Monthly Archives: August 2011

Living in Caronport — Winter is Coming

It has begun. A new school year. The lazy, quiet days of summer are quickly winding down. The school-aged kids have already gone back to school. There is a modular class at the college and one at the seminary this week. The college students are slowly trickling back into Caronport as classes officially start next week. New seminary families are moving in. Old seminary families are moving on.

I’ve always loved September. I love the smell of new school supplies. I love the beginning of school. And yet, the start of school also means that in a few short weeks (probably 7 or so) the nice warm weather will disappear and we will have our first snowfall.

Winter is coming.

It may be the motto of the Stark family in A Game of Thrones, but it can also be a motto for those of us living in Saskatchewan.

Winter is coming.

Cold, dark days. Last winter was our first full winter in Caronport, and most people said that it was an unusually long and cold winter. Others, unfortunately, have told me that it was a normal winter. So I’m trying not to think about it.

I’m thinking about the classes I’m taking. I’m refreshing my Greek, and I’m taking a Contemporary Theology class.

Winter is coming.

I’m thinking about where I am in my program. If all goes according to plan (cross-fingers), I will be done all my course work by next Christmas. And then it’s on to my thesis. So I’m mapping out which courses I have left to take, required courses and electives that I’d like to try to squeeze into my program.

Winter is coming.

I’m thinking about writing projects and blog themes for this semester. I’m hoping to continue my Adventures in Anglicanism series. I’m still blogging my way through James Cone’s God of the Oppressed, averaging one chapter a week, over at Political Jesus. And I have several more chapters of James McGrath’s Religion and Science Fiction to blog through.

Winter is coming.

I’m thinking of going somewhere warm for vacation, budget be damned. My heart longs for Disneyworld. Or the Caribbean. Or Arizona. Or Texas. Okay the budget can’t really be damned. So my thinking is really just dreaming in this case.

Winter is coming.

I’m thinking about all the good food I will cook this fall, and of the people we can invite over for dinner. I’m already planning a Flavours of India night, because I have discovered that I make a really good Fenugreek and Ginger Masala chicken. And let’s not forget that Canadian Thanksgiving is only six weeks away. Turkey and pumpkin pie, yum!

Winter is coming.

The latest seasons of our television shows are coming out on DVD in the next couple of weeks. Bones. Criminal Minds. Castle. It means that I’ll be spending the evenings curled up on the couch with Chuck, watching our shows without having to bother with commercials (commercials is one of the main reasons we don’t have cable).

Winter is coming.

I’m going to enjoy these last few days of summer as best I can. It is a new academic year. It is a returning and comfortably familiar change in rhythm. And everything will be okay, because spring is only 8 months away.

Playing Superhero

There’s a scene near the end of the new Captain America movie, in which a group of kids are pretending to be Capt and the Howling Commandos. We see the kids run down the street and around the corner, off to vanquish the bad guys and save the day.

There’s something about childhood and imagination that we have lost as adults. And given the post from yesterday about the mythic nature of superheroes and the role that comic books have played in our culture, I thought it was time to reflect on how we played superheroes as kids.

My friend Shane is the biggest DC comics fan I know. He knows more about Batman and Superman than everybody else in the universe. Here is his story of playing superhero, in his own words:

Like many kids I would tie a towel around my neck and pretend it was a cape. I’d run around the house, saving the cat from imaginary ne’er-do-wells and pretending the coat rack was a villian in need of a sword fight. I was a huge fan of the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies and was always quoting them, much to my parents dismay. I’d “rescue” the cat and say “Don’t worry miss, I’ve got you!” but much to my dismay the cat never replied “You’ve got me? Who’s got you!?!”

I would also take the Lego blocks I had and would build sets for my Kenner “Super Powers” figures to smash, bash, and demolish while trying to conquer evil and restore peace to the good citizens of the city.

When I look back now I can’t help but be somewhat embarrased about my acting out superheroic fantasies. At the same time I realize that those times I pretended had a strong impact on building character. I would ask myself “what would Superman do” and try to act accordingly. Would he put others before himself, would he save the damsel or go after the villian? What did it mean to fight for “truth and justice”?

