Friday, December 31, 2010

Game Blog

I run a kids D&D game which I wanted to set up an information site online for. So I've started a blog for all things Rathbone. I will focus on the quirks of my fantasy world, with a focus on the material for the kids game.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Chirstmas Aftermath

I'm trying my best to veg over Christmas, but it is a balancing act. My special gift for my youngest (7) was a starter stamp album (very basic one made by Harris) and we've been working at filling in the holes. I had some common Canadian stamps that belonged to her grandfather - he gave it to me to go through before he went into the hospital and there isn't really anything of value in there but I wanted to look for varieties - so it was nice to go through that with her and talk about her grandfather as a collector. Hopefully she'll see that page and maybe think of him. Over the course of the week I've been working on some South American material - Brazil actually - sorting out stamps by watermarks and perforations. I find it relaxing. She would come down and sit with me, she even spotted a few that she needs to fill in pictures in her album.

The other thing we've done together is play Killer Bunnies. The end determination of who wins is a bit strange (it is a lot of work for a random finish) but the game play is fun. Even my youngest gets the game and has won at least two of our games.

With my older daughter we got her a pile of hamster tubes for Gracey. Right now we have an awesome configuration which enters the cage three different ways. Gracey seems to think she can find the weak spot and escape! She might just do it too, she is pretty smart.

I've even had a bit of time to work. Sharon took the girls snowboarding and plans on going again tomorrow. We have friends coming over all day tomorrow to play games and hang out. It has been a nice break overall. However, I've also felt fairly down emotionally, which is not uncommon for this time of the year. Part of it is the realization of how much work I have ahead of me, but it is also being frustrated with not keeping the balance well. For all this hanging out with my family I do find myself craving solitude - especially towards the end of the day.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

Hope you have time to reflect on the Incarnation this Christmas time.


Thursday, December 23, 2010


Just finished James Hunter's American Evangelicalism. A bit dated but an excellent reflection on the sociology of evangelicalism. He follows a common delineation for evangelicals: Reformed-Calvinist, Anabaptist (I often call these Communitarians), Pentecostal-Holiness (which includes Methodism), an Baptists. I wonder how such a typology holds in the post-modern blurring that seems to be occurring within evangelicalism today? I wanted to read this one before I dug into his To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Frustration and ADHD

One of the realities I've been trying to work through concerns my working memory and inability to sustain concentration for long periods of time. Although it seems late, after about 10 years of higher education (BATh, MATh, and finally finishing my residency for a PhD in Theology), I am trying to figure out if treatment that might help me. Two things sent me in this direction, a documentary on adults with ADHD by Patrick McKenna and working with ADHD experts for my oldest daughter. I am on my third medication, and this one is not going as well as I would like. However, it is hard to look at it objectively, so I rely on the observations of others as well, especially my wife. She's definitely seen an improvement.

I've noticed a few good things during this experiment. First off I am finding that when the meds function well I am not feeling so driven and I am able to enjoy my family in a way that I did not expect. I always wondered why that was such as struggle, but when you spend so much time frustrated at yourself it is hard to enjoy the people around you as much as you should. I am also finding that my productivity is better during the afternoons, which is when I was having the most trouble. For those who don't know, working memory is what we use to organize immediate tasks - kinda like a scratch pad for the mind. Afternoons I would most often find myself heading to start a task and getting sidetracked, often repeatedly. It can be very frustrating and it was helpful to learn that this is one of the things that finding the right meds can help with. If you see me writing out a list to know what to do - that is because I have to.

Unfortunately the drugs also do some bad things. When the dosage is too high then, for me at least, waves of irrational depression overtake me. Also my productivity grinds to a halt. It is simply not pleasant. The other thing that is troubling is that when I change the dosage (I decided to take a break this weekend and it is not going so well) I get moody, clumsy and easily frustrated. I don't feel myself at all. But on the weekends I'm hesitant to take anything if I sleep in - the other bad effect is that the meds I'm on make it hard to settle at night. So I've been getting to sleep around 1AM (earlier if I use melatonin but that seems to have another unpleasant effect - exhausting dreams).

The goal with meds is not to stay on them forever, but to get some of the symptoms under control long enough to work out some new strategies with a cognitive therapist. Having lived this long with ADHD I do have some strategies in place - but not all of them good. I am quite capable as a student - I think I had one B+ (lowest course mark) throughout my undergrad and masters degrees. But I did most of my work only after the deadlines were pressing so hard on me that I needed to stay up into the wee hours to get anything done. That was hard on everything in life and that strategy will not work to complete a PhD thesis.

I'll likely switch to a different med, probably something short acting. I've seen glimpses of what good can come of this. I think it will be great for my work and marriage. But it sure is a pain getting it worked out. Anyone else here gone through this? I'm hoping to work this out as quickly as possible - so it will not impede my work progress.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Taking Ourselves Seriously

I love to joke about my job, in some ways it is how I keep my sanity in a culture where there are serious questions about the legitimacy of professional clergy let alone professional theology. But all joking aside I think that both of those jobs are very important. Over on the Regional ThoughtWorks Blog I pointed out an article by Vineyard USA director Bert Waggoner on the importance of theology. He begins that article begins with something I've been saying over and over - we are all theologians but the choice is whether we will be good or bad theologians. For me the choice to do academic theology has a very pastoral concern at heart: I think we can do theology, and by logical extension church and the Christian life, much better than we are. I say this as a committed evangelical in a neo-pentecostal movement who sees similar issues throughout the whole of the Church. I do it because I care and hope.

My pastoral work at Freedom Vineyard comes from a similar core value. I love the people God has privileged me to walk with. And I count myself right in there with them as a person who can always do better. But rather than getting hung up on what any of us is not doing as well as we would like - I try to find ways to engage with a life of faith and faithfulness that is both a model and an encouragement for those in my care. And for those in my care, or even just those I care about cause I am not the most formal guy, I try to make this central to our relationship. In a real sense it is how I am wired. Even in the IT workplace, I would look for opportunities to live out this part of my being.

So you might hear me joking around, poking fun even at my own chosen professions. But one thing I take very serious is that these are real vocations and I am honoured to feel chosen by God to take them on.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Most Embarrassing Book on my Shelf Meme

Been following the links on this meme. Delightful stuff really. So a quick look to my right and there is a section I call General Spiritual, lots of choice books in there to be embarrassed about (I like that word, it evokes the image that your ass is hanging out!). Two jump out, books with stories.

