Category Archives: Culture

Social commentary

I received in the mail today a book entitled The Culture of Fear.  Its subtitle is, “Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things,” and its sub-subtitle (following the colon after the subtitle), “Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plan Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More”.  A veritable mouthful.

The book has been on my wishlist for some time now, but with all the craziness and confusion surrounding H1N1.*  I thought it would be a good time to read the book (over Christmas hopefully).

This book belongs in the category of sociology, which is becoming a bit of a hobby interest of mine, in terms of reading.  “Social commentary” might be a better term; it sounds less clinical and academic. Or maybe “Cultural Studies”. But I digress.

I’ve read a  couple of interesting books in this category: Bill McKibben’s The Age of Missing Information; Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation; and Ferenc Mate’s Reasonable LifeTo an extent the books of Bill Bryson fit into this category, as do the films The Corporation and Supersize Me.

Other books of this nature I’ve picked up over the years (but have not yet read):

Some of these books may be a getting a bit too close to the genre of conspiracy theory (I’m thinking in particular ofTrust Us, We’re Experts), but sociology/social commentary is a broad genre, I think, and includes the likes of both Michael Moore (on the left–also, arguably, a conspiracy theorist) and people not so on the left (I had an example earlier in the day, but it escapes me now).

The Culture of Fear should be an interesting read.  I’ll let you know.**
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*including, apparently, the suggestion that I’m being selfish if I don’t get vaccinated: so now it’s not just the fear of the flu, but also the fear of how people perceive me!
**Of course, it’s the middle of November, so by the time Christmas rolls around I may have different reading plans–such as reading next semester’s books in advance!

Halloween

Steve Bell has written a thoughtful post about Halloween, concluding with this:

Personally, it makes me sad that the Church (in part) seems to have retreated into the very fear-based isolation St. Patrick’s lively faith contradicted. So sadly ironic. And we have done this in so many areas of common life.  It seems to me that we could  be out  participating in the wider culture;  joyfully, cheerfully, confidently handing out ’sweets’ in the various cultural arenas: politics, arts, education, science, festivals etc.  We need not do this in the defensive, combative spirit we’ve become famous for, but with a caring neighborliness befitting the character of the Christ whom we worship. And we need not be concerned that we will be tainted in our efforts. For we do not draw from a shallow well,  but the inexhaustible Christ who gave himself entirely so that all would know that the organizing and redeeming principle of the cosmos is not self-securing fear, but  self-donating love. (Link)

iMonk has an annual rant about Halloween (or, more specifically, the Christian response to Halloween), in which he describes his upbringing in a fundamentalist baptist church–the “KJV-only, women can’t wear pants, twenty verses of “Just As I Am,” Jerry Falwell, Jack Chick, twice a year revival” kind, who were “serious about the Bible, Sunday School, suits and ties, and walking the aisle to get saved” and “big time into Halloween,” they were “all over Halloween like ants on jam…The kids loved it. The parents loved it. The pastors approved. The church paid for it!”

And then, things changed.

Mike Warnke convinced evangelicals that participating in Halloween was worshiping the devil. Later, when we learned that Warnke may have been one of the most skillful of evangelical con-artists, lying about his entire Satanic high priest schtick, the faithful still believed his stories.

Evangelical media began to latch onto Halloween as some form of Satanism or witchcraft, and good Christians were warned that nothing made the other team happier than all those kids going door to door collecting M&Ms.

[…]Does it bother me? You bet it does. It bothers me that we fall for such lame, ridiculous manipulators as the crowd that made all of those Halloweens past into satanic events.

It bothers me that any lie, exaggeration or fiction will find thousands of eager believers to pass it along.

It bothers me that the Biblical message about Satan would be co-opted by the fear-mongering and manipulation of the hucksters. (Read The Screwtape Letters for some real Satanism.) (Link)

Interesting stuff.

It’s difficult to sort out the origins of Halloween, but whatever its origins I have difficulty understanding how letting our kids dress up as cowboys or skeletons or ghosts or even witches and then getting a bunch of candy is somehow colluding with the powers of evil.  “Perfect love casts out fear” the Bible says somewhere, and yet many Christians tend to spend much of their time fear-mongering: fear of culture, fear of the occult, fear of heretical translations of the Bible, fear of hell, fear of education, fear of “the other” (whatever it may be).

I don’t “believe” in Halloween, either, because I think it’s just a fun (and cute) thing for the kids to do, nothing more, nothing less. The truth is, I’m much more likely to cancel Halloween in our household for the sake of dental hygiene.

