Friday, October 31, 2003

I never do this, but I figured today was as good a day as any: A Friday Five.

1. What was your first Halloween costume?
I have no idea. Knowing my parents, probably some sort of goofy, Howdy Doody style cowboy.

2. What was your best costume and why?
I once went to a Halloween party as a spoon (my wife was a fork). The last few years I've dressed up as Winnie the Pooh, which gets no points for creativity, but scores very high on the "I'm a parent who is willing to humiliate myself for my children's benefit" scale.

3. Did you ever play a trick on someone who didn't give you a treat?
No. Tricks were reserved for friends :-)

4. Do you have any Halloween traditions? (ie: Family pumpkin carving, special dinner before trick or treating, etc.)
Not really (unless gaining weight qualifies as a tradition). Certainly carving the pumpkin together. But my kids are young, so we haven't solidified our family traditions yet.

5. Share your favorite scary story...real or legend!
For me, I think it's Poe's "Pit and the Pendulum."

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Happy Birthday, Erasmus!

People who use their erudition to write for a learned minority ... don’t seem to me favored by fortune but rather to be pitied for their continuous self-torture. They add, change, remove, lay aside, take up, rephrase, show to their friends, keep for nine years and are never satisfied. And their futile reward, a word of praise from a handful of people, they win at such a cost—so many late nights, such loss of sleep, sweetest of all things, and so much sweat and anguish ... their health deteriorates, their looks are destroyed, they suffer partial or total blindness, poverty, ill-will, denial of pleasure, premature old age and early death.
Praise of Folly, Desiderius Erasmus

Monday, October 27, 2003

Shall we reject our oldest friendship,
the great undemanding gods, because
the tough steel we trained so hard does
not know them; or suddenly seek them on a map?

Although they take the dead from us,
these powerful friends never brush against
our wheels. We've moved our baths and banquets
far away, and, for years too slow for us,

we always outrun their messengers. More lonely
now, wholly dependent on each other, not knowing
each other, no longer do we build those lovely

paths rambling, but straight. Now only in boilers
do former fires burn, heaving hammers always growing
bigger. But we, we grow weaker, like swimmers.

--Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. A. Poulin, Jr.)

Thursday, October 23, 2003

We are told in Exodus 33 that no one can see God's face and live. Yet the same chapter tells us "The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend." How can we reconcile these verses?

I wrote in my last post about dualism, and there doesn't seem to be any dualistic pair more clearly opposed than life and death. Yet Christianity teaches that they are not so distinct as we are tempted to believe. Jesus himself is resurrected, as is Lazarus, Tabitha, and Jairus' daughter. More imporantly, all of us die to sin when we are baptized into Jesus' death. So death is not this final consummation of existence we take it to be; rather it is a process through which we go to be reborn into something greater.

But what does this have to do with seeing the face of God? I think the story of Jacob's return to his homeland gives us a clue. On the night before he must face his wronged brother, Esau, Jacob spends all night wrestling with God. Jacob (now Israel) names the place Peniel because, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared." The next day, Esau approaches Jacob but does not attack; instead he embraces him and weeps for his return. Jacob's response is to compare his brother to the Lord: "For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably." Jacob knows what it is to see the face of God, and he sees it in Esau.

Later, Jesus himself gives us the final key to this exegetical puzzle. In describing the separation of the sheep from the goats, Jesus proclaims that anyone who denies mercy to those in need has in fact denied mercy to God himself. We are called to be Esaus to those, like Jacob, in need of grace, and we are called like Jacob to accept that grace from those who offer it to us. In both cases, we see the face of God in our brother or sister, and we die to selfishness and isolation. In merciful acts, whether receiving or dispensing, we look as into a mirror and see the body of Christ.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Perhaps it's just the political season descending upon us, but I am seeing more and more of a type of thought I find very troubling: dualism. Dualism is a mode of thinking that most of us--at least in the West--take for granted, but we get it from Hellenic philosopy. It is the tendency--enumerated most clearly by the ancient Greeks--to see the world as composed of opposites. As the Greeks and later philosophers conceived of it, the method is dialectical: a thesis and antithesis are overcome by a synthesis, which in turn becomes a new thesis with an antithesis that will be overcome...

In daily life, though, we don't see things dialectically, though we often see them dualistically. So many if not most of us will see the world as consisting of unbridgeable opposites: good and evil or love and hate, for example. But we do this with more than abstractions; we see it particularly in politics: Democrat/Republican; Liberal/Conservative; Pro-Choice/Pro-Life. The problem here is when we look at these things dualistically, we tend to pair them. Most people probably choose all of the left or all of the right options from above and would group them under "good." We then isolate ourselves from those who would associate themselves with the other choice: "how can we talk to those people," we ask ourselves, "whose ideas are so...well...evil?" Under such circumstances, political reconciliation--and even, I would argue, growth--seems almost impossible

This is a particular problem in Christianity. Christianity is not a Hellenic or a dualistic religion, though Hellenic thought has been heavily influential in theological thinking for the majority of Christianity's existence. The day-to-day form I described above, though, which makes political reconciliation so difficult is just as daunting in Christianity. Read the Christian press or go through various Christian blogs and see how often dualism appears: Catholic/Protestant; Reformed/Arminian; Sprinkle/Immersion and many others.