Unknowingly I was building a part of my lifelong moral character. I was teaching myself right from wrong, how to act ethically, why others matter, and other important life lessons and all the primary colored heroes served as my moral guides. They taught me to always do what’s right, to push on even when it hurts and that all life, even the lives of my arch nemesis, have innate value.

I also realize now that I was acting out stories that have been played out for millenia. Sure, in the past the stories may have been created around Hector and Achilles, or Arthur and Lancelot as opposed to Batman and Robin, but the narrative has stayed the same: there’s good and there’s evil and at the end of the day the good guys win, get the girl and ride off into the sunset while the bad guys see their plans foiled and are defeated… at least for now.

Perhaps that why I lament the current vogue of heroes wanting vengeance, seeking personal vendettas and generally not looking beyond themselves until the story says so. I miss the stories where the hero knew what had to be done and did it despite personal cost or the need for some self epiphany about the path of self-sacrifice.

I also realize that my attraction to the idea of Superman was because of my childhood belief in God and Jesus Christ. It’s been said many times that Superman is Jesus in a big red cape, and while I won’t go into that further (there are enough websites covering that already!) but I will that it’s a fairly good metaphor. Perhaps that’s why, of all superheroes, Superman has become part of collective conciousness. He, like Christ, is an ideal, what we wish we were, what we wish we could be if the right circumstances came together.

I may be getting too old for pretending to be a superhero and my villians have changed from those with ray guns and robots to those with debts and deadlines but the lessons I learned from pretending to be the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight have stayed with me: always do what’s right, push on even when it hurts and to always fight a never-ending battle for truth and justice.

I even sometimes do it with a towel wrapped around my neck.

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Your turn: What is your fondest memory of playing superhero as a kid?

‘Sorcerers and Supermen’ in James’ McGrath’s Religion and Science Fiction

Let me say that I am impressed with this book. James McGrath has done an awesome job pulling together different scholars to examine the interaction between science-fiction and religion.
Check out my previous posts:
From Dr. Frankenstein to Topher Brink
Mis-Reading Star Trek? Exploring Danna’s Chapter in ‘Religion and Science Fiction’.

Today, we’re looking at C.K. Robertson’s essay, “Sorcerers and Supermen: Old Mythologies in New Guises.”

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Rev. Robertson gives us an overview of the birth and rise of comic books in North America. Looking at the origins of heroes like Superman and Batman, Robertson tells of how they evolved over the years, including how their morality changed in later incarnations. For example, early Superman was somewhat callous and had no problem throwing a bad guy to his apparent death.

A large portion of his essay is spent discussing the Marvel ‘verse, and he includes information from private interviews with Stan Lee. Rev. Robertson looks at the glory days of the 1960′s when Marvel introduced a bevy of new heroes including: Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, X-Men, the Avengers, Thor etc.

In light of the renaissance of Marvel movies in the past couple of years, the author also looks at the genesis of the comic book movie, which even the most hard-core comic geek has to admit, wasn’t very pretty. (David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury anyone?)

Rev. Robertson presents a basic synopsis of the history of the comic industry. Unfortunately, where he begins by framing the essay by suggesting that modern comic heroes are like the King Arthur legends retold as epic myths for each generation, he doesn’t go far enough in exploring that angle.

There are many parallels that could have been explored more in-depth between modern comics and the Arthurian legend of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.

Some versions of the Arthur tales gave super-powers to certain knights. Sir Kay, for example, had the ability to hold his breath for nine days, increase his height (much like the Avenger known as Giant Man, and the Super-Friends cartoon character Apache Chief), and radiate heat from his body (though not at the same level as the Human Torch). Sir Gawain’s strength increased and decreased with the rising and setting of the sun, reminiscent of the solar-powered mutant Sunspot.

Arthur’s opponents also had enhanced abilities, the most obvious example being the Green Knight, who calmly reattached his own severed head.

Does this persistence of super-powered heroes and villains across the centuries reveal some sort of persistent cultural fascination with the possibility of humans becoming more-than-human? Does it mean anything that super-powered characters stand equal with (and are sometimes defeated by) non-powered characters whose abilities are the result of lifelong training (such as Lancelot and Batman)?