First up is this little, uh "gem" by Canada's own embarrassment to Christians everywhere - Todd Bentley. I've suffered bits of this steaming piece of... uh literature. But let me assure you I never purchased this book. How it came to be in my possession, and remains, is a matter of another con artist (not Bentley) that I met. This con artist contacted our church for help. I detailed the ordeal here, complete with a picture! When we took him in he tried to establish his credibility by dropping this book and a Spiritual Warfare Reference Library CD as a gift. I'm not sure who he stole them from, but if you want them back I'd be happy to oblige. At the time I didn't have the heart to tell him what I thought of this material - and have kept them as a sort of reminder of the whole event. But seriously, if you want this stuff back just let me know.

The second was not a purchase either. Honest. They came from the Living Waters Canada (Caustic Evangelism organization that is) rep as I told everyone here. He sent me about three books. One I reviewed and got rid of, one I just got rid of and the last one I kept just in case, I don't know, I wanted to feel what it is like to be kicked in the nuts intellectually. The ironically named Ray Comfort represents much of what I think is wrong with fundamentalism. I just flipped it open and there is a chapter entitled Ten Steps to Conviction - seriously what the hell is wrong with him? Oh yeah, he thinks the Law is your bestest friend ever and would like to firmly embed that Law up your backside too. Ok, before I start popping blood vessels I'm going to put these two... uh 'books' back on my shelf.

I think step one to conviction was to admit I had them at all. Excuse me while I try my hardest to forget them again.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Scheduling Content for the Thoughtworks Blog

I mentioned the new blog I started as part of my work for the Ontario Vineyards. I wanted to make sure it as up and off to a great start before I spent a bit more time here continuing my swim through political theologies and all things interesting to me. I am one post shy of having something ready to come one every Monday morning (8AM EST). I have a few requests for content outstanding (specific people I've tagged) and am hoping that by then I will get a suggestions for content. Add in announcements for things like the Vineyard Webinars and it looks like a good rate of 1-2 posts/week. Already it is getting daily hits, although it is nothing like I see here at Freedom Log despite my slow post rate here.

The kids are off on their Christmas break week after next. So this week is the last reading push I have. Monday is a write off already too. That is a bit frustrating as I've been trying out some medication as a way of improving my working memory and concentration - but the process of finding the right meds is making me wonder if this was such a good idea. I've lost more than a few days to the ill effects of incorrect dosage - and I now have a new appreciation of my friends who deal with depression (one of the indications that the dosage is too high for you to tolerate).

Once the kids are off there are a few things I'd like to post about here. I want to reflect a bit on the course I taught recently on Adult Spirituality. What a great group of students (teachers actually) I had the honour of working with. Also I have made quite a bit of progress shaping my thesis in terms of what needs to be there and what I'm going to drop. As I start honing in on the last of the broad readings and begin writing chapter one in earnest I will probably be quiet here. And finally I want to tell you about a game module I put together for one of my D&D campaigns, and how it ran.

I also have a few other projects in the pipes. I am possibly speaking at a local Presbyterian church that brings in a theologian each year to spend some time exploring a topic in depth. I proposed to do some sessions on the relationship we have with Scripture. Looking at how this has changed since the 19th century and some of what I find helpful today: namely narrative readings and the notion of an interpretive community. I think it will be two Sundays, back to back, in the new year. We'll see if they like my proposal (I was invited to offer a proposed topic) and bring me in. When it is confirmed I'll post some details. The other project is I have a formal book review to write - so I won't be posting the book review here but I will give you more details on how to find it.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Teaser Trailer for Freedom Vineyard

This past year has been really busy with folks at Freedom Vineyard. One of the really cool things about pastoring a small church is that you really get in each others' lives. But when folks are busy, like from the two weddings we did last year, a lot of stuff you want to do get put on hold. Last night I was talking with Christine, she helps me coordinate the theology pubs at Freedom, and looks like we have a few topics for the new year! Book club has been going well, but a lot more sporadic than in the past. I think we are going to be doing Naturally Supernatural next. I can't wait. I think this is an excellent book, but also an essential one for getting a sense of what really is at the heart of the Vineyard - fully embracing the tension of the now-not yet Kingdom that is a reality which breaks into our lives. We are still working through Scot McKnight's Blue Parakeet, which is getting a mixed reaction in the group. What I love about our book club is that they really love to go deep and explore not just what a book says, but what the author is trying to do and how that challenges us. I couldn't ask for a better group to do this project with. The other perk is that both Blue Parakeet and Naturally Supernatural are part of the ThoughtWorks programme - so many of our folks will be doing the assignments that the ThoughtWorks team has put together. This is a great way to implement ThoughtWorks in a local congregation.

We are still struggling with the shape of church, right now we have kinship in two homes (switching each week), and have a third backup home available. I'd like to see the groups growing a bit more numerically, but our strength has always been to build into what God brings and not worry about trying to make Freedom into something other than that. In fact whenever we've tried to push it it seems to not go very well. But as we have tried to be faithful with what we have, God seems to be doing amazing things in peoples lives. And the best part is that I've gotten to be part of that for about ten years now!

If any of this sounds like stuff that you would like to connect with then let me know. We often have people crash what we are doing. Our passion is to build up anyone God sends our way - with no expectations. A big part of this comes from the Vineyard that welcomed me when I couldn't be part of their main congregation (I was on staff at another church) but was hurting from my experience in my home church. They loved me, prayed for me, equipped me (I was a worship leader in the church I was on staff with and the Vineyard folk continually modeled generosity with all that God had blessed them with!), and when it was time for me to move back to Ottawa they blessed my going as if I were completely their own. I think that is why I love the Vineyard so much. But it also is why we really believe in the philosophy of building up the whole body, wherever and however we can, and leave the rest to God.

I'm excited about the new year. Hope that me and my Freedom Vineyard family can be a blessing to you in it.

