hopefully this gives an idea of what it's like. Now that the weather is warm and sunny again, I will try to take some springtime shots of the area.

This is a picture taken across the quad at the center of campus. The building on the left is Scheide Hall, the newest building on campus, dedicated in 2002. On its immediate right is Miller Chapel, where chapels are held at 10 am each morning of the week. The building is quite old, but has gone through a number of renovations.

A close-up shot shows Miller Chapel in more detail and, behind it, Stuart Hall, where virtually all classes are held.

Here's a close-up of Stuart Hall.

If you turn 90 degrees to the left from where I took that first picture, you would see this building, which (if my memory serves me) is Alexander Hall. The problem with these dorm buildings is that I don't actually get to know any of them, since I'm not on campus.

Another 90-degree turn from the last position (or directly behind me in the first photo) is Hodge Hall, which is also where many professors have their offices.

If I turn to the left from where I am standing in that last photo, and head off the quad, I come to this building, the dining hall, aka the Mackay Campus Center. I only go here for lectures held in the Main Lounge next to the dining hall or to buy yogurt parfaits at a kiosk which serves some prepared food for those of us who do not use the dining hall and did not bring a lunch with us. The dining hall is nice since it provides 24-hour wireless internet service, for students who wish to mingle with friends and remain productive with their time.

Behind the dining hall is Templeton Hall, where many of the offices and campus programs are located, like Financial Aid, Housing, Field Ed, etc. All speech classes are in this building.

This is the front of the seminary library. I wish I had a better picture, but this will have to do for now. The library is two separate buildings, and this is the front of the older half (Speer). I work in the newer building (Luce), which houses Special Collections and the Barth Center, among other things.

The last photo I will post is like the first and second photos, but from later in the fall, when the leaves had fallen. More photos will come in time.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Review: Thank You For Smoking

The low-budget drama Thank You For Smoking has garnered some attention recently -- NPR being just one example. The film is not about smoking per se, but about the man who lobbies on behalf of Big Tobacco, Nick Naylor. As Aaron Eckhart (who plays Naylor) said in an interview with NPR, this film is really a character study about a man who just happens to be promoting cigarettes. I could go on and on about the brilliant script (which is one of the best I've seen in awhile) and the excellent direction, but I'll get right to the point: this film is hilarious. The movie is consistently funny from beginning to end, but it's also smart at the same time, never losing its edge while keeping the laughs coming.

For those who want to get the inside scoop, click here for the NPR story, which includes an interview between Terry Gross and Eckhart.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Review: Brokeback Mountain

What follows is half-review and half-reflection, as you will see. Amy and I recently finished watching Brokeback Mountain, the controversial film about two sheepherders who fall in love (maybe) and go on to lead tragically broken lives, all the while pining after each other. The Oscar-winning film is truly a work of art, albeit one with many flaws. From a technical perspective, the movie is one of the best of the year, hands down: the acting is superb, the direction is quite good, the script is phenomenal, and the cinematography is stunning (although it's hard to go wrong in the mountains of Alberta). And yet, for all its technical perfection, the film left me (and Amy) rather empty and unsatisfied. I knew when I was supposed to cry, but I didn't cry. And when the credits rolled at the end, I was left feeling like something was off. Something just wasn't quite right.

This movie is definitely worth watching, so I won't do anything to ruin it for those who wish to see it (and everyone who is comfortable should see it). But some aspects of the film beg to be discussed. First, despite the fact the movie's script is adapted from a short story, the film feels like it was derived from a lengthy novel. You know when the scriptwriter is trying his or her best to adapt from a long written work when the film only shows you the moments of conflict between characters, leaving you to imagine the rest by filling in the blanks. Surprisingly, that is how Brokeback Mountain feels almost from the beginning. Even the director, Ang Lee, and others on the "making of" special feature talk about the film metaphorically as a boxing match, in which the film displays the various moments of contact between boxers. The problem with this approach is that the audience is unable to really empathize with the characters. The film shows so little tenderness between Jack and Innis that one is left feeling confused about their relationship. "Where is the love?" I kept asking myself.

Second, following from the first, the film keeps all of the characters in different levels of haziness and obscurity. There is so little screen time with most of the characters that you hardly ever get to know who they are with any sort of depth. Jack and Innis are complex enough to make keep the story going, but everyone else (except for the wives) appears for a couple scenes and then is suddenly gone. Even the wives do not receive the kind of complex treatment that is necessary. At least one character (Innis's later female love interest) is superfluous and takes story time away from others who deserve more development. Furthermore, most of the conflict is between Jack and Innis, even though the story would have been much more provocative with more family tension, particularly with the wives and children.

Third, the movie's love story between Jack and Innis just doesn't feel believable, at least not until near the end of the film (though the very end wasn't what I hoped for, another let-down). And unlike other love stories, I didn't like the characters enough to feel their emotions. This is the risk which the film took (whether positive or negative, and probably both): the makers of the movie chose characters which most audiences will not sympathize with; they are not inherently likable characters, and that is a huge risk in a love story. Even though I wanted them to be happy, I kept getting angry at them, at least at one of them. They were frustrating to watch.

