Sunday, September 26, 2010

Toward a Theology of Marriage - Interlude

I began this series a while ago and realized that I bit off more than I could chew (given the time constraints of my life!) So, while I do want to look at biblical models of marriage, I am going to jump ahead a bit. I've been thinking lots about marriage lately. I am more and more convinced that the problem is one of language. The problem I see is that words like vow, covenant, and even to some extent the word promise, are not functional in modern vocabulary. Partly because they aren't part of our language of commerce - you don't vow to do anything with retailers, and while you might promise that promise is based on a contract which is specifically designed to deal with the failure of meeting those promises. So in our culture marriage is envisioned in more contractual terms than covenantial terms. The promises have a different character in covenant.

I am thinking about how God treats covenant. It seems to me that our theology of Israel has a lot to do with the shift in thinking about covenant. If we feel that God simply gave up on the covenant with Israel then it is really just a contract that failed. But the first testament seems to show God patiently renewing covenant, over and over again. So if we instead interpret Jesus' as both heightening and widening the covenant to include all those who would place their trust in God, then we have a God who takes covenant a lot more seriously than a contract.

Certainly, there are benefits to the covenant being intact, just as there are problems when that covenant is ignored or taken for granted. Just take your spouse for granted a bit and see if this isn't true! But that doesn't necessarily break the covenant. One party needs to necessarily opt out of the covenant for that to happen - and if the prodigal son story tells us anything it seems that even this does not deny that covenant becomes the most desired state of relationship between God and humanity - so why not also with those who are married?

I am musing here. Rambling theologically. But it gives you a sense of what my mind has been wrestling with. At some point I will take up this series again and dig into the textual examples. Not in a Grudemesque manner, lining them up to try and figure out what God definitively says about marriage, but in a search for wisdom. How have the people of God wrestled with the formation of families.

Yesterday I had the awesome privilege of marrying a couple from our church. It was an amazing service. Many asked me where we got the service from. Really I work with the couple and put together something that will call them to a covenant relationship, declare God's blessing and allow all who have come to stand with the couple with the common desire that they can and will make it in a world where marriage has taken on an air of convenience. One lady told me the service brought her to tears. When I heard the vows that the couple had prepared I almost ended up in tears! It was that good. I'm including a picture for your enjoyment.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Review: Kindle 3

I've been interested in the Kindle since I first heard about them. But up until the latest model it has been missing some key features that would allow me to justify the price tag. Improved pdf handling is what really sold me on this product. I read a lot of dissertations and articles, which has meant a tonne of printing. The Kindle solves this problem and it has a lot more to offer as well.

My new toy/tool arrived Monday to a very excited customer. I immediately charged it up and put to use my obsessive information gathering about how to be a Kindle power user. Some of the things didn't work the same as the Kindle 2, so information on changing the screen saver images was not helpful. But in no time I had a pile of pdfs on there and started harvesting classics from the various sites (manybooks, project gutenberg, etc.) that cater to eReaders. Happily I even found Harnack's History of Dogma and a pile of H. P. Lovecraft to enjoy. I wanted to give the device a good workout before typing up a review.

First the good bits.

The screen is amazing! When I pulled it out of the box there was plastic on the front and back, I thought surely the plastic had an image on it. No, the screen looks like it is the display sticker they put on things to make it look better than it actually does. And the screen looks even better in full sunlight! Now they say it is 50% better than the Kindle 2's screen, but my neighbour has a Kindle 2 and her screen is pretty sweet too. Regardless of how much better the screen is, what is important is that I can read this thing all day long and no headaches or fatigue (other than what is normal when you get to the boring bits in books - someday they will invent a reader that has a needle to inject you with adrenaline to get through such parts!). In fact I did one full day. I read a full novel, a few chapters from a book on ADHD, and various pdf articles. I stopped because Sharon turned out the light. I would love to hear if such sustained reading is possible on the iPad? (The iPad had the features I wanted but price, too much functionality, and back-lit screen kept me away).