Monday, December 06, 2010


I'm a bit of a Dilbert fan, so click on the picture to get to the comic I wanted to use with this post (I didn't want to pay the licensing fees). What I thought was interesting about this comic is that it shows how worldviews clash in most of our minds. Worldviews are comprehensive systems of understanding about the world, ourselves and our role(s) in the world. They are very much the metanarratives by which we navigate our world. They are also fairly fluid constructs unique to the individual (for example, there is no such thing as a Christian worldview, but there are Christian worldviews). But they are often unexamined. Here Dogbert challenges the basis for Dilbert's claim, because that claim is integral to Dilbert's own worldview, the claim functions as a belief rather than a hypothesis, and our first response when a belief is challenged is to defend it. What is hilarious, to me, is that when Dilbert goes to defend his belief he appeals to a pre-modern epistemology! The modern turn was a shift away from understanding conveyed through authority - people realized that they didn't need to let the institutions think for them but could use the might power of human reason to emancipate themselves from authority. This only proves that his claim comes from an unexamined worldview that is striving for internal coherence. Of course I'm not commenting on the content of his worldview - I actually think he has the claim formulated a bit wrong. He should say that evolution is the best explanation for he data we have at hand, which is how a theory rightly functions within the scientific method.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


My wife has added another decade to her years revolving around the sun. She makes any age look great! So we needed to mark the occasion. She had asked for a mystery menu party (search for mystery food dinner on the web and ignore the ones about dinner theatre). Our friends Mari and John introduced us to the format - the diners are given a menu of 20+ cryptic items (usually based on a theme) from which they pick 3. Once all the orders are in the menus disappear and they are served. They then get to try two more times - usually when they figure out which is the wine/beer that gets ordered again. It is a real hoot - but it takes a lot of prep. And my sweetie is gluten free so that makes it a bit more work.

I set up the Pinetrail Apothecary and Fine Dinery. Three intimate tables (4 people at a table) with the birthday girl in the middle. The hardest part was deciding on which friends to invite - I so wish we could have had a few more folks. I blocked off the kitchen with sheets and spent two days preparing all the food! Yeah, it was that much work. I had my oldest daughter and my nephew to help serve - but I ended up plating most of the dishes. It was easier that way but it took a long time. One of our requirements was that people had to show up on time and had to let us know early enough if they were to back out - the party doesn't work as well unless you fill all the seats. Actually we had someone back out and so we got to invite another long time friend of Sharon's - which was great.

I set up our dining-living room with candles. Me and the helpers wore borrowed pharmacist lab coats. I started with a bit of an intro, telling people the format and saying that the pharmacy theme is because Sharon has been everything I want in a drugstore for many years now (we just had our 15th anniversary!). It was so much fun.

Here is the list of items - want to take a crack at what each one turned out to be? One hint, in this format you need to order your cutlery, otherwise you have to get creative with how you eat.

1 Cold Medicine - Yes we have the cure for the common cold.

2 Chemical Solvent - Useful for making problems go away.

3 Laudanum - Are you sure it is just a headache? Try this it ought to help.

4 Mild Amphetamine - A house specialty.

5 Antidepressant - Turn that frown, upside down.

6 General Prescription - Beat your doctor to the punch. Our head pharmacist prescribed this one.

7 Little Blue Pill - We make a killing selling these things.

8 Multivitamin - Our own special blend. You will not be disappointed.

9 Herbal Mixture - Made fresh daily.

10 Melatonin - When you need a little help getting to sleep.

11 Ocular Medicine - A real sight for sore eyes.

12 Pens -This is the write choice for you.

13 Mild Laxative - We don’t really want to see you go. But if we can help, you know we will. Try this.

14 Antioxidant Preparation - Only the best ingredients are part of the healthiest meals.

15 Protein Preparation - It has been ready for you, are you ready for it?

16 Spatulas - We know that you were counting on this item. Can we count on you to order it?

17 Bowl and Pestle - Imagine the possibilities. This is the perfect companion for any pharmacist.

18 Mexican Drug Lord - For a limited time only, shhhhhhh.

19 Fibre and Ointment - This is a regular item on our menu.

20 ADHD Medicine - When you need a little help to stay in your seat, try an order of this.

21 Suspension - One of these days we will take this off the menu. When? Well, we will just have to keep you in suspense.

I'm thinking this would make a great format for a bunch of guys to shower their affection on their wives at Valentines. Any takers? It has been quite a few years since I've done the crazy Valentines meal for my love with a bunch of friend.

Friday, December 03, 2010

D&D 4E Skill System

It took a long time for D&D to make skills actually an integral part of the game. I remember back in AD&D days how there was really a strange disconnect between skills and game play - but then again we were more about the combat back then. I'm actually really impressed with a number of things about the way skills work in 4E.

1) The set number of skills means no skill creep. Skill creep is when you have an ever expanding list of skills to choose from. Basically they have distilled them into a set that you can peg just about anything into. Some of the connections seem a bit forced, like stonework under dungeoneering, but all in all it is nice to have a small set list to work with. This actually encourages me to use skills more in designing adventures.

2) Skill challenges are also a great addition to the game mechanics. What skill challenges do is give a progression in which skills are applied to a task to complete it. You need x successes before x failures. You can do other things like tie pieces of information to certain numbers and kinds of successes. Also you can set a maximum number of times any one skill can be applied to the challenge - this is really good for getting players to think creatively about what they are doing. I make them justify their skill picks and assist skill picks (and award role playing XP for such things).

3) Passive insight and passive perception are great as well. They represent how intuitive and attentive the character is. It is neat for them to automatically detect that someone is trying to scam them in some way. Just make sure that if you want to make secret doors a challenge, make them higher than the highest passive perception.

4) The last thing I like is that it actually forces the party to balance out their ability scores. By balancing out ability scores and skills they cover over a larger range of possibilities - it means they play more creative characters and make sure that we do not have an all striker party.

The new skill system is a big hit in my book.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: God and Sex

When a book is titled, or as in this case subtitled, what the bible really says that usually does not bode well. I say usually because Michael Coogan's book is a delightful exception to that rule. First off, he has chosen a fascinating topic. Second, Coogan is an excellent First Testament scholar. And thirdly, this is the perfect book to tie into my ongoing series on the theology of marriage.

Not only is sex a hot topic, it is the source of many a heated debate. Coogan does not skirt around any of this. His focus is clearly on what is in the text and he carefully steers us away from the culture wars so that we can give the texts a chance to speak. That is a good thing. But it is also a hard thing as the texts do not consistently present the values we cherish in our society. Over and over again Coogan points to the horrendous treatment of women in Scripture. This highlights his critique of the use of Scripture in the contemporary culture wars - that we all pick and choose what to highlight and what to ignore. If you are looking for a how to guide for Biblical sex, then you are probably not the kind of person who would be reading this book. But if you are looking for a careful study of what is actually in the texts themselves regarding human (and divine) sexuality, this is a great resource.