Part of the frustration is that the supposed 'love story' rarely showed love and tenderness. When they first have sex, it's clearly out of drunkenness and their own sexual needs. But what is missing from the story is how they can go from a rough sexual encounter to a meaningful relationship. There's a missing link that the film does not provide, at least not in any emotionally satisfying form.

So in the end I feel like there are two ways of reading this movie: either (1) the film is showing a relationship entirely in its moments of tension, so that the audience is left to imagine the rest, or (2) the film views homosexual relationships as entirely sexual in nature, rough and animalistic. The former means the film does a poor job of communicating emotions and portraying characters that feel real. The second means the film does a poor job of communicating a believable relationship, at least one that has enough substance to it to maintain itself for 25 years+.

Either way, what the film is not -- and as all the people involved with the film claim repeatedly -- is the "All-American Love Story." Quite frankly, I have no idea what this means. Regardless of the film's merits or demerits, why the assumption that cowboys represent true Americanness? Why is the rugged Midwest the epitome of what it means to be American, when a high majority of U.S. citizens live in cities? And why call this movie an All-American Love Story when (regardless of the homosexuality) the story is blatantly abnormal in virtually every way -- except that they do not end up happy, which is perhaps closer to reality than anything else.

What I am continually disturbed by with this "All-American" rhetoric is the nationalistic, parochial pride that it displays. First, a homosexual love story is not unique to the U.S., so the only real "American" element would have to be the Western setting, with cowboys and Texas playing major roles. But why elevate this setting above others as being All-American? Is it less American to be in a suburb or a metropolitan center? Is it less American to ride in a car rather than ride a horse to work? What is the point of such rhetoric?

Brokeback Mountain is a decent film. Technically brilliant, the story lacks the heart I expected. I had hoped for a beautiful and moving film. What I got was just a beautiful film. Worthy of its nomination, but nothing more. Good Night, and Good Luck is still the best film of the year.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

United Church of Christ TV ad

Check out the United Church of Christ webpage and see their new TV commercial. (Skip the ad at the beginning, then click on the link to the commercial.) Evangelicals will have mixed feelings. I think it's fantastic. Let's hope a more appropriate vision of the church is spread, one that shows the emptiness of the Religious Right.

Evolution and a "god of the gaps"

The news is finally out: fossils were discovered in northern Canada that show the transitional stage between a fish and a land animal, long posited by evolutionary biologists but as of yet not corroborated by the scientific evidence. Until now, that is. The fossils were extracted in 2004, but the news is just now reaching the public. The article formally announcing the find is coming out in Nature today.

What is even more interesting is how the scientific and religious communities will receive this news. In the San Francisco Chronicle article, professor Jenny Clack of Cambridge University said, "This is another gap closed that a deity no longer needs to fill."

This is a fascinating statement. On hand one, she is entirely right. This is indeed a gap that science no longer needs some god to fill. But on the other hand, is this deus ex machina actually the triune God of Christianity? Bonhoeffer says "No!" and I agree with him.

Clack probably doesn't know any better (but she might), and so the burden is on the church to communicate the reality of a God who is not a stop-gap for our intellectual holes that need filling but rather the God of revelation and redemption who is not "over us" or "beyond us" but rather "beyond in the midst of life," as Bonhoeffer writes. God is not the one who fills our lack of knowledge, but rather the one who exists in and with our knowledge, with and for us.

Here I quote Bonhoeffer at length from two letters of his:

“I had been saying that God is being increasingly pushed out of a world that has come of age, out of the spheres of our knowledge and life, and that since Kant he has been relegated to a realm beyond the world of experience. Theology has on the one hand resisted this development with apologetics, and has taken up arms—in vain—against Darwinism, etc. On the other hand, it has accommodated itself to the development by restricting God to the so-called ultimate questions as a deus ex machina; that means that he becomes the answer to life’s problems, and the solution of its needs and conflicts.”
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison 341)

“Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail—in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure—always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I’ve come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness. As to the boundaries, it seems to me better to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the ‘solution’ of the problem of death. [. . .] God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.” (Bonhoeffer 281-82)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Is Bart Ehrman misquoting Jesus?

Wheaton College has a host of interesting alumni whom the college would be happy not to claim. Wes Craven attended the school, and was an important editor of the school's literary journal. Representative Jim McDermott is a Democrat at Washington who is far-left of even those who consider themselves on the left at Wheaton.