The big reason I wanted the Kindle over other electronic readers is the ability to annotate texts. I write in my books. I know that shocks people, but it is how I process them. I read a lot of books too. So annotation was a pre-requisite for me. The full keyboard (QWERTY) is excellent. It is not too big to get in the way, but not too small that it is impossible to type on. I thought I would fat finger a lot more too, I think I've fat fingered twice since I bought it so the spacing is great for my big hands even. What was a delight is that that I can even annotate text based pdfs. I am highlighting and annotating a dissertation on Progressive Evangelicals and it works fine. There are some problems with pdfs, but so far the functionality I need is all there.

For a reader I want to keep it simple, I am easily distracted. So I had considered just getting the wifi version. But the 3G comes in quite handy. I love to tweet great passages, so Kindle makes that easy. I can even select the text and tweet from right in the document! That produces a link, but I can just as easily pop open the web browser and put it in that way too. It is also easy to look up stuff without the urge to check email. This is a problem for me, so limited web access is a boon. There are work around to get more functionality in to the device - but why? If I wanted more distraction I would have bought an iPad or a mini-laptop. BTW I am not going to connect my facebook to the device, it does allow for that though.

Finally, it is super easy to transfer documents to my Kindle. They provide a translation service, look for the free one, so you can just mail a variety of formats to yourself and they are converted to something the Kindle can read (mobi). For pdfs you have to specify if you want them to convert the file or just send it as is. I have some of both, but I can't remember always which is which. The biggest problem for me is that some of my documents are larger (even compressed) than my service provider will let mail out. :-( So for those I need to USB into my laptop and send them over.

Now the bad.

As an academic I need to cite documents. The native book format for the Kindle actually strips out page numbers and replaces it with locations. That is a huge problem. There are work arounds, like searching for a unique phrase on Google books, but that is a hassle. Bookmonk also has some web accessible help for this problem. But this is a serious problem that Amazon should fix. In addition to making citing books harder, it also make navigation of a document that much harder.

Another problem is that the book selection is still growing. I read very specific books, some of which I can find, but the majority are not in Kindle format yet. This doesn't bug me too much though because the last problem makes me hesitant at buying a lot of books for my research work. I think if the solved that problem I'd get the Pokemon syndrome and need to fill the device with tonnes of my favourite theology and philosophy texts. For what it is worth, I did buy Moltmann's Theology of Hope as I know that text very well and was amazed that they even got the font right! That might seem odd, but it helps navigate the text.

Scanned pdfs require a bit of fiddling to make readable. I get a lot of scanned articles (images) from ATLA. You can zoom, but that sometimes makes the document unreadable because you need to scroll constantly. The zoom ratios are pre-set, unfortunately. But often with rotating and playing you can find a readable mode for each document - it is a good thing I have great eyes though. And pdfs maintain page numbering which is super awesome!

A related problem is that pdfs are large. Four gigs is not enough, I'm just getting started and I have filled over half of that already. What would be excellent would be a SD slot (even microSD) so I can have cards full of pdfs arranged by topics. Speaking of arranging books, the Collections feature is really great, I can't imagine what it was like in previous versions.

The last thing, and it is just something that makes me nervous, is the Kindle Big Brother control of your device. It is wonderful that they offer to back up my annotations. But I'm not sure I want those out there. And the stories of Amazon neutering your device are not fun to hear. I'm not sure what provocation is needed, but I also hope I never find out.

Final thoughts.

All in all, I am loving the new Kindle. It does all that I need it to do and more. It is really easy on the eyes. And a lot better on my shoulders than carrying around tonnes of printouts! Now I just hope Moleskine makes a case for the Kindle 3!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows

Wednesday was the celebration of the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows which comes right on the heels of the Exaltation of the Cross. It is an interesting moment in the liturgical year as it is a moment of Marian devotion that seems to betray an exalted view of Mary. In other words, I think I got something from the texts that seems to make it not about Mary at all, but that Mary simply becomes a player in something about Jesus we are supposed to take note of. But perhaps this is hinted at when the readings turn early to Hebrews where a Jesus prays to the God who can deliver him from death only to realize suffering and death on the cross.