That’s *A*moral (coupla things…)

I read a remarkable essay by William T. Cavanaugh for my Ethics class: “Discerning: Politics and Reconciliation“.  As it happens, that entire essay is available for preview at Google Books (it’s found in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics).  That’s not the best format for reading the essay, but it’s the only online version I could find.  I’d like to cover it in depth here, but I don’t have time.

In a nutshell, Cavanaugh briefly traces the rise of liberal (small-l) political theory (the foundation of our representative governments) and how it is based the autonomy of the individual and the inevitable conflict that rises between autonomous individuals.  Some form of political authority (ultimately representative government) is necessary as an enforced reconciler or peace-keeper.  Liberal political theory is based on the inevitability of conflict (and possibly the necessity of war with other nati0ns) and the continual suppression of this conflict–a forced peace, if you will.  Violence, in other words, is the norm in liberal political theory.  It is a tragic theory and true reconciliation is never realized.

The Biblical story on the other hand argues that conflict and violence is not “the state of nature”, it is not natural or foundational to being human.  The Biblical story, particularly in the first couple of chapters of Genesis, shows that the way things are now is not the way they’ve always been.  Our current plight is not the norm, not the way things ought to be. The Christian story, in other words, allows for true reconciliation to be realized.

He then goes on to argue that the Church’s liturgy (that is, its gathering to worship) is a way of enacting this reconciliation.

I haven’t done justice to Cavanaugh’s essay, so I urge you to read it for yourself.  It’s quite something.

(I see that there is a Christian Century interview with Cavanaugh available online: “Liturgy as Politics: An Interview with William Cavanaugh“.  I haven’t read it, but it sounds like it might cover similar ground.)

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Also watch the IdeasExchange podcast page at Aqua Books for last Saturday’s talk by Dr. Chris Holmes, my ethics and theology professor.  The title of his presentation is “‘Christianity is Basically Amoral:’ Reflections on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Principle-free Christianity”.  I’m not sure how long it will be before it’s posted (it’s not up yet), but look for ‘Christopher Holmes 10.24.2009’.

In the meantime, here’s a Bonhoeffer quote from his talk and from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which we are working through in Christian Ethics:

Behold God become human, the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world.  God loves human beings.  God loves the world. Not an ideal world, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world.  What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love. God establishes a most intimate unity with this. God becomes human, a real human being. While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human; and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings. (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 84)

I want it all

Another one I stumbled upon while browsing through Bill Bryson’s fabulous book, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America:

In the evening I sat in Hal and Lucia’s house, eating their food, drinking their wine, admiring their children and their house and furniture and possessions, their easy wealth and comfort, and felt a sap for ever having left America.  Life was so abundant here, so easy, so convenient.  Suddenly I wanted a refrigerator that made its own ice-cubes and a waterproof radio for the shower.  I wanted an electric orange juicer and a room ionizer and a wristwatch that would keep me in touch with my biorhythms.  I wanted it all.  Once in the evening I went upstairs to go to the bathroom and walked past one of the children’s bedrooms.  The door was open and a bedside light was on.  There were toys everywhere — on the floor, on shelves, tumbling out of a wooden trunk.  It looked like Santa’s workshop.  But there was nothing extraordinary about this; it was just a typical middle-class American bedroom.

And you should see American closets.  They are always full of yesterday’s enthusiasms: golf-clubs, scuba diving equipment, tennis-rackets, exercise machines, tape recorders, darkroom equipment, objects that once excited their owner and then were replaced by other objects even more shiny and exciting.  That is the great, seductive thing about America — the people always get what they want, right now, whether it is good for them or not.  There is something deeply worrying and awesomely irresponsible, about this endless self-gratification, this constant appeal to the baser instincts.

Do you want zillions off your state taxes even at the risk of crippling education?

‘Oh, yes!’ the people cry.

Do you want TV that would make an imbecile weep?

‘Yes, please!’

Shall we indulge ourselves with the greatest orgy of consumer spending that the world has ever known?

‘Sounds neat! Let’s go for it!’

The whole of the global economy is based on supplying the cravings of two per cent of the world’s population.  If Americans suddenly stopped indulging themselves, or ran out of closet space, the world would fall apart.  If you ask me, that’s crazy. (pp. 158-9)

The book is 20 years old, so it may sound a bit dated, but his perspective (he is an American ex-pat in the UK)  is one many of us now share (even if we fall within that category of the middle-class and don’t know what to do about).

Prayer rope

Just over a week ago I discovered that on the ground floor of the school buildings they have set up a couple of prayer rooms, one larger and two smaller.  They have chairs and pillows and some Christian symbols–the large room has a window with a stained-glass cross hanging in it and has a cross painted on one wall.  One of the smaller rooms has a little table and lamp, a picture (or–dare I say–an icon) of Jesus, as well as (in true interdenominational–or, dare I say, ecumenical–style) an Orthodox prayer rope, a Catholic rosary and Anglican prayer beads, along with some explanation for their use.