It is clear that Coogan's strengths are in First, sometimes called Old, Testament scholarship. (Funny note, at a few points I was reminded of the work of popular historian Thomas Cahill only to find Cahill mentioned in the Acknowledgments. It was a feeling I had based on Coogan's style. I found Coogan as easy to read as Cahill who is a very engaging writer.) He draws the reader into the scope of the text like an archeologist carefully unearths a site of antiquity. His forays into the New Testament are good, but somehow not nearly as engaging. Most of the chapters did leave me wanting more though, simply because everything is so interesting.

It is curious though that despite focusing heavily on the treatment of women, Coogan does not mention an important First Testament cultural challenge at the end of Job. In fact it is one of the few things that marks Job as being changed by his experience - the way he treats his new daughters. Here is where Coogan's insistance that we need to let the text speak as a whole becomes so important. But perhaps I find this important because it is foundational to my own strategy of working with Scriptural text. Coogan's proposed strategy is that the texts should be in dialogue with the people of faith and not simply taken as normative - otherwise we should treat women horribly and reinstate slavery. At least we should if we want to be faithful to all of Scripture.

In terms of my series Towards a Theology of Marriage. Coogan provides an excellent overview of Biblical views on marriage. And it is a mess. The following, according to the Bible, should be acceptable: women are merely property and are distributed in power broker type arrangements, a woman who is raped is not important it is an offense against her owner, married men as not prohibited from seeing prostitutes even though they may not let their daughters be prostitutes, polygamy is really the norm and if there were more women in the garden than Eve you can bet Adam would be depicted as procreating with them as well because as soon as this was an option (according to pre-historical texts) it was the norm. Of course none of this will support a high view of covenant such as I am proposing. But the good news is that we do not read Scripture this way. Even the hyper-literalists navigate their way through scripture using their preconceptions about what it 'should' say. This is why Coogan's proposal for Scripture in faith communities is so important.

If you are looking for an engaging read on a fascinating subject then look no further. If you want to read something that supports your already established notions of what the Bible says about sex - you might want to avoid this one. It will only make you mad. But for those of us who care about the text, this book is a great read.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

New Thoughtworks Blog

Some of you know that I am the regional Thoughtworks coordinator for the Vineyard. Thoughtworks is the national theological development group. We do a number of things for the Vineyard in Canada, including vetting and preparing training material for our denomination's churches, organizing and delivering workshops and seminars on a variety of theological and practical topics, and providing theological consultation to our churches and the national team. But more than just providing more services - we want to highlight what is already happening within our movement. To facilitate this a bit more I set up a blog for the Ontario region, a place where we can look at what happening, exploring what we can make happen and get first hand reports on what folks have done in terms of theological and leadership training within the Ontario Vineyard Churches. Right now the blog is a sort of experiment - I'll be pitching it hard as a resource and in the early new year I will start soliciting posts from folks in the region. I am hoping to have something up at least once a week, not too often but not too quiet that it gets forgotten.

Love to have your feedback and participation. BTW the image and look is an attempt to mirror the Regional site.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Academic Work and the Web

I'm sure that more and more academics are struggling with the role of the web in academic research. And I'm also sure that many are like me, that is, having a director who wants to steer clear of the web. And the reasons for steering clear are good. First of all the web is largely an ungoverned wiki - absolutely anyone can post anything and really who are they to answer too? I find it very frustrating when Christians (because of my areas of study it is Christian sites I'm frequently directed to) try to remedy this by not allowing interaction on their blogs - seems like you have cut off the one check and bound available to you. However, comments on blogs are also highly suspect forms of intellectual engagement. The web has problems.

But the web also has huge potential. It is a huge site of debate and wrestling, especially amongst practitioners of religion. That work doesn't make it into the texts. It is there that I think the 'ivory tower' complex of academics can be addressed and hopefully dismantled. But, if you are like me, then you have probably been burned more than a few times interacting with people on the web. Regardless, it is important work and it is an important site of data for academic work.

I was delighted to see Scott Bailey's recent post on his SBL experience. He gives links to papers delivered by Bibliobloggers wrestling with this new reality. I've skimmed a few and they are worth me going back for a careful read. I think it is important that we develop resources for this new frontier in academic study. Like it or not the web is not going away. And like it or not there is real world reflection going on via the web. If academics are going to remain a relevant feature of society then we need to be there too.

Come on in, the water is - muddy.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why You Should Present at Conferences like Congress

I made a promise to my director not to present this year. Have to get my thesis done! But I've presented four times during my residency, and I think it is an excellent thing to do. Here is why:

1) It will give you more incentive to get to the conference where you can meet other scholars in your field. Networking is a critical part of academic work (I am not the best at it, but I try). And being in touch with what is new and breaking in your field is important - waiting for the articles to get published is a lot slower. The other side of this is that academics is lonely work - we need all the community we can get! Plus, if you go to the right conferences you get to hang out with me!
2) If you are working at a post-graduate level then you are hopefully making a contribution to your field. If you want to get your ideas out there fast then conferences are the way to go. It is not as hard as one might think getting accepted - I've written four proposals and presented four times. It also gets the word out as to what you are doing so that other scholars can connect their students to you to keep the conversation growing.
3) Presenting to your peers is the best way to get your research into the place where it can be challenged, encouraged and shaped. This year the CTS has reshaped their formats to improve the interaction between presenter and academics. This could be one of the best chances you have to find out how to shape your work so that it will not only be a unique contribution, but one that will benefit theology as a whole.
4) How can you ever get enough speaking practice? Especially in an environment where you aren't explaining basic concepts, but working on the area of your greatest passion.
5) If you present you get first dibs on financial assistance. Many societies have these perks. When you are a student, every little bit helps.
6) I'm sure there are more, but I'll finish with the all important resume. Yup, if you want to make that resume impressive then you better show that you are interested in contributing to the academic culture.