The gospel reading is from John's gospel, the crucifixion narrative. John 19:25-27:
Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother
and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas,
and Mary Magdalene.
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved
he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son."
Then he said to the disciple,
"Behold, your mother."
And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.

And often our first inkling is that this is super nice of Jesus. Maybe Jesus is trying to alleviate the sword that is piercing his mother's heart? Of course this is not necessary for a couple of reasons: 1) Jesus is not an only child, so she has other options for the extended family (where is Joseph these days?) Even if you don't buy that one 2) it wasn't like Jesus had a home to bring her into in the first place. So perhaps there is an element of providing for his mother's needs - but what of the odd, but not uncommon, phrase he uses - "woman"?

John's gospel though is deliberately constructed. There is something profoundly theological about what John chooses to include and where. So when we back up a bit and look at the concept, I think a different story emerges here. One where Mary is not so much the favoured recipient of Jesus' attention, but she represents a moment in the kenosis, of self-emptying, of our Lord. Let's back up the the episode with Pilate.

Jesus' interaction with Pilate has some fascinating moments. The one John draws out attention to is where Jesus informs Pilate who really is in control. Jesus' silence is met in verse 10 with ""Do you refuse to speak to me?" Pilate said. "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?"" To which Jesus replies, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above." (v.11a) John makes it clear that Jesus is in control here. He is submitting his will to the Father, modelling obedience. And so it is not long after this that we find Jesus lifted up onto the cross (to borrow the language of the Exaltation of the Cross).

On the cross Jesus is first stripped of the last of his material goods. His garments are gambled over by the soldiers. If Jesus is freely going to the cross, then he is effectively allowing the soldiers to take all of his possessions.

Immediately after, in John's careful narrative, we have the passage that is our concern. Already having given up all material possessions, Jesus now lays down his relationships. He gives up being a son of Mary. So great is his obedience to the Father, he is not willing to let love of mother, father, sister or even brother prevent him from obeying God's will.

This continues, because the next thing Jesus lays down is his self-control. He cries out his thirst and is given vinegar. Here is the one who freely offer himself, completely submitting his life, relationships and self-will to the Father. It is after these three things are released that Jesus says those ominous words: "It is finished." He bows his head and gives up his spirit.

I was reflecting on this and it hit me afresh just how costly the cross is. It is easy to gloss over this and rush right to the resurrection - but the cross is definitely worth pondering. What are we willing to lay down in our pursuit of the will of the Father? The more I reflect on the cross, the more I realize that Jesus' challenge for us to take up our crosses is not about being willing to be made fun of because we read our bibles in public or actually want to sing love songs to our Savior. No the gospel is costly. It is not what others will take from you - in terms of social standing or respect - but in terms of what you will give your life for.

The interesting conclusion of the reading from Hebrews (The reading was Hebrews 5:7-9) is that Jesus became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. I'll leave you to work out the implications of that, but I wonder if we often take that all too lightly. I hope you will join me in meditating on the costly cross and that we will take it up to follow Christ into this world to do the will of the Father.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Thoughts on Unity

My neighbour asked me to share my thoughts on unity with her. She is preparing a worship service for her church and had recently discovered that I am a theologian. So far our efforts to connect to have the actual conversation hasn't panned out but I've been thinking and thought I'd share some of my thoughts here. I also think that it fits into the theme of the day.

The first thing I think about for unity is that it is not uniformity. This is foundational. Uniformity is, in my thinking, the opposite of unity. It is the inability to recognize others as others but to insist on conformity. In a real sense this represents the devaluing of the human spirit/potential, the inability to allow each of us to explore our unique journeys, or at least to not explore them in the company of those who insist on uniformity. Unity can only occur when there is real difference and a choice to live with the tensions that such differences might produce.