Much has been made of the semi-egalitarian nature of the Round Table, with a clear leader (Arthur) but a cadre of knightly equals. How do current super-teams compare? The Fantastic Four are a family, with Mister Fantastic as the patriarch, the Invisible Woman as his strong-yet-nurturing helpmate, and two squabbling siblings (the Thing and the Human Torch). The X-Men could be compared to a team of activists guided by the moral vision of Professor X. The Justice League seems to be run by consensus, with no official “leader.” The closest equivalent might be the Avengers, which is led by an elected Chair, but has no hierarchy beyond that. Is there a “best” organizational structure for a team of super-heroes?

Rev. Robertson concludes his essay with a call to embrace our imagination and to delight in the supernatural and magic offered in the coloured squares of comic books:

…from 1938 onward the mythology of comic books has been ‘unfettered by the confines of realism,’ and remains now, as then, something best accepted and appreciated by those whose childlike imaginations continue to soar, by those who still dare to believe that a man can fly. (pg 58)

Interacting with ‘God of the Oppressed’

Once a week, I post reflections as I work my way through James Cone’s God of the Oppressed, over at Political Jesus. Come and join me on my journey as I learn about Black Liberation Theology.

Today’s post: Interacting with ‘God of the Oppressed’ 3 — Defining Truth.

Previous posts:
Interacting with ‘God of the Oppressed’ 1 — Working Through the Prefaces
Interacting with ‘God of the Oppressed’ 2 –The Importance of Experience

From Dr. Frankenstein to Topher Brink

Let me say that I am impressed with this book. James McGrath has done an awesome job pulling together different scholars to examine the interaction between science-fiction and religion.

Check out my previous post, Mis-Reading Star Trek? Exploring Danna’s Chapter in ‘Religion and Science Fiction’.

Today we’re looking at Alison Bright MacWilliam’s essay, ‘Science Playing God.’

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In her essay, “Science Playing God” Alison Bright MacWilliams goes right back to the beginning: to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau.
MacWilliams argues that later adaptations and re-tellings of these two stories usually focus on the ‘evilness’ or danger of science when scientists think that they can do whatever they want. This narrow focus misses the nuances of the original works. For example, she suggests that one of the things that Shelley explores in Frankenstein, is that had Dr. Frankenstein actually done better science, there wouldn’t be a monster on the loose. Dr. Frankenstein could have avoided the consequences had he a) made the monster look better, and b) made a mate for the monster.

Although both of these novels [Frankenstein and Island of Dr. Moreau] end in disaster, they leave the possibility open that it is not the act of science usurping divine prerogative that causes this disaster, merely the execution of the presumptive act that is faulty. In other words, maybe if the scientists in these novels had planned better, they would have gotten better results. (p.86)

MacWilliams then traces this theme of ‘science playing God’ through the 20th century.
For example, she points us to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Master Mind of Mars and Synthetic Men of Mars. In these books, the character Ras Thavas is the scientist. MacWilliams describes him:

His power…is consistently portrayed as double-edged, capable of great good as well as great horror…In The Mastermind of Mars, Ras Thavas uses his amazing surgical skill to transplant healthy organs and even transplant brains from elderly customers into young healthy bodies. This causes a great deal of trouble, when evil tyrants stay in power by perpetually stealing the bodies of young captives, but only Ras Thavas can make things right in the end. (pg 92)

For Whedon fans, we have seen this scenario in Dollhouse. Topher Brink is the Dollhouse’s brilliant scientist who programs the dolls for their engagements. Upon arriving at the Dollhouse, Topher revolutionizes the way the dolls are imprinted, cutting down the time from hours to mere minutes. As the show progresses, Topher figures out how to remote wipe a doll (meaning they don’t have to be in the chair to be returned to their doll state), which eventually leads to Topher discovering the technology to allow anyone to be imprinted with a personality without having the ‘active architecture’ that dolls have that allow them to receive the imprinted personalities.

It is through Topher’s tech, that the evil owners of the Rossum Corporation are able to realize their dream: to make a world of programmable people that will allow those select few Rossum-ites to live forever by being imprinted on whatever body they want. If they die while in one body, no problem, they can be imprinted into a new, younger, more beautiful body. In the future, Topher becomes Rossum’s prisoner, ordered to perfect the tech that he innocently created. Ultimately, Topher is able to use his brilliance and his tech to reverse all the damage that the ‘thought-pocalyse’ has created. Topher is able to restore everyone who has been wiped to their original states.