One of my professors has said on a number of occasions that theology begins with prayer, which I thought quite profound and helpful.  I can’t just dive into my schoolwork without redirecting myself in prayer first.  So I thought I’d give a daily visit to the prayer room a go.  For the time being I’m using Celebrating Common Prayer (a daily office based on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer) to give a bit of a framework for the prayer time, but may switch to something else–maybe Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours or Celtic Daily Prayer.

I’ve also used the Orthodox prayer rope, which is similar to prayer beads,  in that it has knots through out and a cross woven in, but it is made of rope.  There is nothing magical or divine about the prayer rope (or beads) in my mind, but I find that they help me focus.  I have a wandering mind and it is almost inevitable that while praying I will suddenly find myself thinking about something else entirely: something I need to do that day, an item I want to purchase, etc.  I find that using the prayer rope anchors my mind a bit more.  I’ll say the Jesus prayer as I go ’round the rope, interspersing it with prayers for particular people who come to mind, the Lord’s Prayer, the Shema, or St. Ignatius’ prayer (the last two I have printed out and glued to the inside of the cover of Celebrating Common Prayer).  I don’t do much “free prayer” because I find it tends to be quite inane, shallow and circular.  This is a shame, of course, and I should do more “free prayer”, because it will only feel more natural as I do more of it–but it will also improve as the prayers of the church catholic (universal) become part of my vocabulary.

I say none of this to boast about my deep spirituality.  Quite the contrary: my “spirituality” is quite shallow, as a matter of fact, and my “prayer life” (or whatever it’s called) is nearly non-existent.  This is precisely why I’ve started using the prayer room.  I need the practice, the discipline, the depth.  Without prayer my schooling will be largely an empty venture and any future ministry I have will be shallow.  Without prayer I am disconnected from the One whom I wish to serve.

Anyway…all of that is really preamble to this little rant, which will surely rattle you out of any sort of reverie you may have entered while reading the above:

I stopped in at a Winnipeg Christian bookstore yesterday.  They had some books.  They had a lot of trinkets. And they had these tacky pictures of a handsome, cut, Caucasian Jesus in a boxing ring, wearing the satin shorts and holding a pair of boxing gloves (here it is on Google images–you can click on it to embiggen it).  They had plenty of similar images for purchase.

I went to the front counter to ask if they carry any prayer beads.  I hadn’t seen any in the shelves and racks of inscribed crosses, necklaces, figurines, etc. and thought it was unlikely that they would have them.  But I asked anyway.  The girl behind the counter shook her head in a manner that said (to me, at any rate) not only that they did not have any in stock, but that they would not carry such a product.

Bizarre.

What is it with Christian retailers and bad–possibly unholy–art (forgive me if I misunderstand the meaning or the message of this material)?  Why is it that I can go into a Christian bookstore and buy all the tasteless kitsch my heart could ever desire, but it’s nearly impossible to find something useful like prayer beads?

Thank goodness for online shopping, where there are plenty of beads to be found.

Church, the sermon and Kant.

…a church [is] a place where the Word of God “is purely preached and heard.”  The good news is that even that puny preacher of little worth can be heard as speaking God’s word; the bad news is that, no matter how good the preacher, a congregation where everyone is daydreaming or asleep is at that moment, in Calvin’s terms, not a church.  Congregations need reminding from time to time that the preaching of the Word of God is not a spectator sport.

– William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God (142)

Interesting.  It’s not unusual, particularly on Christian blogs, to read arguments against the sermon in worship (or the sermon as central in worship).  It is not, they say, a transforming activity; it is one way; it is not community-oriented, but top-down; etc.  I don’t necessarily disagree with them, but I’ve never considered Placher’s (he’s actually paraphrasing John Calvin) angle before: what role does the congregation play in all this?

By preaching Placher means, “present[ing] and interpret[ing] scripture to the assembled people” (whether or not it is entertaining, witty or intellectual).

Is preaching not transformational because preaching the Word of God can’t be transformational?  Or is it not transformational because congregations are not interested and are not listening?

How much of the opposition to the sermon or the traditional form of church worship arises out of the possibly unconscious but pervasive influence of the Enlightenment project (that is, individualism and rationalism)?  “Give me a Bible and I’ll interpret it for you”; “That church is just not meeting my needs”; “that preacher is boring”; “the church isn’t relevant to our culture”; “what’s the worship like at your church? is it good?”; etc.

