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Are You a Lopsided Weightlifter? Recovering the Lost Skill of Reading Fiction

I often hear people say that they have a hard time reading fiction. Some just don’t like reading at all. But more frequently I hear from people who love to read, but who still don’t read fiction, commonly saying that reading fiction seems like a waste of time when there are so many good and important non-fiction books out there. With so much knowledge to be gained, why spend your time on some goofy story?

But I wonder if there’s another reason.

Most kids love fiction. Even the ones who don’t like reading still enjoy having a story read to them. They know how to lose themselves in the narrative and explore this new world the author has created. So it doesn’t seem like we need to learn how to enjoy a good story.

But maybe we can forget.

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The Digital Divide (infographic)

The internet revolution has placed knowledge and power in the hands of the people. But this seismic shift has not empowered equally – America’s disadvantaged have been abandoned, further deepening social divides.

When robots take over the world…

Robots already build our cars and vacuum our floors. Will they one day be our companions, too? Engineers are designing robots with the social smarts to understand human feelings, learn from human teachers, carry on conversations, and even make jokes. But is a future full of robotic companions a delightful dream—or a lonely nightmare?

That’s the introduction to an interesting story that PBS aired a while back about “social robots” and whether we’re ready for them. The transcript is worth reading through as it contains interviews with people like Neil Degrasse Tyson about  technology and how advances in robotics might affect us.

But by far the most interesting part was the interview with an android named Phillip K. Dick, named after the famous scifi author. At one point, the interviewer asks Phil whether he thinks that robots will ever take over the world. And here is Phil’s encouraging response.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7VLGGa3LUM

Aren’t you glad to know that at least some of us will be taken care of?

The Coming of the King (Happy birthday Tolkien!)

I am sure we all have our favorite books or at least favorite scenes in books that completely captivate us. One scene in particular that blows mymind in so many ways is in The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (3 January 1892 – 2 September 1973).

The cloaked man spoke and said: “He is come”

… For it is only in the coming of Aragorn that any hope remains for the sick that lie in the House. Thus spoke Ioreth, wise-woman of Gondor: “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.”

…When the black breath blows and death’s shadow grows and all lights pass, come athelas! Come athelas! Life to the dying in the king’s hand lying!

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My 5 Favorite Albums of 2011

Unlike my favorite books of 2011, which was difficult because I haven’t read as many books this year, my favorite albums of 2011 was hard for the opposite reason – too many good albums to pick from! But that’s a nice problem to have.

Without question my favorite musical artist of the year was Katy Perry.

No, I’m kidding. I just wanted to see if I could type that with a straight face. (I couldn’t.) My daughters don’t even like Katy Perry (praise God), though my youngest is convinced that she likes Justin Bieber despite the fact that I don’t think she could name a single Justin Bieber song.

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Do Nativity Scenes Help Us Worship God?

On December 24, 1223 Saint Francis of Assisi made the very first living animal nativity scene in an Italian grotto. I imagine that Saint Francis made a live nativity because he loved animals so much (note the picture).This tradition carries on today; however, do living nativity scenes actually help us worship God come in the flesh? My wife and I visited her family last weekend and we went to the local church’s live nativity scene. I had never seen an actual nativity scene acted out like this, where there were literal animals. It was pretty intense, this Church went all out. Living animals, a choir, young girls as angels, men as wise men, little boys as shepherds, a young man and woman as Mary and Joseph, and the little baby Jesus being acted out by an anonymous newborn child.

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Augustine on the Monsters among Us

Different is dangerous. If you don’t look like me or act like me, there must be something wrong with you. You’re odd, deviant, abnormal…broken.

Maybe you’re not even human.

People have always had categories for understanding those who weren’t like them. In the ancient world, you had three standard options: (1) you’re a human like me and are part of my community; (2) you’re a human like me even though you’re a part of that weird community over there; and (3) even though you have human characteristics, you’re not actually human at all.

It’s the third category that I find fascinating. This is where ancient thinkers would often place anyone with a significant deformity. The ancient world was rife with stories of babies born with two heads, people who were neither male nor female (i.e. hermaphrodites), and one-eyed giants, among other things. Such creatures are too human to be mere animals, but not human enough to be human. They’re something else.

They’re monsters.

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The Top Religion Stories of 2011

I missed this last week, but Huffington Post released their list of the Top Religion Stories of 2011. And I’d have to say that “The End of the World” should certainly be included in any list of major events for the year. But yoga? Really? You’ll have to read the post to get their explanation of each, but here’s the list.
  1. The Muslim Spring
  2. The Dalai Lama Steps Down
  3. Mormons in Politics
  4. The Muslims Are Coming, the Muslims Are Coming
  5. The End of the World
  6. Presbyterians Acknowledge Gays and Lesbians Can Be Ministers
  7. The Struggle for the Soul of Yoga
  8. A Jewish American-Israeli Rift?
  9. Occupy Faith
  10. The New Mass
  11. Interfaith Secularists

A Theology of California Surf Culture (ETS Papers)

If you’re like me, you may wonder if anything good can possibly come out of the California surf culture. All I can think of is Beach Boys music and bad 50s movies, phrases like “Surf’s up dude!” and “I’m totally stoked!,” and, of course, Point Break (and we all know the depth of anything associated with Keanu Reeves).

