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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.

The meaning of life according to Siri.

Whoever programed Siri, the new iPhone personal assistant, has a fabulous sense of humor and the amazing ability to predict what kinds of weird questions people might think to ask their new iPhone. Check out some of the creative responses Siri gave to a whole range of off-the-wall questions.

My personal favorite is this slightly disturbing exchange:

Siri, iphone

I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with the phone in my pocket having quite that much experience with this kind of thing.

But, even more interesting was this series of exchanges on the meaning of life. I think Siri is someone I could sit down and have a meaningful conversation with.

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Church history from the rest of the world

Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom.

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I teach a church history survey class every year. It’s one of my favorite classes. But, every year I have the same frustration. There’s just not enough time to do much with the history of the church around the world. With just one semester to cover 2,000 years of church history, my goal is to make sure the students understand the narrative that leads to where they are today. And, that means telling a story of church history that is almost exclusively focused on the western church,  leaving out the rest of the world in the process.

To address this weakness, I require the students to do some reading/writing on the history of the church in the rest of the world. And, Clouds of Witnesses would be an outstanding book to use for this purpose. In a series of 17 short essays, the book introduces to key leaders in Africa, India, Korea, and China from the 1880s to the 1980s. The essays are well-written, interesting, and short enough that they don’t bury the casual reader under too many historical details.

I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about William Wade Harris and the influence that he still has on Christianity in West Africa. And, although I’d read more on the East African Revival, the two chapters are Simeon Nsibambi and Janani Luwum were still fascinating. Some other favorite chapters were the ones on Sundar Singh (India), Sun Chu Kil (Korea), and Yao-Tsung Wu (China), all people about whom I knew (and still know) too little.

Unquestionably, the greatest benefit from reading a book like this is the opportunity to see and be challenged by how different experiences in different parts of the world have shaped and colored Christianity. From a political activist in South Africa wrestling with the injustices of apartheid, to a Hindu convert striving to live faithfully in a hostile environment, and a Chinese Christian struggling to reconcile the Gospel and communism, they’re all struggling with what it means to be Christian in their cultural context. So, at every step, the thoughtful reader faces several important questions: (1) How I can learn and be mentored by what Christians have learned from different cultural contexts?, (2) How do you recognize when culture is having a negative impact on the Gospel? and (2) In what ways has my own cultural context shaped, positively and negatively, my experience of Christianity and the Gospel? The opportunity to reflect on those questions alone is worth the price of the book.

Clouds of Witnesses does have a few weaknesses, but they are ones that stem entirely from the nature of the book. First, to keep the book from getting too long, the authors had to restrict themselves to just a few key areas of global history. Sadly, then, there are no chapters on Christian leaders in South America, the middle east, eastern Europe, or the Pacific Islands, all of which lie outside the narrative that most western Christians know. Second, since the chapters are introductory and short, they never provide enough information and they feel somewhat “superficial” in places, just skimming over the relevant information. It’s hard to see how the authors could have done otherwise in a book like this, but it’s worth noting. And finally, the focus of the book is on providing the details of the various stories, not on discussing or evaluating them. So, although the book provides ample opportunity for serious reflection on the relationship between history, culture, and the Gospel, it does not try to provide any direction for that discussion. Again, that’s not the book’s purpose, so this isn’t really a fault. But, if you’re hoping to use the book for that purpose, you’ll need to do some work on your own.

Clouds of Witnesses is a fascinating book that is well-worth reading. Designed to be a companion volume to Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global FaithClouds of Witnesses can still be enjoyed on its own. And, although I think it could be used as a supplemental textbook in a church history class, those who have little or no background in church history will still be able to profit from this book. If you need more exposure to the story of Christianity around the world, particularly in the last couple of centuries with the explosive growth of Christianity worldwide, Clouds of Witnesses is a great resource.

[Many thinks to IVP for providing me with a review copy of Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia.]

Your Guide to Living Life in 10 Fictional Worlds

Wired Magazine has a great infographic on Your Guide to Living Life in in 10 Fictional Worlds. On their list, Catan takes the top spot as a resource rich island with “mountain views and sheep-filled meadows.” And, standing closets to the “Hellish Pit of Despair” end of the spectrum is Sodor, the life-sapping world of Thomas the Train.

I’d have to go with Discworld. What could possibly be more fun than living an Ankh-Morpork?

click to embiggen

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