Sunday, December 14, 2008

Words of (Sci-fi) Wisdom...

I've been watching a lot of sci-fi lately, and even reading some.  All of this science-fiction exposure has led to some words of wisdom that I think would apply if you were ever to find yourself caught in a science-fiction story.  It is important to note that these bits of advice don't apply to the real world, but only to the science-fiction world, and should only be used in that particular reality.

1.  If you see a door open, or open a door yourself, and it makes an ominous noise, beware.  The door may or may not be dangerous.  The best way of knowing if it's immediately dangerous is the tone of the noise.  Minor key noises, bad; major key noises...well not good, there are no door-opening-noises that are good exactly, but if the noise is in a major key it's unlikely that a guy with a laser is about to charge through the door.
2.  All super-powerful artifacts are intrinsically dangerous.  In fact, the danger of the artifact is related directly to its power.  That is to say, the more powerful the artifact, the more dangerous it is to the user.
3.  If there is a place in the universe that you don't want to be, that's where you will find the person/object/information that you need most.
4.  If there is a wise and comforting mentor in your life, she/he will be dead as a door-nail by the third act.  Sorry, there's nothing to be done about it.
5.  If someone approaches you holding a harmless looking object in a threatening or ominous way, it very well may be an artifact of immense power (cf. item #2) and you should treat it accordingly.
6.  Grunge metal music in the background is a bad thing, especially if it's in a minor key and especially if there is somebody nearby welding something.
7.  Be very careful who you trust, you never know if it might be a killer robot.
8.  That woman/man you can't stand and constantly exchange sarcastic banter with?  That's your soul-mate, may as well just get it over with and make out with her/him already.
9.  Footsoldiers, peons, and "average" badguys of every description are the worst shots in the universe.  If one of them has you in his sights I wouldn't worry too much.
10.  Finally, the mystical power or energy that you think is bunk?  It's actually the most powerful tool available to you and you may as well just get on board with it.

Again, these pieces of wisdom are offered as a public service to all those of you who might, at some time or another, find yourselves in a science-fiction story.  I do hope that you find them helpful.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Finish Line...

I'm writing again today.  As with the last time I posted on a writing day it's a paper for The Old Testament in the New Testament.  This time my outline was in the neighborhood of 2,800 words for a 5,000 word paper.  I'm about half done and sitting in the 2,000 word realm, so that's more or less right (the back end of papers are always longer, that's where the meat is).  The only problem is that this time I'm much, much more tired than the first time.  I've loved my first semester of PhD studies, but I can't pretend I'm not ready for a break.  Eventually mental attrition becomes a serious factor and I'm all the way there right now.  But I can see the finish line now.  My last assignment is due at 3:30pm tomorrow afternoon.  I'll give a 5 minute presentation, then I'll fall asleep until Thursday.  Seriously, it might actually happen in the classroom while the other students are presenting.  Don't anyone take it personally.  If you're in the class with me you feel free to fall asleep while I'm presenting, I won't mind at all.  Okay, I'm going to take a 30 minute break and then it's back at it until I can't make my fingers type anymore.  If things go well (which they generally don't) I'll be done before midnight tonight.  Wow that would be nice.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

God on Trial...

Before going to bed last night I was channel surfing for a few minutes and ran across the tail end of a film.  It was clearly a holocaust film, set in one of the infamous barrack houses of an internment camp.  I watched for maybe 30 minutes, and for that entire time the action unfolded only in that little room filled with shaven-headed Jewish men in filthy prison garb.  It slowly dawned on me that I was watching a trial, and that the defendant was God himself.  The two dozen or so men had accused God of breaching his covenant with the Jewish people.  Men from around the room spoke, arguing their side of the case.  Some defended God, calling Auschwitz a test.  Others contended that there was no God and that religion was simply a tool used by the powerful.  Some said that God was real but had abandoned the Jews.

Near the end came an incredibly powerful and moving moment of the film.  All that had come before was mesmerizing, beautiful, and terrible.  But this moment will remain branded in my mind.

Just as the judges sit to deliver their verdict one final man stands to speak.  He has been silent.  He is a rabbi.  He begins by asking questions about the history of the Jews, posing them mostly to the other rabbi, who is also a judge.  The questions begin with the Exodus and each one challenges the motives of God.  What is so powerful is that this rabbi, who knows his Torah in and out, asks questions that require the listener to question, not what God did, but why he did it.  This rabbi, named Akiba, accepts that God sent the plagues on Egypt and gave the Promised Land over to the Jews.  What he questions, however, is whether this demonstrates God's goodness.  "What of the Egyptian children?" he asks.  "Was the Promised Land empty?"  Then comes the climax of his speech.  He inverts the usual Jewish (and Christian, and Muslim) proclamation that "God is Good!"

"God is not good!" he cries.  "God was never good!  He was only on our side."

That last phrase should be branded onto the hearts and into the minds of every believing person in the entire world.  It reminds us of our great sin.  The belief that because we are on top, because we are winners, because we are prosperous and happy and rich and comfortable, that God must be on our side.  What an evil that sentiment is.  What it requires, as Akiba saw so clearly, is a God who is a son of a bitch.  It requries a vindictive, feckless, hateful, cruel, and wicked diety who's morality is far surpassed by his creation.

God is convicted of breach of covenant.

Then the Germans come.  Half of the men are taken and half left.  As the selected men are taken one of them, a quivering, whimpering man, cries out to Akiba, "What now?  What do we do now that we've convicted God?"  Akiba answers, "Now we pray."  And so the half that are taken and the half that remain are shown praying.  They each hold one hand over their heads because they have no headcoverings.  They pray a liturgical prayer together, witnessing the greatness and mercy of God, and the half that were taken are led naked into a chamber that looks like a shower-room but, of course, is not.

So often artistic attempts to deal with issues like suffering, election, and the nature of God are either reductionist or just stupid.  This, thankfully, is not.  The film takes seriously the problems associated with true evil and suffering, as well as the sometimes paradoxical and even hypocritical nature of faith in God.  For all of that I still felt a sense of hope in the end.  I didn't feel distant from God but drawn to him.  The sense of horror at the sight of those men in that stark "shower" room was balanced with an equal sense of love for their nobility and their faith.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Which Moses?