I will take a step further and say that unity, ideally speaking, celebrates difference. Unity is the overcoming of the tensions difference create not by subsuming all differences into some indefinite slurry, but rather by recognizing that we are not all identical and that our dissimilarities are often the sources of our strengths. These strengths are the contribution that makes unity desirable. When we bring our unique selves to the community we enrich the whole. (The opposite is when we force conformity then we rob the community of its ability to act/create.) So, religiously speaking, when I come to community I bring my whole identity with me.

In a very real sense there is a notion of tolerance implicit in unity. Not the kind of tolerance that forces differences to be understated, but the sort that is willing to explore the differences in others to understand why those differences matter to the other. Tolerance means we accept the other as the other truly is, even if we disagree with the position of the other. As a second step we try to understand the other on their own terms. Paying attention to how their difference(s) contribute to a stronger community.

It might be easy to see how this unity, that I describe, can take us beyond even our own religious identities. This is what makes hatred so offensive to me. It is a violence against difference, an intolerance of difference and an enemy of unity.

A Great Alternative

Thank you James McGrath! Over at his blog, the good doctor has suggested a great protest to the Burn a Koran day - Read a Qu'ran day! I'm in. Of course my Arabic is a bit non-existent so I'll be reading a translation. I urge you to join in as well. The reality is that many North American evangelicals have been brought up in a culture of fear. We are taught, sometimes explicitly, to fear the Catholics, Jews, Blacks, Mormons, Asians, Pentecostals, gays, academics, and the list could go on and on. So in some ways fear comes natural to us. There is a solution though. Perfect love, the Bible claims, casts out all fear. So why do we love fear so much? Fear is control. In fact fear is quite a powerful political tool, having a common enemy allows a government to focus the attention of the masses onto the object of fear instead of their poor performance at home. Pastors use it to keep people in pews. But, let me be bold here, fear is quite anti-Christian. Fear is the product of regulated ignorance. Fear is the tool of manipulation, the classic definition of witchcraft. So let's look fear right in the face and choose instead to read for understanding and love. On 9/11 read the Qu'ran.

Being and Asshole is Not a Prerequisite to Christianity

Terry Jones is an asshole. There is no way to sugarcoat it. I vacillate between sad and mad over the plans to burn Qu'rans on the anniversary of 9/11. I realize that Dove World Outreach Center represents a small ignorant minority, but what bothers me is that it does so in the name of Christianity. What also bothers me is that the problem many people seem to have with this is that it will incite violence against Americans? That is a huge disconnect. We should be bothered first of all because this "church" is going to commit a hate crime. In fact it already has, repeatedly. I'm not unsympathetic towards the ways this might incite more violence - violence always begets violence. What of those Muslims who no longer feel safe in America? When will someone say enough is enough and refuse to continue the cycle of violence? When will someone have the courage to say no to religious intolerance and hate crimes?

Here is a video that tries to cast it in a more humorous light, but it really only just makes me madder.

In my humble opinion, if Jones actually goes through with this evil plan then he not only commits a crime against humanity, he desecrates the memory of those who lost their lives on 9/11. If Dove World Outreach Center sins in this way then they are giving the victory to the terrorists. Let me go on record as being opposed to anyone inciting hatred, and as vehemently opposed to the evil plans of this "church".

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Review: Chronological Study Bible (NKJV)

I was sent this bible for the purpose of reviewing it on my blog. The agreement was that I would read the whole thing. Well, this book is a monster. The NKJV text is not a problem, I spent a few years carrying around a NKJV (pocket size) as my general reading bible. So I'm already ahead of the game that way. It is the notes, tonnes of notes, that I am supposed to have read all of. I've probably not read them all, but I've tried a few tactics with this bible.

First I tried to read them from first to last. The notes are good but it is like trying to read an encyclopedia straight through - after a while you are overloaded with often interesting bits of data. Then I tried just working through sections of text, augmenting it with the notes. A bit better but eventually I realized that if this bible is going to have any value to me it will be as a reference book and not as a devotional bible.