See my last post for details on proposing a presentation for the CTS. Hope to see you there in May.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Call for Papers - CTS

Call for Papers: CTS 2011 Annual Meeting
Canadian Theological Society / Société théologique canadienne

May 30-June 1, 2011

Fredericton, NB

“Coasts and Continents: Exploring Peoples and Places”

The theme, ‘Coasts and Continents: Exploring peoples and places’ takes advantage of St. Thomas University and University of New Brunswick’s maritime and coastal position in Atlantic Canada and stresses the geographical, historical, literary, artistic, socio-economic and political links across the globe. Place is important as it directly and indirectly shapes an individual’s and a people’s experience. Located strategically within a global context, Congress 2011 provides a bridge to, and a link between, places and peoples.

At the same time ‘Coasts and Continents’ challenges us to reach out to take advantage of our location to embrace the Atlantic world and beyond. This theme opens up further possibilities of interchange — not only between places and peoples but also of ideas. In addition, ‘Coasts and Continents’ suggests the far-reaching potential of the humanities and social sciences for understanding the complexities of our expanding world and for challenging arbitrary borders and boundaries through interdisciplinarity.

The Congress theme of ‘Coasts and Continents: Exploring Peoples and Places’ resonates with many recent emphases in theology, such as:

* ‘globalization’, shifting cultural and religious frontiers and borderlands, new opportunities for dialogue across historic gaps and barriers;
* the emergence of post-Eurocentric Christianity age as the demographic centre of gravity shifts from North to South;
* shifting scholarly landscapes as historically marginalized voices and traditions join global dialogues;
* challenges to familiar readings of the bible, church traditions, and authority;
* fears about ‘syncretism;’ but also creative processes of religious / cultural ‘deconstruction’ and ‘reconstruction, new experiences of ‘inculturation,’ ‘hybridity,’ mestizaje;
* and recognition of theological diversity in an emerging theological pluriverse, so powerfully echoing the ancient symbol of Pentecost for a new world.

We invite papers on these and related themes, or on any topic of theology.

The specific reason for gathering as a Society is to promote discussion, debate, exchange, and collaboration among members. To this end, the CTS/STC Executive has reconfigured the format of the “Regular Paper.” The CTS/STC Executive also encourages all presenters to participate in as much of the program as possible. Please remember that the CTS/STC has an inclusive language policy.

We invite proposals in one of the following three types:

Regular Paper: Presentation of 20 minutes, plus 20 minutes for discussion. Typically the presentation will be an account of a larger research project. This format offers an opportunity to make a presentation—sketching an area of scholarly debate, key issue(s), and contribution(s) to advancing discussions—and to engage in extended dialogue with participants. Since CTS members work in a variety of fields and specializations, attention should be given to presenting advanced work in an accessible way.

Special Paper: a formal presentation of 40 minutes, plus a 15 minute prepared response and 30 minutes for discussion. The proposal must include the name and affiliation of the respondent.

Workshops, Panels, and Seminars: formal presentations and responses and general discussion, lasting 1½ hours. The person organizing such a session is responsible for setting the topic and enlisting participants (including moderator).

Please insure that the abstract does not include identifying information. Proposals will be reviewed anonymously, though exceptions may be made for some panels.

Proposals must have the following:

* presenter’s name, institutional affiliation, and contact information;
* title;
* type of session (regular paper, special paper, workshop, panel, or seminar);
* abstract of 200-250 words, including reference to theological dimensions and/or implications of the project;
* request for audio-visual equipment.

For all types of presentations, please submit proposal (in a Word or .rtf file by email attachment) by Friday, January 14, 2011 to:

Jeremy Bergen, CTS Program Chair
Conrad Grebel University College


Saturday, November 20, 2010

My Amazing Daughter

A little while ago I had posted about starting a role playing adventure with my daughter and some friends. It is a kid focused game set in a fantasy world with an emphasis on being the champions chosen by the faeries to protect the land. The kids are really looking forward to the sessions, I hear the reports from their parents. And I really enjoy the sessions too. I've tried to make sure each time they have one short combat and one interaction to role play. Last time they went into a spider cave, fought some spiders and then rescued some hobbits.

What really blew me away though is that my daughter went online and found a free cooperative diceless role playing came. Printed up everything she needed and took it to school. I only found out about it because I was checking her school agenda and found it. At her school on Friday's they have game time at one of the recesses - mostly board games and she told me they have twister too. So she asked her teach if it would be ok to play and ran a game with two boys (her friends). Pretty darn cool eh? She was telling me about it and it sounds like she did an amazing thing. After I found it I gave her a few GMing pointers - basically not to worry if the players choose to do something you didn't think of, just make it up and take lots of notes so you can remember it later.

It shouldn't surprise me though, when I first heard about D&D as a kid, before I had any books I made a little RPG type game and tried to convince my friends to play it. I still remember the Christmas I got the Basic set, it was the set with the dice and crayon to fill in the numbers. It's longs since disappeared, but not my love of tabletop RPGing. And I'm so glad that my daughter and I can share this hobby. I can't wait until I get to adventure in one of the worlds of her imagination.

Fowler's Reflection Quesitons

This is for my class on Adult Christian Spirituality.

1. What are you spending and being spent for? What commands and receives your best time, your best energy?
2. What causes, dreams, goals or institutions are you pouring out your life for?
3. As you live your life, what power or powers do you fear or dread? What power or powers do you rely on and trust?
4. To what or whom are you committed in life? In death?
5. With whom or what group do you share your most sacred and private hopes for your life and for the lives of those you love?
6. What are the most sacred hopes, those most compelling goals and purposes in your life? (Fowler, Stages of Faith, 3)


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Review: Understanding Spiritual Gifts

I need to start by saying that I am not a big fan of this kind of "Bible study". It is not that I haven't used them in my years pastoring, but I find that they tend to be quite directive in their approach and assume that scripture readings will present self-evident and uniform truths. Despite my misgivings about the format, I thought it would be interesting to look at popular Evangelical Kay Arthur's offering on spiritual gifts called Understanding Spiritual Gifts.

This book is intended for a small group with a facilitator (she calls this a leader). I'm not sure why she makes the assumption that there needs to be a single facilitator, but I'm not that familiar with the structural paradigm in which Arthur ministers. The lessons are pithy and focus heavily on working through various texts that Arthur feels will illuminate her topic. To her credit Arthur recognizes that spiritual gifts are not a major theme in scripture so she does not have a huge range of text to draw from. (p.37) And she does ask good contextual framing questions about the passages she highlights - following the five Ws sometimes called the journalism method. (p.4) Also her subject matter is one that I, as a neo-pentecostal minister and theologian, can appreciate: the role of spiritual gifts in the life of the believer.