The description of Ras Thavas quoted by MacWilliams can also be applied to Topher Brink:

“He was never intentionally cruel; he was not, I am sure, intentionally wicked. He was guilty of the most diabolical cruelties and the basest crimes; yet in the next moment he might perform a deed that if duplicated upon Earth would have raised him to the highest pinnacle of man’s esteem… He had a purely scientific mind entirely devoid of the cloying influenced of sentiment, of which he possessed none.” (pg 92)

The lesson from Topher and the impending apocalypse that his tech brings is not that science is evil. Indeed, further science allows for the world to be ‘saved’. Science in the wrong hands is evil. Science when coupled with ethics, morals and a desire to make the world a better place can be helpful.

MacWilliams concludes her essay by saying that the questions raised by Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau are even more applicable in today’s science-driven society:

What are the proper limits of scientific inquire? Can we evolve a higher moral standard to match the power of our evolving technology? What is our responsibility, not just to each other, but to the things we create? (pg 94)

Good science-fiction will struggle with those questions. I gave Dollhouse as a contemporary 21st century example of this.

So my question for y’all: Are there other, current (21st century) sci-fi novels, short stories, television shows or movies, that are wrestling through the issue of science playing God?

Mis-Reading Star Trek? Exploring Danna’s Chapter in ‘Religion and Science Fiction’

First, let me say that I am awesomely impressed with this book. James McGrath has done an awesome job pulling together different scholars to examine the interaction between science-fiction and religion. Stay tuned for several posts on this book as I work through the various essays.

Today, we look at Elizabeth Danna’s essay, ‘Looking Out for No. 1: Concepts of Good and Evil in Star Trek and The Prisoner.’ I suggest that Dr. Danna has mis-read, or over-read some aspects of Star Trek in two places in particular: her analysis of the episode “Mirror, Mirror”, and second, her analysis of Captain Kirk’s name.

But to do justice to this analysis, I must call on my resident TOS expert. My field of expertise lies with TNG and DS9, and so I turn to one more qualified to look at these issues.

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In the classic TOS episode “Mirror Mirror,” Kirk et al. find themselves in a parallel universe, switched with their counterparts by a malfunctioning transporter. In this mirror ‘verse, the Federation of Planets never existed, and a tyrannical Empire rules in its place. The crewmembers from “our” universe cope with life in the cruel mirror universe (promotion by assassination, Spock with a beard, etc.) while their Imperial alternate selves fail to cope with the Federation’s way of running a starship (and a beardless Spock). Federation Kirk talks Imperial bearded Spock into leading a revolution, while Imperial Kirk rants and rages at Federation beardless Spock. Once everyone is eventually returned to their native universes, beardless Spock gets to take yet another verbal jab at human nature (“brutal, unprincipled, uncivilized, treacherous; in every way splendid examples of homo sapiens. The very flower of humanity.”), and everyone learns a valuable lesson (such as avoiding the dang transporter; that thing is more trouble than it’s worth).

It seems to me that Elizabeth Danna saw a valuable lesson that wasn’t there, and it had nothong to do with avoiding the transporter. In her chapter, Danna contrasts the presentations of evil (and how to deal with it) in the TV shows Star Trek (TOS) and The Prisoner. Most of her TOS analysis is unproblematic: The episode “The Enemy Within” (oh look, another transporter malfunction) tells us that humans’ “negative side” is the source of our drives, and that the solution is for reason to rule and properly order it. “The Alternative Factor” creates the powerful image of a man locked in eternal battle against his evil self. “The Savage Curtain” shows that the line between “good guys” and “bad guys” is not as clear-cut as an alien rock-monster might want it to be. “Day of the Dove” shows us that racism can be overcome by a sufficient quantity of hearty manly (and Klingon-ly) laughter.