As I mentioned some time ago, I have recently written a paper on the way that Luke and Paul see and appropriate the character of Moses, particularly in Acts 7 and 2 Corinthians 3.  On Monday I submitted the final revision of that paper.  It is significantly improved from the initial submission but still needs a little bit of work.  I'll see what my professor says when I get it back and if the changes required look reasonable I may reformat it for publication.  In any case, this is one of the reasons blogging has been light lately so I thought it was only fair to reward my handful of loyal readers to read and critique the paper.  If you do bother to read it and have any thoughts, please do let me know.  Even if you think my argument is total bunk, it would still be nice to hear your thoughts.  Follow the URL below to enjoy (or, you know, not).

Toffelmire, Colin.  "Which Moses? An Exploration of the Function of Moses in Acts 7 and 2 Corinthians 3," McMaster Divinity College, 2008.

PS though it seems absurd that I need to make this explicit, I will anyways.  Please note that all content on randomcolin, including academic papers provided by external hyperlink, are the sole property of Colin M. Toffelmire and shall not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Colin M. Toffelmire.  Brief citations may be used without permission on the condition that such citations include complete and accurate attribution.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A Good Day...

Today was a good day, and until I'd had it I had no idea how badly I've needed it.  As I've shared here a little bit already, PhD studies have been very challenging and the life adjustment involved has been pretty significant.  It hasn't been bad.  In fact Jinny and I love our new town and our new home, and life here has generally been great.

All of that is true, but the one thing that I've been missing is the feeling of triumph.  All of you career students out there know that you really do have to win sometimes.  Sometimes you have to do better than you expected.  Sometimes you need to be told something was excellent.  This is what keeps you going, keeps you thinking that maybe you really do have a contribution to make.

Doctoral programs, however, are not designed to make you feel good.  They are designed to push you, to challenge you, to make you think harder and more deeply than you ever might on your own.  I don't know about other programs but in my first few weeks at McMaster Divinity College I can't count the number of times I heard some variation of "our job is to push you."  Well, the faculty are doing their job and then some.  The very best work I ever did in my M.A. is at best acceptable here.  All of this is important.  I need to be pushed, and as one of my friends reminds me repeatedly, I did pick this path.

But for all of that it still feels nice to win.  Today I got back an assignment from the toughest marker I've ever sat under and it was much better than I'd expected.  That felt great.  Then this afternoon I presented a paper that frankly wasn't fantastic (though the fundamental idea is, I think, great).  I was challenged with some really great constructive criticism, but I also received some very kind words and some affirmation that I was going in a fruitful direction.  Those things may seem like small victories, but quite frankly victories of any kind feel pretty good, so I'll take it.  Only two more significant papers left to write and I'm out of the woods until the Winter semester.  Time to stop celebrating and get my head down again.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Something New...

You'll notice a new blog on the blogroll in the coming days.  It's the outgrowth of an idea I had a long time ago and have been trying to get off the ground in some form or another for years.  Four, Seven, and Twelvefold is a host-blog for a public conversation about the nature and state of evangelical Christianity in North America.  The topics that I hope we'll explore are simply too numerous to mention but if you think a question needs to be asked, then post it in the comments over there or over here and I'll ask it.  Feel free to advertise the new blog in whatever medium is available to you.  The broader and larger the audience, the better the chances that a fruitful and interesting conversation will ensue.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Election Day...

Well, the polls are closed out here in Hamilton but if they're open where you are and you haven't gone to vote yet, get going!  CBC promises the first election results at 10pm ET, which is in about 5 mins, but I don't think I'll stay up to watch.  I personally find the endlessly changing poll numbers rather dull, particularly when I remember that the die is cast and the only really interesting fact left to come is the list of actual winners.  I'm fairly sure that my MP will be the NDP's David Christopher again, though there certainly did seem to be a significant Green party presense around the neighbourhood (if lawn signs mean anything).  As far as who will form the government?  Well if I was forced to guess I'd say another minority Conservative government but I guess we'll see.  In any case, to all of you who are waiting up to see the results, do enjoy the moving numbers.  If you'd like to see them online, check out CBC's interactive election map here.  Looks like the conservatives are in the lead at the moment.

Update:  Well, looks like another Conservative minority indeed.  The hyperlink above will still take you to the main CBC results page, but just in case you're too lazy:

Con.: 143
Lib.: 76 (29 of which, incidentally, are in the GTA)
Bloc: 50
NDP: 37
Gre.: 0

That's a gain of 16 seats for the Conservatives, a loss of 19 for the Liberals, a gain of 7 for the NDP, and a shocking (oh wait, not at all shocking I mean) showing of 0 for the Greens.  In my riding my prediction came true.  We re-elected David Christopher by a fairly stunning 26.2 point margin.  That has to feel nice.

All that's left now is the slightly sexier USAmerican election in a little under a month.  All I can say is that I sure hope it turns out like the polling is suggesting right now.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Election Day...

Well, the polls are closed out here in Hamilton but if they're open where you are and you haven't gone to vote yet, get going!  CBC promises the first election results at 10pm ET, which is in about 5 mins, but I don't think I'll stay up to watch.  I personally find the endlessly changing poll numbers rather dull, particularly when I remember that the die is cast and the only really interesting fact left to come is the list of actual winners.  I'm fairly sure that my MP will be the NDP's David Christopher again, though there certainly did seem to be a significant Green party presense around the neighbourhood (if lawn signs mean anything).  As far as who will form the government?  Well if I was forced to guess I'd say another minority Conservative government but I guess we'll see.  In any case, to all of you who are waiting up to see the results, do enjoy the moving numbers.  If you'd like to see them online, check out CBC's interactive election map here.  Looks like the conservatives are in the lead at the moment.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The GOBM...