The book falls into several traps that are common with this format. It shows a poor understanding of Scripture and Scripture studies. It fights against foes, such as cessationism, which it does not directly name. It has shallow theology, especially in this case her pneumatology. Let us look at each of these.

The history of Christianity, even just of modern Evangelicalism, shows that Scripture is always read contextually. Any adequate method of Biblical study must bring our attention to the biases that shape our readings and expectations on the text. What really is being done here is a devotional reading, not a Bible study, and as such it can be a valid tool for developing faith shaping insights. But such readings need to always be done with a critical eye - lest our particular personal insights are elevated to being the direct communication of God. On page 3 Arthur makes the claim that by reading Scripture, following her methodology, we are letting God "explain the gifts." This is highly uncritical and such methodology has been used to support horrendous heretical claims. A better approach is to hold these things lightly, allowing God to continue to lead us into truth but recognizing that our grasp on truth is always provisional because it is mediated through our expectations and desires. The idea of "straight-forward truths of the Bible" is a myth that Biblical study must always be wary of. (p.3)

Part of the context in which we read scripture are those assumptions to which we want to counter. Arthur begins the study with an odd attack on "seeker-friendly" churches. (p.1) She at least names this foe, but quickly shifts into her topic leaving the reader to wonder what the point of her jab was? Does she see these churches as abandoning spiritual gifts? I'm not sure such a generalization will hold up and it is really quite puzzling how her study seeks to address this initial attack? A foe more directly related to her task is cessationism, or the belief that the spiritual gifts are no longer functioning in the church or that if they do function it is not a normative feature of the modern church. She would be right to tackle this theology as it opposes her thesis. But, while she does address the fundamental complaint of cessationism, she does not really address it, instead she relies on the supposed straight-forward interpretation of the text to show the validity of spiritual gifts for the church today. (p.12) She might have been well served to at least point the readers to resources that do diligent and critical work on dismantling the arguments of cessationists. She also would have been better off leaving out the initial jab against the seeker-sensitive movement and started instead on a positive note and affirmation of the validity of spiritual gifts for the church today.

Theologically Arthur presents only one view of the passages on her subject. Her view is quite mechanistic and depicts a God who deposits specific gift mixings (she will further dichotamize these into serving and speaking packages) into individuals and that our role is to figure out what package we have and walk that out. The problem I have with this is that it conflates the gifts with the giver. Another view of the same readings she proposes is that the gift is the Spirit and that we should not expect that the Spirit will act uniformly through each of us, but, rather we would, by partnering with the Spirit, do amazing things to the glory of God. I am sure there are other readings as well, but why does Arthur favour her simple compartmentalized view? and what kind of Spirit is at work in her view of spiritual gifts? These are important questions. Arthur seems to have an operative structural expectation on the text even though the very passages she has chosen show that Paul saw different structural realities for different ministry contexts. There is no uniform view presented, they cannot be harmonized without doing violence to the texts. Arthur would have done well to recognize that 1 Cor 12:1 does not use the word Charisma but a word that might be better translated as matters of the Spirit. It is not the gifts we need to focus on - but the character and working of God, by God's Spirit, with and through the church.

I have other concerns with the content and structure of this book, but this analysis is enough for my evaluation. While I do think that such books can be useful for small groups, they must not be equated with Biblical study. Rather, they can provide a springboard into wonderful discussions about our interpretations of Scripture. They can let us question that perhaps the apostles in Acts 6:2 were simply abusing their authority and creating the same problematic dichotomy of serving vs. speaking that Arthur seems to promote. (p.7) After all Stephen did turn out to be quite a gifted orator. If a group is willing to do the work, this kind of study can be beneficial. But not in the form we are given here. I'm not sure what Kay Arthur's credentials are, but it is evident she is doing a simplistic reading of scripture to advance her particular read of that same Scripture. I believe her topic is worth pursuing, but I do not buy her way of framing her findings. But, as I stated in the beginning, I am not a fan of this type of "Bible study" and this study did little to change my attitude.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Theological Space and Grace

I have been thinking a lot recently about notions of grace. I had browsed through a book on John Wesley's theology and the author, Collins, used the term cooperative grace. I'm going to have to spend some time and see if there are correlations for me and my thinking on grace. Grace, in my understanding, is about an invitation. It is God's invitation to participate in the redemptive activity of God throughout the world. But two things have malformed this aspect of grace in many evangelical theologies. First the Reformed penchant for defending the sovereignty of God. (I think this is at the heart of the critique of open theism, I'm not completely sold on open theism but I do think it is worth reflecting on.) I find this all the time in Reformed thought, it is often characterized by a very deterministic worldview. The epitome of such a notion would be predestination, but even where predestination (and its bastard child double predestination) is challenged there still remains this concern over presenting a supposedly diminished view of God as sovereign. For me this kind of thinking flies in the face of God's kenotic self-revelation - God does not seem so worried about God's reputation or sovereignty. In fact that isn't where the risk is; I believe kenosis is by necessity a risk. The risk is not that God would (as if this were possible) somehow cease to be God. The risk is that we might choose to not accept the invitation God presents. For me the kind of God who is willing to risk it all on love is so worthy of worshipping with my whole life, the God who needs our defense is not. Such a God is simply insecure, and ceases to be God.

The second aspect that deforms this is the way we Westerner evangelicals have personalized sin. We have focused on spirituality as the private domain of the individual. This privatization gives theology no room to meet the needs of a world being destroyed by sin. Further, this way of viewing spirituality shows that not only is God insecure (as if that were possible) but that we are insecure in God's love. Grace should overcome all these insecurities (perfect love should cast out fear if we are to believe the scriptures). Grace is a self-revelation of God that evokes faith. Grace doesn't lose its sovereign dimension - because it is God's gift demonstrated by God's self-emptying, self-sacrificing holy gamble on humanity - as only a sovereign and completely secure God could ever make such a demonstration of grace. A God this gracious could not but be faithful to accomplish all that has been promised, therefore, our security is sure. But that isn't really the point.