But the guy who tops the list by far is Bart Ehrman. Ehrman graduated magna cum laude from Wheaton College in 1978, and went on to receive his M.Div (1981) and Ph.D (1985) from -- here the similarities become uncanny -- Princeton Theological Seminary. Now Ehrman has an interesting history. He had a conversion experience in middle school that led him to accept the tenants of conservative evangelicalism, specifically biblical inerrancy. Consequently, he attended Wheaton as one who believed that the Bible was free from all error -- much like myself in my first year.

Bart Ehrman is now an agnostic. His investigations into the history of Christianity and the formation of the Bible resulted in his rejection of the faith altogether. He went from fundamentalism to agnosticism, a path that is not uncommon for those who grow up in strictly evangelical homes but go on to receive academic training in religion. Ehrman is now professor of religion at UNC Chapel Hill.

His latest work is Misquoting Jesus, a follow-up to his previous polemical work, The Lost Christianities. Misquoting Jesus has received heavy attention in the media, in large part because the work goes so well with the current frenzy over books like The Da Vinci Code (which is a really fun book and should not be viewed with such stigma by Christians) and scholars like Elaine Pagels (at Princeton University). Ehrman was even featured on NPR in an interview with Terry Gross, of "Fresh Air" fame. The best article on Ehrman to appear is from the Washington Post, entitled "The Book of Bart," focusing on his life as background to his books.

Ehrman's thesis is only shocking to evangelicals: the Bible went through many changes and revisions, is full of errors, and was compiled with political motives. His conclusion is that the Bible cannot be divine revelation and Christianity is a human invention rooted in power-plays that pushed out other valid faiths (lost Christianities) in the pursuit of a single "orthodoxy." Ehrman is not original in the least, and he knows it. He simply happens to write with more effectiveness than most. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he wrote a book on The Da Vinci Code. To say the least, Ehrman is a big bestseller. He writes pop-nonfiction about religion that undermines the church. This is hot stuff. Everyone wants to read it.

(It might be worth reflecting for a moment about why this is the case. While a future post is foreshadowed here, I believe American society finds in Ehrman another perceived answer to the riddle and complexity of life. Ehrman, like Brown and Pagels and others like them, offer a Gnostic hope: a secret knowledge that promises to solve a mystery -- even THE mystery -- of life, in opposition to powerful organizations that have made long-standing claims to truthfulness. Institutional Christianity is a popular target, as is the U.S. government. Ehrman simply feeds the people what they want: the answer to life's problems. The church tells them that they have the answer. Ehrman and others say the church is part of the problem. People love this, because it frees them from the claims of revelation upon their lives. From my vantage point, the rejection of Religion is what Ehrman and the vast populace represent, and thus this is a potentially positive change. Here we need Barth and Bonhoeffer to step in as our guides. We need someone committed to the tradition to show us what a Christ-centered, cruciform religionless Christianity looks like.)

I can't help feeling that Ehrman is a parable of the decay of evangelicalism -- at least in its more fundamentalist forms. For those who grow up believing that Christianity is spotless and free from error (infallible, as Catholics say), even a casual investigation into the origins of the Scriptures and faith is going to be shocking, possibly destructive. I first wrestled with this at Wheaton, particularly when I read Mark Noll's fantastic book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. This past year has revived some of those inner tensions. A close historical-critical examination of the Bible quickly demolishes any naive ideas about inerrancy. Looking historically at the origins of Scripture and the Christian faith can indeed be a crisis for many people. Evangelicals in the 20th century felt this crisis, and they reacted by retreating into the fortress. Consequently, American evangelicalism now more than ever embodies the anti-intellectualism that Noll diagnosed. Instead of struggling through these complexities of the faith and keeping their eyes open to the sins of the church, evangelicals prefer to shut out the evil "world" -- while reading Rick Warren and Bruce Wilkinson.

The Roman Catholic church holds on to the fallible claim to infallibility, while conservative evangelicals hold on to their infallible-inerrant Bible (which functions like the Catholic pope ex cathedra). Neither ecclesiolatry nor bibliolatry will get us out of this mess. We need a new path. A path that says "Jesus is Lord" without reading the narratives of Jesus as literal history. A path that worships the triune God without assuming the Bible is perfectly consistent and free from contradictions. In other words, a faith that has its eyes open to its past, to the present world, and to the future.

Ehrman is someone that Christians must not reject as a "liberal" agnostic who has left the faith by being "too smart." This kind of counter-reaction, which is probably going on all over the nation, only entrenches evangelicalism in anti-intellectualism. Furthermore, it prevents evangelicals from seeing the only viable option: to embrace Ehrman as one of their own, even if he rejects them. The fact is that Ehrman is a kind of American Everyman or Everywoman. His rejection of Christianity is not uncommon; Pagels, Brown, and others have influenced others to do the same. The only Christian response is to accept them, to affirm them, and most importantly, to engage them in love and dialogue.

Snow in April

I'm sitting in the lecture hall at Princeton Seminary, and outside snow is falling heavily, despite the fact that we had 70 degree weather last week. These are strange times.

(In an upcoming post, I will have pictures from this past winter season.)