I have discovered a new scholarly society, the Guild of Biblical Minimalists (this via Jim West).  I'm still not entirely sure about the precise level of seriousness, but this post for those seeking nominations for the "Billy" award does seem to give a hint.  It is quite an impressive list of scholars, and it appears that joining all but guarantees you some kind of title or office.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

It...

I am, once again, it; tagged by my wonderful friend Tara so long ago that the original post no longer appears on the front page of her blog.  Of course Tara posts 80-90 times per day so that's not really all that surprising.  I'm supposed to tag a bunch of blogs I love, but as I've said before, this blog is where memes come to die.  If you want to know which blogs I read check my blogroll.  I am supposed to list five unusual things about myself.

1. I love literary theory.  I just took 7 books on intertextuality out of the library and I'm totally excited to read them.
2. I love Kraft Dinner.  I really shouldn't, and I hardly ever eat it anymore cause it's so unhealthy but it is my personal comfort food.
3. I have an inordinate love for Harry Potter.  The books I mean of course.
4. I love school.
5. I don't like berries of any kind.  Not strawberries, not raspberries, not blueberries...you get the idea.

Well, since I'm not tagging anyone else it's time for me to go to bed.

Friday, September 19, 2008

4,471...

Yep, all done.  4,471 words in the main body of the essay.  It's a little shy of the 5,000 words in the syllabus but I think that considering the size of the class and the fact that we all need to read everyone's papers (there are two more like this) I think that everyone will be grateful that I was concise(ish).  Of course if you include the footnotes the word count jumps to 5,756 but what can you do?  Well, time to format the bibliography and footnotes and then go home to bed.  After I've presented the paper and then reworked it in response to comments maybe I'll post it here.  Huh, maybe I'll post it here sooner so that I can get some comments before I present...we'll see.  Nightie night.

But...But I...You Can't...It Isn't...Over? Is it?

It happened.  It finally happened.  The final, hilarious, brilliant, wonderfully written post in the near-eternal deconstruction of Left Behind went online at Slacktivist today.  Bravo Fred, bravo.

2,478 (matey!!)...

I'm writing today.  Before I'm allowed to sleep tonight I must have completed the first draft of my paper "Whose Moses?  An Examination of the Appropriation of Moses in Acts 7 and 2 Corinthians 3."  It's the first written assignment I'll hand in for doctoral studies and it's coming along pretty well so far.  I was fiddling with my outline last night and realized that the outline itself seemed a little long.  So I did a word count.  My outline (for a paper that cannot, under any circumstances, be longer than 5,000 words) is 2,478 words long.  Hmmmm...well at least I shouldn't have trouble getting to the required length.

Oh, and it's national Talk Like a Pirate Day today (ye scurvy curs!!!!), so be sure to talk like a pirate to someone today.

ps I don't think that Kathryn reads my blog, but if she (that is to say you) does (do), please do remember that it's Talk Like a Pirate Day, and not Talk Like an 18th Century Whaler Day.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Assigned Reading...

I am up at 12:22AM to tell you that you must, without hesitation, read this post at This Side of Sunday.  Jon's clear articulation of a serious problem in North American evangelicalism should be a matter of urgent concern for all of us who consider ourselves members of the Body of Christ (and I don't just mean evangelicals).

Monday, September 15, 2008

Just in Case...

Just in case anybody was wondering, it turns out that PhD studies are hard.  Harder than MA studies were.  Shocking, I know.  Back to work now.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

GAHP 6*: Wherein Harry Is Sorted and We Consider the Question of Determination and the Smell of Asparagus Pee

The last thing Harry saw before the hat dropped over his eyes was the hall full of people craning to get a good look at him. Next second he was looking at the black inside of the hat. He waited.
'Hmm,' said a small voice in his ear. 'Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either. There's talent, oh my goodness, yes - and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that's interesting...So where shall I put you?'
Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, 'Not Slytherin, not Slythern.'
'Not Slytherin, eh?' said the small voice. 'Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it's all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that - no? Well, if you're sure - better be GRYFFINDOR!'
-Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 90-91
Sometimes, just as a conversation starter, I like to ask people if their pee smells after they eat asparagus. I'm not sure if you know this or not but eating asparagus produces a bizarre little chemical reaction in human beings that makes our urine smell strange. The really funny thing about this is that not all human beings have the ability to smell this particular odor. I'm told it's a genetic thing.** Wikipedia appears to agree.

I bring this up because it has been my experience that people in Western culture are under the impression that their lives are in their own hands. So many of us think of ourselves as free, as self-determined, as the agents of our own greatness or folly. But here's the thing: not all of us can smell aspargus pee. Not all of us can roll our tongues into little tubes. Not all of us can see. Not all of us can walk. Not all of us can run 100 meters in under 10 seconds. No matter what anyone ever tells you, you are genetically determined. There are things that are, and are not, possible for you.

The idea of determination is important to theology. Theologians don't usually speak in terms of genetic determination but in terms of calling and election and the will of God. The cliche theological terms are Calvinism and Arminianism but the debate between people who believe our lives are pre-determined and people who believe that we have free will is far older than John Calvin and Joseph Armin. More than a millenium earlier Augustine and Pelagius were having the same argument. Let's see if we can summarize the oldest debate in Christian theology in a couple of sentences.

Classical theism (aka Calvinism. Though equating the two is pretty inacurate it will serve our purposes here.) holds that God is completely perfect, all-powerful, unchangeable and that he knows all things. Consequently, if God is these things then all things that occur on earth must, by definition and logical necessity, serve his purposes. Thus, at the level of the individual, everything you ever have done or ever will do is a product of the will of God. Free-will theism (aka Arminianism, same caveat) holds that God is perfect, all-powerful, and all knowing. In contrast to Classical theism, however, the Free-will theist holds that though God knows the future and has the ability to bring about his will, he consciously allows his creation to make decisions that are contrary to his will.