The point is that grace opens up the possibility for so much more that merely our confidence in salvation. This kind of grace, that I'm describing, says that God continues to want to take a risk on us. Risking that we would keep saying yes to participating in God's redemptive work throughout creation. That we would participate in all that God continues to do in our world to defeat the power of sin and undo its terrible effects. This kind of invitation goes well beyond any personalized notions of me and my best friend Jesus hanging out for some supposed escape from this world. Rather, it is God saying, "This is the extent to which I'm willing to go with my love - so too are you called to participate with Me as we take My love to the whole world." I can get on board with that kind of grace, I can give my life for that kind of God.

What kind of God do we want to worship? What kind of God would it take for us to take up our crosses and follow?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Waiting at the Bus Stop

I was waiting for my youngest to come home on the bus and opening my mail. Yet another book had arrived. As I tore into the wrapping, the young gal sitting a neighbour's kid asked me what book it was. She seemed all excited, guess she doesn't order as many books as I do. I got into it enough to tell her the title and said I need to figure out what the book was - I had ordered a lot of used books recently. Then I placed it, it was a book by Ralph Reed called Active Faith. I told her it was part of my research into how evangelical Christians understand their connection between faith and politics. She said she hoped it would be good. I told her that I was pretty sure it would not be very good - and that I'm quite certain I will have a very different view from Reed. This got a puzzled look and the conversation turned to the validity of Shakespeare for contemporary high school students??? But it struck me that part of being an academic is reading the books you don't necessarily want to read - but know you need to read if you are to understand the contours of your topic. I'm probably going to find something in there worthwhile - I noticed he does a critique of liberal theologies which might prove interesting. My interest is in how he structures his arguments - what does he draw on and how, who is he speaking to, and more specifically can I find his eschatological views anywhere in the text? Happy reading.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mean People Suck

And Fred Phelps surely ranks among the meanest. I am once again reminded of the depravity of his sect as they took to protesting the Comic-Con in San Diego last Thursday. What is frustrating is that this kind of ass-ianity is actually not too far from the attitudes of many actual Christians who somehow haven't had their inhibitions lobotomized out of them like Phelps and his family (literally). While it is often covered up with a rhetoric of "love", far too many who claim the name of Christian act far too unChrist-like in this world. Persecuting, bullying and vilifying anyone who dares to be different than their expected norms is common place. To do it in the name of God is blasphemous.

Who would Jesus have at his table? Seriously. Do Christians even read their Bibles anymore? As our lectional reading for Thursday stated - Jesus even included those who would betray him amongst his apostles??? So how do we get from that kind of Jesus to one that would endorse a message of hate - implicit or explicit? It is too big a leap. Watch the video on the link - I love the guy dressed as Jesus' explanation. "Fred has issues." Unfortunately so do many of us. And the only way forward is to start saying no to hate. Why? Cause mean people suck.

Friday, October 29, 2010


I'm in the midst of preparing a short course on Christian spirituality for the university. I loaned out the primary go to texts for such a course - which turns out to be a great thing as I've pulled a few unusual suspects from my shelves to read. One that I've had for a while is Michael Downey's Understanding Christian Spirituality. What a great little book! Downey is clear and the text moves along nicely. The guidelines for developing the course were to stay within the parameters of David Perrin's Studying Christian Spirituality, which is also a great undergrad level book on the subject. I just finished reading that one. But I've also pulled down books on spirituality from evangelical, feminist, liturgical, liberationist, and historical perspectives. A lot of this I've read before - but it has been great to refresh my relationship with each of these books. I've been thinking a lot about the problem of defining spirituality. Downey does a great job of showing how we get to our very broad and often religion-phobic definitions of spirituality. But I seem to think that we are looking for new referents to spirituality. One of the exercises I plan on doing with my students is to have them write out how they would define spirituality at the beginning of the course - and then to revisit this at the end and see what, if anything, has shifted. I'd love to hear how you define spirituality too. I wonder what things you want to make spirituality refer to in your definition? Is it your religious tradition or your experiences? Is it historical forms or perhaps a perceived horizon of meaning that you value? If nothing else - it is worth reflecting on.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sad News at my University

This week I attended the funeral for one of my professors, John Kevin Coyle. We knew him as Kevin, he taught Church history and the PhD seminar in my first year (among other courses in the Theology department). He used to always call me Francis, and coming from him it felt like a term of endearment so I never complained. He always seemed happy and content (never anxious or impatient), even the Friday before his passing we chatted in the hall and he seemed like he'd had a long week and was looking forward to the weekend. I do not think anyone knew it would be his last.

Two things will always stick with me about Kevin, both come from my first experience with him in the undergrad programme taking his Early Church History course. Prof. Coyle had given us free range to find topic for our research papers. As a neo-Pentecostal and a bit of a trouble maker I thought I'd look at the role of the prophet in the early church. When I presented the topic he got me to follow him into his office and there dug out a single article on the decline of the ecstatic prophet in the early church. He told me that I needed to interact with this article - and he was right. I was struck by how he knew exactly where to point me so that I could actually move beyond my preconceptions about the early church. It was a brilliant move on his part - I'm not sure if he realized how that would foster a hunger in me to dig as far beyond my preconceptions as possible. It also taught me the joy of research - and this has served me well throughout my academic work.

The second thing I will always remember is seeing Kevin in the library with a stack of student essays - diligently bringing books out of the stacks to check the work. This was a common sight for me in my ten years at Saint Paul, Prof. Coyle in the library with a stack of research papers. This was a man who cared about academic excellence. To be honest it also scared the crap out of me, I knew that any mark I got from him would be what I deserved. Kevin set a high standard for me to follow - I hope I do his memory proud.

I am going to miss our chats in the halls. Prof. Coyle was a fixture at Saint Paul, always around in the "rarified air" (as he would call it) of the third floor. It is not going to be the same without him.

[In the picture Kevin is the second person from the left, wearing his trademark jeans no doubt.]

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What's It All About?

The Christian faith isn’t about getting to heaven. It isn’t all about the church. It isn’t all about the individual spiritual life or “personal relationship with God.” It is about all of these things, but they aren’t the whole point, or even the main point. The main point is God’s saving love for creation, God’s faithfulness to all of creation, God’s ongoing mission of healing a world torn by human injustice so that it can fulfill God’s original dream. It is about God’s kingdom coming to earth, it is about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
Brian McLaren from the Introduction to The Justice Project(2009).