My disagreement involves her treatment of “Mirror Mirror.” Danna argues that “Mirror Mirror” is a lesson in the necessity of an outside force that will defeat human evil. In this case, Imperial bearded Spock must overthrow Imperial Kirk and take command of the Enterprise; in essence, deal with Federation Kirk’s evil twin for him. I see this as reading too much into the episode. “Mirror Mirror” does provide us with a couple of opportunities to reflect on human evil (if Federation beardless Spock is right, then we are savages at heart, and it is only the laws of civilization that keep us from that fate), but the most salient message appears to be one of identity: Spock is a man of integrity in both universes, but Imperial Kirk is quite comfortable as a merciless thug. What does that say about the factors that make us who we are? And there is some commentary on society and the inherent instability of tyrannies. But using Federation Kirk and Imperial Kirk as representatives of the good and evil within the human heart goes too far beyond what is written.

Speaking of reading too much into things, there is the matter of Kirk’s name. Danna claims that “James Tiberius Kirk” represents ambition and deviousness (“James” as an Anglicized “Jacob,” he of the stew-for-birthright scam) balanced with moral discipline (“Kirk” being the Scottish word for “church”) with a touch of Roman profligacy tossed in the midst. The fact that Captain Kirk was named “James” after Gene Roddenberry’s uncle (and also for an old boyfriend of his mother’s), and that “Tiberius” was chosen because GR’s grandfather was fascinated with Roman history (and that Kirk’s middle initial was “R” instead of “T” in the second pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) seem to lessen any possible deep symbolism implanted by GR in the name. The formal “meaning” of characters’ names does not always provide us with a peek into their souls. After all, “Gomer” means “famous battle,” but that doesn’t provide any insight into Gomer Pyle.

Greek Study Tools

One of the best ways I have found to refresh my Greek grammar is to 1) write out the paradigms (over and over and over again) and 2) do lots of parsing exercises.

I have created several forms that I print off and fill in. I thought I would share them for anyone else who is looking for Greek study tools.

greek parsing template complete
verb paradigms
noun worksheet

Review: With by Skye Jethani

What’s it About: In With: Reimagining The Way You Relate to God, Skye Jethani outlines the four main postures or ways that most Christians relate to God.

Life Under God — moralism
Life Over God — Christian Deism
Life From God — consumerism
Life For God — ‘mission-ism’

Each of these four postures, according to Skye Jethani, end up being ultimately about our attempt to control God, and to control our lives. In these postures,

God is seen as a means to an end. For example, LIFE FROM GOD uses him to supply our material desires. LIFE OVER GOD uses him as the source of principles or laws. LIFE UNDER GOD tries to manipulate God through obedience to secure blessings and avoid calamity. And LIFE FOR GOD uses him and his mission to gain a sense of direction. (102)

The alternative posture that Jethani proposes is a Life With God. This, he suggests, is the more biblical, and more healthy way of relating to God. Life with God includes three things: treasuring, uniting and experiencing, and all three of these emphasize that a life with God is a life that doesn’t view God as an object to be possessed, but rather, it is a life that seeks to dwell with God. Jethani then further explores this ‘with’ posture by looking at a Life with Faith; a Life with Hope; and a Life with Love.

Notable Quotable:

The reason a great many churches and Christian ministries fail to see people obey Jesus’ instructions is because the people are not living in the LIFE WITH GOD posture. The teachings and commands of the Bible may be communicated powerfully, clearly, and repeatedly, but until people have their vision of the world changed by living in communion with the Good Shepherd, until they experientially know they are safe, they will be incapable of following Christ’s counterintuitive commands. (pg. 127)

Readability: With is written in a very conversational style, with plenty of stories and metaphors. The analogies used are contemporary, and there are quotes not only from spiritual classics (like Henri Nouwen and Brother Lawrence), but also from current blogs (e.g., Kevin DeYoung). Re-tellings of parables like the Prodigal Son are fresh and easy to read.

Who Would Benefit: This book would be great for new Christians, young Christians, or those Christians who have had little introduction to spiritual formation and discipleship. Included in this book are discussion questions for each chapter which would help guide discussion if this book were to be used for a small group.

Who Wouldn’t Benefit: For those who are familiar with spiritual formation books and immersed in strong Christian discipleship, this book may not be particularly helpful, as it covers ideas and concepts found in other works of the same genre.

Rating: 3.5/5

The review copy of this book was provided by Booksneeze. All opinions are my own.