Back to Harry and the Sorting Hat. Those of us who have read the entire series (which I assume at this point is pretty much every human being on Earth) know some things about Harry that Harry does not yet know. We know about his heritage. We know that, amusingly enough, he is actually a direct descendant of Salazar Slytherin. Even more interesting we know that a fragment of the soul of one of the most powerful Slytherins ever resides within Harry. Harry is also a pure-blooded wizard. Harry is also a parselmouth. All of these things mean that Harry not only meets the requirements to get into Slytherin, he's actually a perfect fit. But, as Dumbledore will later point out, Harry chooses to become something other than a Slytherin. There is a degree to which Harry's life has been determined. His heritage, his history, his very abilities, all conspire to remove his ability to decide which course he will take. And this determination is not merely theoretical. All of the most important things that make Harry who he is and help to present him with the choices and situations he will face in his life are the product of someone else's decisions. Harry's life has been predetermined, his course has been set, his choices have already been taken away from him. And yet he decides all the same.

You see though we are all of us determined, whether genetically or historically or perhaps even theologically, that determination is not complete. That some of our options have been limited does not mean that all of our options have been eliminated. In what ways are we limited and in what ways are we free? I haven't the faintest clue.

I do, however, like Harry's example. Determined or not I want to live as though I have a choice. If God has predetermined my actions, then so be it and I'm sure he'll take responsibility when the time for that sort of thing comes. But as far as I'm able I think it's important that I live as someone who is responsible before God for his own actions. I think it's important to live as though I have a choice until a situation arises where I really don't.

Are our lives pre-determined? Of course they are, in a great many ways. But, to be frank, I really don't see what that has to do with whether or not I make the right choices in my life. I say, live responsibly, as though you have a choice. If it turns out in the end that you didn't, then who the hell cares anyway right?

*I realize that I skipped GAHP 5. As I've mentioned to a couple of my readers privately I really do want to do a GAHP post about Harry's entrance into the Wizarding World and the idea of conversion but I just can't seem to get my head around the ideas involved. I guess I'm holding the 5 slot in case some day I can get that post right. We'll see.
**For the record, yes I can smell my asparagus pee.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Coffee...

One of the drawbacks to being back in school is that I now don't really have time for sleep. Add to this my general anxiety over being ready for classes as they come up, particularly my intermediate Hebrew course, and I'm already feeling pretty tired. The solution, I suppose, is that I must start drinking coffee.

I've never been much of a coffee person. I used to say that I despise the stuff, though admittedly over the past few years I've been capitulating more and more, allowing myself to be slowly absorbed into the coffee drinking culture around me. I see this as a kind of betrayal, like I'm waiving the white flag of surrender after vowing for so many years that I did not like and would not drink coffee. Today, it would appear, the final armistice in this long and fruitless war was signed.

Because of the aforementioned fatigue Jinny and I decided that I would purchase some coffee and use that as a drug to keep my poor, addled brain in working order. I thought of this as a kind of necessary evil, a kind of medicine that must simply be tolerated in order to gain the desired effect. Sadly this was not to be so. I enjoyed it. I liked my first cup of La Minita Tarrazu (purchased from Second Cup) and am kind of looking forward to another cup this evening or perhaps tomorrow morning.

Sigh, just another way in which I'm exactly like everybody else. I really am starting to wonder if we shouldn't just take Jerry Seinfeld's advice and start dressing in uniforms like in Sci-Fi movies.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Things That Are Cooler...

For those of you who haven't noticed Google launched the beta version of their new internet browser called Chrome today. It looks kind of cool and I really do like the way that the URL box automatically functions as a search engine but overall I am underwhelmed. It doesn't really do anything that Firefox doesn't do and like Jim West I find the lack of a Home Page and the way the shortcuts work irritating. I think that I'm just going to stick with Firefox for the time being unless someone suggests a reason that Chrome is superior.

On the other hand I did come across to online applications that are both much cooler than Chrome. I'll start with the one I found second. This may sound lame but I've never heard of Scribefire until today. While I was reading around about Chrome I ran across Jim's critique (linked above) and he mentioned this app called Scribefire that he uses to blog. I just finished installing it and I'm using it to write this very post and it is cool as all get-out. Links are easier, I don't have to fiddle with the Blogger Dashboard, I don't have to sign out of my wife's account and then sign into mine, this is awesome.

The second (really the first) app that's cooler than Chrome is a Hebrew/Greek vocab program I found a couple of days ago. For some absurd reason I accidentally deleted my Hebrew vocab software a few months ago and I'm in pretty dire need of it right now. This internet app, however, kicks the living crap out of my old software (Teknia in case you were curious). It also kicks the crap out of Greekflash Pro. You can run standard flashcards, you can do fill-in-the-blank quizzes, you can do multiple-choice quizzes, or you can do a combination of these. It runs the quizzes based on part of speech and frequency, and the best part is that if you get a word wrong that word gets cycled back into the mix radomly and appears many, many times. At any rate I'm finding it very helpful.

Both of these apps, which are cooler than Chrome simply by the virtue of being more useful, are now available in the Links section on the sidebar.

Monday, September 01, 2008

New Addition...

There's a new addition to my sidebar in both the Links and Blogroll. My friend Trevor (probably my oldest friend that I still keep in touch with) has started a blog.

Like me and so many people I know he's something of a recovering fundamentalist and so far he's been blending his love for ANE studies with his interests in the primeval history of Genesis 1-7 in a pretty strong challenge to the biblical "literalism" that we were both raised on.*

For anyone who's spent time in serious study of biblical literature nothing Trev says will be all that surprising but there are a lot of evangelicals who hover uncomfortably on the edge of conservatism who will find his thoughts unsettling and maybe even a little bit of a relief. Sometimes it's just nice to hear people agree with your privately held beliefs out loud. Anyways, go give him a read and see what you think.

*I use quotes on literalism there since, as I've said before, the fundamentalist/evangelical readings of Genesis 1-7 are often so bizarre, arcane, and disconnected from reality that even the idiotic misnomer "literal" hardly applies

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Opinions...

I haven't been writing lately, in any capacity. This is an unfortunate development for me because, as I've said before, writing is one of the things that keeps me sane and centred. There are some good practical reasons for this drought but as we all know practical reasons never keep us from doing the things we love.