There is nothing wrong with taste or preferences per se.  I’m just wondering what motivates us in church?  And what motivates those who reject or move away from traditional ways of doing church?  The right answer these days is that the church is not being the church–but why do we think that?  Is it just an excuse to cover an individualistic choice? Is the church not being the church because it corporately functions incorrectly?  Or is it because our underlying assumptions as individuals about the church are wrong?

Just thinking out loud…

Sushi

Had a great weekend in Surrey, BC for the annual general meeting of the ECCC.  It was a chance to get away from the kids (first time for more than 1 night in six years); it was a chance to visit with friends and get to know new acquaintances a little better.  I also attended a “ministerial” for the first time–there’s a great bunch of pastors in this conference.  The Covenant church really does feel like home.

And we had beautiful sunny weather the whole time, which was a shock not just for the visitors to the area.

I won’t get into the boring (to you) details of the weekend.  Of note, however, was Sunday’s trip into Vancouver.  We wandered down to Granville Island with Dixie’s brother.  Granville Island is a former industrial area of the city revitalized as a trendy/artsy-fartsy/old-school public market area.  A person could have quite a full, relaxing day out there.  Start out in the morning in a coffee shop with the paper; wander along the water and have a light lunch somewhere; wander some more–maybe through the market–and have a solid dinner before calling it a day.  It’s now officially one of my life goals: spend a full, easy day on Granville Island.

That’s not what’s of note, however.  We were undecided about where to eat for supper.  We were actually seated at Bridges on Granville Island, but after perusing the nearly blank menu decided to go elsewhere.  A peruse and dash, if you will.  The next plan was to drive into the downtown area for some Thai food, but on our walk back, Dixie’s brother spotted a Sushi restaurant he’s wanted to try for a long time, but could never get into: Shabusen Japanese Yakiniku House (the one on south Granville, just a couple of blocks from Dixie’s brother’s apartment).

I was reluctant at first–I was hungry after all that walking, so raw fish and wasabi–unappealing at the best of times– didn’t seem like the thing we should be trying out.  As it turns out, Dixie and I both loved it.  We went with the all-you-can-eat menu so that we could try a bit of everything.  Dixie’s brother did the ordering, since he knows his way around a Japanese menu.

Dixie and I in front of some of our food:

Sushi

In front of Dixie is a plate of various seafood wrapped around some rice (“Nigiri sushi”). On the left: shrimp (“Ebi”–cooked); back right: tuna (raw); front right: salmon (raw).  On my plate is a scallop cone: a dried seaweed cone filled with raw chopped  scallops and rice.  

The large white cup in front of me is green tea; the small white cup with the blue graphic is warm sake.  

On the grill: lamb chops and chicken breast.  The meat on the grill was a mistake.  According to Dixie’s brother it’s a Korean custom, but we found it a bit annoying to have to pay attention to the cooking meat.  Much of the lamb ended up burned to a crisp.

Also eaten: deep fried avocado (“Maki”); spring rolls; chicken karrage (deep fried chicken wings); deep fried yams, carrots, zuchinni and squash (“Tempura”); Yakisoba (noodles); pork gyoza (dumplings); miso soup (soy soup); edamame (soy beans).

My judgment: delicious!  

I would never have guessed, as I generally don’t care much for fish.  I would take raw tuna or salmon over the cooked equivalent any day.  The raw tuna was my favourite, followed by the raw salmon.  The meat melts on your mouth.  

The warm sake was also delicious–it’s a rice wine, but I found it reminiscent of ouzo, though not as sweet.  I think Dixie’s brother described the taste as “wine and soap”, but it was very good.

(More pictures of the trip may follow, but I make no guarantees.)

The only thought that ought to be stopped

The new rebel is a skeptic, and will not trust anything…[but] therefore he can never be a revolutionary.  For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind…Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt.  By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything…There is a thought that stops thought.  That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.  (G.K. Chesterton, quoted in Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God)

More biblical than the Bible

Scot McKnight on the issue of alcohol (but it could apply to any issue):

It seems every year someone brings up the Bible and alcohol (the drinking kind)…What I find every year in this conversation is a serious, but repeated mistake. The tack is this: If I take a stand more “biblical than the Bible,” then I can’t be wrong. That is, if I choose not to drink at all, I will keep myself from sin and all appearance of evil and will be safe. This is what I call the sin of “zealotry” — the belief that if we are more extreme than the Bible, then we can’t be wrong. Wrong.

If God is God, and if God speaks to us in the Bible, then God spoke words that show that wine drinking is fine. One may choose not to drink, but that view is more extreme than what the Bible says. Drinking too much is contrary to the Bible, but not drinking at all is not what the Bible teaches (except for ascetic strands at time). 

But, let’s not fall for the idea that being more biblical than the Bible is safe ground. Extremism is not righteousness; extremism is zealotry. Trust that what God says is what God wants.  (Link)