Friday, October 08, 2010

Rathbone... for kids!

Rathbone is the name of a land I created for a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. It has been around for quite a while, we started in 2E, moved to 3.5E, and am currently running an adult game in 4E, but on the other side of the globe. I've been trying to couple my love of gaming with the interest my very creative daughter has shown in playing the game. In fact she's sat in on some adult games with us to try it out. But I wanted something for her. So tonight we started a new campaign in the land of Rathbone called the Faerie Champions.

We are using the 4E rules (with a few house rules) cause it is simple enough for kids. In fact, it was the one adult (I'll explain the makeup of the group in a sec) who took the most time performing actions. The kids need a bit of help, but once they get started they do come up with creative solutions. And I'm trying to make at least equal time for role playing in this one.

I had a few dads in mind, my idea was father-child pairs. And I wanted to keep the numbers down (sorry Richard). Both of the other kids are around Elyssa's age, one girl and one boy. Both of their dads play in one of my adult games, so one of them is actually familiar with the land of Rathbone. So we have a party of five characters, an ideal number, and I had the adults play characters that will compliment the party, keeping the kids free to play whatever they wanted.

We ended up with two strikers (ranger and sorcerer) and one of each controller (wizard), leader (cleric), and defender(fighter). I made cards for my daughter and the other girl - I highly recommend using power cards. And we spent a lot of time making my daughter's character just the way she wanted - including an orange dragonling familiar (I painted a pseudodragon orange and her mini has one on its shoulder already). I was pretty excited when she solved the problem of where they were by having the dragonling fly above the tree tops to help direct them.

Because I am encouraging role playing, I decided to keep track of role playing experience. I was going to give according to each person's contribution, but thought better of it and gave them all whatever the best result was. I will explain this to them, so that they will be encouraged to do as much acting and problem solving as fighting.

The faerie champions theme gives them each a free minor power - gossamer wings that can't lift much more than their body weight, pixie dust that can be used to gain a turn of veritable invisibility, or the ability to become a small woodland creature (my daughter's half-elf sorcerer can become a chipmunk!). The only other house rule is to only allow the original magic missile.

I had the party come together in a faerie grove, fight a few spiders and talk with some sprites. It was lots of fun. We allotted only an hour and a half for the game - which I think was enough - as the kids tend to lose focus after about an hour. The two girls were off to see the rats we are sitting during the last half hour, we kept having to call them back when it was their turns.

All in all it should be fun, and a great way to spend some time with my girl.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Church People and Kingdom People

“Church people think about how to get people into the church; kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; kingdom people work to see the church change the world.”

Howard Snyder, Liberating the Church.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Question....Can evangelism include...

I want to push the last post a bit. I wonder what folks who read this blog consider to be the contours of evangelism.

So, for instance, I would include calling people to live faithful to their religious convictions part of the project of evangelism. I know that is controversial because Christianity has been seen so often as a dominating religion. While I definitely would, and do, engage in apologetic discussions about the specifics of various religions (I think it is healthy for us to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of all our religions), I have come to abhor evangelism that begins with the arrogant assumption that "I am right and you are wrong and I have nothing to learn from you." Evangelism that is just a battle about who's ideology is best has little to do with the gospel, in my opinion. But I am also committed to the notion that we are all growing towards better understandings of God's heart for us.

So how about you? What would you include in your understanding of evangelism?

Individual or Society - Having Cake That You Eat

I am trying to work through the notion of tension, that is holding two seemingly opposed ideas/views as mutually true, as a help for the problem of individual and social sin. Typically evangelicals have a high value on the belief that individuals need redemption from their sins. That they are in need of salvation that at the very least removes the guilt over personal sinfulness and in the very best cases calls the individual to move towards a more just (that is less sinful) way of living. What this focus has led to is the belief that societal problems are ultimately addressed by individual conversions to Christianity. While there is something profoundly true about conversion opening up the possibility of a more morally beautiful way of living - it is not evidently true that every Christian convert chooses to move away from sin and sinful patterns.

On the other side there are schools of thought that want to locate sin entirely in social contexts. That is sinfulness is injustice that affects us all. While this also is true, movements towards a more just society - especially those without explicit Christian roots - are often viewed with suspicion by evangelicals who feel such an emphasis undermines the goal of individual religious conversion. The evangelical vision of a more just world then is a world with more Christians. This seems inescapable for an evangelical theology, but is it?

Certainly it is true that individuals need to change for society to become less sin-filled. And it is equally true that individuals often participate in patterns of sinfulness that exceed their own culpability - what is often called structural sin. Therefore, can it not also be true that society needs to change for society to become less sin-filled? I am convinced that it is so. And this is the classic problem for evangelical theologies of social engagement - how and when do we participate in social movements?

I think tension, holding both individual and social sin as in need of attention, is a helpful way forward. It keeps us from the fundamentalist trap of exclusively focusing on the individual, as if the individual is all that God is concerned for. And it also keeps us from the classically liberal trap of minimizing the need for individual salvation. Tension is also an apt term in that tension seldom leaves us settled, and I think that to default on either side leaves us settled in ways that hinder the move towards justice and righteousness.

If we reconcile the tension in the need for individual conversion as the primary and only means of social transformation then we can easily care little about other measures of this project. This is a classic evangelical problem. When evangelism becomes our ultimate concern we can even develop responses to injustice that amount to little more than hypocrisy, such as engaging in eco-justice as a means of having a better witness amongst the growing public awareness of our current ecological disaster. (I think we need to shift our view from converting individuals to Christianity, to converting them to a particular view of the Kingdom. But that is beyond the scope of this post.)

If we reconcile the other way, that social movements are the primary and only means of social transformation then we can easily miss the individual's role in all of this. Evangelicals, like Carl Henry, bemoaned the insufficiency of the social gospel to promote individual conversion. Indeed the social gospel, as a good example of a social reconciliation of this tension, sets out to build the Kingdom through social projects. While these are definitely necessary - it cannot be ignored that social structures are ultimately populated by people. So we risk the Augustinian crisis of doing the good we think we know, yet making matters worse in our doing. What is needed is a conversion at the individual level - towards justice and righteousness - that awakens us to the need for conversion at a societal level towards the same goals.

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.