I have been terrified lately of the danger of opinions. This is the product of many varied streams of thought. Partly it has to do with a discussion that was making the rounds on a number of academic blogs that I frequent and partly with the related experience of applying to several graduate programs. In the discussions on the blogs I just mentioned there were some bloggers and commentors who suggested that there is a great deal of danger involved with posting on blogs. The danger is that you will make a statement or present an opinion that will later, and I'm sorry I can't find a more elegant way to put this, bite you in the ass.

The relation to applying to schools seems pretty obvious but I'll spell it out anyway. I have been nervous for some time that I will not be wanted because of who and what I am. I simply do not fit into very many traditional molds and this blog is one of the best examples of my personal oddity. I love whimsy too much. I am not conservative enough. I am not liberal enough. On top of that I know that I make mistakes. Sometimes factual errors and sometimes errors of logic or rhetoric but errors nonetheless.

I am afraid of being unwanted and of being wrong but I know that this is hypocrisy. All statements are fraught with danger and written statements all the more so since they can be referred to at will. But all statements are also powerful and written statements especially so. To appropriate that power an author must be willing to risk, and in many cases to risk all. In my experience authors who are willing to take that risk are either great or awful (and occasionally they are both). That awfulness is the danger that any writer of any kind fears but it cannot be negated or set aside. It is necessary. It must be.

And so here I am, risking myself and my reputation in a forum that hardly anybody reads and anyone can find and hold against me at will. Why? Because I need to write. I need to share and challenge others and even more to challenge and push myself to think more carefully. Writing is the only way I know how to do this.

Hamilton...

Well here we are in Hamilton, officially starting yet another phase in our lives. I've had the chance to meet with my academic advisor at McMaster Divinity College and I've had the poo scared thoroughly out of me. Jinny and Liam have both officially been sick. We have a wonderful landlady and a great place to live, as well as a fairly odd neighbour who hangs out on his lawn in his boxers during the day and listens to incredibly loud music in the evenings (sounded like Rush just now...is it just me or that band mindnumbingly dull to listen to?).

I'm stoked for school to start. Orientation is on Wednesday and my first official class is next Monday. Thursday, however, I get the joy of sitting in on Intermediate Hebrew. My advisor likes all of his students to sit in the Intermediate Hebrew classes in order to maintain our reading skills in Hebrew. I think this is a great idea though I'm a little worried about that as well. I've been trying to get my head back into Hebrew but my language training at seminary was so hit-and-miss that I still have a little bit of trouble with it. Vocabulary especially is a problem, and that's the kind of thing you can only fix with regular and intensive reading. The reason I'm worried is that I'm going to be a PhD student in a room full of MA and MDiv students and I'm going to suck as bad or worse than anyone. Oh well, can't be helped now.

There are some new additions to the sidebars. Mostly these are so-called biblioblogs (blogs dedicated primarily to Biblical or Theological Studies). Partly this is because I like these blogs and the sidebar is more for my use than anyone else's. Partly this is because while I'm in school I imagine that the content of my posts will tend to reflect what I'm studying.

Don't worry, if you like my bizarre and ill-informed rants on politics, ethics, and church polity those will likely continue. I just suspect that reading lots and lots of biblical literature and books about biblical literature will probably tend to skew my posting a little.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Thoughts, Comments, Verbal Abuse?

So, any thoughts on the new layout? Check out my new blogroll on the sidebar. I've also added a few new blogs to the links section.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Failing...

I like to cook. This isn't a post about cooking per se, but cooking will serve as our illustration, so bear with me. I like to cook. One part of cooking well is knowing fundamental skills, techniques, and concepts. You need to know how to use a knife properly and you need to know that cream with a lower fat content is more likely to break...you know, stuff like that. Another important part of cooking, I am coming to discover, is that you need to try and fail a lot.

I've recently been working on my spicy dry rub and my BBQ sauce recipes. It took a lot of permutations of both to come up with something really worthwhile (which I finally did this past week incidentally). A couple of my attempts were pretty bad. Most of them were just mediocre. The final products, if I do say so myself, are pretty damn good. I'm not quite done fiddling yet but I think that now I'm down to final edits as it were.

The problem with this process is that I'm bad at failure. Somewhere along the way as I was becoming the person that I am now I got the idea in my head that I should be good at everything right away. It sounds asinine when said so baldly but I don't think that I'm alone in this silly assumption. I've met a lot of people who feel stupid for doing something wrong when there's no earthly reason they should know how to do it right.

As I noted at the outset, this isn't a post about cooking, this is a post about being better. I am trying very hard to learn how to fail well. Failing well means failing graciously, at times spectacularly, and always learning from my mistakes. And this isn't to say that failing once means never failing again. At times we learn from our mistakes incrementally and many mistakes are required. At other times learning from one mistake produces another, entirely new and novel, mistake that must then be learned from itself. There are probably even some situations (maybe many situations) where mistakes are all there is and you never get it "right," you only get it less wrong.

I want very much to become better at failing. I want to learn to take failure less seriously and more seriously. Less seriously as an infringement on my character and personal worth. More seriously as an excellent way to learn to be better.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Pace Runners and Witnesses...

If you read the family blog you may know that the Sunday before last I ran my first official road race. I ran the 10km leg of the Saskatchewan Marathon. My sister Terry and her husband Tim, along with their friend Teresa, talked me into going home for the weekend and running (they all ran the half-marathon). I've been running for awhile now and particularly since I decided to do the race, so the actual experience of running 10km wasn't all that big of a deal. I've done it a few times and I knew I would finish (in a time of 64 mins and change if you're curious). What struck me about the race was the power of the community of people who took part in it.

There were of course the runners themselves. Impressive people all, and some very impressive. At one point I was passed by a man who was in his 70s at least and probably running under 6 mins/km to my 6:30 mins/km. The fastest runner in my race finished 10kms in a little over 32 mins. Like I said, impressive.