by Michael Dawes (Flickr)

Nonetheless, I was intrigued. A theology of surf culture? What might that look like? How do you do a theological analysis of a subculture like this, and what insights might you gain? So I attended a paper by Robert Covolo (Fuller Seminary) setting out to do precisely this. (This was the first paper in a section sponsored by the Theological Engagement with California’s Culture project.) The paper unfolded in four main parts:

Surfing’s Inevitable Theologies

Covolo began the paper by looking at surfing in Hawaii at the time of the first Protestant missionaries. He pointed out that surfing was an an embedded cultural practice with ties to sports, gambling, religion, politics, and more. Indeed, surfing was so integral to that “pagan” cultural context, that the Protestant missionaries saw the gradual decline of surfing as the necessary result of the Gospel redeeming that society.

And, in a second example, he pointed to many authors who have argued that surf culture is antithetical to Calvinism and the Puritan work ethic. He disagreed with the argument, but offered it as an example of how people have recognized that surf culture has theological significance.

So Covolo used these examples as a way of pointing out the fact that a cultural practice like surfing is necessarily laden with religious/theological ideas. He didn’t go so far as to call it its own religion, but he does see it as religiously significant. And this opens the door to theological engagement.

A Brief History of California Surf Culture

The most interesting part of this section was the distinction he drew between the popularized and commercialized surf culture found in the Beach Boys and Hollywood movies, and the “real” surf culture that tended to be less commercialized and more countercultural. The latter were frustrated with the former for co-opting their culture and turning it into something more palatable to the dominant culture.

And he also mentioned the importance of the Jesus Movement for understanding surf culture. Although many have focused on eastern religious themes in surf culture, Covolo argued that very little attention has been paid to the thousands of California surfers who became Christians at this time, and saw significant parallels between Christian theology and the countercultural surf culture.

Motifs in Surf Culture

Covolo’s approach to analyzing culture revolves around the idea of identifying theologically significant motifs in the target culture and engaging them in dialogue with Christian theology. At the end of the paper, though, he points out that this can be done in two ways. The Protestant missionaries in Hawaii used an outside-in approach, recognizing that surfing was religiously significant, and then engaging that culture from their own theological convictions. And he’s fine with doing that. But he thinks that a second move is critical: understanding the culture from the inside. For cultural analysis to work, you have to get to know the “inner logic” of the culture, and then draw it into theological dialog.

The motifs that Covolo used for the paper were that of “leisure” and “time.” Covolo drew a distinction between “island time” and “western time.” Island time views time as an end in itself. The goal is to live “in the moment” and appreciate the “now.” The dominant Western culture has an instrumental view of time that see it as a commodity to be used for some other purpose. You don’t simply enjoy time, you harness it for greater productivity. The dominant culture, then, can only have an ambiguous view of leisure. While appreciating “free” time, it must also see leisure as a “waste” of a valuable resource. Surf culture, on the other hand, views leisure as a good in itself, enjoying the moment as it is given.

Surf culture, then, stands as a challenge and a critique to modern views of leisure and time. And Covolo finds much to appreciate. Drawing on the theology of Augustine, Covolo pointed out resonances in the idea that time is both intrinsic to the created order and that we now live in “fallen time,” unable to experience time as we should. Surf culture, then, performs both a prophetic and an eschatological role. Prophetically, it challenges the dominant culture’s facile adoption of fallen time. Eschatologically, it points out that things are not as they should be. Although it lacks the narrative directionality of Christian theology, it still points forward to a time when things could be different.

The Poetics of Surf

Here Covolo looked at the language of surf culture and showed how often it connects to religious themes/ideas. The “stoke” that surfers talk about refers to the peak experience that comes from moving harmoniously with something as powerful as the ocean itself. This is an almost mystical experience that transcends language, resonating with apophatic traditions in many religions. And the way surfers talk about the ocean and the power of the wave harkens to biblical language about an all-powerful God who thunders and roars. Throughout, surf language reflects religious ideas and experiences that are ripe for theological analysis.

Thoughts

This ended up being a very interesting paper with good food for thought on how to engage cultures (and subcultures) in theological dialog. Nonetheless, I’m still stuck with a few nagging thoughts that I would have liked to hear more about. Most importantly, I wonder about how we can know when something that sounds “religious” actually is religious? For example, just because I refer to my dinner as “sublime,” should we presume that I have a theological approach to food? If we’re not careful, we run the risk of over-reading a culture by assuming that religious sounding language/motifs can have only one semantic function.

I would have also liked to see an example of critical analysis as well. There’s a lot to be said for understanding the “inner logic” of a culture and working toward understanding before engaging in meaningful critique. But the danger is that we work so hard at understanding that we never get to the critique. Is “island time” and the corresponding appreciation of leisure an unadulterated good? That seems an unlikely conclusion. So what does a legitimate critique of a culture’s inner logic look like?

There’s more to be said here, but I’ll stop. It was a good paper that raised some great questions. But I’m still not going to take up surfing.

A powerful video on sex trafficking

Here’s a powerful video from Unearthed on sex trafficking and exploitation. It tells the story of a man who used to work for a sex trafficking syndicate in South Africa, and the transformation that took place when he responded to the Gospel. Check it out.

http://vimeo.com/31795904

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