But the Christianity of the New Testament doesn't work this way. One of the most basic forms of "dualism" you could find in Ancient Israel was the Gentile/Jew division. It was foundational to the Jewish identity. But how did Jesus treat it? How often did he offer grace and assistance to non-Jews? What was his final commission to his apostles and to us? And how completely does Paul shatter the distinction? Think how much better off Christianity (or our politics) would be if we looked for ways to transcend these distinctions rather than becoming more entrenched and embittered against those who see things differently than we do.

Monday, October 20, 2003

The Book of Joshua is a difficult one for the Christian to read, particularly a Christian pacifist. The book is full of violence and bloodshed, and countless people are "devoted to destruction." The people who had found a way to live peacefully in the promised lands from Abraham to Jacob now complete the return to the land amid much bloodshed. It is thus refreshing to read the last few verses of Joshua 21:
Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.
God is faithful to his promises and his covenant, and after a period of much violence, there is rest. It is worth noting too that where every enemy has been given into the hands of the Israelites, this does not mean that they were all massacred; Joshua also recounts the peoples who continued to live among the chosen people in the chosen land.

In any case, Joshua 21 marks an important point in Biblical history. In a sense, the first "chapter" is over: The sweep of stories from creation to covenant to exile and exodus is now complete. The impetus that will lead to the later chapters--including the Golden Age of David, the Babylonian Exile--are already in place, all culminating, of course, in that 3-year chapter that marks Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection. Just as Joshua 21 punctuates the first series of stories with a proclamation of God's faithfulness, the rest of the Bible will continue in various ways to witness to the same truth.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

It's funny, but I don't feel that old...

My inner child is ten years old today

My inner child is ten years old!

The adult world is pretty irrelevant to me. Whether
I'm off on my bicycle (or pony) exploring, lost
in a good book, or giggling with my best
friend, I live in a world apart, one full of
adventure and wonder and other stuff adults
don't understand.

How Old is Your Inner Child?
brought to you by Quizilla

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Among readers, Joanna Russ is a name that is not well-known enough. She is an extremely good writer who combines stylistic virtuosity with spinning a good yarn. She has numerous publications and has won awards. In her circle, she is highly influential, yet she is virtually unknown to most readers. Why?

She writes sci-fi/fantasy.

The genres (mistakenly lumped together) of science-fiction and fantasy rarely get the attention they deserve. Part of this is due to the fact that an enormous amount of what is published is garbage, but that's as true of popular fiction as it is of "genre fiction." The great writers of the last 30 years of so--people like Borges, Marquez, Saramago, Calvino--have been influenced by these genres (particularly fantasy). And yet writers like Russ--or like John Crowley, whose Little, Big is better than most fiction winning major prizes--go relatively unnoticed and unknown.

The Zanzibar Cat is a collection of stories by Russ, and like most collections, the quality is not uniform. The first story, "When it Changed" is an excellent example of feminist science-fiction (which Russ was to raise to an apex in The Female Man). The next story, "The Extraordinary Voyages of Amelie Bertrand" is a clever example of the time/parallel worlds travel story. "Useful Phrases for the Tourist" is a hilarious compendium of travel-book style phrases to be used with aliens.

Sadly, Amazon lists only 3 of Russ' books still in print, and only one fiction work (the aforementioned Female Man). But if you find yourself in a used bookstore, it will be worth the few seconds it takes to scan their sci-fi shelves for her work. I doubt you'll regret the 25 cents you'll pay.

Friday, October 03, 2003

I spent the first few days of this week in Chicago. I like Chicago; I think it's an attractive city with interesting architecture, and this time of year the weather is pleasantly brisk without the bitter winds of January. On this trip, all the buzz was about how ugly the new Soldier field is, and how likely (or unlikely) it is that the Cubs will actually get to the World Series.

On the way back, I connected through St. Louis. The weather was good and things were going so well that I heard the guy across the aisle say "you almost never see a plane push back from the gate right on time." He cursed us. As we taxied out to the runway, the pilots noticed that the aileron was squeaking. So back to the gate we went. Sure enough the cable was broken, and we were grounded. Luckily, they had another plane that could take us. So they boarded us on plane number 2, and the battery was dead and the charger wasn't working (the latter probably explaining the former). So once more, we off-load and head to yet a third plane. This one starts, taxis, gets to the runway and takes off. No issues at all in flight, and we landed safely--about two hours late, but safely--and so here I am.

The trip gave me the opportunity to finish Decline and Fall and read most of a collection of sci-fi stories called The Zanzibar Cat. Decline and Fall is billed as a satire, and it certainly has satirical elements, but I think it more accurate to describe it as a comic novel. Not only does it have humor, but it has the strange secondary characters that keep intersecting the plot in unlikely ways and a protagonist swept up by an almost absurd set of events that mark the comic novel genre. It's probably the kindest of Waugh's satires I've read.

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