Beyond the runners, however, were the non-runners. You can hardly imagine the number of people who show up at a marathon to do unpaid labour. There were volunteers and friends and family everywhere. In my race I don't think I ran more than a 1km stretch without seeing somebody who was there to watch, to cheer, to hand out gatoraide or water, or even to sing songs while the runners passed. To put this into perspective the run started at 7AM on a Sunday morning and the temperature was 6 degrees C with periodic rain. But there they were, holding out cups and holding up signs and calling out, "Keep it up!," "Great pace!," "Almost there, keep running!" I'm not kidding it damn near made me cry a couple of times.

There were also "pace-bunnies." At a marathon a pace-bunny trains and trains in order to be certain not only that he/she can run the distance of the race, but that he/she can run it at a precise pace. The official runners follow the 60 min pace bunny in order to finish the 10km race in 60 mins. There were several pace-bunnies, each running a specific time for the runners in each of the races (10k, half, full marathon). I frankly think it's impressive enough to run a marathon at all (hell, a half is impressive...let's see you throw down 21.1 kms), but to do it in the service of others is simply wonderful. And all of this made me think about the book of Hebrews.

In chapters 11 and 12 of Hebrews the author retells the stories of men and women of faith who serve as examples for Christians. Chapter 11 closes and Chapter 12 opens with these words:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,a and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake ofb the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
a Other ancient authorities read sin that easily distracts
b Or who instead of
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Heb 12:1-2.

Pace Runners and Witnesses. We need them badly. The examples of the Pace Runners and the encouragement of the Witnesses helps us to lay aside weight and sin, and to run with perseverance. Here's the thing though, you don't have to be dead to do these jobs. In fact, if you're a Christian you should be doing these jobs at some point in your life.

All of us have weak points in our faith. We have moments when our feet falter and our breath fails. All of us also have strong points in our faith. We have moments when the rhythm is strong and our muscles feel tireless and our lungs feel limitless. There are no people who are always weak. There are no people who are always strong. When I am weak I need Witnesses to call out to me along the way, to remind me that I'm doing well and that I can do it. I need Pace Runners to come alongside and to help me find the rhythm again, to encourage me to keep pushing even though I'm terribly tired. But when I'm strong again I need to be the witness, I need to pace my fellow runners. I am responsible for their well-being just as they are responsible for mine.

I owe a great debt to the many Witnesses and Pace Runners in my life. I pay that debt by taking my turn. I know I have friends out there, some who even read this blog, whose feet are failing and whose lungs are faltering. That's okay. Maybe you need to stop and walk for a minute or two and that's fine too. But then you're going to run again. You are. I know you are. You can do it, you have the strength and what you lack Christ will provide. I believe in you.

And if the rhythm is strong for you, and you can feel endless power flowing through you, then it's time to run pace. You need to come alongside someone, encouraging and challenging and helping him or her ahead. We must remember that as the Church we run together or not at all.

And of course in all and above all and before all goes that greatest of the Witnesses and that tireless Pace-Runner, Jesus Christ himself.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Barth...

While wandering about on Facebook today I ran across a quote from Karl Barth that I have not heard before. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Barth he was born in Basel, Switzerland on May 10, 1886. He was a student in Berne, Tubingen, Marburg, and Berlin and studied with the great liberal theologians Hermann and Von Harnack. He pastored a small parish church in Safenwil, Switzerland and was later a professor in Gotingen, Munster, and Bonn. In my mind one of the most important biographical details of Barth's life is his role as a foundational member of the German Confessing Church (Christians who actively opposed Hitler before and during WWII) and primary author of the Barmen Declaration. He was eventually fired from his position at the University of Bonn for refusing to begin his lectures with the requisite "Heil Hitler!" and for agreeing to take "the oath of allegiance to Hitler only with the qualification that all such allegiance is subordinate to the dictates of the gospel" (Grenz and Miller, Contemporary Theologies, 11). He died in 1968. He is without a doubt one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century and there are some theological discussions that simply cannot be explored without addressing his work. All of this as pre-amble to this quotation:

"In the last analysis what God required of man consists only in the demand that he should live as the one on whose behalf God required the very uttermost of Himself." Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2, p.166.

What Barth means, of course, is that the way we act should be a response to the way that God has acted. Regardless of how poetic it might be this statement is powerful only in the hands of a person like Karl Barth. It is not theoretical theology but practical theology. It must be underpinned by action.

Barth's own life demonstrated that he truly believed that God indeed "required the very uttermost of Himself" and consequently the very uttermost of Barth. Those of us who believe in the Cross of Christ must understand what this means. Our ethics must be driven not by logic or self-preservation or self-aggrandizement but by the actions of God. For a Christian all other ethical choices are absurd. We are and must be a people of the Cross. That is one of the most powerful and integral components of Barth's theology. I noted above that Barth was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. His intricate thought, creativity, and depth of analysis reserve him that honour without doubt.

It was his life, however, that made him not merely influential but great.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Little Boxes All the Same...

I was sick this past Monday, some weird and nasty crap in my throat. Since I was sick and not allowed near Liam I was effectively useless and sat around watching TV for the afternoon. Because my wife is such a wonderful woman she was kind enough to rent me the first season of Weeds. It's friggin' awesome. It's a wonderful show that airs on Showtime (like so many wonderful programs...Dead Like Me [tragically cancelled] and Dexter for instance) about a 40ish year old suburban house-wife who's husband died suddenly. In order to maintain her standard of living and to support her two sons (11 and 16 yrs old) she sells marijuana. How's that for a concept? I'm guessing that a content warning is a little bit redundant at this point given the channel the show airs on and the concept but in case you care consider yourself content-warned.

I bring Weeds up first of all because it's brilliant and hilarious, and secondly because it dovetails nicely with an essay I've been reading by Keven J. Vanhoozer. The essay is "Does the Trinity Belong in a Theology of Religions? - On Angling in the Rubicon and the 'Identity' of God" from his book First Theology. Vanhoozer's essay is concerned with the totalizing tendencies of both exclusivist and pluralist versions of religious dialog. The exclusivist attempts to reduce all opinions to the Same through some kind of violence or coercion. Pluralism, interestingly enough, does the same, reducing all opinions to the Same through rhetoric particularly with the spectacularly arrogant assumption that we are all praying to the same God. Vanhoozer concludes with the suggestion that the trinitarian nature of God (God as we Christians see him that is) indicates a different way forward in which there are varying opinions and points of view and we discuss and persuade each other without violence, coercion or oversimplification. In other words, I don't have to agree with you and you don't have to agree with me but we can still talk about it. We aren't the same and we shouldn't be. We don't have the same conception of God and that's allowed. "We must remember that our theological formulations are always provisional; none of them catches the sacred fish" (Vanhoozer 68).