The reason for this is that there is something Canonical about the order of text that is lost when you try to put it in some sort of chronological order. Mashing the gospels together, for instance, is not a new idea. I have and regularly use a Synoptic Parallels, it is a great tool for Bible study. But when you start mashing you take text out of the gospeler's intended context. And based on what? At least the harmonized gospels is based on pericopes. Mashing John in there is interesting, but at what cost? The re-ordering of the text is the part that makes me most nervous of this bible. So now it is a reference only text.

As a reference it is ok. But I'm left with the conundrum of when I would actually use it. Sure I might want to see where they placed certain events in a historical timeline. But I'm always a bit skeptical of the picking and choosing that this implies. And I think that the notes are helpful in terms of situating the text a bit. But, and here is the big reason I don't pull it down very often, it is really hard to find texts in this version. (I think in about a years worth of sermon prep I've pulled it out only once to see what it did with the text! The rest of the time I kept it where it would get thumbed through.)

With a traditional bible you gain a familiarity with where things are. At least I have. It is entirely reasonable to navigate it by feel. And the concordance that has become almost standard to contemporary bibles is useful for remembering where those great passages are. But with the Chronological Study Bible you have to add a step - after you locate the verse you then have to look in the index to figure out where they have hidden that particular section of scripture. If you are doing a word study, this is almost impossible. So even if the notes are good, it takes so long to get there that the value of the notes is diminished.

Where I can see this being useful is if you were doing a bible study where you wanted to look at a particular moment in time and read the texts that possibly surround/describe that moment. But in quite a few years of pastoral work, I've not had that sort of study come up.

So my verdict is that the Chronological Study Bible is a neat idea, but in the end it is not very practical.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Getting Ready for School

OK this was a much better day. Productive too. We put my daughter's room back together and I set up a laptop for her to use - it doesn't do much more than word process so it should be fine, at least until they try and hook it up to the network! Yikes.

I have been thinking more about what I can do job-wise, while still maintaining a good pace on my PhD and at the same time not imploding my family. For sure I won't be adding anything new to my schedule, which saddens me because for a while there I was thinking it could be time to launch out on a new service with Freedom. I'm hoping we can keep the main group, book club and monthly theology pub all in place. With a couple of weddings coming up there won't be a theology pub until at least October. So that makes life a bit easier. Right now the big stress is finances so barring a benevolent contribution I need to find some way of bringing in some money.

Tomorrow will also be the first day with kids in school, so I need to make good use of the time reading. During the day I need to be very disciplined and either stick to my work or go job hunting.

I also ordered a Kindle 3 (3G) for reading. I know there is a problem with page numbers. What I want it for is pdfs actually. I have to read a tonne of theses and articles which I can get via ATLA and other sources, but it is really expensive to have them printed and bound (which is what I was doing). I'm hoping that the kindle format will be workable so I can annotate right in the file, but either way it will be nice to have them all on a reader. I can't stare at my screen that long to read straight text. I was thinking of the iPad (not that I could afford one) but what I want is a reader and the iPad is yet another computer screen. I'll post my review after I've used it for a while. It wasn't cheap, but I think it might pay for itself and prevent me from breaking my back lugging around piles of spiral bound books!

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Day Begins With Blah...

Not sure why but I'm in a funk today. Could be that my kids are fighting since they got up! So glad school is about to start again - they are done. Could be that I stayed up way too late last two nights - and still got up at normal times. Grrrr. It could be that it is sinking in that I am trying to find work to supplement our income while not losing sight of a doctoral thesis. That last one scares me the most. I have skills which I could use, I had a career in IT and it was a good one. I just got to the point where I didn't believe in what I was doing. The idea of going back to that terrifies me. But the reality is that it is too much strain on the family to not have a break from almost 7 years on one income. My wife is amazing, but even she has her limits - and I've been pushing them since before the Masters.

On the plus side, last night was highly productive. I managed to put together a couple of wedding services and read a huge chunk of Bernard Ramm's Barthian project for evangelical theology. He is one of the best writers I've read in a while, but I still find Barth too Calvinistic for my liking.

OK, off to buy school supplies for the little one.