Back to Weeds. Maybe the best part of the show (after Mary Louise Parker that is) is the soundtrack. The creators of the program use a fantastic little ditty called "Little Boxes" by Malvina Reynolds as the title track for the show. It's all about the horror of cookie-cutter culture and modern North American culture's all but unstopable attempts to reduce us all to the Same. Almost as beautiful as the song itself is the fact that in seasons 2 and 3 the producers got a different artist to perform Reynolds' song for every single episode. And each performance is a unique re-interpretation of the original.

The moral of the story? You aren't the same as me. I'm not the same as you. Nor should we be. What to do when we disagree? Talk.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Endings and Beginnings...

It seems that all I ever blog about these days is how I never blog anymore. I do apologize...again. Unfortunately my perennial excuse for not blogging has now gone by the wayside (mostly), so I'll have to think up another one. On Friday last I defended my master's thesis and my thesis has been accepted by the committee with just a few binding comments. That means that I've been passed and just need to make some adjustments to the second chapter before submitting the final copy for publication. I'd cheer but frankly I'm just too damned tired. I get the joy of walking the stage once again on April 25th, this time with a different style of black robe. That, it would appear, is the end of that.

It's strange that after so many years settling in to Calgary (and Okotoks) it's now time to pull up our roots and head off to settle in somewhere else again. It looks like, at this stage at least, that the next place we're off to is Hamilton, Ontario. I've been accepted into the Doctor of Philosophy program at McMaster Divinity College for this coming fall.

The funny thing about this move is that in a way it feels like going back in my life as well as going forward. My supervisor at McMaster is going to be Dr. Mark Boda. Mark was also one of my teachers in college, my mentor and the "floor-father" for my floor when I was a residence assistant, and he also led me and Jinny in our pre-marital counseling sessions. Jinny and I will also be hoping to reconnect with some old friends from college and before, including our good friend Kerry and her husband. Though I am thoroughly petrified about beginning doctoral work and trying to figure out how to live without money and with a child, the anticipation of reconnecting with people that I know and love helps to dull the edge of that fear.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

GAHP 4, Wherein We Meet The Hound...um, I Mean Owl...of Heaven...

"Yet here it was, a letter, addressed so plainly there could be no mistake: Mr H. Potter, The Cupboard under the Stairs, 4 Privet Drive, Little Winging, Surrey."
(Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 30).

Integral to Christian theology is the concept of calling. We believe that those who come to God do so not because of their own advanced sense of morality or spirituality, but because God has called them. This is key to the idea of salvation by grace. Salvation, that is participation in God's kingdom, is a gift given by God. Why don't I just quote St. Paul on the subject.

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast."
(Ephesians 2:8-9).

This is Paul's way of saying that it is God who initiates our relationship with him and our eventual welcome into his kingdom. We do not step out of the world around us simply because we want to or choose to do so. We are called. God enters into our world and calls us out of it into his. Harry's introduction to the wizarding world happens in a similar way.

The way in which Harry discovers that he is a wizard sounds something like the way that many people discover that they are Christians. It actually sounds to me very much like the way that Francis Thompson describes his own encounter with Christ in "The Hound of Heaven." Thompson describes the seemingly inevitable experience of coming to know Christ. Both Harry and Thompson are pursued, they are called, they are chased down by the unstoppable messenger of another world. That chase fills Thompson with fear and apprehension because he knows how it might end. Harry's chase does contain a note of apprehension, but is punctuated with a tone of deep curiosity, again because I think that Harry has a sense of how the chase might end.

Thompson strikes deeply at the heart of his fear of the "unhurrying chase" when he writes "For, though I knew His love Who follow├Ęd,/Yet I was sore adread/Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside." Here is the terror and the power of conversion. It is an experience that cannot be erased or removed. The person who has come to the point of decision between Jesus and what can only be called not-Jesus, can never go back. One way or another must be chosen and he must choose. You see, while salvation comes to us by God's grace, it is mediated by our faith. The decision to take up or to let fall God's gift lies with us. When the Hound of Heaven finally catches Thompson, he knows that his decision between Jesus and not-Jesus will finally have to be made.

Again the same is true for Harry. He is coming, at this point in the story, to what will be the defining decision of his life. The Owls and their letters are going to find him, and at that point he will have been called. He will then choose either wizard or what can only be called not-wizard.

The reason that I use the terms not-Jesus and not-wizard is simple. If Harry had chosen not to enter the wizarding world, not to attend Hogwarts, not to take on his role as Voldemort's arch-enemy, he would not, consequently, have been a muggle. Being a muggle is not among Harry's available options. He is not a muggle. Because he has been called, because he has received his letter, he is a wizard by nature. That nature cannot be removed and is not dependent upon Harry's choice. If he chose not to attend Hogwarts he might spend the rest of his life acting like a muggle, but what he would really be is not-a-wizard.

The same is true of a person who has come face to face with Christ. He or she might choose not to accept Christ, but the confrontation cannot be negated. That person must always be not-a-Christian. Why? Because such a person has looked at what Christianity is and like Thompson seen a choice. However, unlike Thompson, that initial fear of relinquishing our so-called freedom is simply too much. And so there is no recourse. One can no longer pretend that he or she hasn't heard the call, but the call has not been accepted and so what remains is simply not-Jesus.

And so we run, like Francis Thompson or Vernon Dursley. We try to escape from the inescapable. But, whether foot fall or wing beat, the messenger follows hard after us "with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace...."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sigh...Yet Another Meme...

If you read the comments on my last post you will see that I was both heckled for never posting on my blog, and tagged by my wife once again. In the interests of pacifying my friend and my wife, I shall take up the meme torch once more. So the idea is things in groups of eight. Off we go:

8 Things I'm Passionate About:

God as revealed in Jesus Christ
Jinny
Liam
Family
Friends
The Bible and Theology
Literature
Cooking

8 Things I Want to Do Before I Die:

Get my doctorate
Be a great husband and father
Go to Italy (Bologna in particular)
Write an academic book
Write a non-academic book
Open a restaurant (as a retirement project, if I get that far)
Live in one place long enough to become part of the community and see my son (and any other future kids) grow up.
Train and challenge a new generation of pastors for the Church

8 Things I Say Often:

Hello Monkey!! (to Liam usually)
I love you (to Jin or Liam or both)
Holly, shut up.
Okie dokie
If you say so
No, I haven't heard back from any grad schools
Sure thing Leslie (Leslie is by boss)
Damn, I make good food!

8 Books I've Read Recently (or am reading now):

With the Grain of the Universe - Stanley Hauerwas
Old Testament Theology - Gerhard von Rad
The Night Watch - Sergei Lukyanenko
The Day Watch - Sergei Lukyanenko
Resident Aliens - Stanley Hauerwas
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - Umberto Eco
On Food and Cooking - Harold McGee
De-constructing the Dish - David Adjey

8 Movies I Could Watch to Over and Over (this used to be songs I could listen to, but I like movies better):

Memento
The Matrix (the whole series)
Sideways
Unforgiven
High Fidelity
Harry Potter (the whole series)
Star Wars (the original series)
Indiana Jones (the whole series)

8 Things I Like in a Friend:

Humour
Intelligence
Honesty
Sense of fun
Good taste in movies and books :)
Kindness
Grace
People who challenge me

And as always, not doing the end bit where I tag other people. This blog is where memes come to die.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I'm It...

I've been tagged by my wife, and am therefore it. Seven weird things about me. Here we go.

1. I love Iron Chef: America. No really, I'm not kidding. I watch Iron Chef every night before I go to bed. In fact, since there are only 7 spaces in which to hold my considerable weirdness, I'm going to cram my general love of Food TV into this item. If I'm watching television (excluding DVDs) I'm almost certainly watching Food TV. Actually I was watching Iron Chef when I posted this.

2. Like my wife, I'm a huge sci-fi/fantasy nerd. I do try to mask this obsession a little, but at the end of the day it simply cannot be hidden. In fact when Jinny says in her post that she can beat almost anybody at Harry Potter SceneIt...I'm the almost. The same goes for Star Wars Trivial Pursuit.

3. I think that semiotics and literary theory are fun. I am, in fact, the only person I know who has a favorite semiologist. My favorite semiologist, for the record, is Umberto Eco.

4. I like school.

5. I am the only person I know who liked both Happy Gilmore and Punch Drunk Love.

6. I love to cook. Sometimes I actually like the cooking even more than I like the eating.

7. I watch movies and read books over and over and over again. Some people do this, and some people don't. I do.

There ya go, the 7 requested pieces of personal weirdness. I won't be tagging anyone else on this little meme, mostly because I'm tired and don't feel like blogging anymore. If you read my blog and feel like doing this particular bloggish thing, knock yourself out. Cheers all.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Co-opting the Church...

I have a question. I mean this as an open question, one for which I have no real answer and would be perfectly happy to hear one.

Why is the Evangelical Church in North America so firmly entrenched on the conservative end of the political and economic spectrum? When I ask "why" I'm not looking for answers that explain this away, I'm looking for a defense of this logic. I know the theoretical reasons why evangelicals generally vote conservative: abortion and gay rights. But these are red herrings, smoke screens, false problems. In Canada at least, these questions have essentially been settled. There are no politicians, no political parties, no government hopefuls, who will make good on a promise to repeal laws legalizing abortion or gay marriage. It's not going to happen. I'm not defending this, in fact I'm actively anti-abortion, I'm just facing facts. If someone disagrees with my assessment, then by all means correct me. You're going to need a fair stack of hard evidence, though, because our current government campaigned on a platform of social conservatism and hasn't done one single thing to change the nature of either of these evangelical hot-button issues.

I suppose what I'm really looking for is a justification from evangelicals for their insistence on voting for and running as economic conservatives. Economic conservatives believe (in an extreme form) in a laissez-fair free market economy. Such right wing thinking is founded upon an individualist ethic. That is to say that in this ethic we are operating on the fundamental assumption that every individual should act in such a way as to protect his/her own interests above all else, and that the consequence of this kind of behavior will be a prosperous and harmonious society. I'm not joking, this is really the foundation of conservative economics. If you ask a Milton Friedman-style economist he/she will propound this very ethical system.

So how the hell did the Church get married to this ethical system? According to all of Scripture and all of Christian history (and I'd say all reason and common sense, but we'll set those aside for now) individualism is bad. Very bad, in fact. Not just bad or very bad, actually, but downright evil. How did we, the very people of God, get sucked into such a deep association with a system that is, at its very rational foundations, wicked and evil? Again, correct me if you think I'm wrong, but it seems to me that we've been co-opted people.

Let me put this as starkly as I can. I won't be a conservative stooge anymore. I'm against the pillaging of the poor. I'm against unrestricted free markets. I'm against policies that benefit the rich and the super-rich while crushing the middle-class and the poor. I'm against tax-cuts for corporations. I'm against the privatization of essential industries and services like the police, the fire department, hospitals, education and the military. I'm against for-profit wars. I'm against war in principle.

I'm against all of these things and all of their cognates for one reason, and only one reason. I'm a Christian.

So, Mr. Harper, Mr. Bush, you've taken something that belongs, not to me, but to God. You've taken his Church and co-opted her, deceiving her to gain power in order to execute agendas that run completely and incontrovertibly against her express purpose (Phil. 2 anyone?).

I'd like to say, therefore, on behalf of myself and Christians everywhere, that we'd like to have our Church back now. Please and thank you.